To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, song is a song is a song is a song. The Oakland-raised writer’s elliptical verse serves as the source of inspiration for the latest project by Ramon and Jessica, the singer/songwriter duo of Dina Maccabee and Jesse Olsen Bay. They present Roses are Blue, a suite for vocal ensemble inspired by Stein’s 1938 children’s book The World is Round, Friday at Berkeley’s Subterranean Arthouse and Saturday at San Francisco’s Red Poppy Art House.
“We don’t conceive it that way, but a lot of friends say their kids love our music,” says Maccabee, who spent a decade as a creative force on the Bay Area music scene before recently completing a masters program in composition at Wesleyan University.
“Jesse and I decided to try to split that line and create a thought-out piece of art with a children’s element,” Maccabee continues. “So if we were going to use a text, what could support that ambiguity between adult work and work for children? Who’s the most arcane author who could have possibly written a children’s book?”
They discovered The World is Round shortly before Harper reissued a 75th anniversary edition of the book in 2013 with the original Clement Hurd illustrations. On their three albums, Maccabee and Bay have created luscious acoustic instrumental settings for their captivating melodies. The latest Ramon and Jessica CD, 2012’s Fly South (PortoFranco Records) features Maccabee on violin and viola and Bay on guitar, ukulele, toy piano, percussion and keyboards. They’re joined by players like bassist Daniel Fabricant, drummer Dave Mihaly, accordionist Marié Abe, and cellist Jessica Ivry (a former bandmate from Maccabee’s days in the Real Vocal String Quartet).
But after they tried an a cappella arrangement of “Free Ride” as part of UnderCover Presents 2012 production of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon they decided to experiment with making music sans instruments. They created an a series of a cappella duets as a score for award-winning Bay Area choreographer Amy Siewart’s ballet “In the Time” (music they released on a digital EP).
As they delved into The World Is Round, they “kept having the thought that we could do so much more if we had more voices,” Maccabee says. They ended up creating a singular ensemble featuring former Kitka member Caitlin Austin, experimental jazz vocalist Lorin Benedict, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum alum Michael Mellender, and composer/multi-instrumentalist Ron Shalom. Pioneering feminist theorist and poet Judy Grahn, who edited the collection Really Reading Gertrude Stein: A Selected Anthology, will narrate.
Drawing on Stein’s playful language and imagery, which detail the adventures of Rose, her irreverent cousin Willie and his pet lion, and the dog Pepe, Maccabee and Bay retell the story in their own words rather than trying to set her verse to music. Always slippery, Stein’s text even includes self-referential jokes, repurposing her most famous line of poetry (“… she would carve on the tree Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose until it went all the way around.”)
“We read it a bunch of times and did a few different sessions to see what musical ideas were hiding within the text,” Maccabee says. “We improvised with the words, looping them, singing them, reading them. We realized Stein’s text is already music.”
The unlikely story behind The World Is Round starts with Margaret Wise Brown before she gained fame for her own perennial children’s stories Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny. Recently hired by Young Scott Books, she reached out to several illustrious writers (including Hemingway and Steinbeck) about trying their hand at a children’s book. Stein seems to have been the only one who was game. Long based in Paris, Stein had wanted English painter Francis Rose to do the artwork, but Brown insisted she choose from the Young Scott team of illustrators, which is how Hurd got the gig.
Funded by San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music’s Musical Grant Program, Roses are Blue might be the first version of an ongoing project. In addition to Hurd’s beautiful illustrations, a 1993 Little Barefoot Books version of Stein’s story features the very different graphic aesthetic of Roberta Arenson.
“We want to use visual objects, but we’re not there yet,” Maccabee says. “We’ve done a tremendous amount of work, and haven’t had the space to develop it visually. In the future I can imagine all kinds of wonderful manifestations, projections, shadow puppets. Then it becomes more of an adaptation.”
Meanwhile, Maccabee is getting set to go on the road with singer/songwriter Julia Holter, who is opening at the Fox Theater for Jamie XX on Oct. 9 and for Beirut at the Greek Theater on Oct. 10. She spent the summer in Minnesota developing the music for a musical based on the 2005 independent film Sweet Land written and directed by Ali Selim. Couch surfing since she finished Wesleyan, Maccabee isn’t sure where she’ll land next, but let’s hope it’s in the Bay Area.
Recommended gigs: Amendola vs. Blades at Jupiter; Ernesto Oviedo at Casa de Cultura
Two of Berkeley’s funkiest musicians face off once again at Jupiter on Saturday when drummer Smokin’ Scott Amendola and Hammond B-3 expert Wil “Beast” Blades go another 12 rounds in Amendola vs. Blades. They recorded a live album in June at Duende, where their bad blood deepened over Blades mischievous choice of sherry. Expect sparks, funk and fists to fly when faced with Jupiter’s extensive cider offerings.
If you’re a lover more than a fighter, you have one final chance to catch the great Cuban boleristas Ernesto Oviedo at Casa de Cultura 8 p.m. Sunday. While he hails from a family of legendary soneros (including his older brother, Buena Vista Social Club tresero Papi Oviedo), he found his musical identity in the romantic ballads that evolved in Havana and Mexico City. After decades in Havana’s great Orquesta Estrellas Cubanas, he retired last year and at 80 is stepping out on his own. Last year Oakland percussion maestro John Santos produced Oviedo’s first album under his own name, Siempre Clásico (Machete Records) and Santos will be accompanying Oviedo Sunday along with guitarists/vocalists Jose Roberto Hernandez and Manuel Constancio.
Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
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