Monday, January 16, 2012

Under the Influences

"People exercise an unconscious selection in being influenced."
-T.S. Eliot

I've written and rewritten this paragraph at least 20 times now because I'm finding it hard to write about people who: A- I'm friends with, B- may read this and C- I'm currently working with. But I can't ignore the fact that during the creation process for the Terry Fox-Hero's Journey piece I'm also working with two of my biggest influences.

For the last month I've been rehearsing 'The Idiot', a new stage adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novel created by playwright/director James Fagan Tait and composer/musical director Joelysa Pankanea that opens this week as part of the PuSH Festival. I've been working with Jimmy (I've yet to hear anybody actually call him 'James') and Joelysa for almost 6 years, and when I listen to 'Aim for the Roses' I can clearly hear the massive influence both of them have had on my work.

In terms of narrative and storytelling, watching Jimmy over the course of 8 shows has been an education worth millions. Economy of storytelling, honesty, recognizing moments of real truth and the courage to cut away anything that isn't needed or isn't working properly (regardless of how much time and care have been lavished on it) are just some of the things I've taken from the experience.

Over the last month, as I've wrestled with the narrative for my piece, I've watched Jimmy take a massive story with a massive script (including several large ensemble music pieces) and shape and focus it into a work that is both massive and incredibly intimate. Simplicity and economy are the tools I see Jimmy use most often, and I think there's a lot to be learned from that.

And his influence extends beyond my sense of story and narrative; Jimmy's general aesthetic has been a part of my becoming borderline-obsessed with making things quiet. He's often said he'd rather have people sit forward to hear everything and be engaged than sit back and have everything blasted at them, and I can't agree more.

Rehearsing in the theatre this weekend, I was struck several times by the power of having 25 people sing together and how often that power is diminished by amplification. I've always appreciated that Jimmy and Joelysa don't use mics or amplification in their shows, even when we've done shows in venues where any musical is mic'ed and amped within an inch of it's life.

The influence Joelysa has had on me in pretty much incalculable. I've performed more with her than any other person in my career, we've spent literally hundreds of days in rehearsal together and I've played more original music by her than any other composer.

To list the areas that Joelysa has influenced me musically is to list what makes music: melody, harmony, rhythm, voicing, etc., etc. More than anything I think what I've learned is how the serve a story musically, something Joelysa is a master at. Being able to learn from her over the last 6 years has been an opportunity of a lifetime, and more than anything I've been struck by her ability to time and again create achingly beautiful, memorable melodies from lyrics that are often neutral observation or narrative.

Seriously, when you can make "In the morning a battalion of dressmakers descended upon her from St. Petersburg" a melodic phrase that sticks in people's heads for days, you have a gift.

Working with both of them again while writing the narrative and music for the Terry Fox piece at the same time has shone a bright light on the many ways they have both shaped me creatively and the great debt I owe them both.

Click here for Joelysa's website
Click here for more info on 'The Idiot'