A chance to talk with the man who penned the line “columnated ruins domino” in the Beach Boys’ epic song “Surf’s Up”? Yes, please. His recent collaboration, Van Dyke Parks orchestrates Verónica Valerio: Only in America – Solo en América, is a sonic treat, featuring Verónica’s vocals and harp and Van Dyke’s unique arrangements, and is well worth checking out. A conversation with Van Dyke is a rollicking affair of big words, grand statements, history lessons, piano tinkling, and unabashed humanitarian positivity.
We’ve seen so many changes in music technology over the last 50 years. How does this impact you?
I’m into a lot of geek stuff. It makes me feel good to read the ads in Scientific American and see what’s happening to us as we plunge into space. We’re all in this together. Being a musician, or in any way involved in the arts, to me is a crucible. It’s a very difficult task. When this battle is over of the pandemonium and so forth, we’ll all wear a crown; but I think I’d give a special salute to anybody in music.
We always have to pivot a little to see where the work is, as well as constantly learning different ways of working.
When the Governor declared a state of quarantine I had to escape my cabin fever, and get out of the box. I did it with a novel experience for me, that long-distance love personified in what we did. Connecting the string players. Making sure that I had the right vector to a studio I couldn’t go to. I was forbidden to do that in quarantine. Everything was either FaceTime or displaced time. It was all remote, truly. And monastic as it could possibly be. And yet, in spite of that, this pandemic produced a great deal of musical invention for the survival skills that were necessary to do an album; a short one, like we have done with Only in America.
I assumed working remotely on Verónica’s record was a challenge. That’s an amazing, beautiful release. Certainly, she’s got the voice and the talent.
Well, I think so. You notice there’s a certain amount of rustication in her voice and the music of the Mestiza/Mestizo culture that comes down. It has a hierarchy. Pre-Colombian culture. Rhythms. Images. And, of course, the amazing geometry of their aquifers; the rivers that run beneath them that the Mayans knew so well how to profit from and keep clean. They didn’t have the toilet training problems that industry has today; for example of oil and other grime that we’ve managed to tar the earth with. This was a civilization worth exploring, the one that made pyramids thousands of years before the Egyptians. Here I was. I got an invitation to do a project with basically a solo harpist. Sometimes she would have maybe a fiddler come in for a solo, or not. Or maybe she would have a percussionist, which, by the way, all percussion was done in Mexico. I wasn’t about to tell anybody how to beat a bongo south of the border! So, there is a very controlled, disciplined… you might even say circumspect for me. Why use a small word when a diminutive one will suffice? To be circumspect about the amount of Yankee doggerel that is the way I would orchestrate around this woman. Here’s the bit. Who asked me to do an album? She asked me. Long distance. I have never met her.
Many of us work remotely these days.
Here I am. Music is my passion. I have hyperboles that I still stand by. A day without Bach is a barren day for me. I really look for the lingo of music. That is my understanding. That’s all church means to me. It’s not the bubblegum that some chorister put under the pew. No, it’s the music you’re listening to. This is what got me in touch with the immovable dough, the nature of who we are, beyond. The unanswered question. This was the solution for me. Music. And I keep at it every day. I’m just admitting. I’m 78, and I feel very fortunate to have somehow gotten past the mix, the investment of people. I want to speak to a universal theme here, without immodesty or fear of condemnation. I am one of a sea of very able musicians who are investing their own money to make music that hopefully will be to some common good.
That’s what it’s all about. These people aren’t in munitions. I’m in their numbers, and we’re all struggling. What I did was I decided one way to help this girl is to give her...