The Travels of Babar: an espresso with Raphael Mostel

March 5, 2019


After the presentation at New York City’s Florence Gould Hall of his new production, “The Travels of Babar”, based on the classic picture book “Les Voyages de Babar” by Jean de Brunhoff, on November 2 (in French) and 3 (in English), we have interviewed the Raphael Mostel.

> Laura Valle

Why did you choose to set music to “The Travels of Babar”?
Over the years I’d sketched a lot on the idea of showing how music “works”, but only sketches. Then one day out of the blue, I received a letter asking for music to accompany a CD for release in Japan of a reading of the Babar book — so suddenly this golden opportunity fell in my lap to realize what I’d only been daydreaming about for so long. It’s so wonderful when serendipity hands you one of the challenges you’ve wanted. It was also a special opportunity to rise to the level of French composer Francis Poulenc’s 1940 setting of the first Babar book with my new setting of the second Babar book!
How did you try to interpret the book and the images through your music?
Interpreting the book means having the music follow the twists and turns of the narrative. The images are really what inspired me. They’re justifiably famous because Jean de Brunhoff pared everything down to the essentials, while seeming almost off-handed and free. They have emotional and dramatic impact, but are also full of joy and the sense of fun. There are 46 illustrations in the book, so I created a different “scene” for each one, finding a congruent rudiment of music — like scales, overtones, enharmonic relations, etc. with which to construct a parallel musical universe, achieving similar impact with that same sense of off-hand fun and joy — narrating the entire gamut of musical vocabularies and distilling all of the “scenes”, each playing with a different aspect of music.
It’s no small challenge to compose music that can captivate all ages, young people as well as adults too. My “Travels of Babar” is completely different kind of composition from everything else I’ve ever done — When I was child myself, I taught myself music playing by ear on the piano, and in composing I worked to recall how I taught myself when I was a kid, and then composed from that point of view. This goes over the heads of most adults, who simply appreciate the music as music while noticing the musical materials are a bit unusual. Kids however, given half a chance, put themselves inside music, imagining how THEY would make it. I designed each scene of “The Travels of Babar” to give the young the tools they need to understand how to make music themselves (or at least enough understanding to make them want to try).
Can you tell us how the show in the Florence Gould Hall was structured?
The show begins by introducing everyone individually, and showing off each instrument — sort of like how a magician first shows the empty inside of the hat before pulling out the rabbit. Then the narrator launches into the story — and we’re suddenly airborne with elephants in a balloon and musically spiralling up on the circle of fifths, unmoored by any key! Overhead of the musicians, there’s a giant screen with elaborate HD slideshow using the original watercolors — over 400 cues in the hour! Meanwhile, theatrical lighting follows and colorfully highlights ow the music is being made and by which players, as all these elements come together.
There are four levels of the production: the narration, the music, the images and the lighting — all designed to work together in harmony. The Berlin Philharmonic just gave the first performance of the new production, and one critic marvelled at the audiences total immersion in the work with this “extremely three-dimensional music.”
Do you have three adjectives with which you would define your work?
Transparent, honest, magical. I work to cut away what’s not essential.
How do you usually work on your compositions and arrangements?
I never repeat the same approach. Each project deserves its own set of inquiries, so I begin by meditating on what are its own terms. After that, what is the essence that speaks to me? And in how many different ways? (this last one requires a kind of multiple-personality way of thinking, imagining myself as all the varied people in the audience and working to fathom as best I can all possible understandings).
I see that you have also been teaching for many years at Columbia University. What would you advise to a young musician wishing to become a pro?
Try everything. Listen to what everyone tells you, but always trust your own ears. It was totally by chance that architect Steven Holl brought me into his Studio class at Columbia U’s Graduate School of Architecture, to talk about the relationship of music and architecture. It started with an interesting conversation we got into when we met at an art opening. And here we are after a decade, receiving the Studio Award as top class in the country (by anonymous submission) from Architect Magazine, the journal of the American Institute of Architects, for our “Architectonics of Music” Advanced Studio. Of course it greatly helps that Steven’s one of the greatest living architects.
Louis Armstrong may have made his reputation performing mostly with lesser talents. That’s great if you’ve got everything you need to begin with. For myself, and everyone else I would advise a different approach — always working with those who are more advanced, so you can be challenged to learn and grow.
As far as your career is concerned, do you have an anecdote that you wish to tell us?
Especially for JazzEspresso, a couple of anecdotes related to jazz masters:
1) I put many little tributes to other composers throughout “The Travels of Babar”. I trust the dancing tribute to Duke Ellington in it may amuse your readers. I always liked Ellington’s advice to “make it sweet, but mix a little dirt in it”.
2) A completely different kind of composition of mine, “Nightsong”, was inspired by and dedicated to one of my musical heroes, Thelonious Monk. It’s a 20-minute long-song composed for Tibetan singing bowls, with solo Lyzarden — the tenor member of the obsolete family of Serpent instruments, sometimes called a Lizard. It’s a kind of cross between a trumpet and a recorder, so pitches can get as gnarly as one wants. Beyond the “Tibetan” in the name of the singing bowls, it has nothing to do with anything from that part of the world. So it was amusing to see how many writers — purely because of Shangri-La-type prejudice— have been confusing “Monk-inspired” with “monk-inspired”
What are your next projects?
For the moment Babar has kind of taken over my life. After the introduction of the new production in the Florence Gould Hall performances Nov 2 & 3, there’s the U.S. premiere of the new orchestral version of my Babar that’s to be presented April 7, 2019 at the Kennedy Center by the National Symphony Orchestra.
And since I’ve been told by education professionals that my Babar can be very useful for multiple forms of literacy — not just musical, and at multiple grade levels — I’m working on creating a portable version of this production at full-quality that could travel through all the neighborhoods of the metro area, bringing live music at highest quality — some performances for the public, but mostly performances for schools.
But I hope to claw my way back to having some time to compose again, as there’s a major 4-work cycle of purely symphonic works I’ve been aching to get back to that keeps seeming more relevant than ever, given current events. And on the opposite extreme, I’ve also been imagining a comic cabaret show based on the book of Jonah.
The Travels of Babar: an espresso with Raphael Mostel copyright Jazzespresso 2019.
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