by Gabrielle Lochard
"I like to say that we find the songs you’ve never heard by your favorite songwriters," explained Ben Sears, speaking about the duo he forms with fellow Harvard Law School staff member Brad Conner. For most, the term "historical performance" probably conjures gut strings and Lully-esque wigged curls, but for Sears and Conner, the principles of historical performance have come to bear on something altogether closer to home. Since their first public appearance together on WGBH in 1989, the two—known as Ben & Brad—have been performing their takes on classic songs from the vast repertory of American popular music, focusing mostly on the Great American Songbook. This includes the music of well-known American songwriters such as the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin and Yip Harburg, the lyricist for The Wizard of Oz.
In the 20-plus years that they’ve been performing together, Sears and Conner have taken on their chosen repertoire from almost every angle, creating their own shows with songs from the Songbook, reviving little-known shows by Songbook composers, and giving lectures and talks. When they first met, the two performers discovered a common zeal for the history of American popular music, and their all-encompassing approach finds some of its origins in the materials at the Loeb Music Library.
"One of the great things about working at Harvard," says Conner, "is having access to the library system, which is crucial for our type of research. When we first started doing research, before we started buying our own copies of these books about the songwriters we were working with, we would walk the two minutes to the music library, and would devour their biographies one after another."
Over the years, the library has also provided them with primary sources for their research. "It’s a great resource for American music," explains Conner, "especially for older materials, things like old hymn books, which have been invaluable. The way we work is we not only look at the songs that we do, we also find out what the influences were on those creators to make them write the songs the way they did—we find out what they saw, and then we can use that knowledge to recreate."
What is especially noticeable in talking to the duo is a sensitivity to the great range of styles represented in the output of Songbook composers. This has become especially salient for them in their seven-CD survey of Irving Berlin’s 60 years of published songs (CDs five and six are set for release later this year). Berlin, who has become a specialty for the duo, is also the subject of a book that Sears has written for the Oxford University Press (forthcoming in April), and has proven a prime example of this kind of versatility among the authors of the Songbook.
"For the book, Berlin was easy in some ways," explains Sears, "in the sense that most of the materials were either at the New York Public Library or the Library of Congress, but the hard part was that Irving Berlin, as his own PR man, basically wrote his official biography in 1915, and it never really changed for the rest of his life. So when people would write articles about him, there wasn’t a lot of new information in them, and also for some reason, people weren’t writing critically about him during his lifetime. He wasn’t as obviously innovative as Rodgers and Hart or the Gershwins. So people weren’t writing: ‘Look at this creative new thing that Irving Berlin is doing!’ The irony is that Berlin was incredibly innovative, he was a sponge for generation after generation—this was the first Tin Pan Alley songwriter to do a complete Broadway show, but nobody really saw how novel it was when he was doing it."
"We just got through recording songs that Berlin wrote from 1925-1945," adds Conner, "and the amount of variety in those 20 years is almost hard to grasp, because if you’re doing a survey like this, you have to be able to turn on a dime. One moment you’re singing a song that’s clearly based in pop or jazz, and the next moment you’re recording something that’s done in the operetta tradition, so you’re sort of having to do it all, which is great fun and also a challenge."
For Sears and Conner, part of the joy in performing is introducing their audiences to the broad stylistic palette of American popular music, whether it be songs from George Gershwin’s attempt at an operetta (yes, that actually happened) or a long-forgotten Berlin gem.
"Our whole performing style is not really about performing so much as it’s about us loving this material and wanting to share it," says Conner, "and we hope that everybody in the audience wants to share it back with us."
[Caption: Ben Sears and Brad Conner. Photo courtesy: www.benandbrad.com]