In 2001 Robert Nasveld from NPS (Dutch Radio) called me with a commission proposal; “we want to realize your dream.” At that point my dream was simply to hear a band of diverse elements playing and singing together with abandon – a traditional symphony orchestra, twanging electric guitars, pure toned vocal quartet, and a somewhat theatrical “front man” inhabiting a place between operatic tenor and Jim Morrison. I wanted each element to be fully realized with music rich in detail, retaining their integrity and idiosyncratic character while combining to form a harmonious tapestry of sound and fluent continuity. Admittedly, when expressed in this way it sounds like propaganda for an extravagant, liberal, secular, democratic, free speech, utopia – the American dream.
Perhaps it was the Zeitgeist of the post 9/11 era, but when I first introduced my text collaborator, Rinde Eckert, to my sketches for the piece he independently arrived at a similar, quasi-political interpretation.
I should say at the outset that Dreamhouse is not political commentary per se but rather a journal of self reflection about our (Rinde and my) place in a personal relationship with a political environment. Clearly I am seduced by the American dream, I am now reflecting on the ramifications – after the honeymoon, as it were – of our life together.
For example: I wish 9/11 had never happened for all the obvious, tragic and horrific reasons. In addition, like many Americans, I must confess deep regret over the passing of the “age of innocence” yet I am ambivalent about the validity of that regret. While I miss the illusion of invulnerability, I’m a little embarrassed that I was capable of such naivety and that I am now capable of such nostalgia.
This ambivalence is captured musically in the refrain melody at the end of Part 3. The lyrics are “I’ll build you a dreamhouse, where you can live, where you’ll be safe.” It is a sweet, simple melody that I genuinely love, yet, I am a little embarrassed that I love it precisely because it is so sweet and simple. It’s not just that I am a “victim” of modernism wrestling with hedonism versus moral fortitude; I made the decision long ago that there is moral strength in choosing simple beauty over contrived artifice. But I do wrestle with idealism versus “harsh” reality.
I think the metaphor Rinde developed to contain our ruminations – meditations on building a house – is brilliant in that it allows room for the listener to engage on his/her own terms. For example, “domestic” in the sense of one’s personal home (domicile) and familial relationships is perhaps a more obvious interpretation than “domestic” in the nationalistic sense.
Now, after I have spent all this time explaining the personal, metaphorical resonance of Dreamhouse I should make it clear that my highest priority was the purely musical continuity. I wanted the text to be more like music in that it opened more doors than it closed, suggested images without telling a narrative story. Just as with psychedelic songs of the 60’s and Latin settings of the mass from the 16th century (two of my favorite genres) the literal meaning of the words is not on the surface and they depend on the music to accumulate a deeper resonant meaning. One aspect of the house-building metaphor that I really like is that it provided us with the opportunity to use technical architectural language – crowns, turrets, mansard, etc. – like Latin, these are interesting words to sing but, for most people, not loaded with literal meaning. I wanted the first function of the text to be to shape the singer’s mouth, to be “orchestrational.”
Steven Mackey, 2003