EPISODE 3: War and Peace – Fender Benders on the 110

WAR AND PEACE: FENDER BENDERS ON THE 110

Laura: So let’s look at Rhythm and News, one of the movements with film, and one of my favorite things in the piece so far.

Shannon: The creation of this film was almost a three-car pile up.

Laura: Our collaborative struggle from the beginning was about form, story, the role of the interstitial films—basically the architecture of the whole piece. MG and I had wildly different views on how film and found text would function in One-Ten.

Shannon: Sig alert!

M.G.: Shannon was our brave mediator.

Laura:  While I loved M.G. and Shannon’s characters, whose stories intertwined with the history of Los Angeles, I thought the films should serve as the freeway itself, its sights and sounds. I thought the films should bounce around without reverence to time.

M.G.: I worried all that bouncing would confuse the audience.

Laura: I was advocating for the “freeway texts” to be found, not written. I wanted to pull them from overheard conversations, story circles, etc.: real people speaking about contemporary Los Angeles. M.G disagreed.

M.G.: Well, I wasn’t opposed to idiomatic speech—

Shannon: Yes you were.

M.G.: But I thought the slang of today was all wrong for 1942.  Today’s colloquialisms belong at the end of the work, which is set in the present.  I envisioned the films reflecting the period where we were with our characters—to underscore the movement of the story through time and space down the freeway.

Shannon: I liked the idea of the films breaking us out of the linear story (and timeline) and of using found text. As a lapsed art historian, I liked the Duchampian notion of “found art”.

M.G.: As long as it was less found, more art.

Laura: I wanted to push the envelope.

Shannon: I did too, but not at the expense of losing the connection with our audience and the story arc of our central four characters.

M.G.:  The characters anchor the piece.  They’re the concrete and rebar beneath the dazzling surface.  They make you care about what happens next.  My mother used to call certain soap operas her “stories.”  I wanted this opera to have “stories”– plots that could touch anybody who listened.  Suspense, fear, anguish, empathy—audiences don’t feel these things by accident.  They are the result of narrative construction.

Laura: The soap opera notion appealed to me as a long-time fan of All My Children—there, I’m out of the closet.

Shannon: Me too! When I need spiritual guidance I ask myself: What would Erica Kane do?

Laura: Listen, I agreed with all the story ideas, I loved them, in fact. But I wanted the grittiness of language that comes from the vernacular. This huge gap between our two ways of seeing this interstitial material led to some really tense discussions.

Shannon: The way that landing on the beaches of Normandy was “tense.”  Anyway, being the Madeleine Albright of the group, I realized we needed to find text that appealed both to Laura and M.G.—regular folks telling their own stories  in language appropriate to our characters’ time.

M.G.: Then the miracle happened. We stumbled on beautiful found text—written in the time period that our characters inhabited. It was funny, punchy, slangy and Laura liked it too.

Laura:  Shannon brokered a brilliant compromise. We decided that the films would contain found texts, but move sequentially from one time period to another, paying close attention to linear time.

Shannon: And we would allow ourselves to break from the story timeline in the films, but then the films would place us in the era of the next aria.

Laura: So, remember A Perfect Car Experience from our first posting? It starts in the present, boomerangs back in time to set up The Velocity of Escape, the duet of the last posting.  Images of George W. bleed back to the O.J trial, Mandela’s release, Margaret Thatcher, Woodstock, a young Castro, Miles Davis, old cars, Audrey Hepburn until we land in the Arroyo Seco in 1939, setting up the  “waltz in a ditch.”

Shannon: We had one last fender bender–over the singers’ roles in the interstitial films. If we were going to be playing with time in the films, M.G. and I thought it would be confusing for the vocalists to be in their characters while they were singing the found text.

Laura: I proposed this solution: let the singers to retain some element of their characters in the music that accompanies the films, while not actually being those characters. They step outside their character roles and become a freeway chorus. So, for example, the way I have set the found text in A Perfect Car Experience, Karen Vuong and Michael Slattery have a kind of flirty interchange even though they are not actually playing the roles of Lew and Susan yet. This starts to set up the romance that follows.

PACHUCO BOOGIE

Laura:, Since I had very little time to compose the music and collaborate with filmmaker Kate Hackett before the November workshops, I had Kate start the Rhythm and News film before the music was finished. I asked her use the song Pachuco Boogie as a “temp score,” to quote a film music term.

The original Pachuco Boogie was written by Don Tosti aka, El Tostado. It was the first Latin song to reach a million in sales. And get this, Tosti grew up in… Boyle Heights! This film would move our characters through time and place, from the Arroyo Seco in 1939 to the Zoot Suit riots in ’43, so this song was a perfect point of departure. Even though its 1948 composition was a bit of an anachronism, stylistically it fit right in the era.

Under the “Treaty of Shannon,” Rhythm and News needed to be roughly in period style, so, in addition to bringing in archival sounds of the freeway, I drew from the sounds of the era’s newspapers–presses rolling, newsboys calling out, etc. I also sampled the beginning drumbeat, piano lick and the sung phrase, “Pachuco Boogie,” as well as some really groovy scat singing from the song. I mashed that up with an excellent version of Duke Ellington’s It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), with the amazing Ray Nance playing violin, trumpet and singing (kind of like a Don Tosti who played violin, sax and bass.)  What a talented cat. In the films known as “soundies,” the precursor to the music video, I found Gene Krupa and Anita O’Day’s 1941 Thanks for the Boogie Ride— keeping with the car theme–as well as Cab Calloway scatting. The soundies were great raw material for our own films.

AN ASIDE FOR MUSIC GEEKS

LAURA: The movement begins with a single piano note and samples of the original Pachuco Boogie. This repeats for a long time, but other things are quickly layered on top. A piano phrase, a falling perfect 4th, from the boogie, enters. Using wonderful modern technology (Pro Tools, for you gear freaks out there), I changed this over 60-year-old piece of music and digitally manipulated it to create other layers of 4ths– known as quartal harmonies. This is stylistically is probably more akin to jazz of the 60’s than the 40’s, but I wanted to introduce an a forward-looking jazz sound to hint at where we would be taking our jazz musician, Oscar Gutierrez when we meet him later in the story. When the live piano enters, the layering of harmony gets even more complex.

SING ALL ABOUT IT

Laura: As to the text and the vocal settings – I asked Shannon to search The California Eagle—LA’s preeminent African-American newspaper of the era–for words that would give a sense of the amazing musical culture in LA’s Harlem, Central Avenue, and to find texts that would move us forward to 1943. (For more on this important newspaper check out full issues provided by The Internet Archive on their amazing site http://www.archive.org.)

Shannon: Laura wanted to draw primarily from with The Eagle’s gossip columns and the “what’s going on around town” sections to keep it the language casual. Then I looked for text that made use of jazz slang to give a feel for life on “Brown Broadway,” as it was known: “The Club Alabam really swung out this week.” To keep us in the period, I looked for text that gave a feel for what was happening in the historical context of the coming war, and drew from this:

War changes many things.  And people must change, too. Races, nations which you hated before the war, are now your allies, fighting side by side with you for the same cause…all must adjust themselves to the change brought about by war. Many of the conventions, traditions, customs, et cetera, must set aside.  They must give way to the war effort. So if you are called, make up your mind to adjust yourself.

And then there were gems like the description of the enlistment woes of African-Americans hoping to be posted to Hawaii that covered both criteria:

“Imagine their dismay when

Uncle Sam sent them all to the

Canadian border where

When it snows, brother,

When it snows, brother, it snows.”

M.G.: Despite my initial skepticism, I was blown away by Laura’s setting of Rhythm and News. The whole opera had become richer, bigger, and better than my original, more traditional conception.

Shannon: Phew!

Laura: I wanted the singers to form a radio chorus, singing four-part harmonies that were suggestive of the period (think Andrews sisters with two sisters and two brothers). In the workshop, this was used to introduce the character, Oscar, a young jazz musician (who, by the way, went to the same high school, Roosevelt, as Don Tosti and my father) and the character, Shirley Norman, journalist, and to lead us ultimately to the Club Alabam on Central Avenue where Oscar was about to debut.

You will see Oscar’s entrance in a few weeks, but for now, lets look and listen to Rhythm and News.

Leroy Villanueva, our baritone, sings about jazz within Rhythm and News because even though he is not playing the role of Oscar yet, I wanted to presage his upcoming solo.

In the text, you hear  “when Ray Nance, sang and sawed, blew his horn…” I changed the original text drawn from The California Eagle to include Ray Nance from the Ellington band because he was such an unusual multifaceted musician. I felt Oscar should be modeled after versatile, innovative musicians like Nance and Tosti.

Kyla Page Williams, our mezzo–soprano, speaks text about the Negro 369th, the all African-American regiment, like a reporter, foreshadowing her role as Shirley Norman, cub reporter for The California Eagle.

Then when we get to Oscar’s aria, he is wearing a Pachuco Zoot suit like the young jazz fans of the era would have, so the film ends with the trailing out of the boogie piano lick over Cab Calloway in a Zoot suit singing “coming home.” It is perfectly resonant with the story to come.

Oliver W. Harrington, “Fats Waller at the Piano,” ca. 1940, pencil on paper, from the collection of The Library of Congress, Caroline and Erwin Swann Memorial Fund purchase, Prints & Photographs Division. Learn more about Oliver Harrington here.

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