The Summer King at Opera America's New Works Forum

Last week I had the privilege of being a featured composer at Opera America’s 3rd annual New Works Forum in New York City. The event is designed for those opera professionals throughout the country interested in new American opera to gather and discuss the associated challenges in bringing such works to the stage. Generally four or five operas are featured during the three-day conference as well, usually about 20-45 minute excerpts in piano-vocal format with singers.

Steve Osgood leads the ensemble. Photo by Audrey Saccone, courtesy of Opera AmericaThis year, however, it was my good fortune to have the Summer King slated for a more featured role. Almost the entire final day of the New Works Forum was devoted to my opera, with a libretto reading by actors in the morning, and then two consecutive performances of three scenes from the opera in the afternoon, the first in piano-vocal format, and the next, the grand finale, with orchestra. This is the first time a work has been featured with orchestra at the NWF, and the size of the ensemble (16 players, including two percussionists with reasonably large setups) prompted a venue change from the National Opera Center, on 7th Avenue near 29th street, where the conference’s other events all took place, to the Mary Flagler Cary Hall at the Dimenna center on 39th Street near 10th Avenue.

It is self evident that the opportunity to hear three scenes from an opera with orchestra, a little bit beyond midway through the orchestrating process, is a tremendous advantage for its composer. By itself, that made the entire endeavor worth its weight in gold. And I was pleasantly surprised with the effectiveness of the orchestrations overall. I seem to have held percussion in check, the surface of the music is colorful but not overwrought, and I do not seem to have buried the singers for the most part.  Several attendees did raise some concerns about balance and prevalence of brass, while some noted the discrepancy between hearing the work in a concert setting, with instrumental musicians on the stage, versus employing a theatrical pit for the ensemble as you would in a full production. This experience has certainly nudged us towards stashing the orchestra in the pit for the Maine concert premiere in May. Fortunately I will soon have a professional recording of the day’s events to study, and hope to attain full mastery of the specific challenges attendant to marrying my music to this particular assemblage of tone color. 

Stephen Salters as Josh Gibson. Photo by Audrey Saccone, courtesy of Opera America.In addition to the golden chance to hear my orchestration in process, the day of Summer King had more to offer me and my audience. The morning libretto reading presented almost the entire libretto (not the first scene, or the two short final scenes), read without music by actors, who had had several rehearsals in advance, yielding something closer to a full fledged “performance,” though still on book. This allowed the audience members to have a broader contextual understanding of the piece than that they could get from only the three scenes presented with music. Also, it provided a glimpse into the painstaking process of opera development, as conference-goers who attended all three of the day’s workshops were able to trace the development of the opera in much the same way I’ve experienced it – drawn over ten years, of course. It is amazing that even at this late stage of the opera’s incarnation, I still heard new meanings in many of the opera’s lines as they rolled of the tongues of these talented performers.

A word about the attendees of the New Works Forum. This was an event not open to the general public (and thus does some general confusion exist among friends and colleagues about what, in fact, I was doing in New York last week). Only individual and institutional members of Opera America who had registered for the event could be there, and these included opera general directors, artistic directors, young artist program directors, publishers, and a smattering of composers and librettists. To call it an elite crowd from the perspective of opera would be an understatement. These were people who know the craft and the business intimately, and could extrapolate the dramatic effectiveness of raw  material with significantly more quickness and depth than you would expect from a lay audience. Included in the mix were representatives from several companies I would very much like to see mount the staged world premiere of The Summer King. Not a bad opportunity to grab their ears for a little while.

After each of the three workshops – libretto, piano-vocal and orchestral, I found myself on the hot seat, taking questions from a moderator, and also from this illustrious crowd. Some questioned the logic of not having the lead character, Josh Gibson, have an aria of his own. Though this is very much by design, and not unique in the opera literature, it was a thoughtful conversation that actually lingered throughout the day (prompted in no small part by the singer playing Josh’s interest in the matter). Fortunately, for my sanity, quite a few people seemed to be genuinely moved and impressed at each leg of the day, and expressed as much publicly, giving me the requisite courage to march on to the next segment. It is not really a question of not feeling confident in the work. More about the intensity of experiencing this work that has existed so privately, inside my head and my imagination, given voice for the first time in public, and co-processing both my OWN reaction to the performances and the audience’s, which was almost immediately related back to me after each segment.

In the end, I was more than satisfied – I felt blessed. A troika of partners was involved in getting me to this wonderful moment in my operatic journey: Opera America, who sponsored the entire thing, American Opera Projects, who has been involved in the opera’s development since the very beginning, and Portland Ovations, whose courageous decision to present the concert premiere this coming May has been the catalyst for all of the wonderful developments the opera has enjoyed this year, including this one. I was treated like royalty, like Cinderella (in her good moments) every step of the way – from generous accommodation in New York, to eager, inspired, and respectful treatment by all of the many performers involved (around 40 when actors, singers and musicians are tallied up), to loving and supportive guidance from the benevolent staff and leadership of Opera America. The beautiful informational video Opera America produced as an introduction to the events around my opera gives some idea of the level of professionalism and passion they brought to every aspect of this venture. The commitment and abilities of my creative team, led by Conductor Steven Osgood, Assintant Conductor Charity Wicks, and Director Lemuel Wade, cannot be overstated. The information gleaned in rehearsals, and particularly on that magical last day, will guide me significantly in the frenetic weeks to come.

The wealth of opinions by important opera people about my work must, of course, be treated with care. I feel the need to bottle the feedback, continue working, and then allow myself to fully grapple with the various ideas offered after such time that I – and a public – have experienced the work in entirety, with orchestra. As much as the combination of a libretto reading and almost one third of the opera’s music can tell such an elite audience, I must balance that with the fact that I have been living with this opera for a decade, its music, its characters, its plot. There is virtually no moment about which I have not agonized, and I made the decisions I made for a reason in almost every case. This is NOT to say that the decisions were all right, or that objective and experienced listeners aren’t capable of offering insight that I, in my closeness to the project, would never otherwise have stumbled upon. But more just an acknowledgment, after seeing how much more of the opera’s emotional impact audience members were able to absorb from the orchestral version than from the piano-vocal, that I need to allow the original conception a true and full airing before diving into revision mode.

These are joyous “problems” to be thinking about, alongside the more urgent one of simply getting the work done on time – which must be my religion for the next several months. My carriage may have turned back into a pumpkin for now, but I am hoping one of those I danced with last week will arrive before too long with the glass slipper. After having toiled for so so very long in isolation on this project that is so very dear to my heart, it was simply splendid to be allowed to sparkle for an afternoon. On this, the 67th anniversary of Josh Gibson’s death, I hope for more sparkling days ahead, so that this opera may sing long and proud, as Josh deserved to. 

Rock Band Art Man

I am playing in a rock band for the first time in a long time. I was in another band a few years back, but it was more of a folkish-country outfit, and I was the mostly well behaved seen-but-only-slightly-heard drummer (at least that was the job description! - here's a clip). I played in the bona fide 90s Indie rock band Trike for a time in, you know, the 90s (culminating in my drumming for Billy Dechand's solo album Pop Another Cork - here's the title track), and then in college I was in the before-its-time supergroup Toothbucket (no real weblink for that one!), and then in high school, the intelli-pop power trio Delayed Green Wait.  Amazingly, this last, oldest band, represents the last time I was a principle creative member of a band - as I shared songwriting and vocal duties with now-Seattle-based guitar wiz Lexi Stern. In retrospect, our apex came when we played a CBGB Audition Showcase in 1985, when CBGB was a) still open and b) still at least somewhat relevant. I was 15. I played another coupla non-audition gigs there with Trike, and that is the extent of my rock cred, I suppose. 

But now I am suddenly the principle singer and songwriter in a new band full of terrific talent (the oldest of whom was 1 when I played that first CB's gig). We are called Lovers of Fiction, and have been playing for just a little bit now. We even got a nice little shoutout in last week's Portland Phoenix - not bad for a band that's rehearsed 4 times (but stay tuned for deets about a show on August 17!). We exist because over the last couple of years I've found myself increasingly with the urge to return to my pop-song writing roots, and I've assembled a decent size set-list's worth of material. You can hear a few of the demos here, but note those are all me alone, with precious few real instruments, and were made before the existence of the Lovers

All of the above is a prelude to another kind of meditation I've wanted to attempt, this about the comparative experiences of being IN a rock band (and playing my own music) and writing chamber music for others to perform. I have very little experience playing actual chamber music. I never quite mastered an instrument with sufficient classical precision to put myself in that spot. Though I did play guitar for my Jarring Dances, drums for my old piece Mejdoub (pno., cl, e. gtr., accrdn., drms) and I'll be playing percussion in the upcoming premiere of my piece Takes One To Know One. In each of those cases, I wrote a part tailor-suited for my (limited, in that context) abilities. It's funny how now, all these years after being an active rock drummer, I can sit behind a kit w/ some bona fide skilled players and feel completely at home, while the prospect of sitting in w/ some serious chamber music performers and playing drums on my own piece terrifies me. Context is everything, as someone once said.

The creation process of rock band vs. concert music (the term I'll use today for music built upon the classical tradition of recitals, quiet concert halls, precise detail, and all that) - at least from the compositional perspective - is not very different. Most of my rock band stuff is demoed out pretty thoroughly, with multiple parts figured out - an arrangement, if you will. In my best moments I get a pretty close approximation of the sound of real humans - here's a decent sample (though the song is a touch closer to Billy Joel than I ever hoped I'd get!)

Making those recordings is not so different from sitting at my computer trudging away at Finale at some new chamber composition. In both cases I like to come up w/ a recording that comes pretty close to what a real performance would sound like - and I do spend a little extra time fine tuning the midi demos of my concert pieces. Here's an example of one of those - my yet-to-be-premiered piece 41 Fathead, for piano and percussion, in which both performers are asked to sing at the end of the piece. My friend Elizabeth Burd helped me out by demoing the vocal parts at the end with, you know, her actual voice. For what it's worth, I think this is probably my best piece of chamber music to date (and NOT the most recent...I finished this back in July 2011, so have had time to form at least something of an objective opinion!). This will premiered at concerts at Bowdoin College and the University of Southern Maine in late September, 2012.

The real difference is in what happens next. With the chamber music, I deliver written-out parts and score to the performers, and they will gather and attempt to capture my intentions to the most minute detail. Of course they will bring to the table their own styles and musicianship, and invariably, fine classical performers find things in my music - connections, ways of phrasing, etc. - that I didn't consciously put there. That said, though, they will be working towards something that's actually pretty close to the above demo - just with some LIFE added! Midi demos can be pretty convincing as long as they don't involve strings (the absolute worst of sampled instruments...even the high-dollar samples need to be extensively coddled to sound like musicians).

In the band, however, things go differently. I bring in my demo recordings, and even - in the luxuriously wonderful case of THIS band, where every member reads music fluently - written out arrangements of sections, but these are viewed only as starting points, even suggestions. It is understood that the band, as an organic entity, is going to find its own sound and its own way into this music. There is absolutely no preconception that our goal is to emulate what's on the "page" (and the "page" in this case - as w/ most popular music forms these days - is the recording, first and foremost). One thing that results from this credo is players play their best music - you know, stuff that's hyper-idiomatically conceived not just for their instruments, but for themselves as instrumentalists. In a band, the players are generally going to do what they do best, if given half an opportunity. That's not necessarily true in concert music - unless (as is ideal) there's been a close colaborative relationship between composer and performer(s), and ideally one with some longevity to it.

And when the band has some seasoned players, who have been through the ropes in several different genres, there's a great luxury of being able to pivot between different styles just with a mere comment - "let's play this like 70s Funk, and then switch to a more Zappa-like vibe"). In concert music, those effects would have had to be laboriously researched, internalized, and notated but just the one bloke at the computer.

Finally, in a band set to play all original tunes, the tunes will generally be learned completely before they are presented live. They will be perfected over weekly meetings, and only when the ensemble is truly kicking do they go out before the masses. This is often not the case with new concert music - where musicians' valuable time and scant funding often precludes truly adequate rehearsal time, and the prime moving force on when a piece gets performed is when the concert's been scheduled. AND, often the piece then doesn't get played again by the same ensemble. A band plays its music again and again, perfecting it further in live performance.

As the creative principle in both situations, there are things to adore about each. As far as concert music goes, as much as I love the electric and stimulating vibe of a great rock show, I also do love the notion of an entirely quiet audience, attuned to every detail of what I wrote - just as the performers, highly skilled and trained musicians, are lovingly and exactingly trying realize my vision. That is just a very, very good place to be. But in the band, I love the irreverance, the non-fetishism of the printed document, the notion that music is ever in flux, and what the composer thought at the time of inspiration is the beginning, not the beginning, middle and end, of the disucssion.

Oh. And I also kinda wanna be a rock star. Which you can do in each format to an extent, but probably moreso in, you know, the rock star genre.


Pitch is less important than you think?

Hey ho - time I checked in in these parts. Happy news today, as I put the double bar down on my new composition, which is called Takes One To Know One. It's a 10.5 minute single-movement piece for bass clarinet, cello, double bass, and percussion (floor tom and kick drum), and I will be playing the percussion part at the premiere on July 26 at the Frontier cafe in Brunwick Maine. As was the case with the last time I wrote myself into a piece, I imagine I may expend more blood, sweat and tears learning the thing than I did these past two weeks writing it. I suppose it is good to occasionally write myself into the hot seat, if only to feel the pain I so routinely inflict on others. For whatever reason, I was not born to write easy music. My pieces never just fall together like buttah, first reading. It's a haul each and every time, no matter how simple I think I've been. I think I said somewhere in this blog about turning 40 and embracing my limitations. Yeah. That.

Anyhoo, I got some nice composerly feedback from the last post, so I'm emboldened to throw my hat further into the ring on the whole Ima-tell-you-how-I-compose thing. I was thinking, in particular, of one of the items in my bulleted list.  I wrote that "pitch is less important than you think," and then I thought about that for a couple of days. In some ways - at least in my music - it's rather obviously not true. Pitch matters a whole heck of a lot to me. My music doesn't rely much on dramatic extended techniques such as multiphonics, and really does in fact tend to foreground pitch. I suppose it's more that I've reached a place in my own composing where I've decided I'm not going to worry about pitch anymore.

We composers go through rigorous training, and so much of it involves learning new and ever-more-complicated ways to think about and grapple with pitch. As a music educator, I am as guilty of extending this tradition as anyone. Ask anyone who's taken my Music Theory and Aural Skills 4 class, where poor undergraduates are asked not only to memorize ALL of the Forte set-class labels (ok...that's a JOKE, but I think to some it feels that way)...(you get the picture, it's taxing). So many of these methods, be it the tonal system, set-class theory, 12-tone technique, or what have you, seem to have at their core a fundamental mistrust of the composer's ear. Well, at least if they are being taught from the compositional perspective. In music theory classes there is something almost sinful about composing "by ear." That's not what we're there for! We're there to EXPAND the ear's capacity, to force ourselves to make music of strange, unfamiliar and even forbidding materials. This is, for the most part, good and proper in my book.

But so much of this thinking expands beyond the academy. And indeed - post-academic life (well actually, have I ever experienced THAT??), or rather post-school composing, seems for many to be a years-long process of shedding the accrued baggage, the ways of thinking and ordering and labeling that seem, while one is Ivory Tower-confined, to be essential. Or, for some, continuing to drink the Kool Aid. So many composers, when presenting their work, talk of the elaborate pitch schemata at play in their music, the synthetic scales, the set transformations, the large-scale key structures, and on it goes. Some of the music then turns out to be very good, so I shan't fault them. My old teacher Daron Hagen used to tell me, "whatever it takes to trick yourself into writing music," and I wholeheartedly agree.

But it occurs to ME that a good musical thinker, one with ears, one with years and years of jumping through these various pitch hoops, has much of this magic brewing within, on a deeper and more unconscious level, than can every really be ecompassed by theory-speak. There comes a time, I believe, when composing "by ear alone" is a necessity. This may seem simplistic or a truism, but I hope it really isn't.

I used to be worried about my pieces starting and ending in the same key. I also used to feel that my music suffered for not having the elaborate key architectures of, say, a Mahler Symphony. Who knows, maybe it's in fact true! But I don't worry that way any more. I have come to trust my instincts on pitch, both in the immediate, microcosmic sense (this chord to that chord), and in the grander, macrocosmic, structural sense. When I listen through to my work-in-progress, over and over, I have an inner sense of when the key (to the extent that there are, in fact keys - I use this term VERY loosely here) needs to change, where home is, if home can change, and how pieces need to develop in the realm of pitch. I've let go of the feeling - drilled into me during years of schooling - that pieces with tonal overtones all have essentially the same mission in this world. Much as I praised Schenker in my prior post, that aspect of his thought seems inapplicable to my own writing. I do believe my current pieces have very satisfying, logical, and complex journies in pitchspace - but I can't sit down and map them out for you. (I actually probably could, if I took the time, but I don't wanna).

Furthermore, I believe I've developed a sensibility about melody such that I don't really need to limit myself to particular scales, or to be aware at all times what labels I'm invoking with my melodic grasping. There's some kind of irony here, perhaps, because as a theory instructor and suriving dissertator, I can take my superman analytical gaze to just about anything and make some egghead sense of it. But I prefer to keep myself willfully in the dark when it comes to my own music, more and more relying on the logic of the ear, and a deep trust in my unconscious. It's basic stuff, but hard won in this case.

Of course, there are certain times in which theoretical chops just sort of kick in. Certainly in writing chorale-like passages, of which my new piece has plenty - my voice-leading sensibilities, honed over years of evaluating student counterpoint and harmony exercises - do tend to kick in. But even there, my thinking is about 99% voice leading, and only 1% about resulting simultaneities, which I prefer to evaluate and tweak...again...(don't get annoyed)...exclusively by ear. Also, I actually love the sound of 12-tone music, but for me 12-tone has always been a seasoning, sprinkled judiciously at just the right moment - never a core-defining grail. I think it's possible to write 12-tone or almost-12-tone music by ear, but it's a LOT quicker to make yourself a Babbitt Square!

So, pitch is NOT less important than you think. But THINKING about pitch IS! Obviously, my points extend to those composers who did NOT go through endless schooling. Though the sad fact is, they tend to have greater trust in their ears to begin with. For myself, it's about learning to really believe in my ears, and that they'll guide me through a complex web of pitch relationships each time out, as long as I listen carefully, and listen again and again to the whole piece (it's impossible to overstress that). I think this newfound trust is part of the reason I'm composing fast now. I make decisions quickly, and trust that the inner computer is working, guiding me in ways my theory-teacher brain never could.