Rainbow's End

I am returning to Pittsburgh for the final three performances of The Summer King, which has played (since Saturday) to very responsive, near-capacity audiences at the 2,800 seat Benedum Centre for the Arts. Tomorrow’s morning performance - the student matinee - has been sold out for some time - and the hall will be filled by school kids as young as 8 years old. Which is a very good thing, since I’ll be attending with three eight-year-olds of my own. My boys Satchel, Pablo and Levi are taking their first plane trip, followed shortly thereafter by their first opera (one that just happens to have been written by their dad). 

The euphoria of the last week has been tempered only by exhaustion, as I trudged through a seemingly endless array of telephone interviews, rehearsals, campus visits, and family arrivals in the run-up to the opera’s premiere this last Saturday. We composers of concert music and opera don’t so often find ourselves smack dab in the center of the limelight, and don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun place to be. But also, quite draining. I’m an extrovert by nature, and my inclination is to say yes to everything - to share myself whenever it seems it might be meaningful or helpful to do so. And I also have this strong desire - in the face of family and friends spending hundreds of dollars and traveling hundreds of miles to support my creation - to be demonstrative in appreciation. Devin - my partner (romantic, not business) - arrived during our final dress rehearsal Thursday night, and was instrumental in getting me to rein it in, stay focused, and not spread myself thin to a point where I would simply disappear if I turned sideways. 

Saturday night, when the Summer King officially launched itself upon the world, was unforgettable, and hard to describe. Some time late on Friday, the day after the final orchestral dress, I submitted my final notes to Pittsburgh Opera Music Director Antony Walker. My notes for the final rehearsals all had to do with balance - a critical component in the world of opera, where singers sing without microphones and need to be heard above a lush and potent orchestra. I brought dynamics down, and cut certain percussion hits - things like tambourines and cymbals, whose transients have the capacity to completely obliterate the comprehensibility of text. Sometimes it was as simple as having the brass start their crescendo two beats later. Bit by bit, we got it sorted. 

The moment I hit send on those notes, and thus essentially completed my real, creative responsibilities to this production, I started to feel genuinely nervous. It was nervousness without specificity - inner acknowledgment that the piece I’d worked on for so long was now spinning into existence, and the arrival of family, friends, former students, reviewers, and a healthy-sized general audience just added to the reality of it all.

On premiere night, after a luxurious, if rushed, dinner with Devin, Sam Helfrich (stage director) and leadership of Pittsburgh Opera and Michigan Opera Theatre (who will present this production in 2018), I was whisked across the street to the Benedum and thrust upon the stage in the closing five minutes of the pre-concert talk, where I uttered words that were - according to Pittsburgh Pirates owner Bob Nutting, then in the audience - “brilliant, if not necessarily coherent.” 

A short while later, after hobnobbing and greeting and hugging and smiling my way through the warm and eager masses - and dashing briefly backstage to impart upon the cast my babbling cocktail of goading and gratitude - I made it to my seat, reconnected with Devin, and let the opera wash over me. 

The Pittsburgh Opera production of the Summer King is so strong - each element so tightly hewn, the singing, orchestra, lights, sets, costumes, and video design - and is so generously representative of my intentions for the piece, that I felt the strange sense that what was really and truly up for consideration was the piece itself. So often as composers we have the sensation that an audience is hearing 73% or 85% or 61% of the piece we actually wrote. The humble among us blame ourselves - the piece was too hard, impractical, especially given the rehearsal time. And to be sure, all of these statements are true about the Summer King, and yet somehow all of the performers are living up to just about every note, and I’m hearing a piece that is in the 98-99% range of what I wrote and conceived [and even closer, after each successive performance]. It’s better than I ever imagined was possible. So what’s left is: is it good? Does the structure work? Are the characters clearly enough delineated, and are the larger points of the opera coherently (to use that word again) articulated?

Fortunately, I’ll have three more viewings during which I can contemplate these issues. On opening night the room was feverish with excitement, and the audience was wonderfully responsive, including leaping to their feet at the final curtain for one of the loveliest standing ovations I’ve experienced (rivaled only by the standing ovation this piece received when given its concert premiere, in an earlier version, by Portland Ovations in 2014). 

A mostly complimentary review hit the Pittsburgh Post Gazette almost immediately, followed by several more. As I mentioned to my friend, composer Matt Schickele, the review we composers generally really want to see is: “this opera makes any subsequent effort in the genre pointless.” And these were not that - but they were intelligent and thoughtful, positive in sum, and had kind things to say about my music, the production, cast, and the ambition of the project. 

The overall response to the piece, for me, is still to be ascertained. For the next period of time, I’ll receive an influx of feedback, and all of it is welcome (if sometimes painful). At some point, I expect general opinion to coalesce around two or three central points (in terms of criticism - apart from the everyone-should-stop-writing-opera-now thing), and I’ll have some time to decide what, if any changes, I might wish to make for subsequent productions. 

I came home this past Monday to find my opera plastered all over the front (and back!) page of my hometown paper, the Portland Press Herald, (no sign of my OLD hometown paper, the New York Times, at these performances so far, and that’s a bit of a disappointment). And I was treated very kindly when I briefly showed my face at the University of Southern Maine for two days of lessons and classes. 

Now - back with my boys for the last shout of this tumultuous but wonderful period in my life. Devin and her son Parker (also 8!) join us on Friday, and more friends and family will be attending in the coming days. I am looking forward to some restful and peaceful days in the coming weeks - maybe stealing off to an island someplace with Dev, drinking some tropical drinks, and skimming rocks and cellphones into the turquoise sea. The immense desire to be thoroughly lazy won’t stay with me long - given my history - but I’ll embrace it while it’s here.

Virtual wonderland

This fall, while I was reorchestrating my revised opera, I made virtual instruments a bigger part of my process than ever before. Most of us who use notation programs (I use Finale) rely, at least to some extent, on decent midi playback of our music, though at the same time most of us working professionally as composers know you can only rely on that playback to give you limited usable intelligence.

It is also generally agreed upon - at least in the circles in which I run - that midi playback in the professional engraving programs (by which, for now, I mean Finale, Sibelius, and, I guess, Dorico) is clunky and difficult to control. The concert music composers (for lack of a better term) I've spoken with who make a real effort to create high quality, realistic midi mock-ups of their compositions, almost to a one, do the actual midi manipulation in a DAW such as Logic or Cubase, rather than attempting to fight with the notation software. So the process is something like, compose the piece in the notation program using the built-in, inferior sounds, then export a midi file, open in the DAW, and really perfect the midi rendition of the piece. (And there may be a very good reason for doing this - like entering the piece into a competition, or trying to secure a commission for it.) 

Interestingly, in my green foray into this world, I discovered that for composers working in film and video games, the process is reversed. That is to say, composition takes place in the DAW - often with the piano roll editor as the main composing environment - and then, only if necessary, the midi may be brought into a notation program to generate parts and a score for live musicians, who will only set eyes on this music if the budget allows it. I've learned a bunch about this world by hanging out on the vi-control forum, where I always feel very much like an alien (in a mostly enjoyable way). 

Never one to be satisfied with the conventional wisdom, I spent a good part of the fall trying to master the vagaries of Finale's "Human Playback" system - which is the built-in system of translating musical notation into midi events. For instance, the presence of staccato markings over specific notes in the score needs to trigger a switch to the staccato sample, say on cello, so that you're not just hearing the same sound with shorter note values, but a different sample altogether - one actually played staccato. I struggled with customizing Finale's Human Playback settings for use with "third party" sample libraries (i.e. not the built-in Garritan samples) for the entirety of the orchestrating process, until, by the end, I had gotten quite good at it - and also come to understand the real limitations of manipulating midi data in a program like Finale (it is less limited, I think, than a lot of people realize, and yet still... quite limited. I dream of writing a tome on the subject). 

When I was done orchestrating and preparing parts, I spent the last couple of weeks of 2016 doing an elaborate midi mock-up of one of the opera's scenes - the finale of Act I. I already had the pretty-goodish midi demo generated directly from Finale, but I wanted to see if I could achieve something better. I think, in a way, it was my way of not being able to let go of the project that had consumed so many years of my life. The result has clear strengths and weaknesses. Any midi mockup of a human voice begs a lot from a listener, and I'll understand if you don't survive nearly 9 minutes of this. But the voices here aren't actually that bad (the soloists are Vienna Symphonic Library's Vienna Solo Voices) - there are even a few moments where I think they sound genuinely pretty! Also - if you feel like fast forwarding to about the middle, the character of the music changes from dissonant contemporary art music to a lilting, ensemble mariachi number (and there's a lovely little guitar cadenza right at the end). 

When I was done with that, I finally let myself let the opera go, and tried my mockup skills on someone ELSE's music. Here's a quick job I did of Stravinsky's "Greeting Prelude," which is an adorable little version of Happy Birthday he wrote in celebration of Pierre Monteux's birthday. I entered the score into Finale, exported midi, and then played around for a couple of days in Logic:

After that, my semester started (after a fall sabbatical) and I was mad busy. Didn't really have time to play around with this stuff much. But then, in a composition lesson, a student played me some film music that had inspired him - just for piano and cello. More and more students' first exposure to music composition these days is via films, and, to an even larger extent, video games. Hearing the piece he played me, I thought - here's an interesting challenge. Write a piece totally unlike myself, a pretty and sad bit of film music, and write TO a sample library (i.e. write specifically with my virtual instrument's capabilities in mind, rather than thinking of the human who would ultimately play it, with the midi playback just a stopgap facsimile of the real thing). I picked up this very cool cello library by Cinesamples - called Tina Guo Acoustic Legato Cello - and wrote this short little romantic/filmy thing. My goal initially was just to be convincing and realistic, but like any music I work on, I grew to like it a good deal - you have to.

That's a little walk through some of the virtual music making I've been doing - mainly just to teach myself this world, and also to find a point of connection with some of my students. But I think also because I love the idea of just working up a complete thing, something not requiring interpretation or expensive rehearsals... something I just have and can share. I think that's what drew me to making rock albums. Not exactly sure where this little adventure takes me, and not sure how long I can dabble with it in the face of upcoming projects. But for the time being, I am a happy dabbler.