An Evening with Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut/David SoldierIce-9 Ballads (Mulatta, 2009)

I just had a really odd and really cool listening experience.

Which is what tends to happen when you pick up something from Dave Soldier‘s Mulatta label. It’s the wellspring of such delightful oddities as the Thai Elephant Orchestra and “The Most Unwanted Song” (which deserves a blog entry of its own, someday).

While I never write up a blog about a CD minutes after hearing it only once, it seems like the right approach here. Because Ice -9 Ballads is more like a play — a couple of plays, really. Something meant to be experienced live, without a rewind button.

Or maybe I’m just feeling nostalgia for Kurt Vonnegut, because he’s the star of the show. “Ice-9 Ballads,” the title suite, is obviously inspired by his novel, Cat’s Cradle. It’s a set of nine songs, with some narration and lyrics by Vonnegut, quoting his novel, and the kind of musical mix you’d expect from Soldier, who’s a student of every music possible, it seems. He blends traditional jazz (think 1930s and earlier) with Calypso music, a touch of chamber strings, some New Orleans bayou seasoning, and a recording of Meade Lux Lewis. I mean that last one literally — there’s a movement called “Duo for Clarinet & Meade Lux Lewis,” and it starts with the soloist putting the needle down on one of Lewis’s records.

That’s a fun one, but it’s followed by the piece that really got me thinking. Called “A Soldier’s Story,” it’s a radio play, complete with dramatic actors and an intentionally not-quite-hi-fi sound that hints at old radio static without being as annoying. It’s mostly played up for laughs, with lots of rhyming, some Marx Brothers-like one-liners, and cheery 1940s jazz backing from nine musicians.

It’s the story of a soldier shot for desertion — but like I said, they play it up lightly. It’s only at the end that they reveal the punchline: The story was based on the real execution of Eddie Slovik in World War II, who’d confessed to multiple desertions and was rather unexpectedly executed for it.

I don’t think it’s meant to be a perfect allegory to Slovik’s story, because the libretto, written by Vonnegut, casts the characters in a whole different light. The deserter (who’s not named Slovik in the play) is brash and cocky, and he literally starts daring the army to put him in front of the firing squad. The commanding general, played by Vonnegut, turns into a sympathetic character as he wrestles with his conscience over whether to carry out the sentence.

I’m not making this sound funny. The play is funny, I swear. There’s a Red Cross girl who goes between the characters with a determined patriotism and an indelible smile — a cross between rigid, deliberate duty and utter cluelessness. (She’s played by Dina Emerson, who was also on “The Most Unwanted Song” and did some cool stuff with Jonathan Segel as the electronics/improv duo Chaos Butterfly.) At the end, the players get introduced, but all their “real” names are taken from Slaughterhouse Five characters.

This CD was a 2009 release, but “Ice-9 Ballads” appears to have been recorded in 1997. I don’t know when “A Soldier’s Story” got recorded, but a live performance of it — with a different set of people — got reviewed in The New York Times in 2002. The review, which takes the play a bit too seriously, outlines how Vonnegut originally wrote the libretto with Stravinsky’s “Histoire du Soldat” in mind.

The music does take a back seat in “A Soldier’s Story.” I don’t know how often I’ll listen to it, but it sure was inspiring and entertaining to experience once, and it probably does work better on “radio” than on stage.