Love Songs: A Creation Story in Four Acts and Four Voices

By Steve Smith

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Cast of characters

John - composer
Jesse - lyrics and book 
Petra - vocalist
Paola - co-founder and artistic director of National Sawdust

John is a composer, performer, artist, universalist, and aesthetic philosopher born in New York City, who has forged an independent path through stylistic domains that range from the classical avant-garde to many popular idioms. He has been a central figure in the Downtown Scene since 1974, incorporating a wide variety of creative musicians into various compositional formats. His work is remarkably diverse, and draws inspiration from Art, Literature, Film, Theatre, Philosophy, Alchemy, and Mysticism as well as Music.

Jesse is a Grammy Award-winning songwriter, singer, guitarist, and producer of artists from all over the world. Originally from New York City, he began making records in the mid ’90s. Since then he has released almost 20 albums under his own name, as well as others with many various projects.

Petra is a musical innovator who, in the last four decades, has earned industry recognition for her experimental harmonies, inventive melodies, and eclectic collaborations. Her voice and violin can be heard in many musical realms––jazz, rock, pop, alternative, classical, punk, metal, and soundtracks.

Paola is a composer who has collaborated with poets, filmmakers, and scientists in large-scale multimedia works that chart her interest in extra-musical themes ranging from the cosmos to the environment. She has created, written and produced projects such as “The Hubble Cantata,” the world's largest and first communal VR opera, and “The Colorado,” an eco-documentary televised by PBS. She is a co-founder of VisionIntoArt, a non-profit new music and interdisciplinary arts production company in New York City, and is the Co-Founder/Artistic Director of the non-profit music organization National Sawdust.

The setting is National Sawdust, an artistic performance space in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. John has been celebrating his 70th birthday already throughout the year, in locations across New York City and around the world. More celebrations lay ahead, including an evening of premieres at the venerable theater Roulette… a three-concert series with chamber music and celebrated collaborators at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre… a week at hallowed jazz club the Village Vanguard… and further events in San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Boston.

Act 1: Before the Beginning

Paola’s vision had guided National Sawdust long before it became manifest as a physical space. Now, she wants to facilitate a special, distinct event to celebrate John’s birthday, something that would reflect the way she viewed his role in the world, and in her life’s work.

PAOLA: It’s paramount for me to explain that in many ways, John has not only been a mentor, but an example of what it means to be expansive as a human being, and how that expansiveness can bring the change needed in the world. John gave me my first break on his label, Tzadik, then brought me in to curate at The Stone. Those years were seminal for me: seeing the greats up close, and having unfettered room for experimentation under his wing, built my confidence in ways few experiences have.

Fast forward to building National Sawdust: I knew I wanted John’s voice involved in many ways. As a composer, his music exalts. His prolific dedication to his output, and the expansiveness of his style—which always has his voice, but blows the top off of what a “jazzer” or “contemporary classical composer” should or can do—was a shining example for me, and led me to make sure that the concept of aesthetic equity driver our approach. The way he curates, so openly and full of trust—the artist knows what they want to do, let them lead—was a guiding principle.

Act 2: Two Voices, One Statement

At a glance, the partnership might seem unlikely: John is an iconoclastic maverick whose oeuvre encompasses opera and grindcore, free improvisation, and madrigal; Jesse, a songsmith whose words and music have touched the hearts of literally millions. But perhaps it should come as no surprise that these comprehensively skillful craftsmen and open-minded connoisseurs of American music history should recognize each other as a kindred spirit and ideal collaborator. 

Now, it’s time to try something new.

JOHN: After the success of “The Song Project” and “Songs for Petra,” where Jesse put words to existing pieces in my catalog, it felt like the next step was to compose brand-new music for Jesse to put lyrics to. As I wrote the music, the pieces really felt more and more like a musical—especially with the occasional opening recitatives, very Tin Pan Alley.

I had been toying with the idea of a musical with Jesse for years—used to joke about it with him. It was something that I had never done before, and seemed an important American tradition, a unique musical form worth exploring.

JESSE: The songs were written first, so in a sense the cart came before the horse, narratively speaking. John sent me music, and I wrote lyrics, then the book.

JOHN: When Petra began to work on the songs, she agreed that it had the feel of a musical.

PETRA: When I first heard the music, I immediately loved it.

JESSE: Once the songs were finished, the story was built around them. Later on, a few lyrics were revised, but most of them stayed in the original form.

JOHN: It was all very organic—it just kind of happened.

Act 3: A Musical Is Born

In the course of his thoroughgoing musical explorations, and in championing Jewish creators specifically and deliberately, John previously celebrated Broadway giants and pop auteurs such as Kurt Weill and Burt Bacharach. Here, he steps into their role, also referencing Stephen Sondheim and Tin Pan Alley/Brill Building tradition.

JESSE: The counterpart to these examples, as far as my role is concerned, would be—except in the case of Sondheim, who wrote his own lyrics—Bertolt Brecht and Hal David, respectively. 

Jesse searches further still for the tools he used to write the book for “Love Songs,” while also finding inspiration close at hand.

JESSE: In some instances when it came to writing the lyrics, taking inspiration from opera librettos, where phrases are repeated over and over, helped. Zorn's melodies, especially in the more challenging pieces, have repetitions like that. Other more romantic pieces lent themselves to a classic, even old-fashioned style of lyric.

Jesse says even before he conceived the story of “Love Songs,” knowing that the songs were intended to work together shaped his process.

JESSE: Having the idea that they might be sung in a show informed not only the subject matter, but the actual tense and perspective of the words. For example, sometimes I would imagine that different lines within a single song could be sung by different characters. Or if there were too many songs that told one kind of story, John would ask me to present another kind of perspective.

Act 4: Bringing the Story to the Stage

Familiar with John and Jesse from prior collaborations, Petra takes to her new assignment eagerly.

PETRA: A challenge for me, in general, is memorizing lyrics. But because I loved the music so much, it was a fun process.

She immediately discerns one profound difference between the new project and the previous one that was named for her, “Songs for Petra.”

PETRA: "Love Songs" has a sadness to it that makes it different.

The show that emerges tells the story of a young woman named Colette, her boyfriend, Arthur, two friends named Lola and Fleurie, and a long-ago ex named Martin. Colette unquestionably is the central role, but all of the characters in “Love Songs” grapple with relationships, trauma, identity, and self-worth.

PETRA: The more I practiced and learned the lyrics, the better I understood what the main character of this story was feeling. While practicing, I sometimes pictured myself in a movie like “Breakfast at Tiffany's,” which helped a lot.

Petra won’t be acting in a fully staged realization of “Love Songs” slated for a 2024 premiere, but says she had no trouble relating to what the characters were thinking and feeling.

PETRA: What I love about singing Jesse's lyrics is that they're universal. They touch upon emotions relatable to people from all walks of life. I identify with them, which makes it easy for me to learn. When I hear the music and lyrics together, I feel like I have finished a puzzle of a beautiful sunset.

For Paola, the opportunity to present the world-premiere concert performance of “Love Songs”—a groundbreaking endeavor involving a close-knit creative community, including pianist Brian Marsella, bassist Jorge Roeder, and percussionist Ches Smith—is an emblematic way to celebrate John’s milestone birthday.

PAOLA: It’s so perfect that “Love Songs,” his take on an Off Broadway-like form, is how we’re taking his celebration to stage. John is the ultimate inventor, and he does so with pure love. That purity makes everything he does brim with honesty and often radicalism in its most exciting form. I can’t wait to share this world premiere with the world. And I can’t wait for him to feel the love from the many communities he has built.

About Steve Smith

Steve Smith is a journalist, critic, and editor based in New York City. He has written about music for The New York Times and The New Yorker, and served as an editor for The Boston Globe, Time Out New York, National Sawdust, and NPR.