Dave Malloy, the award-winning composer and performer behind Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, a musical adaptation from a slice of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, spoke with me via Skype from his living room in Park Slope. Behind him loomed a giant portrait of Leo Tolstoy, a prop stolen from closing night of the show. Some people might feel uneasy to be confronted daily with a portrait of a dead Russian scribe, but Dave Malloy is very comfortable around literary ghosts.
Malloy’s next musical offering, Ghost Quartet, opens October 8 at Brooklyn’s beloved off-off theater venue, The Bushwick Starr. Ghost Quartet is a theatrical presentation of a concept album, blurring the line between theater and contemporary music performance. (The album itself will be released October 25.)
The unique score includes influences from audible soundscapes from around the world, including Islamic adhan, supernatural ballads, Chinese folk, and bebop. The quartet performs a wide variety of instruments, including cello, autoharp, dulcimer, metallophone, percussion, celtic harp, erhu, piano, and accordion.
Ghost Quartet draws upon ghost stories from around the globe and across seven centuries. Malloy began by reading ghost stories and sister stories. His original script, which the quartet workshopped at the Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor this summer, began with a dozen or so stories. Over time, Malloy whittled it down to the four interwoven stories in the show. Characters include an evil, lazy bear, figures from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and appearances from Scheherazade and the ghost of Thelonious Monk.
Throughout these four stories two women (Brittain Ashford and Gelsey Bell) cross paths, sometimes as strangers, sometimes as sisters, sometimes as lovers, sometimes as mother and daughter. Cellist Brent Arnold and Malloy himself round out the quartet. All four performed together previously in the Malloy’s Great Comet, over which time they became friends as well as collaborators.
So, one night, in the middle of a game of Risk, Malloy looked across the board and realized he wanted to write a show for this quartet. “I thought, we have such a musical affinity for each other, we should make a show together.” Malloy added that he had contemplated writing a show specifically for Brittain and Gelsey because they had more minor roles in Great Comet, and he wanted to more fully utilize their vocal talents.
Right around the same time, The Bushwick Starr asked Malloy if he had any material that would fit their space. Malloy explained that the show is a “collision of a music piece for the four of us and the space of The Bushwick Starr.” Inspired by the “black brick walls and exposed loft space” of the Starr, Malloy knew he wanted to create a ghost story. “The Starr is a raw space in all the best uses of the word. It feels like there’s a long history in the space. It has a creepy old feeling. Just knowing Gelsey’s and Brittain’s voices, and knowing the songs they write, it seemed like something supernatural and fantastic and dark was appropriate for them,” said Malloy.
Brittain described the literary references by saying:
It’s interesting to work with the framework of a story or character that might be familiar while taking it completely out of context. When we reference the “House of Usher,”the characters involved are completely different: a sick daughter, a missing child. What remains of the original tale is really just “death and gloom.” I think folks in the audience might recognize names and places but will have the ability to listen without any of that background knowledge as well.
The quartet not only plays multiple characters but also versions of themselves. When asked if there were many costume changes to delineate all of the different characters, Malloy laughed and said there were “no costumes at all.” His hope is that
there are enough clues in the script that the audience will be able to follow along when the performers are shifting, but also there are times we will be intentionally vague, because some characters are reincarnations of themselves. The four characters that I play, the four characters that Gelsey plays—they really are the same person at different times. Gelsey’s character is aware of these reincarnations, and Brittain’s character is unaware, so Gelsey shepherds her through recalling the experiences of her past lives.
Brittain continued, “Almost all of my characters operate with the sense of being betrayed and keep running circles around the same mistakes over several lifetimes.”
Malloy explained that he has been discussing with the director Annie Tippe the difference between a theatrical performance and a music performance. “When you saw Frank Sinatra perform, he became someone who’s away at war longing for his girl, or someone who’s in love for the first time. But at the core of it all, he was always Frank Sinatra, even between songs.” Malloy added:
Frank Sinatra is a persona too. So we become characters who sing songs, but sometimes in-between songs we are also ourselves, but even as ourselves, we are character versions of ourselves. It’s something that happens in the music world quite a lot, there’s the on-stage banter, and they aren’t acting in the way theater actors do, but there’s still a persona.
Brittain continued, “It doesn’t seem quite fitting to say we are actors—but performers seems right, telling stories though music.”
Rather than give each world/story line in Ghost Quartet a distinct sound, Malloy decided to blend the various themes together. Malloy commented, “Once we are in Scheherazade’s world we slide in Arabian scales, but it also occurs in other points in the show. I like the idea of mashing all of these things together, into a new kind of sound.”
One of the many compelling stories within Ghost Quartet is a tale about an Iranian man who talks to ghosts:
There’s a man in Iran
Who says he talks to ghosts
And the way that he does it
Is he hasn’t spoke to anyone alive in 42 years
He turns his mind off every day
And stares at the wall
And he is one with the universe
And he says that every soul that’s ever died
Is singing in the shadow of the sky
Malloy explained that the man is not real and is only an artistic invention, but the character was inspired by philosopher and mystic Ken Wilber. Wilber believes that every field of knowledge contains some aspect of truth, no matter how small, and that reconciling disparate disciplines is a matter of integrating what’s right about them rather than discounting them for being partially wrong.
Malloy was interested in Wilber’s discussion of the tendency of Westerners to discredit yogis’ spiritual feats as unscientific. Malloy explained:
Wilber’s point is that there is scientific evidence, but the experiment that you would have to do is to become a yogi or monk and meditate for 50 years. And if you meditate for 50 years, then your mind changes and that’s when you can access those supernatural, transcendent realms. I love the idea that Western scientists just haven’t taken the time to do that.
The group is in rehearsal now. All four live in Brooklyn, and Brent and Gelsey walk to rehearsals. In terms of the process and the quartet’s friendship, Gelsey said, “There has been a lot of laughing and a lot of good times. We’re all friends, we like drinking whiskey and playing board games together.”
Dave Malloy has crazy high standards. And I mean that in the best possible way, that’s how he makes these crazy, beautiful things happen. But there’s always this moment of, ‘I can’t do that!’ and somehow he tells you that you can and suddenly you’ve pulled some completely non-instinctive harmony out of thin air. I remember he played a demo for us of a song that was a super intricate a cappella piece with these off-beat, seemingly unrelated call and response phrases. I thought there was no way I was going to make it happen. And yet … we made it happen.
Ghost Quartet, by Dave Malloy, presented by The Bushwick Starr and Ghost Quartet, runs October 8 – November 1 at The Bushwick Starr (207 Starr Street, Brooklyn). For tickets ($18) and further info, visit thebushwickstarr.org.
ContributorSusan Soon He Stanton
Susan Soon He Stanton is a member of the Public Theatre's Emerging Writers Group, MaYi Playwrights Lab, and TerraNova's Groundbreakers. She was the inaugural recipient of the Van Lier Playwriting Fellowship at the Lark and received a feature film development grant from the Sloan Foundation. From Honolulu, Susan lives in New York City.