BWW Interview: Glenn Close And Ted Nash of TRANSFORMATION at Jazz At Lincoln Center
In what is shaping up to be one of the most exciting works to hit the cabaret and concert circuit this season, Jazz At Lincoln Center is presenting TRANSFORMATION, an original piece composed by Grammy Award winner Ted Nash, whose groundbreaking works include The Presidential Suite, Portrait in Seven Shades, and Chakra. Mr. Nash and his good friend Glenn Close, wanting to create a substantial work with a message, searched for years for the right theme until their focus landed on the idea of Transformation, at which time their great work began. Ms. Close threw herself into the curating of literary works and writing of a deep, personal nature, around which would be built the musical portion of the evening, and what this groovy, jazzy, artistic pair of chums have come up with is a concert that will be presented for three nights, beginning January 30th.
TRANSFORMATION is an evening of Mr. Nash's original music to be played by the Jazz At Lincoln Center orchestra, underscoring and highlighting the spoken word works chosen by Ms. Close to fit into the theme of the evening. These literary works will be performed by an impressive lineup of people including actors Amy Irving, Adriane Lenox and Wayne Brady, edgy performers Justin Vivian Bond and John Cameron Mitchell, and people like med student Eli Nash (reading the letter he wrote to his father, Ted Nash, coming out as a transgender man) and terpsichorean Nijawwon Matthews, who will dance, rather than talk. One of the world's all-time greatest actors, Ms. Close will, naturally, be joining in on the narration, reading some of the works of art she has meticulously chosen to represent the idea of the never-ending condition of transformation.
In the days leading up to the final rehearsals for TRANSFORMATION, both Ms. Close and Mr. Nash were gracious enough to take calls from me to talk about an event that gives every impression of being one of the most thrilling, artistic, and human nights of innovative creation to be found.
These interviews have been edited for space and content.
Hi Ted Nash. How are you today?
I'm doing really good. I'm writing music! (Laughing)
Productivity is a beautiful thing.
It sure is. Creativity is, I'd say, the number one most important thing to me. Not press or money or any of that -- just being creative is one of the greatest experiences. I think it is the greatest blessing of being an artist because it makes you really look inside yourself, learn about yourself, as well as lots of other things. I think it also allows other people to get to know who you are when you can present your creativity to them, and a lot of people don't get an opportunity to do that. I feel blessed.
I've been reading a lot online about Transformation. If you were going to describe Transformation, how would you?
Transformation is represented in so many different ways. I think of transformation as a personal thing. It the greatest version, the greatest expression of change. And I think that if you talk about change or transitions, they're weaker. I think transformation is something much, much deeper. For me, this whole project has been transformative, and for Glenn, too. We've been talking about this for three years. We've gone through different ideas and finally, as we started working on this a couple of years ago, with Transformation - it's been an incredible experience. I already feel transformed working on it. My hope is that with all these incredible scenes -- there're a lot of individual, personal stories of transformation and they're more global ideas of transformation being represented -- my hope, and this is always, basically, what my objectives are when composing music, is that the audience will go through something and they'll go through their own transformation. Like when I wrote "Portrait in Seven Shades" I wanted people to be moved and feel like they experienced the artwork that was projected behind the band, in a new way. I want people to experience something, I want them to walk away and feel changed in some kind of way. That's the greatest compliment if that happens. With "Presidential Suite" I wanted people to reinvestigate the feelings that are dealt with, of human rights and civil rights, and maybe when they do that, they can bring more to their license to helping this world. And with this, it's the same thing. I want people to walk away, Glenn and I both agree on this, we want people to walk away feeling inspired, feeling maybe challenged in some ways. I think it's going to be challenging in some ways, but I think ultimately if people walk away feeling empowered to make changes around them, then that would be the most incredible success.
As I understand it, Transformation is an evening of music with some readings, and that Glenn has curated the readings while you have created the music around what she has collected.
Did she bring you the finished collection altogether or were you given the literature piecemeal?
(Laughing) It's been ongoing. I would say that even though we started reaching out to artists to join us months ago, it's even as recent as just in the last few days that we have commitments from people. I can mention that Wayne Brady is somebody that Glenn has gotten to know and developed a lot of respect for; she asked him to be involved. He's one of the four people that are contributing personal transformation stories. He is also one of the readers. We have several readers, we have several people who have written music, like John Cameron Mitchell for example. He wrote a song that Patti LuPone sang on a program he had called Anthem. So I did an arrangement of this for the big band for John Cameron to come and sing with us. There are many examples of different things - we have readings that are longer text, we have shorter pieces, like poems. We have a poem that was turned into a song. Glenn asked Brian Byrne, the film composer that she had worked with on Albert Nobbs, to write a song based on the poem-- and then I took the song and arranged for the band. There's a couple of instances where I didn't write the actual songs, but for everything else I did: there's about 14 to 15 pieces all together. There's always going to be a flow of music, and out of the underscoring will grow larger pieces that are generally my response to the sentiment that's expressed in the readings. For example, Wayne's piece is called Forgiveness, which was a huge accomplishment for him -- that was his transformation. So I wrote underscoring to give him this base pad to talk over, and I've got a completely new piece that features Winton, and it's called Forgiveness and it explores all of that. Another example: my son is transgender from woman to man - Eli's his name and he's in medical school. And he wrote, when he came out four or five years ago, this letter that explained all that -- it was amazing. It was so beautifully written. The way he wrote it took care of the reader because it allowed me to feel some things, but not question his decision. It gave me an opportunity, to let me know deeply how he felt, why he was doing this. So he's going to read that letter in the concert. I'm probably going to fall apart. I mean, I don't know how I'm going to get through that (Laughing) but that's another example.
You have a big roster of artists that will be reading. Will it be the same program every night or are you rotating the artists in per performance?
As far as I know, the only exception is that Eli, my son, won't be there Thursday -- he'll be reading Friday and Saturday, but on Thursday someone else will read (his letter) -- I don't know who that is yet. I don't even know who's going to read some of the pieces. I think Glenn has decided. I think Amy Irving is going to read something, maybe a couple of things. Glenn will read a couple of things. Wayne will probably read a couple of things.
This is not your first time working with Glenn Close.
That's right. Glenn, it must have been a dozen years ago, was invited to read a piece by LBJ in a program with six commissioned pieces of music, and six guest readers like Morgan Freeman, Patricia Clarkson, and Glenn. That's when I first met Glenn. I was actually pretty star-struck and I remember trying to talk to her backstage and trying to be cool (Laughing). I'm such a big fan of hers. And then she was at our concert in Portland, Maine and she invited us to her place, and we had a big party at her house, and she is so groovy and cool and we jammed together. She played some bongos or congas or something. (Laughing) And ever since then we've talked about doing a larger piece for Jazz At Lincoln Center, and now here we are. It's exciting and daunting, and I'm a little nervous about it because I still have music to write, and we haven't had a chance to rehearse anything. And it's a big deal. This is the biggest commissioned piece that I've done in my life.
So where did the idea of Transformation come from? Was it you, Glenn, Jazz At Lincoln Center or just something that came out of a night with a bottle of wine?
(Laughing) I like that. I was over at Glenn's, we were talking about... she had this idea that she had been working on for a while. This has got to be back three, four years ago. Women in War. So she was going to write a whole piece about how different women have been involved with wartime. It was going to be more of a script and my idea was to write film-type music, real supportive, and it would grow and feature the band -- I was real excited about it. And as we started to work on it, as things began to shift politically as well, a lot was on her mind, I know. And she started talking about let's talk more about messages, let's get more personal, let's talk about transition, how in this world there are different kinds -- peoples' transitions, political transitions, transitions in every different kind of form. And we were like "This is good, it just feels like it's almost there." And then, it probably was her, it was like "Transformation." Right. That's it.
One Week Later:
Hi Glenn Close!
I was talking to Ted the other day and he told me that the idea for Transformation was yours.
Yes... because I've done several things with him, and one time he came up to me and said, "If you ever have an idea that we could build an evening around, let me know." So it kind of gestated with me for a number of years and for a while I was thinking of women and war. And then as the world got more and more distressing and fractured, I thought nobody, as important as that is... I'd much rather try to create an evening where people are comforted and inspired and where we can find our common humanity. So the idea of transformation came to me. You know, how to be transformed from darkness into light, from hatred into understanding, or from all those different elements of what we need to do in order to get along.
When it came time to curate the literature to be used in Transformation, how did you begin your search?
The first thing I did was call up my friend Chris, who is one of the most well-read erudite people I know, and we discussed the theme, and three things came from that conversation: the Ted Hughes piece from Ovid - Metamorphoses, the Louise Gluck piece that comes from The Wild Iris, and then the final piece from Perestroika by Tony Kushner. That gave me a framework. Then it kind of evolved into personal expressions of transformation. Ted Nash's son is going to read a letter that he wrote to his dad telling him that he felt he was in the wrong body. That's been a very profound transformation. Wayne Brady has written a piece that will eventually go into his one-man show, about forgiveness, which is a huge, probably the most daunting transformation for humans. Matthew Stevenson, who is part of the Derek Black story, is telling about his knowledge of Derek Black and Derek's incredible transformation from being a white supremacist to an antiracist. So it's really profound and basic things. And Judy Clark who was in prison for 38 years and now goes to work on the subway every day! So I think from the personal specific, hopefully, we will create an evening where people realize the variety of transformations that we're capable of. And all of them go to a kind of an acknowledgment of what it means to be part of the human experience.
Why do you think that jazz is the perfect music to use in the creation of a piece about transformation?
(Laughing) Well, I can only speak personally to that. I am not a huge... I can't name all the great performers and the great pieces, but I feel that I've gotten more and more open to jazz and affected by jazz as I've evolved as a human being. And now I truly believe that it really is the most profound expression of who we are as a species and what we are as a species. One thing that makes me feel that way is E.O.Wilson, who wrote a piece especially for our evening, and I don't know if you know who he is, but he's an iconic, one of the great living scientists and he has written about social evolution and biodiversity. He writes in his book, The Social Conquest Of The Earth, that ultimately we as individuals will always be conflicted. That's part of being human. And as a species, we've evolved because of conflict. And I feel that, with that kind of sound and dissonance and beauty, and all the things that are the language of jazz, that that is the closest expression of who we are as humans. I think it expresses our nervous system, basically.
This must be a very exciting time for you as a creator.
Oh, it is! And I'm sure for Ted too because we don't know what we've created until we actually hear it. I won't be, unfortunately, at the first rehearsal for the whole orchestra when they will get the music for the first time, on the 27th. But on the 28th various of us will come in and read the pieces with the music, and the 29th, the day before we start, is the first time we'll get everything together onstage. That's going to be really exciting!
We've seen you become many fascinating characters throughout your work as an actor, one of the most transformative being Albert Nobbs. Do you think that your chosen career path as an artist has informed your interest in transformation
Oh, absolutely! I think acting is transformation. Transformation is the heart of acting. For me, it's the simple, but not so simple, exercise of being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes and to understand their behavior and then to, without judgment, create that behavior in a way that will have emotional resonance with people who watch it. For me it's, it's an act of imagination and I think imagination is all about transformation.
You are a singer as well as an actor. And whether you're singing or you're speaking, you have a very musical voice. Do you also play any instruments? I think Ted told me he saw you play the bongos at a party once.
(Laughing) That's about it! (Laughing) I like playing the tambourine! Yeah! (Laughing) I think I was playing with him and some Jazz At Lincoln Center musicians... I think we all sang to his dad on the phone, it was his dad's birthday (Laughing) You know what... I was so shy as a child, I remember in kindergarten the only instrument that I felt comfortable with was the triangle. The drums and the tambourine were much too noisy!
I think people would find it hard to see you as being shy.
Oh my god, I'm very shy.
Transformation has a series of performances. Do you think that the nature of the piece would make it an option for future performances by other groups wanting to do this piece?
Well, I think it would be wonderful! It's very interesting though because many of our pieces are being performed by the people who created them. And I think that might be hard to recreate. And not everybody is an actor. Ted Nash's son is reading and he's not an actor, he's a medical student. Matthew Stevenson is reading what he wrote, and he's out and about in life, he's a graduate and he's out in the world and he's coming up from Philadelphia to read what he wrote, especially for this evening. The same with Wayne Brady's original piece. Oh! And the piece that John Cameron Mitchell, I can't wait to hear him with the whole orchestra and I can't wait to hear Vivian Bond with the whole orchestra! It's going to be incredible!
TRANSFORMATION plays Jazz At Lincoln Center January 30, 31 and February 1 at 8 pm with a free pre-concert discussion with the artists at 7 pm.
To learn more about TRANSFORMATION and to buy tickets please visit the Jazz At Lincoln Center website
Glenn Close is on Instagram @glennclose