To most kids growing up in Brooklyn during the late '40s and early '50s nothing, except perhaps breathing, was more important than baseball. And baseball meant the Dodgers. I was no exception to this phenomenon. I can probably still recite most of the starting lineup, complete with uniform numbers of some of those teams. One of my most vivid memories is the first time I saw Jackie Robinson play. I was very young, just 7 or 8 years old, but if I close my eyes and set my mind to it I can recall the images as if they occurred yesterday. Here was Robinson just tearing up the field, slugging home runs, stealing bases with abandon and making all but impossible plays in the field. Yet many of the home-town fans were screaming the most horrific insults and racial epithets at him. The impression that was left on that eight year old remains to this day.
Years later, after I had been composing for some time I began to think about writing a piece that would somehow celebrate the life of this great man. For the past twenty years or so ideas have come and gone, but I could never reach the point where I felt confident enough to make a serious attempt at a beginning. All composers have their own particular (peculiar?) way of working especially when it comes to getting started on a new project, which for me almost always seems to be the most painful part of the process. The idea or inspiration to get things under way can come at any time, sometimes from the most unlikely of sources. In this case, the impetus was the 1991 incident in Los Angeles in which a motorist was severely beaten by a group of policemen after having led them on a high-speed automobile chase through the streets of the city. As the details of the event were reported it was learned that the policemen were shouting some of those same racial epithets at Rodney King that I had heard the fans in Brooklyn screaming at Robinson in 1949.
I began to wonder; in nearly half a century, where have we come as a people? Why is it we still can't get past this madness concerning the color of a person's skin? Why is it we seem to have become more intolerant than ever of each others beliefs, ideas and opinions? Why is there so much unadulterated hatred in the air?
Thinking along these lines, the idea for a new work began to take shape, a piece that would address some of the issues that seem to be tearing the fabric of our society apart. I knew immediately that a text of some kind would be needed. But what kind? Poetry? Prose? A combination of both? How should the text be set? More importantly, where was I going to get this text? As luck would have it, one day I walked out of Music Hall and ran into Harriett Page. I told her what was on my mind and without taking a breath she said, "Call John Chenault, he's the one you want." What was it about the way Harriett said it that made me just mindlessly obey her command? I really don't know but that was it. I called John, we met a couple of times, decided that we were on each others' wavelength, and immersed ourselves in the project. In a very short time the parameters were set-we would use a female singer, a male narrator and full orchestra. The next question was, what type of singer should we use? We both knew that we wanted the text clearly understood without the audience having to read it during performance - which is annoying for several reasons, including the certainty that we would have an iron-clad guarantee that at least once during the performance, in one of the most quiet passages of the work, the sound of two thousand people turning their pages would reverberate throughout the hall. We wanted someone who had flawless diction, would be comfortable working in different styles, knew how to work a microphone and could act. A tall order - but I knew immediately that we were talking about Cleo Laine. I had wanted to work on a project for this wonderful musician for many years. Here was my opportunity! We hoped that she would be game for the role. I wrote a rough description of what we had in mind and faxed it to her. When she called and said that she would be interested we were overjoyed and work began in earnest.
Ghost In Machine was a very unusual project for me. I have collaborated with someone else on only a few other occasions and I knew it would be difficult for me not to be completely in control of every aspect of the project. I didn't realize it at the time but this was to become the most satisfying collaborative effort that I've ever had.
We originally thought that the best thing to do would be for John to compose the text, leaving the business of my setting it until after he had refined it to his satisfaction. Meanwhile, I would work on some purely instrumental sections. After a few false starts we realized that this was not working. For one thing, because of the sheer size of the work we would really be better off working together, bouncing ideas around, each suggesting changes to the other, trying out many variations on the same material. Once we found our working "groove" the course became smoother, and a lot more enjoyable.
As the piece took shape we had to decide on what kind of voice we wanted for the narrator. At first we thought it wouldn't be too difficult to get someone with a big voice and clear diction. But as the text developed and we saw that there were at least four different characters that our narrator had to portray we realized that what we really needed was not just someone capable of reading the text in a clear straight-forward manner, but a highly skilled actor who could be as convincing in the role of the game show host as that of the televangelist. Luck shined on us for the second time. I called a former classmate of mine, the actress Jessica Walter, whom I figured, being a former president of the Screen Actors Guild, probably would know just about every actor in Hollywood. Sure enough, after grilling me for awhile about the project, wanting to know exactly what the needs of the role were, she said, "Go for Paul Winfield, he's the one."
As to the musical language of "Ghost:" I decided to use whatever language that I though would best convey the message of the text. To some it will come as a reflex action to assign a different label to every last stylistic change that the music goes through. At times this works easily, but what do we do when the music refuses to cooperate and becomes something akin to trying to get the proverbial square peg into the round hole? The prejudices and stereotypes that exist in life are alive, well and flourishing in music too. We refer to "serious music," to which Dizzy Gillespie once replied, "What do they think we're doing, fooling around?" The endless debate as to whether "it's jazz or not" usually can be funny, tragic, idiotic and almost always surreal.
The introduction to Ghost In Machine can be thought of as a mini-overture. I've tried to invoke the feeling of a viewer changing TV channels with his remote control with the sound of a high xylophone note together with two fast maraca shakes.
The aria The Garden Party is a fairly straightforward piece in three sections, fast - slow - fast. The second section which is very free presents the solo oboe in dialogue with the voice. The material in this section forms the basis for the cello Duet which comes in part 3.
The Evening Blues is not anything like a blues in the musical sense. The dream-like atmosphere at the beginning is invoked by the regular repeated figure in the orchestra over which the vocalist (reporter) floats with abandon. As she gets caught up in the tragic events that she is reporting, comments or screams can be heard via the solo cello, bass clarinet, solo violin and solo trumpet with the entire orchestra finally erupting with a comment of its own.
The televangelist's sermon begins with the accompaniment of four percussionists who join him one at a time. To the wailing of a solo voice and muted trumpet he speaks of the Middle Passage, finally imploring "Children, I need your help this morning." At this point, starting with a solo piano and gradually building into the sound of the full orchestra, a blues in a style that we are readily familiar with accompanies him as he changes character. He screams for help, finally asking Sister Morning Glory to sing his favorite hymn to the accompaniment of a church-like organ. As the youngster sings this Hymn of hate he at first approves, but as he realizes what she is saying, he gradually descends into madness, the orchestra portraying violent disapproval of her words with sharp comments and outbursts. Perhaps in his madness he hears the strains of another of his favorites, Onward Christian Soldiers. At his cry of distress "Run for your lives children... I see the sails of the beast" the orchestra begins the only purely instrumental piece in the entire work, Voyage In The Beast.
With four drummers stationed in different parts of the stage this movement is a voyage both chronologically and geographically. There are eight sections which can be said to move from West to North Africa across the Atlantic to the New World, from early 17th century to the late 20th century. The music is not meant to translate the styles of the day or mimic them in any authentic way. It is rather an allegorical voyage, an impression of moving from one location to another not only in time and space but in society as well. Listeners are left to decide for themselves what the relatively simple sounds of the drums at the beginning might mean. Toward the end, the brief rendition of two generations of jazz, played simultaneously, provokes a violent reaction from the main orchestra. The forces clash until echoes of the Hymn (of hate) silence them all.
The Evening Blues Reprise is a different setting of the same music heard in the earlier "Evening Blues." This time the atmosphere is a more familiar one with the addition of a "scat" vocal solo in unison with the solo trumpet. At what seems to be the end of the number, the channel is suddenly changed. Our viewer watches The Race Game but switches back immediately after to view the end of the blues.
The music in the Duet section is a development of the middle section of The Garden Party. Each cellist eventually blends with, becomes "one" with Adam and Angel as the two are visited again. After a short orchestral outburst an extended soprano saxophone solo serves as the introduction to It's Too Late For Love, set as a jazz ballad.
Is this my piece to Jackie Robinson? Well, we could dedicate it to him. But no, he really deserves his own. Hopefully a future project.