Bassist and composer Lisa Mezzacappa is set to premiere her most ambitious work to date, Glorious Ravage, an evening-length song cycle for large ensemble and film at the Angel City Jazz Festival in Los Angeles, September 26, and at the Brava Theater Center in San Francisco, October 1-2. The work takes its inspiration from Victorian-era lady adventurers who traveled the world. The work is also the product of an extensive collaboration with four moving image artists: Konrad Steiner, Alfonso Alvarez, Kathleen Quillian, and Janis Crystal. Here are some cuts from the work:
The ensemble of performers includes a veritable Who’s Who of cutting edge, innovative musicians of recent years, drawn primarily from L.A. and the Bay Area: Myra Melford (piano), Mark Dresser (contrabass), Nicole Mitchell (flute), Vinny Golia (reeds), Michael Dessen (trombone), Darren Johnston (trumpet), Kyle Bruckmann (oboe), Cory Wright (reeds), Dina Maccabee (viola), Kjell Nordeson (percussion), Jordan Glenn (drums), John Finkbeiner (electric guitar), Tim Perkis (percussion), and Mezzacappa (bass, conduction), as well as Brooklyn-based vocalist Fay Victor. The work itself draws lyrics and inspiration from the travelogues of Mary Kingsley, Ida Pfeiffer, Isabelle Eberhardt, Louise Arner Boyd, Isabella Bird, Marianne North, and Annie Peck. Mezzacappa has distilled the most resonant themes of these evocative, personal texts from reading dozens of these women’s accounts, and her music explores their feelings of isolation and alienation, their restlessness, their unflagging ambition, their almost obsessive
quests for new experiences, and their wonder at the natural world and its inhabitants.
Cisco Bradley: What was the inspiration for Glorious Ravage?
Lisa Mezzacappa: The idea for Glorious Ravage was born from my first musical meeting with Fay Victor, in fall of 2011… our musical chemistry was instant, and I knew I needed to write for her unique talents. I started composing trio music, and in my search for texts that would become lyrics, I began with Fay’s journey west, from where she lives in Brooklyn, New York, to the Bay Area. I had also made that journey years before, not knowing where it would lead. So I began reading journals, letters and travelogues of women who had made epic trips—first pioneer women headed west in covered wagons, then all sorts of women from all over the world, each of them hitting the road for their own reasons.
CB: From the seven Victorian era authors you selected, Mary Kingsley, Ida Pfeiffer, Isabelle Eberhardt, Louise Arner Boyd, Isabella Bird, Marianne North, and Annie Peck, what themes did you find to be most evocative when you began composing music for Glorious Ravage?
LM: I didn’t really choose seven women actually – I read dozens and dozens of accounts by so many women of the era, many lesser known than those mentioned above. It’s just that some of them made it into the work more tangibly – through images or lyrics or some story – than others. The music and film explore all these different people’s accounts and writings in an impressionistic way, connecting one woman’s words with another’s story. So there’s rarely a moment when the lyrics and imagery and theme of a piece are all about the same person, it’s very non-literal and non-narrative in that way. Some of the juiciest descriptions and language, and emotional power came from accounts of horrible ordeals, from scientific explorations, from accounts of solitude and loneliness, from love affairs on the road, from impressions of how others live in the world compared to back home, from the awe of nature, the drive to escape, an obsessive drive for new experiences, and also in particular, people’s vivid accounts of California when they visited during the Gold Rush.
CB: What do you find most relevant about their adventures in today’s world?
LM: I don’t know about today’s world, but I know what resonated with me personally –
The more I read of these women’s letters, journals, published accounts, the more they became real, intriguing people to me – far outside the realm of your typical Women’s History Month mention of women of this era. Most compelling were the complexities, dissonances, ambiguities of their personalities and motivations—they were part of a rotten Colonial system, even if they had issues with it; they could be hypocrites, opportunists, narcissists, hypochondriacs and slackers; but also could be very perceptive, generous, fearless, resourceful, determined – and so this work embraces that interesting grey zone that seems to surround real, flawed, yet pretty interesting people.
Some of them wrote so evocatively that their words immediately inspired lyrics. Others were so single-minded in their pursuits, that I began to score these different aspects of their ambitions. The fact that there was no contemporary precedent for how they chose to live their lives, and the great lengths they went to live so fully off-script, really resonated with me.
CB: What is the origin of the title Glorious Ravage?
LM: The title comes from a phrase in a letter Isabella Bird wrote to her sister from Hawaii in 1872.
CB: How did the collaboration with filmmakers Konrad Steiner, Alfonso Alvarez, Kathleen Quillian, and Janis Crystal Lipzin come together? In what manner has this cross-disciplinary collaboration opened up new artistic pathways for you?
LM: I’ve been collaborating with visual artists and moving image artists for many years, but mostly in smaller projects. My film collaborators in this project are part of a diverse community of Bay Area moving image artists, an amazing scene with a rich and unique history, that has welcomed me into its anarchic, collective fray, through organizations like Artists’ Television Access, Illuminated Corridor, and SF Cinematheque. I chose these four because we had either collaborated already on smaller works together, or I’d always wanted to work with them. Most of them have been part of a live music and film series I founded/program called Mission Eye & Ear.
CB: How much of a role did you play in selecting the themes that each of the filmmakers explores in their individual sections?
LM: This work was really created as four simultaneous collaborations spinning out in their own directions, and taking on lives of their own, with me kind as as a hub at the center. I led Janis, Alfonso, Kathleen and Konrad to a trove of sources, texts, stories, and encouraged them to jump in—they came back to me with more ideas, more sources, more compelling questions about possible directions we might pursue. My instructions at first were very open-ended, I really wanted each of them to find something that resonated with them, that connected to their current work and interests, for us to develop and pursue together. I didn’t want to “assign” any topic or woman or theme to anyone.
CB: How did you select the musicians for your Grapevine Orchestra and what unique abilities does each bring to the group and its music?
LM: One important idea in this project was for me to make some connections between the Southern California and Northern California improvisers’ scenes – it’s a big state and we really don’t have enough opportunities to interact. So I wanted Mark, Nicole, Michael, who live in San Diego and Irvine and Long Beach, to meet and play with my peers who I’ve been working with for so many years up in the Bay Area, in my ensembles and also in their groups. Vinny is a hero of large ensemble music, so he had to be part of this; Kjell lived up here but has been gone at grad school in San Diego the past 5 years and we miss him. Dina’s sound on the fiddle kept calling to me as I was assembling the personnel for the band. None of us up here gets to play with Myra enough. So I wanted to create an opportunity for all these people I admire so much, to work together. They are all superlative musicians, the absolute greatest improvisers, and each of them has such a unique sound and voice, so I’m doing my best to honor that in the music I’m writing for them.
CB: Fay Victor is featured as a lead performer in the ensemble. What does she bring to this music that helps capture the necessary aesthetic for the project?
LM: I can’t imagine anyone else singing these songs… they were written for Fay, for what she does as an improviser, for her SOUND.
CB: Among the performers you have selected, I see a concentration of musicians already immersed in the vocabulary of avant-garde jazz. What about that background made these artists especially qualified to perform the music you had in mind for Glorious Ravage?
LM: I guess it really works the other way around – more like, what kind of music can I create for these musicians I want to put together and work with? It’s all really specific to what each player does, likes to do. I am constantly struggling with the balance between controlling elements in the composition and allowing for freedom and surprises. So I guess it’s all about creating possibilities (to borrow from the wisdom of Henry Threadgill), within a compositional framework that’s informed by all this research I’ve done, all these ideas that have bubbled up from the texts. I’ve never written for a group of this size before, either, so that is a whole new dynamic in tending to that balance, I’m finding. Chaos happens really fast with 15 people, if you don’t hold on to the reins!
CB: It all sounds fascinating. Let’s hope that you can bring this work to New York City!
–Cisco Bradley, September 21, 2015