Strips On Sound: Artist Ed Ruscha Inspires Nels Cline Handcrafted book projects by artists are again on the rise. With two sides like a record, Dirty Baby features David Breskin's poetry and Nels Cline's music, inspired by work from seminal Los Angeles visual artist Ed Ruscha.

Strips On Sound: Artist Ed Ruscha Inspires Nels Cline

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Finally this hour, to a new book, and an unusual one. It's part poetry, part music release and part art book, inspired by the work of the artist Ed Ruscha. The book is being described as a trialogue, a conversation among three artists. Anthea Raymond reports from Los Angeles.

ANTHEA RAYMOND: Three clowns coming together, that's how iconic Los Angeles painter Ed Ruscha describes the project "Dirty Baby," based on his so-called censorstrip paintings from the 1980s and '90s.

Mr. ED RUSCHA (Artist): You get three crazy people together like this and make a book like "Dirty Baby," and, well, it's a new kind of thing.

(Soundbite of music)

RAYMOND: The two other clowns are guitarist Nels Cline, who splits his time between the rock band Wilco and his own avante-jazz band The Nels Cline Singers; and writer and producer David Breskin.

Mr. DAVID BRESKIN (Writer, Producer): When different art forms get together and mate, the offspring you get is not pure. It is a mutt. It is a complicated, noisy, voluptuous and perhaps really interesting mutt.

(Soundbite of music)

RAYMOND: Breskin first suggested the coupling several years ago to Ruscha, who'd seen another poetry-music-image project the writer produced on painter Gerhard Richter.

Mr. RUSCHA: He presented this idea of poems, of ghazals. Well, that sent me right running to the dictionary. I knew it was something like a haiku.

RAYMOND: Something like a haiku but not exactly, more like a series of couplets that rhyme not at the end but in the middle.

Mr. BRESKIN: Fist full of aliens, opened, sprinkled, twirl of seeds on (unintelligible), breaking news, nature's prayer beads on (unintelligible).

RAYMOND: David Breskin.

Mr. BRESKIN: In this case, I found a very restrictive form, a poetic form that I felt was as tight and limiting as Ruscha's own formal language because Ruscha's language is very, very specific.

RAYMOND: Ruscha's visual language incorporates cityscapes, gas stations, buildings on Sunset Boulevard, and sometimes just text. But the 66 paintings in "Dirty Baby" border on pure abstraction. They have no text except in the titles. Many have no images except rectangular blocks on color fields, the censorstrips that suggest where words would be. Ed Ruscha.

Mr. RUSCHA: My works are a lot of the time based on instant inspiration and sometimes foolish things that bounce off of walls and off of the pavement, and I just grab these things and use them. They seem to fit a pattern of some trail I'm on.

RAYMOND: It was up to David Breskin to find a pattern in these works. Not only did he write and record poems based on each image, the former journalist and novelist structured the images into two narratives, using themes from Ruscha's work. He passed those storylines along to Nels Cline.

Mr. NELS CLINE: He was sending me Ed Ruscha books in the mail to learn more about Ruscha and see more of Ruscha's work, but I was very familiar with Ruscha's work, having grown up in L.A. and having worked in an art bookstore for years. I remember when his small art books that he published himself were an impulse buy in the hip bookshops.

RAYMOND: Cline wrote one long suite to illustrate the 33 images on Side A, ordered in what Breskin calls a time-lapse version of Western civilization.

(Soundbite of music)

RAYMOND: The piece starts simply, with acoustic guitar and harmonica, and moves to an electronic, industrial sound.

(Soundbite of music)

RAYMOND: Side B of "Dirty Baby" takes on America and the conflict in the Middle East.

Unidentified Man: Rapid dominance, severe shock and awe, a sparkling doctrine, austere shock and awe.

RAYMOND: Breskin built it around Ruscha's cityscape works, which use threats and gangster language like "Be Careful Else We Be Bangin On You" as titles. Cline wrote 33 distinct compositions corresponding to each image and poem.

Mr. CLINE: I knew that there were going to have to be Middle Eastern musical flavors, that there was going to be some metal, at least that was my idea, since we were torturing people with heavy metal. And we talked about film noir because of the threats. A lot of these are dialogue from film noir, and film noir soundtracks are among my favorites.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: Falcons, hornets, eagles, nighthawks, osprey, tomcats, spirits, thunderbolts, shelled mercy, air launch cruises, sea launch cruises, black hawks, Chinooks, Apache longbows, curved mercy.

RAYMOND: After the record was finished, "Dirty Baby" took to the stage in Los Angeles for a concert performance. David Breskin read his ghazals. Nels Cline conducted two ensembles playing his music. Ed Ruscha sat in the audience and saw his pictures projected above it all.

Mr. RUSCHA: It doesn't make me learn anything more about my own incompetencies and stance as an artist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSCHA: But it really adds something to see him riff on these images. It's someone else's take on my work that I don't often get to see.

RAYMOND: Ruscha was pleased, although he says he listens mostly to '60s R&B these days.

For NPR News, I'm Anthea Raymond in Los Angeles.

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