Thursday, September 14, 2006
Cannery Row Suite consists of a series of songs based on characters from the John Steinbeck novel about Monterey in the ’30s and ’40s. The character sketches of “Doc,” “Dora” and “Mack” are tied together by a balladeer, who recalls in his verses some of the events in the Steinbeck story. These allusions will be instantly recognized by those familiar with the book, and for those who have not read Cannery Row, I hope it will impel them to do so. They will be rewarded as I was upon revisiting a story l loved when I first read it in 1946.
The voice you hear at the opening of our piece is that of Thom Steinbeck reading the words of his father’s first paragraph of the novel. The music I wrote for the balladeer and the Palace Flophouse gang has a bunkhouse simplicity. In contrast, I employed a 12-tone row for Dora’s theme and Doc’s ending soliloquy. This parallels Steinbeck’s philosophically sophisticated writing about ordinary, extraordinary people.
I recognized so much of my own life from this period before World War II. Upon reading the biography by Jay Parini, I also discovered that Steinbeck and I had much in common. Both of us were born in small Northern California towns—he in Salinas in 1902, and I in Concord in 1920. These towns were surrounded by ranches, farms and orchards and as young men both of us worked on these ranches and came to know the characters and stories of the hired hands, the drifters, seasonal workers and vaqueros. Steinbeck’s grandparents lived on a ranch near King City, where my father used to buy cattle. Both of us had ambitious mothers who wanted the best for their sons in education, social esteem and profession. We both rebelled from such pressures.
Although I never met John Steinbeck, I discovered that we had several mutual friends. My wife Iola and I visited the set of East of Eden when it was being filmed because two of our friends were in the movie. The actor Burgess Meredith, who starred in the film version of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, often came into clubs where I was working and we became quite friendly. In the ‘60s after I had moved East, as Steinbeck had done more than a decade before, I became friends with Xenia Cage, artist and former wife of composer John Cage, who was part of the Steinbeck inner circle that hung out at night in Ed Rickett’s lab. After the composition was completed, I learned from Thom that his father loved jazz and that the Dave Brubeck Quartet was often on his turntable.
~ ~ ~
From the moment Iola and I began this project I heard harmonica as an instrument evocative of the Cannery Row I remembered from my visits to Monterey when I was growing up. Thom revealed that his dad loved to play the harmonica—not too well, I understand—but it was his musical voice. My father also played harmonica. The first volume of my piano suite includes “Dad Plays the Harmonica.”
All these coincidences and parallels merge toward an understanding of this particular time and place. I hope for a few brief moments tonight we will succeed in conjuring up the memory of “a small and forgotten time” that was Cannery Row in Monterey in California.
On Sunday, Sept. 17, Dave Brubeck will perform Cannery Row Suite, a new piece inspired by Steinbeck and commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival.