It was Fifty Years Ago Today

This Thursday, Friday, and Saturday:

“The City of Liverpool kicks off its Sgt. Pepper at 50 Festival, a summer-long tribute to the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with Pepperland, a new evening-length work by Mark Morris.

“Ethan Iverson’s score for an unusual chamber music ensemble teases out and elaborates on Pepper’s non-rock and roll influences. Arrangements of half a dozen songs from the album will intermingle with Pepper-inspired original pieces intended especially for Morris’s profound understanding of classical forms: Allegro, Scherzo, Adagio, and the blues.”

The hand-picked band is full of dynamic personalities and includes some A-list jazz players:

Clinton Curtis, voice
Rob Schwimmer, theremin
Sam Newsome, soprano sax
Jacob Garchik, trombone
Colin Fowler, harpsichord/organ
Ethan Iverson, piano
Vinnie Sperrazza, drums

Notes on the score:

  1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The original album ended with an unprecedented effect, a very long chord. Fifty years later, perhaps a similar chord is good place to begin…
  2. Magna Carta. A formal invocation of personalities from the LP cover.
  3. With a Little Help From my Friends. When Ringo sang it, he was on top of the world. Our version is more vulnerable.
  4. Adagio. In the age of Tinder, a Lonely Heart advertisement might seem hopelessly quaint. But everyone has always needed to find a match.
  5. When I’m Sixty Four. In between 6 and 4 is 5. All three (counts to the bar) are heard beneath the music-hall scuffle.
  6. Allegro. A single offhand line of trombone from “Sgt. Pepper” germinates into a full-fledged sonata form.
  7. Within You Without You. George Harrison’s sincere study of Indian music aligns easily with another Harrison interested in bringing the East to the West: the great composer Lou Harrison, one of Mark Morris’s most significant collaborators. The hippie-era sentiment of the lyric remains startlingly fresh and relevant today.
  8. Scherzo. Glenn Gould said he preferred Petula Clark to the Beatles. Apparently Gould, Clark, and a chord progression from “Sgt. Pepper” all seem to have inspired this mod number.
  9. Wilbur Scoville. The first thing we hear on the LP is a guitar blues lick, here transformed into a real blues for the horns to blow on. Wilbur Scoville invented the scale to measure heat in hot sauce: The original Sergeant Pepper?
  10. Cadenza. After seeing Bach’s Brandenburg 2 on the telly, Paul McCartney came into the studio and told George Martin to add piccolo trumpet to “Penny Lane.” Indeed, detailed references to European classical music are one reason so many Beatles songs still stump the average cover band.
  11. Penny Lane. Not on Sgt. Pepper, but nonetheless originally planned to be, and of course especially relevant to the city of Liverpool.
  12. A Day In the Life. Theremin nocturne, vocal descant, apotheosis.
  13. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Another unprecedented effect on original LP was a reprise of the first theme, which is part of why it is called the first “concept album.” Our later vantage point enables us to project into the next decade, the 70s, and conjure a disco ball. Thank you, Beatles! Thank you, Sgt. Pepper!

I spoke about some of my history with Mark Morris in the Pat Zimmerli interview at New Music Box.

EI: One thing that was clear to me in the 1990s was that I needed to keep working on my ideas. I was still planning on being a jazz pianist, but I was in no rush to try to crack the secret of how to have a career in that music. To make money I did a lot of stuff, especially playing in a tango band with Pablo Aslan and Raul Jaurena and accompanying dance classes at Martha Graham.

The dance class work led to playing for Mark Morris’s company class in about 1995 or so. Eventually Mark asked me to be the rehearsal pianist for a full production of Rameau’s Plateé. At the first rehearsal Mark played everybody the complete opera on the stereo. To my surprise, when I checked something against the piano, the piano’s A was more like an A-flat on the record. I had sort of heard that Baroque performance used a lower tuning than modern A=440, but this was my first time encountering it in a professional situation.

At the end, I went up to ask Mark about the discrepancy between piano and the recording. He was changing, and I accidentally caught him between dance clothes and street clothes. Indeed, he was entirely naked when he got interested in my question and offered a learned and extended disquisition on 440, 415, and the varieties of contemporary interpretation of Baroque pitch.

I listened carefully. When he finally finished I said, “You know, Mark, I’ve never discussed intonation with a naked man before.”

Mark gave me a wicked grin and replied, “Stick around, baby!”

Which I did: Not long after the premiere of Plateé, I became Mark’s music director [and stayed] for over five years. This is when I really learned something about conventional European classical music. Mark Morris has an incandescent mind. I have often said, “I didn’t get to play with Miles or Mingus, but I did work for Mark Morris.”

In addition to watching his work every night, I got to play in the pit, and sometimes the other musicians were big stars. Somehow the very first chamber music from the standard repertoire I really worked on was Schumann’s Five Pieces in Folk Style with Yo-Yo Ma.

Later I met Mark Padmore through Mark Morris and we performed Schubert’s Winterreise together a few times. To this day I don’t know why I got to have these kinds of profound experiences, but I assure you I took detailed notes while they were happening.

I have several more fun stories about famous classical musicians from that time with Morris.  Simon Rattle came to a gig in Philadelphia, where were touring the marvelous dance V to the Schumann Piano Quintet. Afterward Rattle was standing around waiting to talk to Mark, and there he was, stuck next to the musical director. Rattle smiled at me and said, “Nice rubato in the Schumann!”

Of course he was just being nice, but it’s also true that we had played the piece many times and that I (along with the other musicians in the pit) had shaped a fairly unusual version of the score that really clung to the choreography onstage.

At the dawn of the century, Terry Teachout attended MMDG rehearsal and wrote up the experience (with a fairly big cameo by me) for the New York Times.

I am thrilled to be back with Mark Morris and MMDG again in a project that somehow really fits my capabilities. Tributes are hard — tributes to the Beatles are especially hard — but with the Bad Plus I learned something about how to shape old pop music in an invigorating way. It’s an appropriate evolution to bring that knowledge back to my former job.

To succeed, Pepperland has to have a balance of new and old/reverent and irreverent/high and low. Fortunately the choreographer/director/producer is a long time master of complex emotion. Peter Sellars attended the open rehearsal on Friday and told Mark and me, “You took it out of cliché,” which was very nice to hear.

In 2018 and onward there are plans to bring Pepperland to major cities in America and elsewhere.

Mark Morris and Ethan Iverson

photo by Beowulf Sheehan