Honing and refining his skill, moving from Solo Piano to chamber music and now to voice and piano (and chamber music), Gonzales’ trajectory appears to focus on re-introducing classic techniques to new audiences. And one senses that listeners are ready for something with deeper and lasting meaning; not since the heyday of disco have audiences been subjected to deep and relentless domination of dance-oriented 4/4 pop – people are looking for a different relationship with music. Room 29 is a collaborative effort, bringing together the witty and insightful lyrics of Jarvis Cocker and the deep and emotional Gonzales piano that we know and love. From the pre-release tracks, it’s easy to hear how well this pairing works, but (as with any Gonzales release), there’s a lot of background to discover and layers to peel back – let’s have a closer look.
Before we begin, please note that we have posted our subsequent ‘complete‘ review of Room 29.
The genesis of the concept behind Room 29 appears to be (from press releases) based on a stay Mr. Cocker had in the hotel several years ago – in Room 29, complete with a baby grand piano. In his own words:
What if the piano were a mute witness to the many star antics which have taken place in this room? What would it say? It would love to tell stories – the original form of communication.
Mr. Cocker, having originally met Gonzales at the Eden Project in 2002 (but became better acquainted after a chance encounter on a Paris subway in 2006), phoned his friend who he knew would be able to give the piano the voice and emotion required to tell the tales.
The lure of California is great for any entertainer; “Brits dream of Yankland” as someone once wrote. The lush California countryside and ever-pleasant weather has seen the likes of Morrissey, Gary Numan, Dusty Springfield, Adele, and countless others make the leap to Los Angeles. California (and LA culture) has likely intrigued Mr. Cocker for many years; Room 29 could hold clues as to why some entertainers reject the notion of moving to California to further their career.
Gonzales has several connections to Los Angeles: his Hollywood composer brother Christophe Beck has lived in LA for years, and his long-time friend Mocky, moved to LA from Berlin. We don’t know how much of a lure California is for Gonzales, but as he previously indicated, his sensibilities lie more with European music than North American pop. There is little doubt that the notion of celluloid fame and associated personas have intrigued Gonzales for years.
In 1858, the US sculptor Hiram Powers carved a statue called California out of pure white marble. Portrayed as a woman to reflect the timeless beauty of the state, she holds a diving rod in her left hand to symbolize hope and potential. The sculptor placed California against large quartz crystals – a mineral where prospectors could find gold deposits; during the California gold rush, many people left everything behind and made their way to California for a shot at untold fortunes. The gold rush of 1848 was supplanted by a “gold” rush for fame and fortune just after 1900 – when Hollywood formally began.
Savvy hoteliers saw a future demand to house the new class of people being “discovered” in Los Angeles. There are obviously countless stories from the early days of Hollywood, the iconic Chateau Marmont holds a special place in the annals of history. Built “15 minutes from everywhere”, the Marmont was practically situated in the country on Sunset Boulevard when originally built. As luck would have it, the great stock market crash of 1930 happened just months after the hotel (then long-term apartments) was completed, which necessitated the first in a long line of sales. Over the years, its rugged charm and quirky decor attracted Hollywood elite as a place to think, hide, party, or (in a few cases) perish. The rooms were lavish, but Room 29 is of particular interest to Messrs. Cocker and Gonzales. As a journalist for Elle magazine once wrote:
“With its grand piano, oil painting of a nude, original bathroom, and looong terrace, room 29 at the Chateau Marmont was a scandalously sexy home base.”
The reporter may have been mistaken regarding the grand piano, which appears to have been a baby grand, but the room certainly seems to have been a home base to Hollywood greats.
As an evening and spare time project, Room 29 took three years to come to fruition, including a 2016 working run in Hamburg in January of 2016. Now, over a year later, the song cycle is about to have its premiere at Hamburg’s Kampnagel (March 17-19), and London’s Barbican Hall (March 23-25).
Instead of starting with an analysis of the individual songs, it may make more sense to look at the cohesive forces behind the album, which has been promoted as a song cycle. The most ‘obvious’ message comes from Hollywood itself – the insatiable appetite for audiences to devour the latest news and scandals emanating from the entertainment capital of the world. Hollywood is an odd, and yet compelling subculture – an entire industry of very hard-working and creative people coming together to develop movies, television, and music as a pastime for people around the world. Many psychologists have asked, “Why do we care about celebrity?” One of the more compelling theories comes from film historian David Thompson, whose insights and film clips support the music and singing during the play:
“The process of acting becomes more necessary as an assurance that we exist.”
This notion stems from a line of psychological thinking called “Terror Management” – we suppress the fact that one day we will die, and invest in systems that we know will prevail after we are dead. It’s a way of subliminally coping with death – we know that films and music will continue to exist after we die, which makes it a worthwhile endeavour to show interest in – ever more so if we can ‘immortalize’ ourselves in print or on screen.
From the snippets of words and music we can find, it appears that the individuals the songs focus were generally “troubled” guests at the Marmont. There is a fascination with wild tales that somehow escape from the confines of the hotel. One can only imagine how many stories Mr. Cocker and Gonzales explored in order to settle on the selection we hear on the album. There are likely many more compelling stories to tell, but we’re glad that the field has been narrowed to a fascinating and connected collection.
Using the piano or music as a centre for storytelling seems to have always been part of our culture. The music reinforces the emotional response that the words convey, which makes the story far more memorable and visceral. Combined with projected images, Room 29 makes a definite mark on our senses. Schubert’s ground-breaking Winterreise (or Winter Journey) song cycle for voice and piano is akin to a tragic opera, and was based on poems by Wilhelm Müller. Editing the manuscript for the dark and somber song cycle would prove be Schubert’s last musical task before he succumbed to the ravages of syphilis. Schubert recognized that the piano could become an active ‘voice’ in the interplay between piano and singer and used rhythm, tension, and impressionist techniques to elevate the piano beyond simple ‘background’ music. The net effect on listeners is striking and activates many more ancient brain centres to produce a deep, chilling emotional and memorable response. We’re anticipating that the interplay between the piano, strings, and Mr. Cocker’s lyrical content and delivery will be nuanced and highly effective at transferring a feel for each of the hotel guests featured on the album.
“Just ask Jarvis.”
Jarvis Cocker hails from Sheffield – a city that at one point, literally changed the face of the world with incredible foundries that produced cheap steel for railways – in essence ushering in a new technological era. This ‘hands-on’ practicality seeps into the psyche of Sheffielders – new messages and techniques brought to the world to pave the way for something entirely tangential. For Mr. Cocker, his lyrics and style seemed to pick up right where The Smiths left off, as one journalist explained “…not only not fitting in, but knowing you’ll never be able to.” It appears that this ‘outsider’ appeal is also part of Mr. Cocker’s constitution – admittedly unhappy with stardom: “I felt I’d turned into this grotesque showbiz figure and knew that if I wasn’t careful I’d be trapped in that for the rest of my days.” Perhaps this close call also piqued interest in how and why people are attracted to Hollywood, eventually cumulating in Room 29. In the same interview, he professed to know where in Paris he could find “HP Sauce” and “Marmite”, and still didn’t have command of the French language – almost as if he needed to maintain his ‘outsider’ status.
Ryuichi Sakamoto and Chilly Gonzales both come from university, pop and classical backgrounds; it’s interesting that both are able to convey deep emotion more effectively than purely classically trained composers. Pop sensibilities may enable them to know what chords and progressions move people as opposed to someone who has just studied the classics. Although Mr. Sakamoto is listed on Room 29 for ‘themes’ and not hands-on contribution, it may be homage to an influential composer that many have looked up to for decades.
Also appearing on many tracks is the warm and exacting Hamburg-based Kaiser Quartett, who provide the perfect mix of brilliant technique with warmth and emotion that can only be found in ‘old school’ classically-trained musicians. Their relationship with Gonzales seems to parallel the relationship the great Raymond Scott had with his quartet (which included John Williams’ father on drums). Raymond Scott’s music predates electronic sequencers, but that fact didn’t stop him from pushing syncopated boundaries with ‘traditional’ instruments in compositions such as the classic ”Powerhouse”. Counter-intuitively, as Gonzales has driven the Kaiser Quartett to greater ”sequencer-like” depths, the more emotion they have been able to access in performing more traditional quartet compositions.
To Gonzales and Jarvis Cocker, Paris seemed to be a ‘hotel’ of sorts – someplace to feel like a tourist and yet still have somewhere call home (albeit temporarily). The isolation that comes with being an outsider removes many of the comfortable trappings of life, which enables deep concentration on new projects, and experience with new people and influences that can change one’s outlook. As Andrew O’Hagan wrote, “[hotels rooms are] a place that appeals to an idealized version of yourself.” Traditionally writers have used hotels to isolate themselves and telegraph their outsider status and loneliness into their work to great effect (see Gonzales’ “Solo Piano I”). There’s also a time to leave a hotel, as Joseph Roth eloquently wrote, “I have been here for long enough. If I stayed longer I would be unworthy of the great blessing of being a stranger.”
What’s fascinating about Hollywood and Room 29 is the infatuation with “insider” status as opposed to “outsider” status. Connections are paramount and not having any is akin to career suicide. Ironically, the Marmont ended up for some as a place where they could be seen and remain in the public eye, as opposed to a place to retreat and collect thoughts. Room 29 seems to look at Hollywood as a time capsule of sorts – living entirely outside the realm of reality, and focusing in on a singular hotel that at one point was epicentre of celebrity. Stars come and go like celestial bodies – making a brief appearance for us to observe and note, then off to other adventures. Moving even deeper, Room 29 summarizes the entirety of Hollywood within a single room – as if the room were a holy shrine to debauchery, infidelity, and so on. Yet, there’s a piano in Room 29 – a piano that has likely seen the gamut of human emotion, which is fitting, as the piano is turned into a device by which the untold stories can finally be told – but not just with words, but something far more emotionally powerful – music.
Generally speaking, Gonzales’ music doesn’t merely replicate what already exists; it expands genres and understanding of concepts and life. Room 29 is no exception – undoubtedly, each composition is set to underscore, support, lead, and reinforce Mr. Cocker’s softly spoken verse. During a ‘Red Bull’ lecture series, Gonzales was asked how he felt about opera. His response was that opera should have changed to match technology; projecting one’s voice becomes no longer necessary with microphones and amplification. He admires artists such as Frank Sinatra who were able to leverage the technology in their favour – creating what Gonzales called “a world around the microphone.” Jarvis Cocker has the unique ability to do just that – to draw you in and listen intently. With a Sprechgesang (“spoken singing”) style, the tracks we’ve heard thus far paint a rather bleak picture of what life was like within the walls of the iconic Chateau Marmont hotel.
A hotel draws a line between fantasy and reality, and it’s tempting to conclude that Mr. Cocker and Gonzales are projecting warnings about success without caution, unabashed hedonism, and the pure pursuit of celebrity, wealth, or immortality. The latest fad, latest movie, music, feeling, etc., that ultimately leaves you simultaneously hollow and yet wanting more to fill that void. Hollywood seems to exist in a permanent state of duality, simultaneously representing the very best and the very worst of culture and materialistic pursuit. Combined with the fantasy that entertainment affords, the people who bring us the joy of escapism also pursue their own fantasies in real life, partially to indulge their obsessions, and partially to remain relevant in an industry where becoming irrelevant weighs heavily on all participants.
Room 29 explores the brief stay of select quests at the hotel – some preferring to remain anonymous and isolated, and others there to attract attention. There’s a catch; the stories within the song cycle (according to press releases) are told using a prosopopoeia – that is, from the point of view of inanimate objects, which in this case, is either the room or piano (press releases have indicated both).
Let’s have a look at some selected tracks.
01 Room 29 (3:35)
Recorded in Studio Ferber, Paris Renaud Letang has captured Mr. Cocker’s iconic style in a way that simultaneously focuses and encompasses the listener. The first few phrases introduce us to a narrator, who appears to be singing from a resident’s point of view, but may actually be an animism of the baby grand piano in Room 29 or possibly the piano repeating stories from years past. Gonzales’ composition starts off with a gentle melody that gradually builds in tonal warmth, complexity and flourishes, but never detracting from Mr. Cocker’s lyrics. A jaunt on the high octaves is followed by a recapitulation of the melody and a delayed final chord that feels very pensive – as if the piano needs to be cajoled to speak further. As it’s the norm for Gonzales, the upright piano is sourdine, which softens the chords in dreamy textures.
02 Marmont Overture (2:42)
Since Room 29 is essentially a soundtrack to a play, the overture would traditionally be performed against a blank screen or still photographs, and may help to establish a theme for the performance – something that would be very effective live, but works just as well with mental images filling the visual void.
03 Tearjerker (3:04)
This emotional track starts with piano and voice completely in sync: “You are such a jerk” is sung by Mr. Cocker and Gonzales’ piano simultaneously. One has the distinct impression that there’s someone looking at their reflection in the brilliant and deep black piano finish, while the piano is simultaneously telling the gazer what it has observed – which was a past (and regrettable) transgression. Who is tearjerker in this case – the subject of the piano, or the piano itself? In capable hands, the piano certainly has the capability to start tears flowing. The piano can also be thought of a mirror of sorts – reflecting our own emotions for us to see how we appear to others from an emotional point of view.
“These surface are shiny, and anything wipes off them – these surfaces hard, nothing seems to mark them”
Here, the piano can stay perpetually clean and unblemished – unlike people who can’t have emotions as easily wiped. The piano seems to want to impart this message for the listener to take heed – pianos can take a lot of abuse and still appear new, whereas the same can’t be said for individuals. Our actions and deeds can deeply affect other people.
The great playwright Tom Stoppard once wrote that infidelity shouldn’t count in hotel rooms. His approach was that hotel room encompass a separate moral universe. That may work as a concept in one of Stoppard’s plays, but in reality, we hear of many transgressions on the part of celebrities – some are for publicity, but others truly affect relationships, friends, and partners.
“Do you think I’m stupid?” asks the narrator. “I’m stupid.” Is the response, as if to say, do you really think that people don’t know what’s going on here?
Throughout the song, the piano supports the lyrical content with a slow cadence and gentle theme that repeats throughout. The piano always remains cool and somewhat detached from the action, with a longer decay in the middle of the sing. Playful high octaves evoke a childlike state before returning to slightly more forceful repeat of the central theme with a gentle ritardando at the very end.
Truly a brilliant and moving song lyrically and musically, it’s definitely a highlight thus far.
04 Interlude 1 – Hotel Stationery (1:22)
Many (if not all) of Gonzales’ penned titles have another connotation; in this case, the ‘official’ writing paper may also be referring to the hotel’s refusal to change in light of changing times. Long-time residents and frequent visitors have begged new managers, “not to change a thing – the hotel is perfect”. As such, it may serve as a testament or shrine to a bygone era of excesses, which continue to this day.
05 Clara (2:59)
From press releases, it’s evident that “Clara” refers to Clara Clemens, the daughter of Mark Twain, who moved to the Marmont a few days after the death of her pianist-conductor husband Ossip Gabrilowitsch. She sought to speak with her dead husband through psychic means and regularly held séances to try and communicate with him.
Although we haven’t heard the song, it would be interesting if Gonzales “channeled” the spirit of her husband through his composition, or somehow evoked a sense of attempting to communicate with the spirits.
This track also includes the Kaiser Quartett for their first song of many on the album.
Tragically, Clara’s only daughter (Nina) would eventually be found dead in a Los Angeles hotel room with bottles of alcohol and pills beside her. No happy endings for Clara or her daughter, unfortunately.
06 Bombshell (4:36)
Also from press releases, Jean Harlow appears to be the subject of “Bombshell”. On her honeymoon at the Marmont, she famously ‘cheated’ on her new husband (cinematographer Harold Rosson) with her on-screen flame Clark Gable. In reality, her marrage to Mr. Rosson was setup to distract from the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of her previous husband (which was eventually ruled as a suicide).
Tragedy didn’t escape Mrs. Harlow – she died at the young age of 26 from kidney failure, likely precipitated by a childhood bout of scarlet fever. There’s plenty of scintillating and melancholy musical fodder to draw from – including Mrs. Harlow’s decision be begin dressing more provocatively while at the Marmont.
07 Belle Boy
08 Howard Hughes Under the Microscope
09 Salomé (2:55)
Traditionally, Salome was the daughter of Herod II and Herodias; famous for asking for and receiving the head of John the Baptist. Her lasting figure and erotic dance symbolizes a dangerous seductress. Clergy have often used Salome as an example of what happens to men when they give into temptation.
There’s also a Marmont connection to Salome through a young German screenwriter: Billy Wilder. A 28-year old Billy would first visit the Marmont in August 1934 – straight from Berlin and already an accomplished screenwriter with more than 200 scenarios under his belt. Eventually, Billy found a writing partner and jointly wrote the script for the now-famous Sunset Boulevard. In Sunset Boulevard, a faded silent film star plans her triumphant return to the screen in a script called ‘Salome’. The silent film star mirrors the final years of silent film stars, such as Clara Bow (who could also be found at the Marmont, and may have influenced Mr. Wilder).
Purportedly, Mr. Cocker carries a basket on stage with a head in it, re-creating the central theme of Salome. The head may be symbolic of the ultimate price many people have paid in their quest for stardom in Hollywood.
10 Interlude 2 – 5 Hours a Day (1:14)
We’ve come to look forward to Gonzales’ diversions – from Projectionist to Solitaire, these short pieces sometimes cleanse the musical palate of the listener (and audience) in preparation for the next composition, but may also be used to shift tempo or key signature between songs. Here, the title stems from the “sweet spot” for musicians to practice daily – any more or less and performance and skill degrades.
The Rest of the Album
As much as we’d like to comment on the remaining six tracks, we’ll save our analysis for when we’ve listened to the album in its entirety and provide a detailed musical review. At this point, we know that “The Tearjerker Returns” is a musical reprise of “Tearjerker”, complete with the Kaiser Quartett for added musical depth.
11 Daddy, You’re Not Watching Me
12 The Other Side
13 The Tearjerker Returns
14 A Trick of the Light
15 Room 29 (Reprise)
16 Ice Cream As Main Course
Although we clearly see the divining rod in California’s left hand – symbolizing the hopes and dreams of thousands (now millions) of people, we have to look closely behind California to see that she is hiding a stick of thorns in her right hand behind her back. Hiram Powers knew that the quest for beauty and fortune comes at a cost, in the case of the gold rush, many people paid the ultimate price for a chance at glory. For many Hollywood actors, their escapades at the Marmont have sometimes led to tragic circumstances. In the modern sense, the yin/yang nature of the sculpture is reminiscent of Gonzales’ compositions, such as Gentle Threat, where we are drawn toward the beauty of the lilting melody, only to have the beauty ‘destroyed’ by the interjection of a low, threatening and resonating note, casting a recognizable shadow over the melody, which continues on as if to ignore the impending doom. It’s possible that outsiders and underdogs instinctively steer clear of Los Angeles and Hollywood as a self-preservation mechanism.
Besides lush, emotional music and insightful and playful lyrics, we as listeners can take a great deal away from Room 29. By all means, indulge in mental escapism and fantasies from time to time as a means of exploring ourselves and our wants and desires. The danger lies when we make fantasies become reality, and we are not mentally or emotionally prepared to deal with the fallout of our decisions. We can more effectively take parts of fantasy and apply them slowly to our reality – they point is to not just dream, but dream and do, but stay ultimately remain true to yourself.
From what we can discern, Room 29 is a brilliant and deeply thought-out work from two musical powerhouses that has much in common with the classic tragedy genre – a collection of sad tales told from a tantalizingly modern perspective. Yet tragedies were often written to elicit a paradoxical cathartic response from the audience, through a shared emotional response. We’ll have to hear the rest of the album and experience the play before finishing our review, but in the meantime, we wholeheartedly recommend pre-ordering or picking up this classic (on the prestigious Deutche Grammophon label no less).