Song/Book: Grapes of Wrath vs. 1984

Rob Halverson and friends wrap live music around some heavy fiction

It might seem a bit odd, comparing our Trump-tainted trainwreck of a 2017 to the Spandex-flexing DayGlo paroxysm that was 1984, right?

But, when you’re talking about George Orwell's novel, well, things can get real insightful really fast – and pretty fucking creepy, too. And what about – hello, climate change – what about John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath?

And what if “talking about” means staging a music-rocked night of sonic and literary exploration from the likes of Thor Harris, Gretchen Phillips, Jonathan Horne, Carrington MacDuffie, and other locally based but globally fierce talents?

Because that’s what’s happening at The Museum of Human Achievement this Friday night: A sort of orchestrated explosion of electronic and percussive instruments, wielded by those artists as kind of a classic Austin “Hoot Night,” using song and text and live performance to contrast the two powerful novels and their resonances with the modern world.

Rob Halverson, the relentless record producer and jefe grande of the Grapes of Wrath 75 Project, is the director of Friday’s event, so we asked him a few questions about it …

Austin Chronicle: Why that novel in particular?

Rob Halverson: The Grapes of Wrath 75 Project started a couple years ago when I partnered with the National Steinbeck Center to create new media to explore modern themes like peoples’ rights, the banking crisis, immigration issues, and climate change – “Dust Bowl Ogallala" is a song! – and all of that while looking through John Steinbeck's lens on the 75th anniversary of his Great Depression-era novel. We’ve held yearly concerts locally and have been so lucky to’ve had really great artists and writers involved – like Thor Harris, Abra Moore, Sara Hickman, Amparo Garcia-Crow, and many others. Gretchen Phillips and Dickie Lee Erwin – I mean, c’mon! The project’s proven to be a great way for artists to create and perform together and connect with the public in a cool and unique way. And this season we decided to do a mashup with another novel, Orwell’s 1984. So here we are!

AC: And why that Orwell novel?

RH: Well, one question might be, “Do the ideas in 1984 resonate with what lots of people are concerned about nowadays?” You bet they do. We’ll be loudly performing things entitled ”Evaporating Facts" – reflecting the “fake news” phenomenon – and “Telescreens Now” – aka, “I’ve Got a ’Google Home’ in my Home!” Another one, “Drones,” is a most harmonious affair with circuit-bent synths and found percussion. There’s a lot of room for interpretation in bringing 1984 up to date, and we intend to explore that space. Plus, where can 1984 be better explored but in the halls of the Museum of Human Achievement?

AC: I see that the show's poster styles the event as Grapes of Wrath versus 1984. So does the winner of this – well, I’m thinking Texas Cage Match here – does the winner eventually go on to fight against another work of fiction in a sonically enhanced event like this one?

RH: You betcha!

In which case, even after Friday’s show, best to keep your eyes on this Grapes of Wrath 75 Project, citizen. Looks like they might just have the coming apocalypse all booked up.

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