Standing at the west end of Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard, the Chateau Marmont hotel has seen many a famous and infamous guest pass through its doors since it opened in 1929. A 2012 stay in one of its second-floor rooms inspired British lyricist and singer Jarvis Cocker to look into its history and led to this collaborative project with multi-faceted Canadian pianist and composer Chilly Gonzales. Room 29, a 21st-century song cycle, is set for release on Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Music Canada on 17 March. Gonzales’ score and Cocker’s lyrics conjure up the lives of some of Room 29’s previous occupants, as well as shining a light on the glittering fantasy and often bleak reality of Hollywood.
“If you must get in trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont,” noted Harry Cohn, founder of Columbia Pictures, in 1939. Jarvis Cocker was intrigued by the hotel’s links to the history of the film industry. He found the key to creativity in the fact that Room 29 contained a baby-grand piano. What if it could “sing” of the life stories and events it had witnessed? The idea also ignited Chilly Gonzales’s imagination, and both artists embarked on a three-year journey of artistic discovery, unearthing details about guests such as Jean Harlow, Mark Twain’s daughter Clara, and Los Angeles mobster Meyer Cohen, alias “Mickey the Haberdasher”. As well as dramatizing some of those stories, their songs capture both the essential loneliness of the hotel room and the ways in which moving images have “moved” people in ways they don’t quite understand. Gonzales and Cocker have drawn on the 19th-century model of the song cycle for a structure capable of containing the broad sweep of emotions and states of mind elicited by the real and imaginary dramas of one unusual hotel suite. Room 29 emerges as metaphor for a place within each of us, home to our deepest desires and fantasies.
Since moving to Germany in the late 1990s, Chilly Gonzales has pursued a breathtaking range of musical projects, spanning everything from rap and experimental rock to hip hop and Satie-inspired minimalism. The classically trained pianist collaborated with the Kaiser Quartett on his last solo album, Chambers, attracting critical acclaim to its neo-Romantic reflections on chamber music in the age of pop. The Hamburg-based string quartet plays a prominent part in Room 29, providing a sonorous tonal complement to Gonzales’ piano writing and accompanying Jarvis Cocker’s vocals. Lead singer and primary lyricist of Pulp for over 30 years, on and off, Cocker has also released two solo albums, and developed a successful broadcasting career, presenting both Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service on BBC Radio 6 Music and BBC Radio 4’s Wireless Nights.
Room 29 was recorded in Paris following its “work-in-progress” premiere at Hamburg’s Kampnagel in January last year. The finished piece will return to Kampnagel for three performances (17-19 March) before touring to London’s Barbican Centre (23-25 March), the Berlin Volksbühne (28-30 March), Paris (April/July) and selected summer festivals.
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