A holiday record by the Portland-based dance orchestra Pink Martini would have to be an all-inclusive, multi-cultural effort, beholden to no one holiday. After all, the group, which takes cues from dance orchestras of the '30s and '40s (and especially those "little orchestras" that only existed in the world of MGM musicals of the era), has had a global perspective from the beginning, and has sold over 2 million copies (independently!) of albums recorded in a variety of languages, including Neopolitan, Japanese, Spanish and French (notably the 1997 single, "Sympathique," which became a hit in France behind a catchy, slacker chorus).
The group's new album, Joy to the World, a 14-track collection commissioned by Starbucks and released Nov. 16, opens with two versions of "White Christmas," one sung in English by the group's "diva next door" China Forbes, the other in Japanese by the "Barbra Streisand of Japan" Saori Yuki, before dipping into different traditions with a Hebrew prayer, a number sung in Hebrew-Spanish hybrid Ladino, a Chinese New Year song and a version of "Silent Night" featuring verses in German, English and Arabic.
Classically-trained pianist Thomas Lauderdale launched Pink Martini in 1994 as a solution to a problem, namely the lack of good music at the political fundraisers and functions he was attending as aspirant to public office. Lauderdale, who was raised on a plant nursery near North Manchester, Ind., and whose group plays Indianapolis for the first time Nov. 22, spoke recently with NUVO about the new album, the importance of the orchestra and why he prefers the life of a musician to that of a politician.
NUVO: How did you pick the track list for Joy to the World?
Lauderdale: Well, I love holiday music, so part of it is historic, in the sense that what's known in this country as "Carol of the Bells" was originally a Ukrainian carol about a lark flying into a house on New Year's Day, and thus bringing in good fortune. We went back to the original Ukrainian with that one. Loving holiday music and being a historian and thinking about it from a global perspective, it was an opportunity to be both historic and global.
NUVO: One might make a charge of "exoticism" against a group that tries to perform so many styles of music. I wonder if you completely avoid that charge by working with performers who grew up with any one particular style of music.
Lauderdale: That's true. Portland, Oregon is a pretty white community, and although people in the band itself are from different ethnic backgrounds, it's always risky, I think, to be that band from Portland, Oregon playing songs in Arabic. And actually this was the subject of my thesis in college, because I majored in post-colonial British literature. My thesis was on the works of Hanif Kureishi, the Pakistani author who was raised in London, and wrote "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid." I've certainly been aware of the fine line. I think the way out is to collaborate, like you say, with the people who come from whatever country...we're either writing songs in Italian with Alba Clemente, who's from Italy, or working with a language expert, a professor of Arabic from Portland State University who guided everyone through the pronunciation of the Arabic. Hopefully it's respectful all along the way, and not...I'm thinking about those '50s albums where suddenly you have Bing Crosby wearing a sombrero. I wouldn't say that Bing Crosby was necessarily disrespectful, but it's risky.
NUVO: I'm wondering how the ISO will complement your typical stage show.
Lauderdale: Well, I'm excited because it's the first time we've played in my home state of Indiana. And actually my piano teacher from North Manchester is coming down, and the professor of North Manchester College is coming down with a whole entourage of people. For the orchestra...Playing with orchestras is one of the ways that we've been able to travel with a band this size in the United States. And I think the music itself is really compatible with an orchestra. It's kind of orchestral to begin with, romantic and lush in the way that Hollywood in the '40s was, and it's sort of a modern, more inclusive and global take on that sort of idea of a dance orchestra from a 1940s MGM musical.
NUVO: And how does that dance orchestra feel translate to a "real," symphony orchestra setting?
Lauderdale: It's an amazing way to introduce the concept of an orchestra to a public that I think is increasingly becoming harder and harder to attract to a symphony orchestra. It's pop, but it's also multi-generational; it's classical, but the songs themselves are three to five to seven minutes long. It's not the same kind of commitment as going to see a Beethoven symphony or a Mozart piano concerto. And at the same time, it's hopefully still the kind of music that a die-hard classical fan might also be able to appreciate. Most pops shows with orchestras and groups are kind of terrible, and the orchestra is generally bored because the orchestrations are full of whole notes and there's very little for them to do. This is a much more active show in terms of orchestration, and the interaction between the orchestra and the band. So it's hopefully more connected and more interesting than "Symphonic Beatles" or whatever.
NUVO: I find this quote from the Washington Times that claims you bridge the divide between high-brow and low-brow. Do you think you do?
Lauderdale: I haven't been in Indiana really since 1982, but I know that in Oregon, for example, the music departments in public high schools have totally fallen apart. It's much more challenging to keep orchestras relevant in the 21st century, and I think that that's the big question. It seems like for orchestras to stay relevant and stay alive, orchestras have to do the double duty of not just performing great concerts but also educating along the way. And that's really the challenge for American orchestras in the 21st century.
NUVO: And how does that constitute a public service, or what's important about maintaining the orchestra?
Lauderdale: I think that music, like literature and art, helps develop the mind, and is yet another way to communicate. In terms of what it means to be a person, it's another way to develop our own humanity. Without it, we're seriously losing our own humanity. With the arts and music sort of going away from public education, taking a look at what it means to be a young person in today's culture, it's a bit bleak...We've been traveling on buses, and both of these buses have cable with endless channels. And I realize that, flipping through these 600 options, there's nothing that I want to see. But what is on is violence, reality shows. It seems like the culture is becoming dumber, more violent and less empathetic, and I see that articulated in all kinds of ways around the country. And I think that one of the ways out is to reaffirm the experience of going out into the world and meeting with people who are different — and enlarging the scope of one's experience in the world, so that one becomes more open and present and knows how to deal with situations that are different.
NUVO: And it's interesting that your band looks back to classical Hollywood films, which were more carefully structured, more gentle.
Lauderdale: And also more respectful. And more graceful, more full of beauty, and I think that that's something that's largely been lost in modern culture. But I'm still hopeful.
NUVO: And speaking of curiosity about the outside world, it seems like your group can encourage that kind of curiosity in other cultures, other music.
Lauderdale: It was especially important during the George Bush years. Whenever we played abroad, it was about representing a more inclusive America that was sort of different from anything else coming out of the culture, and out of the White House, for that matter.
NUVO: Do you still feel as much of a need to spread that gospel of inclusiveness?
Lauderdale: I think that that message will never grow tired. I think that, with the election of Obama, that helped a lot in terms of the rest of the world's perceptions of America. But, then again, there was this most recent election, and that's certainly a backlash against the recent more inclusive message of the President. It'll be interesting to see where it all lands in the coming decades.
NUVO: Are you still actively involved in Portland politics?
Lauderdale: In Portland politics, yes. In national politics, not so much. And Portland is slightly in trouble, I think. The town itself feels a little sad...I think Portland is set up to be a community which shows the rest of the country how it's possible to live, and I think that there are a lot of missed opportunities right now. Maybe if the band ends for some reason, I'll run for office.
NUVO: So you've put that off while being a full-time musician.
Lauderdale: Yeah, and quite frankly, I can make a better living, and it's much more fabulous, at least from the outside, to have a band and travel the world than work under fluorescent lighting facing angry constituents.
Lauderdale makes holiday decorating easy and fun in a video promoting the release of Joy to the World:
And Lauderdale guides the neophyte through two venerable Portland strip clubs in this video produced by Portland Monthly: