This Friday and Saturday evening, The Jazz Gallery will present two special performances of MOBRO, a jazz oratorio from the saxophonist/composer John Ellis and the playwright Andy Bragen. The piece, just released on record, was commissioned by The Jazz Gallery in 2011, and takes its inspiration from the journey of the Mobro 4000, a garbage barge from New York that unsuccessfully tried to unload its unwanted cargo at various ports across the eastern seaboard in 1987. In the hands of Ellis and Bragen, the story is transformed into a moving drama that challenges our concept of the unwanted, whether human or material.
NB: There will only be one set each night, starting at 9 p.m.
We at The Jazz Gallery met John and Andy at Andy’s apartment in the East Village to talk about their working process and the challenges of combining jazz and theater:
The Jazz Gallery: The New York jazz and theater communities are ones that don’t overlap all that often. How did you two meet and start working together?
Andy Bragen: I was taking a playwriting course up at Hunter College with an old mentor, Tina Howe, and John’s mother apparently was up for the year on a fellowship, getting a second Master’s degree at Hunter, and was in the playwriting class. We became friends, and I mentioned that there was an opening in my house coming up—this was 1995 or ’96.
John Ellis: I came up in ’97, so it probably was late ’96.
AB: She said, “My son is looking for a place.” So I met John then in 1997. He ended up living in the same house as me for a year or two, and we became good friends. We knew each other for about 10 years before we started working with each other and had seen each other’s work and had an artistic conversation through a friendship.
JE: It really was the first Gallery commission I got called Dreamscapes where I was thinking about the potential for interaction between music and language. I wanted to start with these dream-oriented poems. I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do, but I needed the words to react to. Andy was just the obvious choice, so we just started there. It was a cool first effort and we learned a lot.
TJG: Your first two projects, Dreamscapes and Ice Siren (both Gallery commissions), were more of a series of vignettes compared to MOBRO, which is more dramatic in scope. What made you want to move in this direction for this project? How did that change your working process?
AB: The second one [Ice Siren] was also more plot-driven.
JE: We went from dreams to nightmares. The projects have had a natural evolution. The first one felt like, “Here are the words, and here is the music.” Andy would read the poem, then we would do a performance around it. The words and the music, at least in terms of the presentation, they kind of had separate lives. So the obvious next step was to start writing songs.
In the second one, we had more of a plot. It was a kind of twisted love story. It was still a dream, but now a nightmare with two characters.
One thing that we experimented with was what comes first: does the music come first and the words follow, or do the words come first and the music follow? That leads you to different things. The main thing that’s motivated us is this interaction between spoken language and music, and I think the plot part of it becomes a natural thing to explore.
As a playwright, Andy deals with narrative all the time, but as jazz musicians we don’t do that as much—or at least not over the same length of time. I think it’s fun, then, for a jazz musician to think, “How can we plan an event that will unfold over a longer stretch of time—more than a tune—and still preserve the improvisational things that we like.” It’s challenging.
TJG: What drew you to the story of the MOBRO 4000 originally?
AB: It’s always been in my head, I guess. I’m from New York City, and that story’s just been up there, but we’ve talked about garbage and recycling; it’s something that interested both of us. There was no specific process to get to this, but it came into my head and we started talking about it, and we both got excited about it. I think the reasons we got excited about it had to do with the ecological aspect and the search for home aspect: this nature of journey. It felt theatrical and musical, something that became an event that could be explored artistically.
JE: People of a certain age in New York all remember the story of the MOBRO, which was fascinating to me. I was in North Carolina—I don’t remember it—but it also had a North Carolina component and a New Orleans component. It began connecting on all these different levels that made it feel right.
TJG: Did all these geographic connections manifest themselves in the music?
JE: Sort of. I would say the musical themes that come around, there are a lot of intervals of a fifth; there’s a little phrase that’s repeated in a lot of different sections. A lot of that was more connected to the emotional journey that we came up with.
AB: Well, one specific thing from the original journey that I think came out in the piece was the fact that there were multiple rejections of the MOBRO. That was essential.
JE: And the one section called “Military” is based on an actual event. We thought it was interesting that the rejections seemed to escalate, and I think it was in Mexico where they called the military out to keep the barge from docking. The final part of it is a sort of sad acceptance of death, and then there’s a joyful thing at the end. New Orleans was one of the barge’s destinations, and it’s also a place where I’ve spent a lot of time, so we saw the ending as a sort of New Orleans jazz funeral.
TJG: From your perspective, Andy, what was the challenge of fitting your words into a form where the musical structure isn’t going to be the exact same every time?
AB: In a way, it hasn’t affected the words too much because there is a little space for improvisation with words for Miles Griffith, but most of the improvisation happens in the instrumental periods after the lyrics of the section have come out. The larger sense is thinking of different ways of storytelling with the music being abstract, but being able to create a strong emotional experience, whereas words function in a different way. Both are ways of telling stories: how much information do we need from words versus how much information do we need in terms of an emotional journey.
Part of the challenge with MOBRO was that we actually mapped out the emotional journey of it all at the same time as we were exploring what kind of plot we might have. It allowed us to balance this abstracted storytelling that may not come through exactly to an audience. But we sort of mapped out, “This song feels this way, this song feels that way.”
TJG: I think that’s part of what makes MOBRO so interesting: it’s not a literal retelling of the garbage barge’s journey, but something more metaphorical.
JE: We labored over that: how much do we make it about this, how much do we not? What vantage point are we telling this from? Is it okay that Miles is the storm and the garbage? Is that too weird for an audience to understand? How much does it matter whether it tells a clear story? And at some point we made peace with the idea that it might be better if we don’t tell it in a really literal way, because it leaves room for the audience to have an experience with it. They can bring their own journey to it, and if it’s a story for them of this garbage barge, maybe they can see it in there, but they can find other things in there, too. I think if you leave things a bit more metaphorical, it has more power to communicate across a wide territory.
TJG: You got to work on the project a bit during this residency in Santa Fe, working with a theater company. How did this experience clarify the final structure?
AB: One is that we spent a week in the same place and had a chance to work! We spent some time with the actors, but we also had a chance to actually work in the same place without any of the usual distractions.
With the actors, we explored different kinds of rhythmic text and physicality, and it gave us some insights. I think what’s always interesting is that there’s this residue of different things: there’s residue of the actors’ performance in some of the language that we came to, there’s residue of the original MOBRO story. It’s almost like you’re remastering a recording so much that it becomes something new.
The actors were interesting to watch, and I think working with human beings and getting them to play animate and inanimate objects allowed us to find a way to have a fluidity between the garbage and the human. The singers didn’t have to be simply people, or human characters. We had a plasticity of identity that the actors may have implicitly helped us discover.
TJG: You spoke about working with the actors on different aspects of physicality. Do the singers have very conscious theatrical motion, or is it more like a straight jazz concert?
AB: This is the core of something we go back and forth on. I’ll let John answer it.
JE: At the moment, the answer is no, and part of the reason for that is that we’re always in a limited space and always never have enough time to rehearse, and everyone’s always underpaid; it’s the whole not-for-profit thing. So it always feels like something that would be cool, but, to me, it’s always felt like a lesser priority.
For Andy, I think he always feels like the piece is missing this element, and I’m wondering if we can ask the singers to do all these things because they’re not trained actors. How do you take musicians that are independent thinkers and write their own music and do their own thing and are coming to this as a work of music, and then start treating them as if they’re actors? It’s not something that I resist out of principle; I just feel we don’t always have time to push it to that level. We will probably do a little more of that in this upcoming production of the piece—at least to the point of what people are wearing and what not.
For a lot of the project, it’s worked with Andy bringing his theater perspective to what is essentially a work of music. What we haven’t done—but what would be fun—is do something that is essentially a work of theater where I bring something else to it. I think that’s something that we’d both be interested in doing, but we haven’t figured out how to make that happen yet.
AB: One thing we’re working on for this show is having clean transitions between sections: how do we make the physical transitions going on and off stage as clean as the musical transitions?
JE: I think for a vast majority of people, stuff like that really affects how they experience a piece, but it’s something that I don’t pay attention to much. If the music isn’t happening, that’s all I really see.
AB: In so many jazz performances that I’ve seen, there’s always this moment where the musicians are flipping through pages trying to find the next piece. The music might be amazing, but it’s always the same habit. From a theater standpoint, it’s like, “Oh, here we go again.” You’re not playing behind a black curtain; there’s an audience watching you.
JE: I think that the informality of that is part of what the appeal is. There’s a culture of informality in jazz, which I’ve always liked. If you do too much to sort those transitions out, for some people in the jazz world at least, it begins to feel pretentious. It starts to be the opposite of informal. Like in the classical world people dress a certain way and come out and bow and do all this stuff, which from a jazz musician’s perspective feels like pretense.
AB: Except here’s the thing, though: it’s not taking place in a nightclub. Just the fact that it’s taking place at The Jazz Gallery and not the Blue Note changes it. We’ve made a through-composed piece with musical transitions, so the informality feels very jarring to me.
TJG: One of the most arresting parts of the piece is the “Doldrums” section, which almost acts as the piece’s tipping point. The vocalists are all whispering and there’s this amazing sound design going on. How did this gesture that feels very different from the rest of the piece come about?
JE: Roberto Lange is a friend of mine and someone I’ve admired for a long time. Sound design is only a small part of what he does. He writes, sings, and writes songs. He’s beyond category and really great to collaborate with. We have to mostly give him credit because we came to him with our idea and he just ran with it. One thing that you can’t get from the recording is that the section isn’t just something that Roberto pushes a button and plays. He responds to what the musicians are doing; he can change how long it goes for. It’s different every night.
One of things that we liked is the idea of getting lost in the boredom of being at sea, the hallucinatory aspect of it. It’s something that we explored with the theater company, too.
AB: I think that idea of not just creating a piece of interesting music, but an entire experience, where time gets shifted and an audience becomes aware of time in a different way, is really interesting. I think for writing of any sort, if you can create something that takes us out of our ordinary expectation of entertainment and our decadent experience of media, it’s really interesting. That whole section feels out of another century for me.
TJG: The piece has a bit of an activist side to it: you do make the audience aware of different environmental issues. It can be very hard to balance the art and the message in a piece like this, so does the tone of the music mesh with the tone of the message, or does the message overwhelm the material? How did you two deal with this challenge?
JE: I’m often skeptical of self-consciously political art, partly because in music it can make the music seem small. On the other hand, you can make the case that all art is political on some level. I think the issue is if you put it front and center.
For me, this story is informed by that sensibility, but ultimately it’s a story of escalating rejections. It’s an epic quest that has to do with self-understanding and making peace with the pain of life. That’s what motivated the writing of the piece for me, and I still hear it that way. But I think it’s beautiful that someone can see it like an activist piece, and it helps for people to have an environmental awareness.
AB: I think that rings very true with me. I write about what’s important to me, and, philosophically, our relationship to the Earth and to garbage is important. But ultimately what I think is most important in writing are the elemental things—life, death, love, family—and that’s what I write about. I don’t presume to be changing the world. If Barack Obama can’t do anything to change how we interact with our environment, I certainly don’t think we can, but that conversation is important to have anyway.
JE: I think that’s also why I struggle with it. I think it’s so easy to see your own hypocrisies. The last thing I want to do is make a work of art that points fingers from a soapbox, because I look back at myself and see that I’m wasteful, too.
AB: Complicity is a big thing.
JE: It’s easy to not hold yourself accountable for a lot of this stuff. These issues are much bigger than our personal choices, which is why I can feel so helpless about it. Certainly Andy and I care deeply about these issues, but I feel they inform the work in the same way that the geography did and what the original story did, and in the end we came out with a story about rejection and redemption.
John Ellis & Andy Bragen’s MOBRO CD release concerts will take place at The Jazz Gallery this Friday and Saturday, May 30th and 31st, 2014. These performances will feature John Ellis on saxophones, Andy Bragen’s libretto, Becca Stevens, Miles Griffith, Sachal Vasandani, and Johnaye Kendrick on vocals, Shane Endsley on trumpet, John Clark on horn, Alan Ferber and Josh Roseman on trombones, Mike Moreno and Ryan Scott on guitars, Joe Sanders on bass, Rodney Green on drums, and sound design by Roberto Lange. There will be one set only each night starting at 9 p.m. $25.00 general admission and $10.00 for Members. Purchase tickets here.