James Son of James (2007)

Duration: 110’
For live singers and track, with Philip Feeney (piano/vibraphone), Kate Ellis (cello), Alex Nealon (guitar) and Robbie Harris (percussion).
Conceived, written and directed by Michael Keegan-Dolan

Designer: Merle Hensel

Lighting Design: Adam Silverman

Sound Design: Alexis Nealon
A Fabulous Beast co-production with Dublin Theatre Festival, Barbican BITE 08 and Dance Touring Partnership. First performed at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin in September 2007. It was also performed on tour in the UK and at the Barbican Theatre, London in February 2008.
Cast: Emmanuel Obeya, Simon Rice, Daphne Strothmann, Rachel Poirier, Michael Dolan, Khamlane Halsackda, Cliodhna Hoey, Lorena Randi, Angelo Smimmo (vocalist), Vladislav Sóltys, Milos Galko and Neil Paris.

The last piece in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s midlands trilogy, James Son of James, was created at Shawbrook School of Dance in the autumn of 2007. His tale of accidental heroism and subsequent betrayal, set in a small rural Irish community, mirrors the story of Christ and the passion. To help tell the story Keegan-Dolan chose several songs by Mark Oliver Everett, the founder of the American rockband, Eels, which had deeply affected him. In the piece, they were sung by members of the cast either to live piano/or vibraphone (played by the composer during the Dublin season at the Beckett Theatre) or to backing track.

Feeney’s task, then, was to create music that could dovetail with the Eels, that could be compatible with but not ape the original. It also needed to enhance and not crowd the dialogue that carried the plot forward. Much of Everett’s work is characterized by a unique combination of utter simplicity and (perhaps) disturbingly original sonorities. Consequently Feeney tried to work using the same criteria, choosing a limited blend of digital piano sounds, supplemented by the cello of Kate Ellis and the guitar of Alexis Nealon, together with a closed, even childlike, minimal harmonic palette.

In an attempt to tie in with Everett’s dream-like, or even nightmarish, soundworlds, we co-opted the superb double bass and musical saw exponent, Martin Brunsden, who was later to collaborate with Feeney and Keegan-Dolan on the workshopped piece, Helen and Hell in the autumn of 2010. He gave half the cast lessons in how to make a musical saw sing, with the original idea that the doctor (Simon Rice) should play it as his private hobby. The only problem was that as soon as we heard the musical saw, it was simply too hilarious, too funny in the wrong places, totally dissipating the hard-wrought tension that had been built up.

The songs were arranged in a way that would be appropriate to the character on stage, rather than be a faithful rendering of the original song. So we see Rachel Poirier suspended precariously on a window ledge, accompanied by a disembodied vibraphone, and Emmanuel Obeya’s final song by simple acoustic guitar (Nealon) with cello gradually featuring between verses (Ellis). The vibraphone is quite a major sonority in the score, at times gently pulsing between two simple chords, like a quiet timeline that leads us on to the inevitability of the end.

At the centre of the work there is a big wedding celebration for the whole community. Percussion maestro, Robbie Harris, came to Shawbrook for a rough and ready recording session and created a terrific acoustic backing track, over which Feeney created a celebratory number in the klezmer style, much aided by some fantastic cello samples created by Kate Ellis who, as happy chance would have it, played in a klezmer outfit in Dublin; research insisted that we go and listen to her play.

For much of the creative period, the composer was able to improvise the scenes during rehearsal. The downside of this is that the music is slow to be finalized. For the final three days of the Shawbrook sojourn, Feeney had to unavoidably go to Amsterdam for the premiere of his Prequel to Peter and the Wolf. Before he went, he was sat down by the sound designer and told unceremoniously to play each scene into the computer and thus get it fixed. Although Feeney played the Dublin season live, it was in any case invaluable to create these audio file backups. In the end they were finalized in the AV studio of the Northern Stage, Newcastle for the forthcoming UK tour in 2008.