Long ago I stumbled upon Scott Walker, via a cassette with the hand-written inscription The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker.
I remember wondering: is this for real? What may have been at least part ironic self-mockery was upon closer inspection perhaps a statement with some truth. In fact the person who wrote the title on the cassette had truncated the name of the recording: which was twice as long…
Who is Scott Walker and how does he fare in Melancholiac? Interview questions are partly for the subjects, partly for me. I seek to unpack the work of the artists, lobbing easy questions into their strike-zone in hopes that someone hits a self-promotional home-run. But I’m also asking questions out of genuine curiosity. Greg & Adam are remounting a work incubated at Summerworks four years ago that’s described on the Music Gallery website as “part concert, part spectacle, part existential talk-show”.
I’m looking forward to seeing it.
Walker is unusual, a unique sound, a voice, a persona. Melancholiac: the Music of Scott Walker is the brainchild of two admirers: Adam Paolozza & Gregory Oh and a large company of collaborators we’ll see and hear in three performances at the Music Gallery Dec 6th at 7:30, and Dec 7th at 4:00 and at 7:30.
And as we go through the interview I’ve interspersed a Scott Walker playlist curated by Adam.
Song #1 It’s Raining Today
barczablog: Whose idea / passion was this originally: did Gregory go find you, or did you find Gregory, OR did someone else originally conceive of this? What was the process that brought you two together?
ADAM: I tend to get obsessed with artists and after I watched the documentary about Scott in 2009 I became obsessed with him. I loved the music and I loved how he talks about his process. It reminded me of Samuel Beckett, one of my earliest art crushes. So, I had it in the back of my mind since then that I wanted to sing Scott’s songs in some performative setting eventually.
Then a few years later I met Greg at Soulpepper, I think, and we worked on a few cabaret shows there. Greg and I really got along and I pitched the idea of doing something about Walker to him. He listened to the music, really dug it, and that’s how it all began.
The current show, is very much a collaboration between Gregory and I. Greg really helped choose the songs, structure the evening, hired the arrangers and the band and he makes it all come together sonically. I brought in the singer/dancers and choreographer and staged it.
barczablog : But it’s much more than the two of you. Please mention the names of the singers & players and anyone else involved… (besides the two of you)
Chorus Members (they sing and move):
Lighting Design: Andre Du Toit
Stage Manager: Dylan Tate-Howarth
Electric Bass: Matt Fong
Upright Bass: Adam Scime
Drums: Spencer Cole
Percussion: Dan Morphy
Guitar: Paul Kolinski
Leslie Ting: violin
Arlan Vriens: violin
Samuel Edwards: viola
Amahl Arulandandam: Cello
Lina Allemano: trumpet
David Quackenbush: horns
Shaun Mallinen: saxophones
Matt Smith (aka Prince Nifty)
Song #2 Duchess from Scott 4
barczablog: Scott Walker sits on the fertile interface between popular music & serious music previously visited by people like Kurt Weill, David Bowie, David Byrne, Philip Glass, Tom Waits, and lots more. Who if anyone does he remind you of?
ADAM: His music doesn’t remind me too much of any of these musicians. His early stuff reminds me of a certain lush, orchestral 60’s sound that I loved as a child. But again, with an eerie atonal ambience. So, maybe he reminds me of some dissonant 20th century composers, like Ligeti. But his newer compositions are really sui generis. I guess if I had to compare him to anyone, I would use Samuel Beckett again. In the sense that they both pare things down to the essential and do their best to avoid cliché.
GREG: I would think of someone like John Oswald or Franz Liszt. Oswald because of his ability to knit together pop and post-classical forms, always with an awareness of person/place/context, and maintaining a genuine sense of self amidst creative kleptomania. Walker and Liszt were both “rock stars” and significant performers, and both had compositional careers that started with the hyper-popular and ended in under-appreciated innovation and eclecticism.
Song #3:Clara from The Drift
barczablog: How would you describe the style you’re using in the presentation? Concert? Or Cabaret?
ADAM: It’s an expressionistic style, inspired by cabaret for sure, that Greg Oh and I have developed over the years through projects like this and another recent collaboration, The Cave (which premiered at Luminato last year). It’s a hybrid musical-theatre form, without a plot per se, more like a concert punctuated with expressive dramatic sequences. The look and feel is also influenced by watching music videos from the 90’s and musical tv specials from the 60’s, like the BBC one Scott Walker had very briefly. Shows that had variety, dancing, singing, etc. We shamelessly reference that.
barczablog: Is the persona of Scott Walker the artist presented in your show, either as a character or a presence? I had the impression that the earlier version of the show divided the Walker persona among multiple performers a bit like the film about Bob Dylan I’m Not There.
ADAM The idea is to send a tribute to Scott beyond the grave, as he recently passed away. To evoke his presence. Sometimes we do this by physically playing him (a little like I’m Not There for sure, but it’s mostly me that plays him) and speaking words he spoke, but more often by evoking the sonic, emotional experience of Scott’s music, making it present in the space.
barczablog: Can you talk for a minute about the word “Melancholiac” and what it tells us about SW, what it tells us about the show, and maybe what it tells us about you (two), and your relationship to SW
ADAM: I’ve always been drawn to darker, more contemplative, uncompromising artists who explore the extremities of human experience. Again, that’s why I often think of Beckett when I think of Scott Walker.
In my own work I’ve been exploring the idea of melancholy through various shows over the last few years, like Italian Mime Suicide, Empire of Night and Paolozzapedia. It’s less about the sadness associated with melancholia. It’s more about approaching the art experience as a means to reflect on existential thoughts and feelings. More about finding and contemplating beauty in darker, denser things. And I think Scott’s music is definitely dark and dense. That’s why we named the show the way we did.
GREG Chronicle of a public executions? Check. Inevitable ephemerality and insignificance of love? Check. Life and times of a CIA torturer? Bing. Sadomasochism? Yup and yup. Dark funereal humour? It’s in there. Blood money of arms dealing? Selbstverständlich.
Song #4: The Electrician from Nite Flights
barczablog : Can we talk about influences, as in who you see influencing SW, perhaps what influences you’re allowing in how you approach Melancholiac. I am especially intrigued by some of the musical adaptations, which are a kind of modernist pop music, far more dissonant and daring in places than the original (and please let me know if you’re okay with me saying that… perhaps you don’t agree). But I think this treatment is ideal for the Music Gallery. I understand some of Walker’s late music was much more adventurous, edgy sounding: but I don’t know those songs. If you can point me to any examples (youtube or elsewhere) that might be useful too.
GREG: Not to pass the buck, but this Pitchfork article is quite good at achieving an understanding on just how wide the borders of Scott Walker’s music are.
ADAM Also, I would recommend the 2006 documentary 30 Century Man, that’s what introduced me to Scott Walker and it’s a fabulous documentary.
In most cases we’ve just tried to recreate the sound of Scott’s original arrangements, which are quite daring and dissonant, especially in the later stuff. That’s our biggest influence. What we’re doing isn’t so far removed from the recordings. The 60’s stuff we tried to just reproduce as best we can with what we’ve got.
But in some cases, I supposed we’ve transposed an idea, taking some license. Instead of having 10 guitars we have 10 shakers, for example, or we chant something chorally Scott originally sang. Or, when Walker has done something really unusual, like having a percussionist pound a side of raw beef, we’ve attempted a more vegetarian approach to the same effect. Still food based, of course!
barczablog: Walker died back in March of this year. How does that change how you understand him and this project?
ADAM It’s made me think more of the show being a message that we’re sending him. A send off, a love letter, an evocation.
GREG: In this culture, I see parallels between Scott Walker and Claude Vivier. Many of their compositions were so obviously obsessed with death, darkness and the afterlife. They told stories about murder, stabbings, executions, wars and the fatalities of social injustice. If I had to contrast their post-mortem narratives, Vivier was obsessed with predicting his own death, and perhaps Walker gave more thought to the cyclical nature of life, and wondering “what happens next”?
Perhaps because of this, my reading of the show didn’t really change, but I understand the show in a more nuanced way. Walker did have a very dark but subtle sense of humour, and I think his tune “30th Century Man” was both a witticism and a credo. Most classical composers strive to be of this century, but Walker, whether or not he succeeded, had his eyes on the next millennium. In my imagination, Walker endured the melancholy of life, having sampled and rejected the fruits of popular success, and in doing so freed himself to creatively explore anything and everything.
Song #5: Mathilde
barczablog What’s your favorite song of SW (if you can pick one)? One for each of you?
GREG: My favourite of Scott Walker’s is probably The Electrician. My favourite in the show is the cover of Mathilde, sung by Patricia O’Callaghan and arranged incredibly well by Bram Gielen.
ADAM: Ah! Impossible to pick but maybe I’d say The Electrician. That always gives me chills when I hear it.
barczablog: Do you have anyone you’d like to thank?
ADAM: Thank the Canada Council for the Arts, The Music Gallery, SummerWorks and In The Soil Festival for supporting early stages of the project. As well as the artists from earlier versions who can’t be with us this time around.
GREG: Thanks to Adam, without whom I never would have discovered the music of Scott Walker. Also, thanks to David Dacks and the Music Gallery.
Melancholiac: the Music of Scott Walker is coming up Dec 6th at 7:30, Dec 7th at 4:00 and Dec 7th at 7:30: at the Music Gallery 918 Bathurst St., telephone 416.204.1080 (click for tickets).