In order to get into an artist’s head, sometimes it takes a good friend of the artist – they’ve heard it all before, and consequently they know just the right questions to ask! Take another glimpse into Fred Pohlman’s world of history, passion, and creation, lead by none other than Carolyn Bennett. I enjoy all of her interviews; I think you will, too.
When and how did your fascination with Vincent van Gogh begin?
Well, I was well aware of van Gogh’s works since I was quite young, but my first real fascination with the ‘artist’ himself came after I began to read his letters. I had read fictional accounts of Vincent’s life previously, but it was those letters that took me over the top.
Can you give me a brief description of what your Musical ‘Starry Nights, The Life and Times of Theo and Vincent van Gogh is about?
Well I could go into a long dissertation here and give a detailed description of my Musical, but I feel that the words of the opening Song of the Musical serve to convey the overall message and ‘emotional tone’ of this work. Anyone who has read Vincent’s letters will ‘immediately’ connect with the imagery I am conveying here. The song is related ‘directly’ to the audience and is sung by the character of Theo van Gogh’s widowed wife Johanna…
There is a space beyond your windowpane
Where brothers walked between the spots of rain
There memories and pages lost in time
Are brought to heart in light of verse and rhyme
To where the wick burns low
And the sunsets glow
Yes, …I know a place beyond the city lights
Where we can sit and watch the starry night
A place of memories made of dreams
Where winding paths descend through deep ravines
To where a streams flow
And a lone sunflower grows
To live your dream
To nobly bare what trials may come
To sow upon each rocky turn
Leave sweet blossoms long the way
So hurry now before the day is done
We still have time to catch the setting sun
The nightingale will want to sing a tune
He’s waiting now beneath the waxing Moon
Where he’ll render sweet songs
Then through winding paths and pages turned
We’ll listen as the candle burns
Yes we’ll listen till the morning light
And as we wander through the starry night
And then we’ll ride back
On the wings of
And so you see, this work takes us ‘literally’ from the cradle to the gravesite of Vincent and his Brother Theo. The Musical theme is reiterated at the end of the Play when Gauguin takes us out with a s song called ‘Sunflowers’
I have a website up online www.vangoghmusical.com, which gives a very detailed overview of the entire Musical. It is well over 20 pages, and stands well on it’s own as a good read.
Is Van Gogh is your favorite Artist?
No! He is certainly one of my favorites by far, but my all time favorite artists are Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque’ Juan Gris, and Jean Metzinger… More my personal style!
Have you thought about writing a musical about any them?
No, I wouldn’t attempt that! Others could do it better than I could, and besides, even if I did, I would more so be dealing with these subjects as ‘people’ rather than painters! Though the fact that Van Gogh was a painter was very important to me in constructing the musical, it wasn’t nearly as important as who he was as an individual and who he was in terms of his relationship with his Brother Theo! He was an ‘exemplary’ person first and foremost.
Do you think that he has been justly served by those who have sought to portray him in the past?
Not at all! I feel that portraits of Vincent like the film ‘Lust for Life’, and those ridiculous songs that condescendingly portray him as some sort of poor basket case or some madman that could paint, should be removed from the shelves! The perpetuation of the idea that he cut his own ear off, or, that he shot himself are ridiculous! People seem to relish that fallacy! These are dealt with in my Musical however! I can say that if he were around today, those very same writers wouldn’t even socialize with the likes of him! They would fear to be near him for the injustice they have served upon him! He might even come after them physically. I must say though, that he did seem to suffer from depression or ‘Melancholy’ as they preferred to call it back then . In one of his early letters to his brother he summed it all up when he described himself as’ a ‘Ne’er do Well’ and ‘A Bird in Cage’ in Letter number 155 I believe it was. I deal with it early on in Act I of my Musical. In this scene Vincent , in rags, is relating his miserable situation to his brother from his hovel in Cuesmes, a coal mining town in Belgium. His brother Theo finely, attired, in his office is reading that letter on the other side of the darkened stage. As the letter is being read softly in ‘voice Over’ over the somber tones of simple piano in A minor, Vincent suddenly rises up and moves toward the slowly illuminating center stage, where a huge bird cage descends down over him . He begins to sing; At the appropriate point in the song, Vincent Bangs his head against the rails of the cage in frustration. Here is a copy of the piece.
Bird in a Cage
A bird in the cage in the spring
Seems content with his wage as he sings
His keepers surmise…
He’s resigned to his fate of clipped wings
Somehow the bird has forgotten
The bird senses that something is rotten
He knows other birds fly
‘nd he thinks
But then…why can’t I?
The bird comes alive with elation …
I shall join the migration
I shall mate
I shall nest
Soar with the rest
Yes, the bird in the cage somehow reasons …
I shall make my escape in due season
In the cool of the night
I shall wing and take flight
But the children they taunt him is passing
They mock him with merciless laughter
( voices )
Then the bird thrashes round in a rage
He bangs his head ‘gainst the rails of the cage
For he is condemned to his cell
As a ne’er do well
Where he’ll linger
And he’ll rot till
A bird in a cage in the spring
Is an old tragic tale of clipped wings..
As the cage lifts at the end of the piece Vincent relates to his brother that is friendship and a brother’s love that lifts the cage and liberates the bird. Again, If you go to www.vangoghmusical.com , there is a highly nuanced description of this, and other scenes in the Musical.
People say van Gogh was not likable, and that he was very gruff. Is that true?
Vincent was no molly-coddle! He was tough for sure! But for the most part, this idea of
him being some kind of weirdo, was mostly perpetuated by these two bourgeois clowns, a husband and wife team that wrote a biography of Vincent from their own twisted point of view…and the images went over well with the yellow press of it’s day and so that’s the Vincent most people know aside from his paintings; It’s unfortunate!
Vincent’s letters speak for him very clearly…There is no evidence whatsoever that he was a psycho! In his letters he is portrayed for who he is! And who that was, was a very clear thinking exemplary human being, well loved by his friends in Paris and the South of France. He sought out great minds and befriended them! The only ones that had to fear him were the narrow-minded ‘bourgeois’, whom he absolutely despised!
You seem awfully self-assured about the quality of your Musical; have you work shopped it yet? What are other people’s opinions?
I only do readings of it for people and will sing many of the songs ‘LIVE’ for them! I need the money to produce anything else. And as to their opinions when I read for them? They are always either pleasantly surprised, or outright ‘stunned’! I don’t mess around when I do a reading or sing for them. I go for the juggler. I want them on their emotional knees. I demand it of myself!
And has no one offered to help you with the Musical?
Many have… but of course, they want to help in the way that ‘they’ want to help, which is virtually ‘useless’ to me! They may believe that they have good intentions, but if they really want to help, they will have to listen and do what I ask them to do! Very few have the discipline to do that…very very few! I’ve had enough of Italian dinners and Sushi with these people… Cash is what is needed and from day ONE! Nothing…NOTHING… can be done without proper and generous funding. Putting on a Musical is definitely not for the frugal, the penny pincher or the ‘feint of heart’. This is where the grown ups are separated from the ‘Wannabes’. What did Tom Hanks say in that film… ‘There’s no crying in Baseball?… Well, there’s no whining in producing Musical Theatre. Either you put up, or shut up!
How long did it take you to write the Musical?
Well, the actual writing of the musical itself spread out over years, BUT…Outlining it and writing the words to the music took about 15 years. I tweaked and modified for another seven on and off. Some of the music goes back almost 40 years actually and was modified for this work. I don’t compromise on quality and so I work slowly and methodically! I only write when the spirit moves me!
As to the Music itself, I produce that spontaneously. A Three-minute piece takes about that long for me to improvise.,. But then again when I am in creative mode., I become ‘conversational’ with music.. and so, its just second nature to me! I have no mental blocks with music when I’m creating. I can actually SEE it.
The words for the same three minute piece is another story altogether though, and can run anywhere from a few months to as long as seven to ten years or more…sometimes for even just a few verses. Of course, I am working on ‘many’ at the same time, and ‘other’ Musical works. This keeps the work always ‘fresh’. Nothing is ever forced. In the process of creating this or any other musical work, the songs tend to form in clusters naturally and the scenes evolve from there. I have a book on the Alchemical Process of Songwriting that I am finishing up on now which explains this ‘process’ in nuanced detail!
Well, how did the idea as a ‘Musical’ work first occur to you?
Well, I had been reading the Letter’s of Vincent Van Gogh and assimilating them slowly over the months, and then one day when I was sitting at the piano, I was improvising and I thought ” Oh my!…that feeling is like when Vincent was in love with his landlords daughter Eugenie Loyer…” and I could actually ‘see’ him singing it. And then I jotted down some words and thought: “Wow…a Musical about Vincent!” And then another time I was at the same piano – which is the one that John Lennon recorded ‘Imagine’ on just by the way- I improvised a second tune and could see Vincent singing that also., and then… a third! And so I thought…” Wow…a mini Musical”. From there, the songs started forming in threes and fives.. and scenes were born.! It’s a hell of a process! It is a most ‘amazing’ and natural process!
Where did you get that magic piano?
I bought it at the Auction of the old ‘Hit Factory’ in Manhattan along with a Hammond B3 organ and some Gold and Platinum record awards. And as to the piano being magic? It wasn’t! It was just an Ok Steinway B. I kept in in good voice and tune, but I’ve owned better! It was really beat to hell when I got it. I sold it to Beethoven Pianos when I moved
and then got a Steinway D and latter a Bosendorpher. Most of the Musial was written on those. What matters though is that a piano can ‘sing’. I made them sing by keeping them meticulously tuned, regulated and voiced.
Before we wrap this up, I’d like to leave your readers with the words to one last song. It’s in answer to the Bird in a Cage from Act I. It is sung in Act III by Mme.Ginoux , the keeper of the famous Night Cafe in Arle where Vincent passed many a night before he settled in there with Gauguin.
So pales the sun
so bright the moon
Now in the cool of the night
Does a caged bird take flight then
And unto the swelling ranks
He wings he soars
And he pledges
To return no more
That conceived in light…
Succumbs to night
The mistral wind
It whips him round
It leaves him somehow
His only friend
Down at some bottles end
And where do they go?
Where do they sleep?
Now in his quandary confused
He has no idea how he’ll eat
But the bird he wings his way across the cityscape he flies
And he holds unto his pledge and to survive..
And then at break of day…
The bouogois go their way
The bird he spirals down
He lands out on a ledge
He contemplates the razors edge
Until he then again
Recalls his pledge..
And from whence did Zola bear?
Hugo his Fontine…his Valjean declare
In oh …such sweet verses fair
Lift me now, now lift me high
High o’er where were those Valiant slain
Where are sweet blossoms formed
Where are sweet verse ordained
Ask me not,
Not importune me..
As to where have the flowers gone…?
See down there amidst the thorns..
Now ‘gain bright the moon
And so sweet the scent
But in the gutter he’s spent..
And where’s the rose gone and went?
But the nightingale shall sing tonight
And he shall woo the rose
And in ascending trills
Ah, but then again…
There’s his bottle friend
He calls him down
They make the city rounds
He chews him up, he spits him out
And then drops him in some lost and found
But now his back against the wall
The bird his pledge again recalls
The bird lifts his wings, lifts his voice and
Lift me now, now lift me high
High o’er where do those valiant sleep
There shall I take my rest this night
And there due vigil keep
And ask me not,
Not importune me
As to where have the hours gone
Where the page is worn…
This is one of the many emotional high points in the Musical. I ‘love’ performing this song for people.
And now, well, we’ll see! Maybe an ‘Angel’ will fall from the heavens. I never hold my breath on these things. I’m always busy with some or other work in progress! Whatever hits first will pay for the others! I have lots of unfinished things to work on; I love my process, and…it never ends!
Fred is showing his paintings in the Kaaterskill Fine Arts & Crafts Gallery, but not for much longer! Stop by this weekend to see his work before it comes down on the 25th.