Charles Coe’s poem “Symphony of Crickets” doesn’t begin in springtime, or dusk, or even between two blades of grass. For the Toronto- and Cambridge-based poet and academic, the symphony began one Christmas when his mother bought him “a reddish-brown wide-wale corduroy number” — the only suit he owned as a child.
The poem describes how, when he would walk in the suit, the pant legs “rubbed together with humiliating ferocity.” Coe felt like “a walking symphony of crickets.”
In August 2021, Coe, who is a vocalist and digeridoo player as well as a professor of poetry at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., was visiting Cape saxophonist Ken Field of the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble.
Coe read his poem to Field. Then, he read some more of his poems. The two, along with Field’s partner, Cecily Miller, and guitarist Mark van Bork of VB and the Buzz, came up with the idea of combining Coe’s poetry — which Coe describes as “musical autobiography” — with jazz and classical music into a multimedia performance.
The result is A Symphony of Crickets, a 75-minute music and spoken word show in which Coe’s poems are punctuated by musical interludes performed by a live ensemble.
That ensemble includes Field on saxophone and flute, van Bork on guitar, Boston-based Phil Neighbors on drums, Blake Newman on string bass, and former Provincetown Town Clerk and vocalist Darlene Van Alstyne, known for her performances with Billy Hough in “Scream Along With Billy.”
The music of A Symphony of Crickets is inspired by Coe’s poems — some songs are directly referenced in Coe’s stanzas. The show spans “a large spectrum of American music,” according to Field. It reflects the genres that inspired him and Coe to play in the first place.
“I grew up listening to the music that you heard on the radio back in the ’60s and early ’70s,” says Coe. “A lot of Motown, a lot of soul.”
Field also has early childhood memories of listening to pop and Motown after his family’s TV set broke and he retreated into his room with an AM radio.
Ultimately, it all comes back to Coe’s poetry, Field admits. He finds a startling “diversity of musical references” there.
Coe considers himself “a musical omnivore,” consuming rock, blues, and the American Songbook. The ensemble accompanies the poems with songs by artists like Sam Cooke, Bill Evans, James Brown, and J.S. Bach (Field concedes that Bach does not qualify as American).
At a recent rehearsal, the ensemble played Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy.” Van Alstyne’s vocals filled the room as the group played a slow, haunting rendition, while Coe read a poem about a packed jazz club, describing “cash registers and clinking glasses/ and chairs scraping the floor.”
A Symphony of Crickets doesn’t just accompany Coe’s readings with music mentioned in his poems. The music brings the poems to life. At the rehearsal, as Coe read the program’s titular poem about the sound of the corduroy pants, Neighbors rubbed two pieces of corduroy together.
At the same time, Newman played the bass col legno, using the wood of his bow on the strings to produce feathery sounds that, in this case, mimicked cricket song.
There’s another reason the corduroy pants might remind Coe of a symphony. The poem continues, “I wore my suit the day in eighth grade I took two buses, alone, to hear Isaac Stern perform with the Indianapolis Symphony.”
“Even though I was embarrassed at first by the pants rubbing together,” he says, “I sort of owned it and claimed it because it was a way of saying, well, here I am. I was the only brown face in the entire hall.”
The group’s performance this Friday at Wellfleet Preservation Hall will be followed by performances at the Cape Rep Theatre in Brewster and the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House of Provincetown. For more information, see artscapecod.org.
The event: A Symphony of Crickets, a multimedia show of music and spoken words
The time: Friday, July 15 at 5 p.m.
The place: Wellfleet Preservation Hall, 335 Main St.
The cost: $25 online, $26 at the door, $12 for kids 13 & under