Recalling a favorite album—brought to stage

Jan 09, 2020

Most of my music-loving friends can think of a favorite album from their early listening years. I’m talking about that magical time when we heard the end of one song and the first notes of the next song appeared, unprompted, in our mind’s ear. The album is different for each of us, but the feeling of anticipation and satisfaction is the same. For me, it was the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. My favorite song as a six year old was “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” but this is not a blog post about me; it’s my personal take on the music for Mark Morris Dance Group’s Pepperland, which will joyously fill the Northrop stage on Jan 25.

Inspired by the Beatles’ iconic album, Pepperland features music by Ethan Iverson, a frequent Mark Morris collaborator, including tunes based on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Within You Without You,” “Penny Lane” (not on Sgt. Pepper but originally planned for it), and “A Day in the Life.” Ethan speaks in this interview about instrumentation (theremin!) and his job as a composer for this work (“giving Mark a fun and danceable score”). Mark Morris, in a Kennedy Center video, describes the score as “a rethinking of this music – even if you think you know it, you’re going to be surprised by it.”

Morris makes reference to my original favorite song in his autobiography, Out Loud, where he describes the mirrored sunglasses worn by the dancers as “kaleidoscope eyes.” Sarah Kaufman, in her glowing review of Pepperland in The Washington Post, also picks up on the fractured-glass theme when she writes that the “overarching sense is that you’re hearing and viewing this well-known album through a kaleidoscope, the songs fragmented and dissected. Iverson, whose contribution is every bit as critical to Pepperland as the choreography, has disassembled the songs and animated only certain elements.” Iverson also wrote original music for this production, some with clever titles like “Wilbur Scoville,” in an alternate pepper reference. Scoville created a scale to rank the spiciness of chili peppers.

Out Loud also gives space to “When I’m Sixty-Four” (a song I played in band as a high school clarinetist), which he describes as “a kick line—a vaudeville number.” It starts with one dancer and then multiplies to include 3, 9, then 12 people. When the time signature of the music changes, it looks like “total chaos…the music perhaps sounds wrong and broken, but it’s meticulously right.” I remember how ominous the minor-key break after each verse and chorus sounded when I was a kid, especially in a song that practically winks as it chugs and chimes. I’m sure Mark Morris, who is known for his musicality and will turn 64 this year, knew exactly how to visualize those contrasts on stage.

Kaufman’s review also mentions “the chord that famously closed “A Day in the Life,” a clock-stopping, emotional release to cap the pensive, many-layered symphony of existence that song expresses.” Since it was the last song on the album (which I listened to on tape, back in the day), for me that chord sets up the album to start all over again. I hope you’ll join me at Northrop to listen, with fresh ears, to Pepperland’s reinvention of my first favorite album.

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