Duke Special - Berlin, books, and Steve Albini

THE GERMANS have a word for it - Gesamtkunstwerk - the ‘total work of art’ or ‘synthesis of the arts’, where a variety of different art forms go into creating one major piece of work.

For Co Antrim singer-songwriter Duke Special (aka Peter Wilson ) the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk has been a revelation, a discovery and a signpost for his music’s future direction.

The story begins with a theatre show and a novel, led to an album with Steve Albini, and has inspired his new multi-media stage show The Silent World Of Hector Mann, featuring music, spoken word, and film, which he will perform in Galway at the end of this month.

The German influence

The Duke’s journey from singer-songwriter to the ambitious new path he is on to fuse theatre and visual arts with his music began last year when he was invited by the National Theatre in London to write music for a production of Bertolt Brecht’s classic play Mother Courage and Her Children.

“The director Deborah Warner created a role for me in the play as a guide to the characters,” Duke tells me during our Thursday morning interview. “I don’t see myself as an actor, but I’m always trying to use theatrical elements in my shows as theatre is a melting pot for all art forms, where the visual and the musical can take place simultaneously. That encouraged me to push the boundaries of what was possible within a concert and to collaborate with other artists. There were new possibilities.”

Bertolt Brecht was part of the extraordinary burst of artistic creativity and innovation unleashed in Germany during the Weimar Republic (1919-1933 ) era. Despite the aftershocks of defeat in WWI and the loss of empire, Germany managed to produced the Bauhaus art school, innovative film-makers such as Fritz Lang, challenging theatre, and the cabaret scene. Berlin even rivalled Paris as the art capital of the world. It is a period Duke Special finds particularly inspiring.

“The Weimar period and the art scene in Berlin at that time was incredible,” he says. “There were endless possibilities and art movements. There were collaborations between philosophy, classical music, and art that were very exciting. The collaboration between the arts, such as Brecht collaborating with Kurt Weill on theatre shows and songs, really appealed to me. Yet in that period there were the thunderclouds coming [the rise of the Nazis] that were not foreseen.”

The fruits of these inspirations eventually came together as Duke’s most recent album, the triple set The Stage, A Book, and The Silver Screen, which contains the collaborative album The Silent World of Hector Mann; the music he wrote for Mother Courage; and an EP of songs based on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. So how did the main album in this set, The Silent World of Hector Mann, come about?

Duke was interested in collaborating with other artists and using inspiration from other art forms to explore new means of presenting his music. He found the ideal inspiration in Paul Auster’s novel The Book of Illusions.

The Silent World of Hector Mann features 12 songs inspired by different chapters in The Book of Illusions. Each chapter is named after the silent films made by the actor Hector Mann in the 1920s, before his sudden and mysterious disappearance.

“When I read Paul Auster, there are so many levels and different surfaces, imagery and metaphors,” Duke says. “It’s quite bleak and dark and the fact Hector Mann only made 12 films before disappearing, and that each of those films hinted at what would happen in his later life is enticing. Is Hector Mann real of fictional? I would encourage people to read The Book of Illusions and come to their own conclusions.”

After reading the book, Duke wrote the song ‘Mr Nobody’ and so energised was he by Auster’s work, that he sent a copy to songwriters like Neil Hannon, Ed Harcourt, Matt Hales (Aqualung ), and Clare Muldaur Machon (Clare and The Reasons ), and asked them to write a song based on a chapter in the book.

“‘Mr Nobody’ was written in a style that was 1911/1912 and I asked the others to write a song in a pre-rock’n’roll style,” he says. “We had booked three days recording time in Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studios in Chicago so the pressure was on to come up with something. It could have been horrible, but the songs really hold together well and the album works well.”

Working with Steve Albini

There was further good fortune when Duke and his band found the great Steve Albini (Pixies, Breeders, PJ Harvey, Nirvana, and Jarvis Cocker ) would be available to produce the album.

“It was an opportunity not to be missed,” says Duke. “He listened to some of my previous recordings and agreed to produce us. He is more of a record engineer than a producer. He will record what you give him and he records it really well.

“If you ask his advice on a song he will say he doesn’t have an opinion. It can be frustrating but it forces you to dig deep and look hard at what you are doing and say ‘I can do a better take’. You take more ownership of the project, rather than leave it with the producer. You trust your own judgment.

“He always works in a boiler suit. When he came to work in the morning he would be dressed ordinarily and then he would go off to another room, come back in a boiler suit and that was him ready to start work. No sooner had we finished recording than he was straight into working with a Norwegian punk band. He is a really hard worker.”

All these experiences have led the Ulsterman to create his most ambitious stage show to date - The Silent World of Hector Mann. In the show, Duke and his band will perform songs from the album and Mother Courage, interspersed with film footage about Hector Mann and his films, as well as interviews with individuals, like Neil Hannon, about how Mann’s work inspired theirs.

“For audiences it will be different from previous shows,” he says. “It will be like a carnival, a play, and a concert and it will be very entertaining.”

Duke Special will perform The Silent World of Hector Mann and Songs from Mother Courage at The Black Box Theatre on Saturday May 29 at 8pm. This is a ‘Róisín Dubh presents...’ show. Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh, the Town Hall, and Zhivago.

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