Brian Lawlor is, as he puts it, “a musical mutt.” The composer for Whim W’Him artistic director/choreographer Olivier Wevers‘ revealing new I don’t remember a spark,* Brian says he is a “hypercollaborator.” He delights in working with theatrical, dance, and mixed media projects (including Saint Genet’s Paradisiacal Rites at Seattle’s On the Boards this weekend).

An intense but cheerful presence, full of manic energy, Brian likes to do off-beat things like participating in a 100 Songs in 100 Days contest or entering a Dance of a Lifetime competition. He plays ferocious ping-pong. He’s an avid chess player.

And Brian’s musical credentials are wide-ranging and deep. He began with piano at age 7, and by 8 had started performing, composing and winning competitions. None of that has stopped since. He learned many instruments, including keyboards, organ, bass, guitar and some percussion. In 2002, he became the youngest person ever to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Composition from Cornish College of the Arts and then won an Artist Support Grant from Jack Straw Productions “to record ambitious original piano compositions.” After Seattle, Brian was accepted into the Master’s program at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Den Haag, The Netherlands, studied composition at the Liege Conservatory in Belgium, and received an MM from SUNY Purchase.

Now based in the New York area, he lives in New Jersey and plays with all sorts of groups. He teaches piano, guitar, bass and composition at Garden Street Music, School of Music and the Performing Arts, where, as his bio says, he is “equally adept in a variety of styles (from interpreting Bach on the piano to speed-metal guitar picking).” Along with all his various activities, musical and otherwise, the indefatigable Brian continues to compose prolifically.** A true Renaissance Man.

Brian on his block in Hoboken after Hurricane Sandy

Even for a musician as accomplished and protean as Brian Lawlor, there is always the question of making a living.  “As far as funding,” he says, “most of my music is commissioned/paid for by the person I’m working with — director, choreographer, or band (I get asked to orchestrate, write and perform for various groups). I only have a handful of pieces that were directly commissioned as solo music pieces. Most of my living expenses are paid for from teaching. A lot of my own music just provides a supplemental income.

When he was in New York to receive his Princess Grace Choreographic Award, Olivier first met Brian. They talked about collaborating together on a piece Olivier was starting to work on which eventually became The Sofa, commissioned by Patricia Barker for Grand Rapids Ballet‘s MoveMedia series and danced in Whim W’Him’s January 2013 program. Olivier’s original idea was to work from changes on Mozart’s Ninth piano concerto. Brian did some samples, in which, he says, “I manipulated the Mozart piano concerto by playing/recording myself on many instruments, but it never developed further,” since Olivier decided to use the Mozart undistorted for The Sofa. When Olivier began doing the interviews that would become I don’t remember a spark, however, he thought at once of Brian and knew he would be the perfect composer to work with on this complex and multi-layered piece. Parts of those earlier Mozart manipulations have now been integrated into this music.

Back in March, in the first stages of both choreography and composition, Brian emailed me this about how the piece was developing:
Olivier and I had brief discussions about the sonic quality of the piece.  I’m imagining a very textured, lush drone quality throughout — a la synth processing and stacked pads.  The defining quality will be the manipulation of his interview text and his voice. I’ll be using that as the basis for much of the development.  The text will be manipulated many ways—slowed down, sped up, sliced, pitch-shifted, etc.—so that it will be a central instrumental component.  However, this is contingent upon what ideas I get after receiving the recorded text and speak with Olivier a bit more.  It may change a little!
In the event, the musical, as well as choreographic ideas have changed a great deal. Since Spark is in essence artistic statement by Olivier, clarity came to seem more important.

Now, Brian says, “There are indeed quite a few differences than Olivier and I first discussed! I actually feel goofy reading what I said before because it’s become such a departure from that.” He elaborates: “I worked a bunch with manipulating his text— through various timbal forms—but don’t think it turned out to be something he necessarily liked. We slowly stripped down the layers.” The result is that the words are clearer and more essential, with the music around and behind them, although some extended sections have no narration. He adds, “The fact that the piece has gone through an evolution has mostly been dictated by Olivier. I think he has an excellent ear for music and can easily communicate changes in his creative process. I was mostly trying to respond to that.”

I asked Brian how he went about composing (producing? writing?) the music, since what he came up with was a not just a score to be played by an ensemble, but the actual recording to be used in performance. “When I work solo, there’s not as much need for music notation,” he said. “When I compose a piece like this (definitely the right word!), I was mostly writing on three different synthesizers – a Korg MS2000, Korg R3, and the Moog Animoog. I’ll record all of these parts myself and then start to organize as I see fit. I was also using many different samples of instruments via Protools and Kontakt (piano, strings, sound processing)—which are all generated on the computer.” For the finished soundtrack, he recorded everything himself, using Protools.

The process has taken many iterations, revisions, rethinkings, reworkings. Even at the start of this week, further changes were being made. On Tuesday at a studio run-through, I finally saw and heard it all come together for the first time. But it was only at Thursday dress rehearsal in the theater that it was possible to experience the integrated, organic  whole of Spark come together. Mesmeric choreography, Michael Mazzola‘s evocative lighting, and Brian’s haunting music. Airport noises. Variations on a piano theme. A bad dream soundscape pierced by snatches of The Sofa‘s Mozart & an electrical buzzing reminiscent of the “Addiction” section of Olivier’s Monster. Can’t wait to watch and listen again tonight in the energizing company of a live audience.

*I don’t remember a spark is being performed this weekend (May 17-19) in the Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center (formerly Intiman Theatre). For tickets go to:
Whim W’Him: Third Degree – Brown Paper Tickets

**You can hear a sampling of Brian’s very eclectic music at:
Brian Lawlor’s sounds on SoundCloud – Hear the world’s sounds