An excerpt from Michael Gordon’s Van Gogh directed by David Herskovits, designed by Lenore Doxsee, and performed during the Bang on a Can Summer Festival at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts by the Bang on a Can All-Stars with guest violinist/vocalists Eliza Bagg and Charles Yang on July 25, 2015.
In it, each of the eight instrumentalists is called on to simultaneously play—with razor-sharp precision—a rhythmically complex score, sing text that doesn’t easily sync with it, and do a modicum of acting. The Bang on a Can All-Stars and two guest musicians—violinist/vocalists Eliza Bagg and Charles Yang—met the challenge with stunning dynamism, leaving one both wondering how they did it and wishing for more of this “vertical” artistry. Beyond virtuosity, it packs an emotional wallop. When the instrumentalist is the singer and actor, it’s easier to engage with the story than when the artistic impulse is spread between two or more performers.
It helped that the amplified and hypnotic six-movement work is based on Van Gogh’s brutally direct and celebrated letters, most of them written to his brother Theo. The letters draw us inside the tortured soul of an artist grappling with insecurity, ambition, and—ultimately—mental illness. Gordon says he decided to write Van Gogh because of his “total love and obsession” with the letters, attracted by their pain, rawness, and honesty. In fact, this piece is the fourth iteration and outgrowth of a work first performed in 1988—a vehicle for five musicians and voice—and best known in the eight instrument/three independent singer version recorded in 2007 by Alarm Will Sound. Only this year did Gordon decide to assign the vocal lines to the instrumentalists. And that seemed possible because the performing nucleus this time would be the intrepid and category-defying Bang on a Can All-Stars, which he, along with Julia Wolfe and David Lang, co-founded. In addition, the two main roles, for violinist/vocalists, would be filled by young, classically trained musicians who seem, more than ever, to straddle musical worlds. Gordon sensed that with all the musicians coming out of conservatories with one foot in the “indie scene,” he’d find the people he needed.
Singing while playing an instrument is as old as musical performance itself, and remains the dominant vehicle for pop and folk musicians. But with the advent of “serious” or “concert” music in the 17th century, vocal and instrumental parts grew more complex and these roles separated. In recent times, some composers have attempted to recombine them. Frederick Rzewski’s De Profundis (1992) requires the interpreter to recite Oscar Wilde’s famous letter from prison to Lord Alfred Douglas while navigating a broad range of keyboard techniques. George Crumb’s trio Vox Balaenae (1971) requires the flutist to speak into the flute and—like the pianist and cellist—wear a black half-mask. Singing while acting is the basis of opera and musical theater. But ask the singer/actor to add an instrumental line—even where physically possible—and eyebrows will rise.
Extramusical elements add to the mystique of George Crumb’s 1971 flute-cello-piano trio Vox Balaenae, which is one of his most widely performed compositions. The performance above, which took place at Montreal’s Salle Claude Champagne on April 17, 2011, features Camille Lambert-Chan (flute), Stephane Tetreault (cello) and Philippe Prud’homme (piano)
Adding to the stress, stage direction may take the singer/instrumentalist away from his or her music stand, requiring that the instrumental parts be memorized.
For centuries of “serious” music-making, there’s also been resistance to doing more than what one has been trained to do. Until quite recently, if you asked a professional clarinetist to read a line of spoken text in a performance, he’d probably bristle and show you his contract.
But just as boundaries between musical genres have blurred, so have boundaries between what performers are willing—and able—to do.
Van Gogh was not Gordon’s first work mining vertical performance. In the mid-1990s, he wrote Weather for string orchestra, conceived and staged by Elliot Caplan, sections of which featured the musicians of Ensemble Resonanz in choreographed movement. In 2008, Gordon, Wolfe, and Lang co-composed singing in the dead of night, a 45-minute piece for eighth blackbird in which the instrumentalists move through choreographed steps they took part in creating. (A year later, eighth blackbird, always game to experiment, premiered Steven Mackey’s Slide, an innovative music and theater work in which singer/actor/librettist Rinde Eckert plays a fictional research scientist whose fiancée has abandoned him. Heartbroken, he reminisces about an experiment he conducted using projected images of photographic slides to explore the fallibility of human perception. The instrumentalists—including Mackey, who played electric guitar in the premiere—all additionally do a modicum of singing, acting, and choreographed movement. More recently, eighth blackbird premiered another work that completely blurred the lines between music, dance, and theater—Colombine’s Paradise Theatre by Amy Beth Kirsten.)
Some Historical Precedents for Multitasking Performers
Whereas Gordon had his Van Gogh musicians multitask in an experimental departure—“it was all very let’s-see-if-this-works,” he claims—by the mid-20th century Harry Partch had made a clean break from the role-specific direction of Western music, embracing instead “corporeal” music, whereby all music-making would involve singing, acting, and dancing. It’s built on the vocal and verbal music of the individual, stemming from chant in ancient Greek, Asian, and African cultures. In Partch’s large theatrical works, including his magnum opus Delusion of the Fury (performed in New York City this past summer by the Cologne-based ensemble MusikFabrik as part of the Lincoln Center Festival), the chamber musicians onstage function also as singers, actors, and dancers, creating a fantasy world enhanced by lighting, costumes, and makeup. Although Partch started with stories based on Japanese and Indian folk tales, he wrote in the preface to the two-act work that “words cannot proxy the experience of seeing and hearing.” The work is more of a staged concert in which theater intervenes more and more. The theatrics sometimes obscure the storyline, but the dramatic effect, arising from the music, is powerful. The instrumental setup, comprised of Partch-designed instruments, is the dominant scenery. The musicians play from memory a score suffused with strong motor rhythms. Heiner Goebbels, director of MusikFabrik’s Delusion, says he thinks of Partch’s theatrical works as a door between the two types of music with which the composer grew up: classical and pop—the music of the Beatles and the Beach Boys in particular. Like Gordon in Van Gogh, Partch in Delusion is after raw musical qualities conveyed with precision. In both works, the voices and instruments are amplified.
In order to realize Harry Partch’s magnum opus Delusion of the Fury, the Cologne-based ensemble MusikFabrik functioned onstage as singers, actors, dancers, and instrumentalists performing on replicas of Partch’s instruments created specifically for their performance.
Like most of his “operatic” works, John Eaton’s 2010 Benjamin Button, based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story which also inspired the 2008 motion picture, directly involves the instrumentalists in the onstage narrative.
In Meredith Monk’s Turtle Dreams (1983), Monk and the other members of her vocal ensemble–Robert Een, Andrea Goodman, and Paul Langland–create a totally immersive experience through singing, dancing, and acting.
In John Doyle’s 2005 production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, singer/actors double as instrumentalists to create a seamless synchronicity between theater and music.
Gordon decided to assign the Van Gogh vocal parts to the instrumentalists simply because, he says, nowadays there are musicians who can handle it. Of course, those who can do it well, and in a particular style, are rare. Gordon says he wrote everyone he knew and asked, “Do you know any female violinists who sing, or female singers who play violin?”
“You can’t put your finger on what you’re looking for, but when it appears in front of you, you know,” Gordon mused. What he was looking for appeared in the form of Eliza Bagg, a prospective Bang on a Can festival fellow, a violinist who had transitioned into a vocalist specializing in indie and early music. The other part was performed by Charles Yang, a hotshot violinist who, in his YouTube-posted arrangement of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” seems a cross between Paganini and Freddie Mercury. Both were initially concerned that their voices weren’t the right type. Gordon assured them he didn’t want trained voices. He wanted real and raw voices—floaty, breathy, bluesy, and rock voices, where appropriate to the text.
They auditioned for Gordon separately, then were tried together. They won the roles. As the score was still in flux, Yang asked that his part be more violin than voice; Bagg, just the opposite. Gordon happily accommodated. Flexibility was key. Gordon made changes in the score even on the day of the performance. Vocal parts, originally concentrated on the violins, were spread among the other performers.
Gordon’s music is difficult to learn. Though rooted in repetition and groove, it’s rhythmically complex and often without readily discernible patterns. The ensemble writing is layered and polyrhythmic, and doesn’t synchronize easily. Naturally, the Van Gogh vocal parts added another layer of complexity. At times, the musicians are asked to play triplets while singing eighth notes, or to sing triplets over duples. “It’s like rubbing your tummy and patting your head,” says All-Star cellist Ashley Bathgate. Or translating French to English while typing in Spanish. It can be done, but it doesn’t come naturally.
Practicing slowly isn’t sufficient. “Because your voice is part of your body, you can get very distracted by it,” Bathgate says. “When I think about the line I’m singing, the cello line will go out of tune. If I focus on the cello sound, my voice goes out of tune or cracks.” The solution was to hone one part—typically the one where you’re more at home—until it became virtually automatic. Then add a layer on top.
More traditional singing—intoning, with or without words—establishes a visceral connection between the performer and audience. When you sing, you’re naked—even with a cello in front of you. (Contemporary composers seem particularly drawn to female cellists in this role. Perhaps it’s the lure of the treble voice and baritone instrument, perhaps the comfortable distance between the voice and where the cello sound is produced. In recent memory, I’ve heard Alisa Weilerstein, Maya Beiser, and Sol Gabetta hum or whisper while drawing a bow across the string.) Julia Wolfe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Anthracite Fields calls on two of the Bang on a Can All-Stars—electric guitarist Mark Stevens and Bathgate—to sing while playing extended solos. Gordon admits that the success of Anthracite Fields may have influenced his decision to write vocal parts for the All-Stars in Van Gogh.
“Once composers know you can sing, they write parts for you,” Bathgate says. It becomes part of your arsenal.
Professional musicians are trained to create sound. With sufficient dedication to a project, contemporary musicians will deliver any sound the score asks for—even where unusual techniques, like vocalizing, come into play. But acting is often beyond their purview. For them, what might seem a simple stage direction—walking across the stage, for example—can be tougher than navigating a thorny score.
Two weeks of rehearsal were set aside for Van Gogh. In the first, the musicians worked toward impeccable ensemble. In the second, the stage director, David Herskovits, came to add theatrical touches: props, lighting, and movement.
Herskovits began by explaining his vision to the musicians and eliciting feedback. He had a specific game plan, but was diplomatic and flexible. The musicians tried things for him. The universal goal was to make the work sound as good as possible.
The stage direction consisted largely of broad brush strokes to set a scene or stimulate the imagination—scribbling letters, crumpling papers, crossing the stage to peer at the audience—but all had to be precisely coordinated with the music. Any action that would undermine the score was scrapped or modified.
Herskovits would say something like: “You have ten minutes of rest here. Can you pretend you’re writing something, then crumple the paper and throw it?”
At least once, the response was: “Well actually, I’m changing instruments and cuing singers, and it’s not a good time.”
Herskovits backed off, then asked another: “How about you?”
David Cossin, the Bang on a Can All-Stars percussionist, said that writing a stage direction in his part made it easier to embrace: “Instead of ‘play cymbal,’ it was ‘throw paper.’”
Juilliard-trained harpist Judith Kogan, who has won prizes on pedal and folk harp and is proficient on baroque triple harp, has performed with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Orchestra of St. Luke’s. The author of Nothing But the Best: The Struggle for Perfection at the Juilliard School (Random House, 1987), she has won an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for her music journalism.