October 29, 2018
Getting the Band Back Together: Orchestra Notes from Dessa
Fresh off a successful two-night collaboration, Dessa recaps her recent performances with the Minnesota Orchestra and tells us what it's like to collaborate with conductor Sarah Hicks and the Orchestra musicians.
If you’ve spent your career touring the club circuit, performing with an orchestra isn’t just an aesthetic departure; it’s bodily disorienting. For starters, the music is coming from the wrong direction. On amplified stages all over the world, you hear the music from the monitor speakers at your feet. But in my first rehearsal with the Minnesota Orchestra in 2017, I realized that all the sound was behind me—meaning the little cups of my ears were facing away from all the action. It took a moment to just to get my sea legs.
As we worked through our charts, the players moved through the dynamic passages like a school of fish: enormous swells of strings and blasts of brass would bloom and then contract into small, patient moments, much more delicate than would be possible on most pop stages. The many parts and pieces fit together like a pocket watch—a pocket watch the size of a whaling ship. As we worked together, our timing also naturally flexed, an unfamiliar sensation for someone accustomed to performing with the unvarying tempos of produced music. The orchestra was an enormous, organic thing. The task at hand felt a little like surfing—learning to ride a wave as it curled overhead.
We played two back-to-back shows together in April 2017, both to sold-out rooms. I wrote a series of dramatic monologues to lace the songs together. The concerts were two of the proudest moments in my career.
When Grant Meachum, the Director of Live at Orchestra Hall, asked if I’d like to return to perform a pair of shows in early October of 2018, I jumped at the chance. After confirming with the orchestra, the first call I made was to Andy Thompson, the multi-talented musician whose arrangements consistently impress the orchestra’s librarians and members. Pop songs must be completely re-imagined to make full use of the orchestra’s skill and horsepower. An arranger must be profoundly musical; mindful of each instrument’s range and relative volume; and the charts must be meticulous—clean, crisp, and precise. Sometimes, as we select songs for our set, Andy will text me to ask if I would prefer to move a particular tune up or down in register to avoid unduly cumbersome fingering in the strings or woodwind sections. Last year, he turned in 999 pages of charts to the orchestra. Happily, Andy agreed to arrange another round of songs for the 2018 show.
The final, finishing touch of an orchestral arrangement is often the performance direction: a few words in the score and parts that indicate the general vibe or attitude of the piece. They are also, in my opinion, a lot of fun to write. Here are a few of the performance directions that Andy I worked up for this year’s shows:
The next collaborators to rope in were vocalists Aby Wolf, Cameron Kinghorn, Matthew Santos and Ashley DuBose, and drummer Joey Van Phillips. Aby again agreed to serve as Vocal Director, which meant she’d write and record vocal lines for each singer, which we’d memorize before meeting to rehearse. Ashley DuBose graciously hosted a few of the early rehearsals—here’s a clip of us working through the treatment for “Jumprope” in her apartment.
Video by Dessa
And here’s a moment on stage at Orchestra Hall, singing along to a MIDI rehearsal audio file of “Sound the Bells.” Matthew, Cameron, Ashley and Aby are all seasoned musicians with their own solo careers; they’re not only great voices, but talented and seasoned performers. Rehearsing in the space allows us to fine-tine blocking, mic techniques, and plan where to train our eyes during particularly dramatic moments. (It also allowed Ashley to come up with that cool dance-circle thing during the last chorus of “Jumprope.” So damn fresh.)
Video by Keegan Burckhard
When it’s time to rehearse in earnest with the orchestra, conductor Sarah Hicks takes the wheel. If you haven’t yet seen her live, Sarah is very much a performer—she can do comedy, drama, and shtick, and does so with relish and an arched eyebrow. She’s at once commanding, funny, curious, and kind. On more than one occasion we’ve had the chance to trade notes about our respective careers—both somewhat unconventional. A minor parallel, but one that delighted me: we both make unusual demands of stagewear. While I’m jumping and stretching in the fitting room—stress-testing outfits for the rigor of a rap show—she’s taking special care to select shirts that are pleasing from the back; the view afforded to the house for most of the evening.
Video by Frank Merchlewitz
In the many months since our last shows, I’d had the chance to get to know many members of the orchestra personally; I’d accompanied their summer tour of South Africa, as a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio’s Classical station. (You can read through some of that coverage HERE.) And so walking out to center stage, I could see friendly faces that I knew by name—Kathy at her harp, Silver at the cello, Doug and Chuck back in brass. Orchestra Hall is an arresting room—striking and elegant—but walking out to center stage had the feeling of a reunion too. We were getting the band back together.
I wanted to make it clear to attendees that this performance would not be a reprise of last year’s—we led with a new arrangement, new monologue material, and I entered in a sequined cloak designed by [the madly talented] Joynoelle.
Photo by Tony Nelson
As a general rule, my material runs pretty dark—a lot of melancholic harmonies, driving rhythms, some noir references. So in a live setting, humor keeps the evening balanced. To punctuate the end of the song “Shrimp” (which closes with the lyric always a bridesmaid, never an astronaut), my friend and teammate Becky created half a dozen astronaut bouquets to be thrown overhead by Aby, Ashley, and Sarah (who managed a one-handed toss without missing a beat with her baton).
Photo courtesy of Dessa
A couple of weeks after the fact, I’m still sleeping off the big tour that culminated in the orchestral shows. A serious “thank you” is due to everyone who put in some serious time and talent to pull off a couple of epic nights. In addition to those mentioned above, a quick shout out to Jay Perlman on the amplification, Vickie on the lights, and Ash on the killer projections. In the lobby, DJ Fundo, puppeteers Liz Schachterle and Kalen Keir; and dancers from DeadPool slayed. Thanks all.
And of course, to all those who attended, thank you for arriving willing to move and be moved.
To stay abreast of my upcoming shows, read some new writing, or just to say hello, swing by the new website: dessawander.com. You can also find me on Instagram (@dessa), Twitter, or Facebook (@dessadarling). I’ll be touring the UK during the first half of November, but will return to deliver a speech and perform a few songs at Northrop Auditorium on Nov 16th. To check out the performance schedules of the vocalists who joined me onstage at Orchestra Hall, you can connect with them on Twitter at @abywolf, @AshleyDuBose @CDKinghorn, and @MatthewSantos.
See you at the next one,