Perruqueries gets funny at the Modulus Festival

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      For both concision and precision, it’s hard to top Jocelyn Morlock’s own review of her new song cycle Perruqueries, written with Leacock Award–winning humorist Bill Richardson.

      “The songs we’ve written are fairly silly,” says Music on Main’s resident composer, in a telephone interview from her Vancouver home. “Except when they’re not.”

      After scanning Richardson’s lyrics, it’s hard to disagree, especially as all six numbers have to do with artificial hair. There are songs about a janitor who mysteriously returns from an overseas holiday with a suspiciously glossy Elvis pompadour. Art icon Andy Warhol and NHL hall-of-famer Bobby Hull both lose their rugs in public places. And celebrated soprano and wig-fancier Galina Vishnevskaya nearly goes up in flames during a particularly torrid Tosca.

      “The opera’s never over, though/Till the fat lady’s singed,” Richardson writes, after noting the diva’s disdain for “crude synthetic wigs”.

      Baritone Tyler Duncan, soprano Robyn Driedger-Klassen, and pianist Erika Switzer initiated the commission, and they’ll premiere it at Music on Main’s annual Modulus Festival next week.

      “At the time they approached us, I thought, ‘Well, it’ll be fun if they have the possibility of doing something theatrical,’ ” Richardson recalls, in a separate phone interview from Winnipeg. “And I’m not somebody you’re going to turn to for profundity, so I presumed they were looking for something that was on the lighter side of things.”

      Richardson is selling himself short, however. Live with his libretto for a while, and what might seem doggerel begins to give up glimmers of hidden depth. As he did in Do You Want What I Have Got?, a Craigslist-inspired cantata written with Veda Hille, Richardson has found a way to use everyday absurdities to illuminate a variety of awkward or poignant human truths.

      “Why do people care so much about their hair?” he asks. “It has everything, unfortunately, to do with a kind of potency. But there’s also something funny about wig-wearing. By and large—especially for men, of course—it’s so self-evident. Has there ever been a really good wig? A really convincing rug? I’ve never seen one. So there’s something that’s just sort of inherently funny about them—but also something kind of melancholy. It tells us something about vanity—and vanity is something we all share.”

      For Morlock, the wearing of wigs has more playful overtones. “Oftentimes, with putting on a wig there’s this element of costuming and dress-up that’s kind of fun,” she says. “It’s like cloaking yourself in somebody else’s garments a little bit, and playing somebody else. That’s one of the ways I thought of it, for sure.”

      Consequently, this composer of beautiful and often otherworldly music saw her assignment as an opportunity to indulge her comic side. Morlock’s score for “Galina Vishnevskaya”, for instance, takes Giacomo Puccini’s music for Tosca and riffles it like a deck of cards, with “miniature quotes” embedded behind every line. “Andy Warhol”, in contrast, is probably the closest thing to a show tune she’s ever written.

      “I was trying to make it sort of like cool and ludicrous at the same time, ’cause that’s kind of how I think of Andy Warhol,” she says. “He’s just so wonderfully odd.”

      Richardson and Morlock’s wig cycle promises to be no less uncanny; at the very least, it should prove the comic highlight of the Modulus Festival, which runs at various venues from Monday to Thursday (October 21 to 24). Morlock protests that she’s had little to do with programming the event, but she does have some recommendations, especially for listeners of a more serious bent. She’s looking forward to hearing Duncan and Switzer perform a new, English-language translation of Franz Schubert’s Winterreise, and is intrigued by New York City composer Caroline Shaw’s use of overtone-singing techniques in her choral work. And then there’s Steve Reich’s phase-music masterpiece Drumming, which will be performed in the Blusson Spinal Cord Centre’s spacious and acoustically vibrant atrium.

      “Percussion works very well in there, and if you walk around, things sound a little bit different in every place,” she notes. “So it’ll be a lot of fun to hear it in different spots and be able to sort of move about through the music.”

      Perruqueries will be performed at Heritage Hall on Wednesday (October 23), as part of the Modulus Festival.