Charles Spearin's Happiness Project

One of many highlights of Broken Social Scene’s performance at CMJ last fall was the presentation of “Mrs. Morris,” the first song from Charles Spearin’s The Happiness Project. Spearin, fascinated by the musical qualities of speech, interviewed his neighbors, friends and family members about happiness, then set those interviews to song. Though Spearin says he never expected The Happiness Project to go beyond his living room, he released an album of material on February 14th, put together a band and took the record on the road, stopping at New York City’s swanky Le Poisson Rouge on Sunday night.

Spearin and his eight-piece band began with “Mrs. Morris,” the most straight-forward format of speech to song. As he did at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple in October, he played just the recording of her voice, then played it with a saxophone accompaniment.

Charles Spearin: “Mrs. Morris” (download)

With the rest of the pieces, the band experimented. In some cases, one sentence would be repeated in a sort of minimalist style, as with “Vanessa,” an interview with a woman who was born deaf, then at the age of 30 got a cochlear implant. Describing what it was like to hear, Vanessa said, “All of a sudden I found my body moving inside,” and the band repeated the notes of this phrase, then turned it into a sort of chant, singing the words over and over and clapping. For “Marisa” and “Mr. Gowrie,” just a few short snippets were played, then the band drew from those tones to create instrumental jams, not unlike those of Spearin’s main projects, Broken Social Scene and Do Make Say Think.

Charles Spearin: “Marisa” (download)

Taking a page from the Broken Social Scene concert format of everyone shares the spotlight, two of The Happiness Project band members got a chance to play their own projects. Ohad Benchetrit played “Don’t Let The Blind Go Deaf,” from his solo project Years, which will be released on Arts & Crafts (also the label of Broken Social Scene and The Happiness Project) in May, and Michael Barth, who plays the flugelhorn and trumpet, performed a piece by Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi. Each band member was noticeably talented, though, as they were all multi-instrumentalists.

The performance was part of the always stellar Wordless Music Series, so two classical groups opened the show. First was the Verge Ensemble, who played Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Tierkreis, a piece consisting of 12 melodies based around the zodiac sign. This autonomous work leaves a lot of room for experimentation – it can be played on any instrument, with most recordings lasting anywhere from 12 to 96 minutes. The Verge Ensemble used two laptops, cello, violin, flute, piano and clarinets. The woodwinds and strings often seemed to be facing off, while the piano was often trilling in and out. The laptops were oddly unnoticeable, or perhaps just hard to hear – the speakers at the venue were frequently hissing and popping during their set. (Yet another frustration with Le Poisson Rouge.)

The second opener was duo Todd Reynolds & Evan Ziporyn, who first played an unknown piece, then Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale, about a soldier who sells his fiddle to the devil to learn about the economy. The piece was not only fitting to current times, but as an accompaniment to Spearin’s Happiness Project, with sections meant to imitate the characters in the story. But, all powerful and alluring as the devil may be, it was the wistful meditations of Spearin’s Happiness Project that prevailed that evening.

For more T-Sides pictures, click here. For the setlist and to see a T-Sides video of “Mr. Gowrie” from this concert, click the jump.

Mrs. Morris
Ohad Benchetrit, “Don’t Let The Blind Go Deaf”
Michael Barth, selection from Giacinto Scelsi
Mr. Gowrie
Mrs. Morris (Reprise)

The Happiness Project Official Site
The Happiness Project on MySpace

Charles Spearin’s Happiness Project, “Mr. Gowrie” live @ Le Poisson Rouge