A Brief Introduction to Ghost Quartet

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Ghost Quartet is the tale of two sisters, Rose and Pearl, who are torn apart by a local man who cheats on the younger with the older. In retaliation, Rose makes a deal with a bear to maul the astronomer and turn her sister into a bird, provided she retrieves a fairy tale-like collection of objects (“One pot of honey, one piece of stardust, one secret baptism, and a photo of a ghost,” recited with Into The Woods-esque flair).

Or at least, that’s how one version of the story goes. Maybe Rose didn’t talk to a bear at all, and she just drowned Pearl. And maybe it was actually in retaliation for stealing her child. Or maybe it was a subway train that killed Pearl, and Rose just watched instead of pulling her up from the tracks. Actually, they might have been mother and daughter, and the bear was Rose’s brother, and it was grief that tore them apart. Maybe they weren’t even related at all, just two people who met at a dance and took pity on the other. 

Try that again.

Ghost Quartet is an adaptation of the old Scottish folk song “The Twa Sisters.” It’s also an adaptation of “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allen Poe, and 1001 Arabian Nights, and the songs of Thelonious Monk, and a 2012 New York Post headline, and the iPhone game Infinity Blade*, and The Twilight Zone, and to be quite honest probably ten or so more stories I haven’t been able to see yet. It tells all these stories at the same time, weaving back and forth effortlessly. Roxy Usher reads 1001 Arabian Nights to her child. In the story, Scheherazade tells of a murder on a New York City subway platform. Edgar Usher tells the same story to his wife to soothe her as they mourn the death of their own child, Roxy. As Pearl is run over by a train, Rose takes a photograph, finally obtaining the last item she needs to persuade the bear to kill her sister, Pearl. Disgusted by what she’s done, Rose breaks the camera, and goes to a shop to buy a new one, where the shopkeeper tells of her own grandmother, Pearl, and how her sister, Rose, conspired with a bear to kill her. 

*This one isn’t actually in the text the way the others are. The game itself is left vague, and the writer claims he imagined it similar to Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Considering what little information we are given for sure, the cyclical nature of each work, and the fact that you can’t play the Legend of Zelda 2 on a mobile phone, I’m making the editorial decision that it’s Infinity Blade. 

Confused? Check out this diagram from the score’s Genius annotations and it’ll all make sense.

What? Just stick to the facts this time. Please.

Ghost Quartet is an album performed live by longtime collaborators Dave Malloy, Brittan Ashford, Gelsey Bell, and Brent Arnold. It consists of twenty-three scenes (or “tracks”), performed over four acts (or “sides”), all of which feature all four performers playing a variety of instruments and portraying a variety of characters. Much of the music and words are written by Malloy, but pieces are inspired by (or directly taken from) iconic works from all throughout history. Fans of the composer/writer/librettist/orchestrator/occasional performer will be unsurprised by this fact, as his work largely relies on combining intensely modern and classical forms of art, such as placing a rave inside of War and Peace solely because the text never specifies what type of club the characters go to.*

*It’s a country club.

When discussing the invention of photography, German media theorist Friedrich Kittler applied a quote from ancient Greek historian Diodor of Sicily: “It is no longer only through writing that the dead remain in the memory of the living.” The photograph was the first instance of true preservation, and it allowed an individual to hold onto a moment long after it was passed. Of the objects mentioned in the introduction, Rose has by far the most difficulty obtaining a photograph of a ghost, and the search occupies the largest portion of the show. Rose and Pearl repeat their story through the ages, and the emphasis of the photograph throughout serves to show that ‘ghosts’ exist if we believe in them, and moments can live forever through the memories and stories that are passed on over generations.

Someone’s spending too much time in academia.

Ghost Quartet is four people talking about everything they regret in life. They regret letting their parents define them, and they regret they weren’t able to have an appreciable effect on their own kids. They regret dying, and they regret even having lived at all. They regret betraying the people who trusted them the most, and they regret opening up just to be betrayed themselves. Most of all, they regret that they spend all their time regretting.

Say ‘regret’ one more time, I dare you.

Ghost Quartet is a song cycle about love, death, and whiskey. A camera breaks and four friends drink in an interwoven tale spanning seven centuries, with a murderous sister, a treehouse astronomer, a bear, a subway, and the ghost of Thelonious Monk.

You just stole that from the album description on Spotify. Come on, really try this time. 

There’s a line at the end of the musical Hadestown as Hermes, the god of storytellers, is finishing telling the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice. 

“The song was written long ago, and that is how it goes…
It’s a sad song, but we sing it anyway…
‘Cause here’s the thing-
To know how it ends
And still begin to sing it again
As if it might turn out different”

There’s another line from an essay by J. Nicholas Geist, a review of Infinity Blade

“But to continue playing is to live the same life a little bit better, a little bit smarter, a little bit longer than the time before”

Ghost Quartet is about being trapped in a moment of weakness, and about how maybe that’s not such a bad thing. You can’t change what you’ve done, but you can learn from it. 

Maybe the next time the story is told, you’ll feel a little better about it. 

And maybe the time after that, you’ll feel a little worse. 

Or maybe, one day, you won’t need to tell it at all. 

The entirety of Ghost Quartet is available to watch, for free, on YouTube. There is a studio soundtrack and a live album, both of which are available on Spotify, Apple Music, and Bandcamp.

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