My Oldest Friend and Best Collaborator: Remembering Richard Peaslee (1930-2016)

Richard Peaslee possessed an openness to the unconventional and untried, along with a streak of irreverent humor and wildness that drew him to subject matter and musical expression outside the mainstream.

Written By

Kenneth Cavander

[Ed Note: Richard Peaslee was an extraordinarily prolific composer who worked in many different idioms including orchestral music, band music, soundtracks for film and television, dance, and jazz. But he is perhaps most widely known for his numerous theatrical scores. After learning of his passing at his home in Seattle in late August, we approached his frequent collaborator, playwright/screen writer/director Kenneth Cavander to share his thoughts with us about Peaslee’s music and his personality. The composer’s widow, painter Dixie Peaslee, provided us with these wonderful photos.—FJO]

It all started with a live snake. The live snake appeared in a 1969 production at the Yale Repertory Theater and threatened to steal the show, slithering around the head and shoulders of the lead actor who, to his credit, calmly went on with his performance with the sangfroid and wit the part demanded.

The actor was Alvin Epstein, the play Euripides’s Bacchae, a celebration of Dionysiac possession and the invasion of a civilized culture by forces of demonic power. Accompanying the snake and the bizarre and violent action were music and sound effects that perfectly complemented the sinister, hypnotic atmosphere of the work.

The music and sound were created by Richard (Dick) Peaslee, and it’s how I got to know him. (I had translated the play.)

Actually, I had got to know Dick’s music five years before I met him in person, when I sat in London’s Aldwych Theater entranced, puzzled, and disturbed by another play in which forces from the unconscious were unleashed—Peter Brook’s groundbreaking production of Marat/Sade as it was called. (The actual title of the Peter Weiss’s play is 25 words long.)

Richard Peaslee conferring with Peter Brook (director) on the set of Marat/Sade with actors in costume in the background.

Richard Peaslee conferring with Peter Brook (director) on the set of Marat/Sade.

Dick’s music for Marat/Sade catapulted him to the forefront of theater composers. The songs thrummed, jolted, and seduced you with their sweet-sour melodies and jagged rhythms.

At the time, I was just beginning a career in theater and television, and I had never encountered anything like this. It took five years of experimentation with various theatrical forms and a string of personal happenstances and professional zig-zags to bring us together.

So, back to the snake. The production of Bacchae at Yale, directed by Andre Gregory, was a fraught experience for almost everyone, especially the actors whose loyalty was divided between Andre and a co-director who was responsible for the chorus movement. The members of that chorus—graduate students at the Yale School of Drama—were themselves going through the heady rebellions of the ‘60s. And, on top of it all, there was the snake.

In the middle of this tumult was a quiet, thoughtful, slender figure, adjusting sound levels, bringing in musical motifs, percussion beats, and seldom raising his voice above a quiet murmur. He seemed sane, grown up, self-assured, and I decided he was the person I could be compatible with.

“What’s the egg whisk for?’ I asked him.

“Well, you see, I think it would work for the scene where the women tear his head off.”

I swallowed hard and pressed ahead. Dick told me about his work with Brook on Marat/Sade—how he and Brook experimented with creating musical effects from everyday objects, banging spoons on the exposed strings of a grand piano or dragging a metal funnel across a grating in the floor to mimic the sound of a ratchet on a guillotine. His favorite was submerging a struck gong in a large cauldron of hot water. “It produces a perfect glissando,” he told me.

Peaslee writing music on manuscript paper on a table.

That first encounter with Dick encapsulates a lot of the essence of the man. At his core was a quiet and sturdy gentleness, a respect for others, and a grace that may have come from his Quaker upbringing, fortified by an education that took him from the Groton School to Yale to Juilliard.  At the same time, he possessed an openness to the unconventional and untried, along with a streak of irreverent humor and wildness that drew him to subject matter and musical expression outside the mainstream. The better I got to know him, the more clear it became that beneath the outwardly understated and modest gentleman lurked an uninhibited Great God Pan that mostly came out in his music.

After Bacchae, my memory tells me that he wrote the music for another play I translated for the Yale Repertory, Moliere’s Don Juan; this time, no snake, but the hero did go down in flames.

Dick and I kept in touch. He was working with Peter Brook again, notably on Brook’s revolutionary production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was continuing to adapt, write, and direct. Then, in 1972, the director of the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts invited me create a show for their Second Company. I chose to adapt some stories from Boccaccio’s Decameron, and to turn it into a musical.

Tentatively, but hopeful, I asked Dick if he would agree to compose the music. I’m not sure why he said yes. I think there was something in Boccaccio’s stories—the setting of a deadly plague, rebelliousness and sexiness in the characters, a group of young people telling stories to each other—that appealed to the mischief in him and provided such an edge to his music. At any rate, whatever the motive, he responded to the tales, with their darkly satiric view of a society collapsing under the threat of a mortal pandemic. In one of them, the abbot of a deliriously corrupt monastery in an obscure village seduces the beautiful wife of a local farmer when she comes to receive absolution in his confessional. The lyrics I wrote were innocent enough, expressing Boccaccio’s sly satire while staying just this side of blasphemy, but Dick added a twist of his own—a backup group of swinging monks, chanting a miserere in a counterpoint blend of plainchant and soft rock.

It was in this production—which went on from Williamstown to the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., to other regional theaters, and briefly to New York—that I acquired my education in writing for musical theater, with Dick as my guide, mentor, and artistic lodestone.

I can’t remember a time when Dick presented me with a melody, or even a musical phrase, and said, “See if you can make your lyrics fit what I’ve written.” Invariably, he would wait for me to present him with the lyrics first, and then, a few days later, come back with a draft of the song. And then, subtly, gently, but with a persuasive mix of demonstration on the piano and tapping out of rhythms, he would show me how the lyric could be improved, expanded, edited, and dramatized in ways I had never imagined when I drafted it.

For a while after that, our paths diverged. Then, a couple of years later, Dick called me and suggested I come over and listen to something he’d been working on.

Around that time, composers were experimenting with synthesizers. Dick liked gadgets, and the synthesizer was the ultimate musical gadget. His apartment had been rigged up with four enormous loudspeakers, each as tall as an average citizen of New York City, and from these Dick could project an effect of being enveloped in quadrophonic music and sound effects that summoned aggrieved thuds on his walls from the neighbors in adjacent apartments. I don’t believe he ever connected these pieces into one organic composition, but for me they were fascinating as a way to subtly change the listener’s perception of reality.

Richard Peaslee performing on an upright piano with a synthesizer on top of it.

Richard Peaslee performing on piano and synthesizers.

At the time I had become interested in the Arthurian cycle, the mysterious tales, some by anonymous authors, of the Knights of the Round Table. I had an invitation to go back to Williamstown with another production, so the following summer the monster speakers and all Dick’s electronic equipment were loaded into his car and set up in the space provided for us—a school auditorium on the edge of the Williams College campus. In keeping with the eclectic nature of the synthesizer experiments, we strung together a group of stories from the legends and let the actors immerse themselves in the music. There were no lyrics, no songs, just the music and the action, with the music assuming the role of an independent actor in its own right.

That created an interesting dilemma.  With no live musicians to take visual cues from the actors, it was up to the actors to time their lines, movements, entrances, and exits according to the often complex rhythms and shifts of mood Dick had created in his recorded pieces.  This was before the era of computerized soundboards, and in any case we were working with a shoe-string budget. The only way the two elements—the actors’ performances and Dick’s music—could be coordinated was through the dexterity and concentration of a stage manager operating the switches and volume controls of the tape machine. All this was made even more complicated by the time lag between the reactions of the stage manager at the controls, the activation of the tape machine, and the emergence of the sound from the speakers.

It was the only time I heard Dick curse.

Nevertheless, the Arthurian legends had captured our imagination. They returned in a more conventional form to fulfill a commission for the Lincoln Center Institute. This time we left the synthesizer in the apartment and Dick went back to a score to be played by live musicians.

Once again, though, he felt the urge to play with stage conventions. In one scene, the hero Sir Gawain is subjected to a humiliating duel with an Invisible Knight. But how to represent this on stage, short of an unconvincing display of an actor slashing the air with a sword? Dick had a solution. He had a soft spot for the French horn. This was a golden opportunity to indulge it. He decided to bring one of the musicians on stage and make the sound of the instrument represent Gawain’s unseen adversary. It was both scary and a bit disturbing, though it wasn’t a solution that was practical for every production of the work.

Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure that the main reason Dick wanted to do this was so that, in future printed versions of the piece, the stage direction could read EXIT, PURSUED BY A FRENCH HORN.

Richard Peaslee at his home studio.

Richard Peaslee at his home studio in Seattle, 2010.

The last time I saw Dick, he was physically limited by the progress of the multiple sclerosis that disabled him in his later years. We talked over a long lunch in Seattle, his wife Dixie joined us, and though he couldn’t say much himself I felt strongly that his quickness of mind and humor were alive and well.

As I left Dixie confirmed for me that indeed the Dick I had known for nearly half a century was still there. She told me that only the other day, as he was leaving their apartment and passed a vase of carnations that were wilting and drooping from being left too long, he looked at the flowers and commented, “They look like they need a reincarnation.”

And that is how I think of him, reincarnated every time I listen to his music.

Peaslee (center) on the stage of Alice Tully Hall in 1989 with (starting on the left) cellist Eugene Friesen, composer Peter Schickele, choreographer Martha Clarke, singer Jim Naughton, and orchestrator Bruce Coughlin at the end of the Composers' Showcase tribute to Richard Peaslee.

Peaslee (center) on the stage of Alice Tully Hall in 1989 with (starting on the left) cellist Eugene Friesen, composer Peter Schickele, choreographer Martha Clarke, singer Jim Naughton, and orchestrator Bruce Coughlin at the end of the Composers’ Showcase tribute to Richard Peaslee.