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Composer Sam Piperato has defied illness to go on making beautiful music.

Calling the Tune 

Composer and performer Sam Piperato has continued to make beautiful music throughout his battle with AIDS

When Sam Piperato appeared on the cover of The Independent in June of 1997, in a photo taken two months before during the Archipelago Theatre production of his brilliant one-man song cycle, Ten-In-One, the young man in the picture appeared shirtless, smiling, and wearing a huge crown of twigs. Within two months of the photo shoot, however, the hale and hearty young man on the cover of the Indy had already begun to resemble another person. From his bed at Duke hospital, Piperato joked to his friends that he was now a dead ringer for Ghandi.

I had met the young composer/performer for the first time in late 1993, on the first day of rehearsals for The Abdication, which was later performed at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro in January of 1994. At the time, I was only dimly aware of Piperato's gifts and accomplishments as a composer, choreographer and performer: his early years as a musical prodigy growing up in Pennsylvania and Florida, and later as a student at Interlochen Arts Academy; his career as a Broadway singer and dancer in A Chorus Line and the national tour of Evita; a brief period as an architecture student at Taliesan (the Frank Lloyd Wright school); a stint at Carnegie Mellon; a dance degree from CalArts. Then, in 1993, Piperato travelled from his home base in Los Angeles and studied at the American Dance Festival with Ellen Hemphill, artistic director of Archipelago Theatre. Impressed by his maturity and sensitivity, Hemphill invited Piperato to return in the late fall to perform in her next production, The Abdication.

He was an arresting figure on and offstage, his hair cut in a severe bob along the line of his jaw, which is the strongest, squarest jaw I'd ever seen. It made me curious to know if the rest of his family had this unique facial characteristic. What I didn't know yet was that Sam's jaw was not an inherited skeletal feature, but one caused by painful cysts in his neck related to his HIV infection.

I have not got regular features. And the only way to stop the swelling is to turn my freakish face to the light and swear to you that my friends, it pleases me to be infected with this melody. (from "Epilogue," Ten-In-One)

Diagnosed in 1986, Piperato suspected he was HIV-positive as early as 1984. From the early '80s until his move to the Triangle in late 1993, he lived and worked in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and aside from the cysts, he was relatively symptom-free. It was perhaps inevitable that his good luck would eventually run out.

In the fall of '94, Sam and I were putting together a tap routine for Archipelago's retro cabaret Binky Kite and the Oxymorons. We were audio taping the work session to help us learn the steps, and our tap shoes rang out on the wooden floors: pa dada pa dada pa dada dee dum! By this time I knew about his infection, and we'd had a couple of conversations about it in the previous months. Despite the cooling weather outside, it was hot in the studio and we worked for hours, our taps leaving little half moons in Ellen's studio floor. I couldn't help worrying about Sam's stamina and his level of fatigue, but I didn't say anything.

By that point I knew that the cysts in his neck made Sam feel like a freak, and nothing I nor any of his friends could say would change this. He had begun to deeply research historical freaks of all kinds--physical, emotional, spiritual--in a process which evolved over the next two years into his writing, composing, arranging and performing Ten-In-One. The title was taken from the old term for a carnival freak show under a tent, and if you knew Sam, you couldn't help but be moved by the show's lyrics.

Hello my name is Harlequin.

I've been struck by the rays of the moon.

I live in that cracked dominion

Where the fiddle itself calls the tune.

Where the man who sits in a puddle of piss

Can fly in the dark beyond the abyss.

And the man who isn't all there

Finds he's free to be anywhere.

(from "Harlequin," Ten-In-One)

With Archipelago's premiere in April 1994 of the original work Cassandra's Lullaby, Sam became the company's composer-in-residence, and the next spring he composed, arranged and performed in another original piece, Those Women. All the while, he was researching and developing Ten-In-One, which received its first public showing as a work-in-progress as part of Manbites Dog Theater's " Don't Ask, Don't Tell: A Queer Festival of Theater and Performance" in May of 1995. A CD of the work was recorded the next year and Ten-In-One was scheduled for a full production by Archipelago Theatre and Duke's Institute of the Arts, directed by Ellen Hemphill. Piperato was in rehearsal in the fall of 1996 when he became suddenly ill with blindingly painful headaches and nausea, the beginning of his first serious AIDS-opportunistic disease, cryptococcal meningitis.

Ellen Hemphill and I met in the lobby of Duke Hospital, right after getting Sam's diagnosis. Visiting hours were long over and we rode the elevator up to the neurology floor in silence. Sam's treatment began the next day: 14 days of a daily IV drip of the drug Amphotericin, called "Amphoterrible" by the hospital staff because of its awful side effects, which include bone-shaking chills, muscle spasms and pain. In his more lucid moments, Sam called it "Shake and Bake." His friends--a fierce and loving confederation of gay and straight, male and female, single and otherwise that somehow is its own kind of family--coordinated a schedule so that someone was sitting by his bed every day when he got a treatment, which took several hours. Sometimes he shook so hard he seemed to go someplace else, and he rarely seemed to know that we were there.

A telephone can be made from a couple of

Tin-cans and some string.

Both Icarus and Daedalus,

so clever I'm a fool,

Clever enough to catch to catch the bird to

make

The wings to leave the maze.

But too much a fool to find the crack between

The sea and the heat of human kindness.

Down I go. Down I go.

(from "Tin-Cans," Ten-In-One)

The first planned production of Ten-In-One, originally scheduled for October of 1996, was moved to the following spring, with rehearsals being postponed as long as possible to give Sam time to regain his strength and to let the temperatures rise enough for work in the unheated studio in a tobacco warehouse in downtown Durham. Director, designer, production staff and musicians scrambled to rearrange calendars, and the show had its opening night in Duke's Sheafer Theater in April of 1997. In the final moments of the performance, when Sam climbed a 20-foot tower and turned to face the audience, seemingly suspended in space in the seconds before the lights went to black, it felt like a miracle.

By the time Ten-In-One finally had its fully staged production, the cysts in Sam's neck, an inexorable part of his life for years, had completely disappeared. A month and a half later, he learned he was being awarded an Indies Award. The month after that, when the Indies Award issue of The Independent came out with his picture on the cover, he was back in the hospital, this time with AIDS-related lymphoma. When he accepted his award in December 1997, Sam had just completed his last chemo treatment that afternoon. In the year that followed, he had to have another round of chemo, several surgeries and radiation for recurrence of the lymphoma, this time in his cerebral spinal fluid. When he was able, he concentrated on his songwriting, turning out song after song during this period.

I remember watching Sam asleep in his hospital bed following one of his surgeries. He'd been only sporadically aware of anyone else's presence in his room for several days. The machine attached to his IV had an odd but definite rhythm, seemingly counting every 10 and a half beats. Suddenly Sam sat upright in his bed for several moments, eyes still closed, hands clapping assuredly to a tune, perhaps inspired by the soft beeping of the IV, that only he could hear.

... If you wait and wake up just before the

sunset,

Then the dark, it doesn't seem so deep.

Will you remember, please, to smile for me

When I wave and fall toward home.

And if it kills two birds with one stone

Then hope and I can get some sleep.

("Two Crows," from the CD Snow)

In the last four years, Piperato has had a full remission of the lymphoma, has been able to regain a strong measure of stability in his health with the help of an AIDS cocktail, and has continued to add to his impressive body of work. He has composed, arranged, or performed (and sometimes all three) in numerous Archipelago productions, among them Blue Roses, Snow, and the recent A New Fine Shame. He returned to his alma mater CalArts last year as a guest choreograher, and composed, arranged and choreographed productions of The Crucible and The Changeling at Duke, released the CD Snow in 2000, and was awarded a national songwriting award from the annual Wildflower Festival in Texas.

Sam doesn't think of himself primarily as a gay artist. "First," he says, "I'm an artist. Second, a human being." He pauses for a moment to reconsider the question. "Then, third, maybe, a gay artist. What I do is what I do anyway. The gay community doesn't really identify with my music. It's not dance music, it's not pop music. My work really doesn't get attention from the gay community."

This seems to be so, if the reception of his CD Snow is an indicator. Despite extensive efforts on his part, and the fact that one of the CD's songs was anthologized on a release put out by Oasis Duplications, resulting in both radio play outside the Triangle and mail from listeners across the United States as well as orders for copies of Snow, the disc has not been reviewed locally or in the gay press.

His music has sometimes been described as "musical theatre," a term he dislikes, and he confesses that he's someone who doesn't like musicals very much. It has also been described as reminiscent of art songs or chamber opera, and a couple of his songs have a surprising country flavor to them. In fact, his own tastes are far-ranging, and he is able to write in a variety of different styles. Still, his work has its own particular voice. "Even when writing for the theatre, which has specific demands because it has to relate to everything else, it still sounds like me," he says.

While Sam is reluctant to view himself as a gay artist, if you ask him if his being a person living with AIDS has affected his work, his answer comes more readily. "It has definitely changed my life as a person, in every way, and who I am as a person makes its way into my work," he says. In another conversation he talks about hope. "My first reaction to things is usually 'crash!' But there's something there that never lets me fully collapse, even when I think I'd like to, and I eventually go, 'Oh, this isn't so bad.' In a way I guess you could say that hope is my curse."

Sam will turn 40 in July and is moving to New York later this summer to begin the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at New York University. It's a program Sam knows is demanding, but he says he has more to learn about songwriting, and would like to learn to "sustain something for two hours, with larger forces, bigger stories." It occurs to me that it's an ironic statement coming from a man whose life, since I've known him, has been a big story, about sustaining, and grappling with forces larger than himself.

Even when Sam is in New York, he will be here with me in the Triangle, in my memories of work and play. One memory in particular stands out. In the production of Blue Roses--which is billed as a solo, but is more than that--Sam sits at the piano behind a lace screen with a violist by his side, playing his wondrous music which underscores the entire play. I play Tennessee Williams' sister Rose, and Sam behind the screen becomes also the unseen Tennessee, in that odd and wonderful alchemy in performance that we come to accept and trust. In Durham, at Manbites Dog in '98, and in subsequent performances in Portland, Ore., in '99 and at the Tennessee Williams Center in Sewanee, Tenn., last fall, he has been there: my friend, my colleague, a chosen sibling. At the end of each show, when I finally see him at the curtain call, he gently puts his hand on my back as we take a bow, and I am grateful every time.EndBlock

  • Composer Sam Piperato has defied illness to go on making beautiful music.

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