Last week I saw the Incubator Arts Project production of Matt Marks‘s Little Death Vol. 1, the self-described “post-Christian nihilist pop opera.” It features Matt Marks as Boy and Mellissa Hughes as Girl, singing and acting out a story of faith and repressed sexuality to pre-recorded tracks (including the spontaneous opening number, “OMG I’m Shot”). Words that come to mind to describe the performance are hilarious, moving, catchy, unusual, absurd, entertaining, spiritual—it runs a wide gamut.
I’m certainly a reviewer with a bias. I’m spending a good part of my summer interning for New Amsterdam Records, the New York City based record label that promotes classically-trained musicians who fall in between traditional genre boundaries, the label that released Marks’ Little Death album. In an interview of Matt Marks by Corey Dargel for the Naxos Blog on Sequenza21, when asked what the starting place was compositionally for Little Death, where he got his notes and rhythms, Marks responded:
The compositional process was related to production as well. I view the two as one in the same. I’m a big fan of hip hop and sampling, so most of the melodies and chord progressions are based on samples from my record collection. The rhythm tracks are almost entirely made from chopped-up break-beats. The songs themselves are pretty simple for the most part; I’d say ninety-five percent of my work was spent on production—editing and mixing.
I haven’t really been following the online debates about “alt” classical, which, from what I understand, have been heated, and wide ranging and possibly talked to death at this point. For me, it’s all about being organic—being honest about your core influences without being tacky or artificial. The same way that Stravinsky drew on traditional Russian folk song, my generation will draw on some of the “traditional” music of our post-modern-twentieth-century Western popular culture, be it break-beat or singer/songwriting. Matt Marks agrees, stating in one of many blogs about the subject, “This is not an active movement, it’s a passive movement: the use of pop music in my generation, or the ‘alt-classical’ scene, is not deliberate, it’s organic. We’re not trying to put it in; if anything we’re trying not to keep it out, and trying not to assimilate it into the boundaries of classical music.” (April 28, 2010)
So how to do you characterize material where the majority of the work is spent on production as opposed to composition? There’s something to be said about Marks’ glossy, pristine edits and the bright feeling of the album. Marks says that he was inspired by Christian pop, and the way that Christian pop is emotionally honest and so transparently edited—as opposed to, say, indie rock which can be muddled. The way that they sing about faith and love bridges any sort of emotional distance. In a way the Little Death reminded me of Poulenc’s Gloria: expressing religious ecstasy using unconventional, non-traditional music tools. Take a look at the video for “I Don’t Have Any Fun On My Own” directed by Satan’s Pearl Horses and judge for yourself.