The song opens with the ominous, resonating notes of a piano and the gentle strokes of a harp. A deep bass voice croons, “Smell of chemicals hangs in the air above the Iron Triangle. Some things never change, and I’ve been here 70 years now.”
Thus begins the fifth song on composer Mark Abel’s new “alternative classical” album, The Dream Gallery, released digitally on March 6 on classical music label Delos Productions. The collection features seven songs about seven different California cities, including Richmond.
While the pieces based on Berkeley and San Diego serve as satire of common attitudes held by locals, the others include more serious discussions of everything from the economic devastation in Taft and immigration in Soledad to superficiality in Los Angeles and youth culture in Arcata.
Each song is based on the perspective of one character, after whom the songs are named. For Richmond, the main character is Lonnie, an older African American man who has lived in Richmond for most of his life. Abel himself lived in Richmond for about 20 years and he said Lonnie is a composite character of many people he met.
“There’s nothing that I made up in terms of sentiments in that piece,” Abel said. “It’s all stuff I heard out of the mouths of real people, and I have to agree with a lot of it.”
Singer Carver Cossey performs the vocals on “Lonnie,” which sounds like rock-meets-Broadway-meets-classical. The piece chronicles the rush to work in the shipyards during World War II and the economic depression that followed. Lonnie lives in Richmond through the Black Panther riots in the 1960’s (“Some young fools and Panthers tore up MacDonald, the flames gutting doorways and dreams. But no Phoenix arose here; we just sank deeper into the mud. All the money went to Hilltop.”) to more current times (“We’re no more than fodder for the Channel 2 News; Drive-bys, crack dealers, rapes and scandals. Richmond is the town everyone loves to hate—from the safety of their living room couch, mind you.”)
“Notoriety has attached itself to the city over the decades,” Abel said. “I found that [Richmond’s reputation] was largely undeserved. It’s hard for me to put this in words. There are a lot of white people in the Bay Area who would never think for five seconds of moving there even though there are some wonderful neighborhoods.”
The ten-minute long song takes on quite a bit of Richmond history, something that is reflected in changes of mood throughout. For example, the music comes to a full stop about two minutes into the song just after Lonnie finishes describing the economic downturn. After a pause, high strings lead the listener into the story of the 1960s rioting and the development of the Hilltop. The music is slow and sad, but has an ominous tone.
“It certainly starts kind of starkly … and then as it takes you through various metamorphoses of historical events,” Abel said. “I’m just using the instruments to try and depict the progress of time.”
Abel also uses instruments to indicate hope in Richmond’s future at the end of the song. “Even though I tried to express in music, as well as in words, the bleakness of … the Iron Triangle experience, I tried to end the piece with ambiguous hopefulness,” he said. “It ends in this gentle way where Lonnie takes his leave of the person he’s been talking to in the nice polite way like he would. And the music ends floating away letting you know that it’s not a hopeless situation and things can change.”
In his last few lines, Lonnie explains that he and his wife, Doris, do not plan to leave Richmond. Although their children fled years before for Vallejo or Sacramento, the most important aspects of Lonnie and Doris’ lives remain in Richmond. “Still, there is beauty here—parks and harbor and history,” Lonnie sings. “And plenty to be proud of—ballplayers, musicians, doctors and workers.”
For Abel, his choice of musical style was the best way to encompass his feelings about Richmond. “[The music] has a whole bunch of characteristics that are specific to classical music,” he said. “It has gravitas, it’s full of time changes and stops and starts. You don’t hear that in pop music at all and jazz does not do that sort of thing either … Classical is really the only idiom that does that.”
Abel’s life also played a part in the formation of his songs. The son of well-known journalist Elie Abel, Mark Abel left college after two years in the late ‘60s to play rock music. “I went on a kind of an odyssey trying to develop my voice in a rock music context,” he said. But, after a handful of albums and years of playing music, Abel returned to California and became a journalist himself. He worked for the San Francisco Chronicle for over 17 years, including nine years as the head of the Chronicle’s foreign news service.
But eventually, Abel, who now lives in Carlsbad, returned to music as a composer and song writer. He taught himself orchestration and more about the type of music he hoped to achieve. His first classical album, Songs of Life, Love and Death, came out in 2006 and was based on poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke and Pablo Neruda. His 2008 album, Journey Long, Journey Far, featured Abel’s own lyrics.
The Dream Gallery is Abel’s third album, and one he’s been working on a long time. Abel wrote “Helen,” the song about Los Angeles, first and wasn’t sure if it should be an isolated piece or part of something bigger. Finally, he decided to create a gallery of characters based on his memories and experiences of different people and places in California.
As for the music itself, Abel said it represents a synthesis of the music of his life. “It’s authentic to me,” he said. “And people will like it and understand it or they won’t.”
To learn more about Mark Abel and The Dream Gallery, visit markabelmusic.com. The album is available digitally on iTunes, Amazon, Delos, ArkivMusic.com or ClassicsOnline. CDs of the album will be released on March 27.