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Originally published Sunday, April 1, 2012 at 5:33 AM

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Seattle artists imagine the apocalypse, set to music and poetry

Poets including Elaina Ellis, Buddy Wakefield and Karen Finneyfrock will perform musings about our uncertain times, with help from Seattle Rock Orchestra, on April 6.

Special to The Seattle Times

PREVIEW

Poetry Apocalypse

8 p.m. Friday, Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; $10-$18 (800-838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com).
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Elaina Ellis admits that the marriage of poetry and orchestra — two semi-ancient arts — might sound a little boring to some people.

So, when the poet had the idea for a collaboration between the two, she and a team of writers and musicians brainstormed themes that were contemporary and gritty enough to spark interest. They came up with one that seemed to fit: the apocalypse.

"Someone said, 'Isn't that kind of a downer?' " Ellis said. "It's a hook, but there's also a seriousness underlying it with the hope that artists can tell a different story."

Behold Poetry Apocalypse 2012 at Town Hall on Friday, a cataclysmic musical musing in two acts. For the first, seven Northwest poets, including Buddy Wakefield and Karen Finneyfrock, will perform thematic works set to an original orchestral score. For the second, Seattle Rock Orchestra musical director and bassist Scott Teske composed a song cycle based on the poets' collective libretto: a sort of end-of-the-world opera.

Sure, the apocalypse is a tension-filled, even controversial, topic — but once you think about things like zombies or the John Cusack movie "2012," it can be kind of funny, too.

"It's not all going to be totally grim," Teske said. "It's more about beginnings and endings and a light at the end of the tunnel."

Ellis' work plays on that motif of light vs. dark. A poem she penned for the show's first act was inspired by the biblical verse in which God says "let there be light." She wrote it with the understanding that there would be a 30-piece orchestra backing her spoken word.

"It gave me the ability to write something more epic in scope than I'd usually write," said Ellis, whose first book of poetry, "Write About An Empty Birdcage," was published last year. "I'm not the kind of poet who throws around words like 'universe,' but I used that kind of imagery and quoted from the Bible. If I'm not going to do that with an orchestra behind me, I don't know when I will."

This is new ground for the Seattle Rock Orchestra, too. The organization usually backs pop/rock duos or solo acts, who in the past have included Rachel Flotard of Visqueen and Josiah Johnson of The Head and the Heart. Friday's show will feature more of a chamber orchestra, along with two classical vocalists, soprano Annie Jantzer and tenor Soulchilde/Okanomode.

"I think it's definitely going to be more avant-garde than what we've done before," Teske said. "We're challenging ourselves to get out of our comfort zone and do something more contemporary and more in the style of what's happening with new classical music rather than the rock 'n' roll stuff that we've done in the past."

Rather than focus on the death and despair that's a hallmark of most apocalypse narratives, the show aims to explore the uncertainty of this era and the hope that music and art inspires.

"Maybe the world is heading toward destruction," Ellis said. "But we do believe art can be a big part of how we tell the story of what's happening — if not how things turn around eventually."

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