Music to your ears– the conceptual aspect of music is a complex one which lies within a multitude of elements; its beat, harmony, rhythm, sound, tempo, and response reflects expression in its purest form. The word ‘response’ alludes to the listener, audience, and the participant on the receiving end of the performance. Critically acclaimed composer Raphael Mostel explores a responsive tactic through his newest production entitled, ‘Le Voyage de Babar.’
Le Voyage de Babar (Travels of Babar) will be given its first U.S. adaptation presented at Florence Gould Hall in New York City on November 2nd (in French) and November 3rd (in English), 2018. Presented by Source Music, Inc. complete with its original score by Raphael Mostel for eight musicians to perform. The production will be narrated by Leah Pisar, who has been narrating the text written by her late father for Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish,” with orchestras around the world. “Le Voyage de Baba” is a multi-media composition based on Jean de Brunhoff’s classic picture-book of the same name using the original watercolors of de Brunhoff’s illustrations.
A truly one-of-a-kind experience that is honest, transparent, and magical in every sense which appeals to a general audience of all ages, a first for Mostel. The adaptation takes the viewer on a journey as they witness the transformation of literature into a musical work of art. Dating back to 1940, French composer Francis Poulenc was the first to set a Babar story, “L’Histoire de Babar” (the first book by de Brunhoff). The original text tells the story of the childhood and adolescence of the famous elephant until he marries.
Mostel continues the musical history of Babar by setting “Le Voyage de Babar,” (de Brunhoff’s second book) which picks up the story when these fanciful elephants leave in a balloon on their honeymoon and subsequent adventures to return home. Mostel’s score was originally commissioned and recorded for Japan in 1994, and his “Voyage de Babar” was first publicly performed in California and New York in 1998. In 2017, the Berliner Philharmoniker presented the first performance of the new production which will make its U.S. debut this November.
The score will be performed by eight musicians representing an orchestra in miniature: two winds (clarinet/bass clarinet and bassoon), two brass (cornet, trombone/bass trombone), two strings (viola and cello), plus piano/celesta and percussion. Mostel embodies the spirit of de Brunhoff while incorporating a sense of modernity to the classical work. This task was often challenging yet exhilarating, as he interprets de Brunhoff’s illustrations through various elements of music taking the audience through a myriad of emotions that brought the production full-circle.
The “alarming and very amusing twists of fate” transforms into a wide-ranging voyage viewed through a lens of power, play, and passion. Mostel references his work, “My music has always had a spatial dimension; it’s essential.” The approach allows him to work from a place of the unknown to address each piece with a newness that surprises the audience and surprises himself.
Raphael Mostel is an American composer, writer, and lecturer based in New York City. His works have recently been performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker, New York Philharmonic, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, New York City Opera, the combined brass of the Chicago Symphony and Royal Concertgebouw orchestras. Mostel’s compositions were also performed at the atom bomb commemorations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan and honored with a retrospective exhibition at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center.
For over a decade, Mostel has been co-teaching the “Architectonics of Music” Advanced Studio with architect Steven Holl at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation. Both Mostel and Holl met in a chance encounter at a gallery opening featuring the work of composer John Cage and video artist Nam June Paik; it’s safe to safe the rest was architectural history as the duo has worked on a number of projects since there meet and greet. “Architectonics of Music” investigates the interface of architecture and music as a sense of innovation for the modern-day architect. The program gained immense recognition awarded by an (anonymous submission) the Studio Prize as the top class in the U.S. by Architecture Magazine.
Photo Credit: Jay Muhlin
Courtesy of Source Music, Inc.
Photo Credit: Jean de Brunhoff watercolor,
Bibliothèque Nationale de France
We recently sat down with Mostel to gain a better understanding of his role in the new adaptation of “Le Voyage de Babar,” what being a composer means to him during the 21st century, and how entrepreneurship played a great deal in his career.
RAINE: It’s been two decades since “Le Voyage de Babar” was first publicly performed in California and New York. We now live in a new era, decade and climate, can you describe what being a composer meant to you during the 1990s and how it has differed during the 21st century?
Raphael: The work of the composer never really changes, like being a cook you always have to know your way around the kitchen to create tasty dishes. The task of a composer is to provide a nourishing experience that people will want to experience again and again. The challenge remains– how does one do something both worthwhile and individual? In the past few decades, it has become more challenging for anything that doesn’t fit into a readymade pipeline to make its way into the world.
RAINE: We at RAINE pride ourselves on introducing the world to entrepreneurs who have paved and created their own path through various industries. As a composer, writer, and lecture how do you define entrepreneurship in your sector and has this influenced the way in which you operate your business taking on significant risk as a musician?
Raphael: Taking risk is necessary if you want to achieve anything worthwhile, and without it, one is only repeating. Useful perhaps, for short-term gain but where is the interest in the long-run? There were many things that were wrong with ‘Le Voyage de Babar’ for example, it violated this or that rule but if I hadn’t violated those rules then ‘Le Voyage de Babar’ wouldn’t have done as well as it has. When we finally put the work together, they said, “Oh, it all fits!” It was said to be an unusual work in a number of directions.
RAINE: Take us through your methodology, when composing a performance is there a specific thought process or lens you work through?
Raphael: That’s a more difficult question because I never repeat the same approach. Each project deserves its own set of inquiries by meditation; what are its own terms? After that, what is it that speaks to the project and how many different ways. This last one required multiple personalities imaging myself as the audience and working to fathom as best I can how can different personalities perceive this piece. The goal is to create a new work that will redefine whatever genre it’s in and also to stand the test of time.
RAINE: You were quoted saying, “This production has become an adventurous ‘voyage’ within ‘Le Voyage de Babar.’” Can you elaborate on this statement and explain your journey with Babar?
Raphael: This question aligns with the last. There’s an elaborate new slideshow I created 400 cues in the hour to accompany the music and the narration which makes the production as if performing in real time. It’s all about the larger voyage of what is being created from entrepreneurial efforts that will allow the public to experience the form the work deserves. I thought of Tchaikovsky when he composed The Nutcrack who would have thought such an imaginary and whimsical illustration would come through a dance company, and moreover through ‘Le Voyage de Babar’ there’s a decent chance that it will become an equal success.
Babar is essentially an outlier that demanded the approach of traditional classical music, so I used that but adapted it to my approach. It’s something the musicians have to get used to, but once they get used to it, they can perform various approaches in the work that covers the entire vocabulary of music.
RAINE: How have you brought a sense of modernity to this adaptation of Babar while remaining authentic to Jean De Brunhoff’s original text?
Raphael: As a living composer I can’t help but bring in the sense of today into my music. Maurice Sendak called Voyage de Babar a ‘masterpiece’ for a reason, as it rises above its time with a liveliness that will forever win through. His illustrations have such an amazing complexity; I know it’s a paradox, but it’s a real one, and I emulated his approach to the musical catalog and the 46 scenes of the story. Touching upon what I stated prior regarding the vocabulary of music using analogs of the images.
RAINE: Travels of Babar appeals to a general audience of all ages; do you feel it’s necessary that an audience can deduct the processes and ideas behind a work solely from the music?
Raphael: Le Voyage de Babar is pure joy, anything else is optional. I challenge anyone to leave without at least a smile and judging from its track record its response will display more than that. Adults usually find it a guilty pleasure that makes them seem like they are kids again, and kids are just beside the music as they imagine how they are doing things themselves, so I played on that.
When I was a kid, I taught myself how to play music. My first music lessons were being taught how to write down what I was already playing, so when this project came to me, I went back to my memories of how I managed to teach myself music that’s why it’s so different from every other work I’ve done.
RAINE: Do you believe improvisation and composition share equal merit during the production process?
Raphael: I love chance and serendipity. Improvisation is essential in understanding anything and composition is partly improvisation, but decisions have to be made for a piece to work. I don’t see improvisation and composition as opposition, as it depends on what one is doing. Within composition, three aspects need to be taken into consideration: written, performance, and listening are all considered. Regarding the performance and the viewer’s take away there are several points for the musician to take off and soar.
One of my musical jokes for the musicians, “One of the most conservative soundings is the most improvised one.” I was playing with this idea in terms of improvisation and composition of Babar as it’s woven into the work. It’s a braid between the two, and it’s not always what one expects.
RAINE: What is the future of “Le Voyage de Babar?”
Raphael: The future of the work is working on a portable version of the production in high quality so that it can travel through neighborhoods and not have people come to a single theatre. The production will travel in places where families are because this is a work that is family friendly. We want to bring the performance to a high quality, it’s a high-cost production but if you advertise over several performances the cost comes down, and it becomes much more attractive for sponsorship. The goal is to have this traveling production that can keep on going.
It also has a very deep educational agenda that teachers, music teachers, people who want to encourage literacy are interested in. I’ve been speaking with a number of people that we may develop a program that can be used from the National Director of Young Audiences. It’s useful for multiple forms of literacy and numerous grade levels. I’m here to have the work applied to that goal.
RAINE: For over a decade, you have been co-teaching within the “Architectonics Music” at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation. What is your role in this program?
Raphael: The “Architectonics Music” class at Columbia University is taught with Steven Holl, the architect where the program is specifically for architects, not musicians. The knowledge of music is not required which makes my role a little bit more challenging then it would otherwise be. Steven had the vision to use the interface of architecture and music as innovation for his architectural students. It’s been a huge step, and you’ve seen an anonymous submission a Studio Prize just awarded the class last month as the top class in the U.S. by Architecture Magazine.
I’m so fortunate in meeting Steven Holl by accident; talk about serendipity, chance, and improvisation as we hit it off in a conversation where one thing led to another. I’ve even consulted on some of his architectural projects. The new Lewis Art Complex at Princeton University has just opened last year, and that was the first project I interfaced as a consultant on for Steven. Architectural Record asked me to write about my involvement with the art complex as I was one of the first persons Steven called before even being commissioned with the project. The complex is inspired by the work of avant-garde composer Morton Feldman. Steven does brilliant architecture, and the music genuinely inspires it.
RAINE: What advice would you give an aspiring composer today?
Raphael: Consider another job. You have to be driven, passionate, and find your path. There’s no cookie-cutter way to go. The people who become composers know they’re composers because they can’t do anything else. It’s a consuming passion. It’s a complicated process to incubate yourself and the challenge of creating music in the world that is individual while bringing it to the public.
RAINE: With a repertoire of work ranging from several critically acclaimed productions to being honored with a retrospective exhibition at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center, how have you maintained a successfully long-standing career?
Raphael: By not adapting and repeating myself. I’m always amazed by people who fall in love with my work and then discover how completely different another work is, “That’s the same person?” My job is to go as deeply as I can into any particular work from conception to fruition. If I can do something entirely new and surprising for the audience, then I’ve done my job.
‘Le Voyage de Babar’ will leave a lasting impression as an “enriched musical travelogue with an elaborate visual production.” Mostel brings New York City alive returning to our childhood selves, an age of innocence, youth, and endless wonder to unfold. Le Voyage de Babar debuts in New York City on November 2nd and 3rd at Florence Gould Hall for an evening of harmonious fascination and fulfillment through the vocabulary of music.
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