How to Compose Psychedelic Earthquakes

Studio 360

In December 2013, real-life rock star Mike Doughtyanswered our call for creative New Year’s resolutions. He will turn the Book of Revelation into a “staged sermon/oratorio/pageant” by the end of the year.

April Update:

I finished a cut of the text, and, I have to say, I’m surprised that I didn’t have to get rid of much. Generally, I amalgamated angels — there are maybe two dozen individual angels with speaking roles — and I cut a large number of earthquakes. John the Revelator just could not get enough of the earthquakes. Every time something happens, they throw in an earthquake for good measure. I have this vision of a movie producer, looking like Swifty Lazar, yelling, “Earthquakes, John, baby! The kids love earthquakes! Another draft, with more earthquakes!”

I read portions of it to myself, timed it, and did some math; looks like the thing can be read in about half an hour. Which is amazing; it means I can keep almost every episode in there, intact. We have become accustomed, when thinking of the Revelation, to consider the stuff that could be read as a Cold-War, Soviets-vs.-America allegory — Gog and Magog, Armageddon. In fact, that stuff is almost like a sideshow. Jesus has been psychedelically beating the shit out of the planet, repeatedly, by the time that stuff starts happening. So I was actually wondering if I’d end up hearing the Swifty Lazar in my head yelling, “Lose the Magog! Dead weight!”

Initially, the manageable length of the text felt like a triumph: the general gist is that the text will be recited — chanted, spoken, intoned — by a cast, and there’ll be certain phrases magnified, repeated, and sung. Then, I was filled with dread and panic: what has kept me from diving further into this was what I perceived as the sheer uncuttableness of the text; now I have to write the music.

I’m starting with rhythms, for that: there’s a beat called the guaila that I learned when I traveled in Eritrea a few years ago. It’s the kind of thing that’d be an excellent foundation to build a recitation of the text on, and then sculpt out some more song-y stuff from there. I also intend to make much use of beats similar to that of P.T.A.F.’s “Boss Ass Bitch”— big, spare, spooky.

I initially thought that it’d be a non-guitar piece, but, increasingly, I have all these guitar parts laying around, written and groovy but unused, that I wonder if I could plug in. My style is sui generis by happy accident (self-taught, plus shittiness at learning good technique when I finally was taught, plus three decades of playing), and it’d be difficult to transmit to another guitar player. I had a belief that the way it should be done is that one could write a score and hand it to any player; maybe this won’t be the case.

I was hoping to get into the artists’ colony Yaddo over the summer, to have some solitary time to work on this thing — I’ve gotten in twice before, and gotten wait-listed once — but I got rejected. I’ve had funny conversations with other artists who’ve been there, about the imaginary projects they’ve invented, because the application asks you to describe what you’ll be working on, but, generally, the real answer is something like, “Like, write more short stories or poems, and stuff.” Funnily, my application described in detail what I actually intended to write there. Lesson: if you want to get into Yaddo, invent a less-implausible project.

I was just at a benefit show for a composers’ group last night, and one of them, having heard about this on Studio 360, said, “This Revelation thing sounds great! I wrote a rock musical myself — it took seven years!” Let me emphasize, what I’m intending to do isn’t really a musical, per se — but this is the message I’ve been getting: what an insane idea! I don’t know how the hell you could do this within the year!

Mike Doughty's typewriter

Two translations of Revelation on an old IBM Selectric typewriter.
I’ve been using the typewriter as a way to eliminate the overwhelming amount of possibilities, and make it more deliberate. Also: tactile and loud.

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