Karen Jolicoeur

Déjà entendu

A few weeks ago I played the Keyboard 1 book at the Broadway production of Les Miserables for the first time…for the third time.

I’ve been subbing in Broadway pit orchestras for twenty years now; I’ve played for about twenty-five shows. The original production of Les Mis was one of the first I played for, back in 1997 when it was still three hours and twenty minutes long. In 2007 I learned the Keyboard 2 book for the first Broadway revival, with its new orchestration. And now I’m on the sub roster for Les Mis 3.0.

So playing Les Mis is a pretty familiar experience—hence the title of this post, déjà entendu, already heard(by analogy with the more frequently used déjà vu, already seen). What’s interesting, though, is how different it is this time.

Tempos  and pacing are different. The orchestrations are based on those from the 2007 revival, I am given to understand, but not the same. Because the physical layout of the orchestra is different, my experience of those orchestrations is different. In 2007 I was playing Keyboard 2, and could barely hear Keyboard 1; now I’m playing Keyboard 1 and can barely hear Keyboard 2. The conducting styles are different (I’ve played the show under nine different conductors now). When subs are in, you can hear very plainly how playing styles differ from player to player.

This has got me thinking about how the same music can be different to us at different times in our lives. I have grown very fond of Les Mis over the years, from my sporadic perch in the middle of the pit, and I always enjoy playing the show now, although I vividly recall it being a chore to be gotten through twenty years ago. I played a regional production of The Fantasticks this spring, a score whose record album I nearly wore out as a child (those being the days when recorded music had a physical medium), and which I’d played two previous productions of more than twenty-five years ago; the experience was like a kind of double vision.  I was simultaneously experiencing the show as a child, to whom the music was sheer magic, and as an adult and professional musician, who knew how the trick was done.

Sometimes one’s life simply takes you to places where music has different meanings. I wrote a lullaby for soprano Karen Jolicoeur for her CD “The Dream That You Wish,” recorded shortly after her first child was born. My own son was a few years old at the time. She did a lovely job with the song on her CD—but I heard her sing it again a few years later, when her son was about the age mine had been when I wrote the song. The piece obviously meant something completely different to her than it had when she’d recorded it; the performance was transcendent.

Thus far I’ve been talking about the experience of performing music; what about simply listening to it? (As if there were such a thing as “simply listening.”) For me, anyway, the question only applies to music that you know inside and out—that you’ve worn out the record of, whether literally or figuratively—and then for some reason not heard for several years. Sometimes it turns out your memory is wrong, and that’s not how it goes. (A literary digression—I reread Watership Down after a hiatus of decades, and one of the scenes I remembered most vividly was simply not there. WTF?) Sometimes you’ve simply outgrown a piece; in my case, a lot of the Beethoven piano sonatas I  loved as a kid seem overwrought and/or sentimental to me now. And sometimes the memories of liking the music get in the way of actually listening to it again. Human beings are complicated.

The difference between playing music over and over and listening to music over and over is that I’ve never had anyone offer to pay me to listen to the same music repeatedly. For that you have to be a sound board operator; maybe that’s why they turn everything up so loud…

Hidden Treasures

I grew up in the 70s, when Pong was a novelty, and then was followed in quick succession by Asteroids, Frogger, Galaga and their brethren, all games that you had to go to an arcade to play, on a dedicated machine the size of a washer/dryer combo. I loved them. I was saved from addiction only by the facts that 1)I had too many other things I liked doing too and 2) I wasn’t very good at them.

My fourteen-year-oldson has neither of those handicaps, and so he spent large chunks of the summer playing a pair of computer games called “Portal” and “Portal 2.” Toward the end of August, he inveigled me into sitting down to play through it myself—with him beside me, so that rather than the wandering explorations that I understand are typical of the genre now, I had more of a guided tour.

This isn’t the place for a detailed explanation of or exegesis on the games; suffice it to say that they are involving, beautiful and narrative-driven. I was surprised at how much. They’re first and foremost puzzle games, so in between the narrative elements are long stretches of puzzles of increasing complexity. They’re not complex narratives compared to, say, a novel, or even a good dramatic movie. They reminded me more of Broadway musicals, where  plot has to be relatively simple to accommodate musical numbers (the puzzle sequences in this case).

But what stays with you are the characters, and the little touches, many of them only obvious only on repeat play (but which were pointed out to me by my helpful tour guide), which hint at a larger world outside the confines of the game, and tie its various parts together. These were plentiful enough and rich enough that they started to remind me of musical structures, where one aspect of a piece has significance only because you’ve heard it before and were not expecting to hear it again (or were). A hint dropped early on in the game turns out to be important at the end. A recurring theme is transformed into something unexpected, which drives the plot in an entirely new direction. The climactic scene is a recapitulation of an early confrontation (just like Beethoven!), and the denouement sequence (or coda, if you will) recalls elements from both games, including scenes that you would only see if you spent time exploring the gameworld off of the path that leads you to completing the prescribed goal.

As a time art, though, video games have the handicap that the authors can’t really control the flow of time, since they have to allow indefinite time for the player to complete the puzzles at their own pace. (In my case, that usually involved my character’s dying several times on each level and having to start over.) Still, if you take the time to get to know the game inside out, as my son did, and can hold the whole thing in your mind at once (as musicians do with a score they know well), it’s obvious that the appreciation of the game holds many of the same rewards offered by music, movies and and other forms as well (illustration? poetry?).

Speaking of holding entire pieces in your head at once, I’m having opportunities this fall to do something I Don’t Usually Do, which is perform my own pieces—excerpts from my solo piano suite Seventeen Windows. Here’s a video of Windows 6 & 5:

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I’ll be performing Windows 1-4 on Sunday October 9th at 1 pm as part of the Composers Voice concert series at Jan Hus Church (351 East 74th St, NYC). And at 3 pm that same day, soprano Karen Jolicoeur will include my lullaby Like Water on her recital “Turn, Turn, Turn – the cycles of life in song, from the Belle Epoque to the present” at Klavierhaus Concert Hall – 3:00 p.m. 211 W 58th St. NYC Call (212) 245-4535 to reserve your $25 tickets.