Tuesday, April 3, 2012

David O., The Man Behind The Music

If you’re involved in Los Angeles theatre you know the name David O. He’s the highly respected musical maestro behind many successful productions in the city and a leader about whom his fellow artists cannot rave enough.

Among his credits as musical director are Jason Robert Brown’s 13 at the Mark Taper Forum, The Cradle Will Rock, The Wild Party and Little Fish at Noah Wyle's The Blank Theatre Company, and Little Shop of Horrors at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. As a composer, he has written music for shows like South Coast Rep’s Imagine, Powerhouse Theater’s Atalanta, Center Theatre Group’s The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, and Toy Story: the Musical.

His quiet intensity belies his penchant for a good joke and he is a musician who truly loves to collaborate with other artists. When he’s on board a project, its participants breathe a sigh of relief. Around here, you know you’re in good hands with O. Now working with A Noise Within writing original music for Molière’s play, The Bungler, we talked about his ongoing partnership with the classical theatre company and how music came to be such a big part of his life.

David, you first collaborated on an unusual piece at A Noise Within about seven years ago called Ubu Roi which brought a lot of attention to your work. Do you remember how you originally met Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott, A Noise Within’s co-artistic directors?

I don’t remember how we were first introduced but it’s a small world in the L.A. Theatre community so we already knew of each other’s work. Julia approached me when they were looking for a composer for Ubu in 2006. She was directing the piece and we really hit it off creatively.

We were able to create a unique aesthetic with Ubu that we’ve drawn on in two of our other collaborations - The Bungler and Oliver Twist. We designed a musical palette that uses the actors as singer/actor/instrumentalist/Foley artists combined with traditional musical instruments and found objects to create a live soundscape. For Ubu I was the primary musician and sound artist on stage but the actors also contributed a great deal musically. With Oliver Twist we continued that exploration but with the actors doing all of the music and sound effects themselves. We’re doing a similar thing with The Bungler, however with this show we have a unique luxury in that, among the interns working at A Noise Within this season, is an excellent classical tuba player who’s part of the cast (Kabin Thomas). I jumped on that opportunity and he’s become a big part of the music of the show.

Is the music primarily instrumental or have you written vocal parts as well?

We’re using live tuba, live guitar and mandolin, a number of handheld percussion instruments, and an array of found objects that are also being used as percussion instruments, along with the actors’ voices. The influences come from a lot of different places, but the melodies primarily sound like folk tunes, for lack of a better comparison. The actors are really attacking the music with gusto and we get to play a lot stylistically. One of the things I love doing is defying the audience’s expectations so when we set up one moment in the play in a certain musical style, we then purposefully in the next moment do a complete U-turn to keep everybody a little bit off their guard.

Did you write any of the music before you started rehearsals or has this mainly been a collaborative process in rehearsals?

When I was first approached about doing the show I was up in Ashland at Oregon Shakespeare Festival working on Animal Crackers so I was steeped in the world of the Marx Brothers. I sketched out some initial melodies that are now part of the show but they were pretty basic sketches. More of the music has been developed in improvisation and through the inspiration of the actors themselves in the rehearsal room.

It sounds like you really like the process of collaboration.

I do. I think working directly with other artists is an inherent part of the performing arts for me.

Have you ever thought about why you write music?

I happened to come across a great quote by the British choral conductor Sir Thomas Beecham recently. He said, ‘The function of music is to release us from the tyranny of conscious thought,’ which I found really inspirational. I realized that’s a big part of how I think about creating music and how I think about listening to music. Part of why I write music is that I like to, for lack of a better term, mess with people’s heads. I enjoy surprising people with sounds. I enjoy catching people off guard and unexpectedly making them laugh or cry; giving people a cathartic experience through a combination of notes and rhythms as they tie into a story in the theatre or in the concert hall.

Having a bit of fun with Beethoven. "I said I like your music!" 

Since you’re working with a Molière piece you really have the perfect situation to explore the unexpected. 

Absolutely. It’s madcap, mayhem, and made up of some purposefully completely random and disparate elements. One thing that strikes me about The Bungler is that it’s about a step and a half away from a series of “I Love Lucy” episodes because of its episodic nature. Each of the five acts has a very similar story in which there’s a plan that the idiot title character of the show manages to screw up in some completely unexpected way. For that reason, Julia and I realized that the music was very important. Traditionally in Molière’s day they would have had some sort of music/dance interlude between each of the acts so we decided to use the interludes as a sort of a palette cleanser.

How did you go about developing them?

We started by brainstorming about what those interludes might sound like and we used a combination of melodies with non-verbal lyrics, la-la-la, doo-doo-doo, to get into the nonsense world. Since Molière wrote the text in verse, and Richard Wilbur has translated it so artfully, it really lends itself to being adapted into songs.

Did the purpose of the interludes change as you began to work with them?

The original thought was that the interludes would be completely separate entities; a completely different kind of performance than the rest of the play. As it has turned out, each interlude either functions as a tail of the previous act or an introduction of the next act. Most of them use text from the script as lyric and some of them echo text that has just been spoken or foreshadows text that is about to be spoken.

How do you know when you’re moving in the right direction?

What I’ve found is a really important part of my work is defining the box in which I’m playing. In this case, the box was the text of Molière. In other cases the box might be the outline of a story we’re writing ourselves. Whatever box it is, it then gives me a vocabulary in which I can work and in which I can then hopefully break as many rules as possible.

Does music always represent work for you or do you ever listen to it for pleasure?

Often I try to clear my head of musical ideas so in my leisure time I tend to do more listening of podcasts and talk radio rather than listening to music. More recently though I’ve been listening to a lot of music I haven’t heard before. I’m primarily self-educated as a musician and as a composer so stretching my imagination has always been important to me.

Was music a part of your background?

I did a lot of studying of music as a child. I grew up in a musical family. My parents were part of a quintet of singer/instrumentalists that performed folk music and madrigals and original songs that they had written around the Central Coast of California where we lived. I played trombone in band and sang in choirs as a kid and as a teenager, and it was always part of the culture of the house in which I grew up. It was a language that we spoke. It was normal to me that people rehearsed in their living room every Sunday night to prepare music they had written for performance. (Laughs) I mean, I was aware that not everybody did that but I grew up in an environment in which it was a perfectly normal thing to do. This was in Salinas, California up near Monterey in the 70s and 80s.

After I graduated from high school I went to California Institute of the Arts as an acting major and got my BFA in Theatre. I’m glad I got that education in theatre because it gave me a really good grasp of how actors and directors function. It also gave me a handle on story structure. After graduating from CalArts I pursued acting for a little while but rather quickly I became the person who was called in to play piano for a show or to write a tune for a show. That, in turn, evolved rather quickly into a career as a composer and musical director primarily in the theatre.

Did you have any ‘Aha’ moments along the way?

My career path has always been a process but there was also a major change that happened in 1997 – The A.S.K. Theater Project. They had created a composer/librettist workshop run by Ben Krywosz of Nautilus Music Theater in St. Paul and what Ben did was get together a group of 5 composers, 5 librettists, and 5 performers into a kind of think tank for two weeks. It was sort of a collaboration camp. Everybody was given writing assignments working with each other, and by the end, each of the composers had worked with each of the librettists creating 25 short pieces of music theater.

Participants were really encouraged to stretch the limits of what they considered their work. My friend and collaborator Matt Almos was working at A.S.K at the time and said he thought I should apply…but not as a performer, as a composer. I hadn’t really thought of myself seriously as a composer then but I looked back at the work that I had done in the previous several years and I realized he was right. So I did the workshop and it was a big part of me redefining myself as a composer, particularly in avant garde or boundary breaking work.

Shortly after that experience, my wife and I worked on cruise ships for a couple years. I was the piano player but quickly became the musical director of the band and of the ship, and that’s where I honed my skills as a band leader. A new entertainer would come on board in the afternoon; we’d have a half hour rehearsal with them and then do a 45-minute show that night. You have to get everything together really quickly. I think I can trace a lot of what I do back to that composer workshop and also to my experience on the ships.

David’s time in the trenches has certainly paid off. He continues to be one of the most sought after composer/musical directors in Los Angeles and has been honored with numerous awards, including Ovation, Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, L.A. Weekly, and Backstage West Garland Awards.

Later this year he’ll be writing original music for and musically directing The Getty Villa’s production of Euripides’ Helen. Jon Lawrence Rivera directs the new adaptation by Nick Salamone, which will be presented in the villa’s outdoor theatre in September. For now, we can’t wait to hear what delicious nonsense he’s created for The Bungler.

The Bungler is currently in previews, officially opens Saturday, April 7, and is scheduled to run through May 27 at A Noise Within in Pasadena. For more information go to www.anoisewithin.org.

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