Editor’s note: This Sunday, Portland’s Vie de Boheme cafe hosts what Portland composer Christopher Corbell hopes to be the first in an annual series of May Day performances. Featuring Corbell’s Cult of Orpheus, the brilliant Portland band Three for Silver, and former Portland Opera resident artist Caitlin Mathes, May Day Worker’s Cabaret seems to draw a connection between the music and theater of the great early 20th century radical artists Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, and Hanns Eisler and new music created in today’s age of rising inequality. ArtsWatch asked Corbell about the show and the philosophy that informs it.
Creating the Cabaret
I’ve always been inspired by Bertolt Brecht as a poet and dramaturge who had the guts to say something vital to the human village with his art. One night I was hanging out with members of Three for Silver, and we started listening to a lot of this stuff — Nina Simone singing “Pirate Jenny,” Dave Van Ronk singing songs from [The Rise and Fall of the City of] Mahagonny and I had this eureka moment that a Brecht/Weill production with Three for Silver centering the orchestra would be fantastic.
Well — that’s a big project! I think we should do it someday. In the meantime, I thought maybe we could just do a gig together and mix in some of these songs as a theme, appropriate to the international 5/1 labor holiday and also to our looming political primaries. The idea grew into a cabaret when I reached out to Caitlin Mathes, a fantastic performer who brings a lot of fire to the songs of Weill and Eisler. Caitlin met Three for Silver when they were both on The Late Now and also did some Eisler and Weill performances with Classical Revolution PDX when I was involved with that group and she was with Portland Opera. So once we all started talking the ball got rolling and these collaborative pieces just kind of fell into place.
Three for Silver’s sets will be mostly original, and then they’ll also do some Brecht/Weill covers and participate on some group songs. I love their sound and live energy, the way they structure their songs and medleys, and their image-rich lyrics. I hope this show brings them new fans!
I’m going to be performing one short set of Brecht covers, including reading some of Brecht’s poetry, and then doing a second-act set that’s all my own poetry, some recited and some set to music. My original songs are part of the Sonnets project, songs of original sonnets set for guitar, voice, and cello. Sonja Myklebust (of Portland Cello Project and Pacific Cello Quartet) will be playing the cello parts.
I’m pretty excited to share one of the brand new songs, “The Last Dive Bar,” which is about the way unbridled big-money development is changing Portland, especially with dive bars we know and love shutting down due to rent hikes and such. It’s perhaps the least “classical”-sounding song I’ve written for the project. It’s basically a honky-tonk country waltz, in iambic pentameter. With cello as fiddle.
Caitlin Mathes will be doing all her own selected repertoire, mostly Weill and Eisler, but who knows — if we can make this annual maybe she’ll come back next year and we can collaborate on some originals that fit the theme. I like the idea of working with singers and setting texts that are meaningful to them but which aren’t set to music yet.
There are also a couple of rowdy audience-participation numbers in the program.
Cult of Orpheus
Cult of Orpheus is devoted to lyrical expression, to the marriage of poetic text and music, which is my calling. It started with an original art-song concert in 2013, and last year we produced our first original opera, Viva’s Holiday. I planned to keep doing regular song-focused shows but had to put them on hold to finish that first opera. So this cabaret is a return to a song show for the spring, and then we’ll have another show at the Old Church this summer which will include our first album release.
This May Day production is a little different in that it isn’t focused primarily on my original music. While I’m acting as a composer/producer/performer for my own part of this show, I’m more like a community organizer for the production as a whole, bringing together these musicians with overlapping interests and facilitating collaboration and logistics.
I am also very drawn to the idea of art as creating rituals, including perhaps annual rituals in one’s city or community. Many people suggested that Viva’s Holiday should become part of Portland’s annual roster of December shows, so we’re bringing it back for a longer run this year. Maybe the May Day Worker’s Cabaret could be a similar show in the spring, with changing content but always devoted to honoring labor and promoting equality and social justice, which I believe are still core cultural values of this city even if economic pressures are challenging that in nearly every neighborhood.
Inspired by Brecht
I imagine Brecht felt somewhat like I do about the human voice and poetic utterance. Making a statement is a courageous act, even if it isn’t an overtly political statement – as long as it’s a human statement. If an institution, including an artistic institution, tells you it is no longer relevant in history for people or artists to make statements, it may just be that it’s a dehumanizing institution.
I feel in my art, and in Brecht’s art, it isn’t just about the words, discourse, argument — one needs the music, the poetry, to show the full dimension of a significant utterance, to say something that can be felt as well as understood. To me this makes song the most human and humanizing art. But this is not about sentiment — it’s about musical semantics, about non-linguistic energy reinforcing and revealing what’s there. Brecht was at once deeply expressive and fiercely un-sentimental, opposed to manipulative tricks and cheap psychology.
Also, Brecht was willing to ransack the temple and topple sacred cows. Both The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny are ostensibly operas, and in the 1920s and 1930s opera was even more an art form associated with the privileged social caste. He unflinchingly claimed this art form to tell stories of the people and in collaboration with Kurt Weill used jazz, street music, and cabaret-inspired vocal lines.
I feel a strong kinship to this reclaiming of what were once considered aristocratic art forms for the rest of us, which is an ongoing project as long as privilege remains the elephant in the recital hall of classical music. In fact this will be the major theme of my third opera — being an outsider in an aristocratic world.
My approach is my own but it’s a similar spirit — I’m writing from a place where these arts belong to me as one of the people, as an outsider, not as a member or supplicant to that dwindling, unsustainable privileged caste. Sustaining the art as a living force does not depend on caste; it depends far more on community and human-heartedness.
Yesterday’s Artists, Today’s Concerns
We’re not students in a 100-level college course here asking permission from history to use its hallowed forms. We’re fully empowered human beings making art in our community, and just as we can use any word from the dictionary when we make a statement, we can use any form of artistic expression when we create meaning and ritual for here and now.
The 20th century for some misguided reason got onto this path of temporal imperialism. By mandating historical novelty, artistic gatekeepers stepped on the present and the future, de-legitimizing those who would express themselves with prior forms by making a referential minefield of prior human achievement. We don’t do this with technology, why do it with art? We don’t put triangular wheels on a bicycle just because round wheels were used by Louis XVI. Is art really more shallow? Petrarch wrote sonnets; so did Rilke and Brecht and Millay; so do I; nothing is obsolete if it still works. And, I will never tell any poor kid they can’t use all of the liberating cultural tools of the great empires of the past if they want to. That kid, present or future, and regardless of economic status, has a right to it all— epics, sagas, sonnets, even operas.
I have a sonnet that I’ll be reciting at the show that addresses the fixation on novelty that we inherited from the 20th century. The humorous ending is suggesting that, if combinatorial novelty is really the test of art, then the best we can do is pave the way for the robots:
All this shit is obsolete, I’m told —
sonnets, pretty forms, triadic chords,
narratives, dream imagery, the gold
of ancient alchemists, symbolic swords
that lay between two lovers in a cave —
it’s all been done. But also: sterile rage,
cerebral construct, neo-dada-wave,
the broken wheels of politics, the cage
of satire, cold critique — it’s all a bore,
all something humans did once. Can we fail
to hang ourselves? In history’s novelty store
we all hang on the racks, marked down for sale.
Yet plastic robots may someday break free
and wrap their little arms around a tree.
– C. A. Corbell
For the record, I think the primary test of art is neither paper nor plastic, i.e. neither academic-historical nor consumerist-popular. The primary test: does the art prevent or delay the suicide of the artist? If wearing a powdered wig and playing rondeau on the clavichord keeps me from walking off the middle of the bridge, that’s a more a relevant and living form of art than creating the latest microtonal electronic demon-screaming sounds using the latest quantum circuits, assuming that would not keep me from walking off the middle of the bridge.
Another artist might flip these two examples — maybe making noise makes someone else feel most self-realized. We’re not supposed to all be the same, and the forces that would make us so in the name of “history” or marketability or anything else are forces of institutional homogenization and control, reinforcing the privileged clique of the moment.
Once the primary test is met and you get to the other side of the bridge, the next thing that matters is the community. Share what you have with those around you rather than worrying about the history books or the pop charts. There are seven billion of us on the planet: we need to make art to enrich our communities not for a teeny tiny elite (historical or commercial) which will always exclude most of us. In this way the arts should be a model for sustainable economy and social justice. Collaborate, cooperate, create, and make your community your own.