Rick Holland is a name without a face. He's collaborated on two albums with Brian Eno, Drums Between the Bells and Panic of Looking, providing all the words for both, and now he's done the same for a project instigated by Old Man Diode, featuring guest vocalists like Beth Rowley, Chris James from Stateless, and Onallee of Roni Size and Reprazent. But despite his output, you hardly see the man. At the Vortex Jazz Club, Dalston, on Friday 4 November, for the launch of the project, maestro Old Man Diode name checked Holland more than once, making sure to note his contribution as each guest vocalist came to the stage; "Thanks to Rick Holland. He's an amazing poet...he's somewhere back there, in the crowd," he rambled, but Holland never came forward, and nobody really seemed to mind, happy to focus on the musicians that brought his words to their ears, ventriloquists.

Classified as a poet by the musicians he works with, Holland has other ideas. In his mind, the demarcation between a “lyric” – as the words accompanying modern songs – and the idea of poetry is unnecessary. "For me the distinctions are not necessarily that illuminating," he says. "Both come from a tradition that makes memorable performance from words. Technology, and sound manipulation, means that potential exists to present words in new ways but it all still belongs to the same tradition that started with telling stories in memorable language. In the context of the more recent subdivisions in Western music that make a “song” need a “lyric”, all of the pieces made with Brian Eno exist somewhere on a ‘poem-lyrics’ axis and feed into songs that could also be described in many different ways. I’m happy for them to be called words, poems, lyrics or anything; components, soundbanks, philosobundles, noise."

Words as sounds

That idea, that technology might manipulate words so that something is eked from them, is present in the projects with Eno; while the vocalists might be considered singers or at least speakers, their voices are often subtly altered. As a result, the performer, still acting as a kind of speaker – Holland's words stand out very strongly because the internal meaning is still there, such is the force of imagery – also becomes a sort of instrument.

Holland says: "The project with Brian relied heavily on me being able to relinquish “control” of the performance of the words. Sometimes this would break down the original meaning of the work as I may have intended it. But this is what happens whenever a piece of writing is read, internally or aloud; it's just more explicit when the reading is deliberately slow – and the words were sometimes spaced out with this in mind.

"I would have some “control” over which readings were selected, or how they were then manipulated, but in order to explore what the voices were adding to the process, I had to be able to let go to a degree of what my listening ear might have “expected” from a reader, and just let them read."

But what about intended meaning, the relationship between sound and word in general?

"The classifications all necessarily feed into each other. Academics can explore, ad infinitum, eventually reducing definitions to a world that is impenetrable without specialist and increasingly esoteric knowledge. I would say that they all exist in each other’s worlds, and all express something that is different from stillness and nothingness, as much as we can imagine what stillness and nothingness is. They are all ways of punching the silence with code."

Musician Unseen

The project with Old Man Diode is mesmorising and tense. While the live launch at Vortex stopped and started with sound problems, the pauses between songs only highlighted the strength of the arrangements, Guy Wood's incredible and beguiling drumming, plus Old Man Diode's creepy instrumental timbre combining in the trembling warmth that only a small venue can bring. And while the live show did less credit to Rick Holland, whose words couldn't always be registered, the use of his poetry as material and his absence from the stage perhaps served to highlight that there has to be a division between a word-smith and a set of musicians in these sorts of projects. After all, if the words aren't uttered by him, is he still a performer, a part of the music, or is he not surely contributing something extra-musical, isn't he that classification “poet” that he’s trying to open up?

Holland isn’t so sure. "The word “poem” itself comes from a Greek word that just means “to make”, which could cover a vast field of activities," he says. "That I like, as it demystifies “poetry”, which I would prefer to think covers the use of any language you could imagine. It has always struck me that the people who say that music and poetry cannot mix protect a tradition that isn’t even under threat, it is just always adapting and morphing, as any language does. I don’t really mind what I am called."

Even if he's reluctant to be called a poet, some of his words are beautiful, poetic. On the recently released 'in the future', the first track on Panic of Looking, his verse, sung through Brian Eno and his daughter Darla, is highly evocative. "To fall in shards as something else | beyond steel and glass | beyond steel, and glass | when parades give way beyond stack and grey/ to the solace of grass | the solace of grass." 'Not a story', the second track, reads "My muon, atomity, jumping, charm | in a place in a place in a place in a place | my colour, my race, humanity, globe | my line map, my bank mat, my glow | my society, my mores, my sex face, my poles | the tracks of my veins around a frame | my excretions, magnetics, kinetics and bundles."

Perhaps indicative, though, Holland had mentioned not transcribing the words with line breaks, essentially in verse, because "they haven't been written out this way before." And despite the claims to poetry that his words make, Holland really is insistent that he's not a poet, and says as much many times, if being a poet removes him from the music in some way, stoppers that cross-pollination. On his influences, he makes it clear that the answer is broad, as much as "any uses of words – I mean any – that have moved me."

Learning to Play

With a long history of words being set to music, over centuries, you might think he'd see the libretto as a precedent, especially given that he isn't performing himself. But again, while he says that he'd love to write one, they haven't yet really fallen into that classification 'any words', that have moved him: "Funnily enough, librettos don't fall into that, although I did watch the Philip Glass Gandhi opera Satyagraha not long ago and was struck by how much was communicated with so few words – unsurprisingly really with Glass involved – and again by the massive potential within repetition. My influences have been singers – Dylan, Paul Simon – and rappers: Jehst, Wu Tang Clan, Dead Prez and unnamed MCs at drum and bass venues; the word groupings in psalms; some weird things in hymns; speeches in films; fragments of Hamlet or The Tempest; political language; dictionaries and reference books."

OK, so Rick Holland isn't exclusively a poet, however poetic the words are. And he's working with musicians, and his words are being set to music. So is he a musician?

"I couldn’t live without music. It used to fill large parts of every day when I was younger. Now I can go without it for long periods of time, but when I do that I often realise that my life is much less rich, or that tensions have built up in me that I had not recognised until they had been broken or released by some music. I think I always write with a sense of the music in the words, and that it is perhaps most like an improvising drummer; I might be focussing on something abstract or subconscious but the mind is always alive to the sounds that are being thrown up.

"So, yes. Not necessarily a particularly sophisticated one, but yes. At the moment I think I am a maker, and wherever possible a creative learner."

Header photo by Luci Lux