Program Notes: Hippies at the Phil, a Primer

Hippies at the Phil??By Randall Roberts?

Walt Disney Concert Hall, Friday, November 9, 2007?Joanna Newsom

(b. January 18, 1982)

Van Dyke Parks

(b. January 3, 1943)

The Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra are thrilled to bring you a special performance by harpist Joanna Newsom, a young hippie woman who has taken the alternative rock world by storm. With her flowing locks, plucking fingers and birdlike warble, this Mills College graduate first gained attention in 2004, when she released a song cycle with the intriguing title The Milk-Eyed Mender. Issued by the experimental Drag City recording company, home to equally “outside” artists Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “The Silver Jews” and talented veteran comedian Neil Hamburger, the album featured Miss Newsom accompanying herself on harp and piano while singing, in her flitting soprano.

Miss Newsom followed Mender with 2006’s critically acclaimed (and oddly titled) Ys, a five-song creation that she will perform this evening in its entirety with orchestral accompaniment. Featuring arrangements by the West Coast veteran of weird hippie music Van Dyke Parks, Ys combines folk and classical elements in much the same way that Stravinsky did in Petrushka nearly a century ago.

In many ways, Newsom, part of the “freaky folk” movement (in “indie rock” parlance), represents the purer side of the dichotomy best captured in English romantic poet William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” Like Blake, who wrote of “sick” roses and hills “all cover’d with sheep,” Newsom conveys an allegiance to the natural world, hymns to solitude and the stars. Her ideals have struck a nerve in an “indie rock” community currently obsessed with progress and the future.

Miss Newsom spent much of 2007 touring with a four-piece band performing Ys. Unlike on the album, which features instruments familiar to the symphonic crowd, the tour employed the guitar, tambura and violin. There was even a fellow playing a drum kit! Asked during an “e-mail” exchange whether this experience revealed to her anything new about the songs, and whether she has fused the two renditions, Miss Newsom replied: “I’ve made a lot of modifications to my harp parts to better accommodate the orchestral arrangements. I think that what I do with the harp at this point feels more like a conversation with those arrangements; I think that now the harp part more audibly anticipates the changes and nuances of the orchestral arrangement.” (For a full transcript of Miss Newsom’s fascinating interview with the L.A. Weekly — in which she references South Park and Shakey’s Pizza — visit

Lyrically, the five songs are vast, open meadows generously seeded (4,100 words’ worth!) with the influences of Walt Whitman, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charlotte Smith. A lyrical synopsis of each composition follows.

Part One: “Emily”

The narrator and an unidentified other watch a Pharaoh and some Pharisees from a window. The Pharisees holler that the sun makes tree trunks strong, creates wood to make spires. The narrator has seen things which have taken her breath away. Enter Emily, the narrator’s sister. Last night the narrator saw her by a river, then had a dream in which Emily was skipping stones which sunk to the bottom with a thud and caused a muddy disturbance. The narrator sat beside Emily and they looked to the sky. Emily taught the narrator the names of stars. The narrator vowed later to preserve the moment in verse. Emily explained the difference between a meteor and a meteorite. The meteorite is a space rock that has landed on Earth with a thud. The meteor is the burning thing hurling through space.

Emily has on many occasions comforted the narrator, who has a problem with boundaries, and dark moods. The townsfolk, represented by farm animals, stink up the narrator’s meadow. Some Newsom scholars have submitted that the narrator might actually be pregnant in this song: “There are worries where I’ve been,” sings Newsom. Time passes. We are maybe in an Afghanistan poppy field, and maybe heroin is involved. Yes. The blossoms have all fallen off the poppies, and what is left is the sticky, sticky pollen, which, when refined, becomes the brown dragon. Probably.

It’s hot. Even the ants are sweating. Birds and insects crowd the skies. The narrator relaxes. She’s not pregnant anymore (“my clay-colored motherlessness reclines”). Back at the riverbank with Emily, the narrator is remembering an interaction with their father. The narrator compares the relationship to an asterism — a pattern of stars. “Here,” says the narrator, “eat this.” The meteorite is a space rock that has landed on Earth with a thud. The meteor is the burning thing hurling through space.

Part Two: “Monkey and Bear”

An unnamed monkey and a bear named Ursala are awakened to learn that the horses got loose, ate some bad grass and might die. The monkey notices that the gate is open and urges Ursala to join him, explaining that he is in love with her. Though their future may contain challenges, once they get outside there will be ample sustenance. The monkey asks Ursala to wear her fancy clothes and dance, but to keep the leash on. The monkey, though in love, is afraid of the bear’s teeth.

The two brown creatures sneak past the guards. The bear is more scared than the monkey. How will they pay the bills? Maybe Ursala can dance to pay the bills, thinks the monkey. With those long hind legs, she can bring in some dinero. They escape, set up a home and fall into a routine. One day someone tells the monkey that the bear has been “sneaking away to seaside caverns to bathe.” The monkey confronts the bear: ‘You smell of garbage and grime.’?” Can you control animal nature? A bear is a bear, after all. Time passes, and we see Ursala the bear’s weathered and saggy coat, dulled and clumpy. Its condition reveals her long history, her baseness. Drenched in water, the bear dies. And the coat floats away. Maybe.

Part Three: “Sawdust and Diamonds”

The narrator is at the top of the stairs. She observes that if you drop a bell down the stairs it will ring forever, but if you drop it in the sea, it won’t. The narrator and her companions create music, and when they perform, the audience enjoys it. Why? And ?even though that bird hanging over there is made with glue, a ?glove and some pliers, it still looks like it’s flying.

The narrator was sleeping when she had a fright but can’t remember why. Something about wings cut from old cardboard and magazines, and strings tugging on them. She’s in a tree and watches an unnamed other with an ax chop and stack wood. It’s nice to chop, thinks the narrator, before falling through the rafters, which might be limbs. There is a fire on the prairie. The narrator recalls watching someone cutting open a dove and stuffing it with sawdust and diamonds. We’re all afraid to die, but don’t be sad, says the narrator.

More water. The narrator and the other person have been at sea for a week. A bell tolls for the narrator. Life is fleeting. The narrator says she’s not naive. She was born tough, mature. She is fed up with terror. Something about desire. Desire. Oh desire. Desire desire oh oh desire.

Part Four: “Only Skin”

Um, let’s see. Wow, this is a really long song with a lot of words. Some black airplanes fly really fast over the sea. They look like beached whales. The sky is sopping wet. She mentions some things that we at the Phil can’t really decipher. Some dark dream featuring a toothless hound dog choking on a feather. Okay, now they’re fishing in a boat. That much we know. If you scrape your knee it sounds like violins. The narrator is humming, even though the ghosts of all the spiders she’s ever murdered haunt her.

Finally — finally! — a gun enters the picture, and it’s pointed at the narrator – maybe. “Lay it down! Nice and slow!” she says. Then nothing happens, the gun vanishes, and we’re left with more dogs, dead birds, babies and bats. The gun’s gone. (Never introduced a gun into a scene unless you’re going to use it!)

Part Five: “Cosmia”

This one’s about some lady. You figure it out.

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