KCBX in Concert to premiere Western melodrama "The Ballad of Panwalla"
Tonight, KCBX in Concert will air the world premiere of “The Ballad of Panwalla,” a radio play by Arroyo Grande composer Garry Eister. It’s the story of a treasure-seeking cowboy presented in the style of a melodrama.
“Howdy," the cowboy narrator says to kick off the play. “I’m here to tell you a story, and like many a Western tale, this one starts in a saloon. I had walked into this particular saloon hankering for some company and a game of cards.”
The cowboy joins a card game with a few other players, one of whom is a mysterious, unnamed man the narrator calls “Mr. Nameless.” The cowboy wins, and Mr. Nameless gives him all the money’s he got — and then, pulls out a piece of paper from his boot.
“ On it was a crudely penciled map and a picture of the moon," the cowboy says. I'm certain my eyes grew wide as he told me the facts about this place that he'd called Panwalla.”
Mr. Nameless tells the cowboy that Panwalla holds a great treasure, but that he’s got to head out now, because it won’t be too long before the moon is just right.
That’s what he does.
“I tend not to stay in one place too long, nor do I have strong preferences about where I go next. But this time I was excited heading for Panwalla, and the treasure that awaited me there," the cowboy says. The rest of the half-hour-long play follows his journey to Panwalla, and what he finds there.
The play was written by Grammy-nominated composer and longtime Central Coast resident Garry Eister. He’s mainly a classical composer, having gotten his doctorate in music composition from UC Santa Barbara. But he’s also made music for theater, movies and radio.
Eister didn’t just write "The Ballad of Panwalla": he recorded it, produced it, mixed it — even voiced the cowboy. Once the script was done, it took Eister about five weeks to pull it all off. The only thing he didn’t do entirely himself were some of the sound effects, which he bought. And even that was just for convenience.
“I have the equipment and the know-how to go out and get a sound effect of a horse. But [it's easier and cheaper] to sign up for a subscription service at a good rate and just use their horse.”
Eister calls “Panwalla” a Western melodrama with songs. Melodrama is a form of musical theater popularized in the 19th century, drawing on older musical traditions like opera. Eister is a master of this genre, having been involved with Oceano’s Great American Melodrama theater since the 80’s.
One of the melodrama’s defining features is that the story is punctuated by music for dramatic effect. Characters are always in the present, not storytelling in the past tense. It’s a world of black and white, good and evil — one which Panwalla’s cowboy travels through to reach Panwalla.
"And then [comes] what I hope is the surprising thing that the treasure turns out to be. We won't spoil it.”
"I had gone to Panwalla, and I had got my share," the cowboy says in his final line. "I thank you for your attention."
"The Ballad of Panwalla" premieres tonight on KCBX in Concert at 6:30p.m. along with an interview between Garry Eister and host Craig Russell.
The KCBX Arts Beat is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation San Luis Obispo County.