Corey Dargel: The Challenges of Empathy

A conversation at Dargel’s Brooklyn home on March 14, 2012 — Noon
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Homepage image by Luke Batten and Jonathan Sadler of New Catalogue
Video poster image by Samantha West

It’s been more than a dozen years now since Corey Dargel began performing his original idiosyncratic songs. The earliest ones deal with complex emotional states and dysfunctional relationships in ways that come across as easy to relate to through his trademark blend of wry humor, toe-tap-inducing electronically generated accompaniments, and instantly hummable melodies sung in his beautiful, pure-toned voice. It’s easy to get tricked into assuming that these early efforts are autobiographic; e.g. in a song called “Acceptance Letter,” Dargel (who in real life has a shaved head) sings about stealing his ex-lover’s shampoo, which he himself obviously doesn’t use, just out of spite. Yet Dargel maintains that despite such seeming verisimilitude, these songs are actually not about him, per se. Rather, he is toying with perceptions and image, and the empathy of both his words and his vocal delivery make it seem natural to identify with whatever persona he assumes.

But after nearly a decade of working that way (which culminated in the release of his first commercially available album of songs, Less Famous Than You in 2006), Dargel wanted to push the envelope further. So for his next project, he put an ad on his website offering to write custom-made love songs for other people with the condition that he could also eventually release these songs on his next album. The result, Other People’s Love Songs, offers an extremely wide range of situations and yet it somehow all fits together seamlessly.

According to Dargel, “Other People’s Love Songs […] was an experiment in challenging the assumption that a songwriter who is writing love songs needs to be autobiographical or confessional. […] I’m looking for people with whom I do not relate and then trying to find a way to relate to them that I hope eventually reaches the audience. […] I hope that audiences and listeners go through that same process, because I think it’s important for us to empathize with people, even if we are at first alienated by their behavior, or find them strange. I think empathy is a really important skill to have in order to really function in the world in a fully creative way.”

Getting in the heads of other people in order to write their love songs was undoubtedly challenging, but what Dargel has done since has made that seem a relatively easy exercise in empathy. For Removable Parts, Dargel creates songs from the perspective of a voluntary amputee; in Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, it’s an extreme hypochondriac. For his recent Last Words from Texas and its soon-to-be-premiered sequel, More Last Words from Texas, his words were derived from statements made by death row inmates right before they were executed. As he has taken on personae that are further and further removed from himself, he has also changed the presentation of his music. For Removable Parts, he eschewed the self-made electronic sequencing of his earlier work and enlisted the partnership of a real live pianist, Kathleen Supové. Thirteen Near-Death Experiences was written for performance with a chamber group, the International Contemporary Ensemble (a.k.a. ICE). Last Words from Texas was not only written for yet another group, Newspeak, it was created for a singer other than himself, Mellissa Hughes. And its sequel, while again featuring his own voice, will be accompanied by a chamber orchestra. He’s also working on an evening-length music theatre piece, The Three Christs, which will involve several singers and an instrumental ensemble.

Thirteen Near-Death Experiences presents an additional compositional gambit in that it is scored for the ubiquitous “Pierrot plus percussion” ensemble, named for its earliest use in Arnold Schoenberg’s 1912 song cycle Pierrot lunaire. It’s a configuration which has served as the instrumentation for many significant contemporary song cycles in the century since, including Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King, Margaret Brouwer’s Light, Mario Davidovsky’s Biblical Songs, John Harbison’s The Natural World, Roberto Sierra’s Cancionero Sefardi, Stephen Stucky’s Sappho Fragments, and Barbara White’s Life in the Castle. As a result, Dargel is now undeniably part of an important historical continuum, even if he never thinks about such things when he composes.

I don’t think about how the work that I’m doing now relates to the trajectory of classical music, or the history of music. That is something I decidedly avoid thinking about, in part because of the anxiety of influence, and in part because of my belief that if I’m going to create something that’s my own, then I shouldn’t be going back and looking at examples of what people have done before with this same instrumentation or with the same art song form. Those comparisons are something that I think critics and listeners should be making, not me. […] So if somebody compares my work to Winterreise, then I’ll go back and listen to Winterreise. But otherwise, when I’m writing something, I’m very anti-historical in my thinking as an artist.

Yet in all of his recent works, which include an evening-length music theatre piece in progress, Dargel seems to be moving further and further away from the pop music trappings of his earliest work and closer to a sound world more associated with the so-called “new music” community that has nurtured and championed his work from the very beginning. Although Dargel himself, like many other difficult to categorize music creators of his generation, avoids pop vs. non-pop dichotomies in descriptions of his compositional process, he is more than aware that there are still different audiences for different forms of music or at least different mechanisms for how music is disseminated and consumed. In that respect, he is unapologetically a member of the contemporary composer community.

“I’m not going to restructure my career, my persona, or my own personal identity to be more successful,” says Dargel emphatically. “I think I want my music to exist in the classical contemporary music world in part because that’s the world in which people come to concerts to listen. […] People who listen to classical music think about it, talk about it, listen to it. And I know that that happens in the pop world, but I don’t think it happens for the vast majority of pop stars. I don’t think that’s what the commercial pop music world is interested in getting to happen. […] I’m interested in doing all those traditional things that songwriters do in the pop world and in the folk world. And I think if people would shut up and listen to the music, then they might get that. But I don’t think that people will shut up and listen to the music in the kinds of venues and the kinds of situations that I would have to play in.”

However his output ultimately gets labeled, all of it could potentially appeal to an extremely broad audience, even his most outré experiments in empathy. At the same time, his seemingly simple early songs are filled with embedded complexities and reward with focused listening time and again. An afternoon spent talking to Corey Dargel, which ended all too soon, was yet another reminder of what an important voice of our time he is.

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Album Cover for Corey Dargel Unreleased Songs

Frank J. Oteri: Since you recently put out a CD called Unreleased Songs 2001-2011, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to talk with you about your entire output. It also made me wonder how many songs you’ve actually written during these years. From what I have heard of your work and what I know has been performed in public, there are probably at least a hundred songs.

Corey Dargel: I have a habit of composing songs and then throwing them away. I would say there are hundreds of incomplete songs, or barely started songs, or songs that are finished but that aren’t up to par for me. So it’s fair to say that there are a hundred songs, but the ten songs on that Unreleased Songs album, which is now ironically released, those are the songs that I feel held up. They were going to be parts of albums with different themes—songs about the Virgin Mary, songs about disappearing or traveling, songs about nostalgia and family; for whatever reasons, those projects didn’t get finished. But I liked those songs so much that I wanted to put them out for people to hear and also for myself to revisit, because it’s been such a long time since I’ve worked with synthesizers. It is a very different way of composing for me than composing for an acoustic ensemble, which is what I’ve been doing lately.

FJO: I’ve heard a lot of your unreleased music over the years, going all the way back to the year 2000. I was thrilled that four earlier songs of yours I knew, including a couple using alternate tunings, appear on Unreleased Songs. But there are others that I’ve treasured for years that you did not include. Does that mean that you’ve disowned them and don’t consider them to be stuff that you want out there anymore?

CD: I think I’ve matured, mostly as a lyricist, since you’ve heard those very early songs of mine. And so there are songs that I would disown in terms of lyric writing. I can feel O.K. about them being out there because I think the music is still strong, but as a lyricist I’ve been more and more meticulous and have tried to play more games and be more crafty. For me it often takes longer to write lyrics than it does to write the music. So for that reason, I’m more interested in people listening to my more mature songs.

FJO: So you feel that a song like “Acceptance Letter,” which didn’t make it onto Unreleased Songs but which has always been a personal favorite of mine, no longer represents who you are?

CD: As a composer, I am the amalgam of all of my work, and so disown is a very strong word. I wouldn’t use that word in terms of these earlier pieces. It’s almost a philosophical argument that I am the person I am because of what I’ve done in the past, and to say that I’m going to disown those works strikes me like I’m trying to reinvent myself, which is not what I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to mature as an artist. But I think if people were being introduced to my work, I wouldn’t want them to start there at this point. I would want people to start with the more mature works that I feel like I’ve written. Then if they’re curious to go back and see where I came from, that’s O.K. with me. But they should just know that I wasn’t as good a lyricist back then. Being a lyricist is something that they don’t teach you in composition school. And so that was all self-taught. How to write good lyrics took me a good four or five years of learning on my own.

I also struggle against the perception that people who listen to songs have, especially in the commercial world, where the lyrics are secondary. There’s a lot of great musically inventive work in the commercial pop world that I enjoy listening to musically, but after I listen to it once, and hear how horrible the lyric writing is, I can’t be bothered with it again. I have a really hard time with lyrics that I feel are lazy. That is to say, where rhymes aren’t careful, where there’s no word play, no tricks up the lyricist’s sleeve, a lack of literary-ness to the lyrics. I’m trying to improve my own lyrics in all of those ways, so it’s become harder for me to listen to songs that don’t address those things.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that they don’t teach you to write lyrics in composition class. They also don’t teach you to write the music you wound up writing for the most part.

CD: I don’t know if I would say that’s true. I had the fortune of studying with some very amazing teachers, including John Luther Adams and Pauline Oliveros, both of whom, as you probably know, are completely open about what writing music means and should be. And the craft that I learned informs the kind of music that I’m writing, even though it’s not the kind of music that would be accepted as legitimate music composition at your typical conservatory. I think while I was at Oberlin with John Luther Adams and Pauline Oliveros, that was an exceptional place to be. Both of those mentors were able to meet me where I was. So I wouldn’t say that I was discouraged from writing these songs, or from focusing on songs or from working with synthesizers, or from doing everything myself. I wasn’t discouraged by any of my teachers.

FJO: I’m curious about them meeting you where you were, as you say. The earliest music I know of yours is on two discs of songs you did with Rob Reich, one of which you self-released with the title File Under Popular. What came before that? Were you writing songs from the very beginning or is there some secret bassoon sonata tucked away somewhere?

CD: The pieces that I was writing at Oberlin before I started writing songs were often game pieces. At that time, Oberlin had a real emphasis on teaching composers about experimental music. I think it was probably a unique school in that respect. And so a lot of the work that I did while I was in school had to do with setting up game structures that would work well. I’m sort of a control freak, but I also wanted to create these situations, the outcome of which is unknown, because that’s what, at the time, was so exciting for me, sitting in the audience. It’s almost like being a performer, even though you’re sitting in the audience. You’ve created this situation, and you have no idea how it’s going to go. So game pieces and aleatoric pieces felt much more engaging for me after having written them, than I think a more straight-laced, notated, strict piece would have been.

Excerpt from Dargel's Human Error/Intuition

The bassoon parts from Corey Dargel's early composition Human Error/Intuition
© 1997 by Corey Dargel, Automatic Heartbreak (ASCAP). Reprinted with permission.

FJO: I know you’re not completely un-acknowledging the songs that did not get onto Unreleased Songs, to get back to what you were saying before, but might there also be some of these game pieces that you’d want to have performed now, perhaps even re-released as Unreleased Compositions From Before 2000?

CD: There are a few of them that worked really well. And even back then I would occasionally sing and perform in those pieces, repeating the same lines over and over again, or improvising a vocal melody based on a very small text. There are some pieces that I would be open to giving to performers now. But I also want to draw a line in my own career between being a student and being a professional. I think that the difference between academic and professional for me is an important one to maintain. Revisiting those pieces that I was writing in school feels a little bit like a pro-academic, pro-theoretical statement that I’d rather not make. I’d rather be focused on results now, which is why I don’t do game pieces anymore. And I don’t do aleatoric pieces anymore, unless they’re only for a recording, and I can manipulate everything and do, like, 30 different recordings of them, and then pick exactly what I want from that.

FJO: So this begs for a question about your compositional process for those earlier songs leading up what was released in 2006 on your first commercial album, Less Famous Than You.

Album Cover for Less Famous Than You

I remember you saying to me at some point years ago that you composed music before words. Songwriters always get asked this question so it seems like a cliché to me to ask you about music or words coming first. More interesting than that is what initially gets you started, no matter how you’re writing it, whether you’re writing for synthesizers or for laptop, or for an ensemble of other musicians.

CD: First, a general theme, whatever that may be—depression, nostalgia, alienation, hypochondria. Then I start writing music with that theme in mind. And musically what begins pieces for me are very small ideas, playing around with the keyboards or the notation software and coming up with a few measures of something. Usually it’s very simple, either a series of polyphonic things that go on for a few measures, a chord progression, or even a single melody. Then for me, the rest of the piece is about manipulating that very small idea in an economic way and not departing from it. Not more than one idea. I often will abandon that, but my starting point is something small that is either repeated, or only gradually shifted or changed throughout the course of a song.

FJO: So is it fair to assume that your conscious decision to compose songs almost exclusively, up until more recently, comes from wanting to flesh out a single idea economically?

CD: No. That may be part of it, but if it is, it’s a subconscious thing for me. Before I was writing songs, I was doing that same sort of thing with the game pieces—very small germs of ideas served as the basis for the entire piece. I think I’m just turned off by music that presents us with so many ideas at a time, or throughout the duration of a piece, that I feel a bit overwhelmed. I feel that the composer is trying to prove something about how many ideas he or she has, and I’ve always just been interested in process and economy of means. That kind of music actually moves me and resonates with me more because it’s this singular idea that then gets gradually developed. I guess it’s the formalist or the modernist in me that I feel moved by Steve Reich’s Octet. I get teary when it gets to the point where things start getting augmented, this small idea that we’ve been hearing for however long it is, ten or fifteen minutes; the transformation of that small idea makes me cry. So there’s a part of me that—just purely musically, without song—is interested and moved by the process-oriented manipulation of that small thing.

What got me into songwriting was my own singing voice, my wanting my physical voice to also be a part of my artistic voice. I think that’s partly to do with my extreme dislike of the classically trained voice, the fact that there are very few people who have been trained to sing with straight tone, and with microphones. In fact, even vocalists who can do it will often complain that it will eventually damage their voice, as though our voices don’t get damaged when we get older anyway. So I went into singing my own songs and songwriting, because I felt like my physical voice was the means through which to express my work at the time. And nobody else’s voice would do.

FJO: I want to follow up on something you just said about Steve Reich, because I remember in that great New York Times profile of you that Steve Smith wrote, you described discovering a recording of Steve Reich’s music; it was the first recording of so-called contemporary classical music that you’d ever heard. I’m curious to learn about what you were hearing before you heard that and how hearing Reich changed your perspective.

CD: I grew up in south Texas, and where I grew up is not a place of culture. So my choices were fairly limited in terms of what kind of music I could listen to. I was also a very religious kid, so I listened to a lot of contemporary Christian music, and I listened to Billy Joel, Elton John, and Joni Mitchell. Then I discovered Tori Amos and Kate Bush. So those were the things that I was listening to, all of which I think still hold up, except for some of Billy Joel’s songs.

FJO: Well, it’s interesting that all of your initial musical role models were singer-songwriters. Then you listened to Steve Reich who, in addition to being a living composer, was somebody who participated in the performance of his music at that time. I remember you saying that it was a big deal for you that he was alive, but I also think that this idea that you would create music that you would participate in got fueled both from the singer-songwriters you grew up hearing and from coming across a recording by Reich.

CD: Also from my time at Oberlin, because at the time the composition faculty was pushing very strongly for every performer to compose a piece for him or herself to perform on his or her senior recital. Even though you were at Oberlin to study performance, part of the requirement for your graduation was that you compose a piece for yourself. And so I was influenced by that, too. I mean, I think as a composer, I should also be able to perform, and I should write music for myself to perform. In spite of the coincidences that you bring up, I think it was more once I got to Oberlin.

FJO: You said that you’ve always had a dislike of the classical voice. I’m curious about what your earliest exposure to such singing was.

CD: I don’t know. The first new music piece that I heard was Tehillim, and there’s no operatic singing in that piece. I don’t remember the first time I heard the operatic voice. It may not have been until I was in music school. I couldn’t understand the words when they were in English. And I couldn’t get the pitch precision as well as I could with a straight tone, or a cabaret, pop, or jazz voice. It felt to me like an antiquated way of performing, which it is, I think. The fact that 21st-century composers are still interested in using the operatic voice just baffles me because we have the technology now for singers to deliver texts clearly and to sing straight tone without straining. We have very good microphones; we just don’t have teachers who are interested in teaching their voice students to use microphones. I think once we get to that point, then classically trained singers who know how to read music will also be able to sing cabaret songs, and musical theater songs, and jazz and pop songs that are complex and intricate, and that require you to either be able to read music, or to learn by rote something that’s very complicated.

FJO: This inevitably takes us into a discussion about genres, even though I know that you don’t really like to talk about genre. But since you started talking about vocal techniques, I think it’s fair to say that these techniques are the clearest identifiers for listeners about what they’re hearing. Usually, if you experience a few seconds of something, you can reasonably assume what kind of music it is—jazz, cabaret, musical theater, rock, heavy metal, country, classical—based on the way people are singing or the way that the performers are comporting themselves on stage. What you’re doing has a lot of the sound of pop music and would have the potential to reach a much larger audience. It was interesting to hear what you were saying before about a great deal of pop music being musically sophisticated, but that the lyrics often aren’t so. It actually made me think that the pop music world needs you and that maybe that’s the world you should be in. It would behoove our society for the messages contained in the lyrics of your songs to be out there in the broadest possible way. So why do you present your work within—for lack of a better term—the contemporary classical music community, which in some ways is a bit of a ghetto?

CD: I’ve gotten advice from PR folks and record label people about how to make myself more accessible and successful in the commercial pop music world. It’s not that I don’t consider their advice, but oftentimes I just feel like this is not who I am. I’m not going to restructure my career, my persona, or my own personal identity to be more successful. I think I want my music to exist in the classical contemporary music world in part because that’s the world in which people come to concerts to listen. I’ve opened for some pretty famous indie pop stars, and what happens is people don’t come to listen to the opening acts. So what I struggled with then was feeling that if I’m going to try to make it in this commercial pop world, not only am I going to have to deal with commercialism and capitalism and marketing bullshit—people aren’t there to listen. I can’t stand it; it hurts my feelings. It makes me feel incredibly vulnerable. It makes me feel like the work I’m doing is not worthy. I would rather introduce myself to audiences who come to concerts to listen. I’m generalizing here, but based on my experience performing in these situations, and also my experience going to pop concerts and seeing what happens with—in some cases not only the opening band, but the main act. There’s a certain disenchantment that I have with audiences like that. And I have no interest in reaching them. I have no interest in going above and beyond the call of duty to try and capture this audience. Because I don’t think they’re necessarily respectful of what I’m doing. That’s a very strong thing to say, but people who listen to classical music think about it, talk about it, listen to it. And I know that that happens in the pop world, but I don’t think it happens for the vast majority of pop stars. I don’t think that’s what the commercial pop music world is interested in getting to happen. Like you said, if more people could hear my work in the pop music world, then given the thematic material and the lyrical content and the complexity of the music, they might sort of appreciate it, or see things in a different way. I really would love for that to happen, but I’m not convinced that it would happen unless I had a champion in that world who came to me and said, “I’m going to set you up with this deal, and you’re not going to have to compromise your artistic integrity, and you’re not going to have to perform for crowds that don’t care to listen.”

FJO: I don’t think to my 21st-century ears that there are ultimately any clear distinctions between genres of music at this point. But there are still distinctions between how music is listened to. And I think that you really nailed it. But, I wonder, when I hear groups like, say, Fiery Furnaces or Dirty Projectors, Radiohead, or folks on labels like Thrill Jockey, and then I hear stuff recorded on, say, Cantaloupe or New Amsterdam, it’s really not all that different. People from very different places are arriving at very similar destinations, but who their audience ultimately is may be different simply because it’s marketed differently.

CD: I don’t know the history of all the groups that you mentioned, but I know some of them. And I know a lot of them had many albums out before they began to be recognized. And their earlier works are easier to listen to in a club and are not as sophisticated as their later work. If you try to come into the pop world with this complexity and sophistication, with that baggage, who in the pop world listens to that? Who wants to sell that to people? Who wants to put you in a position where you’re opening for a more famous group, and you’re writing this complex, maybe quiet, maybe challenging for some people, music? All I want them to do with my music is listen to it. And I think if they listen to it they’ll see that yes, it’s intricate and complex, but it’s also, on the surface, very engaging and I’m interested in moving people. I’m interested in telling stories. I’m interested in doing all those traditional things that songwriters do in the pop world and in the folk world. And I think if people would shut up and listen to the music, then they might get that. But I don’t think that people will shut up and listen to the music in the kinds of venues and the kinds of situations that I would have to play in. And this is based on past experience. I’m still trying to find ways of opening for pop stars and rock musicians whose works I respect and who I have some relationships with. I’m still hoping to find a chance to do that, but it would have to be in a situation where the people who were coming to the concert were coming to listen and I knew that they were going to be respectful of the opening act as well. There are very few venues and circumstances in which that happens, but there are some. So if I ever had an opportunity to be involved in that sort of thing, I think it might be a good step for me toward reaching a wider audience in the commercial world.

FJO: One of the key ingredients of successful pop songs, which make them so able to sink into the minds even of those not listening attentively, is having a hook that you can’t shake, a tune that gets into your head and, after you hear it, makes you want to hear it again. Maybe you didn’t fully pay attention to it the first time, but something still reached you. And the more times you hear it, the more you connect to it. It certainly seems like the songs that rise to the top of popularity all have that quality. I think your songs “Boy Detective” and “Gay Cowboys” have that quality, too. These songs could be playing on a radio in a room filled with people talking and not focusing on it, but there’s something that would still cut through because of the hooks.

CD: Well, part of the reason that I write songs, and that people in general write songs, is because that’s traditionally how we tell and remember stories—a song with a great hook, and lyrics with rhymes. So I think you’re right about the hooks and I strive to make hooks that people will remember, and then will be singing back to themselves, or humming back to themselves later. The same with lyrics. lf I feel like I write good enough lyrics, then the lyrics themselves are memorable, separate and apart from the music. People remember lyrics, too.

To change the subject a little bit, that’s one of my goals with my latest song cycle, Last Words from Texas, which is a setting to music of the last statements of criminals that Texas has put to death. Or in some cases, I should say alleged criminals. No I guess I can’t, because they’ve been convicted, but we all know about the Innocence Project, so I’ll leave it there. But it’s these last statements by people who are just about to die. Some of them are extremely pedestrian; some of them are a little strange. But I wanted to set them to music so that people who heard these songs would remember the hooks and so then would also be remembering these statements. I’m trying to implant these statements in listeners’ heads, because I feel like there is something interesting to ponder about the statements that I chose.

FJO: You raise another interesting issue by bringing up Last Words from Texas. There seems to be a divide in your work between seeming autobiography to taking on other people’s voices and stories. I know that many of your early songs are not necessarily autobiographical, but there’s an assumed autobiography when people hear a confessional in-the-first-person delivery from a singer-songwriter. You mentioned Billy Joel earlier. Many of his songs aren’t autobiographical, but when people hear them, they identify with him singing it and assume that they are about him. The death row songs are clearly not about you. But once again, if it were to reach a broader audience via Top 40 radio, you might get a public outcry against the death penalty the likes of which we haven’t seen.

CD: I might also get sued by the victims of the criminals whose texts I’ve set to music in what might be perceived as a sympathetic way. You talk about autobiography, and I think a lot of songwriters, and a lot of fiction writers for that matter, regularly combine some autobiographical information or experience with fictionalized experience. That’s really interesting to me. So when I write my own songs, that is to say when I’m not setting the texts of other people, but when I’m writing my own lyrics, I want to play with that artifice. And you know, even if the song that I wrote was autobiographical at the time that I wrote it, even if I was feeling the things that I wrote, I’m not feeling them when I’m performing the song anymore. I could be performing them, but I’m not actually feeling them.

This brings up for me the challenge of postmodernism. When the subject of postmodernism comes up in relation to my work, I always tell people that I consider myself a postmodernist in the sense that I accept postmodernism as a challenge. I want to use artifice, humor, irony, flatness, deadpan, and tricksterism as a way of—I hope—getting at something deeply human, which is what postmodernist theory claims that we have lost. I’m trying to subvert these postmodern devices in order to get at something emotional and deeply moving, and deeply human.

FJO: So what you’re doing is post-postmodernism!

CD: Well, I think it’s a continuation of postmodernism. I don’t think we’re at post-postmodernism yet. I think we’re still trying to figure out what to do with postmodernism. It’s not always clear that postmodern theories are true, so I think we’re still struggling with it. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that we have crossed out of modernism into something like postmodernism, even if not all of its theories are evident yet.

FJO: To get back to that dividing line in your own work which I personally hear and perceive as a listener. I hear a clear divide between all the stuff that leads up to and includes Less Famous Than You, and Other People’s Love Songs and everything you’ve done since then, even though Other People’s Love Songs—like the earlier material—still features electronically generated accompaniments. That album feels transitional to me because the songs on it are very purposefully not autobiographical. You made a clear statement with the concept for this album, and even in its title, that these songs are not about you.

CD: Other People’s Love Songs for me was an experiment in challenging the assumption that a songwriter who is writing love songs needs to be autobiographical or confessional. I think I do that with a lot of my other pieces, too, like the subsequent pieces, Removable Parts and Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, and even Last Words from Texas. I’m looking for people with whom I do not relate and then trying to find a way to relate to them that I hope eventually reaches the audience. In other words, I hope the audience goes through the same transition that I go through. At first, I feel like I can’t relate to this subject, so I’m going to write a song cycle about it until I can relate to it. And I hope that audiences and listeners go through that same process, because I think it’s important for us to empathize with people, even if we are at first alienated by their behavior, or find them strange. I think empathy is a really important skill to have in order to really function in the world in a fully creative way. Other People’s Love Songs is a very tame effort at that challenge. It’s much easier to relate to the couples in Other People’s Love Songs than it is to relate to a criminal, or to someone who wants to have an amputation for no reason, or to a hypochondriac unless you happen to be a hypochondriac. But Other People’s Love Songs is also about empathy.

I think one of the reasons I choose the subjects that I do and the themes that I do, from album to album or work to work, is because I think we as a society are fascinated by these people and these themes. I think we are actually fascinated by deviant behavior, and I think we’re fascinated by criminals. And I think we’re fascinated by the couple next door that we don’t really know. All of those themes are ways of pulling people in, I hope.

FJO: In terms of the creative process, I’m curious about how you put together Other People’s Love Songs.

CD: It began on my website as an advertisement: if you’re interested, I’ll write you a custom-made love song. Part of the deal was that eventually your love song will be released on an album of other people’s love songs. So it did start with the concept that there was going to be an album. But of course, when I was composing for individual couples I couldn’t think of those pieces in terms of how I can make it fit on the album. Each piece was very special and specific to the couple. It was one of the most emotionally difficult projects I’ve ever done because I would get super nervous once I delivered the songs to the couples and hope and pray that they felt that it captured something about their relationship that was moving to them and important to them. Only after I wrote the individual love songs did I go back and revise the instrumentation, do different production and mixing, to make it fit as an album. I also created transitions between each song so that there are very few pauses in the album itself. So while the album was always there in my head from the beginning, the writing of the individual songs was not influenced by that idea.

FJO: Part of what makes it all seem so personal is your actual performances of these songs, not just their lyrics. So I wonder when you talk about taking on the empathy in creating lyrics for other people, how that played out in other ways. Were there things in the music that you wrote for these other people that wouldn’t necessarily be music that you’d write for someone else—certain shapes of melodies, certain rhythms that reflect that person more than you?

CD: I screened the people who wanted to commission a love song because I didn’t want anyone involved who wasn’t already a fan of my work, and who wanted me to write a country song that everyone could sing along with at their wedding. Nothing against country music, I don’t know why I picked that! But the people that I accepted commissions from were people who I knew were already going to appreciate what I was doing musically. But yes, you’re right in the sense that overall each song was influenced by the interviews I had, because I would always do the interviews first. I would interview the one person and get to know the couple a little bit based on that interview. Then I would write the music, and then I would write the lyrics. And I would send the lyrics to the person who commissioned the song and say, “How are these lyrics? Is there anything you would change about them? Is there anything you think shouldn’t be there?”

Amazingly with only one exception, people were really happy with them. There was one exception where this person was, I think, particularly neurotic about nothing seeming inaccurate or poetic or artistic license-y in any way. He wanted everything to be very specific in the lyrics. I eventually had to return his money and say I don’t think that’s an interesting song. I’m sorry, I can’t write that way. But fortunately, with that one exception, everyone was moved by the lyrics and then eventually moved by the songs. Although I don’t know if they would tell me if they weren’t moved by the songs after I delivered them.

FJO: Now to take it to the subsequent projects which are more extreme. In Removable Parts, you take us on a bizarre and very emotionally difficult journey. Yet it was obviously empathic for you, and I think it’s ultimately empathic for the listener as well. You take us to a place where we’re beyond judgment about what you’re describing. But that requires a deep level of empathy in terms of the process. Once again, I imagine that the music came before the words, but how did you get the idea to do something like this?

CD: Well, Kathleen Supové is the pianist involved in that piece. She and I had wanted to work together for a while, and we finally got a commissioning award to do so. Kathy wanted the piece to be about amputation, which I guess fascinates her because she’s a pianist, and she uses her hands. And also I don’t think she would object to me calling her a bit of twisted person. She has a skewed take on the world, just like I do. So writing a piece about amputation was what she suggested to me to do. She gave me these articles about victims of war violence, and it was just awful. So I did some research on my own and found that there was this phenomenon known as voluntary amputation—people who call themselves wannabe amputees. And then I said to Kathy, “Here’s a piece I think I can write because it’s very strange; it doesn’t have to be dark, but it’s extreme.” I’m interested in extreme and deviant behavior. I think she thought that was even more frightening for her as a pianist, the idea that you would want to have an amputation, so she went along with it.

So the answer is that she came up with the idea for the piece and then I sort of found some variation on it that I felt like I could work with.

FJO: Here’s a clear example where even though each of the songs could exist on its own, you really get a more rewarding experience when you listen to them all in the order you put them in. I know that Other People’s Love Songs was a concept album and that you consciously weaved transitions between the songs to create a fluid sequence, but I think that in Removable Parts, you’ve gone a step further than that and have created a bone-fide song cycle in the old school Die schöne Müllerin or Dichterliebe sense. It even has the same instrumentation as those classic song cycles—voice and solo keyboard.

CD: I think the difference is that with Other People’s Love Songs we have lots of people that we’re empathizing with and relating to. And so each process of getting to know these people, and getting to feel sympathetic toward them, happens over the course of a three- or four-minute song, whereas with Removable Parts as well as Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, we are focused on one person and on one theme, so it’s more interesting to have a journey throughout the course of the album.

Each song could exist on its own, but it doesn’t take you through the process that I went through—and that I think Kathy went through as well. I want that process of first feeling alienated, and then becoming more sympathetic. So I would much prefer that people listen to the whole album in the order that it’s presented, and the same with Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, because that follows the life cycle of a hypochondriac. And so it goes from birth to almost death.

FJO: It’s interesting that for the recorded release of those two cycles they were issued together, under the title Someone Will Take Care Of Me, but on two separate CDs. They could have fit on a single CD. But I think it’s very important that they’re on two separate physical CDs. You don’t want people playing shuffle with those.

CD: Right. And also I wanted people to take a break between them, because they’re both a little heavy. The reason they were released together is because they’re both about the notion that I have a problem that someone will eventually take care of; somewhere, somehow, I’m going to find someone who’s going to give me that amputation, or take care of me when I’m really sick; I know I’m going to be really sick because I’m a hypochondriac. So the connecting theme for those two cycles for me is that need to find someone to connect to with your problem.

Album Cover for Someone Will Take Care of Me

In some ways, it’s like the David Foster Wallace story in which the most important thing for the depressed person is to really connect with someone else in a way that that other person feels the depressed person’s pain and understands it. Of course, that’s impossible, because we can’t get into someone else’s head. But I think that’s also what the people in the two song cycles want, for someone to really connect with them.

FJO: The other thing that sets these two song cycles apart from Other People’s Love Songs and all your previous work is that you wrote them for performance with other musicians rather than by yourself. Of course, again, Other People’s Love Songs is a transitional piece to these since you also created a version for performance with NOW Ensemble. I’m curious about what led you to make the transition away from a self-contained electronic performance to working with other musicians playing mostly acoustic instruments.

CD: One of the reasons that I switched from synthesizers to acoustic live instruments, always amplified though, is that I started to get really uncomfortable being the only person on stage performing. While I think that vulnerability played into the audience being engaged with my performances, I just started to feel like there’s something about canned music that I’m not interested in dealing with right now in live performances. So switching to notated music for live players that have no electronics in a lot of cases was a way for me to feel like, O.K., here’s a different type of performance of my work. It was a type of performance that I wanted to move towards. It started with Kathy in Removable Parts and that was great. I always love working with a single performer other than myself because you can really paint a picture of that performer in your music. It’s much easier to address technical, musical issues that come up with one person than with a group of people.

But after you work with one person, then you work with more. So ICE was interested in working with me, and we got a commissioning award to make Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, and that was my first piece since college where I was writing for a chamber ensemble without any electronic support. And I approached it differently in that it was the first time that I started with notation instead of playing around at the keyboard and making recordings of what I was playing and then transcribing them. This wasn’t something that I had planned to do, but I realized that when I started working this way with notation software that I was writing music that was sparser, more exposed in terms of individual performers, and also groove oriented. My synthesizer music is obviously also groove oriented, so in that sense it wasn’t a shift, but in all those other senses that I mentioned it was a shift for me musically.

Everybody Says Im Beautiful

Excerpt from the score of the song "Everybody Says I'm Beautiful"
from Corey Dargel's Thirteen Near-Death Experiences.
© 2009 by Corey Dargel, Automatic Heartbreak (ASCAP). Reprinted with permission.

FJO: ICE approached you to do this project and they’re such a malleable ensemble. They can be as large as a chamber orchestra or as small as a duo, but the instrumentation that you chose to write for is a sextet of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano—the classic Pierrot configuration—plus percussion.

CD: They chose that instrumentation. And I added a drum set. So then I was penned into following in the footsteps of Schoenberg.

FJO: And Peter Maxwell Davies and many, many others.

CD: Well, yes. But I don’t ever think about my work in historical terms. I don’t think about how the work that I’m doing now relates to the trajectory of classical music, or the history of music. That is something I decidedly avoid thinking about, in part because of the anxiety of influence, and in part because of my belief that if I’m going to create something that’s my own, then I shouldn’t be going back and looking at examples of what people have done before with this same instrumentation or with the same art song form. Although I studied music history and I’ve listened to a lot of older works, when I’m writing a piece I never go back and research what’s been written for this ensemble before and think about how I’m going to respond or relate to that. It’s not something I do. Those comparisons are something that I think critics and listeners should be making, not me. So I’m really interested when a writer might say well, this piece is a revisitation of the typical piano-vocal art song recital, except for this. And this is how it’s transformed it.

The very first review that I got in New York was when Rob Reich and I played at the Knitting Factory and Kyle Gann wrote a review for The Village Voice in which he compared our songs to Arthur Russell, whom I had never heard of. So I went and listened to Arthur Russell and then I was like yes, this is lovely. Now I can be influenced by this. So if somebody compares my work to Winterreise, then I’ll go back and listen to Winterreise. But otherwise, when I’m writing something, I’m very anti-historical in my thinking as an artist.

FJO: I’m curious to learn more about your notated scores. You said that your compositional process started with notation for Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, so that’s notated. And I know that Removable Parts is notated, and Other People’s Love Songs would also be notated because you arranged it for NOW Ensemble. But are the songs on Less Famous Than You or any of the earlier songs notated? You’ve obviously done these in live performances, and I imagine when you’re doing older material it might be difficult to remember it all if they are not notated in any way. So do they exist in some kind of visual shorthand?

CD: No, for the earlier synthesizer songs, Less Famous Than You from 2006, and everything before that, nothing is notated. So if I want to sing them, I have to go back and re-learn them by rote if I don’t still remember them. But interestingly, when I wrote Last Words From Texas, the synths and voice version, I notated it before I put it on the synthesizers. And that was in part because I was writing for Mellissa Hughes to sing it. She’s one of the only singers that I’m comfortable giving my music to because she has a great sense of performing groove-oriented music and she has a magnificent voice and can be flexible with it. At any rate, the piece was written for her to sing, but then I ended up making a recording of it with me singing and then making an arrangement for Newspeak, which is the ensemble that Mellissa sings with. So even the synthesizer version has a score, and then, of course, the arrangement for Newspeak has a score. And that was very helpful to have the synth score in order to orchestrate it for Newspeak. But I wonder as I move forward if I write more synth-pop songs, if I’m going to use notation, and start that way instead of the way I used to start, which I said before is just by playing around and recording myself until I find a musical idea that sticks.

Dargel Last Words from Texas Synth Score Excerpt

Excerpt from the Synth Score of Corey Dargel's Last Words from Texas.
© 2011 by Corey Dargel, Automatic Heartbreak (ASCAP). Reprinted with permission.

FJO: Another interesting thing about this trajectory is that you went from taking pre-existing material created without notation and notated it for another ensemble to play with you. Then you created a work for a performance by one other person that is notated, but it’s very specific to that person—Kathy Supové. Then you created work for larger ensembles, like Thirteen Near-Death Experiences and Last Words from Texas, that seem adaptable for ensembles other than ICE or Newspeak to perform, whereas it’s difficult for me to imagine another pianist besides Kathy doing Removable Parts, although since it’s all on paper, theoretically another pianist could do it.

CD: I have performed some of those songs with another pianist, Wil Smith, who’s a good friend and a great pianist. But yeah, the piece is Kathy. I feel like in the 21st century that we should be doing that as composers. We should be writing for specific people.

FJO: But the next step is ICE coming along and asking for a Pierrot piece. There are so many Pierrot ensembles out there who could perform this piece; I don’t hear anything that’s so specific to those players in the instrumental parts, although the vocal part is still clearly you. I can’t imagine it being done by another singer, but since there’s a score it theoretically could be done if the singer followed your desired performance practice for this music. It would be possible a hundred years from now for somebody else to sing it. And hopefully a hundred years from now, when none of us are here, other people will sing it and it will sound amazing. Then in Last Words From Texas, you’ve actually written for another singer for the first time. It’s the final step away from your performing your music—it is music that can happen without you.

CD: But I think I would be more uncomfortable in the audience than I would be as a performer in my own music. I’ll have a chance to test that because I am in fact writing a piece right now that doesn’t involve me and doesn’t involve any singing. We’ll see how that turns out. But I’m not really interested in moving pieces from one ensemble to another. If it happens, it happens. And it has happened with Thirteen Near-Death Experiences. There’s been another ensemble that’s performed that. But it’s not the way I work. You may not hear anything that’s ICE-specific in that piece, but as I was writing the piece I was working in a lot of workshops with the six performers which included David T. Little, who was playing the drums. It may not be evident, but it is a piece written for those people, and I think their personalities come through, at least for me, in the way that I wrote that piece. But if I’m given the opportunity to sing it with another ensemble, I would take it. Which I did. But another singer, hmm, I don’t know.

This is a strange question for me to answer right now because I’m a little conflicted about it. Writing a piece that can be transferred and transplanted from one ensemble to another ensemble without considering the differences in personality and performance skills—I find that to be a little bit academic. It’s interesting in theory, but that’s not enough to make it something that I write for. I’m writing a piece for this specific ensemble, and these specific people, and me specifically or Mellissa specifically. It might be interesting to shift it over to other performers; I might be interested in hearing what that is. But I wouldn’t do that, at least not at first, in a professional situation. That to me is a theoretical, academic exercise to see what happens. It might be fine, but it’s not what I’m interested in.

FJO: So there’s no Corey Dargel work for orchestra on the back burner.

CD: Well, there is a sequel to Last Words From Texas, called More Last Words From Texas, which is being performed by a chamber orchestra, but with me singing. I might be moving away from writing for specific people in this piece because with a chamber orchestra it becomes rather unwieldy to get to know each individual person. But I have been working with the conductor of the group that will premiere it, Ransom Wilson. It’s his group, Le Train Bleu. And so I feel like there’s still this connection with Ransom and, of course, I’m still singing it. He’s paired it with Rzewski’s Coming Together and Attica, which I’ll also be performing in as the vocalist, so I was also thinking about it in relation to that and that specific occasion.

FJO: You’re also writing an opera.

CD: I was calling it an opera, but I think that’s wrong. What people think of when they hear the word opera is the operatic voice, and there are no operatic voices in the piece that I’m writing. So I’m now calling it a music theater piece, more accurately. It’s a piece based on a true story of three psychiatric patients with messianic delusions and the psychologist who comes in and performs an experiment on them by forcing them to live together and interact with each other as a support group because he thought that would cure their delusions. I won’t get into any spoiler alerts, but it was a very long experiment that had extremely mixed and unpredictable results. So it’s about those confrontations between the three Christs, which is the title of the opera—or the musical theater work—and the psychologist. The true story took place in the late ‘50s. I’m interested in updating it for the 21st century, so I’m trying to think of ways to incorporate what we now do with therapy.

FJO: This brings us full circle because it brings us back to the contemporary Christian music you were hearing as a little boy in Texas.

CD: Right.

FJO: When we come full circle, I always know that we’re wrapping up. But I want to keep it going just a little bit longer because I’d like to know more about this project. Are you going to be singing one of the roles in this or is this yet another example of a piece that that will be done by other people without you? And even if you are singing in it, since you mentioned at least four characters, the three patients and the psychologist, there would obviously need to be other singers besides you. And I imagine there’s going to be a pit ensemble, so there will be a third person element to this no matter what.

CD: It’s a leap for me. The piece is written for Newspeak. I don’t know many other groups with that instrumentation, so I’m really thinking about it as a piece for Newspeak—whose work I’m really familiar with and whose members I know pretty well—and then me and the singer I mentioned earlier, Mellissa Hughes, who’s a member of Newspeak. I don’t know who the other singers are. I think maybe Kamala Sankaram will be involved. But it’s going to have to be singers who can sing without the operatic voice, and read music, and handle groove-oriented, tricky rhythmic stuff. I’m also working for the first time with a librettist, or a book writer, who’s controlling the narrative. I’m writing the lyrics, but because I don’t do narrative very well, I’m collaborating with someone on that. It’ll be a big step for me, both in terms of the duration of the piece, the number of forces, but also the things you bring up about branching out and writing for other people.

FJO: Considering that you have the idea, but you don’t know who a lot of the people are yet, have you been able to start writing anything for it?

CD: I’ve been writing songs for it and what I think will happen is that the songs will either fit or they will need to be revised. But so far I’ve been focusing on songs for myself, and songs for Mellissa. I wrote one song for Kamala so far, and will probably write some more for her. But I don’t know who the fourth vocalist is. Caleb Burhans, who plays violin with Newspeak, can also sing and so he may be involved in some way. But I’m not sure what his singing role will be, if any. If he does sing, he will sing from the orchestra, but at the same time, I think the orchestra might be on stage.

FJO: So you haven’t written something unless you know who’s singing it. You’re writing either for you or for Mellissa. You haven’t written something that you know needs to be in the piece because of this story, but you don’t know who’s going to perform it.

CD: Yes. That would be an academic and theoretical exercise for me, and I wouldn’t do it. So until I know who’s singing, I won’t be writing the pieces for those characters.

3 thoughts on “Corey Dargel: The Challenges of Empathy

  1. j101

    Interesting interview. I was most intrigued by the portion on Dargel’s place in the musical world (pop v. classical). Dargel mentions wanting to avoid venues and settings in which people don’t really listen, but frankly I wish he wouldn’t. All music that has reached a wide audience, from Haydn to Radiohead, falls mostly on deaf ears, but it’s this pedestrian popularity that ensures that the real listeners will stumble upon the music. He shouldn’t compromise his artistic integrity of course, but even people who don’t listen to music very carefully might have a nice time and spread the word. Cherrypicking your audience may result in a more attentive environment, but for the sake of the attentive listeners who aren’t local or in the know, creating a more general buzz I think is a good idea.

    Dargel is unique in that his music is much more sympathetic to the pop world than one expects from a formally-trained composer. This puts him in a unique position to have a kind of Mozartean or Haydnesque relationship with his audience (pleasant music for the masses with extra dimensions for the connoisseurs). IMO the music world really needs this right now. There are composers writing intelligent and wonderful music, but practically none who are ‘ennobling’ the techniques and general aesthetic of the pop world the way Haydn and Mozart did in their time. Some may claim something to this effect, like Reich has, but Dargel’s case is the only one I’ve come across in which the comparison holds water (though I’m always looking for more).

    Of course, Dargel is not obligated to carry this torch and try to inspire other composers to do the same (thankfully the days of ‘obligation to art’ have passed), and even if he tried he may find himself walking alone. But hopefully as time passes and young composers become more and more fluent in the techniques of the pop world (or rather worlds), we’ll have more composers employing these accessible banalities in the service of sublime art, as the great Viennese composers once did.

    Reply
  2. Jon

    I’ve never really gotten all the fuss about Dargel, and I I have to say, from this interview he comes of as kind of a snob. As someone who’s been to countless rock (or indie rock if you will) shows where the audience was completely attentive, I have to question his notion that these audiences don’t come to listen, pay attention to, and think about music. Sure it’s hard being an opening act, but in my experience people will listen to the opener if they want to. Did he ever consider that maybe they weren’t listening because they simply weren’t interested in his music? He acts as if his music is too complex for those audiences but in my mind there are countless popular bands that bring complexity to pop music, and do it far more successfully than he does.

    Also he claims that complex bands start out making simple music to gain an audience, but that just doesn’t hold up when you look at bands like the Dirty Projectors or Animal Collective, who have always been making very complex music.

    Reply
  3. Chris Becker

    I can think of several works written in the past 10 years for classically trained voices that can’t be sung by singers without that training. Recent works by John Zorn, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and Paola Prestini come to mind, and a good friend of mine has sung some of Paola’s music. I also know singers who sing classical music and opera who sing jazz and pop standards quite effectively. Thomas Quastoff’s latest album is excellent, and his improvising with Bobby McFerrin is totally engaging.

    I don’t take issue with Dargel’s personal feelings about the “classically trained voice” verses “straight tone singing” but there is a broad spectrum of possibility and emotional resonance between these two techniques (neither of which are explained well in the interview).

    I personally enjoy a variety of voices, and as a composer welcome direction and information from singers of all genres. I personally don’t enjoy Reich’s vocal writing, and I’m not a fan of singing without…emotion? I guess I like screamers. Blues. Color.

    But again, I’m not taking issue with Dargel. I just want to post this so that other composers and especially singers understand that 21st century composers aren’t all as narrow minded when it comes to technique, color, and how a song can be delivered.

    Reply

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