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Richard Thompson's 'Cabaret of Souls' premieres -- will it ever be heard from again?

June 12, 2009 |  9:24 am


Officials at the International Society of Bassists wanted new music featuring the instrument to highlight its annual convention happenings this week in Philadelphia, and one of the composers they turned to for a commission was British folk-rock guitarist-singer-songwriter extraordinaire Richard Thompson.
Rather than dashing off a quick melody and variation, Thompson delivered an hour-plus song cycle of sorts titled “Cabaret of Souls,” the tale of a talent contest set in hell.

"Originally it was going to be eight to 10 minutes long," he said Friday morning from Ohio after a solo performance there, "but it just got bigger and bigger and I just couldn’t help it. I thought, I could abandon this and go back to the drawing board, or follow the muse and see where it takes me."

The premiere performance of "Cabaret of Souls" was given Wednesday night by double bassist Danny Thompson (no relation to Richard) with accompaniment from the composer and a few friends, among them musician and humorist Harry Shearer (who also happens to be a bassist), his singer-wife, Judith Owen, percussionist Debra Dobkin and multi-instrumentalist Pete Zorn. The piece was written as a showpiece for Danny Thompson and to help bring more attention to the International Society of Bassists' mission to promote an instrument that's often felt more than heard.

"It came off very well," Richard Thompson said. "I'm perhaps surprised at how fluently we played it on a limited amount of rehearsal."

Richard Thompson, whose compositional and orchestration skills resulted in the hauntingly evocative score for Werner Herzog’s 2005 film “Grizzly Man,” says he doesn’t consider “Cabaret of Souls” exactly a song cycle, an opera, a musical or musical play. His description of the piece: “If Chaucer was a bass player, and he wrote the prologue to ‘The Canterbury Tales,’ but then failed to write ‘The Canterbury Tales’ themselves, it might be something like this.”

No additional performances are scheduled -- although a savvy promoter such as, say, UCLA Live impresario David Sefton, might easily remedy that. In any case, the composer said he hopes Wednesday's premiere won't be his last visit to the "Cabaret of Souls." The performance was recorded, and he said, "I haven't listened to it yet, but hopefully it will be of a quality we will want to put out. I would hope we can get it up fairly quickly, as a download or as a CD."

And bassists of the world shouldn't read too much into the fact that this tribute to their instrument is set in the underworld. "Because I'm a songwriter," Thompson said,  "I think in terms of songs. I don't think in terms of writing for an instrument necessarily."

-- Randy Lewis

Photo credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times