Once upon a time, three Austin jazz musicians went Christmas shopping. They came home with snow, wistful memories of snow, tall quiet drifts of snow. They also came home with a storybook, a nostalgic Christmas tale by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. And they came home with toys: whistles and bugles and squeaky rubber ducks.
The jazz musicians sat together with their gifts, their memories, their instruments. And then they created a piece of art - part music, part spoken word, part toy symphony - inspired by Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales."
These three jazzers - singer Suzi Stern, saxophonist Alex Coke and pianist Rich Harney, with newcomer Buddy Mohmed on bass - have been performing this Christmas-time piece for five years now. As Austin holiday traditions go, it is one of the most eclectic: a blend of literature and music, a blend of recitation and improvisation, a little bit of Wales and a little bit of Texas.
The format: Stern recites Thomas' entire story - so rich with rhythm and rhyme that it sounds like poetry - backed by music and Coke's playful sound effects. Along the way, the musicians take left turns out of the text to interpret specific passages as musical pieces. It makes new poetry out of classic literature, inviting listeners to linger in the different moods of the story.
"Dylan Thomas had the ability to recall being young in a profound way that still brings tears to my eyes," says Stern, who sings three original songs crafted from Thomas' text in the performance . "Everything he said, I wish I'd written it.
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"It's the most perfect little piece of prose, and it touches me to the quick. I try to read the text exactly as Dylan Thomas did; I try to honor his words exactly. And then it's almost like a digression - where we'll 'repeat' his words in songs based on his lyrics, tapping in to how those words inspired me."
All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued seas, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find.
- Dylan Thomas, 'A Child's Christmas in Wales'
Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) grew up in Swansea, "a crawling, sprawling, slummed, unplanned, jerry-villa'd" seaside town on the southwest coast of Wales. "A Child's Christmas in Wales" is rich with the imagery of his childhood - "when there were wolves in Wales," but not an Xbox in sight.
"A Child's Christmas in Wales" first appeared in Harper's Bazaar Magazine in 1950, fashioned from two shorter essays Thomas composed in the mid-1940s. The magazine paid him $300 for it. A year before his death, the poet recited a version in America for a record album. It is believed that Thomas, an alcoholic, was drunk during the recording session.
Yet the beauty of the prose prevails: the precision of imagery, those "harp-shaped hills," the elegant juxtaposition of winter warmth and winter melancholy . When the piece came out in book form in 1954, The New York Times referred to it as "poetry that shines with an unearthly radiance."
"What I love so much about the poem is the impression of snow," says Stern, who has known the piece since childhood . "I lived in Buffalo, (N.Y.) As a kid, where snow was always in drifts, way over my head. I might as well have been in Wales! These flakes would come down, relentlessly and quietly. The way Dylan Thomas describes the sound and the smell and the taste of snow in so sensual. The way the blue cast is on it. Even though it's night, everything is lit up from the ground up, the little warm houses glowing along this icy blue pathway in the moonlight."
Silent, one-cloud sky
drift on to the sea
Two snowblind travelers lost,
lost on the north hills,
returning home through
the poor streets
a few children
fumbled with red fingers
in the wheel-rutted snow,
- Suzi Stern, 'Snow Travelers,' based on 'Wales' text by Dylan Thomas.
Five years ago, Alex Coke was brainstorming with literary friends at the University of Texas. The challenge: how to blend words and music, in an original way, to mark the holidays for the Ransom Center's "Poetry on the Plaza" series. He liked the idea, immediately, when Stern suggested "A Child's Christmas in Wales."
"The original idea was to have a piece of poetry and music that had a narrative structure but was very much improvised," says Coke . "It started off loose, very free. But with each year, there has been a push and pull to it. "
Though Stern gravitated toward the snowy, end-of-season textures in Thomas' work and wrote brooding poem-songs off the text, Coke connected with its sense of play . Sure, he could play lovely winter-wind passages on his flutes. But Coke loves all sounds. He collects toys. So he incorporated all manner of squeaking, blatting, chiming toy-textures into the "Wales" musical narrative - and wrote one passage in which every instrument is a toy.
"Some of my toys have worn out since we wrote this piece," says Coke. "Every few years, I have to go to stores, look for replacements - and that's changed the music a bit, too, as we've added new sounds."
As an aficionado of classic radio serials like "The Shadow," Coke always has appreciated picturesque elements in a world of sound. And so it is that Austin's treatment of "A Child's Christmas in Wales" sometimes feels a bit like a radio show - or a movie musical, for the way the landscape shifts between word and song.
"As many years as I'd read the poem to my children, I feel almost as if I still didn't get what 'A Child's Christmas' was all about when we prepared to stage it for the first time," says Stern. " And even now, something will pop out at me from the text as if it's the first time I ever read it. "
'A Child's Christmas in Wales'
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 11 (doors 7:30)
Where: St. David's Episcopal Church, 304 E. Seventh St.
Cost: $10, discounts for children/seniors