The birth of The Instrumental Alphabet idea, words, and vocals…
When she was only three years old, Vivien heard Sarah Vaughan’s scat blues singing in the Sarah Vaughan/Clark Terry jazz hit, Mumbles, and began wandering around the house singing scat. Growing up in a household where her mother listened constantly to jazz and standards, little Vivi was constantly exposed to great music, falling in love with such Sinatra classics as ol’ Blue Eyes’ Fly Me To The Moon, which she loved to mimic in an exaggerated lounge-lizard voice. Her voice—and all of its variety—has become a signature part of her essence and personality.
At eight years old, she liked to corner all houseguests, insisting they take a seat on the couch in the added-on room at the back of the house. Once the guests were lined up on the couch, Vivi would launch into a very guttural version of Dusty Springfield’s Son of a Preacher Man—a startling song for an eight-year-old girl to be singing with such gusto. The houseguests were often speechless, simply out of shock.
Later, when her dad (the one who raised her) began working with Rod Serling on Night Gallery, she became known among her friends for her uncanny imitation of Serling’s verbal intro to The Twilight Zone“You are about to enter another dimension…a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind.”
Meanwhile, the spinet piano passed down to her by her Latvian-Jewish grandmother called to her soul, and soon the little girl was also teaching herself classical piano. She learned to read music but never did figure out how to play by ear. But that didn’t keep her from feeling a constant rhythmic beat inside her blood. That driving rhythmic beat quickly made its way into her poetry as meter, and later, once she learned how to write song lyrics, could be heard in every poem and song lyric she penned.
Waking up at the crack of dawn, Cooper would hear her special-effects tech dad, Larry Needham, leaving with his toolbox for work at Universal Studios, where he worked on such classic films as Jaws I, II, and IV, and iconic TV shows like Bewitched and My Favorite Martian. Watching her dad’s handiwork on T.V. and in the movies, Vivien dreamed of a world where cups really might fly across the room of their own free will, and the “Indians” instead of the cowboys won out in the end. These dreams allowed her to survive when she found out that there were monsters living in her house—monsters that left their mark on her, body and soul.
Thankfully,” explains Vivien, “the monsters of alcoholism, abuse, and terror who lived in my house were nowhere near as powerful as my faith, my imagination, or the natural innate spirit inside of me which drove me to remain childlike and rise above the darkness sometimes afoot at home.” Retreating into writing poetry, singing, and playing the piano when times got tough allowed her to keep her muse—and her hopes and spirit!—alive, despite all odds.
One of the constants throughout her life, as she grew up and moved out on her own, was music. Some of her early influences—besides the jazz and standards she heard at home, and the classical piano she played—were introduced to her by classmates. Progressive rock like Supertramp, Gentle Giant, Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, David Bowie and early Peter Gabriel-helmed Genesis formed her foundation of music-as-storytelling, and deepened her understanding of music as being as evocative and visual as film.
In the mid-1980’s, she met iconic and legendary keyboard player and record producer Al Kooper. A musicologist, he gave her a well-rounded musicology education, sitting her often between two speakers in the control room at the studio, and as often in the “egg chair” with speakers at home, and playing her album after album (in those days). He started with the predecessors of many of the current-day musical favorites, and made sure that Vivien understood the roots of all music. “You like her?” he’d say. “Or, you like him? Well, here’s who influenced them!” Al also introduced her to many of her musical heroes, and she has been blessed to meet many rock, roots, country, and blues greats along the way
The result is that she has a deep appreciation for jazz, blues, all roots music, country, rock, progressive rock, classical, country, and all other genres of music. (She still doesn’t quite understand opera, but that’s a story for another day.) Blended with her love and appreciation for great film, she hatched the idea for The Instrumental Alphabet—and its sequels, yet to be finished!—as small audio films as evocative, hopefully, as writer/director Terrence Malick’s poem-style-films.
Thanks to serendipity, fate, and her long association, deep friendship, and ongoing collaboration with her beloved soul-sista and songwriting partner, Janni Littlepage, Cooper met Brother Paul Brown and had a hunch that he might be just the perfect person to write the music for her Instrumental Alphabet words, and produce the album as well.
“I could never have dreamed or envisioned the musical choices and imaginative directions that Paul would take this project! The little kid in him recognized the little kid in me. He started with grown-up jazz and blues music to enhance my words and then added in some of the most delightful and unexpected cartoon sounds! The combination of his musical choices, the cartoon sounds, and his effervescent, ever pure and childlike spirit was just what The Instrumental Alphabet needed.
"And Janni Littlepage’s absolutely beguiling, charming illustrations brought the Instrumental Alphabet characters to life in a way that is true to the purity of spirit of the project. And we were blessed to have the immense graphic-arts talents of her longtime friend (and my new one), Mark Sherman, rounding out our team. The entire project came together magically! I couldn’t imagine a better outcome or team.”
What I Hope Kids and Their Parents and Grandparents Take Away From The Instrumental Alphabet:
“It is my deepest hope that kids, their parents, and grandparents are reminded by The Instrumental Alphabet of our immense American legacy of great music, dating back for decades and decades. All of the greats we listen to today owe a great debt to the greats who came before, in jazz, blues, and roots music. They laid the foundation for all that was to follow.
"I also want to tell kids that even if there are monsters living in your house, and even if life sometimes seems less amazing than the lives you watch on T.V., in movies, and hear about in music, remember…music can save your life, make it better, and lead you like breadcrumbs away from the witches’ house and into a magical forest."
"So, sing! Sing your hearts out! Play drums! Play the piano…the guitar…horns! Play whatever you can get your hands on. Make up rhymes. Write songs…or poems. I played oboe and flute before I discovered the piano. I sang even when songs weren’t in my key and maybe didn’t sound as good as they should have. I still do!"
"Never stop playing. Play music. Play in life. It keeps your heart alive and keeps you young. And you too, parents and grandparents! We’re all just big kids anyway. That never changes, even though the outer shell grows older. The little kids inside us are alive and well.”