An introduction to Black Rider

1 Aug 2017

‘The devil’s bargain is always a fool’s bargain’

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Tom Waits

Dubbed a ‘musical fable’, Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets defies classification blending operetta, cabaret and rock musical. Emerging from a collaboration between avant-garde director Robert Wilson, singer-songwriter-composer Tom Waits and Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs, it premiered on 31 March 1990 at Hamburg's Thalia Theater. Since then it has been staged around the world including Europe, USA, London and Sydney.

Drawing on the age-old Faustian pact, it is a black comedy and cynical parable with a splash of macabre magic in which mortal characters encounter phantasmagorical ghouls in a fateful carnival. Black Rider was based on the same German folktale which inspired one of Germany’s most popular operas, Der Freischütz, composed by Carl Maria von Weber in 1820.

The brilliant minds behind it

William S. Burroughs was a key figure of the Beat Generation writing alongside the likes of Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. He is most famous for his drug-inspired works The Naked Lunch and Junkie, and popularising the ‘cut-up’ literary technique. Burroughs was a gun fanatic and had a fascination with the occult and extraterrestrial, dabbling in alternative spirituality.

The trademark gravelly voice and eclectic musical style of Tom Waits has gained a cult-like following since his first record Closing Time was released in 1973. His whiskey-soaked voice and lyrics tell tales of drifters, bohemians and lowlifes through brooding, melancholic songs with jazz and blues influences. Though born too late, Waits evinces many of the qualities of the Beat Generation which he admired. His diverse body of work spans across genres including music, stage and film, and he has also acted in numerous films.

Robert Wilson came to fame for creating Einstein on the Beach with Phillip Glass. Wilson brought Waits and Burroughs together to work on the music, lyrics and story of Black Rider, often adding his own opinion of what to use from Burroughs’ writings.

Waits wrote the music and crafted Burroughs’ stream-of-consciousness writings into lyrics.  Waits said of Burroughs’ role in the collaboration: ‘Burroughs cut up text and open process of finding a language for this story became a river of words for me to draw from in the lyrics for the songs. He brought a wisdom and a voice to the piece that is woven throughout’.

The story

Black Rider is divided into 12 parts with a prologue by Pegleg (the Devil) as ring master inviting the audience into its macabre world.

Wilhelm is in love in Käthchen, a huntsman’s daughter. But Wilhelm is a mere clerk and Käthchen’s father wants her to marry a hunter. Nevertheless he gives Wilhelm a chance to prove himself in a shooting contest. Wilhelm is no straight shooter but fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) for him the Devil offers Wilhelm magic bullets that always hit their target. The only catch is that the Devil gets to choose the final target.

It has been suggested that Pegleg is a metaphor for addiction and parallels have been drawn between the reliance on magic bullets and drug taking, yet one thing is for certain, making a deal with the devil never ends well.

The music

Like the many layers of texts behind the story of Black Rider, Waits’ music echoes a range of influences including folk music, gospel, German cabaret, American parlour tunes, circus marches and the compositions of Kurt Weill

The music is scored for a chamber orchestra using many low-register and unusual instruments including singing saw, pump organ, banjo and slide guitar, often creating a bizarre edge to the music.

Waits himself described the music as ‘bone music’ and his reliance on percussion at times evokes a jovial dancing skeleton or a rattling sack of bones. Much of the music is underpinned by a tin-can beat and occasional clanging noises, unfolding in a dizzying frenzy. The music oscillates between maniacal vaudeville, jazz-inspired ballads and spoken word but is all devilishly entertaining, sending its tormented souls whirling around the stage in a danse macabre.

Tom Waits released the music in a 1993 album where he performs all the singing roles himself.

Did you know?

William S. Burroughs shot and killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, in a botched game of William Tell in 1951. During a drunken party in Mexico City, he asked her to stand with a glass on her head so he could he shoot it. But he missed, hitting her in the temple instead. Though her death was officially considered an accident, Burroughs never recovered, attributing the tragic incident as a driving force for his future successful writing career. One would imagine it was still on his mind when writing Black Rider

Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets was a 2017 co-production between Victorian Opera and Malthouse Theatre.