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Song Recycle

Michael Chorney pays tribute to Bowles and Weill


Published October 15, 2003 at 6:49 p.m.

For someone who decided to give music a rest less than a year ago, Michael Chorney has been awfully busy. Recently the former viperHouse director-composer-saxophonist holed up for two months in a studio space at a converted mill near his Bristol home. The result of the project, with vocalist Miriam Bernardo, is Songs and Music of Paul Bowles. The nine-track CD is a teaser at a mere 23 minutes, but with a quarter-century of music making behind him, perhaps Chorney knows it's best to leave 'em wanting more. And more is exactly what he has in mind.

Not that Chorney had retired, exactly. He's still the music director in the dance department at Middlebury College; he's been at the school since 1982, "with a break in San Francisco for a couple years." It's a great gig for a guy who only finished a year of college himself, at SUNY Potsdam. This semester he'll be teaching as well.

Chorney's best-known musical project, the nine-piece "acid-jazz" unit viperHouse, disbanded in 2000 after six years on the road and four stellar studio recordings. He got an interim trio called Orchid out of his system in just one season Ñ and one double CD. Then, "last winter I decided to stop writing, playing and arranging music for the first time in 25 years," he says. "Music had been the cornerstone of my identity."

And it still is, apparently. What got Chorney back on the performance track? A 13-year-old fiddler: his daughter Ida. "She has an electric Celtic band going now," he explains. "It inspired me to get out my guitar again."

Fans of viperHouse - and they were legion - may be surprised to learn that guitar was Chorney's original instrument; he played it for many years before picking up the saxophone, he says. A confluence of reuniting with the six-string, finding a studio with "phenomenal" acoustics and discovering Bowles' art songs led to talks with Bernardo about the current project. The girlfriend of viperHouse bassist Rob Morse, she had guest-sung with Orchid.

"I had previously heard Bowles' orchestral music, but not his songs," Chorney notes. "They're austere, beautiful, in the classical vernacular." Intrigued by the tunes he heard on a friend's record, he found a library book called The Unpublished Songs of Paul Bowles, and started learning and transcribing them for guitar. "Miriam came to mind as a singer; her sensibility and voice perfectly suited the songs," he says.

Indeed, Bernardo's serene, unaffected alto ably interprets the music; Chorney calls it "highly nocturnal stuff, best served after dark with a glass of wine." The pacing is languid, the feel vaguely melancholy, though not morose. A bit too off-kilter and arty to be called sultry, the music suggests the spare landscape of Bowles' adopted home of Morocco, even though the songs were composed before he settled there.

Best known for his novel The Sheltering Sky, Bowles was a prolific writer Ñ as was his wife Jane Ñ who spent the greater part of his adult life as an ex-pat. An inveterate world traveler, he evokes exotic locales, along with a rather existential sense of man adrift in a hostile world. But while Bowles' fiction tends to be dark, his music, the composer Ned Rorem has observed, "is nostalgic and witty, evoking the times and places of its inception."

Rorem was probably referring to Bowles' considerable output as a composer in New York Ñ sonatas, chamber works, operas, and music for theater, ballet and film Ñ through the 1930s and '40s. From the late '40s on, Bowles turned his attention primarily to literature, including translations of Moroccan storytellers, but his contributions to the ethnomusicology of North Africa are significant as well. The Library of Congress issued a double album of traditional music he recorded throughout Morocco. He also continued to write songs all his life, setting the text in English, Spanish or French. Bowles once stated that his aim in songs was "distorting speech the least amount possible. Singing, it seems to me, should be an extension of speech."

Hence the almost conversational approach Bernardo takes on Songs and Music of Paul Bowles. "He wrote with the rhythm of the human voice in mind," confirms Chorney. "So rather than fit words to a preconceived rhythm, he went the other way, with the natural cadences of the voice." As a result, the songs feel unforced, but are subtly complex rhythmically Ñ one of them is in 9/8. "But it makes sense somehow," Chorney says with a grin.

Bowles had numerous collaborators over the decades - his autobiography reads like a who's who of 20th-century letters and music. Two of them contributed the lyrics to five of the tracks on Songs and Music: four by close friend Tennessee Williams ("Heavenly Grass," "Sugar in the Cane," "Three" and "Cabin"), and one by William Saroyan ("A Little Closer Please," written for Saroyan's play My Heart Is in the Highlands). Bowles wrote the music and lyrics for "Sleeping Song" and "Secret Words." Two others are instrumental - a brief (1:38) piece originally intended to be incidental music in an Orson Welles theater work; the other, "Jinh," from a field recording of a Moroccan flutist.

Other than the Middle Eastern-sounding flute and a turn on flugelhorn by Tom Morse, all the instrumentation is Chorney's guitar. His plucking is quiet, precise, delicate. On some songs the guitar is "prepared," that is, "there's stuff on the strings," he explains, and it makes the sound somehow thicker and wetter.

When Chorney sought permission to record the songs, the executor of Bowles' musical estate "was generous and helpful, thrilled we'd discovered the songs," he says. But while that suggests an invitation to delve deeper into the Bowles oeuvre, he and Bernardo have already moved on… to the man who wrote The Threepenny Opera.

"Miriam and I worked together really well, and started kicking around what the next project should be," Chorney recounts. "We talked about a band, but instead decided to put together a repertory project, working on the music of a single composer. I've been wanting to do the music of Kurt Weill."

A piece by Weill called The Seven Deadly Sins inspired the band name for a new ensemble that includes Chorney - on acoustic bass - Bernardo, drummer Phil Carr, trumpeter Brian Boyse, guitarist Mark Christensen, Kala Boyse on clarinet and David Symons on accordion. In a sense, the transition from one composer to the other followed political mood: "The Bowles stuff was so ethereal and gentle, a good antidote during the march to war [in Iraq]," explains Chorney. "But Weill addresses stuff head-on; written in Weimar Germany, it's about poverty and corruption - beggars' songs."

Chorney says the group is a "natural extension of my collaboration with Miriam," and that its members will vary according to their affinity with the music. "The only prerequisite [for the repertoire chosen]," he adds, "is that the artist can no longer perform his/her own music - i.e., is dead."

Next, Chorney and Bernardo envision taking on the work of June Tyson, the longtime singer with the Sun Ra Arkestra who passed away in the early '90s. "Some of her songs were signature pieces for the group and she put her stamp on them," Chorney says. "No one else had ever sung them but her; our arrangements would parallel those of the Arkestra."

Meanwhile, he and Bernardo plan to play and sing Bowles as a warm-up set for The 7 Deadly Sins' performance of nine Weill pieces this Friday night. Also a CD release party for Songs and Music, it's sure to be the most unusual concert to date at the Eclipse Theater in Waitsfield. Chorney is trying to line up a few more venues for this show as well.

"Now that I'm writing again," he says, "we're hoping to record The 7 Deadly Sins at the mill. And I'm doing pieces for prepared guitar, cello and clarinet. These projects are unfolding in their own way, and they're nothing but pleasure." So much for resting.