Tag: singer-songwriter

A Man at Home On the Road—Remembering Mose Allison (1927-2016)

Mose Allison. (Photograph © Michael Wilson)

If you live, a day will come
If you live, a day will come
When the sun will shine and the crops will grow
And you’ll think that you’re a not gonna worry no mo’
But if you live, your time will come
Your time will come.

—Mose Allison “(If You Live,” from Mose Allison Sings, Prestige PR 7279, 1963)

I don’t know any musicians who don’t love Mose Allison. Like Ray Charles or the Staples Singers or the great blues and jazz artists who’ve stood the test of time, his appeal cuts across all musical boundaries.

—Bonnie Raitt (from One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison by Patti Jones, London: Quartet Books Ltd., 1995; back cover)

I got my first call from Mose Allison around 1982 or ‘83. I can’t remember much detail about the call and lost my records about six years later in a fire. But I remember him asking if I was the person who bore my name, which I answered in the affirmative. He then introduced himself and asked if I’d be able to join him at a particular place (which I don’t remember) on a certain date and time (which I don’t remember either). I’m sure I said that I had heard him in 1976 with drummer Jerry Granelli and bassist Rich Gerard at the El Matador in San Francisco and I remember that he said George Marsh, one of the great West Coast drum gurus who I had the good fortune of playing with while I was in my teens, gave him my number. When I heard that George recommended me, I accepted the offer without hesitation.

There would be no rehearsal but Mr. Allison (who insisted that I call him “Mose”) assured me he’d bring charts and that I should bring a music stand. He hired a conguero as well (whose name I, of course, don’t remember). I had a few weeks before the date and, because I was familiar with his work, didn’t get as nervous as usual for me in anticipation of working for a new client. I’d first heard “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy” on the radio when I was in high school (it was a big hit among folks involved in San Francisco’s anti-Vietnam War scene) and I would catch some of his sets when he played The El Matador. I was fascinated by the work of Addison Farmer, the bass-playing twin brother of trumpeter Art Farmer, on Allison’s “Parchman Farm” and “Swingin’ Machine” and spent a lot of time practicing with the radio where Mose’s music made not daily, but frequent, on-air appearances. So I was sure it’d be smooth sailing once we hit the stage. But I had a little trouble getting to the venue, a rustic restaurant/bar that looked like it may have been an inn at one time (and I don’t remember the name of it, either), and showed up fashionably late—with enough time to set up and play, but not much time to talk over the charts Mr. Allison—I mean Mose—wanted me to read.

They were well-calligraphied, accurate, and organized in a leather binder with two, three and even four tunes per page, which were each given a large page number. Instead of calling a tune by name, Mose would call the page number, either out loud or by holding up the appropriate number of fingers, which could look a little odd as the book had over 30 pages. To call the charts “terse” would be an understatement, they were the barest of bare-boned and meant to be read by one person: the bassist (of course, he carried a set of charts for guitar and other transposing instruments when needed; but they, unlike the leather-bound bass book, were kept in manila folders). The bass charts consisted mostly of chord symbols above slash marks, peppered with the notes that were essential to the tune as well as directions about when and how to play them. Mose was considered by many to be a “blues artist” and a large part of his material was blues—which he usually didn’t bother writing out, but rather leaving a space in the stave for directions like: “C-minor (or major) Blues” or “Calypso Blues.”

Mose wasn’t one to insist on how one was to play his music, other than the few indispensable notes in some bass lines and the chord progressions, which were very open to interpretation. But that wasn’t an indicator of a laissez faire attitude towards his own music: he was very particular about certain elements that he wanted to hear. The way he explained these elements to his sidemen, however, challenged some of their basic instincts. When we sat down in the club’s “green room” during the first break, he looked at me, smiled and began explaining to me what he didn’t have time to say before we started:

“When we get into the blowin’ during the blues numbers, go to the flat-six chord before the five, unless the chart states otherwise. And don’t play the third of the chord unless it’s preceded, or followed, by the other third.”

A nice way of saying that I had done the first set almost entirely wrong!

To be sure, I understood the part about going to the flat-six chord: instead of going straight to a G7 (if you’re in the key of C) in the ninth measure of the 12-bar form, you play an A♭7 for a measure and then play G7 in the tenth; it’s a tritone substitute for the minor-two chord (D-minor 7)—pretty basic, but jazzy stuff! But he could tell that I was a little confused about the thirds and elucidated:

“That means that if you play the major third of a chord in your bassline, it has to be followed by, or preceded with, the minor third and, conversely, if you play the minor third, it has to be followed by, or preceded with, the major third.”

I’d do my best over the next 30 years to follow that directive, but leaving out thirds for three sets can be tricky. Sometimes, when I made the error, I’d play the “other third” the next time the chord came up. That seemed to resonate with Mose, so I tried separating the thirds by a chorus, which seemed to be okay as well. When I tried to use the major third on one tune and the minor third on another one, however, he let me know it didn’t work. Once, when we were opening for Al Kooper at the Bottom Line, I played a chorus using just roots and fifths, first one, then the other. Mose, who was not one to heap liberal amounts of praise, congratulated me for the first time: “Ratzo, you’ve just inspired me to create a new rule: No alternating between roots and fifths.”

The bass players were in charge of the book during the gig and sometimes had to explain the contents to new drummers—when Mose wasn’t looking. I once booked Mose at a club, Just Jazz, in St. Louis with Mark Wolfley, a fantastic Cincinnati-based percussionist who I met while he was studying at the New England Conservatory. Since I knew he could read music, I offered to share the book on a tune he didn’t know. As I was turning my music stand so that he could see the chart, Mose, who also was a lexicon of off-color aphorisms, leaned into his microphone and declared, “No, don’t do that! Givin’ sheet music to a drummer is like givin’ whiskey to the Indians!” (Of course, Mark’s next drum solo employed a war-dance rhythm as its principle motive.) It would be a mistake, though, to assume that he had no aesthetic rubric to share with his drummers. In an unpublished interview conducted by Marsh, the matter is explored:

GM: How many different drummers would you say you play with in any given year?

MA: Maybe 30 to 40 drummers a year. I play over 200 nights a year. Most of that is scattered all over the country and Europe. Very seldom will I play more than a few days or a week with the same drummer.

GM: What things do you look for when you hire a drummer?

MA: The first thing I ask a drummer is to not play a back beat. No heavy back beat. And I’d just as soon not have the sock on 2 and 4. And I don’t like rim shot patterns where the drummer hits the rim on 2 and 4 or just 4.

For those unfamiliar with jazz or blues, the rhythmic patterns described above are considered the virtual backbone of the genres (the last, hitting the rim on just the fourth beat of the measure, is what happens on “If You Live”). Hearing jazz or blues without these elements is, for many, akin to hearing the music of Beethoven with no major scales. But, in One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison, he goes on the record comparing the backbeat to “construction work,” suggesting that: “the backbeat is another form of pollution, bad air.” He once told me that he thought of the genre(s) that featured the abhorrent backbeat as “Le Blues Banal, with the emphasis on Le.” His reasoning was explained to Marsh:

Over the years I’ve come to regard these as “automatic marker” type things and being unnecessary. The concept of the drummer as time keeper is sort of passé anyhow. All the musicians in a jazz band are supposed to be timekeepers…. The drummer should embellish the time while he responds to the soloist. He … isn’t the sole proprietor of the time. For me the whole idea of jazz is for everybody to be swinging with the time. It should release the drummer from that role of a “mechanistic” time keeper who plays only automatic patterns and things. It frees the drummer to do more things. It also frees me so that I can go into different time figures.

I think that it was the “different time” that brought me to my knees on that first night. We opened with an instrumental number called “Promenade.” If you’ve been clicking the links, you heard the stately and relaxed original version from his 1959 Prestige release, Autumn Song with Addison Farmer and drummer Ronnie Free, which bears as much resemblance to what we played as lemonade does to tabasco. Comparing the version of “Swingin Machine” from the second paragraph above with the one preceding this paragraph illustrates their dissimilarities: the latter’s tempo is much faster (and gets even faster) and Allison is fairly free with the form, digging into an open-ended extemporization over the tonic chord until the time seems right and then playing the turn-around back to the tonic. He repeats this ad infinitum and finishes by playing the song’s bridge for the last time. Listen to “Promenade” and notice that, while the chord progression is more involved than in “Swingin’ Machine,” the blowing follows the same idea of playing over one chord until a cue to move on. Mose’s tempo for “Promenade” that night was at least q = 220 (compared to q = 118 in the original). We played it a little slower later, but never as slow as on the recording. It’s a fact that Mose Allison loved to play long solos at break-neck tempos—something that I can find exhilarating as well—but taking my first bass solo after accompanying a 10-minute Mose Allison tour-de-force was … humbling. I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened during the opener throughout the rest of the set, which didn’t help with sight-reading his Spartan bass book. It seemed like every time I looked up from the book for help, Mose had a grin that was masking a chortle.

Things went a little better during the set break, after we’d talked about thirds. That discussion included instructions on what kind of bass lines to use on the blues: “Unless the chart says otherwise, you shouldn’t walk” (play one note per quarter-note—another jazz and blues signifier), “try to use something like the calypso [lines suggested in the book].” I prayed that all I had to do was channel Addison Farmer and I’d make it to the parking lot with most of my dignity. What I remember about the second set is that it went pretty much the same as the first, only this time I didn’t get sucker-punched by the opening tune and I knew some of the ones he called (or signed—he would save his best-known stuff for the last set; I assume to keep the die-hards in their seats). In other words, I had no excuses! When it was over he paid me in cash, took the bass book back, said “it was nice working with you” and was gone before I had the instrument in its case. I was sure it was the last time I would get to play with Mose Allison.

Which is exactly how I felt after the second gig with him. It was at Folk City on West 3rd Street in the Village. This time Mose hired Scott Napoli, a deep-swinging drummer who, as the saying goes, “makes it look easy.” He held me together for the two nights we were there. Looking back, I see that my problem was that Mose had evolved as a pianist since he made the recordings I was familiar with from the 1950s. In them you can hear his allegiance to the diatonically-informed post-bop “cool” school, highlighted by long bop-ish lines that displayed an even more confident command of melodic invention than his very capable trumpet playing. By the time I heard Mose at the El Matador, though, he was accessing the style less and, for all intents and purposes, quit playing trumpet (I recently learned that his horn was stolen and he took it as some kind of sign). By the time I got the first call he had pretty much stripped his playing of anything resembling even a hint of bebop cliché. I thought I knew what the singer-pianist Mose Allison played like, but this guy with the white hair—who sorta looked like Mose Allison and sang a lot like Mose Allison—played piano like no one I’d heard before. I started to realize that my strategy of infusing Addison Farmer into my on-the-job audition wasn’t going to help the job of accompanying the pianist Mose Allison (but I still dig Addison Farmer’s playing)! For the rest of the night I would be searching for the bailing-wire to hold together the crack (me) in his swingin’ machine. In retrospect, I know I switched to the right strategy: go with the drummer. I decided to examine how Scott negotiated Mose’s rules with the hope that it might help me imagine an effective strategy to deploy, should he employ me again. (Thank you, Mr. Napoli!)

For the next five years I was absolutely convinced that every gig I played with Mose was the last. I tried calling the bass player who I was ostensibly subbing for, Dennis Irwin, to ask him about his experiences, hoping to get pointers, but he would just start singing the middle verses of Allison’s tunes and the subject would change to something else. I was starting to hear the songs in my sleep because, like most people, I felt like they were written with me in mind. Mose had the ability to expose in the space of a chorus or less, basic truths about daily existence that most of us tend to ignore. He was so good at this that an extremely musically erudite friend whom I had comped into the Iridium Jazz Club to see us was so taken by the prose of Mose that, after he got drunk, he gave me a very nice note, almost a little letter, to pass along saying he needn’t worry, all will get better! For me, the songs “What Do You Do?” became an admission of my own inextricable part in the woes of life and “Hello, Universe” a prayer to the Most Magnificent that, despite all my concerted efforts, things are all right, while “How Much Truth” disclosed the hard evidence they’re not. But then, right after we played at the Bottom Line, where the new rule was invented, he said, “See you on the next one!” I barely knew what to say—and I don’t remember what I said. Maybe it was: “Cool, when will that be?” If so, he probably gave me a general idea of when he planned to be back in town and that he’d call soon to let me know the particulars, which was pretty much how things went for the rest of my tenure.

The Bottom Line was also the first time I accompanied Mose with Tom Whaley on drums. Up to then, and besides from Scott Napoli, he’d used Paul Motian (we’d later record two records with Mose: Gimcracks and Gewgaws and The Earth Wants You) and Jamey Haddad. I met Tom previously, around 1981, in New York City. He was part of the Red Rodney/Ira Sullivan Quintet and our paths crossed in the mix-‘em-and-match-‘em milieu of New York’s jam session network. My new “partner-in-time” had several years of experience working for Mose with Dennis Irwin on bass (they would also record with him) and he knew the book (as much as any drummer was allowed to) forward-and-backward. Tom had already figured out how to negotiate the terrain of Mose’s blues and piano playing, which meant that I could devise accompaniment strategies focused more on interacting with Mose in the moment and less about marking the progress of his charts. From then on it wasn’t about playing the book, now we could get down to making music!

Mose was a guiding light for truth, justice and the jazz life. He was serious, funny, swinging and always—always—himself. He never, in all the time I knew him, changed to please somebody else or to become more commercial. This made him a hero to many (including Van Morrison) who not only loved his hip musical story-telling but also his ethos. He was totally focused on playing the piano and making the 9pm hit each night with as much integrity as possible. He lived for the gigs and for the road. Recording was more or less a necessity, but it was the piano and the music that drove him. An honorable man, down to his socks. We will miss him terribly, but of course, we have his music to help us through these hard times. – Ben Sidran

The reason Mose played with so many drummers per year is that he was in the practice of using “pick-up” bands in the cities he played. It was a common practice, back in the day, for bandleaders to reduce their overhead by “picking up” local musicians, instead of taking a band on the road.

I don’t believe that Mose did this merely to save money. Mose became accustomed to traveling light early, since he was born in an era and area when and where leaders toured their localities with bands whose personnel could easily be replaced. These “territory bands,” although they waned in popularity with the advent of radio and the record player, were the norm. Mose was a jazz man at heart who mostly played with small groups and employed improvisation in his music and improvisers as accompanists. And he preferred his accompanists to not know his book as well as he did. He liked to mix-and-match his sidemen; it added to the uncertainty he craved, an uncertainty that kept the experience of playing the same music 200-plus nights a year as fresh as possible. Having a group of core musicians in key locations throughout the world assured Mose that he could maintain the sense of comradery that was essential in presenting his unique contribution to music, but it could (and never will) replace a regular touring band as quintessential to that end. This becomes obvious when considering how the tradition of jazz club performance in America has evolved (or, if you wish, devolved) over the last sixty years. Gone are the times when a jazz musician might play for several months in one location (the average now is a couple of days with many venues booking several bands in a single evening). The four- and six-week runs that were commonplace in the 1960s became two- and three-weeks long in the ‘70s and the one- and two-week runs of the ‘80s shortened to one week or less in the 1990s and so-on up to now. While this might be a godsend to a senior-class touring musician when it comes to getting one’s rest, it minimizes how much an audience can immerse itself in the artist’s live performance process. The ramifications of this are numerous and profoundly far-reaching, but what is pertinent here is that Mose wasn’t able to develop the same rapport with his bands that he could on the longer nightclub stays.

Mose did what he could to make the best of it. He knew that his repertoire was steeped in the blues, but it was a different kind of blues than the majority of what the culture machine considers “commercially viable.” For one thing, the instruments of choice for the overwhelming majority of blues singers who also play one is the guitar and/or harmonica, not the piano or trumpet. (For a long time, the most prevalent keyboard instrument for blues groups has been the electric organ.) Because the instrument(s) that one chooses to study profoundly influences the kinds of music one learns to play, most of the blues you hear are played in E, A, G and D: keys which lay well on the guitar.

But the home key of the piano is C and for the trumpet: B-flat, so a tune like Richard M. Jones’s “Trouble In Mind,” which was originally presented in the key of E by Bertha “Chippie” Hill and Louis Armstrong (many blues players and so-called “blues players” play it in A, G, and D as well—but, if you’re fact-checking the links, know that many guitar players tune their instruments a half-step lower) is played by Mose in B-flat and F, both very common keys for jazz musicians when playing blues. In One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison, Mose gives the impression that he made a study of a wide variety of music, especially if played on the piano. Yet, while he data-mined Scriabin as well as Ellington and Meade Lux Lewis, he never resorted to imitating their styles. Instead, like so many of the jazz musicians he was exposed to (e.g. Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, et al.), Mose took what was idiosyncratic about his playing and made it iconic, incorporating the raw materials found in the music he studied into a sound all his own.

As Ben Sidran alluded, artistic integrity was Allison’s bottom line, and he found that playing in jazz clubs with jazz musicians satisfied his (pun intended) standards. For Mose, who lived the first 18 years of his life in rural Mississippi (he was born on his grandparent’s farm), jazz was the music of Duke Ellington and Lester Young and had its roots in the playing of Buddy Bolden, Freddie Keppard, Sidney Bechet, Earl “Fatha” Hines, and (according to his biography) his personal favorites: Nat King Cole and Erroll Garner. (Mose called his first band the Nat Garner Trio.) But, while the genre blues (often, and I believe mistakenly, called “the blues”) wasn’t as popular nationally as jazz, it was ubiquitous in the area where Mose grew up and he was very (again, according to his biography) familiar with the recordings of Memphis Slim, Tampa Red, Big Maceo, Memphis Minnie, Big Bill Broonzy, Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five, and Roosevelt Sykes.

I was lucky to be Mose Allison’s “regular” bassist living in what could eventually be called his hometown, New York City. (Mose lived on Long Island for most of the time I worked for him.) I was over at his home a couple of times and got to know his wife Audre and two of his kids, John and Amy. We played regularly at Iridium, The Jazz Standard and, while it was open, Fat Tuesdays in Manhattan. We did a stint or two at The Blue Note, Visiones (before it closed) and Jazz at Lincoln Center (before it moved to Columbus Circle). These were top-line venues for jazz in Manhattan and usually packed with fans (although when Fat Tuesdays started to go under, we played a few empty nights) ranging from curious tourists to the royalty of rock.

I look at my stint with Mose as having two stages. The first was when I was a hardcore drinker and the second was after I stopped imbibing altogether. As I stated before, there was a point early on when I thought certain tunes he performed were written with me in mind. One of them, Johnny Fuller’s “Fool’s Paradise,” kept me on something resembling the straight-and-narrow while I removed alcohol consumption from my daily routine, which included relocating to Indianapolis, Indiana from 1990-93. While there, I commuted back to New York to play Mose’s jobs there and booked two Midwest mini-tours for him. The first, in 1991, included two days in at the Blue Wisp in Cincinatti, The Place to Start in Indianapolis, Bear’s Place in Bloomington, and Just Jazz at the Hotel Majestic in St. Louis (where I tried to share the book with the drummer). The second, in 1993, included drummer Stan Gage, who worked with Mose in New York before Tom Whaley. We returned to Cincinatti and St. Louis, but the venue in Indianapolis closed (we were actually the last act to play there; now the room is called The Jazz Kitchen), so we played at a theater, The Vogue, and finished the tour at The Tuba Club in Kansas City. The last was an eye-opener for me: not only did the audience talk the whole time we performed, but at one point a customer sitting close to the stage lit a cigar and blew smoke at Mose while he was singing. That incident was one of the (many) deciding factors in my decision to move back to New York.

But working with Mose away from home was also inspiring. He and his wife drove out from New York to Cincinnati for the first date (and acted like they were on theirs). She took their car to visit family somewhere not horribly far away while he rode with me for the rest of the tour, flying back to New York from St. Louis. I learned something about levels of knowledge, attaining or not attaining them, and a lot about booking tours. (After the 1993 tour I began writing a song I’m prepared to never finish: “Don’t Hire Your Boss.”) After returning to New York I continued working with Mose, but I never tried to book him again. Instead, I passed along recommendations and contact information for new venues—my days as a booking agent were done. There was an incident, though, that forever changed my views about American music that should be related here. In looking for local support for the first tour, I approached the Indianapolis Jazz Society. They informed me that they considered Mose a blues musician and rejected my advances, suggesting that I go to the Indianapolis Blues Society instead. I asked around for information about that organization and was directed to the local radio station, WFYI-FM, where I should talk to Jay Zochowski, a champion of Indianapolis-based bluesman Yank Rachell and the on-air-host of the blues program, Nothin’ But the Blues (and where I hosted a show, Jazz Focus, throughout 1992), who agreed to interview Mose the day of our appearance at The Place to Start. But Mose was tired from the drive from Cincinnati and said I should do the interview instead. I checked with Jay and he agreed. During the interview, he inquired if we’d be playing Parchman Farm and, fortunately, I had already asked Mose about this because it was one of his biggest hits, but we never played it. When I asked him why this was he began with another aphorism:

It’s like givin’ matches to children. The Parchman Farm is the Mississippi State Penitentiary, a maximum security correctional facility. If you go there and ask, the inmates all claim that they’re innocent. Each stanza of the song is one of their excuses for bein’ there—the last one goes: “I’m gonna be here for the rest of my life / an’ all I did was shoot my wife.” As I went around the country singin’ it, people would come up and tell me how they could sympathize with me! Turns out there’s a lot of people who are into that, so I don’t play it no more.

For the next tour I approached the Indianapolis Blues Society to help underwrite the night at The Vogue and Zochowski was the person to talk to that year. He explained that, as far as the Society was concerned, Mose wasn’t a real blues musician so they couldn’t lend support. However, Lady Luck appeared in the guise of an Indianapolis jazz fan, Mary Rose Niemi, who generously stepped up to the plate to cover the event. I thought we’d sell enough tickets to pay her back and recover some traveling expenses, but we had an empty house. Zochowski gave us no mention on his show, and the jazz community wasn’t much help either. The Vogue doesn’t even include the date in its roster! I was bellied-up until we got to St. Louis. On our way to St. Louis, I asked him about whether he considered himself a jazz or a blues musician, since there seemed to be some controversy about that among music experts. He laughed: “Well, I’ve been tryin’ to figure that one out, too—good luck!”

I still resided in Indianapolis when we recorded The Earth Wants You, but the session convened over three days at Paul Wickliffe’s Skyline Studios in New York City. Wickliffe pretty much let the artists “do their thing,” mostly listening for glaring errors and watching the clock, but our producer, Ben Sidran, ran a very different ship. A pianist-singer-songwriter (among his many hats) whose work is highly informed by Allison’s, Sidran was involved from the project’s inception and planned well for the date. He and Mose presented thirteen tunes in four different settings: piano and bass with (1) drums and three horns; (2) drums and guitar; (3) drums and harmonica; and (4) congas and guitar. The first day was dedicated to recording Mose’s horn charts: Bob Malach (as noted earlier) on tenor saxophone with Joe Lovano on alto and Randy Brecker on trumpet. I had a bit of down time while the horns rehearsed their parts and spent it mostly drinking coffee and hanging out. On one trip back from the coffee machine I detoured into the control room. Ben was talking with a lean, dark-haired fellow who he introduced as Jon Paris, a harmonica player checking out the music for date’s final gathering. I believe, and the discography in Jones’s biography agrees, that this is Mose’s only studio recording with harmonica (there may be others recorded after One Man’s Blues was published, but I couldn’t find any). We exchanged pleasantries until it was time to record. On the second day, we recorded with John Scofield on guitar and Ray Mantilla on congas for half the session and Motian on drums for the other half. On the third day, I came in expecting to see Paris, but was introduced to a fellow named Hugh McCracken who, I was told, played guitar on a lot of sessions and “doubled on harmonica a little.” One of my shortcomings is names and bios and I had no idea who McCracken was. It wasn’t until I attended his memorial that I learned that he had a reputation for being non-punctual, showing on occasion as much as a day or two late. I surmised that this was why Sidran, anticipating a potential problem, had Paris there: as backup! The long and the short is that McCracken played great, the session went really well, despite the decision to use the recording studio world’s tightrope-without-a-net method of recording direct to two-tracks, so everything was done “live” without overdubs. I found a place to sublease in November, drove back to Indianapolis and packed my bags.

As usual, The Earth Wants You wasn’t a huge commercial success, but some of the tunes resonated inside the music community, especially “Children of the Future,” that couches an anti-war theme as an apology to children who come from “mixed” (aren’t they all?) partners from groups who are killing each other. Many are the times I’ve found myself accompanying someone on it. My favorite is the title track. It advances the blatant truth of “If You Live,” but with fresh rhetoric; it’s the blatant truths Allison exposed in his words that attracted me to his music in the first place. But don’t think he would fink on himself after cutting down a cherry tree, many are also the times I heard Mose say that he was proud of the song; but, when pressed for why, he would usually and deadpanly deliver: “It took me three months to find the name of a village in Vietnam that would rhyme with ‘done you wrong’.”

Mose grasped the obvious: that we are all victims of circumstances of some kind, but he was blessed with an ability to understand what those circumstances really are and cursed with the need to identify them in words. Despite his borderline nihilistic leanings, Mose acted with the knowledge that most of us are trying to do the best we can with whatever we have, even if that isn’t much. He set his moral compass to treat everyone with an even-keeled application of “do-unto-others-as-you-have-them-do-unto-you.” Although I was proud of our work on The Earth Wants You, I was not so proud of how the last Midwest tour worked out. I began to feel, once again, like the Swingin’ Machine may have swung shut, even though I was back in New York. But Mose kept calling with things to do.

For the most part I was available, but sometimes a prior commitment would require sending a sub, usually Mark Helias or Ron McClure. Even so, I was surprised when, in late 2000, Mose called me to do another record date with him. When he called with the particulars he disclosed that this would be his first self-produced, or mostly self-produced, recording project. Knowing that he was more in-control of this project than was his norm was a profound honor for me. Paul Motian would, again, be on drums, but this time the “guest” forces were reduced to two: Mark Shim on tenor saxophone and Russell Malone on guitar. And he gave me the introduction to the title track “Gimcracks and Gewgaws,” a 14-bar blues with no IV chord. Mose’s wordplay, like his humor, is subtle on this tune and reaches beyond the lyrics as he “drops” a beat at the end of his solo and returns to singing with: “Well, I guess I dropped it on the floor.” This was the first album Mose recorded since the publication of One Man’s Blues and could be said to represent a new chapter for him. Besides taking a more direct part in the financial affairs of the project, he presents new original compositions, except for “Somebody Gonna Have to Move” and records two “oldies,” W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” and Russ Morgan’s “So Tired.” The material is presented by quartets: piano, bass, drums and either saxophone or guitar. The one exception is his solo performance of “Old Man Blues,” a reworking of “Young Man’s Blues,” which The Who turned into a rock ‘n’ roll classic. The new lyrics tell a bitter downside of the situation Mose humorously addressed in “Certified Senior Citizen”: how growing old changes one’s relationship with society. Of course, he supplies the underlying reason: “The young man knows how to wheel and deal / The young man’s got that sex appeal / The young man is the man of the hour / Thirty Five years of purchasing power.” We recorded two ballads that impressed me mightily: “Texanna,” a lament to the grandmother he never met for reasons he’ll never know and the masterpiece, “Numbers On Paper.” While I don’t believe that Mose wrote anything with me in mind, I have a similar relationship with my grandfather that he describes in “Texanna” (he was estranged from his wife long before I was born, and the only person who knew him, my grandmother, wouldn’t talk about him). But what is impressive is how well Allison tells the whole story without need for programmatic explanations (like the one supplied here); with a fearless application of words that his audience may not understand: “You were taken from your baby child / But he grew into that same profile / Just a lonely photograph / Of my mystery distaff.” But “Numbers On Paper” is nothing less than an examination of the single most dehumanizing thing a society does to its citizenry: apply numbers to them. He opens the song by reminding his listener that, at first, we almost gleefully accept the process while at the end, he suggests that in the end, we’ve lost our identity because of it. He uses a bittersweet tone that had become more apparent in his conversation. About a year after Gimcracks and Gewgaws was released we were talking during a set break and politics reared its ugly, yet popular, head. I proffered my opinion: “it seems like these guys read 1984 and told each other, “hey, we can DO this.” Mose kind of smiled and offhandedly, “yeah, but who would-a thought they’d make it fashionable! And Mose, who was a fashion unto himself, was no fan of it! That was something clearly stated in “Who’s In, Who’s Out” from The Earth Wants You.

Mose memorized his book and composed in his head. He would work on tunes over long stretches of time, sometimes years, and keep it all straight in his memory. So I was a little surprised when he started to mess up his lyrics. (This link contains another coincidence that shakes my core a bit and I’d like to share: the bassist, Kelly Sill, is playing the bass I used on my first gig with Mose!) At first, he would just repeat a verse, which isn’t that strange; it happens a lot more than most artists would like to admit. But there came a time when he called a number and would start a tune from a different page. I knew the book well enough to roll with that, but then he brought in a tune, “My Brain,” and I knew something was afoot. He had gone on record saying that his tunes pretty much conveyed everything he wanted to pass on to his public.

One of the last times I played with him was a tribute that Elvis Costello and Amy Allison had put together at the City Winery. Mose and I played at the end of the concert. We got through it without any incidents worth mentioning and he conveyed his borderline nihilist philosophy to great applause. He brought his lyrics along as a safeguard, but he didn’t need them. But throughout 2012, his condition worsened and he retired from the stage. My last conversation with him was later that year to congratulate him on being named an NEA Jazz Master. I told him that it was a great thing that he was finally being recognized for his contributions to American Music. He intimated that he guessed they finally figured out how to get him to play for free. I laughed. I told him that if he needed an extra testimonial, I’d be happy to supply one. He laughed (I talk a lot worse than I write). I think that we knew that we’d never play together again. I would bump into his daughter Amy on the streets of New York and offer to come out and hang, play some, but I never heard back about it. I think that he had no interest in watching his sidemen try to convince him that everything was cool with the music, being with his family was enough.

When I look back at the great bassists Mose Allison used on his records: Taylor LaFarge, Addison Farmer, Bill Crow, Aaron Bell, Henry Grimes, Ben Tucker, Stan Gilbert, Earl May, Red Mitchell, John Williams, Bob Cranshaw, Chuck Rainey, Clyde Flowers, Jack Hanna, Putter Smith, Jack Bruce, Dennis Irwin, Bill Huntington, Tom Rutley, Roy Babbington, and Bill Douglas—I feel more humbled than when I did on my first encounter with him; so many of them are legend to my craft. The list doesn’t include the non-recording bassists, the ones he would call to join him for a week or two per year in their hometowns: Kelly Sill, Mel Graves, Rick Kilburn, Ron McClure, Kelly Roberti, Charlie Haden. We all met a guy whose words were prophecy and whose piano playing was so special that it rang in your head for weeks, months, years. We were part of Mose’s “60 years of on-the-job training” and knew that we were better players for the experience. We accompanied and created music for a man who was, for the industry we’re proud to be part of, uncategorizable. I, honestly, haven’t played a blues of any kind for 30 years without thinking about Mose Allison. I guess, if I ever do, it will be time for me to retire as well.

I want to thank: Ben Sidran for the citation that is included in this remembrance; Tom Whaley for spending hours on the phone helping me get my timeline straight, Bill Goodwin for putting me in touch with Tom and talking about Mose’s directions to drummers; George Marsh for sharing his interview; Amy Allison for loaning me her copy of One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison, and for taking the time to talk to me about him when he no longer did; and finally John Allison whose remembrance of his father I’ve included below in its entirety.

A few Words about My Dad, Mose Allison

By John Allison

I often get the question, what was Mose like at home? My answer to that is, the man you see performing and the man you hear singing those lyrics, that is the man he is was at home. My dad had no hobbies, did not golf, did not play tennis, and did not spend money on a single hobby that I can recall. He spent his time listening to music of all sorts, the stranger the better, he did some yoga stretching in the morning and some Tai Chi that sometimes embarrassed us kids when we had company over. He liked to run at the track in his younger days, then switched to swimming and actually had a schedule of high and low tides for the Long Island Sound; the beach was just a couple miles from home. Other than that, in his free time he liked to cook and read books, many books. He made lists of “to read” books on small pieces of paper. Mose read esoteric type books with content about the cosmos, the Human Brain, books with titles like, The Fabric of Reality, A Field Guide to the Invisible and The Nature of the Universe. And yes, he did play the piano at home, but he only played repetitive hypnotic runs to keep his mind sharp and his fingers limber.

Mose was one of the least material persons I have ever known. He was not one to ever be seen shopping with the exception of grocery shopping. His entire wardrobe took up 5 feet of space in his closet, most clothing purchases being made by my mom. He called me long distance one time to tell me his luggage was missing and in his luggage contained his only belt. He described the belt to me in detail, hoping I could assist him in finding an exact replacement. I also recall the time my mom replaced our 20 year old couch with a new one. My dad’s space in the den was at one end of this old couch. The new couch was placed in the den and the old couch was placed in our foyer by the door awaiting a ride to the local Thrift store. When I walked in the door, dad was sitting on the old couch at his usual space at the end of the old couch reading his book. Mose eventually warmed to the new couch.

My dad never had much of a record collection. I started buying records when I was 9 years old. I could play a song over 40 times and each time feel a sense of elation. Dad was different, he listened to a song once and it made a connection in his brain, like a mathematical equation, and that was all he needed, that one time. That to me is very strange. To this day I have many favorite songs I still play over and over. With dad, one listen was all it took.

About receiving awards, I know Mose always has appreciated praise but never let it get to his head. He did not believe in the show off, look at me, I’m great, attitudes that run so prevalent through the entertainment world. I was with him in Sedona AZ when he received a beautiful Lifetime Achievement Award, he smiled and thanked those responsible then handed the award to me and said, “I am not carrying that on the plane.” When I asked him why he did not want to go to the Grammy Awards after he was nominated, he replied, “I don’t believe in renting shoes.” In reality he may have already been booked at a small club in Des Moines, OH, and Mose, after 65 years of what he called, “On the Job Training,” never missed a single gig.

Mose preferred the setting and intimacy of a jazz club and that is where he really earned a living. The record companies all tried to cash in and make Mose a commercial success. Mose wanted nothing to do with backup girl singers and A&R men arrangements. He wanted to sing his songs his way at the places he liked best. Atlantic tried to get him to Muscle Shoals, Mose declined. Burger King offered him a huge payday for one day’s work. He told me, “I ain’t singing about no hamburger.” Mom was not happy.

I knew a club owner and promoter that told me, “After 35 years of promoting shows, Mose was the only performer to ever to give me money back.” The promoter had paid Mose but lost money on the show. Dad gave him some money back, why? Because Mose was also interested in keeping his club going so he could keep coming back to play.

In 1989 I accepted a Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame award on his behalf. Mose had a gig somewhere else that date so dad wrote a little something for me to read to the crowd after accepting his award. It read:

There are very few places in the world where a person could have heard as many different kinds of music as I was able to hear growing up in Tippo, Mississippi. Also, the aphorisms, the ironies, the speech patterns with their exaggerations and understatements have served me well and are still a part of my dialogues with myself. If it takes a village to raise a child, then I was certainly raised by Tippo, Mississippi.

Ten years before Elvis got to Beale Street Mose had already been there, getting Zoot suits made for him and performing on keyboards with the BB King Orchestra at Mitchell’s Hotel, a blacks only club in 1947. Dad told me years ago that he first heard rock’ n roll on Beale Street in 1942 from the band Tuff Green and the Rockettes. Mose also remembered hearing a matinee solo performance at the Orpheum Theater by harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson that made a huge impression on him.
Mose was in New York City in 1956 playing piano with the giants of jazz, Gerry Mulligan, Al Cohn, Zoot Simms, Stan Getz and others. After a short time Mose presented a cassette tape to Prestige Records. The executives at Prestige loved what they heard and immediately had Mose in the studio recording. What Mose gave them was a suite of sketches, songs, evoking the atmosphere of his home town, Tippo, Mississippi. Mose called it his Cotton Country Suite, the record company renamed it, Back Country Suite. Songs from that era included; “Parchman Farm,” “Blues,” “One Room Country Shack,” “Highway 49,” “The Hills,” “Mojo Woman,” “Devil in the Cane Field,” and “Creek Bank.”
From that first record Mose was receiving critical acclaim from audiences and critics alike. Mose went on to record two more albums that same year. It was 1957. Today there are over 50 albums to choose from. My dad wrote over 220 songs. Most folks know four or five. My advice, listen to more Mose!

One of my favorites from his Grammy-nominated album on Blue Note Records, Ever Since The World Ended, is titled “Top Forty.” This song to me represents the way my dad looked at the business of the recording industry.

When my dad passed, he was comfortable and with family. We each got to kiss him, tell him we love him and that it was OK to let go, go home. So he did. No one gets out alive. Dad was 89 and his was a life well-lived. I only feel very fortunate and grateful to have had such a cool dad. I get to ride the turnrows of Mississippi and listen to Mose and I can do that till the day I “go home.”

Finally, a reporter once asked Dad, “You were socially relevant before Dylan, satirical before Newman and rude before Jagger, how come you are not a big star?” Dad simply and honestly replied, “Just lucky I guess.”

NewMusicBox LIVE! presents Gabriel Kahane

When we began planning the first NewMusicBox LIVE! event, we knew we were looking for musical artists who’d feel at home on stage with just a microphone and a couple anecdotes in their back pocket. Gabriel Kahane, a composer of remarkable stylistic flexibility and razor-sharp lyrical wit, seemed a shoo-in for such a program, and he was kind enough to agree to open the evening. In between highlights from his various albums—everything from a solo guitar version of the haunting “Winter Song” to his nearly decade-old setting of a neurotic Craigslist ad to piano accompaniment—Kahane charmed the gathered crowd with his story of moldy cookies, the letter, the golf sweater (which he was wearing), and a business trade with a most unexpected twist.

Gelsey Bell: Get a Little Closer

There is a captivating mix of singer-songwriter intimacy, fourth wall-crushing theatricality, and curious experimental exploration in the work of composer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist Gelsey Bell.

Performances of her 2011 song cycle SCALING, for example, have her crawling over and around the piano to play from positions that would likely make Tori Amos’s head spin. For “Cradle,” an intimate meditation for voice and metallophone from her 2013 cycle Our Defensive Measurements, she spends some time coaxing the audience to within arm’s reach before she begins to sing.

Bell's Casio keyboard

Bell’s Casio keyboard (down a few keys) has seen her through the creation of a lot of music.

With a background that spans music theater, woman-at-the-piano club shows, and the presentation of experimental work—both of her own design and of composers such as Robert Ashley—the cross-pollination of influences is perhaps to be expected. But the breakdown of walls—both between genres and between performer and audience—remains a tightrope to walk.

It’s also a place of risk and vulnerability that Bell welcomes. “I love an aesthetic of mistakes. I want things to get a little messy. I’m not interested in the sounds of perfection.”

“And I guess getting the audience involved is a great way to do that!” she concedes, laughing.

Music and risk


Even when she isn’t inviting the audience into, say, the bathroom with her for a little acoustic exploration, her preferred ways of working leave her open to the artistic ideas of collaborators both in creation and interpretation, especially through her regular work with collectives such as thingNY and Varispeed. Experimental music has allowed her to take “very seriously the idea of making work with your friends”—collaborations she finds to be fun and efficient because everyone brings a deeper level of appreciation and understanding to the table.

Further explaining her interest in such work and the opportunities it brings, Bell says, “I have full control over my performance and my body, and I’m not interested in having full control over any other performer’s body. I work with a lot of people who are composers in their own right and they have their own musical intelligences, and so I’m much more interested in creating a musical situation where we can all embody that.”

Bell's score for rolodex

Bell’s score designed for delivery via Rolodex currently in development.


This openness to exploring ideas is one of the things Bell finds attractive about both the experimental music scene and academic environments—two places where she finds she can be playful and curious in different yet complimentary ways.

She earned her Ph.D. in performance studies from New York University in January 2015 and is currently at work on a host of new pieces for upcoming performances this spring. On reflection, Bell says she feels somewhat like she’s at the cusp of more fully blending her various pots of experience—pockets that she previously kept somewhat isolated from one another.

I feel like I’m at this place of total exploration and I’m just having faith that I’m going to come out with something. I feel like I’m really in that mode where you’re just like, okay, I’m an artist. I have to let myself fail. I have to try a million things. I have to hate stuff, I have to love stuff, and I have to trust that if I put something on that’s really horrible it won’t be that no one wants to see anything that I do ever again. And just have faith that this kind of dream of some sort of sound that I have in my head that doesn’t have these intense boundaries can happen.

Corey Dargel: The Challenges of Empathy

Corey Dargel: The Challenges of Empathy from NewMusicBox on Vimeo.

A conversation at Dargel’s Brooklyn home on March 14, 2012 — Noon
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Homepage image by Luke Batten and Jonathan Sadler of New Catalogue
Video poster image by Samantha West

It’s been more than a dozen years now since Corey Dargel began performing his original idiosyncratic songs. The earliest ones deal with complex emotional states and dysfunctional relationships in ways that come across as easy to relate to through his trademark blend of wry humor, toe-tap-inducing electronically generated accompaniments, and instantly hummable melodies sung in his beautiful, pure-toned voice. It’s easy to get tricked into assuming that these early efforts are autobiographic; e.g. in a song called “Acceptance Letter,” Dargel (who in real life has a shaved head) sings about stealing his ex-lover’s shampoo, which he himself obviously doesn’t use, just out of spite. Yet Dargel maintains that despite such seeming verisimilitude, these songs are actually not about him, per se. Rather, he is toying with perceptions and image, and the empathy of both his words and his vocal delivery make it seem natural to identify with whatever persona he assumes.

But after nearly a decade of working that way (which culminated in the release of his first commercially available album of songs, Less Famous Than You in 2006), Dargel wanted to push the envelope further. So for his next project, he put an ad on his website offering to write custom-made love songs for other people with the condition that he could also eventually release these songs on his next album. The result, Other People’s Love Songs, offers an extremely wide range of situations and yet it somehow all fits together seamlessly.

According to Dargel, “Other People’s Love Songs […] was an experiment in challenging the assumption that a songwriter who is writing love songs needs to be autobiographical or confessional. […] I’m looking for people with whom I do not relate and then trying to find a way to relate to them that I hope eventually reaches the audience. […] I hope that audiences and listeners go through that same process, because I think it’s important for us to empathize with people, even if we are at first alienated by their behavior, or find them strange. I think empathy is a really important skill to have in order to really function in the world in a fully creative way.”

Getting in the heads of other people in order to write their love songs was undoubtedly challenging, but what Dargel has done since has made that seem a relatively easy exercise in empathy. For Removable Parts, Dargel creates songs from the perspective of a voluntary amputee; in Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, it’s an extreme hypochondriac. For his recent Last Words from Texas and its soon-to-be-premiered sequel, More Last Words from Texas, his words were derived from statements made by death row inmates right before they were executed. As he has taken on personae that are further and further removed from himself, he has also changed the presentation of his music. For Removable Parts, he eschewed the self-made electronic sequencing of his earlier work and enlisted the partnership of a real live pianist, Kathleen Supové. Thirteen Near-Death Experiences was written for performance with a chamber group, the International Contemporary Ensemble (a.k.a. ICE). Last Words from Texas was not only written for yet another group, Newspeak, it was created for a singer other than himself, Mellissa Hughes. And its sequel, while again featuring his own voice, will be accompanied by a chamber orchestra. He’s also working on an evening-length music theatre piece, The Three Christs, which will involve several singers and an instrumental ensemble.

Thirteen Near-Death Experiences presents an additional compositional gambit in that it is scored for the ubiquitous “Pierrot plus percussion” ensemble, named for its earliest use in Arnold Schoenberg’s 1912 song cycle Pierrot lunaire. It’s a configuration which has served as the instrumentation for many significant contemporary song cycles in the century since, including Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King, Margaret Brouwer’s Light, Mario Davidovsky’s Biblical Songs, John Harbison’s The Natural World, Roberto Sierra’s Cancionero Sefardi, Stephen Stucky’s Sappho Fragments, and Barbara White’s Life in the Castle. As a result, Dargel is now undeniably part of an important historical continuum, even if he never thinks about such things when he composes.

I don’t think about how the work that I’m doing now relates to the trajectory of classical music, or the history of music. That is something I decidedly avoid thinking about, in part because of the anxiety of influence, and in part because of my belief that if I’m going to create something that’s my own, then I shouldn’t be going back and looking at examples of what people have done before with this same instrumentation or with the same art song form. Those comparisons are something that I think critics and listeners should be making, not me. […] So if somebody compares my work to Winterreise, then I’ll go back and listen to Winterreise. But otherwise, when I’m writing something, I’m very anti-historical in my thinking as an artist.

Yet in all of his recent works, which include an evening-length music theatre piece in progress, Dargel seems to be moving further and further away from the pop music trappings of his earliest work and closer to a sound world more associated with the so-called “new music” community that has nurtured and championed his work from the very beginning. Although Dargel himself, like many other difficult to categorize music creators of his generation, avoids pop vs. non-pop dichotomies in descriptions of his compositional process, he is more than aware that there are still different audiences for different forms of music or at least different mechanisms for how music is disseminated and consumed. In that respect, he is unapologetically a member of the contemporary composer community.

“I’m not going to restructure my career, my persona, or my own personal identity to be more successful,” says Dargel emphatically. “I think I want my music to exist in the classical contemporary music world in part because that’s the world in which people come to concerts to listen. […] People who listen to classical music think about it, talk about it, listen to it. And I know that that happens in the pop world, but I don’t think it happens for the vast majority of pop stars. I don’t think that’s what the commercial pop music world is interested in getting to happen. […] I’m interested in doing all those traditional things that songwriters do in the pop world and in the folk world. And I think if people would shut up and listen to the music, then they might get that. But I don’t think that people will shut up and listen to the music in the kinds of venues and the kinds of situations that I would have to play in.”

However his output ultimately gets labeled, all of it could potentially appeal to an extremely broad audience, even his most outré experiments in empathy. At the same time, his seemingly simple early songs are filled with embedded complexities and reward with focused listening time and again. An afternoon spent talking to Corey Dargel, which ended all too soon, was yet another reminder of what an important voice of our time he is.

Album Cover for Corey Dargel Unreleased Songs

Frank J. Oteri: Since you recently put out a CD called Unreleased Songs 2001-2011, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to talk with you about your entire output. It also made me wonder how many songs you’ve actually written during these years. From what I have heard of your work and what I know has been performed in public, there are probably at least a hundred songs.

Corey Dargel: I have a habit of composing songs and then throwing them away. I would say there are hundreds of incomplete songs, or barely started songs, or songs that are finished but that aren’t up to par for me. So it’s fair to say that there are a hundred songs, but the ten songs on that Unreleased Songs album, which is now ironically released, those are the songs that I feel held up. They were going to be parts of albums with different themes—songs about the Virgin Mary, songs about disappearing or traveling, songs about nostalgia and family; for whatever reasons, those projects didn’t get finished. But I liked those songs so much that I wanted to put them out for people to hear and also for myself to revisit, because it’s been such a long time since I’ve worked with synthesizers. It is a very different way of composing for me than composing for an acoustic ensemble, which is what I’ve been doing lately.

FJO: I’ve heard a lot of your unreleased music over the years, going all the way back to the year 2000. I was thrilled that four earlier songs of yours I knew, including a couple using alternate tunings, appear on Unreleased Songs. But there are others that I’ve treasured for years that you did not include. Does that mean that you’ve disowned them and don’t consider them to be stuff that you want out there anymore?

CD: I think I’ve matured, mostly as a lyricist, since you’ve heard those very early songs of mine. And so there are songs that I would disown in terms of lyric writing. I can feel O.K. about them being out there because I think the music is still strong, but as a lyricist I’ve been more and more meticulous and have tried to play more games and be more crafty. For me it often takes longer to write lyrics than it does to write the music. So for that reason, I’m more interested in people listening to my more mature songs.

FJO: So you feel that a song like “Acceptance Letter,” which didn’t make it onto Unreleased Songs but which has always been a personal favorite of mine, no longer represents who you are?

CD: As a composer, I am the amalgam of all of my work, and so disown is a very strong word. I wouldn’t use that word in terms of these earlier pieces. It’s almost a philosophical argument that I am the person I am because of what I’ve done in the past, and to say that I’m going to disown those works strikes me like I’m trying to reinvent myself, which is not what I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to mature as an artist. But I think if people were being introduced to my work, I wouldn’t want them to start there at this point. I would want people to start with the more mature works that I feel like I’ve written. Then if they’re curious to go back and see where I came from, that’s O.K. with me. But they should just know that I wasn’t as good a lyricist back then. Being a lyricist is something that they don’t teach you in composition school. And so that was all self-taught. How to write good lyrics took me a good four or five years of learning on my own.

I also struggle against the perception that people who listen to songs have, especially in the commercial world, where the lyrics are secondary. There’s a lot of great musically inventive work in the commercial pop world that I enjoy listening to musically, but after I listen to it once, and hear how horrible the lyric writing is, I can’t be bothered with it again. I have a really hard time with lyrics that I feel are lazy. That is to say, where rhymes aren’t careful, where there’s no word play, no tricks up the lyricist’s sleeve, a lack of literary-ness to the lyrics. I’m trying to improve my own lyrics in all of those ways, so it’s become harder for me to listen to songs that don’t address those things.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that they don’t teach you to write lyrics in composition class. They also don’t teach you to write the music you wound up writing for the most part.

CD: I don’t know if I would say that’s true. I had the fortune of studying with some very amazing teachers, including John Luther Adams and Pauline Oliveros, both of whom, as you probably know, are completely open about what writing music means and should be. And the craft that I learned informs the kind of music that I’m writing, even though it’s not the kind of music that would be accepted as legitimate music composition at your typical conservatory. I think while I was at Oberlin with John Luther Adams and Pauline Oliveros, that was an exceptional place to be. Both of those mentors were able to meet me where I was. So I wouldn’t say that I was discouraged from writing these songs, or from focusing on songs or from working with synthesizers, or from doing everything myself. I wasn’t discouraged by any of my teachers.

FJO: I’m curious about them meeting you where you were, as you say. The earliest music I know of yours is on two discs of songs you did with Rob Reich, one of which you self-released with the title File Under Popular. What came before that? Were you writing songs from the very beginning or is there some secret bassoon sonata tucked away somewhere?

CD: The pieces that I was writing at Oberlin before I started writing songs were often game pieces. At that time, Oberlin had a real emphasis on teaching composers about experimental music. I think it was probably a unique school in that respect. And so a lot of the work that I did while I was in school had to do with setting up game structures that would work well. I’m sort of a control freak, but I also wanted to create these situations, the outcome of which is unknown, because that’s what, at the time, was so exciting for me, sitting in the audience. It’s almost like being a performer, even though you’re sitting in the audience. You’ve created this situation, and you have no idea how it’s going to go. So game pieces and aleatoric pieces felt much more engaging for me after having written them, than I think a more straight-laced, notated, strict piece would have been.

Excerpt from Dargel's Human Error/Intuition

The bassoon parts from Corey Dargel’s early composition Human Error/Intuition
© 1997 by Corey Dargel, Automatic Heartbreak (ASCAP). Reprinted with permission.

FJO: I know you’re not completely un-acknowledging the songs that did not get onto Unreleased Songs, to get back to what you were saying before, but might there also be some of these game pieces that you’d want to have performed now, perhaps even re-released as Unreleased Compositions From Before 2000?

CD: There are a few of them that worked really well. And even back then I would occasionally sing and perform in those pieces, repeating the same lines over and over again, or improvising a vocal melody based on a very small text. There are some pieces that I would be open to giving to performers now. But I also want to draw a line in my own career between being a student and being a professional. I think that the difference between academic and professional for me is an important one to maintain. Revisiting those pieces that I was writing in school feels a little bit like a pro-academic, pro-theoretical statement that I’d rather not make. I’d rather be focused on results now, which is why I don’t do game pieces anymore. And I don’t do aleatoric pieces anymore, unless they’re only for a recording, and I can manipulate everything and do, like, 30 different recordings of them, and then pick exactly what I want from that.

FJO: So this begs for a question about your compositional process for those earlier songs leading up what was released in 2006 on your first commercial album, Less Famous Than You.

Album Cover for Less Famous Than You

I remember you saying to me at some point years ago that you composed music before words. Songwriters always get asked this question so it seems like a cliché to me to ask you about music or words coming first. More interesting than that is what initially gets you started, no matter how you’re writing it, whether you’re writing for synthesizers or for laptop, or for an ensemble of other musicians.

CD: First, a general theme, whatever that may be—depression, nostalgia, alienation, hypochondria. Then I start writing music with that theme in mind. And musically what begins pieces for me are very small ideas, playing around with the keyboards or the notation software and coming up with a few measures of something. Usually it’s very simple, either a series of polyphonic things that go on for a few measures, a chord progression, or even a single melody. Then for me, the rest of the piece is about manipulating that very small idea in an economic way and not departing from it. Not more than one idea. I often will abandon that, but my starting point is something small that is either repeated, or only gradually shifted or changed throughout the course of a song.

FJO: So is it fair to assume that your conscious decision to compose songs almost exclusively, up until more recently, comes from wanting to flesh out a single idea economically?

CD: No. That may be part of it, but if it is, it’s a subconscious thing for me. Before I was writing songs, I was doing that same sort of thing with the game pieces—very small germs of ideas served as the basis for the entire piece. I think I’m just turned off by music that presents us with so many ideas at a time, or throughout the duration of a piece, that I feel a bit overwhelmed. I feel that the composer is trying to prove something about how many ideas he or she has, and I’ve always just been interested in process and economy of means. That kind of music actually moves me and resonates with me more because it’s this singular idea that then gets gradually developed. I guess it’s the formalist or the modernist in me that I feel moved by Steve Reich’s Octet. I get teary when it gets to the point where things start getting augmented, this small idea that we’ve been hearing for however long it is, ten or fifteen minutes; the transformation of that small idea makes me cry. So there’s a part of me that—just purely musically, without song—is interested and moved by the process-oriented manipulation of that small thing.

What got me into songwriting was my own singing voice, my wanting my physical voice to also be a part of my artistic voice. I think that’s partly to do with my extreme dislike of the classically trained voice, the fact that there are very few people who have been trained to sing with straight tone, and with microphones. In fact, even vocalists who can do it will often complain that it will eventually damage their voice, as though our voices don’t get damaged when we get older anyway. So I went into singing my own songs and songwriting, because I felt like my physical voice was the means through which to express my work at the time. And nobody else’s voice would do.

FJO: I want to follow up on something you just said about Steve Reich, because I remember in that great New York Times profile of you that Steve Smith wrote, you described discovering a recording of Steve Reich’s music; it was the first recording of so-called contemporary classical music that you’d ever heard. I’m curious to learn about what you were hearing before you heard that and how hearing Reich changed your perspective.

CD: I grew up in south Texas, and where I grew up is not a place of culture. So my choices were fairly limited in terms of what kind of music I could listen to. I was also a very religious kid, so I listened to a lot of contemporary Christian music, and I listened to Billy Joel, Elton John, and Joni Mitchell. Then I discovered Tori Amos and Kate Bush. So those were the things that I was listening to, all of which I think still hold up, except for some of Billy Joel’s songs.

FJO: Well, it’s interesting that all of your initial musical role models were singer-songwriters. Then you listened to Steve Reich who, in addition to being a living composer, was somebody who participated in the performance of his music at that time. I remember you saying that it was a big deal for you that he was alive, but I also think that this idea that you would create music that you would participate in got fueled both from the singer-songwriters you grew up hearing and from coming across a recording by Reich.

CD: Also from my time at Oberlin, because at the time the composition faculty was pushing very strongly for every performer to compose a piece for him or herself to perform on his or her senior recital. Even though you were at Oberlin to study performance, part of the requirement for your graduation was that you compose a piece for yourself. And so I was influenced by that, too. I mean, I think as a composer, I should also be able to perform, and I should write music for myself to perform. In spite of the coincidences that you bring up, I think it was more once I got to Oberlin.

FJO: You said that you’ve always had a dislike of the classical voice. I’m curious about what your earliest exposure to such singing was.

CD: I don’t know. The first new music piece that I heard was Tehillim, and there’s no operatic singing in that piece. I don’t remember the first time I heard the operatic voice. It may not have been until I was in music school. I couldn’t understand the words when they were in English. And I couldn’t get the pitch precision as well as I could with a straight tone, or a cabaret, pop, or jazz voice. It felt to me like an antiquated way of performing, which it is, I think. The fact that 21st-century composers are still interested in using the operatic voice just baffles me because we have the technology now for singers to deliver texts clearly and to sing straight tone without straining. We have very good microphones; we just don’t have teachers who are interested in teaching their voice students to use microphones. I think once we get to that point, then classically trained singers who know how to read music will also be able to sing cabaret songs, and musical theater songs, and jazz and pop songs that are complex and intricate, and that require you to either be able to read music, or to learn by rote something that’s very complicated.

FJO: This inevitably takes us into a discussion about genres, even though I know that you don’t really like to talk about genre. But since you started talking about vocal techniques, I think it’s fair to say that these techniques are the clearest identifiers for listeners about what they’re hearing. Usually, if you experience a few seconds of something, you can reasonably assume what kind of music it is—jazz, cabaret, musical theater, rock, heavy metal, country, classical—based on the way people are singing or the way that the performers are comporting themselves on stage. What you’re doing has a lot of the sound of pop music and would have the potential to reach a much larger audience. It was interesting to hear what you were saying before about a great deal of pop music being musically sophisticated, but that the lyrics often aren’t so. It actually made me think that the pop music world needs you and that maybe that’s the world you should be in. It would behoove our society for the messages contained in the lyrics of your songs to be out there in the broadest possible way. So why do you present your work within—for lack of a better term—the contemporary classical music community, which in some ways is a bit of a ghetto?

CD: I’ve gotten advice from PR folks and record label people about how to make myself more accessible and successful in the commercial pop music world. It’s not that I don’t consider their advice, but oftentimes I just feel like this is not who I am. I’m not going to restructure my career, my persona, or my own personal identity to be more successful. I think I want my music to exist in the classical contemporary music world in part because that’s the world in which people come to concerts to listen. I’ve opened for some pretty famous indie pop stars, and what happens is people don’t come to listen to the opening acts. So what I struggled with then was feeling that if I’m going to try to make it in this commercial pop world, not only am I going to have to deal with commercialism and capitalism and marketing bullshit—people aren’t there to listen. I can’t stand it; it hurts my feelings. It makes me feel incredibly vulnerable. It makes me feel like the work I’m doing is not worthy. I would rather introduce myself to audiences who come to concerts to listen. I’m generalizing here, but based on my experience performing in these situations, and also my experience going to pop concerts and seeing what happens with—in some cases not only the opening band, but the main act. There’s a certain disenchantment that I have with audiences like that. And I have no interest in reaching them. I have no interest in going above and beyond the call of duty to try and capture this audience. Because I don’t think they’re necessarily respectful of what I’m doing. That’s a very strong thing to say, but people who listen to classical music think about it, talk about it, listen to it. And I know that that happens in the pop world, but I don’t think it happens for the vast majority of pop stars. I don’t think that’s what the commercial pop music world is interested in getting to happen. Like you said, if more people could hear my work in the pop music world, then given the thematic material and the lyrical content and the complexity of the music, they might sort of appreciate it, or see things in a different way. I really would love for that to happen, but I’m not convinced that it would happen unless I had a champion in that world who came to me and said, “I’m going to set you up with this deal, and you’re not going to have to compromise your artistic integrity, and you’re not going to have to perform for crowds that don’t care to listen.”

FJO: I don’t think to my 21st-century ears that there are ultimately any clear distinctions between genres of music at this point. But there are still distinctions between how music is listened to. And I think that you really nailed it. But, I wonder, when I hear groups like, say, Fiery Furnaces or Dirty Projectors, Radiohead, or folks on labels like Thrill Jockey, and then I hear stuff recorded on, say, Cantaloupe or New Amsterdam, it’s really not all that different. People from very different places are arriving at very similar destinations, but who their audience ultimately is may be different simply because it’s marketed differently.

CD: I don’t know the history of all the groups that you mentioned, but I know some of them. And I know a lot of them had many albums out before they began to be recognized. And their earlier works are easier to listen to in a club and are not as sophisticated as their later work. If you try to come into the pop world with this complexity and sophistication, with that baggage, who in the pop world listens to that? Who wants to sell that to people? Who wants to put you in a position where you’re opening for a more famous group, and you’re writing this complex, maybe quiet, maybe challenging for some people, music? All I want them to do with my music is listen to it. And I think if they listen to it they’ll see that yes, it’s intricate and complex, but it’s also, on the surface, very engaging and I’m interested in moving people. I’m interested in telling stories. I’m interested in doing all those traditional things that songwriters do in the pop world and in the folk world. And I think if people would shut up and listen to the music, then they might get that. But I don’t think that people will shut up and listen to the music in the kinds of venues and the kinds of situations that I would have to play in. And this is based on past experience. I’m still trying to find ways of opening for pop stars and rock musicians whose works I respect and who I have some relationships with. I’m still hoping to find a chance to do that, but it would have to be in a situation where the people who were coming to the concert were coming to listen and I knew that they were going to be respectful of the opening act as well. There are very few venues and circumstances in which that happens, but there are some. So if I ever had an opportunity to be involved in that sort of thing, I think it might be a good step for me toward reaching a wider audience in the commercial world.

FJO: One of the key ingredients of successful pop songs, which make them so able to sink into the minds even of those not listening attentively, is having a hook that you can’t shake, a tune that gets into your head and, after you hear it, makes you want to hear it again. Maybe you didn’t fully pay attention to it the first time, but something still reached you. And the more times you hear it, the more you connect to it. It certainly seems like the songs that rise to the top of popularity all have that quality. I think your songs “Boy Detective” and “Gay Cowboys” have that quality, too. These songs could be playing on a radio in a room filled with people talking and not focusing on it, but there’s something that would still cut through because of the hooks.

CD: Well, part of the reason that I write songs, and that people in general write songs, is because that’s traditionally how we tell and remember stories—a song with a great hook, and lyrics with rhymes. So I think you’re right about the hooks and I strive to make hooks that people will remember, and then will be singing back to themselves, or humming back to themselves later. The same with lyrics. lf I feel like I write good enough lyrics, then the lyrics themselves are memorable, separate and apart from the music. People remember lyrics, too.

To change the subject a little bit, that’s one of my goals with my latest song cycle, Last Words from Texas, which is a setting to music of the last statements of criminals that Texas has put to death. Or in some cases, I should say alleged criminals. No I guess I can’t, because they’ve been convicted, but we all know about the Innocence Project, so I’ll leave it there. But it’s these last statements by people who are just about to die. Some of them are extremely pedestrian; some of them are a little strange. But I wanted to set them to music so that people who heard these songs would remember the hooks and so then would also be remembering these statements. I’m trying to implant these statements in listeners’ heads, because I feel like there is something interesting to ponder about the statements that I chose.

FJO: You raise another interesting issue by bringing up Last Words from Texas. There seems to be a divide in your work between seeming autobiography to taking on other people’s voices and stories. I know that many of your early songs are not necessarily autobiographical, but there’s an assumed autobiography when people hear a confessional in-the-first-person delivery from a singer-songwriter. You mentioned Billy Joel earlier. Many of his songs aren’t autobiographical, but when people hear them, they identify with him singing it and assume that they are about him. The death row songs are clearly not about you. But once again, if it were to reach a broader audience via Top 40 radio, you might get a public outcry against the death penalty the likes of which we haven’t seen.

CD: I might also get sued by the victims of the criminals whose texts I’ve set to music in what might be perceived as a sympathetic way. You talk about autobiography, and I think a lot of songwriters, and a lot of fiction writers for that matter, regularly combine some autobiographical information or experience with fictionalized experience. That’s really interesting to me. So when I write my own songs, that is to say when I’m not setting the texts of other people, but when I’m writing my own lyrics, I want to play with that artifice. And you know, even if the song that I wrote was autobiographical at the time that I wrote it, even if I was feeling the things that I wrote, I’m not feeling them when I’m performing the song anymore. I could be performing them, but I’m not actually feeling them.

This brings up for me the challenge of postmodernism. When the subject of postmodernism comes up in relation to my work, I always tell people that I consider myself a postmodernist in the sense that I accept postmodernism as a challenge. I want to use artifice, humor, irony, flatness, deadpan, and tricksterism as a way of—I hope—getting at something deeply human, which is what postmodernist theory claims that we have lost. I’m trying to subvert these postmodern devices in order to get at something emotional and deeply moving, and deeply human.

FJO: So what you’re doing is post-postmodernism!

CD: Well, I think it’s a continuation of postmodernism. I don’t think we’re at post-postmodernism yet. I think we’re still trying to figure out what to do with postmodernism. It’s not always clear that postmodern theories are true, so I think we’re still struggling with it. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that we have crossed out of modernism into something like postmodernism, even if not all of its theories are evident yet.

FJO: To get back to that dividing line in your own work which I personally hear and perceive as a listener. I hear a clear divide between all the stuff that leads up to and includes Less Famous Than You, and Other People’s Love Songs and everything you’ve done since then, even though Other People’s Love Songs—like the earlier material—still features electronically generated accompaniments. That album feels transitional to me because the songs on it are very purposefully not autobiographical. You made a clear statement with the concept for this album, and even in its title, that these songs are not about you.

CD: Other People’s Love Songs for me was an experiment in challenging the assumption that a songwriter who is writing love songs needs to be autobiographical or confessional. I think I do that with a lot of my other pieces, too, like the subsequent pieces, Removable Parts and Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, and even Last Words from Texas. I’m looking for people with whom I do not relate and then trying to find a way to relate to them that I hope eventually reaches the audience. In other words, I hope the audience goes through the same transition that I go through. At first, I feel like I can’t relate to this subject, so I’m going to write a song cycle about it until I can relate to it. And I hope that audiences and listeners go through that same process, because I think it’s important for us to empathize with people, even if we are at first alienated by their behavior, or find them strange. I think empathy is a really important skill to have in order to really function in the world in a fully creative way. Other People’s Love Songs is a very tame effort at that challenge. It’s much easier to relate to the couples in Other People’s Love Songs than it is to relate to a criminal, or to someone who wants to have an amputation for no reason, or to a hypochondriac unless you happen to be a hypochondriac. But Other People’s Love Songs is also about empathy.

I think one of the reasons I choose the subjects that I do and the themes that I do, from album to album or work to work, is because I think we as a society are fascinated by these people and these themes. I think we are actually fascinated by deviant behavior, and I think we’re fascinated by criminals. And I think we’re fascinated by the couple next door that we don’t really know. All of those themes are ways of pulling people in, I hope.

FJO: In terms of the creative process, I’m curious about how you put together Other People’s Love Songs.

CD: It began on my website as an advertisement: if you’re interested, I’ll write you a custom-made love song. Part of the deal was that eventually your love song will be released on an album of other people’s love songs. So it did start with the concept that there was going to be an album. But of course, when I was composing for individual couples I couldn’t think of those pieces in terms of how I can make it fit on the album. Each piece was very special and specific to the couple. It was one of the most emotionally difficult projects I’ve ever done because I would get super nervous once I delivered the songs to the couples and hope and pray that they felt that it captured something about their relationship that was moving to them and important to them. Only after I wrote the individual love songs did I go back and revise the instrumentation, do different production and mixing, to make it fit as an album. I also created transitions between each song so that there are very few pauses in the album itself. So while the album was always there in my head from the beginning, the writing of the individual songs was not influenced by that idea.

FJO: Part of what makes it all seem so personal is your actual performances of these songs, not just their lyrics. So I wonder when you talk about taking on the empathy in creating lyrics for other people, how that played out in other ways. Were there things in the music that you wrote for these other people that wouldn’t necessarily be music that you’d write for someone else—certain shapes of melodies, certain rhythms that reflect that person more than you?

CD: I screened the people who wanted to commission a love song because I didn’t want anyone involved who wasn’t already a fan of my work, and who wanted me to write a country song that everyone could sing along with at their wedding. Nothing against country music, I don’t know why I picked that! But the people that I accepted commissions from were people who I knew were already going to appreciate what I was doing musically. But yes, you’re right in the sense that overall each song was influenced by the interviews I had, because I would always do the interviews first. I would interview the one person and get to know the couple a little bit based on that interview. Then I would write the music, and then I would write the lyrics. And I would send the lyrics to the person who commissioned the song and say, “How are these lyrics? Is there anything you would change about them? Is there anything you think shouldn’t be there?”

Amazingly with only one exception, people were really happy with them. There was one exception where this person was, I think, particularly neurotic about nothing seeming inaccurate or poetic or artistic license-y in any way. He wanted everything to be very specific in the lyrics. I eventually had to return his money and say I don’t think that’s an interesting song. I’m sorry, I can’t write that way. But fortunately, with that one exception, everyone was moved by the lyrics and then eventually moved by the songs. Although I don’t know if they would tell me if they weren’t moved by the songs after I delivered them.

FJO: Now to take it to the subsequent projects which are more extreme. In Removable Parts, you take us on a bizarre and very emotionally difficult journey. Yet it was obviously empathic for you, and I think it’s ultimately empathic for the listener as well. You take us to a place where we’re beyond judgment about what you’re describing. But that requires a deep level of empathy in terms of the process. Once again, I imagine that the music came before the words, but how did you get the idea to do something like this?

CD: Well, Kathleen Supové is the pianist involved in that piece. She and I had wanted to work together for a while, and we finally got a commissioning award to do so. Kathy wanted the piece to be about amputation, which I guess fascinates her because she’s a pianist, and she uses her hands. And also I don’t think she would object to me calling her a bit of twisted person. She has a skewed take on the world, just like I do. So writing a piece about amputation was what she suggested to me to do. She gave me these articles about victims of war violence, and it was just awful. So I did some research on my own and found that there was this phenomenon known as voluntary amputation—people who call themselves wannabe amputees. And then I said to Kathy, “Here’s a piece I think I can write because it’s very strange; it doesn’t have to be dark, but it’s extreme.” I’m interested in extreme and deviant behavior. I think she thought that was even more frightening for her as a pianist, the idea that you would want to have an amputation, so she went along with it.

So the answer is that she came up with the idea for the piece and then I sort of found some variation on it that I felt like I could work with.

FJO: Here’s a clear example where even though each of the songs could exist on its own, you really get a more rewarding experience when you listen to them all in the order you put them in. I know that Other People’s Love Songs was a concept album and that you consciously weaved transitions between the songs to create a fluid sequence, but I think that in Removable Parts, you’ve gone a step further than that and have created a bone-fide song cycle in the old school Die schöne Müllerin or Dichterliebe sense. It even has the same instrumentation as those classic song cycles—voice and solo keyboard.

CD: I think the difference is that with Other People’s Love Songs we have lots of people that we’re empathizing with and relating to. And so each process of getting to know these people, and getting to feel sympathetic toward them, happens over the course of a three- or four-minute song, whereas with Removable Parts as well as Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, we are focused on one person and on one theme, so it’s more interesting to have a journey throughout the course of the album.

Each song could exist on its own, but it doesn’t take you through the process that I went through—and that I think Kathy went through as well. I want that process of first feeling alienated, and then becoming more sympathetic. So I would much prefer that people listen to the whole album in the order that it’s presented, and the same with Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, because that follows the life cycle of a hypochondriac. And so it goes from birth to almost death.

FJO: It’s interesting that for the recorded release of those two cycles they were issued together, under the title Someone Will Take Care Of Me, but on two separate CDs. They could have fit on a single CD. But I think it’s very important that they’re on two separate physical CDs. You don’t want people playing shuffle with those.

CD: Right. And also I wanted people to take a break between them, because they’re both a little heavy. The reason they were released together is because they’re both about the notion that I have a problem that someone will eventually take care of; somewhere, somehow, I’m going to find someone who’s going to give me that amputation, or take care of me when I’m really sick; I know I’m going to be really sick because I’m a hypochondriac. So the connecting theme for those two cycles for me is that need to find someone to connect to with your problem.

Album Cover for Someone Will Take Care of Me

In some ways, it’s like the David Foster Wallace story in which the most important thing for the depressed person is to really connect with someone else in a way that that other person feels the depressed person’s pain and understands it. Of course, that’s impossible, because we can’t get into someone else’s head. But I think that’s also what the people in the two song cycles want, for someone to really connect with them.

FJO: The other thing that sets these two song cycles apart from Other People’s Love Songs and all your previous work is that you wrote them for performance with other musicians rather than by yourself. Of course, again, Other People’s Love Songs is a transitional piece to these since you also created a version for performance with NOW Ensemble. I’m curious about what led you to make the transition away from a self-contained electronic performance to working with other musicians playing mostly acoustic instruments.

CD: One of the reasons that I switched from synthesizers to acoustic live instruments, always amplified though, is that I started to get really uncomfortable being the only person on stage performing. While I think that vulnerability played into the audience being engaged with my performances, I just started to feel like there’s something about canned music that I’m not interested in dealing with right now in live performances. So switching to notated music for live players that have no electronics in a lot of cases was a way for me to feel like, O.K., here’s a different type of performance of my work. It was a type of performance that I wanted to move towards. It started with Kathy in Removable Parts and that was great. I always love working with a single performer other than myself because you can really paint a picture of that performer in your music. It’s much easier to address technical, musical issues that come up with one person than with a group of people.

But after you work with one person, then you work with more. So ICE was interested in working with me, and we got a commissioning award to make Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, and that was my first piece since college where I was writing for a chamber ensemble without any electronic support. And I approached it differently in that it was the first time that I started with notation instead of playing around at the keyboard and making recordings of what I was playing and then transcribing them. This wasn’t something that I had planned to do, but I realized that when I started working this way with notation software that I was writing music that was sparser, more exposed in terms of individual performers, and also groove oriented. My synthesizer music is obviously also groove oriented, so in that sense it wasn’t a shift, but in all those other senses that I mentioned it was a shift for me musically.

Everybody Says Im Beautiful

Excerpt from the score of the song “Everybody Says I’m Beautiful”
from Corey Dargel’s Thirteen Near-Death Experiences.
© 2009 by Corey Dargel, Automatic Heartbreak (ASCAP). Reprinted with permission.

FJO: ICE approached you to do this project and they’re such a malleable ensemble. They can be as large as a chamber orchestra or as small as a duo, but the instrumentation that you chose to write for is a sextet of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano—the classic Pierrot configuration—plus percussion.

CD: They chose that instrumentation. And I added a drum set. So then I was penned into following in the footsteps of Schoenberg.

FJO: And Peter Maxwell Davies and many, many others.

CD: Well, yes. But I don’t ever think about my work in historical terms. I don’t think about how the work that I’m doing now relates to the trajectory of classical music, or the history of music. That is something I decidedly avoid thinking about, in part because of the anxiety of influence, and in part because of my belief that if I’m going to create something that’s my own, then I shouldn’t be going back and looking at examples of what people have done before with this same instrumentation or with the same art song form. Although I studied music history and I’ve listened to a lot of older works, when I’m writing a piece I never go back and research what’s been written for this ensemble before and think about how I’m going to respond or relate to that. It’s not something I do. Those comparisons are something that I think critics and listeners should be making, not me. So I’m really interested when a writer might say well, this piece is a revisitation of the typical piano-vocal art song recital, except for this. And this is how it’s transformed it.

The very first review that I got in New York was when Rob Reich and I played at the Knitting Factory and Kyle Gann wrote a review for The Village Voice in which he compared our songs to Arthur Russell, whom I had never heard of. So I went and listened to Arthur Russell and then I was like yes, this is lovely. Now I can be influenced by this. So if somebody compares my work to Winterreise, then I’ll go back and listen to Winterreise. But otherwise, when I’m writing something, I’m very anti-historical in my thinking as an artist.

FJO: I’m curious to learn more about your notated scores. You said that your compositional process started with notation for Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, so that’s notated. And I know that Removable Parts is notated, and Other People’s Love Songs would also be notated because you arranged it for NOW Ensemble. But are the songs on Less Famous Than You or any of the earlier songs notated? You’ve obviously done these in live performances, and I imagine when you’re doing older material it might be difficult to remember it all if they are not notated in any way. So do they exist in some kind of visual shorthand?

CD: No, for the earlier synthesizer songs, Less Famous Than You from 2006, and everything before that, nothing is notated. So if I want to sing them, I have to go back and re-learn them by rote if I don’t still remember them. But interestingly, when I wrote Last Words From Texas, the synths and voice version, I notated it before I put it on the synthesizers. And that was in part because I was writing for Mellissa Hughes to sing it. She’s one of the only singers that I’m comfortable giving my music to because she has a great sense of performing groove-oriented music and she has a magnificent voice and can be flexible with it. At any rate, the piece was written for her to sing, but then I ended up making a recording of it with me singing and then making an arrangement for Newspeak, which is the ensemble that Mellissa sings with. So even the synthesizer version has a score, and then, of course, the arrangement for Newspeak has a score. And that was very helpful to have the synth score in order to orchestrate it for Newspeak. But I wonder as I move forward if I write more synth-pop songs, if I’m going to use notation, and start that way instead of the way I used to start, which I said before is just by playing around and recording myself until I find a musical idea that sticks.

Dargel Last Words from Texas Synth Score Excerpt

Excerpt from the Synth Score of Corey Dargel’s Last Words from Texas.
© 2011 by Corey Dargel, Automatic Heartbreak (ASCAP). Reprinted with permission.

FJO: Another interesting thing about this trajectory is that you went from taking pre-existing material created without notation and notated it for another ensemble to play with you. Then you created a work for a performance by one other person that is notated, but it’s very specific to that person—Kathy Supové. Then you created work for larger ensembles, like Thirteen Near-Death Experiences and Last Words from Texas, that seem adaptable for ensembles other than ICE or Newspeak to perform, whereas it’s difficult for me to imagine another pianist besides Kathy doing Removable Parts, although since it’s all on paper, theoretically another pianist could do it.

CD: I have performed some of those songs with another pianist, Wil Smith, who’s a good friend and a great pianist. But yeah, the piece is Kathy. I feel like in the 21st century that we should be doing that as composers. We should be writing for specific people.

FJO: But the next step is ICE coming along and asking for a Pierrot piece. There are so many Pierrot ensembles out there who could perform this piece; I don’t hear anything that’s so specific to those players in the instrumental parts, although the vocal part is still clearly you. I can’t imagine it being done by another singer, but since there’s a score it theoretically could be done if the singer followed your desired performance practice for this music. It would be possible a hundred years from now for somebody else to sing it. And hopefully a hundred years from now, when none of us are here, other people will sing it and it will sound amazing. Then in Last Words From Texas, you’ve actually written for another singer for the first time. It’s the final step away from your performing your music—it is music that can happen without you.

CD: But I think I would be more uncomfortable in the audience than I would be as a performer in my own music. I’ll have a chance to test that because I am in fact writing a piece right now that doesn’t involve me and doesn’t involve any singing. We’ll see how that turns out. But I’m not really interested in moving pieces from one ensemble to another. If it happens, it happens. And it has happened with Thirteen Near-Death Experiences. There’s been another ensemble that’s performed that. But it’s not the way I work. You may not hear anything that’s ICE-specific in that piece, but as I was writing the piece I was working in a lot of workshops with the six performers which included David T. Little, who was playing the drums. It may not be evident, but it is a piece written for those people, and I think their personalities come through, at least for me, in the way that I wrote that piece. But if I’m given the opportunity to sing it with another ensemble, I would take it. Which I did. But another singer, hmm, I don’t know.

This is a strange question for me to answer right now because I’m a little conflicted about it. Writing a piece that can be transferred and transplanted from one ensemble to another ensemble without considering the differences in personality and performance skills—I find that to be a little bit academic. It’s interesting in theory, but that’s not enough to make it something that I write for. I’m writing a piece for this specific ensemble, and these specific people, and me specifically or Mellissa specifically. It might be interesting to shift it over to other performers; I might be interested in hearing what that is. But I wouldn’t do that, at least not at first, in a professional situation. That to me is a theoretical, academic exercise to see what happens. It might be fine, but it’s not what I’m interested in.

FJO: So there’s no Corey Dargel work for orchestra on the back burner.

CD: Well, there is a sequel to Last Words From Texas, called More Last Words From Texas, which is being performed by a chamber orchestra, but with me singing. I might be moving away from writing for specific people in this piece because with a chamber orchestra it becomes rather unwieldy to get to know each individual person. But I have been working with the conductor of the group that will premiere it, Ransom Wilson. It’s his group, Le Train Bleu. And so I feel like there’s still this connection with Ransom and, of course, I’m still singing it. He’s paired it with Rzewski’s Coming Together and Attica, which I’ll also be performing in as the vocalist, so I was also thinking about it in relation to that and that specific occasion.

FJO: You’re also writing an opera.

CD: I was calling it an opera, but I think that’s wrong. What people think of when they hear the word opera is the operatic voice, and there are no operatic voices in the piece that I’m writing. So I’m now calling it a music theater piece, more accurately. It’s a piece based on a true story of three psychiatric patients with messianic delusions and the psychologist who comes in and performs an experiment on them by forcing them to live together and interact with each other as a support group because he thought that would cure their delusions. I won’t get into any spoiler alerts, but it was a very long experiment that had extremely mixed and unpredictable results. So it’s about those confrontations between the three Christs, which is the title of the opera—or the musical theater work—and the psychologist. The true story took place in the late ‘50s. I’m interested in updating it for the 21st century, so I’m trying to think of ways to incorporate what we now do with therapy.

FJO: This brings us full circle because it brings us back to the contemporary Christian music you were hearing as a little boy in Texas.

CD: Right.

FJO: When we come full circle, I always know that we’re wrapping up. But I want to keep it going just a little bit longer because I’d like to know more about this project. Are you going to be singing one of the roles in this or is this yet another example of a piece that that will be done by other people without you? And even if you are singing in it, since you mentioned at least four characters, the three patients and the psychologist, there would obviously need to be other singers besides you. And I imagine there’s going to be a pit ensemble, so there will be a third person element to this no matter what.

CD: It’s a leap for me. The piece is written for Newspeak. I don’t know many other groups with that instrumentation, so I’m really thinking about it as a piece for Newspeak—whose work I’m really familiar with and whose members I know pretty well—and then me and the singer I mentioned earlier, Mellissa Hughes, who’s a member of Newspeak. I don’t know who the other singers are. I think maybe Kamala Sankaram will be involved. But it’s going to have to be singers who can sing without the operatic voice, and read music, and handle groove-oriented, tricky rhythmic stuff. I’m also working for the first time with a librettist, or a book writer, who’s controlling the narrative. I’m writing the lyrics, but because I don’t do narrative very well, I’m collaborating with someone on that. It’ll be a big step for me, both in terms of the duration of the piece, the number of forces, but also the things you bring up about branching out and writing for other people.

FJO: Considering that you have the idea, but you don’t know who a lot of the people are yet, have you been able to start writing anything for it?

CD: I’ve been writing songs for it and what I think will happen is that the songs will either fit or they will need to be revised. But so far I’ve been focusing on songs for myself, and songs for Mellissa. I wrote one song for Kamala so far, and will probably write some more for her. But I don’t know who the fourth vocalist is. Caleb Burhans, who plays violin with Newspeak, can also sing and so he may be involved in some way. But I’m not sure what his singing role will be, if any. If he does sing, he will sing from the orchestra, but at the same time, I think the orchestra might be on stage.

FJO: So you haven’t written something unless you know who’s singing it. You’re writing either for you or for Mellissa. You haven’t written something that you know needs to be in the piece because of this story, but you don’t know who’s going to perform it.

CD: Yes. That would be an academic and theoretical exercise for me, and I wouldn’t do it. So until I know who’s singing, I won’t be writing the pieces for those characters.