CURTIS BRYANT – The Laughing Monkeys of Gravity (a song cycle)

Harold Lloyd in a scene from "Safety Last"THE LAUGHING MONKEYS OF GRAVITY is a four-part song cycle and lyric meditation on comedy and loneliness based on a set of poems by Stephen Bluestone (Mercer University Press, 1995). The main characters in this meditation are movie comedians from an earlier era: Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, the Three Stooges, Lou Costello, and others. In their moments of loneliness, these comedians salvage the dignity of the human spirit and affirm the will to endure. There are many references in the ten sections of the original poem to the films in which these comedians appear, but the situations the poet explores are universal and easily understood. The poems show how these classic comic masters connected friendship and love, fear and laughter, and comedy with tragedy, in the struggle to prevail in an indifferent world. Curtis Bryant chose four of Bluestone’s poems and set them for coloratura soprano voice with an expanded Pierrot ensemble (flute, and piccolo; clarinet and alto saxophone; percussion; violin; cello and piano). He tailored the vocal writing to the extraordinary soprano voice of Arietha Lockhart, who premiered the set on an all-Bryant/Bluestone concert in 2003 at Fickling Hall on the Mercer University campus.  Lockhart was joined by Kelly Via, flute; Monty Cole, clarinet & sax; Giselle Hillyer, violin; Barbara Altman, cello; Brian Nozny, percussion and Roger McVey, piano.

The tracks below are from the premiere performance (September 12, 2003):

I. The Settlement (Oliver’s Pratfall) (4:20). View text
II. Dancing Out, Dancing Back (Lou Costello) (3:55). View text
III. Oracles of Lefts and Rights (The Three Stooges) (3:50). View text
IV. In the World’s Machine (Charles Chaplin) (3:40). View text

In The World's Machine

To view an excerpt of “The Laughing Monkeys of Gravity” in PDF format click the image to launch the file. To order a score and/or instrumental parts, contact Curtis Bryant directly. The songs are also available in a piano-only version.

PRICES (not including shipping):

Piano/Vocal Score: $15.95

Full Score (score only): $24.95

Complete Performance Set: $39.95

Full score (4 songs) (97 pages), includes flute (recorder, piccolo, slide whistle), Bb clarinet (alto saxophone), violin, cello, percussion (2 timpani, marimba, chimes, vibraslap, triangle, bass drum, tam tam, trap set: kick, SD, sus. cym., ride bell, hi & lo wood block, tambourine, HH)

THE LAUGHING MONKEYS OF GRAVITY – Program Notes

Bryant first began work on THE LAUGHING MONKEYS OF GRAVITY in 2000 with a planned premiere by Atlanta soprano Cheryl Boyd Waddell. He suspended work on the project with news of Cheryl’s illness and untimely death and only resumed work on the set three years later. At this time, he met soprano Arietha Lockhart who committed to the song cycle’s premiere. The work is dedicated to the memory of Cheryl Boyd Waddell.

The first song, “The Settlement” (Oliver’s Pratfall), opens with the quotation of a fragment from the trademark Laurel and Hardy “cuckoo” theme, played on the recorder and clarinet. The cuckoo motif finds its way into the instrumental texture throughout the song. “The Settlement” takes on two contrasting dance tempos, first a gloomy fox trot, then a mischievous two-step. Bluestone’s line “All bricks must fall on Oliver Hardy’s head” is a reference to a scene from the 1932 Laurel and Hardy film Helpmates. The title line for Bryant’s song cycle as well as Bluestone’s book, “the laughing monkeys of gravity,” is also found in this poem.

“Dancing Out, Dancing Back” (Lou Costello) opens with an instrumental introduction in character with the often overly dramatic and symphonic title themes typical of Abbott and Costello films. The sense of expectation is foiled by another punchy fox trot rhythm for the entrance of the vocal part. Subsequently a bouncy waltz meter conveys Costello’s sense of panic at the reality of being trapped inside a cage of hungry lions after he has nonchalantly tossed the keys beyond reach outside the metal bars as depicted in the film Africa Screams (1949).

The third song, “Oracles of Lefts and Rights” (The Three Stooges), opens slowly with a disguised reference to the “Three Blind Mice” theme used in many of the Stooges’ films. While elements of this theme find many forms within the song, quotations from other signature motives sneak into the accompaniment along with frequent tempo changes: “Swinging” (presumably left and right punches), “With a snore” (snoring in threes), “Briskly” (with total abandon), and finally “Kind of Blue,” as the poet steps back and walks sadly home in the afternoon drizzle towards a reality far less appealing than the slapstick of black and white inside the theater’s dark walls.

The fourth song, “In the World’s Machine” (Charles Chaplin), opens in a lopsided 5/8 meter marked “Briskly Waddling.” A second “Romantic” theme in a slower tempo is derived from a melody used in Chaplin’s film The Gold Rush (1925). Chaplin often composed the music for his own films, but this particular melody is a reworking of a “Romance” for piano by Brahms. The music abruptly changes into a stride rhythm marked “Brawling,” which is then usurped by a slower “Serious” tempo in 3/4 meter with a mechanical ostinato in the right hand of the piano part.  This evokes an image of Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character trapped inside the cogs of the “world’s machine” from the film Modern Times (1936). The song closes on a darker, more dramatic note as the poet ponders what vision Chaplin, now dead, sees “in worlds beyond the road.”

– Notes by Curtis Bryant and Stephen Bluestone