A whole new aria for Damon
By Ivan Hewett
Damon Albarn talks to Ivan Hewett about the musical world he has invented for his opera, ‘Monkey’
It’s 11.30am at the converted church where musical rehearsals for Damon Albarn’s new opera, Monkey: Journey to the West, are taking place. The players are on their coffee-break, Albarn has sloped off to play table-tennis, and I’m with David Coulter, the musical supervisor, who has gathered the “orchestra” together.
He shows me some of the instruments in the ensemble: there’s a glass harmonica, which looks like a giant ribbed glass vase tipped on one side, and an ondes Martenot, the tremulous 1920s electronic instrument. Behind us are Chinese instruments such as the pipa or lute, as well as “normal” instruments: trombones, a tuba, violins, a double bass.
It’s a menagerie every bit as weird as the cast of gods, demons, Buddhas, evil princesses and naughty monkeys that inhabit Monkey.
The opera’s story, suggested by its Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng, is the same ancient Chinese legend that formed the basis of a cult Japanese TV series shown on the BBC in the 1970s. Monkey is born out of an egg, gets angry when he discovers he isn’t immortal, causes havoc in heaven, and is shut up inside a mountain.
Albarn insists that the work is an opera, and it’s true the piece is entirely sung (in Mandarin). But that’s where the similarity with “normal” opera ends. Better to think of it as a Chinese revolutionary ballet, with 33 acrobats and dancers, and new Gorillaz-style animations from Jamie Hewlett projected on a screen.
Now the players are returning: Danish drummer Bent Clausen, who works with Tom Waits; the “Demon Strings”, who play for Gorillaz’ live shows; the eight-part choir from Liverpool who sang for Brian Eno’s Greenpeace project.
The only person from a purely classical background is conductor André de Ridder. He seems astonishingly relaxed about the dozens of newly printed corrections he has found stuffed into his score.
“You know, I’m really falling in love with Damon’s music. He has this very special melodic sense, the phrases never come out as you expect.”
I’m about to discover how true that is. Everyone is now back in place, and Albarn is pacing about in his trademark bookmaker’s hat, staring at the floor. They’re about to do “Pigsy’s Aria”. Monkey and his fellow travellers are being thwarted in their journey to the west by the evil but sexy Spider Women.
De Ridder calls for quiet, gives the up-beat, and we’re off into this romping three-in-a-bar dance, with a wheezy jangling sound like an English fairground crossed with a Chinese opera.
Albarn is not quite happy. “Play like, like…” He windmills with his arms to encourage the right word to come. But it won’t, and he ends up doing a little dance to indicate the sound he wants. “Play like you’re spiders!”
The vocal line in this scene is sung by one of the chorus, who has a repeating melodic formula made from a seven-note mode. “Yeah, that comes out of my star-system,” says Albarn. His what? He grabs my notebook, and scribbles stars with different numbers of points.
“This one comes out of a seven-point star, but mostly I use five-point stars. You rotate the star, like this.” It’s not exactly clear what he means.
Albarn doesn’t like explaining things – he gets exasperated when people can’t understand what he’s about straight away. Peering at his scribbles, I can see that the “stars” are a picturesque way of shuffling the pitches of one of his modes. They’re like melody-machines, producing endless new streams of notes.
All this is very reminiscent of the way some modernist composers used systems to shuffle note-orders. “Well, I’m very into Messiaen,” says Albarn, “especially his ideas about modes, and I love Cage as well.”
But presumably the emphasis on fives comes from that winsome Chinese five-note or “pentatonic” scale? He grins, showing a glint of his new gold tooth.
“First it was the Chinese flag. I love the iconography of China, all that red everywhere, and I love those great revolutionary ballets. I think all that stuff has really got into this piece. But the main thing is the red five-pointed star. I kept hearing this pentatonic music, and the two things joined up in my head.”
Without warning, he walks off and lies down on the floor, occasionally shouting out encouragement or disapproval to the band. No one seems to think this is odd.
The sound has now thinned to just two violins playing pizzicato, with some floaty noises. Albarn jumps up and says, “I want this feeling where you’re up above the clouds” – he puts his arms out and makes the sound of a plane. They try again.
“Better, but it’s not quite there,” says Albarn. He turns in frustration to the sound engineer. “Can you get me the sound of cabin compression?” Despite the uncertainties, everyone stays amazingly good-humoured.
Afterwards, sitting outside in the sun, I ask Albarn if he knew much opera before starting. “I’ve only been to one opera in my life. It was Monteverdi’s Orfeo, directed by Shi-Zheng [the director and original conceiver of Monkey]. I loved it, and I think a lot of that early-music sound has got into this piece.”
The opera is a long way from his recent project, the Good, the Bad and the Queen, the band who this week won a Mojo award for best album. But Albarn hates the idea that he might be repeating himself.
“No, it’s a whole new thing for me.” Not even the melodic gift he’s always been known for? “Yeah,” he says reluctantly, “that’s what I’m known for principally, so I wouldn’t want to lose that. But the whole star-system thing is new.”
And entirely self-created? “Yeah, I always like to work things out for myself. It makes me terrible for passing exams but not bad for writing operas!” he grins. “I had to use a system, it’s the only way I could write an opera with no training.”
Did he allow himself to tweak the results of his “star-system” if he didn’t like them? Albarn looks shocked at this idea. “No, you’ve got to be true to it, that’s the point. It’s a joy, working this way, because music kept coming out of the system that I never expected.”
This isn’t Albarn’s first brush with “classical” composing. “I wrote lots of stuff when I was 13 or 14 but then I became a teenager, and I lost it.” What was it like? He sighs. “I wish I could find the bloomin’ things. My old music teacher’s coming to the first night, maybe he’s got them.” He stares into the distance.
“You know how some things can be hermetic for years and suddenly they’re not? That’s what happened with this piece. I’ve wanted to do this for 20 years; somehow it seemed impossible, and now here it is.”
But will it work? What I heard made me realise that Albarn has hit on a story that exactly suits his talents. He hasn’t got the technique to portray a specific historical setting with rounded human characters. The characters in Monkey are like outsize puppets with one trait – naughty, evil, sexy – and the music fixes them like a brightly coloured theatrical mask.
It reminded me of Erik Satie, another composer who wrote mechanical music about puppets. And, like Satie, the lop-sided rhythms and note-shuffling now and then take on a muffled pathos, as if the puppet has temporarily acquired a soul.