"Call Me Adam" chats with Jonathan Larsen Award winning composer Marisa Michelson about the release of the original cast recording to her Off-Broadway show Tamar of the River, which she co-wrote with Jonathan Larsen grant winner Joshua H. Cohen. We also talk about the creative process in writing the music for Tamar as well as working with Joshua and this amazingly talented cast that included Margo Seibert, Mike Longo, and Troy Burton. The cast recording of Tamar of the River on Amazon and iTunes!
For more on Marisa be sure to visit http://marisamichelson.com!
1. After a successful run at Prospect Theatre in NYC, the cast recording for Tamar of the River featuring Margo Seibert was released by Yellow Sound Label last September (2014). The show is inspired by the Biblical story of Tamar and Judah. What did you identify most with about this Biblical story that made you go, this would make a great musical? Originally I set out on a search for stories within our Western cultural heritage in which women are central figures. It felt important to me to create a piece for a woman lead whose defining journey was not about falling in love with a man. I also wanted to honor my love of women’s singing voices. When I came across the Tamar/Judah story, I felt like I’d found someone worth writing about. The moment when Tamar becomes deceitful is the moment she becomes extremely compelling. What incomprehensible desperation might drive a woman to disguise herself as a prostitute to approach her father in law? In Tamar’s story, there is great drama, I thought. Drama = passion = a character who sings. Ultimately, our story diverged greatly from the source material, which I have no problem with. One thing leads to the next in life.
2. How did you come to write Tamar of the River with Joshua H. Cohen? What was the best part about collaborating with Joshua on this show and in writing the music? I approached Josh with the seed of a story, and we spent the next couple years developing it together. Josh is wonderful. His writing is perceptive, clear, and poetic. He is open-minded and very creative. I would sometimes come to him with these strange multi-melismatic melodies, and instead of asking me how the hell he was supposed to put words to that, he would write words that somehow made perfect sense. Josh is a terrific collaborator and our conversations were a rare combination of passionate and respectful. Josh and I truly made this piece together.
3. In addition to being the co-author of this show, you are also the composer. Did the book come first or did you write the music first and then set a story around it? The story came first, but the idea of the River being a multi-voiced ensemble came almost simultaneously. And that was the magical guiding light for me as a composer. I wanted to create a special musical world, a score in which the sound of the music actually helped tell the story.
4. What was the easiest part about writing the music for this show and what were some challenges you faced? Well, one major challenge was when my stash of dark chocolate would run out in the middle of a work session. But in all seriousness, once I found the sound of the River, writing the River’s was not hard at all, but was totally joyful and exciting. I really dug what I was writing and couldn’t wait to hear it!
In general, what is most challenging for me seems to be notation. First of all, sitting for hours on end with my computer and mini musical keyboard setup is a great physical challenge for my body. I prefer to be moving around, singing, imagining music in my mind, and working with people in space. Second, the writing down of music sometimes feels to me like a death, like moving farther and farther away from the source. I do need scores to clearly express the complexity of the music I’m hearing. But at the same time I wonder, can these scores also hold within them the possibility of something fresh arising in the moment? I don’t just mean improvisation, though there is a little bit of that. I haven’t figured out how to strike that balance yet.
5. The music of the show is influenced by a variety of cultures from Middle Eastern, Jewish, and Asian music to pre-Western chanting. How has this cultural music resonated with you in your life that you wanted it to be the background for this show? I have a couple things to say about this. One is that we are made of what we listen to. So I try to take care with what I let into my ears, while at the same time I make an effort to expand my listening horizons.
When I was a child, my mom played various so-called "world music" albums with music from Brazil, Israel, Ireland, India...In addition, until about the age of 13, I listened primarily to classical music, especially romantic piano music and modern classical orchestral pieces, and to musicals. I sometimes attended synagogue, where the great soulfulness and pain of the modes we sang in resonated deeply. I am supremely grateful for all of these influences, because what we hear as children becomes embedded in our consciousness and creates how we hear as adults. I also believe we don’t come into this world empty or neutral, and I came out of the womb with an inclination towards dissonance (thrilling), towards small changes within rhythmic repetition (surprising), towards non-Western scales (what I now know was specifically the phrygian, dorian and locrian modes), and towards melodies that jumped around a lot (I love a good octave leap).
So when I was given the incredible opportunity to write anything I wanted, I decided to allow these natural inclinations to live as fully as I could allow them.
6. What was it like to hear Margo and this amazing cast bring your music to life? It was glorious. My gratitude to the cast for their attention, care, love, talent, skill, investment, and commitment can not be overstated. They are wonders. Musical warriors. With openness, they were willing to play and experiment and grow.They were true collaborators and artists and River spirits.
And Margo, sheesh, her instrument and raw talent are unreal! The musicianship, the sensitivity, the maturity and the range of this woman, whew! It’s like music grows out of her body spontaneously in the present moment. We had been working together on the singing of this role for a number of years before the Off-Broadway production, so the best part for me was getting to hear how her relationship to the music evolved over time. I cannot imagine having found a more perfect person to originate that role.
7. What went through your head when you found out Tamar of the River was going to be preserved with a cast recording? What was the best part about the recording process? What made you want to have the recording put out by Yellow Sound Label? What went through my head Hell fucking yes!
The recording day at Avatar was one of the best days of my life. I love this cast, we were all so excited to be together (it had been six months since the show closed). I could feel everyone’s love of the project and the desire to make something great together. I loved getting to be in the room with the singers, conducting them and singing with them, focusing purely on the music.
Why Yellow Sound Label? Easy: Michael Croiter. Mike is a a terrific person, musician, and producer. He is extremely collaborative, but also firm, clear and strong. By getting behind new and innovative artists, and by committing his invaluable skills to lesser-known shows, Mike is filling a great need in the musical theatre world.
8. Who or what inspired you to become composer/writer? Wow, I’m not totally sure. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t creating music, plays, performances, dances. Writing music and singing were, for me, a natural extension of being alive.
But maybe I can credit "the piano" itself. When I was four years old, my parents got an old brown upright piano (with a strange blocky mirror on top of it) from a cousin, and asked if I wanted to play piano. I said yes. I liked to play things, why not?
I performed my first piano compositions when I was about eight or nine. They had titles like "Spiral," "Nostalgia," "Jagged Dance." Later, I wrote singer-songwriter songs. Here’s an example lyric: "I try to trust but I get betrayed/I think that trust is an empty name/and so I fly but I get too high/I’ve got to dance away before I start to cry." Most of my other songs were about Nazis and how screwed up this world is :)
9. What have you learned about yourself from being a composer/writer? Composing, writing, singing, they are practices for me. I engage with these practices every day and through them am reflected back to myself in all my weaknesses and my strengths. I compose because that’s how I’m oriented towards the world.
But here’s something concrete: During Tamar, I learned how susceptible I still was to the opinion of others. It was easy to become overwhelmed by fears that my work wasn’t good enough, that it wasn’t enough, that it didn’t move enough people, that it wasn’t successful enough. There were some very challenging times for me. I had done a lot of inner work on this illusion of outer recognition already up to that point in my life, so I think what the experience taught me was how much more work I have to do. That strong and centered inner place is not something you arrive at, but something that has to be cultivated every day. I’ve been spending weeks at artists residencies this year doing just that!
10. What's the best advice you've ever received? Casinos are for suckers. And...Get comfortable with doubt.
11. If you could have any super power, which one would you choose? Can I have three? To communicate with other species of mammals. To dig a fresh-water well with my bare hands anytime, anywhere. and Flying.
12. If you could create your own signature drink, what would you call it and what ingredients would you put in it? The Marigold: Vodka and maple-syrup sweetened ginger ale with essence of lavender and sage. Serve with a square of Raaka dark chocolate and flecks of stardust.
Marisa is a Jonathan Larson Award winning composer, singer and voice teacher passionate about the human ability to express and communicate through singing/sound-making. Her music has been hailed as mesmerizing, inventive, meaty and unique, rich and distinctive, accessible but never derivative. The music for Marisa’a experimental musical Tamar of the River written with Joshua H. Cohen (Prospect Theatre, off Broadway 2013) was called "exquisite" by the New York Times, and "the most unique and beautiful I’ve heard in musical theater" by Theatremania. The cast album (starring Margo Seibert) was released in September 2014 on Yellow Sound Label and was called "majestically opulent" (Broadway World), "intriguing…full of unbounded inventiveness" (Playbill). Tamar of the River was also produced as a theatrical oratorio by New York Theatre Barn and Choral Chameleon under the direction of Joe Barros and Vince Peterson.