Photo by Emra Islek, design by Nerissa Campbell
Every Sunday, the man leaves roses for his dead lover. One spring afternoon, an ethereal voice lures him downward, into the crypt…
THE ICE SIREN, a jazz opera composed by John Ellis with libretto by Andy Bragen, had its premiere performances on The Jazz Gallery’s stage, back in late May, 2009, as part of our Large Ensemble Commissions Series. Now, over six years later, this haunting tale of a lover’s journey into a frozen world beneath a crypt returns to our stage as part of The Jazz Gallery’s 20th Anniversary Concert Series. The work, the second of three large-scale collaborations between Ellis and Bragen, has never been commercially recorded or released, so don’t miss your chance to hear this work performed live by a cast made up of almost entirely original members of the Dreamscapes Ensemble, including the vocal leads Gretchen Parlato and Miles Griffith.
We caught up with Ellis by phone to hear his thoughts upon revisiting this ambitious work, and to get more of a sense of what’s in store for those who dare to descend into the world of THE ICE SIREN.
The Jazz Gallery: Could you talk about the plot of Ice Siren and how you approached composing music for a more plot-driven narrative scenario?
John Ellis: This was the second collaboration I did with my playwright friend Andy Bragen, which grew out of the first one, which we called “Dreamscapes.” We were thinking about the relationship between words and music in the most general sense and how we could investigate that.
For “Dreamscapes,” I had him write 12-line dream scenarios, kind of like poems, and each was meant to be as a dream might be. I created an instrumentation that was meant to be cinematic and have a lot of emotional, compositional, and orchestral possibilities, and that included a string quartet, percussion, tuba, vibes, and marimba. That project was more like, “Here are the words, and then here is the music,” so the audience hears the words and then hears the music, and the music is supposed to conjure up a dream-like feeling.
It was a really cool process and I learned a lot; I don’t think it was totally successful from an execution standpoint, but from a conceptual standpoint it was good. So, from that, we said, “What if we take one dream and try to create an hour-long narrative story?” We decided to focus on nightmares.
Andy did a lot of research. He was up at night watching scary films, reading scary books, and we gravitated toward this combination of frightening and humorous, sort of inspired by Tim Burton and various people that deal with that idea: a little bit cartoonish, but still scary. The most natural next phase of words and music interacting was to make songs. We were writing independently, but he had the text first and I would try to write music to the words, which was a little counterintuitive. It was fun to do it that way; I think we discovered through MOBRO that, as a process, if you put words to music, it seems to work a little bit better.