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April (2018) – multimedia music drama, pre-recorded chamber ensemble mixed with electronics and video

This piece was written jointly with Franky Rousseau.

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(For the Extended Version, click here)

SYNOPSIS:

April is a multimedia music drama by Dominic Mekky and Franky Rousseau. Adapted from a play by Samuel Bronowski, April tells the story of a singer in her early thirties who is irreparably losing her hearing, and the ensuing toll this takes on her and her two close, but unhealthy, relationships. Through a series of scenes and episodes, employing many different modes of storytelling, the plot unfolds in fragments, narrated by one of the characters in hindsight.

The film work of Pier-Louis Dagenais-Savard is a constant temporal navigator, always spinning and moving, connecting different periods of time and allowing us to “see” memory. We see the characters as they were and are, remembered and imagined.

APRIL: HISTORY AND REFLECTIONS

Written, rewritten, and re-rewritten over the course of six years, April has been a series of starts, stops, revelations, failures, achievements, studies, pride, shame, frustration, and elation for us. Having been presented in a variety of forms, as of March 2018, it has finally found its identity as something between a film, an opera, a musical, a dramatic podcast, and a visual diary of sorts.

In January 2012, we decided that we wanted to write a music drama, a decision made out of our love for stories told through music, and a desire to captivate listeners differently. Franky’s large jazz ensemble music, despite its sheer volume and energy, still had to compete for attention in the loud, boisterous lofts and grungy spaces where it was performed; it wasn’t party music, but neither was it concert-hall music. We wanted to curate an experience, a pretext for an audience’s listening (and paying close attention) to music of many different kinds—music that would normally call for quite different venue and listening norms. Narrative was our answer. We wanted to create something that merged elements of opera and musical theater, remained small and restrained in its staging, yet enveloped the listener in a unique sonic world. We enlisted our friend Samuel Bronowski to come up with a story that we felt we could musically dramatize. He began writing the story of a singer who’s given the news that she is losing her hearing. This idea was inspired by (but not based on) Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession from 1954, a film adaptation of the 1929 novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, in which a woman loses her sight after being involved in a car crash.

Samuel’s early draft of the piece called for alternating scenes of spoken drama and sung material, much in the way of a traditional book musical. But the play and the music began to take different paths in autumn of 2013, and a whole new libretto was fashioned to fit the emerging new aesthetic. April, the character, was now a songwriter as well, and we had to write “her” songs in a distinct style, while keeping them in line with the tone. The piece adopted a fragmented form, with a dreamlike fluidity between the fragments, which represented the memories of Michael, a character whose perspective began to define the piece. This new adaptation was roughly finished in the weeks before our first instrumental recording sessions in January and February of 2014, at McGill University in Montréal (which was the final master’s project of our producer and engineer, Brian Chan).

April is scored for three singers and a small chamber ensemble of flute, clarinet, two French horns, violins, violas, cellos, contrabass, and piano. We wrote the music with the plan to merge it with sound design, creating what we’ve now come to call “The April Effect,” a technique in which sounds freely move between purely acoustic, electronically bolstered acoustic, and completely electronic. This helped us to create our enveloping sonic world, shift narrative styles, sew fragmented scenes together, and depict the psychoacoustic surreality of April’s hearing loss. We recorded the music in surround, but abandoned this during the mix for reasons related to logistics, budget, and our own sanity. After months of editing, sound designing, and mixing, we revisited the libretto and found ourselves unsatisfied with much of the sung material. This posed a complication: we had already recorded the music, and set the tone for the musical scenes, so any new vocal lines would have to conform to the dramatic, harmonic, and rhythmic constraints of the recordings. Nevertheless, we undertook the painful task of rewriting the libretto to unchangeable music while Brian rushed into mastering.

Brian Chan’s contribution to April is hard to quantify or qualify. The sheer sonics of the piece are as much his making as ours. Without him, we would never have been able to bring to full fruition what we imagined for the music. He worked endlessly—in multiple cities throughout North America, sometimes remotely, sometimes with us—not just engineering, mixing, and mastering, but defining and directing the whole acoustical universe of the piece. There was no “going the extra mile” for him because he’d already considered everything most would deem “extra,” then planned and executed it expertly, without a second thought, before we even knew what was happening. He micromanaged sessions of almost humorous complexity, always keeping up with changes and adapting to myriad complications on the fly (on multiple occasions, he expressed to us the toil or impossibility of fixing a given problem, then we, having agreed with him and moved on, would find the problem fixed later that same day).

Pier-Louis Dagenais-Savard (who had worked with Franky before on a contemporary dance piece in Montréal) was the last to join the creative team (in fact, the very idea for April to have video came rather late in the process), but his wonderful instincts and subtle visual aesthetic were precious assets to the piece. In the final week leading up to the premiere performance, he would create, from scratch, the entire film through editing, culling together material he’d shot or generated digitally, building and eventually controlling the flow of the show from his computer.

In Summer 2015, with Franky stranded in Montréal awaiting a visa permit to reenter the United States, we set about planning the theatrical premiere. While in Canada, Franky had the great fortune of meeting Emma Frank, whose voice we both immediately knew was perfect for the titular character. Franky began rehearsing with Emma in Montréal, while Dom began rehearsing with Daniel Ellis-Ferris and Sean Patrick Jernigan in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, Franky’s visa was still delayed by the week of the show, and Emma traveled to New York without him for the performance, staying with a friend of ours, whom she ended up marrying in 2017 (though they were strangers at the time). The production was mounted in the final week by Dom and Pier-Louis—with help from Eric Read and Julian Cubillos—premiered at The Tank on September 10th, 2015, then shown at the Mainline Theater in Montréal later that month.

Although the shows were successful, we felt the piece could still be improved, and spent the next two years figuring out how, eventually coming to the realization that it should be platform independent—able to be merely listened to, watched as a film, or staged, without losing anything essential. This meant we had to make it flow similarly between all these media. We changed the narration style, some of the plot, cut a couple of scenes, and added others. Reworking it for this final version was an uphill struggle—a bit like gene editing: removing certain weaknesses, enriching certain strengths, within set boundaries—yet the result is something we think not only stays true to the “life” of the piece, but gives it its most concise and mature expression, all while keeping the listener suspended in the dream-world of the music.

April represents many things for us. It’s been a genuine education: it’s made us better composers, orchestrators, and writers, it’s made us better at setting text to music, better at understanding drama and how it should unfold, better at working with others and organizing large-scale recordings—the list could go on. April has been at the heart of a creative awakening, and is only the beginning of our explorations in this medium. The time taken to finish it has become a joke among our peers—perhaps rightfully so—but all that time was necessary. It’s been an exercise in patience, both with ourselves and with each other, and this points to the greatest gift of the piece: it taught us to work together in a way neither of us could on his own. Our collaborative process is so comprehensive, so effortlessly total, that a sort of gestalt has arisen out of it, allowing each of us to think, hear, and write in beautiful new ways.

It’s strange to work on something for the better part of a decade. In any piece, there comes a moment when it ceases to be a crude collection of ideas and begins kicking and screaming. It’s living now, and any further work is delimited by a new set of rules. These rules don’t dictate what must be done so much as they give a rough outline of what can’t: there are certain places the piece doesn’t “want” to go anymore, and certain places it does. Nearsighted to the point of blindness, you let the piece hold your hand and guide you in the right general direction while you hack away at the little details surrounding you at any given moment. April, after all this time, has led us to where it wanted to go, changing us profoundly along the way. Through it, we’ve made great friends and rich artistic relationships, learned invaluable lessons that cover every corner of our creative lives, and cleared the path along which we’ll be forging ahead, in search of new music, new stories, and new worlds.

We thank you wholeheartedly for listening!

F & D