Another one from last year. Just after I wrote this I was surprised to find that a local dance group was putting on Wonderboy. Coincidence? It is about as close as Sleepytime Gorilla Museum will ever get to playing Fort Wayne and somehow I still managed to miss it.
Music for the stage, classical pieces written to accompany dancers as they do their thing, often runs the risk of being boring background music, second fiddle to the dancers. However the very kinetic nature of dance lends itself to more interesting, music that can stand on its own. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring come to mind as two excellent examples that lose little sans dancers.
So it was with much fear, trepidation, and hope that I approached Ravish and Other Tales for the Stage, music composed for modern dance companies by members of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, a band that has managed to hold my attention for far longer than is rightly fair. Would these compositions fall flat or would they somehow manage to avoid the pitfalls of “stage music?” I’ll hold off of my answer to build antici…. pation.
The first, longest, and least successful section of songs comes from The Live Billboard Project. “The Good, The Bad and The Beautiful” is atmospheric with a low rumbling buzz of the bass harmonica with occasional shimmering guitar chords and a piano at the end which introduces the apprehensive main theme. Something is coming and it’s not friendly. “Ravish” is a bit more complete with the theme clashing against dissonant crashes of horns and piano and cello, an off-kilter rhythm that leaves no doubt that this was composed for a modern dance group. Two “auction” songs plus two other brief snippets remind me of Dave Thomas Americana projects, more setting a mood than leaving any kind of musical trail, but “A Living Billboard” is a quick favorite with a lumbering steady beat, stuttering violins, and an ominous, pensive melody that deliciously builds as a kind of cross between SGM and Book of Knots. The frightfully spooky “A Private Grace” uses a Tin Hat Trio-like sparseness in the orchestration that leads to many creepy moments in the first section before drunken circus horns enter to start a lilting waltz with affable ghouls and their glockenspiel tones. The Theremin soon adds its ghostly wail, a hollow ache for a life long past, making this dark and amazing song as comforting as it is disconcerting.
“Confession” is the lone track from Ame to Ame, though it definitely leaves one wanting more. Crisp and brittle strummed violin leads to a detuned plucked melody and a trumpet violin, which is a violin with a hearing horn embedded in it (like those old fashioned record players) that truly makes it sound like a cross between a violin and a trumpet. In addition to these instruments the husband and wife team of Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi round out this lonely song with charango, toy guitar, zither, bass harmonica, musical saw, glass and water.
Five selections from Wonderboy make the most consistent listening. “Portrait of a Lanscape” combines hints of Debussy with a smidgeon of Danny Elfman to create a somber yet light footed solo piano piece that moves into “Sticks and Paper”, a more minimalist composition built around a repeating figure on the piano. “The Aviary” is yet another miniature that packs a big punch. The piano weaves a nostalgic memory with slight violin backing, holding back until halfway through when the floodgates really open for a 1940s themed love song. “Small Wonder” is the chilling two minute childhood fantasy of a troubled child while “Sea of Stars” could be another Tin Hat Trio song with a steady beat led by the bass harmonica.
“Adam’s Misfortune”, from Heaven’s Radio, took awhile to get to me, opening as it does with a monk chorus in a giant cathedral, being soon joined by similar female vocals in a foreign tongue. An ambient sound collage of background noises soon enter, a kind of hazy memory, overcoming the piano to become a squeaking, pulsing white noise before subdued but tribal drums wash over the surf, leading the way back to the forlorn piano melody and choral vocals. If Eraserhead needed a new soundtrack Lynch would need to look no further than “Adam’s Misfortune”.
Ravish is hands down the best new music for stage that I’ve heard in a decade. It’s also the only new music for stage that I’ve heard in a decade. Anyone who likes the quieter, spookier works of Danny Elfman but thinks that the man may be a bit past his prime should give these forlorn melodic memories a welcome home in their collection.