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Budbill and Parker Team Up for a Moment of Zen

State of the Arts


Never underestimate the power of fan mail.

In the mid-'80s, Wolcott poet-playwright David Budbill read an interview in the Canadian jazz magazine Coda with a young bass player from New York City named William Parker.

"There was something about the guy being interviewed that rang a bell with me in terms of having very similar attitudes toward music and its function in society . . . the idea that music can be used as a healing element," says Budbill, best known for his play Judevine, which chronicles a fictional Vermont town and is currently being reprised at Montpelier's Lost Nation Theater.

Budbill wrote to Parker in care of the magazine. A couple of months later, a letter on stationery from a Paris hotel arrived at Budbill's home. It was from Parker, who was then touring with jazz pianist Cecil Taylor.

The two artists struck up a correspondence, with Budbill sending Parker his plays and poetry and Parker sending Budbill his records. A few years later, they met in person. Thus began a collaboration that's spanned two decades and has taken them from New York to Montréal, from Iowa to New England.

This week, the two will come together once again for a multimedia performance called Zen Mountains, Zen Streets in four Vermont locations. Budbill will read poems from a book in progress, while Parker improvises on his upright bass.

They'll kick off the mini-tour on Thursday, September 25, in Hardwick, where a performance at the Hardwick Town House is followed by a parade across the Lamoille Bridge to Claire's Restaurant. (Audience members are encouraged to bring homemade instruments for accompaniment.) At the local hot spot, the pair will do another set, with Budbill on the shakuhachi, a wooden flute.

Though Parker and Budbill talk over what they're going to do before the show, their performances usually take on a life of their own. "We rehearse beforehand, and then we don't do what we rehearsed," Budbill says.

Many of Budbill's poems are about the "gardening and woodcutting and snowstorms" of the Northeast Kingdom, but he'll also perform poems inspired by time he spent in New York visiting and performing with Parker. These, of course, cover more urban territory - from subway musicians to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to soul food in Harlem.

How does Zen factor into all this? Budbill cites wu-wei, the Taoist idea of spontaneous action in accordance with one's own nature. "You're not thinking ahead or behind, you're in the moment only," he says. "That, in a way, is the basis for both the poetry and the music."