On February 28, Kronos Quartet performs the world premiere of Michael Hearst's Secret Word—a tribute to television's Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Here, the composer recounts the conversation he had with Kronos Quartet's David Harrington which resulted in a world premiere at Carnegie Hall.
“What do you think of Pee-wee’s Playhouse?” David Harrington asked me over Skype. He’d wanted to talk on Skype so he could see my reaction to his new idea. It was the winter of 2010, and the Kronos Quartet was on break, back home in San Francisco. I was in my apartment in Brooklyn, surrounded by my oddball musical instruments: theremins, daxophones, stylophones, claviolas, automatons, and otamatones.
“What do I think of Pee-wee’s Playhouse? I love Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” I said, with slight trepidation, wondering where all this was going. But it was true—I had watched the show religiously when it aired in the mid- to late-1980s. As a young teenager, I would shovel cereal into my mouth on Saturday mornings while Pee-wee Herman ran around his wacked-out house like a madman, turning knobs on Conky the robot, giggling in the lap of Chairy, and yelling with his arms in the air when the scary door-to-door salesman showed up. I would anticipate the moment when Globey, Pterri, Clockey, Randy, Cowboy Curtis, Miss Yvonne, or any of the other members of the gang accidentally spoke the Secret Word, setting off an eruption of screams and nonsensical sound effects throughout the playhouse. To this day, I find myself singing the show’s theme song when I’m having trouble getting myself out of bed in the morning (in the voice of Cyndi Lauper, of course): “Git outta byed! They’ll be no more nyapin ...”
So on Skype with David, I’m sure my face didn’t lie: He asked if I wanted to compose a tribute to Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and I lit up at the idea.
David’s fascination with Pee-wee began with his own kids. The amazing soundtracks were part of the sonic fiber of his family. His daughter would, from time to time, remind him of the show’s brilliant use of sound. And now as a grandfather, having gone back and re-watched and re-heard the episodes for a second round, he began to realize how incredibly unique every aspect of Pee-wee’s Playhouse was. He recently told me in an email, “In terms of sheer sound effects, there has never been anything like it on TV.” The music for Pee-wee’s Playhouse was composed by a rotating cast of diverse musicians, including Mark Mothersbaugh, Danny Elfman, Todd Rundgren, Dweezil Zappa, and Van Dyke Parks. The audio tracks incorporate some of the most bizarre sound effects and whacked-out melodies known to television: a barrage of blips and beeps layered on top of quirky polkas and dreamy waltzes—a Foley artist’s loony bin, which closely relates to the kind of music I love to compose and play around with. David has been to my apartment and played with my collection of oddball musical instruments and toys, and I have done the same at the Kronos headquarters in San Francisco—two adults rummaging through boxes of pull-string dolls, wind-up whistling tops, and horns that require us to turn them around several times just to figure out where the mouthpieces are. Clearly, David has also heard the crooked waltzes and polkas I love to incorporate into my own compositions. My inspirations have often pulled from the creative works of Mothersbaugh, Elfman, and Parks, as well as those who came before: Raymond Scott, Carl Stalling, Kurt Weill, and even Saint-Saëns, Prokofiev, and Beethoven, for that matter.
As a teenager watching TV on a Saturday morning, I probably wished I could create something as exciting and loony as Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Perhaps, at some point, I even wished that one day I’d create something that would get performed by the Kronos Quartet at Carnegie Hall. And here we are. Thank you for the inspiration, Pee-wee. May all your wishes be granted, too. In the immortal words of Jambi the Genie, “Mecca lecca hi, mecca hiney ho!”
Related: February 28, Kronos Quartet