NOTE: These shows at Castleton's Theatre House have been cancelled due to the snow. Organizers say they will be rescheduled and all tickets will be honored.
Stories that transcend time, cultures and walks of life embody universal themes. Take the Greek and Roman myths that describe love, betrayal and jealousy: How the story is told is limited only by human imagination.
Songwriter, musician and Rappahannock resident Paul Reisler describes the latest incarnation of Aesop’s Fables, a 2,500-year-old collection of stories offering sagacious advice for navigating life. With Art Wheeler of Charlottesville, Reisler has created “Aesop’s Fables for Orchestra and Narrator” to express the stories. The arrangement premiered this past weekend in Charlottesville with two performances by the Charlottesville High School Orchestra, and continues its premiere this weekend in Rappahannock County, at the Chateauville Theatre House in Castleton.
With a cup of tea in hand, Reisler sits in the breakfast nook of his stone home near Washington and shares how the project began 13 years ago. Sunlight reflects from the white walls and illuminates a glass disc the color of lapis lazuli hanging a few feet from his head as he relates the conversation he had with his long-time friend and folk music legend Tom Paxton.
Paxton showed Reisler the illustrated children’s books of Aesop’s Fables that he had written, and told Reisler he’d had the inspiration of telling the stories through the music of an orchestra.
Paxton’s idea intrigued Reisler. He had gained some experience in this area when he reworked songs written in Kid Pan Alley workshops to be played by the Nashville Chamber Orchestra.
But the treatment of a four-minute song is very different than a 25-minute-long piece where the music is the focus.
“I’ve never done anything on anywhere near this scale,” says Reisler. “This was a huge challenge I was making for myself.”
Approaching the task
Reisler’s face lights up as he recounts the development of his composition.
“First of all, you really have to get the story inside yourself,” says Reisler. From writing music for theater, he recognized that he had to “get a sense of the overall emotion in the story” and to understand what the story is trying to say.
Then Reisler examined what was happening in different places in the story. “You’re scoring the overall thing,” he says, “But you’re also scoring moment to moment.”
Whether told in words or pictures or notes, stories have an overall arc peaking in a climax. Reisler identified that path in each tale. “There’s dramatic tension all the way along,” he says. It builds until the moment of realization.
In Aesop’s Fables, the climax arrives when the character learns the moral of the story. In “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” it dawns upon the boy that, due to his previous false pleas, no one is coming to help him. “You kind of mark that out in your brain about where it is,” Reisler says.
The next step was “to find a motif, an idea that represents the emotion and the character.” Using the fable of “The Tortoise and the Hare,” Reisler explains.
“The tortoise is going to be ambling and slow. The hare is going to be fast and sort of cocky,” Reisler says. “You come up with a musical idea that expresses that picture in music.”
Motifs also provide continuity throughout a work. “People need some things that feel familiar,” says Reisler. The puzzle for the composer to solve is how to create both expectation and surprise, and enable the listener to follow the story.
“It’s a delicate balance between surprise and predictability,” says Reisler.
Paxton furnished Reisler the script for the stories. All were written in common meter, and the lines were predictable. “They really were like Tom Paxton songs,” he says.
Reisler worked with the scripts awhile, but was unhappy with the results. “All I came up were things that sounded like overblown folk music with big accompaniment,” he says.
He changed tactics to focus on and deconstruct the ideas in the stories. The piece took shape. As he progressed, “it became more narration than song.”
Acquiring a partner
“I wasn’t well trained enough to look at an orchestral score and have it in my head exactly what that sounded like,” Reisler says. After a couple of years of composing, he wanted to hear what he’d written. Using computer technology, he could play the music for himself and others to generate interest in the project.
But Reisler says he’s not much of a keyboardist. He had worked with Wheeler in the past. “He’s an amazing piano player,” says Reisler, and hired Wheeler to help him. The significance of Wheeler’s contributions to the composition prompted Reisler to recognize him as co-writer.
As he hears the performances, Reisler expects to do a bit of tweaking with the composition. Once he’s satisfied, he’d like to make a recording.
Other orchestras are interested in playing Aesop’s Fables, most likely in the fall. “It can go out and have a life of it’s own,” Reisler says.
In the end, Reisler views his composition of Aesop’s Fables as equally about the music and the story. “The story has to weave into the whole,” he says.
“Behind all great art there’s the story.”
“Aesop’s Fables for Orchestra and Narrator” will be performed at 7 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday at Lorin Maazel’s Theatre House in Castleton. Tickets can be purchased at www.chateauville.org or by calling (540) 937-4969.
Click the link below for an MP3 sample from “Aesop’s Fables for Orchestra and Narrator”
Tortoise and the Hare MP3