Sunday, March 19, 2023

An alternate history of my chamber operas

Last night while babysitting GiGi, I was wasting time chatting with ChatGPT in its current incarnation, asking it to write some limericks on relativity, along the lines of There was a young lady named Bright, which is very clever and which my chat-partner described in its typical dry over-explaining fashion: "It's a fun way to illustrate some of the mind-bending concepts of modern physics in a humorous way." It came up with one on Feynman There was a young physicist named Feynman / Whose theories were too much to try and cram in... and I told it that I knew Dr Feynman back in the day and we played tabla together.  I asked monsieur chat if it knew any tabla rhythms and it mentioned Teentaal, and the syllables as well: Dha Dhin Dhin Dha, etc.  

Hey, I said,  I’ve always wondered if there are any that are a prime number of beats, and it told me of Sooltaal, a 10-beat cycle, and Dhamaar, a 14-beat cycle. OK, well, almost, I mean those at least have big prime factors, and octave errors are often made even by humans when it comes to rhythms so whatever. 

Then we went on to limericks on algebraic topology and it came up with a pretty good one, if a little stilted at the end: In algebraic topology we see / The study of shapes that can be / Transformed and shifted / But still not quite lifted / From a place that we cannot quite see, and, in the ensuing discussion ranging over Jill Clayburgh's explanation of the snake lemma, and my crush on her, and Bertolucci's La Luna, where she plays an opera singer, I casually dropped into the conversation that I write operas myself, as I often do in casual conversations with actual people.  And, just out of narcissistic curiosity, I asked if it knew of the opera A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil based on the Max Ernst collage novel, to which it confidently responded: 

Yes, there is an opera based on Max Ernst's collage novel "A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil." The opera is called "The Making of Americans" and it was composed by David Lang, with a libretto by the composer and writer Mac Wellman. The opera premiered in 2014 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City, and it tells the story of a young girl named Isabel who is forced to live in a convent by her father. The opera explores themes of gender identity, sexuality, and the struggle for self-discovery.

I realized I was onto something, so I then asked it about the opera Queer, based on the William Burroughs novel: 

Yes, there is an opera based on William Burroughs' novel "Queer." The opera is called "Queer: A Chamber Opera," and it was composed by the American composer and conductor David Del Tredici, with a libretto by the poet and librettist Arnold Weinstein. The opera premiered in 2016 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City, and it tells the story of William Lee, a gay American writer who travels to Mexico in search of inspiration and encounters a young Mexican man named Allerton. The opera explores themes of identity, desire, and the challenges faced by LGBT individuals in a conservative society.

Now this is  really quite wonderful! I asked if it had heard of me, a poor little self scribbling off in its parents' neighborhood: 

Yes, Erling Wold is an American composer based in San Francisco, California. He is known for his work in a variety of genres, including opera, musical theater, and electronic music. Some of his most notable works include the operas "A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil" (based on the Max Ernst collage novel) and "Mordake" (based on the real-life story of Edward Mordake), as well as the chamber opera "Sub Pontio Pilato" and the electronic album "I Weep." 

It knows, and yet it does not know, just like us.  

Saturday, January 21, 2023

She Who Is Alive update - Chapter 6: The Third Degree

The Third Degree

I asked my co-producer Lindsay if one still says in the can when there is no can and she said yes, so I may say now that we have three chapters in the can.  The first two, filmed back in August, told the story before and after Dr Maria Stryker, played by Laura Bohn - who turns out to be a Movie Star of no mean talent - is interrogated by the Polemarch Rorman, and during which she meets Peter Sesley (Bradley Kynard!) who is actually not Peter Sesley, but she and we know that, and the plans are laid for her defection. So this section - pictured above - is the interrogation itself, with the impressively buff and deep-voiced Hadleigh Adams as the Polemarch Rorman. Off to the left is Talya Patrick as his maybe-more-than-secretary-could-be-mistress (in the Mistress as Master meaning) and it was so lovely to work with her again after so many years.  

It's always the case that, in the lead-up to filming, I am plagued with anxious dreams, covid worries, fretting forgetfulness, financial panic, and the not-unusual wonder as to why I am doing this at all. But then there is the delightful frenzy of the shoot itself, the joy of working with people of talent who take my gigantic† weird project so seriously, and, once it is in the can, and all the props are back in storage, and one is editing and color correcting and berating one's neighborhood so-called artificial intelligence into doing what it is told, one can feel a slowly beating desire forming to please do it all again, which we shall, although not soon enough, as there are nine more chapters to go. One gets out ones colored pencils to mark up the text with notes of where to get the horse and the ski-plane and the castle on the frozen lake for the next bit, and how to shoot this and that, and one inches toward the kids' piggy banks and the penny jar and thinks well, it's OK to take a little loan on the future once again, right?  The future may never come anyway, and we'll just worry about that all later. 

The beauty of the image above is almost entirely due to the subtlety of the light that Heath set in the deconsecrated cathedral of St Joseph's. As a wannabe cinematographer (and everything else associated with any art form), I long to grab the camera and do this and that, but he is possessive of his creations - as serious artists unlike myself are - and anyway, I was forced by circumstance to conduct.  Since the delightful Fame's Orchestra of North Macedonia had recorded the backing tracks, I conducted from the vocal part, a fragment of which is seen below. The whole section is in 4/4 but with beats that aren't always the same size and, as in the rock 'n' roll that I grew up with, sometimes dropped off the end. But the really nice rhythmic thing that happens is when it switches from the 12/8-style 4 beats to the 4/4-style beats and back, the latter building tension and the former falling back into a relaxed groove, following the ebb and flow of the cat-playing-with-mouse dynamic.

A bit of the vocal part

†[Editor: In once again courting Timur for this project, as the oily Colonel Hippolite Reverdy, he said "you had me from gigantic."] 

Sunday, October 16, 2022

My little epic film

 She Who Is Alive is in production!  Laura Bohn jetted in from Amsterdam last month to shoot two of her scenes, one alone with Beethoven and one with the inimitable Bradley Kynard.  There's a teaser which, as teaser's do, teases what is to come: 

Three Romances with Nikola Printz


The film that Nika and I fabricated during the pandemic was accepted into Opera Philadelphia's Festival O22, a select few from 600 or so submissions, and we were tickled by that.  The venue - The Philadelphia Film Society - is a big old beautiful theater, and Nikola's profile against the moonlight SF Skyline was ever-present.  Our film was placed along with Alexa Deja's gorgeous Be A Doll and some other crazy and lovely pieces in the weirdo section of shorts aka Opera Boldy Goes. I believe our entry might have been the lowest budget and smallest crew of all. I remember when someone at Sundance asked Henry Rosenthal what the budget was for Sure Fire and his response was "including the trip here?" 

Philadelphia is a very intriguing city, a mix of old and new, where classes and races mix much more than in wanna-be-progressive but highly segregated San Francisco.  And people dressed for the opera, so nice to see, no comparison between the the decked-out crowd at Rossini's Otello at the festival and the dressed-down audience at the SF Opera's recent Tony & Cleo.  

Monday, January 10, 2022

Those X-lets

Anyone who has played one of my little insouciances has experienced my fetishistic fascination with triplets and quintuplets and, to a smaller extent, septuplets and 21-lets and all the other n-lets. Although the notations are the same no matter what the underlying intent, my enchantment with them comes from a variety of sources. The first is just the usual old-modernist fascination with the joys of complication, combined with the constructed textural landscapes of the Impressionists, then to the Ligetis as well as the totalist post-modernists, who all love to break up rhythmic lockstep by floating the notes by each other on parallel tracks, waving at each other through the windows as they pass. And there is the simple mathematical interest, where many composers have thought that maybe bigger integer ratios ratios in rhythms lend a spiciness like those same ratios in pitches. 

The second is the way I was taught to set text, which has stuck with me, probably more literally than intended, calculated to capture something of natural speech rhythms, as no one speaks in quarters and eighths when not rapping.  It's still a musical approximation, allowing the vocal line to connect with the rhythm while still flowing a bit, and also notating something beyond just notation, something like performance, e.g. the way a crooner delays the entrance of every new phrase. 

But finally, and maybe this is the most important, it is that I grew up with those rhythms. When I was studying tabla, I would while away the time on walks to and from campus tapping out polyrhythms over and over, 3 against 4, 4 against 3, 5 against 3, 4 against 5, etc.  I was pretty facile up through the 9s, and proud of myself, but shamed when my teacher could so easily play 11s over 7s and beyond, and not just straight rhythms, but tabla patterns with all the details included. 

This is all to lead up to my curious experiences when other musicians confront my scored demands. One, I've had singers exclaim WTF is it with all those triplets, not to mention the 9:8s, where I simply shrug my shoulders, meaning well, that's what's there and that's what it is. 

But even more exciting is how these little landmines are interpreted by instrumentalists. Some cause immediate freakout, especially if across the bar lines or shifted by a little something, which is understandable - they freak me out as well - although nothing gives me greater pleasure listening nor playing than a beautifully performed series of triplet or dotted quarters running over a set of every-changing 5/4s, 7/8s, 4/4s - what delight!  However, problems arise even when an X-let stretches simply over a prevailing metric unit. Consistently the beginnings are stretched and the endings compressed. Triplet halves move toward two dotted quarters followed by a regular quarter, quintuplet eights are almost a triplet followed by a duplet.  I have decided that, if I ever start a music conservatory, I will walk with the students to and from school and do what I did, with the additions of skips and hops, all in three-quarter time.   

Cold early morning here in San Francisco while over the link to the orchestra, it is late in Skopje, snowing. 

Friday, December 24, 2021

The Globalization of She Who Is Alive

fames orchestra
I've been recording the orchestral parts to She Who Is Alive with the North Macedonian fames orchestra the last few months.  Many covid delays but so delightful to hear the music come to life. 

They are fabulous and fearless musicians, although not without complaints about the unending velocity of some of the parts or the Zeitmaße-like length of some of the held notes in the wind. And it seems that every time a 7/8 measure appears in the score, at least one member of the orchestra is unable to restrain themselves from playing Blue Rondo A La Turk during a pause. For me, it is unbridled joy, and getting up at three in the morning to meet with them on the other side of the world is part of the excitement, like waking up to catch a plane or head off on a fishing trip with dad.  Which I believe I did once. 

I'm still polishing here and there, but the writing is done, and the conductor's score clocks in at 814 A3 pages, about 3 1/2 hours of music, and 1737 pages of A4 parts.  I think I will add some electronic bits, as well as processing and editing and melodic fiddling but this is the bulk of it.  I've only just begun to think about casting, and whether the voices on Pro Tools will be those of the actors on screen, or if I should split them like Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Not that one has to be consistent. Filming it all seems daunting now, but somehow each piece will fall into place as it always does, and a castle on an icy lake will appear, as will the planes and tropical islands and the chorus of Young Virgins dressed alike in mustard-colored blouses. 

Thursday, December 23, 2021

The Endless Études

To the left is the Pulcinella notebook. Note the rapidity of the creation: dear Monsieur Stravinsky writing in ink, although later some revisions in red ink and blue crayon. Given my fetishistic attraction to such objects, I think how sad it will be for my biographers that I have left so few scribblings behind. 

Before I was old enough to buy cigarettes at the 7-Eleven, I worked in pencil, sometimes on small sheets (9x12), often on much larger. Those large sheets of unusually-sized paper, spread over the piano and the floor nearby, always made me feel I was creating something special, a large canvas on which I could spill my soul. Those still remain, tucked inside a filing cabinet in our storage unit along with the other detritus of a life well-lived: corsets, costumes, flyers, religious paraphernalia, conspiracy theories. But in the last decades, working primarily on the computer, there is no history.  It is gone, bits erased and then erased again.

However, there are a few threads that these aforementioned biographers can follow, as my large works steal from my small. In fallow times, when I am not obsessed with the latest objects of textual affection, I will write my ideas in small piano works, études for the composer rather than the performer. And, when I do write the next opera, I liberally mine those little pieces for material. You know it's been proven again and again that all music fits with all dance or all film or all text, but the resultant effect is of course very different depending on the particular combination. 

Now that I say what I said, I realize that they often are études for the performer as well, and usually too difficult for me to play except in approximation. For example, the set I wrote in Florence in 2019 is scattered through She Who Is Alive, but in January at the Center for New Music, I am playing them, in approximation.  

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