5 Questions to Mary Kouyoumdjian about Words on the Street

In May 2018, the new music scene lost an outspoken advocate with the sudden passing of composer-performer Matt Marks. Among Marks’ unfinished projects was Words on the Street, a multimedia music-theatre project conceived in conjunction with poet Anna Rabinowitz, director Kristin Marting, and video designer Lianne Arnold. Composers Lainie FeffermanJohn GloverMary KouyoumdjianDavid T. LittleKamala SankaramCaroline Shaw, and Randall Woolf came together to complete the project, which will receive its world premiere on October 26, 2018 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center.

Words on the Street explores topics of power, complacency, and excess through the Seven Deadly Sins. The show features Lauren Flanigan as Superbia (pride), Sumayya Ali as Gula (gluttony), Paul An as Avaritia (greed), Caitlin Cisco as Ira (wrath), John Kelly as Luxuria (lust), Paul Pinto as Invidia (envy), and Adrian Rosas as Acedia (sloth). We asked Mary Kouyoumdjian five questions about the process of completing Words on the Street and what audiences can expect to hear and see.

How did the completion of Words on the Street come together?

Words on the Street (WOTS) came together with a whole lot of love and support from the theater, poetry, and new music worlds. Director Kristin Marting, poet Anna Rabinowitz, music director Mila Henry, the whole WOTS team, and composer Matt Marks had been workshopping this project over the past couple of years with plans to premiere the fully staged work at the end of this month. Matt had completed half of the score–so thoughtfully and beautifully!–at the time of his passing, which left this project that had meant so much to him and the team incomplete. He took so much pride in this project and had felt that he was able to be himself musically in it, often drawing from his love of singer/songwriter Randy Newman who could dish out a tune calling out shameful social and political situations in a way that felt oddly enjoyable and like something you’d actually want to sing-along with. The poetry in this project is necessarily harsh. The music is uncomfortably catchy.

A few weeks after Matt passed, Kristin and Mila reached out to me to brainstorm how we could complete this work and had proposed the most wonderful idea: to invite people from our incredibly generous new music community to be a part of continuing Matt’s work. The composers on this project (Lainie Fefferman, John Glover, David T. Little, Caroline Shaw, Kamala Sankaram, Randy Woolf, and myself) are not only incredibly close friends of Matt’s, but they’re also composers and individuals who inspired Matt’s own music and artistic values that he so strongly stood for.

Matt Marks

Matt Marks

How do the newly-composed sections of Words on the Street reference or reflect Matt’s work?

One thing we made very clear to the composers was that we weren’t interested in them trying to imitate Matt’s music and to be too concerned with stylistic cohesiveness. Rather, we were really interested in their own individual voices as composers and how their own approaches had been of significance to Matt. With that said, while each of the pieces contributed are wildly different, it was really touching to see little nods to Matt appear in various parts of the music.

Matt was really into writing quirky directions to performers in his scores. It wouldn’t be unusual to see phrases like “Disney as fuck” or “porn groove” on a chamber work of his. In Words on the Street, he writes phrases like “dark, brooding, and gnarly, with a late-German-romantic feel” and “now fight the sweetness and deteriorate into a twisted version, like you’re drilling into the wall with your voice.” Both Caroline and John made references to these types of notes. For example, Caroline writes “Nobody on stage gives a shit. Like, somebody opens a Mountain Dew can and everybody descends into vocal fry” and John writes “Abruptly milked” and “Oh, Weill not?” (For the record, Matt was obsessed with Kurt Weill, which one could probably guess knowing him!) For myself, I chose to pull from some 50’s ice cream chord progressions that Matt loved to work with in pieces like Sex Objects and A Song for Wade, particularly how the guitars in that era would arpeggiate through the chords. These are progressions that made him think of old pop songs he’d enjoy with his mother, and this felt really important to carry on.

The project was originally going to be orchestrated for chamber ensemble, but since Matt hadn’t yet gotten to that stage, we chose to keep all of the pieces for voice and piano. With Matt always at our piano inviting folks over for sing-alongs, I really couldn’t imagine it any other way.

Matt told me in an interview in 2016 that many of his pieces “have elements of humor, which leads the audience to initially believe they’re in a relatively-safe emotional territory, but that soon changes and shit gets real dark, real quick.” Can you speak to this intentionally uncomfortable element of Matt’s music combined with Anna Rabinowitz’s poetry in Words on the Street?

To me, this shift from a safe outward-looking space to an uncomfortably self-reflective space is one of the most disturbing aspects of Matt’s music (and that’s saying a lot, considering he wrote about serial killers and sex dolls). This is also true of Anna’s poetry and a lot of great art–when something that appears to be so beautiful transforms into something quite horrific once you allow yourself to sit in it for a while. There’s a lot that’s humorous and fun to experience in Words on the Street, but really, this project is extremely confrontational with members of the audience. As a viewer, you’re observing the most grotesque parts of the human condition pushing and pulling on stage, but you may also begin to sympathize and connect with these undesirable parts of ourselves–and that feeling, the one that we try to push down or look away from when facing ourselves in the mirror –that’s what Matt’s music chases after and tries to decidedly expose.

Director Kristin Marting

Director Kristin Marting

Can you shed some light on the multidisciplinary aspects of this production, including costumes, video, and staging?

All of these extra-musical ideas bring so much to the piece. I have yet to see them all put together in motion (and am so looking forward  to seeing the full rehearsals), but the sketches have been particularly exciting to see evolve over the course of the workshops! Each of the costumes is inspired by the seven deadly sins and ranges from extremely elegant to disgusting, all with some abstraction or augmentation of the body that reflects the core of the sin itself. The projections are an extension of the poetry, often literally, with illustrated representations of the text, and also as extensions of the characters on stage. The set is quite modern and minimal, pulling from the inspiration of the incomplete circle desks at UN summit meetings, and the choreography is deliberately created and individualized for each character.

In addition to an incredible collection of composers, Words on the Street features a diverse ensemble of performers. How does the casting enhance the overall production?

Matt really advocated for diversity in the arts (race, gender, orientation, audiences, musical interests and influences, etc.), which is why the pairing of him with director Kristin Marting is so special, because she too has worked so hard to create a community of artists that celebrates individuality and identity. All of these performers come from different backgrounds–some in classical opera, jazz, spoken word, rock/pop, contemporary music, Broadway, dance, body movement, etc. Their differences lead to a variety of approaches and deliveries in telling a story together, which can be a really beautiful thing to experience as an audience member. Their various approaches to learning and working with the material have also been rewarding to learn from as collaborators, because it asks that we expand our ways of communicating and how we build a project together.