Setting The Voices in Jack Handey’s Head

EiO Co-Founder, Jason Cady, is the composer of ‘The Voices In My Head,’ a Flash Opera based on the short story by Jack Handey.  In this post he discusses the interaction that happens when artists combine their style with the ideas within and beyond the work they adapt.

I’m a big fan of Jack Handey. He is a master at crafting one-liners His writing is fun, silly, and timeless. I’ve read his novel, “The Stench of Honolulu,” twice and his book of short stories, “What I’d Say to the Martians,” more times than I can remember. Handey is better known for his work on Saturday Night Live, including such sketches as “Unfrozen Cave Man Lawyer” and “Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey.”

The Voices in My Head
is an adaptation of a Handey story that originally appeared in The New Yorker. It’s a monologue by a guy hearing voices, but—spoiler alert—the voices are just the ordinary thoughts that everyone has with a few unusual thoughts sprinkled in. The character is a lovable idiot. He’s petty, mean, and dumb yet also friendly and full of wonder.

I was on vacation in Fire Island when I thought of the adaptation and music, so I felt a little more relaxed and happier than normal. I imagined the story taking place in a Tiki bar. The story had only one character, but I wanted more so I expanded the scene to four people: three chorus members who personify the “voices” plus the narrator. To keep things interesting, a different singer portrays the narrator every couple of minutes. When not playing the narrator, the singer is part of the chorus. The audience always knows who the narrator is because the singer portraying him dons a Hawaiian shirt, piano-key neck tie, and foam cowboy hat. The members of the chorus wear dual-beer can novelty hats while they dance in a conga line, compete in a limbo contest, and hula-hoop. None of these actions or articles of clothing were in Handey’s story, but they felt true to his style.

Handey’s story evoked mid-century exotica to my mind, stuff like Yma Sumac, Les Baxter, and Esquivel. I didn’t want to go whole hog with Exotica but the more I imagined it I settled on Cuban rhythms, Hawaiian steel guitar, and Honky-Tonk. This felt like a nice combo of New World sounds. I composed the piece in reverse son clave. I wrote some Hawaiian inspired licks which I play on pedal steel and the pianist doubles on ukulele. The Country yodel cadence made popular by Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams—which is the kind of decorated 3-2-1 pattern that Schenkarians love to analyze—inspired much of the melodic material.

There’s also some Funk and Minimalism in the music, but that wasn’t inspired by the story: it’s just what I do, I can’t get away from it. In the final section the pianist tosses ping-pong balls into the piano, not only for its unique sound, but because it’s the kind of experimental wildness that brings to life the anarchic humor of the story.