Written by David Malloy and first performed in New York in 2014, Ghost Quartet in a former age might have been described as an oratorio – musical storytelling on profound topics with an orchestra and soloists – though in the case of Ghost Quartet, orchestra and soloists double up and do both jobs. The concept album is perhaps the modern successor to this idea, and Ghost Quartet is indeed a kind of theatrical concept album. I was intrigued by the theatre poster, which by accident or design, mimics the cover of the famous album, Forever Changes, released by Love in 1967. So, anyway, oratorio or concept album, the idea is you have a sequence of songs held together by a kind of story.
Now, the story linking things up is not usually straight forward, and this is certainly the case with Ghost Quartet. There is a bizarre, time-travelling narrative involving, as far as I can tell, an astronomer who cheats on his wife with her sister, leading to the slighted wife vowing supernatural revenge on both husband and sister. This all plays out with reference to, amongst other things, the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, the jazz of Theolonius Monk, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, and Arthur’s C. Clarke’s 2001 A Space Oddity. I would advise not worrying too much about the story making sense. Can you tell me the story from Ziggy Stardust, for example? And if you can’t, does it matter? The story is a kind of chandelier where the bits that really stand out are all the lights hanging from it, rather than the frame.
The lights hanging from the chandelier of Ghost Quartet illuminated the theme of existence, of substance set against illusion. The show was full of ghosts and spirits. Here are a few examples:
The light of stars which has taken so long to get to our eyes, that the stars that made it don’t exist any more. The way people change so that a person can all but disappear even though they don’t do anything as dramatic as dying. Actors walking about on a stage portraying people who are not real. Audience members crossing the audience/actor divide by taking part in the production- I got to do some percussion with an egg shaker. The spirits handed out by the cast in the form of snifters of whisky, a drink which can make the clear lines of consciousness go a bit fuzzy.
By the end of the show, once you’ve drunk your whiskey and played your egg shaker, you might conclude it’s not strictly necessary to be dead to be a ghost, and not actually compulsory to be alive to be a real person.
Ghost Quartet was fun, moving, exciting and contemplative. It’s a modern oratorio, but whereas the oratorio in its original form was confined to churches and overtly religious themes, this is a concept album for everyone.