Conrad Kehn was singing in the metal band Skull Flux when he first heard the avant-garde song cycle Eight Songs for a Mad King, a work with a birdhouse-shaped score by composer Peter Maxwell Davies that stunned the audience when it was first performed in 1969. It might have been an aha! moment for the young rocker, who’s now gained fame as a composer and vocalist while pursuing other pastimes, from directing a modern-music chamber group, the Playground Ensemble, to mentoring young composers and teaching music theory and music technology at the Lamont School of Music.
And in a turn of luck — thanks to a fundraising campaign to cover the staging — Kehn is finally realizing a dream by performing in a Playground production of Eight Songs. “I remember thinking it was amazing,” he recalls. “I told myself, ‘I will do this piece some day.' I wanted to check it off my bucket list, for sure.” The fully staged rendition, with Kehn singing in the main role, will be performed on Friday, February 22, at the King Center on the Auraria campus.
Like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Eight Songs was a bit of a shocker when it debuted, sung by experimental singing phenom Roy Hart, who was said to have an eight-octave range. “It’s a cutting-edge music-theater piece from a time when the European and American avant-garde was going full-bore,” Kehn notes. “Especially vocally, the piece is way out there.”
Based on the story of King George III, who in the throes of insanity was locked in a room with his pet bullfinches and a mechanical organ that played eight songs, the work is as mad as the king himself: As the tale goes, he was obsessed with teaching the birds to sing the songs. Performed in costume with a set of giant birdcages representing each song, Eight Songs is, according to Kehn, “something audiences have never heard or seen before, performed on a crazy stage with birdcages. It’s a fascinating spectacle.”
The Playground has also updated the half-hour work with references to current events, alluding to the modern precedent of a mad ruler who’s flown off the handle. “After the presidential election a couple of years ago, I became concerned about where we are as acountry and society, and what is the role of the artist in that situation,” Kehn says. “I thought it was time for the Playground to get more vocal from a political standpoint.”
Eight Songs made it easy: “The fact that he's talking to his birds in this thing and we have a president who can’t stay off of Twitter — the ability to draw parallels is easy to do. We take these subtle parallels and make them not so subtle.”
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Kehn is also adding interactive elements to the essential production. “This was not written in the time of immersive theater,” he says. “One thing all of us in performance and all the arts have learned is that audience expectations have changed. They’re no longer just observers.”
The Playground will be handing out masks and birdcall whistles to blow on cue when the performers do the same. Spoiler: A violin will be smashed. Adds Kehn:“We’re also using cell phones in reference to Twitter.”
See the Playground’s fully produced version of Eight Songs for a Mad King at the King Center, 855 Lawrence Way on the Auraria campus, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, February 22; actor and playwright Jeff Campbell will also give a spoken-word performance. Admission ranges from $10 to $15; find advance tickets online. An additional performance will be staged at the Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, at 7 p.m. March 8; tickets are $10 at the door. Learn more about the Playground at the website.