Rumsfeld's war words are music to novice's ears

Pop Music

April 25, 2004|By Julie Hinds | Julie Hinds,KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

DETROIT - First came the "poetry" of Donald H. Rumsfeld, those oddly lyrical quotes from the defense secretary that were compiled in a book last year.

A famous sample: "As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns."

Honest - Rumsfeld actually said this at a news briefing.

Now Bryant Kong has written songs for that poem and six others and released a CD of them.

The Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld and Other Fresh American Art Songs is Kong's debut album. He's promoting it as good music and a good laugh.

"If you think of Rumsfeld as a character in a Gulf War II musical, these are the songs he might sing," he says.

Kong is new to composing, having made the switch from a business career after being nudged along by the burst of the dot-com bubble.

Here are the known knowns:

Kong, 35, grew up in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., and spent many summers studying choral and instrumental music. After graduating from high school, he majored in chemistry and French at a Minnesota college, then studied French in graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley. Eventually, he settled in San Francisco and worked first for nonprofit groups, later for AT&T.

None of this, granted, had much to do with music. Yet all along, Kong had been playing the piano and performing in amateur recitals. He did it for enjoyment, not because he was lining up a spare profession.

Soon enough, he'd need one. In 2002, Kong found himself fresh out of UCLA with a new MBA and a goal of finding work in the high-tech field - bad timing in a burst-bubble economy, indeed.

"I was unemployed for so long, I had time to write music," Kong says.

In April 2003, the Rumsfeld poems appeared on Slate.com in an article by journalist Hart Seely, who created them using direct quotes from Defense Department transcripts. Later, Seely did an expanded book version, Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld ($12.95, Free Press).

Kong read the poems online and began writing a seven-part song cycle based on them, drawing on influences ranging from modern classical composers like Paul Hindemith to cabaret and pop.

"The seven original Rumsfeld poems, I thought they'd make a wonderful set, because they weren't all the same," he says. "They have a range of moods and suggest a variety of musical styles."

On one song, "The Digital Revolution," he pairs a lilting melody with Rumsfeld's thoughts on the Internet: "A trained ape can know an awful lot of what is going on in this world, just by punching on his mouse for a relatively modest cost!"

For another, "Happenings," he uses a throbbing march beat that matches Rumsfeld's cautionary remarks to reporters: "You're going to be told lots of things. You get told things every day that don't happen."

Kong and his friend, soprano Elender Wall, tried out three songs at a concert with an antiwar theme last May in San Francisco. The audience response was so encouraging that Kong was convinced he was onto something.

"They busted out laughing constantly," he says. "We found people enjoyed them as humor and as music."

Around this time, Kong's MBA came in handy. After drawing up a business plan, he formed his own record label, Stuffed Penguin Music, and released an album of Rumsfeld songs, with himself on piano and Wall on vocals. The album also includes songs by William Bolcom, Jerry Mueller and John Duke.

The CD has been out for about a month and was featured recently on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. It's available at Stuffed Penguin's Web site (www.stuffedpenguin.com) for $15.99.

For his next project, Kong plans to explore other social and political topics.

But he's not interested in doing any George W. Bush songs. The inspiration just isn't there for him.

"I don't think his speech would make delightful music," says Kong.

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