Never one to shy away from ambitous musical projects, Michael McDermott – stage name: Mikronesia, one half of Gemini Wolf, founder of earSnake records – can now add “opera composer” to his curriculum vitae. This Friday, Nov. 11, his imaginative work Pangaea: When The Continents Were One premiers at The Rotunda for one night only. The multimedia fable blends an eclectic score, anthropological visuals and a 15-piece ensemble to look not just at the idyllic beginnings of mankind, but the point at which conflict between cultures began. The Key recently caught up with McDermott to talk about the work and its genesis.
The Key: I thought it’d be fun to being our interview with some free association if you’re game.
Michael McDermott: Sure!
TK: OK, then. Complete these sentences. “The most difficult thing about putting an opera together front-to-back is…”
MMcD: I guess coordinating lots of people’s different schedules. I mean, you could write an opera and record it all by yourself in the studio. But I just collaborated with so many different people. Just getting everyone to come to the studio at a certain time and record, that was the most difficult thing for me. I could have used an assistant manager or something. [laughs]
TK: “The easiest part about putting together an opera is…”
MMcD: Getting people to work on it with me. Everyone I asked said yes, which I was surprised about. I thought some people would be like “What, an opera? No that’s stupid, that’s prog-rock.”
TK: “The thing about Pangaea that will totally come as a surprise to the people hearing it is…”
MMcD: That they will still sit through and listen to an 80 minute piece of music front to back in the era of shuffle on your iPod or watching to a quick YouTube video.
TK: “My one regret about the project is…”
MMcD: Underestimating. I’ve already have people say “I want to come to it but I can’t make it that night, when’s the next one?” And I have to be like “I don’t know.” I wish I would have booked the premier to have several shows, or a long run. It seems like the work I’m putting into the premier is more work than I’ve ever done for one show. It would have been cool to perform it for an entire week. But I think down the road we’re going to do something like that.
TK: Awesome. Now to jump into broader questions, how did you come to decide “For my next project, I would like to write an 80-minute opera about Pangaea?”
MMcD: [laughs] Well, the idea of Pangaea is really kind of old. Even in High School I had this idea of writing an opera. Back then I probably thought of it more like a musical, and it became kind of opera of Pangaea…and slowly it morphed into this idea of making it about the ecology, war. And as the sound of the music I was interested in changed, it became more neo-tribal, integrating different kind of world musics together into this mulch of sound that really had no boundaries as far as what cultures they referenced. Which is also I think a comment on modern culture a little bit.
TK: That’s something for me, as a listener, was the most surprising thing about the record. I’m still used to thinking of your terms in the electronic / experimental idiom, and there’s straight-up pop songs on here. For example, the song that Lily Ruth-Bussie is on; it’s music that sounds like nothing you’ve written or performed before, and that I would not have expected of you. Which is good! I like that.
MMcD: That song actually has a bit of gamelan Indonesian percussion on it, which is one of my favorite types of music. I knew over the past couple years, I just had a mental checklist – I’ve gotta have a song with gamelan in it, I want to have a psychedelic indian song. Just all these different things in my mind. And I knew I wanted to have them in the opera. It’s kind of the culmination of, whenever I had an idea, and I knew it wouldn’t necessarily work for Gemini Wolf, and wouldn’t work for other bands that I produce or work with, I would say okay, I want to make sure that makes it into Pangaea.
TK: When did you begin writing it?
MMcD: I think I started when I was around seventeen, so it’s been fifteen years or so.
MMcD: Some of the songs are definitely that old, the ideas are old. I would say I’ve seriously been working on it for about two years where I would sit down and try to write a story, decide which songs are going to be which sections of the story, tracking demos and things like that. And this past year has been recording actual versions of the opera, with all the instruments – real instruments, not just MIDI sketches of strings and drums and stuff like that.
TK: Was the intent always to bring it to the fifteen piece ensemble, or did you initially think it would just be a recording project?
MMcD: It was always going to be a performance. At some point about a year and a half ago I got really scared about doing it live and decided it’s just going to be a recording. Or, what I thought I was going to do was a multimedia installation, where the recording will be playing on loop in a gallery, and you can see artifacts from the Pangaea universe, and there would be video and stuff like that. And when I mentioned that to some of my older friends, they were like “No man, you’ve got to perform it live. You’ve been talking about it for so long, do it live.” So I was like allright, I’ll do it live.
TK: You first began thinking of this in high school in the 90s – do you remember an album called Pangaea that came out back then?
MMcD: The Miles Davis album?
TK: No, it was more of a space music / new age album by Dan Lacksman, who produced Deep Forest. I remember it because I worked in a record shop at the time that had a pretty extensive new age section – Enigma and so forth – and it carried that album. I was wondering if that record was an inspiration for this idea itself. Though the idea obviously has a basis in science as well.
MMcD: No, I never heard of that project. But Miles Davis has an album called Pangaea.
TK: Well I didn’t know that. [laughs]
MMcD: It’s from the late 70s I think, ’77 / ’78. That’s the really hard fusion-funk, just an hour striaght jam session that he made into an album. That probably put the word into my head, cause I did like Miles Davis – Bitches Brew and things like that. And I’m always googling it to see if somebody has done this sort of thing. I think people maybe have written music about the idea of Pangaea as a pristine super-continent where humans haven’t come yet.
TK: Which is kind of the perspective that this album I’m thinking of took. Whereas yours is more about the beginnings of conflict.
MMcD: It’s almost like a mythology. ‘Cause it’s not true – there were no humans on Pangaea. It’s kind of an allegory for divisions among humanity, finding some reason that we’re different from other people, and then going to war over that. And then as that’s happening, the continents are splitting apart. So it’s kind of a mythology. And there’s another album I put out two years ago called Pangaea: Trinity Sun. Which was a project I did at Nexus Gallery for their Nexus Radio. and it’s actually an old school Orson Welles kind of radio drama. And it was a lot simpler, I just did a bunch of ambient soundscapes and my friend Christian Raben who’s a really brilliant MC and hiphop artist – he goes by Solomon Slowburn on my label earSnake, he went to Brown and studied mythology so he’s really good at taking a story I make up and making it sound really cool and epic…like Beowulf or something. [laughs] So he did the narration of Pangaea: Trinity Sun and I just did the soundscapes. And the story of that is the creation story of this perfect race of people who live underwater and don’t have any concept of time or thought or materials. And they slowly start to discover these things and once they do, humanity is born and that’s kind of the genesis of the Pangaea opera. And they’re actually referenced at the end of the opera.
TK: Does Christian appear on the Pangaea album?
MMcD: He’s at the very end – he does a spoken word soliloquy on the very last song. The song “Sabertooth Tiger” has an MC, John Morrison. And Jalima Shani, she’s an MC too, she’s on the second side.
TK: The performance on the 11th is going to feature the orchestral ensemble. There’s also a visual element to it?
MMcD: Yeah, it’s got Nico Dominguez. He’s basically taking a bunch of images and video clips I’ve been finding of cave paintings and weird tribal stuff and using them as a starting point. He’s making this visual way to tell the story. It’s not going to be acted out like a traditional opera, where people are moving around on stage and interacting, acting things out. A lot of the visual element of it is going to be told through this imagery, kind of like abstract imagery. And there’s also puppets in it, giant puppets.
TK: Nice! Is it the Spiral Q people?
MMcD: It’s not officially Sprial Q, it’s this woman Liza Godell – who’s one of the directors over there. She’s making the puppets herself, giant animal heads and things like that for a couple songs.
TK: So it’s not going to be a straightforward, literal performing of the story, but there will be room to take it in and read it in that sense. Will there be a chance for people who haven’t heard to story yet to read up on it? Will there be a playbill with a summary?
MMcD: Yeah, there’s going to be a program and a synopsis. There’s also a deluxe edition of the CD that has a 60-page book that has the whole epic poem written by Christian that tells the whole story of what’s going on. It actually goes more indepth about what’s happening with the songs, so if you read that and listen to it, you’ll get the whole story. And with the projections there will be little one- or two-sentence explanations of what’s going on, like title cards in a silent film.
TK: Do you think Pangaea might be a project you could reprise for, say, Live Arts / Fringe next year?
MMcD: Yeah, I hope so. It’s 15 people in it. There’s six singers – I couldn’t really see performing it without those six singers, but all the music is written out, so if the schedules don’t work out for these fifteen people, other musicians could play it down the road. But yeah, hopefully I’d like to play it at the Fringe, like you said, maybe in New York, Baltimore or something else.
Pangea: When The Continents Were One premiers Fri. Nov. 11 at 8 p.m. at The Rotunda, 4014 Walnut Street. Tickets to the all-ages performance are $10.