Opera North Projects: Mercy and Grand - the music of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan

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1 November 2007

Mercy and Grand is something that Opera North approached me about some time ago as Dominic Gray, Director of Opera North projects, and Jim Holmes, then Head of Music at Opera North (who had conducted my second opera Doctor Ox's Experiment) were interested in doing something related to the work of Tom Waits. Nothing happened for a while and we did Nothing like the Sun in the meantime. In the autumn of 2007 we started work. Initially it was a one-off project based around the songs and music of Tom Waits (in fact, Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, as everything is co-written since 1984). Dominic was keen that this should be a 'project'; that we should be exploring the music, rather than being a tribute band. We thought about influences or resonances between Waits and other musics - music that is somewhere inside the Waits musical universe somehow. It involved treating Tom as a composer and putting him alongside other material - a couple of Kurt Weill pieces, Grainger's Shallow Brown, Nino Rota's 8 1/2, as well as some folk or traditional music - but not as a replica of his own band or imitating his singing. The singer, for example, is female and English - Jess Walker, a versatile mezzo-soprano who has worked with Opera North on Weill or Sondheim as well as more conventional opera. The seven piece band (including Jess) is:

Joe Townsend, violin (who doubles on Transylvanian "trumpet-violin");
Gavin Bryars, bass (plus harmonium);
Jim Holmes on piano, harmonium, as well as quite remarkable blues harmonica;
Martin Green or Karen Street, accordion
Simon Allen, percussion (including musical saw);
Dai Pritchard (formerly of Loose Tubes), clarinets, saxophones
James Woodrow (member of my ensemble), electric guitar.

We went through various material, basically by just trying things out. Several pieces were put together collectively by the band.  I did most of the arranging, Jim doing most of the non-Waits compositions, and Joe concentrated on the folk and traditional pieces. We gave a one-off public performance in Leeds in November 2007 as a way of testing the results. In the autumn of 2008 we took it further, refining the programme, dropping some pieces and adding others, and toured the North of England (West Yorkshire Playhouse Leeds, Lowry Salford, Sage Gateshead, York University, Djanogly Nottingham) as well as playing a shorter version in Milan.

Throughout the whole process I was in constant touch with Tom and Kathleen, who gave the project their unreserved blessing. A recording from the last two live performances in Leeds is being put together as a possible CD release.

Mercy and Grand

Performers

Simon Allen (percussion)
Gavin Bryars (bass/harmonium)
Jim Holmes (piano/harmonium/mouth organ)
Dai Pritchard (tenor sax/clarinets/flute)
Karen Street (accordion)
Joe Townsend (violin)
Jess Walker (voice)
James Woodrow (guitars)

Running order (arranged by the band unless specified)

Gypsy Tango (arr. Townsend)
Little Drop of Poison
Ballad of Sexual Dependency (Kurt Weil arr. Holmes)
Poor Edward (arr. Holmes)
Alice (arr. Bryars)
Whistle Down the Wind (arr. Bryars)
A Little Rain (arr. Bryars)
Eight and a Half  (Nino Rota arr. Carla Bley/Bryars)
Innocent When You Dream (arr. Bryars)
Johnsburg, Illinois

Interval

La Partida (arr. Townsend)
What Keeps Mankind Alive? (Kurt Weill arr. Holmes)
Pony
Georgia Lee  (arr. Bryars)
Broken Bicycles
Circus Theme
Train Song (arr. Bryars)
Pull Down Lads (arr. Townsend)
Barbary Allan
The Briar and the Rose (arr. Bryars)
Lullaby (arr. Bryars)

Acknowledgements
All Songs Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan except Ballad of Sexual Dependency, What Keeps Mankind Alive? (Brecht/Weill), Gypsy Tango (Townsend), Eight and a Half (Bley), La Partida, Pull Down Lads, Barbary Allan (trad).

Contact Dominic Gray, director of Opera North Projects and the instigator of the project, for all technical and financial information (Dominic.Gray@operanorth.co.uk).

Location: 
one-off public performance in Leeds in November 2007
Audio: 

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