A Life’s Work: Debbie Does Dvorak

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What’s better than roses on your piano? Tulips on your organ, of course. But when’s the last time you heard a piano or an organ on a porno soundtrack? Nope, just synthetic drums, wah-wah guitar and some very electric bass, looped to last as long as the performers do. To correct this artistic oversight, composer Shannon Mariemont has assembled PornOrchestra (, a group of San Francisco-based classical musicians who perform original compositions while classic adult movies play behind them on a gigantic screen. And it’s all, they hope, coming to a theatre near you.

Nerve: Are you really doing this?
Mariemont: What do you mean really? We premiere March 22!

This started with you renting pornos, dubbing them with your own music and returning the tapes to the video store, right?
That’s illegal.

But you did it.
I would never say such a thing. I thought it would be a great way — if one were to do that — to create a huge cult audience. My friend made one with a Sonic Youth soundtrack. I was like, “You go!”

Where can people buy your music?
Sorry, you’ll have to come to the show.

PornOrchestra founder Shannon Mariemont

Porn music is so bad, it’s backed its way into our culture. Puffy samples it, Snoop Dogg makes it . . .
We all like porn music because it’s bad. Bad’s funny. But why can’t it be good? [Performance artist and blogger] Reverse Cowgirl, who specializes in dissecting the artistry in porn, is insulted by PornOrchestra because she thinks all porn soundtracks are pretty damn good. I’m going to have to get her to admit they’re bad.

But who wants porn music to be so good that it distracts from what you’ve come to do?
Would an aural part of a sexual experience be a distraction? It’s not a well-resourced part of the production, but if it were, it’d be a more complete experience.

I love this quote of yours: “We don’t even like porn. All that much.”
A lot of people shy away from it. There’s still a stigma, even though we’re visual creatures. The way porn is produced now, I don’t feel like I’m getting my fair share. I can’t separate the aural component from the visual component.

Which pornos would you most like to re-score?
Many agree that Deep Throat is the all-time worst. I’d also like to redo The Hills Are Bi’s — a terrible title, by the way, and the worst use of the apostrophe. Who is “Bi,” and why do the hills belong to her? I started watching porn in college: Flesh Gordon, The Opening of Misty Beethoven, the video Rob Lowe did with the two underage girls at the Democratic National Convention. So I’d like to re-score those.

There must be some classic porn music you love too much to redo.
Everyone says the ’70s were the golden age, but I just don’t like any of it. I know I sound very misanthropic, but we’ve had enough time with our original experience of these soundtracks. It’s time to try again.

Let’s talk about your upcoming debut. What will the orchestra do to warm up?
I’m buying them a keg of Budweiser. They have to be very loose.

PornOrchestra will play live reinterpretations of old porn as well as new?
Every day we’re getting new material. A grassroots porn collective called and said they want to expand their mission and audience; they produce original porn and get paid to play it at sex parties, but they never do a soundtrack. They want to collaborate with us.

There are a dozen or so musicians in PornOrchestra. What do they play?
It’s a classic orchestra. I think there will be twenty of us: acoustic instruments, a quartet of sax, voice and contrabass, a couple of laptop ensembles, electronic music and what I call prepared instruments.

How will PornOrchestra sustain itself? Grants?
The artists split the door with the house. Personal funding, I believe it’s called. Eventually, the door will get so big, maybe I’ll take a cut. But this time around, I don’t care — it’s just too good of an idea.

It’s the night of your first performance. You look out into the crowd and see . . .
The avant garde music scene, the video-art scene, the huge porn community in the Bay Area, the DadaFest people. We’re freaks up here; we like to have a good time. Tons of people are going to come to a show that gives you oodles and oodles for just six bucks.

With films, there’s always the negotiation between music and dialogue levels. For you guys, in must be a question of how loud the girl is screaming, compared to the violin levels.
Or what if the violins are her voice? We might use nonhuman dialogue in that way. Instruments are pretty expressive.

So we’d hear an instrument playing its version of the specific sound of someone getting rammed?
That’s what it’s all about.

Everyone knows music makes sex better, but does music really make watching other people have sex better?
I hope so. Otherwise, I’m going to have a lot of unhappy customers.

If you were to record two people having sex, what would your mic strategy be?
There are other sounds, such as hanging up the phone, or cutting into a certain vegetable, that might sound sexier than the actual sex sounds. When you — wait! What if you wired the people having sex up with an EKG so their electrical impulses would generate music? They’re creating the soundtrack with their normal biological systems.

Very John Cage! Okay, when you score porn, do you look at the film as a whole or do you take a more episodic approach, treating the sex scenes individually?
This time, episodic. Though I’m asking another composer to do an entire film.

What do your parents think?
My parents don’t know. But that’s not their fault. I owe them a phone call.

What’s your instrument of choice?
I’m a classically trained percussionist. Mallets.

Ever daydream of acting in one of the films you re-score? Like a porno J. Lo.
Uh, no. My own sexuality is pretty private.

Originally, the porn producers you approached just laughed at your idea. Do you hope they’ll eventually thank you for the work you’re doing?
There’s a little bit of spite. I’m sort of hoping I’ll get my New Year’s resolution: a cease-and-desist order. All my cool friends got one last year, and I want one too.  

Ross Martin’s recent work appears in magazines such as Agni, Bomb, Boulevard, Denver Quarterly, Fence, Kenyon Review, Poetry Daily, Prairie Schooner, Verse, Witness and others. He has taught at Rhode Island School of Design, The New School University and Washington University in St. Louis, where he received his MFA. His first book, ‘The Cop Who Rides Alone,’ is published by Zoo Press (

©2003 Ross Martin and