Guest Composer at Shenandoah Conservatory
Shenandoah Conservatory, 1460 University Dr, Winchester, VA 22601, USA MAP
I am about as far behind on my blog-reading as I am on my blog-writing, so this morning I thought I’d try to get caught up on at least the reading part, starting with the wonderfully-written and frequently updated Hell Mouth blog by John Adams. Part of my reason for starting there was also, to be honest, to kick my blog-writing back into action after too-long of a hiatus. (Every time I complain about being too tired to blog, I have a good friend who puts me in my place by reminding me that John Adams posts thoughtful and substantial posts every three-to-four days. And he’s John Adams; a busy guy. I inevitably grumble but concede.)
The post that first caught my attention was this one, about one of my favorite places on earth–Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. I love old cemeteries, and for me, Père-Lachaise is second only to San Michelle’s in Venice, which wins out simply because it’s literally an island of the dead, and that’s pretty creepy. And though San Michelle can boast Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Nono and Ezra Pound among its residents, Père-Lachaise certainly wins out in terms of composer VIPs: Bellini, Bizet, Chausson, Cherubini, Chopin, Dukas, Françaix, Poulenc, and more. And of course there’s also Balzac, Proust, and The Lizard King. (Though it should be mentioned that Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof, probably wins out in terms of the quality of its VIPs–Beethoven, Brahms, Ligeti, Mozart, Schoenberg, Schubert, and others. Still, it doesn’t have the creepy, magical feeling of the other two, and so falls to third place.)
Adams’s description of the cemetery is really wonderful, but the moment that really struck me was the following passage:
We don’t do the pilgrimage to Jim Morrison, but we note with some pleasure that of all the tens of thousands of graves, the one that it is by far and away the most adored, the most visited and the most heaped with flowers and demonstrations of affection is that of a composer, “Fred. Chopin” (as the inscription reads). For all the politicians and wealthy businessmen and puffed up egos that take up room in this seemingly endless cemetery, the ones people gravitate to are those of the artists, and of those, it’s the ones who gave us beauty and a singular awareness of our humanity that receive the most visits. Thus, on this unremarkable weekday afternoon in March with tourist season months away, there is nonethelss a clutch of people clustered around Chopin’s grave, and there is a fresh pile of flowers beneath it.
I first visited Père-Lachaise when I was 16 years old. I had just decided that I wanted to become a composer, though still had no idea what that really meant, or how I was going to do it. I remember that, in the moment when I first saw Chopin’s grave, I was similarly moved. That there must be some deep truth that this man understood, and could share with people; ” beauty and a singular awareness of our humanity,” as Adams puts it. I think that somewhere in my subconscious this re-affirmed my uninformed teenage decision to be a composer, and that the resonance of this moment has kept me going through times of doubt, fear, writers-block, etc. in the years since.
The last few months have been a bit of a whirlwind, which explains why I haven’t been able to post here as regularly as I would have liked. That said, I’m happy to report that everything has gone really well.
My opera Vinkensport was a success, I think, both as a piece and in terms of its reception. Newspeak‘s residency at Princeton went very well, and only a week later we went into the studio to record our first CD, which was hard work, but very fun, and what I’ve heard of the tracks sound really great (and heavy!) (Pictures here.) I just got back from Chicago where I had the privilege to perform Corey Dargel‘s 13 Near-Death Experiences with ICE. I haven’t composed any music since January…(I have done some orchestrations)…but I did turn in my dissertation.
Now, I love what I do…well, I wouldn’t say that I “loved” writing the dissertation…and have learned an amazing amount from the diversity of my opportunities, especially from performing the music of other composers. But having just weathered three months of pure craziness does raise the question of how one balances a life like this. Throughout this whole period, as I was constantly unable to attend friend’s shows, or see family, or, you know, eat dinner, I kept finding myself softly chanting “koyaanisqatsi“. I definitely felt a sense of imbalance.
So far my approach to dealing with periods like this has been: get as much done as you can when you can, never really take too long a break, and sacrifice things like sleep, health, family, etc. Clearly, this is stupid. It’s a very undergraduate way of living, and I really can’t do it anymore. In fact, I think when you’re an adult, the word for this kind of approach is “workaholic,” and most things that end in “-aholic” aren’t especially tenable. This, then, is to be my goal moving forward: To continue to produce as much as possible, but not to over-commit or over-extend myself.
I’ll be sure to let you know how all this goes. But for now, it’s off to Baltimore for a run of performances with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and then to plan a donor appreciation event for Newspeak, and write a sax quartet. But then that’s it for a while. Really. I promise. I can stop anytime I want. I swear.
Over the next nine months or so, I will be conducting candid interviews with some very exciting creative people, including producer Beth Morrison, composers Ted Hearne, Darcy James Argue, Corey Dargel, Leo Chadburn (aka Simon Bookish), and more.
We kick things off with a group interview on the collaborative process with filmmaker Stephen Taylor, librettist Royce Vavrek, and composers Missy Mazzoli, who each have new operas being premiered at the end of the month at Bard Conservatory in New York. The conversation covers questions of influence, style, gender, narrative, technique, process and more.
I am very sad to hear–amidst so much terrible news from Washington–of the passing of historian Howard Zinn.
Though Zinn is best known for his seminal A People’s History of The United States, it is his 1970 book The Politics of History that has had the most profound effect on me. In this book he notes “Historical writings always have some effect on us. It may reinforce our passivity; it may activate us. In any case, the historian cannot choose to be neutral; he writes on a moving train.”
Zinn’s work is one of the things that activated me, and led me to conclude that, as an artist, I too write on a moving train.
“So, you like challenges, right?” This is how a phone call from Dawn Upshaw began, approximately 4 months ago. She was looking to commission a short—20-30 minute—opera for the Graduate Vocal Arts program at the Bard Conservatory. I’d worked with these amazing singers last year as part of the Osvaldo Golijov/ Dawn Upshaw Professional Training Workshop, co-presented by Bard and Carnegie Hall, so I knew they were great, and was excited to have the chance to work with them again. And of course, when Dawn Upshaw is asking, there is pretty much only one right answer: yes.
So there I was, with four months to write an opera that would premiere in six months. Do I like challenges? Apparently, I do! 2009 ended—and 2010 began—in a sleep-deprived frenzy.
First, of course, I needed a libretto. So I contacted my trusted collaborator Royce Vavrek to see a) if he wanted to write one, and b) if he had any ideas for what it could be about. After much discussion and many possibilities being tossed around, he sent me a Wikipedia entry on the strange sport of finch sitting.
Finch sitting (or “vinkensport” in Flemish) is a sport that developed in the late 1500s in Flanders. Basically, the competitors sit in front of a caged bird and mark on a tally stick how many times said bird tweets a specific song—called a “susk-e-wiet”—during the course of an hour. Then they do it again—round two—and so on. It’s like golf, but with birds, and more boring.
But here’s the thing: people who play it get completely obsessed; or at least it would seem so based on the numerous reports of cheating. These incidents—including someone injecting testosterone into their bird so they’d sing more frequently—were what first drew Royce and me to the subject; made us ask, what is it about the need to win that would push people to such an extent? Especially since—hello—it’s finch sitting! It’s not like we’re talking about the Olympics here.
This is ultimately what Vinkensport, of The Finch Opera, is about: why people think they need to win. Some of the characters in the opera just like to win—because winning feels good—while others do it to fill void that they feel in their life. Starting off with these questions/this theme afforded us an opportunity to explore issues of dramatic character in a way he hadn’t been able to in previous collaborations—i.e. the in-progress Dog Days. We get into their lives and experience their joys and sorrows, delusions and all-too-stark realities. Still, at its core, Vinkensport is a comedy. We hope you will laugh.
Vinkensport, of The Finch Opera will be premiered on February 26th at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College alongside a new version of my dear friend Missy Mazzoli’s haunting Song From the Uproar, and L’enfant et les sortilèges by some guy named Maurice Ravel. James Bagwell will conduct all three operas, and Dan Rigazzi will direct the fully-staged productions…(which, as far as I know, will all involve puppets!)
Back in 1996, when I was still a high schooler, The Vandals released a Christmas record called “Oi To The World.” I happened to randomly pick it up, and fell instantly in love with it. It’s been a holiday tradition for me ever since.
This year, I’m in Australia for the holidays, and completely forgot to pack it! Lucky for me, the whole record seems to have been uploaded in gloriously poor quality to YouTube in one of those weird I’m-really-an-audio-file-in-disguise-since-there’s-no-real-video-to-see-here files. Regardless I’m glad to have found it, and I thought I’d post a track or two here.
You might already know this song. No Doubt covered this track a number of years ago, skanking it up as they do, but I definitely prefer this original. And if you like this, the whole record seems to be up. My favorites: “Nothing’s Going To Ruin My Holiday,””Thanx for Nothing,” and “Hang Myself From The Tree,” which totally has a Tuba solo! Their cover of “Here I Am, Lord” is also pretty amazing. (The easily offended might want to stay far away from C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S, and some others, which should be clear from the titles.)
But what sort of lefty curmudgeon would I be if I didn’t post the delightful rant against commercialism, “I Don’t Believe in Santa Claus”?
Happy Holidays All!