Natasha: Dave, you wrote the music and the book for PRELUDES— and of course you did the orchestrations – and while it’s a piece about a figure in history, it doesn’t have a traditional biographical linear plot.
Natasha: So once you honed in on wanting to write about these particular three years [when Rachmaninoff had writer’s block], how did you decide what to include?
Dave: Well, I started reading Rachmaninoff’s biography and what was most fascinating to me was reading about him and his collisions with all these great figures of Russian culture. In this period, he had a disastrous meeting with Tolstoy. In this period, he and his cousin had to have an audience for the Tsar to get permission to marry. Tchaikovsky was a very prominent figure at his school. He met Chekhov during this period. So knowing that he met all these people, that was the first thought: ‘I want to get all those scenes in place.’ A young composer getting advice from these mentor figures—sometimes good advice, sometimes bad advice, sometimes… ambiguous? [Laughs]
Dave: Enigmatic advice! And then also just thinking about writer’s block. The first piece I wrote for this show was the very first scene, which is about ‘What does it actually look like to live with writer’s block and what is a 24-hour period of someone suffering from writer’s block?”
Natasha: We’re fully launched into Rachmaninoff’s mindset with the first scene about his day.
Dave: That section in particular was one of the most effortless pieces of writing I’ve ever done, which was so strange! [Laughs] Whereas I have encountered writer’s block with various other pieces I’ve been working on during the last two or three years. But this show itself has actually been quite easy.
Natasha: What got you through writer’s block? Not hypnotherapy, I’m guessing…
Dave: [Laughs] I’ll let you know when I can figure it out! Or [Matias] had talked about this TEDTalk he had seen… who was it again?
Rachel: Elizabeth Gilbert.
Dave: Yeah, talking about the muse and how fickle the muse is and how your job is just to show up for work every day. You show up and sometimes the muse will appear and sometimes the muse will not and your job is to show up no matter what. So I have not figured out the secret to how you make the muse show up every day. [Laughs] I actually had a meeting with Stephen Sondheim after COMET and that was one of the questions I asked him. [Laughs] And he had not solved that. So I thought, ‘Well, okay.’
Natasha: Good company, at least! So in figuring out this piece—the build and the structure are unconventional, but you guys found such richness and specificity in each scene, and they all connect. Is that something that developed along the way? How did you consider how to move from one scene to another?
Rachel: When we first started, it was very clear that the first scene was the first scene, and we knew that the ultimate what-lives-in-the-place-of-a-climactic-scene-although-it-doesn’t-follow-the-usual-rules is this major hypnosis section. We knew that those were the two points around which the structure was going to build. And I think a lot of it was really kinetic as Dave and Or settled on which Rachmaninoff pieces would underplay which scenes in terms of energy. So there’s that scene ‘Cactus’ which is really jumpy—
Dave: I believe that’s a B minor etude…
Rachel: —and which is really light and high. So as we figured out order, a big part of it was just metabolic variation. Alec Duffy [THREE PIANOS co-creator] and I were talking about different ways of structuring when you’re not following a linear narrative. And he was saying that Chuck Mee had talked about this idea that you could look to different structures. Chuck had proposed a seasonal structure where you move from fall to winter to spring to summer. You want to have basic variation from moment to moment. And Gabe [Gabriel Ebert, playing the actor-half of Rachmaninoff] and I were constantly trying to figure out where he begins a scene and where he ends a scene and then how that positioned him for the next scene. It’s always been a big conversation: how much should whatever happens in a previous scene get emotionally carried into the next scene (or just dropped entirely while moving into the next scene). So, early on in the show, Rachmaninoff is able to be at 90 degrees, and then 30 degrees, and then 60 degrees… different emotional core temperatures. As we hit the second half of the show, it’s about slowly growing that in a steady line, so that you’re progressing to the release of the ‘Hypnosis’ scene.
Natasha: Another element in the piece that offers variation is the contemporary spin that COMET also had (as did other pieces you’ve written, Dave). When you’re working on PRELUDES, how much does the 1897-1900 period factor in and how do you bring in the contemporary part?
Dave: I feel like all of my work has always straddled that. I’m just so fascinated by the dialogue between our contemporary life and the life of people we read about in fiction or historical periods. So it’s very intuitive in terms of how much of 2015 you want to layer in, and how much of 1900 you want to layer in. Certainly in the design as well— it’s a real collision.
Rachel: There’s not any hard-and-fast rule to it, because those tend to fall apart pretty fast. It’s emotional. It felt very important that we saw Rachmaninoff in a classical setting versus a Bushwick setting. And by that, I mean specifically the costume. We all deeply responded to one of the images of Rachmaninoff that I pulled when we were first starting. It was a picture that Dave immediately pointed to and was like ‘Oh yeah, that’s the Bob Dylan picture!’ Where Rachmaninoff totally looks like this romantic, glorious, awkward, gothic, tortured artist.
Dave: Like a 20-year-old Bob Dylan.
Rachel: Like a 20-year-old Bob Dylan! I was so excited by that picture. Then, thinking about the cerebral setting of the piece— the idea that we are living in his mind—we got the idea to dress everyone other than Dahl [the hypnotherapist] in individualized versions of that picture. But it also felt really fun. And in thinking about Lincoln Center as a setting, the idea of dressing up to go to the opera felt really, really succulent—thinking about Natalya putting on a Fashion Week dress. But it all follows this monochromatic black-and-white image.
Natasha: Natalya’s symphony costume is gorgeous! Another anachronistic reference in the show is to Thelonious Monk, who is also a big part of Dave’s GHOST QUARTET. Are there any other contemporary influences for PRELUDES?
Dave: The way the music is scored actually is a lot of that. The music is scored for piano and two synthesizers. So a lot of the music is in dialogue with this weird little subset of music that popped up (when synthesizers were getting invented) of synthesizer renditions of classical music. So, the CLOCKWORK ORANGE soundtrack, which is Wendy Carlos. SWITCHED-ON BACH is another thing that she did that was all Bach being done by Moog synthesizers. A lot of the music has that kind of synthesizer sound in it, which is playing music of 1900, but also harkens to this period of 1960/1970 when synthesizers were getting invented, and also incorporates modern elements of 2015.
Natasha: And the music itself sort of lives in three “categories”: Rachmaninoff’s, your own, and then a twisted version of Rachmaninoff’s.
Dave: Right, the hybrid. And there are more direct references. There are references to Gordon Lightfoot and reggae and doo-wop and just thinking about the whole history of music and how as a composer in 2015, I’m very excited about using everything available to me, and the whole history of music.
Natasha: You alluded to this process a bit, but how did you decide which Rachmaninoff pieces felt right to include?
Dave: For the most part, they’re just my favorites!
Natasha: Like you have the Prelude in C# minor, of course, with that amazing monologue structured over it. And the prelude and monologue rise and fall together.
Dave: Yes, some were just my favorites and others were ones that were super important to Rachmaninoff’s life. That piece in particular was this piece he wrote when he was 19 and it kind of catapulted him to fame a little too soon. (That’s what it seems, with how his life unfolded.) So it seemed critical that that piece was part of it. And obviously the whole show is about writing the second piano concerto, so most of the major themes of the second piano concerto crop up in one way or another. And then it felt important to do ‘Vocalise’ because that’s such a well-known and utterly beautiful piece. The G minor prelude is kind of my favorite so I wanted to make sure to get that in there.
Rachel: Which one is that?
Dave: That’s the beginning of the ‘Music’ scene. [Sings the beginning]
Natasha: You’re drawing on both musical and biographical material for this show, whereas for COMET, you had the book material from Tolstoy. And I remember you saying that Tolstoy was the best collaborator because he’s both ‘brilliant and dead.’
Dave: Sure! [Laughs]
Natasha: It’s funny because this piece has more book than I’m used to from your work…
Dave: God, me too! [Laughs]
Natasha: Is there a reason why you veered toward having more book in a show about a composer?
Dave: You know, there’s a line in the play which is such a ‘me’ line, which is ‘This is just what happens!’ Like, I don’t know! I didn’t have pre-conceived notions when I started writing the piece. That is just how the piece ended up happening. I think some of it is about Rachmaninoff being a character who is a depressed, blocked character. So it actually didn’t feel right for him to be singing very much, because his whole struggle is that he is unable to sing in this period. He does in fact have a few songs, but there was an early thought where I thought ‘Oh, will this first scene all be sung and will this be another sung-through piece?’ But then when I started writing the text, I thought ‘Oh, this text for the most part should not be sung.’ Song can creep up into it, but for the most part, it’s spoken. And then as I kept writing… I mean, no one was more surprised than me to find out that I had written a play! [Laughs] With scenes!
Rachel: You’ve totally written a play! It makes sense also that Tolstoy brought the words, so you got to add music to it. And in so many ways, Rachmaninoff brings music (though not all of it) to this one. It’s so beautiful seeing you in dialogue with him.
Part 3 of LCT3-D with Dave Malloy and Rachel Chavkin is coming soon!
Read Part 1.