It's hard to imagine Arnold Schoenberg's monumental musical piece, Pierrot Lunaire, receiving a first performance anywhere other than in the drunk expressionist landscape of 1912 Berlin. My latest major vocal/stage work, a theatrical song cycle also called Pierrot Lunaire, is receiving its first public presentations in the two cities where it most naturally belongs: New York and L.A. It also doesn't take its title from Schoenberg's work but rather from a set of lyrics by Wayne Koestenbaum (from his collection titled "Best Selling Jewish Porn Films") that are the basis for my theatrical cycle.
Wayne's Pierrot Lunaire assumes that the New York School that it constantly refers to is the center of everyone's world: a world in which Susan Sontag and Virginia Woolf interact with Mae West, Patty Duke and Diana Vreeland through the lens of a newly reimagined "Pierrot" stock character. In Wayne's words (reacting to my setting of his lyrics) it is "as if in the demented, war-haunted last episode of Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz, or in a German expressionist landscape remastered to resemble an outtake from Disney's Sorcerer's Apprentice, our pale hero (erototomane, cinéaste, clown, troubadour, analysand, synaesthete) wanders through circles of a moonlit inferno, where he confronts shadows of charmed, histrionic luminaries..."
The sheen and shine of my Pierrot Lunaire draws from my life-long love affair with the American Musical Theater. My early entry into music was, on the one hand, through the performance of Arabic folk music and, on the other, through singing and acting in musicals. This dichotomy also helps to explain the "East/West" phenomenon that people have commented on in my compositions. But even in the realm of musicals the "East/West" dichotomy is flawed: the Rahbani-Fairuz collaboration produced more than 21 Arabic musicals between 1957 and 1979 that are still widely popular throughout the Arab World today. My new theatrical cycle shows the impact that these musicals had on me as well as the profound influence that composers ranging from Jason Robert Brown, Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lippa, Alan Menken and John Kander to George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern have on my work. My Pierrot Lunaire is not a Follies: it doesn't imitate the language of any of these great composers but it does prove that singing and acting their works as a boy formed a unique imprint on my ear. This imprint is apparent here for a very good reason.
There's a distinct Americanness to Wayne's Pierrot Lunaire that seems to invite the influence of musical theater in my work to come straight to the surface. The cataclysmic events of Pierrot Lunaire are almost entirely American and those that aren't are émigré experiences. This is true from the presence of Eve Arden, Mae West and Bette Davis in the first number (Moondrunk) to the hysteria surrounding the assassination of J.F.K in the eighth number (Serenade). A few years ago, I was part of a series of panels at a major American conservatory titled "What is American Music?" I'm an outsider to academia but I was even more of an outsider than usual to the long discussions that resulted from this question. It's a question that has been asked often in many different contexts. The study of the symphony from Haydn to Mahler is a requirement in German conservatories as well as American conservatories but in America it's possible to go through an entire "classical" music education without being exposed to a single work from the golden age of musical theater. The influence of the sheen, gloss, wit and rhythmic verve of the American Musical in my work seem to naturally want to accompany Wayne's dreamscape narrative in Pierrot Lunaire.
The first number of Pierrot Lunaire begins in a bright place with loud Carl Stalling-like exaggerated gestures announcing the dreamscape through a manic, athletic opening line: "My skin, except in dreams, is antiseptic". The scene has the surreal coloristic brilliance of Fritz Freleng's early Pink Panther cartoons: abstract and yet universally, intrinsically understandable.
Throughout the first part of Pierrot Lunaire the brightness is only intermittently broken up for short incongruous moments. The minuet-like, over elegant politeness of Diana Vreelend's visit in the fourth number (Red Mass) is barely interrupted but for the one line where she gives Pierrot access to her parka "as if we're still in Vietnam". When the Madonna appears in the fifth number (Gallows Song) sewing a quilt in celebration of gay marriage, we are still not certain whether she is the Madonna or Madonna or (most likely) both. But for certain by this middle point of the work there are some serious holes in the sheen that opened the whole cycle (most notably in the line "out comes a shiny deck of Holocaust playing cards"). Gallows Song is also the number of Pierrot Lunaire with the most musical references: Aphex Twin, Schoenberg and Madonna all make appearances.
The sixth number (Crosses) shows Pierrot's eager-to-please body in full force as he sits next to Susan Sontag at a dinner party with a copy of Death Kit in hand. Wayne, my neighbor in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan was intimately aware that he lives in the same building in which Sontag lived as he was writing these lyrics. By Crosses, my musical brightness is replaced by uncertainty but it isn't until the seventh number (Sick Moon) that Pierrot Lunaire turns on its dark side.
Wayne's lyrics in Sick Moon afforded me an opportunity to write a real "mad scene" for Pierrot. In a fancy detox clinic lobby, Virginia Woolf is wetting herself and Pierrot resembles a Liberace look-alike flashing a self-published book of poems. In my emergency-like musical setting we can see Pierrot in a straitjacket. The veneer of lightness is stripped away and everything takes on a double meaning: the detox clinic becomes a sanatorium, Virginia Woof's trickling liquid becomes her suicide by drowning, and the Liberace look-alike reeks of Liberace's obsessive surgical restructuring of Scott Thorson's face to resemble a younger Liberace.
As we move toward the end of the theatrical song cycle the last few numbers proceed without a break to form a large, terrifying scene. A baby is born but survives only a few hours, a rickety children's choir advocates appeasement on the recurrent afternoon of J.F.K's assassination and a dying drunk expatriate clutches a copy of Edward Said's Orientalism as she dies.
When I first worked with Wayne some years ago on a little song cycle called Posh (collected on my latest album Native Informant), we had attempted this structure on a smaller scale. The narrator of Posh moves from hapless, pampered child in the first song (Ballad of the Layette) to mischievous adolescent in the second (Blue Sea Songs) to a contemplative figure in the third (Posh) whose weeping father brings to mind the self-slaughtered Walter Benjamin, and who declaims at the cycle's end, that the tenor repertoire "expired" in 1942 as if the damages of the Holocaust and WWII included the death of opera.
The final three-number scene of Pierrot Lunaire amplifies this morbid subtext and unveils the darkness under the surface of a new work that calls on the realms of visual theater, film and atmosphere to underline is dreamscape/nightmare narrative. The overall effect captures Pierrot's awestruck terror at the histrionic decline of great artists/intellectuals: the sorrow and the pity of a beheld ruin.