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Pianist-composer Major Andres Scurlock rewrites 'Pierrot Lunaire' from black male perspective

7/13/2011, 6:10 p.m.

Pianist-composer Major Andres Scurlock: 'Because of my background, I illustrate what is possible if you pursue this.'

After hearing Louis Clark's 1981 album, "Hooked on Classics" (wherein the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra plays symphonic "hits" to a disco beat), pianist Major Andres Scurlock asked his mother for keyboard. He was 13 at the time.

Today, Scurlock is preparing for an open rehearsal of "Black Moon (La Lune Noir)," his "interdisciplinary-multimedia operetta," this Friday, July 15 from 8 to 9 p.m. at Dance New Amsterdam, 280 Broadway.

"I'm rewriting [Arnold] Schoenberg's 'Pierrot Lunaire' as an allegory for the Black male experience," he says. "I'm using some musical motifs from the original Schoenberg and contrasting the French poems of Albert Giraud with selected poems by Langston Hughes, who references the character of Pierrot in his work, too."

Premiering 100 years ago in October 1912, "Pierrot Lunaire," a 21-song concert work for a small chamber ensemble and soloist, chronicles the moonlit adventures of Pierrot. Pierrot sings of lust, romance, religion, violence and the meaning of it all. Predating Schoenberg's eventual innovation, the 12-tone system, by eight years, this is atonal German Expressionism plus the drama of political cabaret that Berlin nightclubs produced in resistance to the encroaching Nazi regime.

Schoenberg's "Eine blasse Wscherin (A Pale Washerwoman)" is re-imagined by Scurlock via Langston Hughes' poem "The Negro Washerwoman." "Mondestrunken (Moon Drunk)" is similarly transmitted through the street life of Hughes' winos.

Singer and poet Karma Mayet Johnson (from Broadway's "Fela!" and Bernice Johnson Reagon and Robert Wilson's "The Temptation of St. Anthony") is our narrator.

"She's a smooth, lyrical singer with a very unique performance quality. The text is important to her as a singer," Scurlock says of his muse. "Like Sarah Vaughn, Barbara Cook or Nancy Wilson, she is a very good essayist of song," She will also recite poems in their original French.

Then there's his collaborator, choreographer Monstah Black, who, in his physical alchemy, draws the contemporaneous lines of Schoenberg's music reconceptualized by Scurlock, and Giraud's poems alongside Hugh's through pop genres like Afrobeat and house.

Eddie Alsina plays guitar. Holly Daggers, meanwhile, designed video installations and light. Dance New Amsterdam calls the piece "a theatrical adventure...an electric experience both visually and sonically."

Fueling some of Scurlock's ambition is his own history. "I started playing by ear," said Scurlock, and by all elite standards, he started real late.

Getting into Juilliard was a thrill, he says. "It was unheard of at the time-getting into Juilliard with only five years piano experience." Now he holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Juilliard, and teachs piano at the school through the Music Advancement Program (MAP).

MAP is Juilliard's Saturday music academy for a select group of New York City public school students ages 8 to 14. The program reaches out to students and families from all five boroughs who are willing to commit to rigorous, conservatory-style training.

The audition process, captured in Ben Niles' upcoming documentary "Some Kind of Spark," identifies the best candidates for success. "We find that not every student will show the commitment of wanting to wake up early on a Saturday morning. They might want to walk around in their pajamas and watch cartoons," jokes Scurlock. In Niles' film, he is seen administering an ear test. He claps a pattern; the child imitates it before a panel of adjudicators.

"In this day and age, you don't get to see that process. You see a reality show-the person comes in and then two weeks later they have lost 200 pounds. Life doesn't work like that. It's very motivating to be around that type of energy," he said, referring to the pride and accomplishment that shows on the kids' faces when they make progress.

"It's extraordinarily powerful. It helps me as a musician because I get to see the students who enter with a modicum of craft and discipline go through the paces, do the work and then finally give a really wonderful performance. It shows that if I dedicate myself, then there is a return."

View the "Some Kind of Spark" trailer at Kickstarter.com. For more information about "Black Moon," visit DNAdance.com.

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