Another snippet from the new opera, The Boats (Beautiful Boy). Two churches. Two organs. Your organ says a lot about you, heh heh. Deliverance. Guy Deutscher. Language and Culture. Philip Glass as career path? Walter White and the big, big money. The Who. Tommy. The best rhythm guitar ever?
Roger CortonOne last thing about the whole opera thing. We never got round to talking about the organs last week.
RCI can’t decide if it’s really sincere or just really cheesy.
you can tell a lot about a church by the organ they use. You hear the organ at any church for about five seconds and you know what you’re in for. Anyhoo, there’s a lot of both kinds organs in The Boats because that’s a composite of sound I hear all the time when I think on then. If anyone is familiar with Charles Ives, I finally get what he was after–this nostalgic idea of standing in the middle of town and hearing two interesting bands playing at the same time. I always thought it was crap, but now I get it. Or at least the idea of it. I hear two services going at the same time.
JCHWell don’t sugar coat it. Cheesy you say?
RCThe organ vibrato. Some of the lyrics sound so gushy. ‘Beautiful Boy’. People don’t really talk like that.
JCHOh yes they do. I know what you mean, though. OK, so there were two big churches when I was a kid. The C of I Church of Ireland–Protestant and the RC Roman Catholic. They were both almost across the street from one another. Now the funny thing is that the C of I was actually the big ‘cathedral’. Apparently the C of I muscled in on the cathedral a few hundred years ago after a fire. So the Catholics rebuilt a new teeny one. So the odd result is that the RC had the schlep ‘harmonium’ style organ and the C of I had the more ornate organ sound. Backwards from what you’d expect.
RCYou’re saying that Protestants should have the ‘plain’ sound and the damnned Papists should have the wrath of God sound!
JCH(laughs) You obviously don’t understand how it works in the Anglican world, brother. But let me say this, you can tell a lot about a church by the organ they use. You hear the organ at any church for about five seconds and you know what you’re in for. Anyhoo, there’s a lot of both kinds organs in The Boats because that’s a composite of sound I hear all the time when I think on then. If anyone is familiar with Charles Ives, I finally get what he was after–this nostalgic idea of standing in the middle of town and hearing two interesting bands playing at the same time. I always thought it was crap, but now I get it. Or at least the idea of it. I hear two services going at the same time.
RCI get that. Like a Doppler effect. Two conversations flying by.
JCHYeah, that’s right! And that over the top vibrato is a huge part of that world. That is far more of a flavor than Americans think.
RCSweaters and sheep and fiddles and whistles, etc.
JCHRight. I mean those are all there for sure, but I hear the organs on two sides of the street and a lot of expressions that would seem like a bad TV show today. And while I’m gassing on. I wanna talk about ‘racial identity’ for a minute.
JCHNo, I’ll be cool. Any time I meet anyone for the first time, typically a ‘date’, there will be this moment where I can see this thought forming like, “Dude. You’ve been in America for most of your life. You’re not ‘Irish’ anymore.” Which I find ridonculous.
RCWhy? I mean you don’t sound Irish. You admit you’ve bent over backwards to be ‘Mericuhn’.
JCHRight. But let’s take a sixteen year old from Uganda or Persia or whatever. When they hit their fifties, if they sound American, do you now see them as ‘Americanized’? Of course not. And -why-? Their color, obviously. But few would assume that they were culturally ‘all American’. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger feels a certain way down deep that ain’t particularly Cahl-ee-fawn-ya.
RCAnd your point?
JCHMy point is that the hard thing in communicating this is because I don’t think Americans get Ireland. It’s considered ‘quaint’ then and ‘successful’ now, but the overall poverty is what does not register with Americans. I think there is a mental block in seeing the country as being so fuckin’ backward. My theory is that because so many Americans claim Irish ancestry, they just don’t want to think of it that way. It’s like how people romanticize ‘The South’. Man, a LOT of the south is miserable. No offense.
RCNone taken. But maybe it’s because there’s no language issue like poor people from India.
JCHWell there is a language issue. See those phrases you find so sentimentally sweet are how people talked. Yer ma would call you ‘Come here, my beautiful boy.’ That’s in the language. People here think that style of address was some drunken cartoon deal, but it wasn’t. It was a different way of thinking. I can recommend a great book by Guy Deutscher on this whole topic of language and culture. You know, that people think differently in various languages. Great, great, great.
RCGot it. So there’s a difference in thinking you want to get across.
JCHRight. See Ireland always had well-educated people. You can’t see these people as like Deliverance or Slum Dog Millionaire. They’re just poor. I mean whenever we think of poverty here we almost always connect it with bad behavior. Drugs, violence, etc. We have this idea of ‘education’ as the difference between success and backasswardness. But in Ireland, that was largely not the case. You had all these well-educated kids growing up just like poor inner city kids here. But the difference is that Irish had a safety valve to keep the place from falling apart.
JCHExactly. You had a reason to not fuck up in school, even if the local prospects were bleak.
RCBut your people were atypical.
JCHYou had fishermen, other Gaeltacht people who stuck it out because they thought they were immune–like farmers here. Or rather, everyone saw the coming of the EU as this huge blessing.
RCAnd the point of the story is that it was not.
JCHMixed bag. The price of some things, like lobster, went through the roof. But lots of guys, like the poor saps in this story, lost their boats.
RCSo you’ve gone from writing about one loser economy (Ireland) to another (Detroit).
JCHActually, where I grew up is now a tourist mecca. It’s got Michelin star restaurants and B&Bs where they put chocolates on yer pillow. It totally reinvented itself.
RCBut not for the people in your story.
JCHNope. Those people were gentrified out of the picture. Progress, me boy. Progress.
RCSo a couple of technical details before we go off into the sunset. This doesn’t sound very ‘operatic’ to me. I mean, isn’t an opera supposed to have big orchestral sounds?
JCHSorry. I left the violins in my other pair of slacks. Dude, you know how long it took me to get guys to record those rehearsals for Detroit: The Opera, right? You wanted snippets? So this is what I got until I can organize something.
JCHBut if you listen to most ‘new’ operas…and yes there are a few…many feature very non-traditional ensembles.
RCNot rock band, though.
JCHNo, but the big example of course is Philip Glass.
RCWhose music you hate.
JCHWhose music I hate. But he was a clever and persistent motherfucker. The legend is that, like everyone else, he couldn’t get his works played. Apparently he drove a cab well into middle age. So he created his own ‘band’ to play his pieces. And I dunno if the band affected his writing or vice versa, but the whole minimalist deal…
RCWhich sounds very machine-like…
JCH…was played by real people playing electronic machines. He liked drones and machines do drone. The double (or is it triple?) irony is that when he started getting the big commissions, his style was already in-baked. So he uses an eighty piece orchestra like a bunch of Yamaha Electone organs. Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep. Drone, drone, drone, drone, drone.
RCReal people playing real instruments trying to sound like drones. But what’s good about that to you?
JCHIt’s good that he found a way to succeed that is true to what he wanted to do. I mean it’s crazy difficult to get a full orchestra to rehearse stuff like I’m doing. And then when you throw in the ‘progressive rock band’ angle? Nearly impossible. So you have to find a way in. And God Bless Philip Glass, he found a way to succeed. He wasn’t some frustrated guy with a sampler pretending to write for orchestra. His (cough) art fits his medium.
RCMy only problem with what you’re saying is that, at the end of the day, his music still suuuuuuucks. I can’t stand more than a few seconds of it unless it’s in a movie. Didn’t you once give me about five minutes of Philip Glass jokes…
JCHQuick. Hey guys! That should be a C#! Where? Bars 64,309 through 81,205. Rimshot.
RCNo kidding. So I wonder how instructive it is to use him as a model. I keep thinking it’s like Walter White magical thinking to think that anything good will come from it.
JCHIf only there were Walter White-size ‘cheese’ in there, baby. But I take yer point. To me, opera is musical drama. The thing Glass got right is that it doesn’t need a conventional orchestra. But let’s shift to a better musical example. Said it before, say it again: The Who’s “Tommy” is a good opera. Not just a great ‘rock opera’, I mean a decent ‘opera’ opera. By any standard.
JCHOh hell yeah. Or at least it had the making of a good opera when you compare it with a LOT of the crap that’s in the standard repertory. It’s got a great story and the funny thing is that I think most Who fans would bet twenty bucks that there actually was an orchestra in it. But not a bit of it. Other than the outraaaageously out of tune French Horn whoops…
RCThe Three Stooges “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk”s.
JCH(laughs) That’s great. Other than those, it’s mostly a lot of great rhythm guitar and drum noodling. The songs are so involving. It just sounds as big as all outdoors. Seriously. Best fucking rhythm guitar. Ever.
JCHArgue away. But my point, for this discussion, is that you don’t need an orchestra to make the show. You need the right orchestra to make a great show.
RCWell, Pete did do a Quadrophenia for orchestra.
JCHSee but that’s where he got it wrong. Tommy is how it should be. It’s not ‘operatic’ singers. It’s people singing like people sing today. And the arrangements were what the story needed. What I always wanted to see was a serious ‘Tommy’.
JCHYeah, basically just the Tommy record, with a live band and some real singers playing each character. Just giving it the full dramatic expression of the album. Extending some ideas a bit but not changing the basic sound. The sound is pretty much perfect. It fits the story to have just some strumming guitars when Captain Walker comes home and so on. Anyhoo, that’s what I’m trying to do. Just fit the arrangement and the story to what I have to work with.