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Book City: Bushwick Book Club pulls music from prose

Geoff Larson, founder of Bushwick Book Club. Credit: Photo: Wade Trenbeath

Geoff Larson started the Seattle chapter of Bushwick Book Club in 2010. An upright bass major at Western Washington University, Larson was seduced by the thought of joining with other musicians to share his love for books, music and performance in one creative blast. You can see the Bushwick Book Club perform Howard Zinn’s “A People's History Of The United States” this Friday evening, January 18, at 8 p.m. at Fremont Abbey Arts Center.

Valerie Easton: What are you up to at the Bushwick Book Club?

Geoff Larson: The Bushwick Book Club Seattle is a group of musicians who write original music inspired by books, and then perform it for a live audience. What’s unique about it is how the performers relate to the audience. Every person in the room can start out the evening knowing the source material for the performance. All they need to do is read the book!  

Everyone finds different inspirations when they read, and there will be 10 – 12 performers showing you theirs at every performance of Bushwick.

Who thought up the idea?

Susan Hwang started the first Bushwick Book Club in Bushwick, Brooklyn five years ago. It started out as a monthly meeting of performers playing their music inspired by books at a venue called Goodbye Blue Monday.

I was living in Brooklyn when I saw my first performance, which was inspired by the work of one of my favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut.  I believe the book was “Cat’s Cradle.” The energy in the room for that performance sold me.

When did you start the Seattle chapter?

I moved back to Seattle in 2010. Our first performance was of music inspired by “Slaughterhouse-Five,” at the Can Can in Pike Place Market, in October 2010.

Does Bushwick stem more out of a love for books, or a love for music?

It’s a shared love of music and books. As a musician, I’m drawn to the atmosphere created from sharing source material. The performances are like nothing I’ve ever seen or experienced before. The audience and the performers are “all in” for the event. Bushwick gives musicians the opportunity to write about something outside of themselves. It serves as a spark for their creations.

How did you find/choose your fellow Bushwickers?

In the beginning of the Seattle chapter, I looked to my musical friends to help fill out the performances.  As our performances became more popular, I began to get inquiries from local musicians. We now have a roster of over 100 interested performers in the Seattle chapter, including musicians, actors, comedians and artists. 

When I choose the roster for the event, I try to mix professional musicians along with amateurs who don’t always have the chance to play in front of an audience. It’s a great first opportunity for many of these performers. I am also launching my new plan of a “Young Adult” performer for each event. 

Tell me about the others in the club, and the live performance….

A given performance would include 10 – 12 different artists, all singing their own music. The performers vary in their instruments and style. Mostly, the songwriters accompany their voice with a guitar or piano. These events are built to showcase the songwriting itself, connecting the music to the book. 

You’re the one choosing all the books, right? What books are lying open on your nightstand right now?

Right now I’m reading Michael Pollan’s “The Botany of Desire,” Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” “The Hobbit,” and Larry MacMurtry’s “The Streets of Laredo.” I try and keep ahead of the material for the book club, but also give myself some personal reading. Zinn and Pollan are for Bushwick.

Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?

On vacation earlier this year I read “Lonesome Dove” by Larry MacMurtry. Such amazing characters and an amazing story!  I immediately made my friend who devours books promise to read it. She’d made fun of me for it… but she loved it! 

Any book you’ve read lately that really caught your imagination, inspired you?

I would have to go with “A People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn. It’ll change the way you look at this country and our history.

What kind of books move you to write and perform music?

The thing I love about books is the places they can take you inside your own imagination and experience. I always ask performers to write their music inspired by the book. That way, they can reach deep inside of themselves, whether they “like” the book or not.

What is your favorite song, ever, that you’ve written based on a book?

I’d have to say mine is a song titled, “Turn Me to Stone” inspired by “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe”. My inspiration came from the idea of a lone man (Tumnus), stuck in the middle of a war zone. And all he wanted was for it all to end. Whether it be fighting for an army, or fighting alone with sure defeat.

Turn me to Stone

Turn me to Stone, or give me an Army

This is not the way I want to feel

I’m scared, Surrounded by winter

In this cold, dark, thick, lingering air

Alone, being alone ain’t easy

Don’t have someone to lean on

And somebody’s watching, watching my movements

And I just want to move on

Turn me to Stone, or give me an Army

I just want to move on

How do you choose a good book to inspire a song? Or does the music just emerge from whatever it is you’re reading?

It’s a dance, picking the books. I choose ones that are popular with the public. I strongly, STRONGLY encourage the audience to read the books before coming to see us. I’m in the business of creating a performance as much for the audience as for the performers.

I try for a book that has a sense of humor in it.  Favorites include Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss, "Alice in Wonderland," "1984," "Fahrenheit 451" and “The Outsiders” for kids’ performances. We’ve done “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”  and “A Wrinkle in Time.”

I do try and choose books carefully.  Although I am confident the performers can do a fantastic job no matter the book. 

Have you ever run up against a book that, no matter how hard you tried, you just couldn’t write a single song?

That’s never happened, it can’t happen. You just reach inside yourself.

How often does the Bushwick Book Club perform?

Monthly, but we also do extra school performances and special festivals like Bumbershoot and Folk Life. As of now, we are a traveling crew. We have performed all over Seattle, including Town Hall Seattle, SAM, The Columbia City Theater, Hugo House, The Crocodile, Chop Suey, The Century Ballroom, Balagan Theater and more. We also record each performance in preparation for our upcoming podcasts. 

Can you name a favorite childhood read that’s carried over to Bushwick?

The first song I wrote from a book was inspired by “Where the Wild Things Are.” I also loved “The Phantom Tollbooth,” “The Mouse and the Motorcycle," “Commander Toad,” and “Winnie the Pooh.” One of my favorite memories is my Dad reading “Too Many Daves” by Dr. Seuss to us kids.

Were you a reader before you were a musician, or did the two evolve together?

I would have to say that I was a baseball player first. It’s still a great love of mine. 

Can you think of a particularly powerful passage from a book that’s stuck with you?

Now you have given me an easy question…“So it Goes” – Kurt Vonnegut. He uses it throughout his books to describe someone’s death. To me, it means… time to move on. Life will continue to roll. Keep the past in your memories and attack life. 

What book do you plan to move on to next?

Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman.” I’ve never been a huge graphic novel fan, but I am very excited about this. Neil Gaiman has a very exciting imagination. 

What Val’s Reading This Week:  I’m deep into Jonathan Evison’s “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving,” marveling over the powerful blend of humor and heartache that won the Bainbridge Island author a 2013 Pacific Northwest Book Award. Stay tuned….I’m talking with Evison for next week’s “Book City” column.

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