Breaking New Ground
Music Preview: Jamie Masefield & The Jazz Mandolin Project
Leo Tolstoy, Jamie Masefield and Sony Handycam have probably never appeared in the same sentence before. But the 19th-century Russian writer, the present-day Vermont musician and the video camera used by vacationers worldwide are integral to a multimedia performance this weekend at Burlington's FlynnSpace. The video-and-music piece is based on, and borrows the title of, a short story by Tolstoy called "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" The parable about a man's greed -- which leads to his downfall -- rings as true here, and now, as it did on the Samara steppes in 1886.
The universality of the story struck a chord with Masefield, and its theme meshed with his desire for creative growth beyond the studio recording -- he's made six with his band The Jazz Mandolin Project -- and 13 years of playing bar gigs and festivals. "Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful for the opportunities we've had," Masefield says. "But I've wanted to do a multimedia event for a long time . . . I'm fascinated with different media; I think of them as vines, and they entwine to make one."
Masefield also found appealing the loose parallel between Tolstoy's tale and modern environmental degradation: In the story, a peasant named Pakhom is driven to acquire more and more farmland in a futile pursuit of happiness, and Tolstoy is clear right up front that the devil made him do it. Conceptually, it's not a huge leap to the kind of profit-motivated behavior that has led to holes in the ozone and melting polar icecaps. Masefield, now 40, graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in geography and environmental studies. Though music claimed his career, he hasn't forgotten his eco roots. "I wanted to do something with a message, with intellectual content," he says. "I know that's a bad word, but these are things I'm interested in."
It was not Masefield's aim, however, to "show how ugly suburbia is or anything. I tried to not go for the cliches but to create a structure for Tolstoy to tell his story." In other words, Masefield didn't want to reinvent the wheel, message-wise: "Choosing the greatest storyteller of all time puts me in a much better place than trying to be entertaining onstage," he suggests. His goal was to create a visual journey, using images from across modern America, and compose an original soundtrack for the movie. In the show this weekend, that soundtrack will be performed live, with Masefield on mandolin, Michael "Mad Dog" Mavri- doglou on flugelhorn and keyboard, Michael O'Brien on upright bass and Sean Dixon on drums.
Last year, Masefield took the handheld camera on a tour with his band, often simply shooting en route through the windshield of the van. Though he says he found a "goldmine of material" in the agricultural region between San Francisco and Los Angeles, he collected footage from coast to coast, and later augmented it with specific scenes in Vermont. Those included shots of some masks he made to represent characters in the story, as well as of his neighbors' chickens, which strut outside his house in Monkton.
Then he had to learn how to edit video, using a program called Final Cut Express. "I'm not a computer person, I'm a simpleton," Masefield protests. "I've had to duke it out all by myself, with some help from some wonderful people."
One of them was his friend and fellow musician Mike Gordon, the former Phish bassist, who knows a thing or two about making films. He assisted in editing the sound, and also led Masefield to a family friend named Elena Pankratov, a Russian woman who narrates his story. Though she speaks in English, her accent helps set the tone.
When it came time to compose the music, Masefield didn't just take out pencil and paper, as he had done for The Jazz Mandolin Project. Instead, he chose to "face the dragon," as he puts it, and master Sibelius 4, a digital music-notation program. Though his Vermont Arts Council grant "doesn't pay for half of this," Masefield concedes, it did enable him to sit with his laptop for several months. "I only had 10 gigs all winter!" he exclaims. But the process of writing music to images is "exactly what I wanted to experience."
Jazz Mandolin Project has been acclaimed for its genre-bending sonic adventures. In giving sound to Tolstoy, however, Masefield has been all about restraint. "The visuals and music are only there to support the story," he reiterates. The result is minimalist, slightly ominous and emotionally evocative. Its tension ebbs and flows and, as in classical compositions, its musical themes are recurrent.
Masefield says he's watched -- and listened to -- a lot of films this winter. But he's found musical inspiration, too, in the work of American composer Samuel Barber. It's probably no coincidence that he's studied for years with Barber's nephew: Vermont composer Ernie Stires.
"One of my dilemmas making instrumental music [for JMP] is, it's so hard to keep people's focus," Masefield says. "When there's a charismatic singer, that's a tangible thing for the audience to grab onto." In his new project, the video will provide that charisma, he suggests. "You put people in seats and give them visuals, they can sit there, mesmerized, for two hours."
Masefield isn't asking for that kind of time commitment, though -- his production runs a modest 55 minutes. He also believes the show will be accessible. "Tolstoy is intimidating to a lot of people, including me. I'm a fan of his short fiction, but I've never read War and Peace or Anna Karenina," he confesses. In his stories, including "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" the writer's language is plain and clear. "He wanted the story to be understood by anyone," Masefield suggests.
"After the performance we'll put together a DVD and give it to some booking agents," he notes. "It's such a different kind of show, I'm hoping it will move us out of clubs and into performing arts venues and schools." But Masefield thinks "How Much Land" also might have a place at the jam fests where JMP has long been popular. "I think those young music lovers would like this," he says. "I think it would stretch their minds."