Sunday, March 22, 2015

Inscrutability

A few years ago I got it in my head that I wanted to do an opera based on Solaris. I reread the book a few times, a book about the impossibility of connecting with an alien intelligence or, for that matter, even knowing if one is confronting an alien intelligence, as well as the psychic shock of such a confrontation and its attendant uncertainties.

There have been at least three films adapting this book, two better-known versions, one by Andrei Tarkovsky and one by Steven Soderbergh, the latter even more than the former concentrating in its Hollywood way on the romantic relationship between the main character and his deceased wife. Lem himself was skeptical of both these adaptations, writing that "the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space." No, the book is about the Solarian ocean, its incomprehensibility and its reaction, possibly intelligent or possibly automatic, like one's skin pushing out a splinter, to the human ants crawling in space above it. As my lovely wife the Empress Rutter has pointed out, films which adapt a book make choices out of the necessity of time, somewhat like operas that adapt a book, but the power of films lies in their reach to the masses, and a film's point of view often becomes the book's point of view, even if the film's point of view has little to do with what the book is about.

I agree with the book - the book unsullied by the movie biz - and its contrarian attitude as to aliens, that they aren't attractive human-like creatures more-or-less like people around us now but wearing less clothing, nor monsters which do not yield to reason nor emotional appeal, but just love to cut through us like knives cutting through cubes of warmed butter ready to be spread on cinnamon toast. I have always been amazed at the naïveté of Voyager's Golden Record, of the SETI project and the Drake equation, of the notion that humans are the pinnacles of evolution, and that supposed scientists fall for this kind of religous thinking, wanting to believe that we are special, that we still are at the center of some aspect of our little universe, that other beings are even beings, that we will all get together on a Sunday afternoon and, after we deal with a few small impediments about their different language, which will be more-or-less like ours but have different words for iPhone and cupcake, they will want to chat with us about mathematics and physics and home economics. In the common scientific world, the Copernican revolution upended only the weakest notion of the religion that came before, the foolishness that we are sitting still while the suns and planets whiz about us, but retaining the foolishness that our particular whims and fancies are at the center of it all anyway.

It's difficult enough to understand the person who sleeps in the same bed with you, or who lives next door, or people that live in another country, those who line up and shoot others who minutely differ from them theologically, and almost impossible to understand people who lived at a different time. All of these people are really quite different from you and me, and you are quite different from me. We try to explain ourselves across this gap, even here in this essay, but the lack of understanding is unbreachable, its nature unknowable. In Certitude and Joy, the chasm between the protagonists, living in the same time and place, is wide, even though one desperately wants the worldview held by the other.

But, like most project ideas, it will probably never happen, and this may be made even more so by my recent discovery that one of my composer friends is also toying with an adaptation of the book, someone who once before informed me that another of my vague projects was being done by someone else, in that case Steven Mackey's Ravenshead, which adapted the Donald Crowhurst story. I suppose I could just do it anyway, and maybe that would be an asshole move, or maybe we could have a mini-festival of Solaris operas, followed by a dance where, late into the drunken and darkened night, we would find ourselves trying to reach that ultimate connection, that miniature death where ego disappears and two or three or more are one.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

UKSUS: a major contemporary writer, neighing

The English language score of UKSUS (by way of the Russian УКСУС) is done and we are now skipping to production at Dance Mission 6-8 March, the first weekend of March that is, and only one weekend of March 2015 AD.  Tickets, which you must purchase, are available at uksus.org.

The music has been expanded since Austria, and more narration added in that gasbag Erling Phd style, taking the hand of, and leading, the audience through the maze of Kharms and the OBERIU, their rise and fall, laughter and death.

Once again I get to work with the incomparable Jim Cave as the director, a thought that even now chills me - Oh I shiver and cry. My wife, the most talented and beautiful Lynne Rutter, is putting together the scenic elements and telling me now what colors I may next paint my nails (black, white, red, with some blue and yellow, primary colors, bright, with occasional occurrence of acid green or bright orange in small amounts acceptable), and Laura Hazlett is costuming us all once again - squee. And I can't forget that Bryan Nies, the glue that held together the revival of Queer and assembled Certitude and Joy, is conducting.

The cast includes my number one son Duncan Wold (thanks to Mission Control); my long-time partner in music and surrogate daughter Laura Bohn; the talented Nikola Printz, who I just saw in Rossini's Italian Girl of Algiers at San Jose, an opera that is bizarre and incomprehensible to someone like me for whom old-fashioned opera is Lulu, Einstein on the Beach and Private Parts; Bob Ernst, who goes way back with Jim and me, having choreographed the knife fight in the original A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil; where you would also have seen Mary Forcade, again here; and Roham Sheikhani, the mute presence in Dieci Giorni.

Now the band, the band, the all-star band. This is maybe where my heart truly lies, most fervently and even with some palpitations, as I wonder, am I really good enough for them? Beth Custer clarinet, Chris Grady trumpet, Joel Davel percussion (drums even), Diana Strong accordion, John Schott guitar, Ela Polak violin, and Lisa Mezzacappa contrabass.

Now, let's hear a story, that of Aleksey Tolstoy:
Olga Forsh went up to Aleksey Tolstoy and did something. Aleksey Tolstoy also did something. At this point Konstantin Fedin and Valentin Stenich leapt outside and got down to looking for a suitable stone. They didn't find a stone but they found a spade. Konstantin Fedin cracked Ol'ga Forsh one across the chops with this spade. Then Aleksey Tolstoy stripped naked and, going out on to the Fontanka, began to neigh like a horse. Everyone said: There goes a major contemporary writer, neighing.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Blake Eckard, Coyotes Kill for Fun

Writing a film soundtrack is difficult for me. It's hard to get into someone else's world so intensely, and we know that music is in fact intense in film. The well-known exercise of repeatedly playing the same silent footage against wildly different musical selections demonstrating the point most clearly, viz., that sound enters at a lower layer in the human software than the visuals, arguing or supporting or twisting or even simply stating clearly here, this is what they are, take them. With such great power comes great anxiety over its misuse, and this anxiety for me has never been pleasant.

However, I have written some of my favorite music when asked to write for film. The Bed You Sleep In is still one of my best-self-loved works after all these years, in large part because I wanted to give Jon what he wanted, and in doing so an aspect of myself was revealed to me. But I still remember the chastening experience when the producer, Henry Rosenthal, shrugged his shoulders upon hearing the soundtrack and said "Well, Jon does like when the music doesn't really relate to the film." You know, while I was writing it I sure thought it did, and after he said it I realized he was right, but after now these many years, he is simply wrong, since the music and the film are just an old married couple, always seen together at their table at the diner on the corner, not necessarily talking, but still there day after day.

I've thought that, given the importance of choosing the right partners in sound and vision, what makes more sense, and what is way better for my apoplexic health, is when the filmmaker either (1) writes the music themselves, or (2) simply takes some music that has already flowed into the channels of their psyche and uses it. Like paper-clips, one might think there is enough shit-tons out there already that you don't need to make any more, but I suppose there's always one more bit of divine harmony left to be mined from the heavenly vein of sound as yet unheard.

And so, I just finished writing some music for another of Blake Eckard's movies, the first being the grim Bubba Moon Face and the current one, his newest even grimmer and more frightening Coyotes Kill for Fun. The fright in this movie is the fear we have when we face a world that doesn't care about us at all, that tells us whether we live nor die is no matter. The sociopathic lead blows through the action leaving many dead, and maybe it is just for fun, or maybe it's just because of nothing at all. And, best for me is that I had to only fill in a few parts, as Blake used mostly existing music of mine, in particular the Second Mordake Suite and In the Stomachs of Fleas (with Pete von Petrin), which both find their way to being a little scarier.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Against cutesy-ness

Lying in bed last night reading Barry Mazur's When is one thing equal to some other thing?, I came across a throwaway line about the category of sets and how it is like Odette is to Swann and guffawed, and the person in bed with me, checking their Twitter feed and playing Solitaire, said "what?" and I shrugged it off, as one doesn't really want to be caught out laughing at a Proust reference late of the night, especially a Proust reference in an article on categories, since, as the children say, nothing kills a boner faster. But again I had a wistful longing for a proper Jesuit education, an education that really was an education instead of just hanging out in the library kicked out of class because it was so fucking deadly boring and hadn't I already learned it all during discussions at the synagogue and the moose lodge that the teacher took some pity on me and told me to come back later when all the rest were done for some special instructions and to earn the requisite grade of A or maybe even A+ through some extra credit hanky panky later back behind the quonset huts.

But what really irks me in this undereducated world is listening to yet another piece by a fellow composer overwhelmingly attracted to the cutesy and clever and wanting to share their cutesy cleverness with every person in dead-cat-swinging distance. Ah, even as a boy I could not understand the moments in some profound masterwork when suddenly the chicks in their shells start to prance about and one has to run, hoping to vomit one's guts out behind the cold water fountain in the lobby instead of down the neck of the patron a-fronting. And then, even worse, the composer who thinks hey I need some text so why don't I just knock something out here and there, yes, that's as dorky as it can possibly be, since why wouldn't everyone love to share some incredibly twee wordplay, forgetting that, just as the person who defends themself has a fool for a lawyer, the composer who has themself as librettist is most likely going to write a really shitty piece.

When I went on about this with my friend who we will, for the sake of argument, call "Jay", I was painfully aware that I myself have written my own texts but I said, slightly louder than maybe I should have, "who wouldn’t be interested in every little thing that happened to Erling Wold and every  thought that Erling Wold has ever had?"  And I was stewing about all that when I remembered the next piece setting some journal entries about having some coffee and cleaning one's underpants and stuff and I rolled my eyes and said to myself Jesus Lord in Heaven. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Great War


Now, at the 100th anniversary of that conflict, I find myself writing several pieces that connect to it: an opera of sorts on the sinking of the battleship Szent István for the wonderful Klagenfurter Ensemble, my favorite favorites; a longish solo piano work for the fabulously talented Slovenian pianist Davorin Mori that is a series of portraits of anti-war activists from the period; and a commissioned song for Heidi Moss as part of a multi-composer project of Lieder Alive!, in German, a setting of a war poem, Schlacht - Das Maß, a strange work which had even a stranger history after the first world war. So many people love war - absolutely love it - and that period of European and specifically German history at the beginning of the 20th century to the middle of it, seemed to be so much about that love, and it's very hard for me to understand. I'm trying to put that difficulty of understanding into the music somehow, probably too subtle but whatevs.

A series of questions on ownership


Mona Darkfeather, née Josephine Workman
Who owns a piece of a culture? If Jane and Joey played the now assuredly inappropriately named game of Indians and Cowboys when they were young, do they have any ownership of the iconography of those Cowboys or Indians? Would it matter if that iconography were historically accurate in whatever sense that is meaningful, or If that iconography came from the Hollywood mythology of the West? And which Hollywood mythology - that of Zane Grey or Little Big Man or Sam Peckinpah? If Penelope and Peter played GIs vs Nazis when they were young, do they own a piece of the symbology or culture of either of those groups: chewing gum, muddy boots, saber cuts on the cheek? Or the Saracens and the Crusaders? If not Jane nor Joey nor Penelope nor Peter, then who? Only the purest descendants of the GIs or the Nazis or the Cowboys or the Native Americans or those of Zane Grey? Or did Mr. Grey not possess the ownership to write his stories in the first place? And if anyone does have ownership, at what distance in space or in time or racial or geographical or cultural mixing is the ownership lost or even merely diluted?  Do blood and pain give ownership? Must it be your blood and pain or that of people close to you, or blood relatives, or Nth cousins removed? Does the closeness of relation affect guilt, do the sins of ones parents? 

In a world that has reduced spatial and time distances to zero, where we all experience all cultures through time and space from the moment we are born, which culture is ours? Is a distance of 200 years more or less than a distance of 2000 miles? Does sacredness or meaning or significance determine ownership? Who now can own the Liverpool sound, or punk of the 70s, or Grandmaster Flash? I heard the latter in more depth before the former, and Ligeti well before that. Which is my heritage?  And when I studied the tabla or the instruments of the gamelan, and played those better than the piano or the guitar, which do I own the most or the least? Which must I respect and how and what aspect? Am I free to use or abuse those instruments? These instruments all have their histories - not just one or two paths back through time but a thousand, a million - at least one, mostly likely more for each person who has ever touched them or even considered them - which is the proper heritage?  Which is the appropriated?  Does a colonial child in India own more or less of the music of India than an Indian child owns more or less of British mathematics?  

Do objects that are sacred to one group become untouchable by others? Does this depend on which group is which, on cultural superiority, who were the winners and losers, the matters of in-the-wrongness / in-the-rightness, power and might, economics and genocide? What is sacredness? Is a crucifix sacred? Is a photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine sacred? Is it acceptable for the descendant of a Nazi to be angered by the misuse of the SS-Runen in a comedy made by the winners, or does the Nazi's absolute wrongness in all things and all ways and their miserable evilness remove for always the cultural ownership of all their artifacts, ceding it to all others for all time to be used and abused and (we hope) denigrated? And is the same true for the absolute evilness of the 13th century Mongols, or is that too far off in the haze and fog of Western-biased history for us to be so sure of good and bad? 

And does something have to be sacred, or to be serious to be owned by whomever it is that might claim ownership? Or are jokes and fun owned by all?  And what about an object or a music that had another life before that?  People have been around for a million years, so did those things ever have another meaning? Is there not another group long dead who were borrowed from or traded with or conquered or laughed at or sat with or from whom it merely blew off their head in a strong wind? 

I have my own culture, formed from my experiences. Is that mine? Can another touch it who hasn't experienced exactly my experience?  Does it depend on how important it is to me?  If I have a religious experience in my music, does that make it too sacred for others?  When I write something, how does it affect the correctness of that in the world if anyone else in all of history on this world and all others has done that before or will do it in the future? How am I to know whether it is right or wrong?  

And, almost too obvious a question, how important is privilege? Maybe I can't do it but someone whose life is worse than mine can.  Someone poorer - there are always those - or someone sadder, or sicker, or more abused, or whose group or country or race or ancestors were sadder or sicker or more abused?  I was born in the US and thus I have great power and wealth. I was not born rich for the US but absolutely rich for the world. I was shy but I was not teased, I was smart but not made fun of, but I have always been depressed.  I was lonely yet popular, happy on the surface, did well in school, but didn't see life beyond school, had serious illnesses, suffered pain, have had friends die, was an asshole.  Which and how much of these allow me what?  What can I appropriate and what can I not, or do I need to start at the beginning, to invent my own biology and from that, language and sound and sight and touch all my own? How can I guarantee that I haven't failed?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

My mother, and the coming war against men



Marge Wold, with creatures

My mother died a few weeks ago, and, since then, stories of my life with her have come bubbling up. She, like me, wanted to do everything, to create everything. She was fiercely ambitious and trained me to be the same, with the good and bad attendant: all the achievements and all the dissatisfactions.  A few weeks before she died, she wheeled herself to her neighbor's, told him she wanted to talk, and announced: "I'm 95 and I haven't accomplished anything." This from a woman who wrote ten or so books, speechified throughout the world, was the goto troubleshooter for Lutheran churches, who founded day nurseries across the country for newly single working mothers, who raised five children, and who, when the family bought a silent 8mm camera, immediately wrote a wordless story and had me and my dog at the time act it out in the sprawling parsonage in Grand Forks ND. 

But one of my oldest and most favorite stories is of the time she sat me down, when I was about ten years old, and told me that, one day - and I suppose I assumed that that day was fast approaching - women would have to take up arms against men, this to right the many wrongs of the many millennia of the many oppressions. I knew that most wars are won by attrition, and that there are more women than men, so I resigned myself to being on the losing side, and would even now be willing to surrender if asked nicely, if we could once again find those Viking soldiers buried with their sword and shield so long mis-gender-identified, but no such battle has come, no such victory, and we see that, even today, women find themselves living in a world of shit. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Audience, and Nixon in China, and the Dissonance canard

I ran into fellow composer Michael Fiday at Lisa Moore's fabulous concert a few weeks ago and buttonholed him about one of his recent Facebook posts quoting Peter Gelb to the effect that composers were finally again writing music that audiences want to listen to. Michael's point was that this has been going on for a long time, but even better was one of the comments consisting of a link to an article in the San Diego Reader discussing the difficulties of the San Diego Opera which said:

It is doing John Adams’s Nixon in China next year. But this is risky. These works may be on contemporary themes, but they feature dissonant music.

And at the Opera Conference in Vancouver in 2013, a man in the back stood up and said that it was a mistake for opera companies to try to modernize by playing pieces like Nixon in China, since, like all modern operas, there was not one memorable or singable tune in the entire piece. I looked across the room and caught Kent Devereaux mouthing the words News news news news, matching exactly what I was thinking, along with the now-part-of-the-standard-aria-repertoire piece I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung, which consists almost entirely of simple triads and the outlinings of those same triads in the melodic line. 

Next story: when I was a graduate student, I was hanging at my research advisor Al Despain's home, a brilliant man with simple musical tastes, one who listens to what he likes, and he was at that moment playing some music he liked, some light jazz, some jazz with a touch of the electric, maybe a bit of rock fusion, music I thought simple and straightforward to listen to, and I attempted to join with him in the clear enjoyment of his simple musical pleasures. Whereupon, one of his other students entered and said What is this, John Cage? 

An even earlier story: when my college roommate and I were both taking various composition classes and raiding the local record stores for music that pushed the edges of the world we had known, I picked up a copy of Pierrot Lunaire, and that first time I listened it to I found it very strange and unappealing, mostly the vocal style, but really almost everything about it, and I thought to myself, when I eventually love this music, which I somehow knew I would, I will have to remember this moment, and remember how far my tastes have traveled, how distant they are from even those of other sophisticated listeners, as I was, having for many years listened to just about everything I could get my hands on. 

But all this, and the conclusions therefrom, are obvious. When the reviewer said 'dissonant' he just meant unfamiliar. Clearly any kind of semi-scientific Helmholtzian or musico-historical Tenney-ian Dissonance Meter's needle would remain during Nixon in China on the low end of the scale, most assuredly lower than Wagner and lots of popular others. And my fellow student meant by "John Cage" the whole incomprehensible world of music that lies outside of  the ten corporate-sponsored tunes of the moment. 

Is there really music that is inherently popular or elitist?  Or is it all just about what the populace is conversant with?  If the mass public hears something a hundred times, it can become - by that process alone - likable. If not, then why does each generation seem to love the music they grew up with and find the music of the succeeding generation unapproachable?  Why do those growing up in different cultures by and large love the music of their own culture and find the music of other cultures incomprehensible?  Clearly popularity is learned. 

So, when one is asked take the audience into account, one has to respond, which audience? Not me, obviously, as my tastes have long since departed this realm.  And if I am not the audience, then how can my tastes be relied upon to judge whether other audiences who are not me might respond?  Almost surely I'll get it wrong.  There is nothing sadder than the composer who gives up her own tastes and desires to attempt to connect to the audience and who fails in this attempt.  Oh to be a composer most fortunate - financially fortunate - whose musical tastes happen to coincide with that of the largest and most well-heeled audience. 

A couple new scores

A couple of new short simple pieces here and here, two that I played at the show with Laura Bohn last week. From the notes:

As I was just telling Beth Levin a few minutes ago, there are few dynamics and few indications of tempo, but they are flexible. I personally played the first piece moving the soft pedal very slowly, and in synchronization with my own small dynamic movements, giving the feel of an organ crescendo pedal. The third piece can be even slower than indicated, and quieter, and una corda. The last should have some frenzy, wide dynamics fine, a caesura before the change to the soft part.

Kyle Gann has spoken about this on his blog - the skepticism of the new music community at music they perceive to be understated.  I thank him his clarity on the issue.  And yes, I agree with him.  I'm happy if someone tries to control every aspect.  I myself used to do tape music, and that's a highly controlled medium, except for wires and speakers and amplifiers and the room in which one listens, but I also think that performers - including myself - should be able to mangle my pieces any way they wish.  They do anyway, so why not just acknowledge it?
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