Matt Ray and Taylor Mac onstage at St. Ann's Warehouse. Taylor Mac's Holiday Sauce at Curran

Songs for the Fallen

A 24-Decade History of Popular Music aims to tear open the seams that bind American history, the better to let everyone in and everything out. But what does it mean to do that not just with words and actions, but with the very rhythms and harmonies and textures of music? This is the question that faced Matt Ray, the musical director and arranger of the 240+ songs at the core of the performance. The material is at once slippery and almost too rich. Popular music will admit no stable definition and no fixed hierarchy. It can be a sleazy cluster of processed beats over which a seductive vocalist plies their trade, an anthem to chant in the streets when people rise up against injustice, a marching band at a halftime show, or, in bygone days, a light European operetta in the middle of a program of comedians and dancers. It’s chameleonic, yet stubbornly resilient, too—a vaudeville hit from a century ago might survive as a campfire singalong or the template for a YouTube political parody. Of 24-Decade’s selection, says Ray, “We’re reminding you of things that are forgotten, dismissed, or buried. It’s as if to say, Hey, you know this stuff is out there. You just don’t remember it all the time.”

Matt Ray and Taylor Mac onstage at St. Ann's Warehouse. Taylor Mac's Holiday Sauce at Curran

Matt Ray and Taylor Mac onstage at St. Ann's Warehouse.

Consider the first song in the full-length show, the revered gospel classic “Amazing Grace.” The audience is subliminally imbibing layers of significance from the first syllable. The lyrics were written in 1773 by James Newton, an Anglican priest, about his conversion experience decades earlier, when he was caught in a terrible storm on a ship at sea—his gratitude for having survived made him a committed Christian. The irony, given the deep link between “Amazing Grace” and the civil-rights struggle, is that the vessel was a slave ship, and Newton a former slave trader. He would eventually come out as an abolitionist, but not until fifteen years after the song was written. The words then were not sung to the tune we know now—that would come on the other side of the Atlantic, perhaps as late as the 1830s, when believers at American revival meetings began singing it to the melody of the Appalachian folk song “New Britain.” It has accumulated versions and associations ever since, including on the day in 2015 that Barack Obama sang snatches from it at a memorial service for the victims of a white supremacist mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. “If we can find that grace, anything is possible,” he said. “If we can tap that grace, everything can change.”

“Amazing Grace” certainly changes when Taylor Mac gets hold of it, making it the pedestal for another kind of sermon, for the verbing of nouns, the queering of grace, the reframing of worship as a less submissive, more ecstatically communal rite. But Ray has supplied another, strictly musical transformation—he sets the “New Britain” tune and the “Amazing Grace” words to a different set of chords: the familiar, revolving sequence in A minor of “House of the Rising Sun.” Most listeners will know the hit 1964 version by British Invasion band The Animals, but “House” has been part of America’s musical repertoire since at least the turn of the century, and was first recorded by Tennessee-born hillbilly singer Clarence Ashley in 1933. It was another Appalachian tune, descended from Scots Irish ballads about good boys and/or girls gone wrong, but relocated to a brothel in New Orleans (the city that was once the country’s largest slave-trade market) and given an infusion of the blues. Into the song of salvation, then, Ray weaves a song for the fallen. Within the sacred runs a current of the profane, the outlawed, and the erotic.

These kinds of musical subtexts, present throughout the show, were sometimes added consciously and conceptually (turning David Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things” into disco, for example, to bring out its gayest colors) but other times developed improvisationally over the many years of 24-Decade’s creation. “If a song is really bothering us in its major key, we’ll try it in a minor key to see if it darkens it,” says Ray, who grew up in the New York area, was trained as a jazz musician, and gradually moved into the downtown cabaret scene, where he began collaborating with Mac. “With ‘Amazing Grace,’ that song is maybe the most famous church song in American history, so how to approach that? We may have come up with ‘House of the Rising Sun’ just because it was also on our song list—so what happens if we stick them together? It takes some of the over-familiarity away for the audience.” The same kind of process led the pair to mash up Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” with the Bee Gees’ Song “Stayin’ Alive” elsewhere in the show. “We don’t know if that’s the greatest thing we ever created or the worst,” Ray says.

In general, it was Mac who researched and selected the songs, though Ray says he suggested five or six.

“Sometimes it’d be finding songs that fit the concept we had for that decade, and sometimes the concept would emerge out of the songs that fit the time period,” he tells me. “Taylor would come to me with a list of songs for a certain hour, maybe twenty or fifteen of them, and we’d play through them, narrow the list down, and discuss what they’d mean in the context of the show and what we could do with them stylistically.”

There were so many factors to balance—between songs that might rouse the crowd as familiar favorites, for example, and others that would delight with novelty and strangeness. There’s also some musical archaeological work involved, since the earlier in American history the source material originated, the more challenging it could be to find recordings or sheet music that offered a definitive version of lyrics or melody. And Ray had to work to keep the combinations of instruments and sounds throughout the show varied and fresh.

“You have to think about the longer timeline, such as which musicians are on stage for what time period,” Ray says. “It’s kind of a jigsaw puzzle: We might have a string orchestra on stage, but I won’t use it for this song, so it doesn’t become monolithic. The Civil War–era music, for instance, is all brass and one violin, no reeds—which was intentional, to let the audience refresh their ears, and to give me a different palette to work from.”

Another complication—welcome in a work that complicates everything it touches—comes with the guest artists who are brought into the show wherever it tours, “to add a local flavor,” such as the youth of the Brooklyn United Marching Band in New York, or the all-woman Mariachi Reyna in Los Angeles. Ray will send music to them in advance, and then let them work up their own arrangements. The guests often “raise the level of the whole show,” and thrill the audience by creating a connection between the performance and their own communities.

Meanwhile, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music is in itself a community, populated by the consistent ensemble members who travel with the show. They are New York friends and colleagues of Ray’s drawn from two decades of musical relationships, themselves “great players and professional stars in the worlds they’re in.” While they generally did not compose or improvise their own parts, Ray used them as sources for arrangement and phrasing ideas (“the ‘native’ player of the instrument,” he says, “is going to know the most about what will feel the best”), and often wrote particular parts with individual players’ styles in mind. The diversity of the ensemble, along with the players it picks up along the way, help the show adapt to such a vast range (240 years’ worth) of musical styles, and also address some of the delicacies of drawing upon such varied times, places, and cultures.

“In American music,” says Ray, “there are musical structures that come from Africa, or Ireland, or Scotland, or France, and there are Native American influences still, and you can see those little pieces being repeated throughout history… But our ancestors got here in so many different ways, and that plays out in the musical formats. In the show, we have an underground-railroad decade, and working on songs for that is very deep and very complicated to approach, as well as quite moving. My background is half-Jewish and half-Scots-Irish, and working on songs that connected to those communities really felt close to something, to me. It made me realize how strongly people feel about [their heritages].”

However, he says, “I think music is a common language, and as long as you’re respectful you can do things, without being literal—you can take elements and fuse them together. We also spent a lot of time asking people what they thought about things we were doing. You have to be open to suggestions. When we worked on our radical-lesbian decade, 1996 to 2006, you know, we are queer, but we still asked our guitarist Viva DeConcini what she thought, because why wouldn’t we? If you make sure to include people coming from different backgrounds, who can advise you, that’s a lot easier than if you’re just out there on your own trying to decide what does or doesn’t work.”

A paradoxical stage device subtly helps to underline the bonds between the musicians. Think of the 1983 Talking Heads tour that was documented in the late Jonathan Demme’s great film Stop Making Sense: First David Byrne comes out with an acoustic guitar and a boom box, playing “Psycho Killer” solo. Then, song by song, additional musicians are added, until the stage is heaving with keyboardists and percussionists, tracing the band’s own evolution from performance-art project to semitraditional rock band to electronic fusion group to polyrhythmic, multicultural large ensemble. It’s like a long, slow crescendo in the scale of the sound, stirring for the increase in togetherness-in-diversity that it implies, though it’s also very rock n’ roll in its bravura triumphalism. With characteristic cabaret ironism, 24-Decade uses the same effect in reverse (does this mean it starts making sense?)—the show begins with twenty-four musicians on stage, then loses one each hour, so that the penultimate hour features just Ray accompanying Mac, and the final set is Mac alone, playing ukulele and singing not historical hits but original tunes.

This constraint helps ensure that “the moving parts don’t become overwhelming,” but it also offers limitations meant to spur creative choices. Early on, the challenge for the arranger is to remember that the whole ensemble doesn’t have to be playing all the time. “There may be a song where the French horn plays only twelve bars,” Ray says, “but it’s more beautiful that way.” On the other hand, later on, “playing those big rock songs with just three people can be a lot more work.”

The changing ensemble also parallels very roughly the way that technology gradually altered the dominant popular-music model through history—from orchestras and brass bands down to the jazz combo and the rock group and, today, the auteur with a laptop. “One example,” says Ray, “is the invention of the drum set that happens somewhere around 1905. In the ragtime and brass-band era, there would be multiple drummers and a cymbalist, coming out of New Orleans marching bands. But then to save money, and maybe later to do sound effects for silent films, they created the ‘trap’ kit, trapping all those things together, with the invention of the [footoperated] high-hat cymbal, the bass-drum pedal, and so on. Likewise the electric guitar eventually comes along, to make a bigger sound, so you don’t need as many different instruments. I don’t know that I thought about that in advance, but it was very convenient that when we got to the 1960s and 1970s, we found ourselves with a small group in a familiar format.”

There’s also some sleight-of-hand going on, to help deal with the endurance issues that the marathon version of the show presented. “It took us a while to give ourselves permission to do it, but we ultimately had to make decisions that would be based on fatigue, as well as musical texture. So there might be fifteen musicians on stage and then fourteen, but when they come back it won’t be the same fourteen. For instance, you cannot physically have a trumpet player play for twenty hours. Eventually they just won’t be able to play at all. So we might have four trumpet players, with never more than two on stage at the same time, so that they can come and go.”

That applied to everyone, of course, except for Ray and Mac themselves. They “trained” for the ordeal by gradually doing longer and longer sections of the show as full performances, first individual hours, then three-hour sets, then six, and finally twelve-hour halves of the full show. “That was really illuminating. You learn, Oh, this is what I need in order to take care of myself and get through it.” Still, “by the time you get to hour eighteen and nineteen, you’re kind of out of your body. The intensity of the experience revolved around the physical deterioration of a person working that hard. We knew the audience would experience that with us.”

Few reviewers of the marathon show failed to note that Ray burst into messy tears at the end of the twenty-third hour, while embracing Mac before finally leaving the stage. I ask Ray whether it was sheer exhaustion, or whether his heart was breaking a little at separating from his co-creator before the adventure, and the ordeal, was fully completed. “You’re the first person to guess that without me telling them,” he says. “It’s partly complicated, because this project has taken five years of my life. But mainly I just looked at Taylor and felt really deeply sad to leave him alone on stage for the last hour. That was something I hadn’t thought about happening. We’re very close, and we work together so intensely, and I also felt proud and moved by what we’d accomplished. But the primary thing was not wanting to leave him alone up there.”

Even as the closing hours permit the event’s auteurs a last chance to claim their individual spotlights, then, they’re also a diminuendo. This is a coda with a quiet echo of the show’s first inspiration, which lay in the way that the devastating, seemingly unending losses of the AIDS crisis prompted a community to better discover and assert itself. In many ways, the show affirms the tragicomic, anticlimactic aesthetic that the theorist Jack Halberstam has called “the queer art of failure.” It is as if in that final moment the community’s existence is affirmed by its artificial absence, its want and need for one another illuminated in the stark light of one member’s loneliness, and the grandeur of a renegade orchestra summed up in the plink of a ukulele.