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 seven string players. Put seven string players around this solo harp and pick up what she’s putting down. Surround her with this most modest orchestral accompaniment to give her a pedestal. Something to work on. We’re not talking Madonna here. What we’re talking about is something as transitory and as temporary as a butterfly corridor from Michoacán of the Monarch. This is fragile stuff. Soon it will be gone with what is allowed in the first world. The world we inhabit, that first world, has a pop culture which has, pardon me, come up short. I realize that. I’ve been part of it. I’m complicit. I’ve been with the fat and sassy. Yeah, what Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the late great author, might have commented on when he wrote, “Pity the nation that knows no other language but its own.” This is the way I feel myself. I agree with that man who wrote that poem when he was 98. What a treasure that San Francisco beat poet was.
Certainly. We are lucky to have his words.
His poetry so corrected me in my youthful folly. He’s a lovely man. I miss him, and I agree with him that it would be boring just to be stuck in our hall of mirrors. Finally, I’m there. It’s not 1964. It’s not 1963 when my brother [Benjamin] died; the man, my brother, who served the United States so beautifully in the Cold War. When Kennedy passed, and the Beach Boys arrived with their first album, and the [Rolling] Stones with 12 X 5; all of this revolutionary stuff. This was like a benchmark. The year of 1963 was a benchmark. I think we are coming into that reawakening, that reinvention – hopefully – that will get beyond this hall of mirrors and this pop sensibility which is so immersed in self-adoration. And, to me, it feels unapologetic in a way, and just plain loud, and it’s lost its teeth. This record that I just did; on a first blush, it might look like I wasn’t doing anything. “Boy, what are these songs? I want to hear about it. I want him to make James Taylor weep. I want real first world problems.” Well, you’re not getting it on this record. You’re not getting any first world problems. What you’re getting is something of supreme unimportance. A parallel universe. A different feeling. One song, for example, talks about what she looks at outside her window. It’s a simple idea for a song. That’s as good a discipline in songwriting as I’ve ever heard. She approaches it and starts it with a little poetry here. She says that she’s looking out her window and can see a mountain, and down the mountain runs a beautiful river that’s coursing like a snake, and it’s filled with blood, the blood of her ancestors; her father and brothers. Down here, past the window walk, these people are walking north with their contraband. They have no shoes on. Their shoes are useless, because they’ve come so far. They’re going north. Then she breaks into her chorus. That’s all in 7/4. I look at this thing, the girl gives me a harp loop. The Italians call them ostinatos. Obstinate. This one is in 3/4, 4/4. So, it’s a 7/4 reality. This is not something that little honky hopefuls are going to immediately want to tap their feet to. They might want to listen to the scansion of the poetry. The geometry of the songwriting and how it’s constructed. It’s very wonderful. Then she breaks into that four on the floor. It’s a beautiful sky. And everything is so ironic in this unimportance, and so pronounced; yet it suggests large social events beyond the intimacies of her poetry. I was quite taken in. On that, you can hear the electric guitar does four notes. I’ve got four notes there. In anthropology they have a way of measuring how long we’ve been there and what effect it’s had on the environment. I think very much about how I have presented something for the global village to satisfy my appetite to get a confection in our struggle for multiculturalism. Here’s a clue. When you go to the ATM at your Bank of America, you go to put your card in there, and it asks you one question, “Do you want it in English or Spanish?” So, let’s get the clue! There’s nothing wrong with embracing the concept of multiculturalism. That’s what I’m saying here. This is just wonderful. Let’s do it. Let’s learn what’s on the menu. I’m doing more work with Verónica today. More construction. I’m providing the carriage for her. All the lyrics are hers, and I’m doing all the music. This is different. Yeah, I think this is a very good leavening. I enjoy it. I know that as I slug my way forwards on records, and I haven’t done a record in some time. It takes a lot of work and stamina to do a record, and I plan to do another one; probably solo on a piano, to be me. This is not about me. I’ll tell you how it served me.
Yes, please! I would love to hear more.
You look at your work in a disciplined, organized way. You’ve got people dependent upon your rationale. Well, I have one too. There’s always a backstory. In every album I’ve done, there are people who hunger, or maybe died. Each one of them is an epic tale, an Odyssean voyage for me. I started my first one in 1967. I had no idea how to do a record. I still don’t! I’m not a Presbyterian. I can’t tell you what it’s going to be, boss. All I know is that I have to work. In this album, and I would say the only exemplar, besides this one, that does so much to embrace another culture and try to look at America outside of the box was Discover America [his second album, 1972 -ed.]. I get here, to this album, and not really as a documentarian, but a participant observer. What it is is my laughing place. This is where I want to be, because of my modest skills as a musician, which I worked very hard to do what I do. I work very hard, and I love it. This is more redeeming to me than Will Shortz and his New York Times crosswords. This is the ultimate enigma. This is beautiful, this stuff called music construction and arranging. I’ve noticed it all my life, from [plays melody on keyboard] as a young child. I heard the music. I heard the Spanish upstart in Domenico Scarlatti of Vienna. I heard the kid who couldn’t stand being in the shadow of his father, who left Italy and went to Spain. I heard that. [piano playing] You know. I heard [piano playing]. I mean, I heard all this. Parlor piano music from Spain. I played [Enrique] Granados. I’ve got all this shit, all of it beyond the alpine winds. This is Southern stuff. These are zephyrs. This is warm wind. This is what I wanted. Look at the composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Of course, there is no one who precedes him, in terms of signature; his vernacular that is, of American music of New Orleans. He made this thing happen for Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint. I arranged a few instruments around a Gottschalk piece for Allen. I introduced him to Gottschalk, someone whose legacy he enjoyed, whom he had not heard of. That was great. Folk music, that is; music from the street to the elite. Music that mattered. Music that had some social or societal significance or was representative and emblematic of an era. Gottschalk did that. There’re so many other people. Thomas Tallis did it, or Ralph Vaughan Williams did it when he went into those medieval modes to do his incredible variations. Percy Grainger, the Australian composer who picked up that piece and made it for piano and a piano roll call, a theme from “Londonderry Air” (or “Air from County Derry”). And you know something? He called it “Danny Boy,” and he sold millions. Folk music has always been written in literature. It has been a phenomenon to me. The idea is, of course, because it’s so transitory; we can’t just rely on Alan Lomax to get this down. We need more. The stuff that’s permanent press has been brought into literature. The French Nation Anthem, “La Marseillaise.” The Israeli National Anthem, “Hatikvah.” I mean, we have “We Shall Overcome,” and “This Land Is Your Land.” This is the way we preserve these things. Another way to archive these things is with the convenience of literature. Here I am. I’m 78, and I’ve been wobbling between these loyalties. One of them to extemporaneous processes. The other to the premeditated rationale to support what is in the heart of the artist or the singer. That’s my racket. I seek transparency, where I love being, admitting that I’m just in a reflected glory. I love being the narrative force. I’d be the Greek chorus if I could shine the light on people, because this has been my good fortune, to be around people whose abilities far excelled my own. I had some great obligation to give my best.
So much of your career has been collaboration. Through collaboration, you can show support for things
that you’d like to see happen in the world, and, like you say, shine a light on them.
I think so. I think it’s good. The point is this: it should be entertaining to the ear. It’s the Phil Ochs maxim, “In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty.” I believe that. That it is mawkish to say, “Have a nice day,” and be gone. No, I don’t do that. I went into a hotel lobby with a guy by the name of Graham Chapman. He was in Monty Python. Some elevator operator opened the door, and as we were going in, he said, “Have a nice day,” and Graham said, “I have other plans.” I always like to start my day with a smile and get it over with!
That’s too funny.
The thing that interests me about your habitation is that it’s so interesting to me how I dreamt. I miss rewind. I miss that. Wally Heider showed us the [Eltro] Information Rate Changer? I remember that. I see how we’ve struggled into pitch correction. I’ve wrestled with it. If they’ve done it with Pavarotti, I can say I’ve had to do it with Brian [Wilson]. It’s what the casual observer demands now that you do, spot-on. I’m very fastidious in my work. I’ll tell you something. I think I talked about this Verónica project to a good benefit. This is my best work. This record represents a triumph of the human spirit to me. It is outside the box, and anyone who wants to get outside the box and just relax with this dream escape that has nothing to do with the rapidity of the progress of profit. This is time off for good behavior. I hope I meet the artist someday.
What I hope will happen is either I will get a chance to go to Barcelona, for some fine Mediterranean finger food after a concert, when I get to do maybe a piano solo for one of the numbers. I’ll have to go with my wife on that trip and stay married for another 40 years. But you know, the time is tight. I urge anybody who can to support this record to remember this: If you don’t spin vinyl, I don’t understand you, because there’s nothing more superior. The only estoppel being that stylus, of the fantastic reiteration of what just happened live. I just think that it would be stupid to throw this out. It’d be like throwing away the brains just to eat the blubber. The real info is in vinyl. But if you don’t have a vinyl player, and you want to justify buying our record – me and Verónica Valerio called Only in America – what you do is unwrap it and you’ve got a great frisbee. [laughter] This thing can sail. I’m serious, man!
I’ve listened to your arrangements for years. I love how your arrangements can be very light and not dense. You don’t end up with huge, blundering chords filling up space. There’s an incredible sense of playfulness with ostinato, pizzicato, and little parts that keep space in the music but keep it moving. They play with what’s happening at the core of the song.
I’ve been accused of everything. One of my favorite books I keep in my small library, we live in a small house, is called Musical Invective [Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time, by Nicolas Slonimsky]. It’s a history of critics who have judged music; great artists like Bach, Beethoven, Robert Schumann, all the way down. Everybody. Brahms. They all got lambasted. I was called the “Edsel of pop music,” somewhere in 1966. Of course, you can always remember the insults. But the thing is, I’m just so happy that I could do this work. I’ve seen so much change in the technology. Check it. The whole thing to me is colossal. It’s like being at [the Colossus of] Rhodes and connecting things. You’re connecting the premeditated with the extemporaneous. You can’t lose your spirit! You have to keep running around that urn to catch that lover. You know? But the thing is, you need to face facts. What you’re dealing with here is basically in a binaural world, with a phantom there. Recently… can I take it off on a vector here?
I explored quad. Let me tell you how. I did Discover America in quad. It never came out that way, but I thought that people would one day be listening to music in their cars, and, if so, then quadraphonic was just the place to do it. But it didn’t happen. I was wrong. That’s okay. It’s in the vault, unless they’ve thrown it away. Somebody asked me to do some music. This is maybe a lesson for musicians. You need income streams. There is the arena for The Eagles. There’s the arena for a lot of British groups who do the blues. There’s that. Then, away from the groups that look like red ants on watermelons, let’s get up close and personal. There’s the club flogging the merch after the show. I found one that interested me when a Professor of Arts from the University of Pennsylvania emailed me out of the blue with no introduction. He said, “I’m doing an installation at the Chicago Art Institute.” Well, I happened to know that if you’re not playing L.A. or New York, Chicago is deep pocket; a big art scene. I got an offer to do music for an art installation. People are going to be there. All right. They’re going to be in a room, or rooms. Okay. So, it’s not binaural? No. It’s quadrophonic? Okay, basically quadrophonic. There are just four different mixes. This is great, okay? So, dig it; I can put my woodwinds where I want. They can go here, and a little bit of strings here, and I can keep the bass in the center to keep things centered and not be loud. Allow a man to come in and look at a picture. If they want to talk intimately, allow people conversation. Couple a conversation pit with music that matters. That is coherent. That’s glued to the art. And I did it. I pulled it off, and it was wonderful. It was a most profitable experience. And it suggested another museum here, The Hammer Museum. It’s a big museum in town. What I’m suggesting is this: go and find your galleries. Find four people who want to jam in an art gallery. I did it at conversation level. That’s why I like the loop. I did a six-minute loop, with an occasional symphonic. It was lush and full, and, “Whoa!” To announce the thunder of that lightning that just snaked through the chamber, and the thunder that rolled around. I’ve got it all. I can punctuate things. I can stay relevant and remind them that this is a musical composition. It’s a serious composition. And sometimes it’s an insistent reality.
With the quad or the surround-type scenario you can provide a different experience, depending on where you are in the room.
I’m not bragging here. I’m not boasting. I’m saying, “Wasn’t I lucky to get an offer to do a quadrophonic project in an entirely different income stream called the art world?” Any young musician who wonders how to apply their talents, their great gift, to some opportunity, I say, “Make that opportunity!” Go meet somebody else. Get interested in somebody else’s work. Start finding out what horizontal relationships mean, darn it!
Well, your whole career has been certain pivots, and looking at very different collaborations, whether it’s writing lyrics with Brian Wilson, or putting out solo records, or writing music for film, or early music films that you did with Warner Bros. A bunch of very different things all relating back to music, of course.
Yeah. We’re all trying to serve. I hate to be redundant, but I am, which is the danger of being 78 and having a limited memory. I don’t forget that President Truman dropped the atomic bomb. It was his decision. That created a new geological era called Anthropocene. But man, this country. We have multiplied and subdued the earth. That’s how they demark this new geological era; the 1945 dropping of the bomb. I don’t forget that. But there was something which is, of course, I think a step of human hubris and a very sad thing that had to happen. But Truman said something that has stuck to me like needlepoint from some great aunt who left in the parlor somewhere, and here it is: “It’s astonishing what can be accomplished if you do not care who gets the credit.” So here I am. Really. And you’ve got to know how to eat crow. I think it takes humility to be a shaker, and it takes humility to be a mover, and it takes humility to be a musician and really enjoy the distraction of collaboration.
Isn’t it terrible? [plays piano]
Well, it is a skill to build up to learn how to see what could be brought out in others with production, with arrangement, with recording, and all these things that we do.
Well, it’s amazing to me. In 1966, I got that little Moog synthesizer, the phone jack patchbay, I got that thing to say the words “Ice Capades.” I got myself ten thousand dollars in a national commercial. I proved that I was commercial when I could do that. That sound interested me. Then we get to something like Orange Crate Art with Brian Wilson in ‘95. They just came out with a reissue of it, which I recommend to you if you want to see somebody’s slip show, if you want to catch me at my most vulnerable. One of the discs is without Brian. I didn’t have the gauze of a vocal.
I haven’t heard that yet!
Now we’re down to the primitive, whatever it is. Why was I using a [Fender] Rhodes on that? It has a certain era or mark of time, but it has valor. I was scared to death, because they said, “Yeah, you can do it,” and I allowed them, because I wanted to see it released. So, they released it. What it did was show how I’ve always struggled to get that 60/40 of the string section. Maybe I would bump up the live strings to articulate and enunciate, and, behind that bowing, maybe put a ghost that is MIDI-directed strings. I’ve always felt that. But the thing is, it’s the proportionality of acoustic events, arranged or not, to the premeditated events that has been my nexus. This is where I work. This is my lab.
What do you consider your “lab”?
This is what I say. I’m 78. I went through McCarthyism. I went through the Cold War. I’ve seen so much. After this battle, we’ll all wear a crown, really. But we do need to support the arts. I do deserve your attention. You and I face the same hegemonic enemy. It is not that the government should have the arts wagging their tail. No, it is the arts that are to wag the governments’ tails. We are to tell the vox pop, all of us who support these aspects of the recorded arts. And, let’s face it, sir; that’s why we’re here. That’s really my desire. To somehow create something durable as denim that’s in the recorded arts. I hope that we can make that a conduit. Keep the conduits to high fidelity. I enjoy that expression. It’s not simply a matter of melancholy to me to want something that’s hi-fi. For seven years, I was the American advisor to a place called the House of the World’s Cultures in Berlin. It’s the largest arts organization in Germany. Haus der Kulturen der Welt.
I was on their advisory board. There were eight people.
I had nothing to say. I don’t know enough. The only thing I did was one time make a speech about a century of music and its monetization. But it is a very interesting organization. They have over 100,000 wax cylinders of cultures which are dead and songs which haven’t been heard in our time. Over 100,000 waiting to be digitized. They’ve probably got on to it now. They also have the Berliner Philharmoniker. Why do the Germans want a cultural institution to be so solid? Because they want to embrace multiculturalism. They’ve got to invent it. They can’t let Hitlerian precepts and xenophobia ever destroy German logic and cultural appeal. They’re looking to regain their position. I learned so much. Multiculturalism; I’m not just trying to use big words. Big words mean nothing, folks. We’ve seen it. What’s his name, that square who occupied the oval office, knew how to keep it simple so everybody could understand, what Frank Zappa called the “mass midget mind.” I think we’re doing a good job. I hope people will get centered around the arts and start to give discretionary time to the arts, which are central to all I understand.