December 03, 2007

Music Review: The Pied Piper of Hamelin, by Randall Woolf

My old friend, Mrs Bonnie Anne Whiting Smith, is in a touring performing quartet, Tales & Scales, which performs “Musictelling” for children, in schools & concert halls, all over the country, homing in Evansville, Indiana, on the beautiful O-Hi-O. They have a half dozen different shows, telling stories with their instruments (flute/piccolo, oboe/sax, bass trombone/euphonium, percussion) & dance. I decided I couldn’t miss the California première of The Pied Piper, for which they commissioned hip downtown composer Randall Woolf to write the music, so I rode South on Thursday with a Coast Guard chief recruiter I found on Craigslist rideshare. I ended up seeing three of the six performances during their stay at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. It’s the first time T&S has gone electronic, with a laptop onstage (on a pillar with wheels, doubling, like all their instruments, as a prop & an abstract dance/set piece). Most of their music & story (which is the 1842 poem version by Robert Browning) is accompanied by beats, moog-ish whirls, & scary Twin Peaks-y music coming out of the laptop. Mrs Smith also has next to her vibraphone, in her mobile artillery of auxiliary percussion, a nifty little turntable – on which, among other things, she scratches the sounds of kids laughing. In short, Mr Browning’s creaky poem has been turned into a hip-hopera for kids.

The fact that they perform this piece for children around the country in Elementary Schools, concert halls, & arts centers, & that the music is weird & modern - as a post-minimalist Bang-on-a-Can derivative, & both in a Stravinsky-esque way & in a hip-hop crossover way – shows that younger audiences can easily accept some of the avant-guard stuff many adults have trouble with. Quirky dissonances & electronic whizzes are nothing head-turning to a viewer of television cartoons; they can be a necessity for a lot of 21st century storytelling; but to adults-with-opinions these noises can be disorienting. The Pied Piper of Hamelin is a fairly messy piece of music & theater, with thick sounds & the musicians running all over the stage, reciting into wireless microphones lines like “And ere three shrill notes the pipe uttered / You heard as if an army muttered.” But a cluttered telling of a dark tale, no obstacle, most kids’ faces were glued to the stage.

Mr Woolf’s music grew on me by the third show. There’s an especially beautiful moment, right after the Pied Piper has successfully exterminated the rats, when the one surviving rat reflects on what he heard that led him to the water. The action stops, & in a threepenny moment, the narrator announces: “his commentary"; the computer plays a strumming guitar. None other than Cory Dargel’s voice comes thru the loud speakers, singing:


At the first shrill notes of the pipe,
I heard a sound as of scraping tripe,
And putting apples, wondrous ripe,
Into a cider-press's gripe: […]
And it seemed as if a voice
(Sweeter far than by harp or by psaltery
Is breathed) called out, 'Oh rats, rejoice!’

I likened this moment to a part of the movie “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007, dir. Wes Anderson). It’s also a cluttered, always-in-motion piece of art, telling a complex story, & at one point the action stops & an out-of-place guitar accompanies an extremely slow-motion shot of the three brothers, in all white on their way to a funeral, walking thru an Indian village, past old men who sit as still as statues, looking for all the world like a Renaissance painting. The Kinks’ song “Strangers”, & the now reflective pace, releases an ocean of emotion:

Where are you going, I don’t mind,
I’ve killed my world & I’ve killed my time, &c…

Similarly, putting the perspective on its side, understanding what the rats heard as they followed their messiah to their annihilation, somehow needed the commentary of a strumming guitar.

In this version, also, the children do not return to Hamelin, but are led mysteriously into a cave, &, in the end, it is rumored that there is a strange tribe in Transylvania that dresses differently. It’s a sad ending for the corrupt elders of Hamelin, but the recruited kids from the audience who followed the piper conclude the play in party mode, dancing jubilantly on stage. It’s actually a common theme in a lot of children’s art: Let’s get out of here, go some place cooler, & never come back. Mrs Smith told me that one venue in Florida canceled the show when they heard that the children don’t return to Hamelin. I wouldn’t either, with its euphonium-playing mayor. I’d rather be inside the song the rats heard.

Saturday night, I went with Tales & Scales to hear the Pacific Symphony play Michael Daugherty's Fire & Blood Violin Concerto, with Ida Kavafian, in that performing arts center's beautiful new hall. The orchestra was pretty good, & there was a lot of energy from the podium. I love that second movement from the concerto, where mariachi trumpets, harps, & two marimbas evoke Frida Kahlo's longing for Mexico, while she waits for two years in Michigan for Diego Rivera to finish the "Detroit Industry" mural. After the symphony, we went back across the street to the hotel, & lo, there was the composer playing the Frida theme on the piano in the lobby, with a rollicking hotel bar in the background. Not bad lounge music.

1 comment:

sarah said...

happy two hundreth post