Composer interview- Joanna Lee discusses “Chronicles of Archy”

As we approach the premiere of Joanna Lee’s “The Chronicles of Archy” with soprano Sarah Leonard and Orchestra of the Swan, I took a few minutes to ask the composer about her music in general and “archy” in particular.

KW- How did you get to know Don Marquis’ “Archy” poems, and what about them inspired you to set some of them in this piece.

JL- The composer Howard Skempton brought the texts to my attention: Howard and I are developing a chamber opera together (with myself as composer and Howard as librettist) based on the comic-strip Krazy Kat by George Herriman. Herriman also illustrated the Archy and Mehitabel texts and inevitably, we came across Don Marquis and his wonderful poems.

I wished to use the texts as they are terrifically quirky, playful and comical!  They also offer great variety and Marquis’ language is wonderfully poetic and explorative of the colours and sounds of words, which is something I find essential as a composer. Finally, I knew my new piece was to be programmed alongside Walton’s Façade so I sought texts that would enable the creation of something equally theatrical.


KW- Almost anytime one sets a literary text, one has to get make tough choices about what to set. How did you decide which poems to include?

JL- It was certainly a difficult task filtering out those texts I wished to use from the Archy and Mehitabel series, there are so many wonderful poems.  ‘archy interviews a pharaoh’ and ‘archy protests’ instantly leapt out at me; I knew straight away what I wished to do musically with these.  From here, I thought it essential to provide the audience with an explanation of Archy’s unusual circumstances: a cockroach who leaps onto a typewriter to fulfill his fervent desire to write poetry!  I found this explanation in ‘the coming of archy’.  Finally, variety was an important consideration and ‘the cockroach who had been to hell’ provided a dissimilar character to the other texts.

KW- Along those lines, in some instances you chose to only set the first part of the poem, which in the case of “archy interviews a pharaoh” or “the cockroach who had been to hell” has the effect of making the impact of the poems a bit more enigmatic. In the first instance, we never find out why the pharaoh wanted to be a brewer, and in the latter, we never learn what the simp cockroach actually saw. Was that a conscious choice on your part, or more of a practical one to simply keep the piece to a manageable scale?

JL- This was chiefly a practical choice in order to keep the piece within the decided duration.  In particular, ‘archy interviews a pharaoh’ is very long, the full poem is three times the length of that which appears in The Chronicles of Archy.  I am particularly fond of this poem and although I could have simply set the whole of this as a music theatre piece (something I hope to do), I was keener on creating a varied set of theatrical songs instead.  Furthermore, as there are so many poems in the Archy and Mehitabel series, it seemed appropriate to provide the audience with a broader experience of Marquis’ work, rather than just one offering.

KW- Musically, where do you feel the stylistic roots of this piece lie? How do you feel it relates to your own earlier works?

JL- It is always very difficult to ascertain the stylistic roots of my music.  I draw much of my inspiration from the music theatre works of the 1950s-70s, such as works by Luciano Berio, Mauricio Kagel and Peter Maxwell Davies.  Similarly to these composers, theatrical considerations are important to my music and exploring the voice by applying it in both a conventional manner and also, an experimental way through the use of extended vocal techniques.  Given the connection of Marquis to Herriman and Krazy Kat, I took inspiration from comic-strips and also cartoon music, such as the work of Carl Stalling, who composed the music for the Warner Bros cartoons.  Thus, I aimed for a musical style that is vibrant, colourful, varied and intense.

I believe The Chronicles of Archy relates to my earlier works.  The main departure from my usual style is in relation to the comic-strip and cartoon inspiration: the music is perhaps more intense, rapidly-shifting, higher-octane, anarchic and wacky!  It is also more tonal in places and refers to specific musical associations, such as a fanfare, which are two elements I would rarely permit.  In addition, there is the use of unconventional percussion instruments, such as the typewriter, reception-desk bell and newspaper, which is something I have never explored before.

KW- Coming back to style and technique- would you say your approach to composition is governed by any particular aesthetic or, forgive the expression, rules, or are you just trying to express the text as colorfully as possible?

JL- My chief consideration is theatre: using the music, voice and instruments to convey the sentiment, story and characters as proficiently as possible, to create something that is entertaining, engaging and fun.  At the same time, I believe it is essential to create music that is challenging, innovative, proficient and accomplished.  My composition is mainly intuitive but I do apply some ‘rules’, such as tone rows, and the development or transformation of specific motifs.

KW- It’s pretty clear from the score that you’ve written the voice part very much with a specific skill set in mind. Knowing that you have someone like Sarah Leonard performing must be quite liberating on the one hand, but a bit dangerous, since you could end up with something most performers could never do.

JL- Composing for singers like Sarah is wonderful, I do not feel restricted in anyway.  I have been very fortunate to work with singers like Sarah and Jane Manning since I was 19, so this area of experimental vocal music is where I feel very comfortable in and excited by; compromising this would not make my music mine or indeed, inspire me to compose.  It is also a challenge as I am aware of Sarah’s impressive capabilities, so as a composer, one wishes to create something that will be stimulating and challenging for her. I believe it is important to write music for the designated performer, whether that be a skilled or amateur performer, as one can never be sure of who future performers may be or indeed, whether that elusive second performance may occur.

A large part of my work involves making contemporary vocal music and extended vocal techniques accessible and enjoyable to all singers, not just contemporary music specialists. Unfortunately, there seems to be some misconception about the difficulty of contemporary vocal music and extended vocal techniques: contemporary music is incredibly varied on both a stylistic and difficulty basis.  Furthermore, I have used many of the vocal techniques employed in The Chronicles of Archy in works for amateur singers, which they easily grasped, applied and even enjoyed!  It is a combined effort: the composer applying elements in an approachable way and singers coming to the piece with an open and eager mind.


KW- To all those who have been waiting for a piece that combined a quite astringent harmonic language with beat boxing and rapping, I can say, our day has arrived in “archy protests.” Did the idea just jump out of the text at you, or was it something you came to after some struggle?

JL- The idea for a rap and beat-boxing song intuitively came to mind when I read ‘archy protests’.  This style and vocal technique, along with those other non-conventional elements I employ, are natural to me; if it wasn’t this way, I doubt I would do it as I fear it would only sound contrived.  I am a firm believer in the importance of instinct and intuition as a composer: this element provides the inspiration and initial conception of a piece, it is then the application of the ‘rules’ and technical skills you hone as a composer that enable that idea and excitement to develop into fully-fledged, proficient piece.

KW- Many thanks.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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