Why Bill Murray is reading books on stage in New Zealand

by Russell Baillie / 05 June, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Bill Murray Jan Vogler

Jan Vogler and Bill Murray.

Famed American comic Bill Murray teams up with German cellist Jan Vogler for a night of music and literature.

Bill Murray has added another string to his bow. To do it, he needed a different kind of bow – this one in the hand of world-renowned German cellist Jan Vogler.

The pair released the album New Worlds in 2017, with Murray singing and reading mostly American literature to chamber music performed by a three-piece ensemble of Vogler, his virtuoso-violinist wife Mira Wang and Venezuelan pianist Vanessa Perez. The quartet have spent much of the last year on a tour that will end up in Wellington in November.

Murray and Vogler are certainly an odd couple: Murray is a veteran screen comic whose irreverent style has won him an international cult following; Vogler, a 54-year-old East Berlin-born, New York-resident chamber musician, who has played as a soloist with major orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic.

They met in the first-class cabin on a flight to Berlin where Murray was making the George Clooney movie The Monuments Men. Vogler invited Murray to a concert in Dresden and they struck up a friendship, which eventually became a musical collaboration.

“He had a huge cello on the seat next to him, and we started talking,” Murray tells the Listener while attending the Berlin Film Festival premiere for director Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, in which he voices one of the pooches.

“I invited him to a poetry reading I do in New York, then I went to a few of his shows and we decided to do something together.”

Vogler: “Bill jokes that he got a German involved to get things done.”

The pair developed the album and set list in sessions at each other’s houses with input from Murray’s friends Frank Platt and James Downey. Platt is the co-founder of Manhattan’s Poets House, a poetry library and literary centre that Murray has been an active supporter of, and Downey is a long-time Saturday Night Live (SNL) writer.

Though he performed as an off-key lounge singer in his 1970s SNL days and in the 2015 Netflix one-off A Very Murray Christmas, singing is a departure for Murray, whose career has gone from 1980s Ghostbusters fame to being a fixture in the movies of directors Anderson, Jim Jarmusch and Sofia Coppola.

On New Worlds, and in their live performances, Murray recites Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, James Thurber and more. He sings Gershwin, Bernstein, Mancini, Foster and Van Morrison, and occasionally dances. The music that accompanies his reading, extends to Schubert, Bach, and Ravel. There are some odd dots, culturally and geographically, being joined throughout.

“I like to search for music and literature and for their connections,” says Vogler. “It’s a journey through the important things in life, brought to life by some of the greatest composers and authors of Europe and America. The show is like life itself: there is humour, depth, melancholy, joy, perspective and thought woven together in a new way.”

Murray suggested numbers like the West Side Story songs America and I Feel Pretty, that were just in time for the Leonard Bernstein centennial, though he certainly delivers them as you’ve never heard before.

There are 13 songs on the album, but for their tour, the quartet have added Tom Waits’ The Piano Has Been Drinking and Marty Robbins’ El Paso, for extra laughs. Their live show doesn’t lack variety, or, by the look of video footage from earlier in the tour, virtuosity and spontaneity.

Murray and Vogler. Photo/Decca Gold

Murray and Vogler. Photo/Decca Gold

“I feel I have so much power,” says Murray. “The music is so strong and the words are so strong. You’re just excited for people to see it.”

Vogler says becoming Murray’s musical foil meant he had to play differently. “I focus more on expression and timing, and feel very happy when people react positively. I think I play all my repertoire better and freer now. This collaboration has been extremely inspiring.”

Meanwhile, the man who supplied the voice of Garfield in the cartoon cat films has turned canine for the animated film Isle of Dogs, his eighth collaboration with Anderson.

“I always say yes to Wes. I say yes before I read anything,” says Murray.

It’s set 20 years in the future, in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki, where dog flu has ravaged the canine population and the evil, cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) has banished all dogs to an island used as a garbage dump. All hope seems lost until Kobayashi’s intrepid 12-year-old ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) embarks on a rescue mission for his beloved pet Spots (Liev Schreiber).

The story may seem to be a clear allegory for President Trump and refugees, though Murray says the movie began “before these politics erupted”.

“I think we have to talk about it as a sort of coincidence or collision of those factors. Wes didn’t set out that way, but the politics have become, I don’t want to say lunatic, but they’re swinging, they’re really swinging.”

Additional reporting by Helen Barlow.

Bill Murray, Jan Vogler & Friends: New Worlds, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, November 14.

This article was first published in the May 26, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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