Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Black Rider: A Theatrical Production by Tom Waits, William S. Burroughs & Robert Wilson (1990)

Awesome! Open Culture rocks.

I have had the soundtrack to this production (or at least an edited version of it) since I was in college the first time. It's great to see the video of the production. The Black Rider has been a relatively unknown entity outside of the small by loyal following of Tom Waits and William Bourroughs.
The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets is a self-billed "musical fable" in the avant-garde tradition created through the collaboration of theatre director Robert Wilson, musician Tom Waits, and writer William S. Burroughs. Wilson was largely responsible for the design and direction. Burroughs wrote the book, while Waits wrote the music and most of the lyrics. The project began in about 1988 when Wilson approached Waits. The story is based on a German folktale called Der Freischütz, which had previously been made into an opera by Carl Maria von Weber. It premiered at Hamburg's Thalia Theatre on 31 March 1990. November Theatre produced its world English-language premiere in 1998 at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival in Canada, and the American English-language premiere at the New York International Fringe Festival in 1999. Det Norske Teatret in Oslo staged a Norwegian (Nynorsk) version in 1998, with Lasse Kolsrud as Pegleg.[1] Only the dialogue was translated, the songs were performed in English.

Waits recorded much of the music from the play in different arrangements under the eponymous title, The Black Rider.

The Black Rider: A Theatrical Production by Tom Waits, William S. Burroughs & Robert Wilson (1990)

November 13th, 2013

Yes, you read correctly: there exists a piece of theater whose production brought together three of the most ardently-followed, iconoclastic creators of recent decades. First staged in 1990 at Hamburg’s Thalia Theater, The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets appeared as the fruit of multidisciplinary labor from renowned avant-garde director Robert Wilson, best known for extra-long-form productions like Einstein on the Beach, created with Philip Glass; raggedly American singer-songwriter Tom Waits, a musician with no small theatrical bent himself; and William S. Burroughs, writer of Naked Lunch, Junkie, and other texts that have blown away generations of counterculturally inclined reading minds. They based their tale of a hapless young file clerk in love and his fateful pact with the devil on the German folktale-cum-opera Der Freischütz. Hence the work’s premiere in Germany, and the German dialogue in the television version of the full production above.

But worry not, non-Germanophones; the Waits-composed songs remain in English, and as with anything directed by Wilson, you buy the ticket as much to a striking pure visual experience as to anything else. You can hear and see more from Waits and Wilson about what went into The Black Rider in the half-hour TV documentary just above. (The narrator may speak German, but everyone else involved speaks English.) For a pure musical experience of The Black Rider, pull up Waits’ eponymous album, released in 1993. (See also the bootleg The Black Rider Outtakes.) And now, with twenty years’ distance from The Black Rider’s American debut, maybe we can put the question to ourselves of whether it counts as a streak of poor taste or a stroke of artistic genius to have Burroughs, of all people, pen his own version of a story that — spoiler alert — ends with the protagonist fated to shoot his own bride.

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~ Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

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