When composer David Paul Jones was working on Grid Iron’s site-specific show, The Devil’s Larder, rehearsals for this already culinary-inclined show gave him considerable food for thought. As well as providing a live score, including a camp rendition of Charles Trenet’s song La Mer while dressed as a sailor, in this compendium of short works taken from Jim Crace’s book of the same name, Jones had become an integral part of the company’s acting ensemble.
“Right, DPJ” said director Ben Harrison as they re-created a swingingly aphrodisiac 1970s fondue party, “I think you should pull your trousers down, and then you should be rubbing hot cheese into your crotch.”
Jones relates this in a mock dead-pan fashion, getting over the earnestness with which the situation was taken with a story-teller’s gift for mimicry. He half-jokingly admits, though, that “It flashed through my mind that this might mean the end of my career as a serious composer.”
Jones, however, has gone on to prove otherwise. Since The Devil’s Larder in 2005, the Irvine born maverick has scored music for Suspect Culture’s The Escapologist, Elizabeth Gordon Quinn for the National Theatre of Scotland, and has just finished touring Catherine Wheels and the NTS’ co-production of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. He’s also played several low-key solo performances of Palmstar Poppy, an impressionistic song cycle which he plans to scale up to an orchestral work.
Next week Jones will be appearing in Four Men and a Poker Game, a stage version of a Bertolt Brecht short story which appears in The Tron Theatre’s Victorian bar next week. Directed by Zoe Svendson for her Metis Arts company in association with Northern Stage, Newcastle, the inter-action between actor Davie McKay and Jones’ music is vital.
“It pretty much underscores the whole play,” says Jones, sitting in his home studio in Edinburgh beside an upright piano in the corner. “It’s a dialogue between the text and the music, and there’s a song at the end in German, which I had to learn phonetically. I get to play the piano all the way through, then sing in a very camp Germanic way.”
Four Men In A Poker Game began life as a work-in-progress with Grid Iron, who developed it with Svendson after she’d worked as assistant director to Harrison on The Devil’s Larder. Svendson sent the text to Jones, who began thinking about developing “a jazzesque, smoky cocktail bar piano score” for the piece.
“It’s a great platform,” Jones enthuses with suitably dark intensity. “I love to sing, and to create that dark atmosphere, and if you get a good song, there’s a real power in communicating a sub-narrative for a show.”
Jones, or DPJ as he’s known to the ensemble who recorded his Something There album for Linn Records, just can’t help stepping into the spotlight in this way. It began with Those Eyes, That Mouth, Grid Iron’s Herald Angel-winning one-woman show about madness performed in an Edinburgh town house. Jones suggested that George Gershwin’s They Can’t Take That Away From Me somehow belonged in it, and an entire scene ended up being built around his performance of the song, old-time crooner’s outfit and all.
“I’m a performer at heart,” Jones says, “but one who also composes. The performer has always been there, but Grid Iron have really encouraged me to let that out. But I’m full of contradictions, because I’m about to write a commission for the National Youth Choir of Scotland, and that’s the first solely musical project I’ve done for years. I know when I start writing, I’ll be missing the theatre, but then, I might be doing a theatre project and start wishing it was just about the music. In the end, though, I think I’ll always come back to theatre. But what happens every time I’m performing in a show, people come up to you afterwards and ask who wrote the music. It’s really annoying.”
Jones has moved a long way from Irvine, where, aged “nine or ten,” he learnt piano by ear at his grand-mother’s knee. His mother loved singing and his father was a guitarist. They’d played the Glasgow clubs in the early 1960s, and both did turns at family booze-ups doing Jim Reeves and Neil Diamond numbers. It was Jones’ earliest experience of live music, although, as a loner, he was initially drawn to the ethereal mood music of The Cocteau Twins.
Jones knew he wanted to do something with music, and, on the back of a Grade Five piano certificate, was accepted at RSAMD to train as a teacher. Within a year, this shy teenager with no experience of playing with musicians had switched courses, and was being groomed as a concert pianist, majoring in Debussy and Ravel.
“That’s where I started to perform,” he says. “and Debussy and Ravel are I suppose the grand-fathers of the sort of ambient music I got into later. But I’d never heard classical music. I remember my mum and dad coming to one of my first recitals and being absolutely stunned, because they didn’t know any of that was there.”
Jones worked for a while as a church organist. “The priest always hated it when I chose the hymns,” he says, “because I always went for the real dirges.”
After graduating, he became composer in residence in the school’s drama department, and, with contemporaries such as opera singer Lisa Milne, helped turn what were relatively straight theatre pieces into leftfield musical theatre. Gill Robertson, who directed Something Wicked This Way Comes, was an early collaborator. Introduced to this brand new world, Jones worked with Theatre Cryptic for five years, on shows such as Child-Lover, Parallel Lines, and on the Samuel Beckett inspired Something There, which he regards it a major turning point.
All of which goes some way to explaining the mix of influences in DPJ’s work. Beyond contemporary classical romanticism, it’s easy to detect the tongue-tied opacity of The Cocteau Twins wrapped up with vaudevillian showmanship. The end result is an unashamedly emotional experience, best heard in Palmstar Poppy, which Jones performed on solo piano at both The Traverse and The Tron theatres. A huge poster of the show graces his living room wall facing the piano.
“Palmstar Poppy I always see as a multi-media piece,” he thinks out loud. “It’s a play without words. There’s a stage narrative there that I think would work with choreography and lights, and I’m always thinking about orchestral arrangements.”
Theatre-wise, Jones will be back with Grid Iron for a piece based on Charles Bukowski stories that looks set to be even more intimate than Four Men and A Poker Game. DPJ will be onstage, though the show itself will be performed in a bar.
“It’s strange,” he says, “because I feel like my music would stand up in a working man’s club, or somewhere where you might not think music like mine might be accepted. I’ve tested it out in bars, and I don’t know what it is, but it seems to draw people in.”
This comes back again to the emotional aspect of DPJ’s music, which wears its heart on its sleeve in a manner that’s just the right side of sentimental.
“I can’t deny it,” he says. “Palmstar Poppy’s about love and loss, and a lot of my personal life has fed into that. I love to either create or be part of an atmosphere, especially when I‘m performing it. With all that, I can’t help being emotive.”
Especially, one suspects, if he gets to keep his trousers on.
Four Men and A Poker Game, Northern Stage, Newcastle, Thu 13-Sat 15 November, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Wed 19-Sat 22 November
The Herald, November 11th 2008