When we did Perfect Lives in Pittsburgh last year, I took on the Supermarket for the first time. The Supermarket is the episode I listen to the most just to listen to – it’s not uncommon if I’ve got a long train ride and it’s late in the day for me to pop it on and zone out. For a point of comparison, I don’t think I listened to the Church or Backyard from the official recordings in years, much as I love the originals. For the Supermarket, a lot of what I love is in that recording, for instance:
– the very quiet drum part in four that goes against everything else in five
– on the second page of the libretto, where it starts “It is different being old alone…”, when all you’ve heard up to there is the off beats and you suddenly get the wash on the downbeats, that’s like “damn” for me every time
– I like the consistency of Bob’s voice in this recording, it’s not like the Church where there’s all this variation in his voice. I don’t perform the Supermarket this way, but I really like listening to it
Anyway, the point is it’s a brilliant recording. Something I did incorrectly last time was try to dig into the language at the ontological unit of the phrase. More like an actor than a musician. I was taking slices of meaning and presenting them as a series of thoughts. This works great for our arrangement of the Living Room, which is never really about synching up with anything in terms of beats.
This go round, I’ve re-approached the Supermarket at the unit of the line. It’s going much better. This change started when we were rehearsing Crash this spring. Tom Hamilton remarked that he thought that particularly in the “Crash” and “Journal” sections, we weren’t adding enough emphasis on the first word of each line. Tom was providing performance practice advice, gained from decades working with Bob & co. While such first word/syllable emphasis isn’t in the directions or score for Crash, Tom points out it’s not in the score of anything per se, but it’s part of the style. This thought really changed my reading in Crash, to my mind for the better. So coming back to Perfect Lives this summer has meant bringing this new thought in the mix.
When you read Bob’s texts this way, you get a steady amount of his characteristic unexpected emphases. Maybe “the” is the most stressed word in a sentence, or “in”. Once you start doing it, it feels natural in its own way. Another thing it’s opened up to me is that previously, I was very tied to looking at my book for the Supermarket, making sure I was going slow enough that I kept up with the band (not going too fast is always the challenge in this piece for me, it’s so much better when there’s more space!). When I begin to emphasize the first word of each line, it makes memorizing the line breaks much easier. I think all told, this one little change is going to have a huge impact on how I tackle this episode.
One net effect of this is that my reading is quiet different from the recording. After memorizing some text the other day, I put on the recording just to see what that would do to my brain. It was good, I knew the punchlines to all the set ups, but I was very aware of structural, phrasal, rhythmic, and melodic choices I’d make that are different from what Bob does. Not that I questioned his decisions, but I feel like the more we do this, the more information we arm ourselves with, the less we’re limited to direct imitation of the original (much as there are moments that I’ll always drop into a direct imitation because it’s beautiful and iconic).