Written by Sarah Rebell
Photography by Jessica Nash
April 5th, 2018
Marisa Michelson is a composer and vocal philosopher who often adapts myths, folklore, or biblical stories into interdisciplinary, experimental musical works. Back in 2013, Prospect Theater Company presented her musical Tamar of the River, which The New York Times described as “alluring and lyrical,” noting that Marisa’s music was particularly “exquisite.” Now, Prospect is collaborating with Marisa once again, producing her latest piece, One Thousand Nights and One Day: A Postmodern Musical Fantasia. Based on Jason Grote’s play 1001, the musical is a retelling of the Arabian Nights with a contemporary twist. I recently spoke with Marisa about One Thousand Nights and One Day, her process of composing from the body, why she enjoys crafting non-linear narratives, and more.
Since you’re a composer, I want to start off by asking about how and when you were first exposed to music? When did you know that composing, specifically, was going to become a huge part of your life?
I played piano as a young kid, starting around the age of four, and I always loved it. I was good at it, and when you’re a kid, I think that helps you follow what you want to do. Somewhere around the early teenage years, I felt like I was at a point of reckoning with piano and music, and classical music. I was starting to rebel against the constant practicing that was necessary, and at the same time, I was finding some joy and release in creating songs. I was listening to a lot of Tori Amos at the time, and I was always writing in journals, and in those early teen years I started making music, like many people do. That was when I felt this reckoning about whether I was going to give up music entirely or keep going. I came to a crux, and I had a moment of feeling like this is where I’m supposed to live. This is where I’m supposed to be. Music was something I could have ownership over, and discover about the world.
At that time, did you have any awareness of the specific challenges that a female composer might face?
At that time, for sure, it didn’t even cross my mind. I’m really lucky to have parents who raised me [to believe] I could follow my dreams and do anything. The idea of a female composer as something separate from a composer didn’t enter my awareness until sometime during my 20’s.
Do you prefer to be referred to as a composer?
I go back and forth on it. I feel like in the overall spiritual realm, I’m just a composer; composers are all composers. Here on this earth, in the cultural realm, it is a reality that women composers, across history and time, have been less represented. And so, in that sense, I’m thrilled to be a female composer, by which I mean a composer who is representing the female perspective. But then, is there something different about the female perspective? For me, it has something to do with the body, and the fact that my investigation into my own body, and my body’s place in this city and in our culture, as a woman, is often viewed through the lens of the male gaze. That’s been a journey I’ve had to go on, exploring what it means to be a woman and to have a female body. That inquiry has definitely affected who I am as a person, and how I perceive the world around me. Also, it’s given me a great opportunity to get to know my body in a more intimate way, because of having to unpack all of these different things like the male gaze, and whose body is it anyway? Who owns my experience of myself as a person walking around in New York City? As a result of needing to confront those things, I feel like my understanding of myself as a human is deeper, and specific in a way that has helped me create music. For example, I do something I call composing from the body. I always start from a place of almost meditation and physical release, and finding how I can use my own body to receive inspiration. That whole practice has come about because I’ve had to go on this journey of getting to know my body, and ultimately getting to love myself fully in my body, despite the world we live in.
It’s fascinating to me how you’re taking an art form that is sometimes perceived as abstract or ethereal, and, instead, you’re grounding it in a lot of physicality.
I guess at the center of it all, the physical and ethereal, the primal and the elusive, the transcendent and the earthly are all one, and that’s the thing that I am most interested in.
How did this process impact your approach to writing One Thousand Nights and One Day? In this instance, you were starting with a preexisting text, and then adapting it into a musical.
Well, this has been happening for so long. When Jason first approached me about this piece, it was ten years ago. It was at the very beginning of my process. I hadn’t solidified so many aspects of understanding consciously what my workflow is, what my process is. But in the last year, we’ve come together to make the full thing cohesive, and really see it live. It’s amazing to feel in my own body the perspective I’m able to come at the piece with now. I feel like the timing is just perfect because it had to happen now and not earlier, because all of the [members of the] creative team are coming at this piece from a more mature lens. For me, I’ve always been inspired by books and by ideas. Music is the tool I use, but I would receive an idea, and I’d be so inspired to do something with it. Then I would make music because that was my tool. And so, my experience of reading Jason’s play was similar; there would be these moments where I would somehow receive inspiration from his text, from his ideas, and it would live in my body in an exciting way. Then, for me, the process was figuring out how to manifest that. What are the best choices to make? What kind of music? How is the ensemble working?
You mentioned that you’ve personally changed a lot in the 10 years since you began adapting Jason’s play into a musical. Has the story itself has changed much since then?
I think the play and the musical are very different, and I’m happy about that. Of course, the central seed of the whole thing is the same. People who saw the play will recognize quite a bit, but the addition of music has shifted things, as it should. The music can be magical, and it can locate us in time and space, and it can locate us in clear emotional journeys. So the piece has definitely changed. A lot as been cut. We’ve made this into a 90-minute musical. It went through a stage of being a full two-act piece, as most musical journeys do. The use of the ensemble voices, I think, has been a major conceptual addition to the original play. How we use all these people singing really affects how the audience is going to perceive the work. That’s a major change. Also, the use of movement is so exciting and working with [choreographer] Karla [Garcia] is amazing. She’s just so special.
You used the word “magic” before, which is a really interesting word choice, especially in the context of a musical with the subtitle: A Postmodern Musical Fantasia. What does that phrase mean to you?
We came up with that together with Prospect Theater. We wanted to figure out how to communicate that this music is pulled from many genres, and that the experience doesn’t land in one particular style of music. Musical fantasia seems to do that well. Then, the postmodern thing is communicating the things that Jason has been playing with in this piece—structurally, in the narrative, and how we tell the story, the nature of the telling of it. I think that’s really about setting up the audience to have an expectation that this isn’t a linear narrative.
Do you prefer to work in non-linear narratives?
I think theoretically, yes. Non-linear narratives make more emotional and intuitive sense than narrative sense, and in general, that is what I prefer. I’ve even been thinking lately that I feel like feminist work is post-narrative work, actually.
You might even say that feminism fits under the “postmodern” label, by virtue of the fact that it’s uprooting traditional narratives.
Right. One of the things that Jason’s very open about is the fact that this is ultimately a musical about questioning the narratives we create, all of us. Jason, as a white male, has been so good at [that]. It’s difficult to get away from the sexist tropes of our culture. I think it’s difficult to get away from that with narrative in general, because narratives assume a cultural agreement, a consensus on who men are and who women are. Even the idea of the hero’s journey or narrative structure at all feels, to me, like it was created out of a paradigm of doing, and moving forward, and solving, and looking for answers. I’m not saying that’s not feminist. Obviously, the term is wide open, and I’m totally into everyone having their own perspective. But I feel like to get out, to shift our paradigm, to really shake things up, that sometimes feels to me like it’s beyond narrative. It’s putting together stories in different ways. That’s not necessarily what’s happening in One Thousand Nights and One Day, but we are definitely playing with how stories are told and how stories get told.
When we were scheduling this interview, you mentioned the importance of attending all the rehearsals for your show. What has the experience been like for you, as a writer, in the rehearsal room?
Erin Ortman, the director, and I are very good friends. I really love her and respect her. She is conscious about creating a space that’s collaborative, almost like a theatre company would have. We are working in fluid ways, the whole creative team, and we’re all part of the conversation and the choices that are being made. Erin’s so great at fostering that kind of environment. I think that’s special, and it’s certainly how I like to work. In addition to the composer and co-orchestrator, I’m also being billed as Vocal Philosopher for this. That’s because in my work as a teacher and as a singer, and as a human, one of the central aspects of my life is singing. That’s the center of my compositional work and my philosophy of being. Because of that, it’s been fun to bring those ideas, that approach that I have towards singing, into the actual rehearsals. That’s essential, because that’s what makes my music come alive the way that I need it to. Often, I include improvisation in a lot of the work, the vocal work. I think vocal improvisation helps to create a very particular and unique bond between company members. I’m also interested in empowering singers to be able to make choices from their bodies that are coming from the experience of a freeing process as opposed to coming from an orientation towards the product. While I’m in the room, we’re able to collaborate together. It’s a really exciting process, and it’s really fun for all of us. Also, I’ve just been so amazed and surprised; every single day I’m looking forward to being there in the space.
What are you hoping that your audiences will take away from the experience of One Thousand Nights and One Day?
I think of it in two different branches. One is more story-based: what is this piece about, and what will they take away from it? And one is more difficult to talk about because it’s so invisible. From the narrative perspective, here’s what I hope: I hope that people will be invited to examine their own perceptions and opinions, and potentially be open to seeing that how we identify, define, describe ourselves and other people actually affects how we see ourselves in other people. Change the story, change the reality. Then, from the more invisible perspective, there’s something that happens with music, with voice, that is ineffable and magical, and spiritual, and that operates potentially on a less-than-conscious realm. That is hard to describe, but it’s something I’m very aware of when I’m writing music. What I’m searching for, as a composer, is to be inside of that different space, and I hope and I believe that people will feel that.
The show is being marketed as having recently received an NEA grant. As a grant recipient, do you have any thoughts about what the NEA can do for the development of new musical theatre?
We were so thrilled to get this grant. This grant was essential for Prospect Theater Company, and for theatre companies that are smaller and really, really genuinely need the funding in order to make the work happen. I’m very grateful to Prospect Theater for having done Tamar of the River, and now taking this musical on and being a champion of my work, and of new work. I think they are the only ones doing new musicals in this way. They are a small company, and the funding goes such a long way. I do believe that artists’ art is necessary for society, and culture is an essential element of living, and life, and it’s devalued. We don’t know how to value it, which makes sense because it doesn’t operate in the same realm as a trade. It makes sense that there’s this confusion around the whole thing, but what’s not confusing is that life without art, without great art, without music, is not a life worth living for anybody. In that sense, it’s quantifiable, and we need the support of the government. We need the support of people. I think it’s a paradigm shift, trying to figure out how can we start to see art as something essential that is worth paying for, as long as we’re in this capitalist society.
You’re also a voice teacher. Do you look at the arts from two different perspectives, both as a composer but also, perhaps, from an educational point of view?
That’s such a great point. Art is hugely transformative for the people doing it. That means the people singing, the people learning how to sing, are getting into an experience of their own bodies growing as performers and as singers. It’s the greatest privilege and gift for me to be teaching singing to people. I love it, 100%, the same as I love composing. It’s a miracle to witness the growth that happens in humans from their singing practices, and I know that because it’s true for me as well, from my practice. But you’re right. I think it can be transformative for the people doing it, for sure, from an educational perspective.
Often, young women can veer towards a tendency to be a little shy when it comes to asserting themselves and showing pride in their accomplishments. Do have any methods to help your students figuratively, as well as literally, learn how to own their own voice?
That’s a good question. I think it’s more of a cultural thing overall for everybody, where people connect through insecurities often, rather than through empowerment. There seems to be less practice in our culture of connecting from a place of strength—just socially, I mean. It’s easier to connect through complaining, and then through talking about other people or through saying, “Oh, I didn’t sleep well.” Or, “Oh, I’m so this. I’m so tired.” Or, “Oh, I wish I could be like that,” or, “I wish I could be like you.” And less of a culture of practicing, “I’m amazing. I feel amazing. How are you? I hope you do, too.” And so that’s something I hope I can help be part of. In reconceiving, reframing the whole question of what it means to operate in the world from a place of strength without thinking that’s diminishing other people. The only way we can do that is by holding space for everyone to be in their highest light, and not to be afraid that somebody else living in their highest light and being super awesome is going to diminish our own super awesomeness.