Learning from the Past
Multimedia artist Stephen Mead talks about his new CD, Threnody for a Forgotten Plague
by Alina Oswald
Some paint with light. Others use words. Stephen Mead does both. A multimedia artist and author known for his color collages and poems, Mead recently added music and sound to give new life to his work. The result is his new CD, Threnody for a Forgotten Plague, a collection of sung poems of lament dealing with the pain, suffering and loss brought by the early days of the AIDS pandemic.
Being familiar with Mead’s visual artwork and books, I could only wonder about his decision of working with music. So I gave him a call to find out.
“It had a long time in hibernation, before I actually worked out the guts to give it a shot,” Mead says, explaining that the idea for Threnody started several years ago, when he was asked to record a few of his poems for a radio station. To make it more interesting, Mead tried to record his poems using music as background. But, as he opened his manuscripts to select the poems, he remembered how he’d first heard the verses, being sung, in his mind.
It took Mead several more years to turn the idea of recording his poems as songs into reality. At first, he would approach musicians and vocalists to sing his poems. When nobody showed interest, Mead decided to do it himself. So, he began the long process of finding free sounds and music, and pairing them with his poems.
“That took a lot of listening,” Mead says. “It’s like when I worked in a collage medium, [and] placed the colors next to each other to see if they worked together. I would just do it with sounds. I love music, and painted a lot [while listening to] music.”
Mead considers Threnody a work-in-progress. The CD is an emotional exploration, a compilation of poems written before the advent of HAART regimens, some verses inspired by his work in the hospital, as a caregiver for HIV patients.
“Love ballads are some of my favorite pieces,” Mead comments, talking about Threnody songs. “‘Buddy [for Leonard Matlovich]’ is one of my favorites, dealing with a war veteran. I think I was listening or reading an article about this veteran. He had lost a lover…this was before Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, when people could still be discharged [outright].” Another track, “He Fills the Window,” is a love song that takes the listener to the early days of the epidemic, and to the pain associated, then, with an HIV-positive diagnosis.
Track 13, “Building Immunities,” was recently awarded top prize in the poetry category for this magazine’s annual Christopher Hewitt Award and was featured in the August 2014 issue. Here is an excerpt:
in depths of slumber I dreamed,
river-willed, stirring stillness:
you again, you—
But time has changed the face of AIDS. Today, we may find ourselves caught between a painful past, defined by the plague of the early eighties, a present marked by undetectable status and functional cures, and an optimistic future of a generation free of AIDS. So maybe it’s only normal to question the importance of keeping that past alive.
Stephen Mead believes that it is important to remember the history of AIDS, as it is important to remember any aspect of history, including the long and ongoing fight for equal rights. “When I first came to terms with being a gay person,” he says, “I’d done a lot of reading. I think it’s important to know what others went through in order for me to have the privileges I have now, [when] gay marriages are becoming more prevalent.” Same goes for the AIDS pandemic. It is important to remember, so that it’s not repeated. “Even though we have these new ways of treating AIDS, of living with AIDS [today],” he adds, “and we should be thankful for it, [AIDS] is still a serious condition. It hasn’t gone away.”
To learn more about Stephen Mead and Threnody for a Forgotten Plague, please visit http://stephenmeadmusic.weebly.com.
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U. She interviewed artist Bill Bytsura for the January 2015 issue.