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Cabaret in Captivity at Pangea

Untitled Theater Company #61 will once again be doing our annual performance of Cabaret in Captivity on Monday, April 9th and Monday April 16th at 7:30 PM, at Pangea (178 Second Avenue, between 11th and 12th St) as part of the National Jewish Theater Foundation's Holocaust Theater International Initiative, Remembrance Day Play Readings.

From the UTC#61 website:

"Terezin was the final stop for more than 30,000 Central and Western European Jews, most from Czechoslovakia, Austria and Germany who perished within its walls. For thousands more it was only a way station on the journey to the slave-labor and death camps. Yet it was also a place where many prisoners became intensely aware of the meaning and power or art. During those years in Terezin/Theresienstadt, a vigorous cultural life emerged. Not all prisoners participated in the cultural life and only a small fraction of the works produced there has survived."

"Although honoring a somber event, the atmosphere was surprisingly pleasant and uplifting...Cabaret in Captivity is a call to action to use hope not as a means of passive daydreaming, but a powerful act of resistance. It has been said that humor equals truth plus distance. Perhaps humor was the most palatable, effective way of sharing the unbelievable creativity, will, and resistance that came from the 'Chosen' who 'had no choice.' " - Amy Oestreicher, Broadway World

Previously performed at The Center for Jewish History, the Bohemian National Hall, York Theatre, the Czech Embassy in Washington, DC, and The William Goodenough House in London, England.

Tickets available here

Und Der Regen Rinnt from Mad Jenny on Vimeo.

Eric at the Greenspace

Last week I was fortunate enough to join my friend and performer Eric Schmalenberger at 44 Charlton, a new monthly variety show hosted by Julian Fleisher at The Greenspace, here in NYC.  We had a fantastic time - what a great crew.  Here's some video of the performance below:

2017...Still Doin' Stuff

Hey, look at me, updating my website!  I'm not sure people still even use these things, but that's ok.  When the aliens come, at least this blog will forever be a record of how Maria Dessena chose to archive her existence.  So much to learn from us humans!

Anyway, lot of exciting things to catch up on from 2016.  I've updated the press page where you can read reviews from Mad Jenny's run at Pangea, and I've also added a new Game Audio page of original compositions I've worked on at High 5 Games for your listening pleasure!

Upcoming Shows

But first, some upcoming shows.  Mad Jenny and the Society Band are getting the New Year started right - come see us Wednesday night at the Slipper Room, where I'll be accompanying Mad Jenny and her crew of Weimar Girls for an old school variety show.  Featuring special guests of the alt-cabaret and burlesque scene, including contortionist and aerialist Miss Ekaterina of Cirque du Soleil fame, Pandora, the sexy, statuesque star of Dances Of Vice and Shanghai Mermaid, Dance Troupe Desert Sin of House of Yes and featuring alt cabaret star and Broadway World Best Alt Cabaret nominated Kim David Smith.

Wednesday, Jan. 4, 8PM @ Slipper Room, NYC.

Friday and Saturday I'll be joining Eric Schmalenberger for some shows - Friday we're doing a kick-ass arrangement of When Doves Fly at 44 Charlton, and Saturday Eric hosts his awesome Blunderland variety show at House of Yes.  Eric curates incredible events with the best circus performers in NYC, so check it out.

Friday, Jan. 6, 7PM, The Green Space, NYC
Saturday, Jan. 7, 8PM, House of Yes, NYC

Composer Quest

Earlier in the year, the sound department at High 5 Games was visited by Charlie McCarron of Composer Quest.  If you've never heard his podcasts, they are insightful explorations of what it's like to be a composer and songwriter these days.  He's interviewed composers all over the world for the past few years, there's quite a collection!  You can find our team interview (in all it's bizarre glory) here. 

Mad Jenny's video for On Suicide

Mad Jenny shot a very cool video for a song off our upcoming release (more on that album in the near future)!  We recorded in June and should have the tracks available soon.  Jenny was very inspired by Weimar artist George Grosz's painting, The Lovesick Man.  The song is On Suicide.

Like Spinning Plates

Lastly, I threw out a new Radiohead cover for accordion (and *gasp* there's some actual production this time!).  If you are wondering where my head was at for a lot of this year, this will probably tell you! + Pangea Gigs

Mad Jenny's website is up, and I'll be joining her along with the Society Band (with Ric Becker on Trombone and Marty Isenberg on upright bass) for a few gigs at Pangea on September 28th and October 26th.  Hopefully you caught a taster at Money Lab back in March, but if not, Jenny's show is an hour of original arrangements (and translations) of pre-war Weimar Cabaret in both German and English.  Plus a few surprises, of course! 

We'll also be doing a residency at Dixon Place on Jan. 13th with some special guests, so don't miss that! 

Art! Sin! Travel! Decadence!

Funny how no matter where you travel, you seem to run into the same people with the same stories. Anna and her sister (Anna) travel the states and share their lessons of morality and sin. Meanwhile, Andi and I just need an excuse to sing some Kurt Weill before she takes off to Asia.

We'll be performing selections from Weill's Seven Deadly Sins, mixed with a variety of other European Cabaret songs on the theme of Art! Sin! Travel! and of course, Decadence!

With soprano Andriana Smela and myself on piano and accordion.  The live performance will be enhanced by original artwork by the extraordinary Emily Bradley.

Admission is $10. Beverages will be available for purchase, but you are most welcome to bring your own. Basically, drinking is encouraged. It was, after all, a necessary part of Weimar decadence.

Saturday, May 16th, 2015

7:00 PM
The Drawing Room
56 Willowby Street, #3
Downtown Brooklyn

Mad Jenny and the Society Band at Money Lab

Man, I've really dropped the ball on the whole blogging/website thing.  Never fear!  Here is an exciting update of all things Maria, since that's clearly what we're here for.

First and foremost, thrilled to finally share a collaboration that has been long in the making - Jenny Lee Mitchell has put together a beautiful program of traditional German, Czech and English cabaret songs mixed with some cabaret treatments of more modern songs by Mischa Spolianski, Hans Eisler and Kurt Weill among others.  We'll be performing a few of these selections with a small band at Untitled Theater Company #61's production of Money Lab, An Economic Vaudeville at HERE Arts Center at the end of the month.  Our act, Love und Greed will be performing on 5 of the 12 performances.  We recorded a short EP of songs last week in honor of the event which I'll post in the very near future! 

Also part of Money Lab, I'll be accompanying tenor Jonathan Kline for a few performances of Letters to Engels, a short 7-minute opera with text taken from the letters of Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels.  Probably not what you might envision from the father of communism!  I'll leave it at that.... Music by Avner Finberg and libretto by UTC's own Edward Einhorn.

Catch both Love und Greed and Letters to Engels on these dates:

Friday, March 20th @ 7
Saturday, March 21st @7
Sunday, March 22nd @2 - Letters to Engels / @7 Love und Greed
Monday, March 23rd @ 7 (Love und Greed only at this performance)
Saturday, April 11th @ 6

Tickets to all Money Lab events here!  Some really clever, thought-provoking acts involved over the three-week run, so check it out if you can.  Mad Jenny's full-length series of shows will happen later this spring, so I'll keep you posted on that.

IN OTHER NEWS, man, it's been a busy year, not that you would know that from this website.  All sorts of cool collaborations - besides The Pig and Performing Captivity, I teamed up with Untitled Theater Company #61 on the Velvet Oratorio at Bohemian National Hall. The show, with music and lyrics by The Pig's collaborators, Henry Akona and Edward Einhorn, mixed history, opera, and farce in its evocative retelling of the Velvet Revolution, as seen through the eyes of Václav Havel's signature character, Ferdinand Vaněk.  We did a few performances throughout November, December and January to commemorate both the Velvet Revolution and anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

Earlier in the year, I was at the Czech Center with Katarina Vizina to perform a sing-along of songs by Karel Hašler, which was a very touching experience.  If you don't know Hašler's story - he was truly a renaissance man and Czech national treasure.  Not only a composer, but also an actor, lyricist, film and theatre director, dramatist, screenwriter and cabaret performer until his untimely death at the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1941. 

Aside from working with UTC, I also got the meet and work with the awesome and hilarious ensemble Dysfunctional Theater Company on their show, Clamour of Cabaret at Under Saint Mark's.  Then in December, I joined forces with Adam Burnett of Buran Theater on some original music for his show, POSHLOST SAUDADES!, which will be fully produced in 2015.

One of my favorite collaborators, Eric Schmalenberger will occasionally call me up so we can bust out in song during one of his ALICE performances at the Slipper Room.  Somehow Eric has this incredible skill of pulling together the most talented performers of many disciplines - aerialists, burlesque performers, vocalists, musicians and circus folk you can only imagine in your wildest dreams.  We've done a bunch of shows at the Slipper Room as well as Wild Project in the East Village this year.  Eric always has something creative, shocking and somehow totally endearing planned. 

What else? Oh man!  There was the time Sting listened to me play accordion in a three-hour production of Fiddler on the Roof, that was awesome.  There's my obligatory name-dropping.  I'm not sure how he felt about that, to be honest.

If you get a chance, check out the awesome Adriana Alba of Trust in Love.  She wrote a beautiful song called Memory Drives which I produced earlier this year for AMDISCS Future Reserve Label.  Hopefully I'll be able to share that with everyone soon.

Aside from theater and music collaborations, the bulk of the year has really been me getting back in touch with composing.  It's been years since I was in the composing zone, and now I'm doing it every day, which is a huge blessing I really didn't see coming.  I've learned more about digital synths, recording and mixing music than I ever thought I had the capacity to, and I'll have a whole post on that sometime soon when I have a chance to sit and gather my thoughts on the subject.  Unfortunately, I can't share most of that music since I don't exactly own it (but don't worry, I'll let you know when my feline epic Good, Bad and the Ugly game comes out), but instead here's a nugget of exploration - just a (mostly) improvised sketch of sounds I threw together to learn how to use some instruments in Logic earlier in the year. 

Here's some rambling musical fun with the EXS24 sampler:

The Pig

Just when I was getting into the hibernation thing, theater season started and smacked me in the noggin.  Current project:  the extraordinary multi-media theater piece, The Pig.  I've been assistant m.d.'ing for director Henry Akona the past few weeks, as well as organizing some pre- and post-show music for the event.

The Pig itself stars two of my most favorite people, creative power couple Robert Honeywell and Moira Stone, not to mention current collaborator and renaissance woman, Jenny Lee Mitchell.  They sing, dance (and even play clarinet, cymbals and glockenspiel) throughout this mash-up of the Czech operetta, The Bartered Bride, with Václav Havel's short play on the trials and tribulations of purchasing a pig for a zabíjačka.  

The pre-show features a new ensemble I've put together with a few good friends, Cabaret Metropol.  Fronted by Jenny and the incredible singer and actress Katarina Vizina, we are doing a short set before each Pig performance of classic Czech songs (and some other international cabaret nuggets).  I'll post more about Cabaret Metropol soon! 

The post-show extravaganza will be 6 Velvet Underground songs, performed by the Pig cast themselves.  You can read about Havel's relationship with the Velvet Underground here.  It's a wonderful way to end a show about revolution through cultural expression.   

Come see a great show!  Tickets available here

Happy New Year! Here's the gift of Radiohead

The snow is falling, the temperature is plummeting and I've been slipping into hibernation mode a bit these days. As this year draws to a close and the next begins, I find myself coming back to writing original music for various projects (and for myself as well). Becoming a good arranger is something I've put a lot of energy into lately, but now the pull of new things is too hard to ignore. Plus, people want to pay me for it, so hey! With that in mind, I'd like to share some piano/vocal arrangements I've worked on over the past 10 years or so, and perhaps let go a bit of my hold on interpretation now that I'm moving back into creation.

I realize this is probably very 2002 of me, but these are just for fun and have served as a bit of a palette cleanser over the years, to help keep me motivated, as well as developing some different skills on the piano.  My hope is that they come across and interesting arrangements and not just simple covers.  I certainly hope you enjoy them for what they are.  Lord knows, I just love doing stuff for the hell of it.

Disclaimer: Sorry for the crappy quality they look super cheesy and are recorded on a craptastic radioshack mic with lame midi sounds since my audio interface is a piece of $*@^ and died so I had to add all these dumb effects so it isn't nauseating also I have probably mangled some lyrics and I don't own any of these songs just the arrangements

So without further ado, here are some songs. Most of them are up a step or two to accommodate the lady vocals.  If you just want to hear the audio without dealing with the videos, you can find them here.

15 Step

There was a Pitchfork review back when In Rainbows came out that compared this song with a Nina Simone cover – I assume they must have been thinking about Sinner Man, and I could see the comparison. A driving, static accompaniment with a minor pentatonic melody on top, soulful vocals. I thought, yeah, someone should do this song like Nina might. Someone like me!

All I Need

So, basically, this was to see how coordinated I could get with these octave shifts. And then – can you do a counter-melody on top of that? And sing? Sure you can, Maria. And hey, rocking out at the end is too fun.

Exit Music for a Film

This is like the most melodramatic of the melodramatic, and boy do I love that. It always reminds me of the episode of Father Ted where the happy priest is thrown into despair when this song comes on the radio. That probably shouldn't be funny. Anyway, I thought, how can I make this MORE melodramatic? Rachmaninoff swoops and stompy chords! Mission accomplished.


When coming up with accompaniment patterns on the piano, I oftentimes find myself channeling different art song composers. That will probably become glaringly obvious over the course of these. In the original, the guitar has an ascending/descending pattern that outlines the chords which is pretty common in R&B. This is super reminiscent of like, Schubert's Ave Maria. So I totally ripped that off. I kept screwing up the video (first I chopped my head off, then it was blurry, then I chopped my head off) and finally gave up. So here's some audio instead.

How to Disappear Completely

This song is so therapeutic and so heartbreaking all at once. I'm not sure how successful this arrangement is, though – part of the appeal of the original is the gorgeous and creepy strings, so the challenge was to maintain the bass pulse and still accomplish the “crazy” with just the punchy chords in the right hand. I think the crazy was accomplished – hopefully it's still beautiful.

Lotus Flower

This kind of screamed jazz standard to me for some reason. Just the groovy bass line, I guess. And the (b)9 chords. I did arrange this for a small band, but haven't had a chance to record it yet.


I really wanted to preserve the meditative, other-worldy quality of this song, so I start out setting the tone with an out-of-time repetition of the accompaniment pattern before I kick into the song. It was kind of hard translating the acoustic guitar to piano, but I wanted to see if I could do it convincingly and still keep the accents in the right place. That took some coordination – especially since I think I learned it wrong the first time, oops. Then I threw some sweepy Ravel-ish piano into the bridge. This has to be one of my very favorite songs, it's so epic and spiritual.

Street Spirit

This song is magic. I didn't do too much except combine parts (and change a couple harmonies I happened to like). Go on, immerse yourself in love.

There are of course a few others (Wolf at the Door – who really needs to hear me awkardly singing swear words - Last Flowers which no one probably knows, and Everything in its Right Place which is awesome but not so much on piano, Subterannean Homesick Alien, which I do on accordion these days). But how much is too much Radiohead covers? I think we'll leave it here for now.  So, onwards and upwards!  Here's to 2014 and all the new creativity and beauty it brings. 

Cabaret in October

The past few months, I've learned a lot about Terezín - a ghetto during WWII that held a large number of artists and performers.  In June, I performed in a recital of songs with Jenny Lee Mitchell and Rebecca Joy Fletcher that were written by artists living in Terezín, and some of which were even performed at the camp itself.

Sunday, October 20 at 3PM, Jenny and I will be revisiting a few of these songs at the book launch for "Performing Captivity, Performing Escape", by Lisa Peschel.  Edward Einhorn has assembled an amazing cast of actors to recreate some original skits from the camp, while Jenny and I perform a few cabaret songs.  Editor Lisa Peschel will talk about her book and describe how the scripts came to light so many decades after the war.  The event will take place at The Center For Jewish History and is free (but reserve tickets here).

I'm extremely excited to be putting together a great late-night cabaret at The Brick Theater on October 25th at 11pm.  A bit of an early birthday present to myself, I'm getting a great band together to play some cabaret classics (and modern re-interpretations), sung by some wonderful singers including Moira Stone, Andrianna Smela, Amanda Renee Baker, and of course Jenny Lee Mitchell.  We'll be doing plenty of Brecht/Weill songs, Brel songs, songs sung by Piaf - and we'll have a few special guests as well, including Katarina Briggler (who will be sharing some amazing Czech cabaret songs with us) and Desmond Dutcher, who specializes in the songs of Charles Trenet.  Not to be missed!

Accordion Musings

The majority of my life has been spent not knowing how to play the accordion, and that's a shame.  My desire to learn stemmed from a few things - Weird Al (of course), Kurt Weill, tango, and an overwhelming desire to accompany myself on a portable instrument.  I've had a few friends over the years who played well (and have accomplished a lot on the instrument), so it wasn't a completely crazy idea to pick it up.  I casually mentioned one day to my instrument-enthusiast parents that I was interested, and next thing I knew, they'd purchased one for me at a local music store. It was old, moldy and unwieldy, but it was beautiful, and it was mine.

I taught myself this instrument (as with many other instruments) by picking out things I wanted to play and figuring out how to play them.  This wasn't an easy feat - although the keyboard on the right hand is pretty straight-forward, there's no relying on a sustain pedal, so things get choppy quickly unless you master sliding your fingers around as you would on an organ.  In addition, the buttons on the left side are based on the circle of 5ths - which is great if you are playing the blues or a polka, but not so great if you want to play modern music that isn't I-IV-V.  A lot of music I tend to be drawn to has chordal movements that go down a third or even up a half step, and that is something I've had to learn through muscle memory, just getting a feel for how far away certain intervals are from each other.  The good news is, even if you think you don't know what you are doing, some part of your brain eventually catches on.   That's probably not a very good pedagogical technique.

When I approach a song to learn, I think about it in terms of arrangement.  If it's being sung, then I can either play bass notes and chords on the left side with a melodic accompaniment on the right, or if the bass part is more complicated and melodic, I just use bass notes on the left with outlining chords on the right.  There's no right answer, it just depends on the song.

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child is, ironically, a song my dad and I used to play together.  It's a spiritual arranged by one H.T. Burleigh that I'd found the sheet music to in high school.  Back then, I'd play the piano and dad would play obbligato trumpet.   The lulling back and forth accompaniment felt really good with the push/pull of the accordion, so I worked it up as an accordion/vocal arrangement.

The big challenge with this song is that although the lyrics are simple, the accompaniment is quite tricky harmonically.  The right hand and left hand are outlining different chords:  on the right, I'm going back and forth up top between Dm and Am, while in the left I'm outlining an F major chord.  Basically, you're switching between 6th and 7th chords, but the way it's voiced, it was easier for me to think of it as minor chords on top of a major chord.  Why?  Who knows.  Because there's a giant plastic thing separating my left and right hands, I guess.  The other hard part is many of the left hand chords are inverted, so the minor third is the bass note, but the chord is four buttons away.  That's a bit of a reach!  

Of course, I wouldn't be Maria Dessena if I didn't try to play at least 10 Radiohead songs on the accordion.  Why I've spent hours working up piano/accordion/vocal arrangements of half their catalog is beyond me, aside from the fact that it's a fun and musically therapeutic challenge, I guess.  Here's a B-side from King of Limbs called Daily Mail.

It's always fun to go rant crazy in the middle of a song.  I probably screwed up the lyrics, but it's nice to feel like you are sticking it to the man while rocking out on your accordion.  Maybe it's just me.  Anyway, good ol' Thom Yorke plays this on the piano, but the live arrangement has some killer brass that kick in half-way through.  I thought this song fit well with the accordion because the sound can get really big once you switch the bass octave on, and the notes can sustain as long as your arms can reach.  As I've said to a few folks, it's a thin line between reedy accordions and reedy synths.  I really think modern music lends itself really well to the accordion for this reason, as well as the variety of accompaniment options you get with different stops, depending on how complex your instrument is. 

IN SUMMATION, something that I once thought of as a kitschy, silly instrument has completely opened my musical horizons and really challenged the way I think about and learn music.  Have any thoughts or requests?  Let me know!


Accordions Around the World

NY1 has a special on the Bryant Park Accordion Festival today!  Tune into NY1 all day to catch me and some other great performers plugging the festival.

If you are in the NY area, come catch us every Thursday at Bryant Park all throughout the summer, from 5-7pm.  I'll be playing on:

July 4
July 18
August 1

Shoot me some requests!  I'll be playing a bunch of eclectic stuff - 80s hits (Depeche Mode, Tears for Fears, Duran Duran, The Cure, INXS, Kate Bush, The Police, Talking Heads), a bunch of crazy Led Zepplin covers and of course, tons of Radiohead.  Hear hear for the accordion!

The official website for the festival is here.  See you guys at the park!

Beck's Song Reader at the Brick

In January, The Brick Theater hosted an event for Beck's Song Reader project, a songbook of original Beck tunes that have been left up to the fans to record and perform. They were kind enough to let me do the number "Eyes That Say 'I Love You'" for vocals and accordion.

The Mass Has Ended

After working on this project for well over a year, I am sad to see Mass end. Opera singers became rock singers, rock musicians became theater musicians, and we all learned a great deal from each other (and hopefully had a blast in the mean time). Thank you, Brick, for putting on fearless, beautiful theater and letting me add my small contribution.