Music with Mythic Proportions

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In 2003, the acclaimed, openly gay singer-pianist-composer Patricia Barber became one of the few Jazz musicians ever to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. It was this incredible opportunity that allowed the brilliant Barber the ability to compose her most ambitious and affecting work of her career. "Mythologies" is a song cycle based on Greek myth as told in Ovid’s "Metamorphoses". The moving and revelatory work re-imagines a number of familiar characters from Ovid’s work in the context of a cyclic collection of contemporary Jazz works giving these eleven timeless stories a unique and expressively compelling musical setting provided by Barber’s dynamic quartet. Recently, Barber agreed to answer a few questions from O&AN about her work.

What initially drew you to The Metamorphoses of Ovid as the inspiration for this work?

I had seen the Mary Zimmerman theatrical adaptation of Metamorphoses and it inspired me to pick up the book. Surprisingly the book is fun, smart reading.

What are you as an artist attempting to convey to your listeners with this work?

My task was simply to write a song cycle with my best effort. It is what I proposed to the Guggenheim Foundation and I felt duty bound to do that. 

Did the composition of Mythologies require a much different process of writing than you have employed in past albums? 

Because the material is so sublime and the characters rich and because I took the honor of getting the Fellowship seriously, I decided to spend as much time studying as I would composing. While I have spent a lifetime studying the great American songbook, I wanted to enrich the language of jazz with new elements. So I studied harmony from classical music and poetic technique from the great poets and allowed myself to use pop hooks. 

The Metamorphoses of Ovid are populated with a veritable legion of characters. What process did you employ in deciding which characters would be included in the cycle?

It was easy to choose the characters. They simply jumped off the pages at me and became a part of my life. I did want to make sure I had some kind of balance of funny and tragic characters. In the end, the 11 I came up with felt just right. 

Which characters in the cycle do you feel the most affinity and kinship with?

As I was composing each song, I fell in love with each character. I have particular affinities for many of them…I’m constantly Moonstruck, I love Morpheus and Pygmalion and Persephone and The Hours just breaks my heart every time I hear the choir sing it. 

As you worked on "Mythologies" was there any fear that your fans might not be able to relate to a jazz song cycle that was based on a Roman’s interpretation of Ancient Greek myth?

Can you imagine if I allowed myself to think like that? I can’t afford to. I always hope for the best and hope that I can continue to make a living with it.   Certain parts of my natural repertoire are easier to grasp upon first listening and others take more time. Somebody has to lead the way and remain incorruptible. I do have a title in mind for my next which will be a breath of fresh air…."Summer Singles."

As a fan of Nina Simone I find myself fascinated with your juxtaposition of Icarus with her. Tell me about when you made the connection in your mind between the two and why you associate them together so heavily.

Icarus took a great risk in order to fly. There is no gain without risk and risk can involve great pain and humiliation and even death. We would have nothing in this world without those who take on great risk. No advancements, no art, no science, no flight. 

You describe the song "Narcissus" as "the gay wedding song". Given your well publicized reticence to questions concerning your sexuality, could this be seen as a signal that you are more willing now to discuss your personal life as an out lesbian?

I am not reticent about discussing my lesbianism. I’m quite open about it. It’s just that as a topic, it gets boring. But I believe every single interview touches upon it at some point. Certainly writing "Narcissus" and calling it the ‘gay wedding song’ is not any form of reticence. For me the gay topic is just one of many. 

There are a few songs in the cycle that seem to have a certain political bent when viewed from ascertain angle. How much do current events and politics figure into your music?

It is almost impossible to avoid writing about current events when you’re a songwriter. I try to make sure though that the percentage of topical songs is low and that most of my songs will last and last as they are about the universal themes of love, loss and desire. 

In past interviews you have referred to yourself as "fairly political and outspoken". What do you feel are the most relevant issues facing Americans today?

The environment is my biggest concern. It seems there will always be wars, but there may not always be undeveloped land for water drainage and wetlands for animals and trees for oxygen. 

I read somewhere that you were close friends with Diana Krall and that it upset you when harsh things were said about her in the press. You are certainly no stranger to negative criticism having been called "the Ice Queen from Hell" by one reviewer while another major publication ran a piece on you a while back entitled "Interview with a Bitch". As an artist, how does it affect you when you are met with such harshness in the press?

It’s never easy, but you learn not to read your press. By now, Diana Krall doesn’t read her press and I’m learning not to as well. Writers have all kinds of personal issues they use criticism for. One of the biggest issues they have is trying to make a living and build a career as a writer since they are obviously not writing the great American novel.

O&AN is giving away copies of Patricia Barber’s "Mythologies". To enter send an email to F. Daniel Kent  with "Myth" in the subject line and your name and mailing address in the body. Winners will be selected at random and notified via e-mail.