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Interview: Corey Dargel, Matt Marks & Mellissa Hughes

This week two records were released on the New Amsterdam label by two people whom I happen to know and think are really talented and interesting composers: Someone Will Take Care of Me by Corey Dargel and Matt Marks’ The Little Death, Volume One.  To call the former a singer-songwriter (though he is a singer who does write his own songs) just feels wrong, as much as it does to call the latter an opera composer (though The Little Death, Volume One in fact is an opera).  Let’s just say that the mold’s been broken.

So rather than write about them, I decided to let them speak for themselves (aided by one Mellissa Hughes, who is not only the brilliant singer joining Matt on TLDV1, she’s also his partner in life) in this double composer interview!  That’s right, you heard me!

Just get them.  They are worth it.  But again, don’t take my word for it, take theirs…

Corey Dargel on ‘art-pop,’ amputations, and hit songs  

Your work on Someone Will Take Care of Me  is more a series of songs than “pieces” (so you say), even though it is on a “classical” label and you have music written down etc?  How does that work? 

I think the term “classical” is where we run into trouble because it no longer has a clear meaning. How ridiculous is it that the term “classical” is used to describe music that’s being composed in the 21st century?

I prefer the term “art.”  I know, I know, all the pretentiousness alarm-bells are going off, but for me, to call something “art” is merely to request that your prospective audience pay careful attention to what you’ve made.  Here’s another way of putting it: I’m not interested in competing with commercial culture for your attention.  I’m going to assume that I’ve already got your attention, and so my goal is to hold on to it and to reward you for paying attention.

At some point, I called my songs “art-pop” songs, and that phrase seems to have stuck to me.  It’s all right, I guess.  I’m unabashedly embracing the form of the pop song (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, etc.), but I’m using it as a point of departure.  I’m trying to make songs that are engaging on the surface but that are also intricate and complex enough to reveal something deeper on the second, third, and fourth listens.  There are definitely a few pop musicians who make wonderfully intricate and complex music, but generally speaking those pop musicians tend to make one or two mainstream hit records before they are permitted, or before they allow themselves, to move toward experimentation and complexity, and they’re usually not working with classical chamber ensembles.

When you are writing a piece for yourself and one other person, how do you think differently than if you are writing for a chamber group?

It’s kind of like having sex with one person versus having sex with multiple people.  With a chamber group, I want to make sure that everyone gives and receives with equal opportunity and pleasure.  And no single person is responsible for meeting all of my desires.

With a single musician, I get and give more intimately and intensely.  We can sometimes watch porn (i.e. use a pre-recorded accompaniment track) to enhance our experience, but there should be no doubt that the individual musician is wholly satisfied and wholly devoted to satisfying me.

Why a whole series of songs about amputations?

Not just amputations, but voluntary amputations.  I’ve always been interested in what I would call “anti-inspiration.”  I look for topics that are bizarre and that I cannot relate to.  Then I do research until I’m able to connect with the topic.  By the time I finish writing a piece, I aspire to relate, at least on some level, to a desire that at first seemed completely unrelatable.  I eventually sympathize with the characters in my songs.  In a way, it’s the opposite of what people expect from a typical songwriter.  Instead of writing autobiographical, confessional songs, I’m writing songs in order to eventually be able to personally relate to something that initially seems strange to me.

“Removable Parts,” and voluntary amputation, is definitely an extreme example, but most, if not all, of my music is an earnest attempt to paint a sympathetic portrait of people who can’t, or won’t, conform to societal norms.  I don’t intend to romanticize madness, but I want to issue a reminder that we sometimes have a very narrow way of interacting with the world, and that our definition of “sanity” might need to be revisited.

Do you aspire to the hit song? 

It would be a nice surprise to have written a hit song, but I have never thought to myself while writing music, “What can I do to make this song a hit song?”

Who would you call your most serious influences?

I’ve learned from past experience that as soon as I name any of my influences, my music gets judged on the basis of how it compares to their music.  Especially with this current album, Someone Will Take Care of Me, I’m writing the kind of music that I want to hear but that doesn’t yet exist.  I’ve come to believe that that’s the only reason to write music; otherwise you’re just being derivative.  I’m going to avoid naming my influences to protect what I hope is a unique style of songwriting that this new album exemplifies.

What’s next?

I’ve got two projects, one small-scale and one large-scale.

The small one is an evening of songs for me singing with violin and looping device, written for Cornelius Dufallo (aka Neil) of the string quartet ETHEL (Neil is the ideal musician who not only plays well but also happens to compose music for his own instrument.  Every musician should also compose for his or her own instrument.).  You can get a free download of a three-song EP performed by Neil and myself here.

The large-scale project is an opera about three psychiatric patients who each believes that he/she is Jesus Christ.  It’s being developed with the ensemble Newspeak and the presenter New York Theatre Workshop.  The librettist is the amazing novelist Andrew Sean Greer, author of “The Story of a Marriage” and “The Confessions of Max Tivoli.”   It’s going to take forever to write, but I assure you it will be unlike any opera you’ve ever heard.  You may even walk down the aisle and make a profession of faith before the performance is finished.  The question is: To which of the three Christs will you make your profession of faith?

Matt Marks on The Little Death, the word ‘opera,’ and collaborating with his art/life partner

Tell us a little about how you conceived of this project.

The Little Death came out of a convergence of two types of pieces I was writing around three years ago: simple voice/piano songs with repetitious lyrics and quirky sample-based electronica in Ableton Live. The songs often had strong Christian undercurrents in them and the electronic tracks were often based on samples from my collection of 70s Christian LPs, so it all just gradually fell together. After writing a few of these hybrid tracks I began to find a loose story emerging and was kind of like, ‘oh shit, I think I’m writing an opera.’.

What’s the ideal staging look like?

Coming from the classical/new music chamber scene, most of the concerts we see, and participate in, are one-offs. Naturally, this was how my perspective of the live TLDV1 was skewed, so performances up until now were framed this way. Luckily we’ve started working with our terrific director Rafael Gallegos, who has been pushing us to develop a more heavily-staged show geared toward a theatrical run. The theatricality of our upcoming run at the Incubator Arts Project (formerly The Ontological-Hysteric Theater) is going to be largely environmental. Without giving too much away, we’re planning on creating the atmosphere of a Christian youth group-style church lock-in, with Mellissa, myself, and The Little Death Praise Choir as the featured performers on that particular church function. I love the concept of theater as a type of haunted house; from the moment you walk in the door you’re in our world.

What do you think of the word “opera” and how does your work apply?

I grappled a bit with whether I would call it an opera, a musical, or simply a concept album. Eventually, I decided on “opera” for two reasons: 1. All of the text is sung, not spoken; 2. My main resistance to calling it an opera was out of fear of sounding pretentious, and that’s a bullshit reason. It believe it’s a unique type of opera because it’s not too far in either of the extreme directions: it’s not super traditional and it’s not super radical, which is why I think some people want to call it a musical. But fuck that, just because it’s fun and the ‘hummability’ quotient is high doesn’t mean it can’t be opera.

Do you think LD will be controversial?  Should it be? 

I would love for it to be controversial for purely capitalist reasons! But if it ends up being so, I worry that it will be a superficial controversy. Even though it’s a opera about fundamentalist Christianity and sexual repression, it’s really not about making fun of Christians. It comes directly out of my own strange associations and fetishes related to American southern gospel music and imagery. I think there are also explorations of misogyny, sado-masochism, and psychopathy which will become more apparent in The Little Death: Vol. 2 and will likely prove to be more acutely controversial.

Did you do the text yourself?  How does that work?

The text is all mine, with the exception of He Touched Me, which is a cover, and OMG I’m Shot, which is a setting of the final words of John Lennon: “Oh my God, I’m shot.”. The style of lyric writing is possibly the biggest hump for people to get over when listening to TLDV1. It’s highly repetitious and requires the listener to fill-in-the-blanks quite a bit, with the music propelling much of the dramatic progress, while the text remains static. Even in moments of dialogue, I view the text as snapshots of a moment in time, related to that character’s mental state, rather than fluid action or communication. TLDV1 also makes great use of semantic satiation. The words and phrases do in fact ‘die on the vine’ so to speak, but the listeners’ perception of the meaning ebbs and flows while the music shapes the emotional impact.

How was it being partners both in life and in art?

It can be pretty intense, especially rocking it for nigh on three-plus years! The composer/performer connection is naturally pretty perfect (much better than say, baker/stewardess), but it helps that Mellissa has the perfect voice for the kind of music I write: poppy yet acro-fucking-batic. The line between ‘collaborators’ and ‘lovers’ can often blur though, which is a bad thing. We’re still figuring it out but it’s good to set times in which music/business is verboten. We’ve had plenty of “TLDV1 is off-limits”-dates.

Is there another collaboration with Mellissa in the works?

Aside from TLDV2, which is on the horizon, we’ve each found ourselves in each others worlds somewhat by default. I’ve written a piece for Mellissa’s new music ensemble Newspeak called A Portrait of Glenn Beck, Mellissa has sang with my ensemble Alarm Will Sound, and Mellissa is in fact conducting the premiere of a piece of mine tonight at Galapagos! (ed: alas, this is past at this point) We also have a offbeat satirical new music ensemble, along with James Moore, called Ensemble de Sade, which mixes new music concert traditions with BSDM concepts. Mellissa is planning a vocal recital soon, and I’m writing a new piece for that as well.

Mellissa Hughes on responsibility, new classical music, and future collaborations

What’s different about singing a score like The Little Death, Volume One — which is entirely electronic — as opposed to a more conventional opera?

I guess the most obvious difference is that when working with electronic music, your sense of time and phrasing, rubato, etc has been measured out for you, so there is some wiggle room for expressive license, but it’s within an already determined structure. Although, there is a huge difference in the vocal technique that I used to sing Matt’s opera and more conventional, but i’ll discuss more on that later. Also, Matt uses a lot of text repetition, so the challenge for me to relay a narrative within repeated text lies in making new vocal choices – slight changes each time I sing the same phrase hopefully result in longer unfolding of the aural narrative as well.

What is your ideal staging of LD?

I’d like to see Rafael Gallegos incorporate pyro-technics and some wire work… and sadly, I’m only kind of kidding. In envisioning a staged production we tried to maintain some of the church lock-in feel, but also tie in some of the fantastical feel of a Variety Hour. If He Touched Me could have synchronized swimmers I think we’d really hit it out of the park. 

 Do you feel a responsibility to new classical music?  If you do, why?

Absolutely. I really enjoy premiering works written for me because I feel a responsibility to translate the composer’s voice, it’s one thing to recreate a new La Boheme musical experience, but quite another to sing something no one has ever sung, and I think a lot about my approach to that, my approach to the consonants, vowels, rhythm, the connection to the text. The new music circle has recently engaged in heated debate on the validity of pop based music, and although I have no taken a public stand on this I will say this, the whole notion of whether something should be held in less regard or whatnot because of what influenced the creation of it is baloney. And I would love to hear how Josquin de Prez would weigh in on this discussion,but I think Art should elicit a response within the listener and viewer, regardless of whether that response is passive or reactive. Charles Ives had a quote about “music to have your teeth drilled by” I think he was commenting on the changing function of music in our lives. I have no desire to create art to be played in the background. I think music should challenge us, and as an artist I want to translate from the page and create moments that make people react and think critically. The minute that I begin to think about how someone is perceiving my “art” or the validity of what I’m creating I’ve lost my right to perform in front of them.

How much of a stretch as a performer is this piece?  Did you have to learn anything new to sing it?

I had to learn a completely different technique in a way. Matt didn’t want a polished vocal sound, and was always encouraging me to make it sound less trained. When I’m singing a role I think a lot about how my character would sing a particular passage. ‘Girl’ is tremendously confident and sexy and powerful, but I needed to portray that in a more concept album way, and less operatic or straight music theater. For me that meant making vocal choices that reflected the drama, and not just in dynamics or tone quality. I took some real vocal risks, singing out of tune occasionally, sacrificing technique to sing exuberantly during the shape note section, bringing my chest voice up as far as it could go. 

As a whole, this piece is more taxing than most opera roles I’ve performed. The first number I sing OMG I’m Shot encompasses the vocal extremes for me. I sing my lowest (B an octave below middle C) and highest (top G chested) within a few minutes and then sing and dance my way for another 6 minutes, followed by another 40 minutes of opera. A lot of my singing is really low, often under Matt’s voice, and then randomly high and belty. He Touched Me, ironically is the easiest to sing, probably because I’ve been singing that style since I was just a wee one, and I like to think the voice of God moves through me too!

How was it being partners both in life and in art?

What a great question. Figuring out how to work creatively together is a fine balance for any duo, but obviously has different challenges for a couple off stage as well. I feel like it’s been an ongoing project for us to figure out how the other works creatively for the past 3 years! I’m very much a morning person, a list maker, one who needs to know what is expected out of a practice, or a recording take. I’m also not capable of resting, I’m a putterer by nature, but it’s important to me to put things down at the end of the day or I go crazy. Our struggle has been how to balance our vastly different work styles without driving the other one crazy. We try to avoid “business” talk unless the other one is okay with it. When we’re both balancing lots of other projects, we even schedule meetings with each other, one hour during the day to “brain dump” on the other person, make action lists, and there are plenty of IM questions from separate work rooms in the apartment. I’m definitely the spreadsheet maker of the two of us. My world exists in color-coded columns and rows.

Is there another collaboration in the works?

Other than TLDV2, which is still in its gestational stage, we have a few other collaborative projects together. The Melly and Mafoo Variety Hour is our attempt at a low tech collaborative project, and Ensemble de Sade which we run with James Moore is another collaborative creative outlet for us. We make great music together, and people love watching us perform, so we must be doing something right I guess. 

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.

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