“I want to confess something to you,” says legendary producer and arranger Van Dyke Parks, straight on to the front foot when we come to call. It’s quite an achievement given the earliness of the Californian hour. “I’m just terrified of misquotation – almost as much as quotation. Accuracy is almost as frightening.”
He is talking about his request that our interview be recorded and sent over for his stamp of approval. “Recently I did an interview with a Brit and I talked about how Brian Wilson was forced into retirement from Smile. I read the print that was emailed to me, and it said how Brian Wilson was ‘in a forest of retirement’, and I just died because one or two of those in an article can turn away the most patient.”
He is a polite and exceptionally eloquent interviewee, his voice the sort that could easily grace a lengthy radio programme as he discusses his latest project, a series of singles with accompanying artwork from a major artist. “It’s important to note that the works that have been done for these singles are not commissioned – they are given to me to use for these singles, and I’m absolutely floored by my chutzpah. How about a Yiddish word there. Let the motto be ‘Think Yiddish, speak British!’”
He reflects further. “Two weeks ago I was scanned for two life-size statues that will be called ‘Side A’ and ‘Side B’. They’re being done by a celebrated artist whose name is Charles Ray, a sculptor. He will take a photograph of those statues.” He laughs softly. “He will then take a picture of those statues of Van Dyke Parks, and then I will get a picture of the statues on my single. Isn’t that exciting? It’s absolutely astonishing!”
“I’m just terrified of misquotation – almost as much as quotation. Accuracy is almost as frightening” – Van Dyke Parks on the perils of interviews
At this point it is proving more beneficial to listen to Van Dyke rather than ask questions. “I think what it is, it’s not anybody’s attempt to flatter me, but there are a sea of people, in music and the visual arts, that wants to connect, and can’t really find a way to finance that, a market to accommodate it, but people make these things that are beyond the movie musical and the hot album. I just had the nerve to act and the door opened.”
The juxtaposition of Van Dyke’s music and visual art is perhaps a natural one, given the colourful nature of the former. “I guess it’s true. Guilty as charged!” he confesses. “It’s music that attempts to entertain and foster synaesthetic relationships, and that happens naturally to people. Colours are sometimes associated with odours. A lilac, for example, always seems to be absinthian or liquorice. It’s amazing that the great composers never discussed this with each other, because it’s so personal. It’s almost like confessing to a madness to be so synaesthetically challenged, or afflicted. The musical keys are all ascribed by one composer or another to colours. For Tchaikovsky A flat was purple, or Beethoven opined that G was orange, and it turned out that Mozart had already had the same thought. I must confess I had forgotten what I had learned about all this, the corrobative qualities of synaesthetics”.
Does Van Dyke reflect classical music in the way he writes for orchestra? “Well I would like to think so,” he says warmly. “To tell you the truth I really would. I have no delusions of grandeur. When I think about classical music the term only helps me sort things out, that is to know that anything in that definition is something of great stature. Nothing more specific than that. So, important music to me is classical music. It’s also baroque” – he uses the American pronunciation – “but it ain’t bent! I don’t put myself in that league but I would like to think my work has such durability that it lives beyond my own self-insistence. It would be wonderful to think that it has some durable force.”
Is this a factor in his thinking as he approaches 70? “I don’t think so,” comes the instinctive response. “In 1963 I started with my first job, working on the Bare Necessities. I was not old enough to vote, but I was old enough to get a job as an arranger. That has turned out to be my hallmark, arranging, but it is a strange thing – I have said this before but I will say it again – that I find, to my shock and awe, that that is the way I have been cast, as an arranger. In doing that, at the age of 68, I’m not legitimate. Neither am I associated with the street, but it’s this wanting to bring roots into the parlour, that is my real ambition.”
“I would like to think my work has such durability that it lives beyond my own self-insistence. It would be wonderful to think that it has some durable force” – Van Dyke Parks
He qualifies his statement somewhat. “I wasn’t impressed with folk rock, but I am impressed with folk. My favourite British musician, for example, if I’m pressed to name one, is Martin Carthy. Nothing more exemplary or beautiful has ever come out of England than the works of Martin Carthy. They protect and define England. So I must admit that is my secret love. It’s the street sensibility, the roots, that I love, and then to try to find a way to bring that sensibility into an elitism of high society. Once I got to work for Martin’s daughter Eliza Carthy, and she said in the bridge of a song: ‘Beautiful people are boring’. I thought that was such a great line.
“So I try to bring that roots sensibility into the parlour,” he says, “but to me that is not a grandiose musical thing. It hasn’t given me access to the honourees in both departments. I have no cachet. My glory is in trying to do that. It is not at all original, and it is on a small scale. When you asked if I had any influences, the answer is Percy Grainger, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Delius, Smetana, Dvok – the guys that bring it from the streets. That’s what really interests me. I’ve always wondered at that. People have done that so well, but I like to bring it in to song form, and it’s the song form that is my gig.”
Has he ever considered an English folk project? “You know something; the truth is once I got a job to do a movie score of Oliver Twist. I went back and referred to musical literature, went back to learn river names and so forth. This was really beautiful. I am more Steeleye Span than Fairport Convention, and I think that’s because of the power of things, like torque in reverse. It’s when you really go back and lug something forward, maybe without the aid of a drum set that was invented in New Orleans, if you just leave that alone for a second and study the real rhythms inherent in all of this.”
He gives an example. “Music of the Olden Tyme is the precious volume of this – I have two volumes, and it’s not enough. It’s beyond parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme to be honest. As a matter of fact it tells you how much Henry VIII paid to have a man play the lute! It’s so deep and wonderful and of course I love this stuff! Going through airport security and all that tedium to land me in a place where this kind of music still exists is still a thrill.”
Read Part 2 of this interview