In 2013, Dean Kluesner wrote a Charlotte Civic Orchestra premiere for a guy who didn’t speak: Comedian Harold Lloyd, whose silent film “Never Weaken” played to Kluesner’s score.
This weekend, he’ll debut a piece for three guys who can’t stop talking. Charlotte poets Sidekick, Edward Mabrey and Bluz perform Sunday in a concert titled “Images N Sound: Slam Poets and Beethoven.”
Kluesner discovered the art form through wife Christy. She took him to slams, where he found poetry that was “entertaining, topical, personality-driven, a concept the audience was involved in.
“It felt strange to be this white boy from Iowa in an audience that was so predominantly black. I come from classical music, where the audience is usually white. Charlotte arts audiences are so segregated.”
An idea brewed. He contacted Bluz, an elder statesman of the slam scene, who put him onto Sidekick and Mabrey. Each supplied a poem; Kluesner wrote and orchestrated music for a suite which, with orchestral dances after the oral sections, lasts 25 minutes.
He called it “The Voice Says! #1 (A reality for Slam Poets and Orchestra.” The orchestra joined it to Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, for which Kluesner designed a slide show.
Moods change among the poems. Sidekick’s “Feet” has serious undertones but is lyrical and high-flying, as befits a piece by a former dancer. Mabrey’s “The Libretto of the Opera: Death of a Black Boy” achieves high drama in depicting a young man caught amid dangerous elements. Bluz’s “Kiss Me Symphony” interweaves musical references and warmhearted memories of a beloved aunt.
“I can read music and play it, but I have never had the talent to compose, especially from another artist’s feelings,” says Bluz. “I wasn’t going to step into his world; whatever he came up with was going to make me happy. After hearing it, I thought he nailed it.
“Working with an orchestra puts you in a bit of a box. But you can play with the tempo: You’re not a slave to a CD or a computerized beat. Everyone can ebb and flow and get the points across the way they need to.”
Says Sidekick, “As poets tend to do, we self-edit and re-work pieces, and that happens organically. So in rehearsal, I might go faster or slower or take a line out to make the piece better.
“As in a ballet, where a dancer may move differently and an orchestra speeds up or slows down, the conductor gauges our tempos. (Geoffrey Whitehead) has been really open; I have a section in my poem where I sing, and he’ll cue me like the winds or the strings.”
Kluesner sometimes wrote specifically, using a triangle to depict broken glass. But he mostly let words inspire him loosely.
“I started with rhythms and harmonies, trying to amplify the words,” he says. “I was freer in the dance sections: I tried to capture the anger and frustration of a fire burning itself out after ‘Black Boy,’ or an African celebration after ‘Feet.’ ”
“He’s looking at the performing artist as another instrument,” says Mabrey. “I am the lead – my voice is continuous throughout – but I have to relate to the orchestra to make sure the words don’t get lost.
“I have worked with jazz bands, pop, funk, R&B, even a small string section, but never any group this big. I’ve been moving toward writing with musicians in mind, because that’s a timely thing. But I didn’t imagine this.”
Whatever happens, the poets and Kluesner will be happy if they see a wider range of faces in the crowd.
“Charlotte still has racial issues,” says the composer. “I am trying to solve them one note at a time.”