Saturday, September 22, 2018

She Who Is Alive

The masterful Robert Harris and I discussing She Who Is Alive, from last year before West Edge Opera performed a hastily-scribbled scene (The Third Degree) as part of Snapshot.  With Rattensturm in between, I've only recently gotten back to the scribbling, but am planning to finish this thing and do the film or die trying. SFCCO is performing a pre-writing suite from it on October 13th, with the fabulous Nikola Printz performing, screaming in all caps:


The program notes:

She Who Is Alive (Official Teaser Trailer #1) is a suite from the in-preproduction film-opera adaptation of Robert Harris’s surreal fascist thriller, a death drive dream gliding through the residual terror of the twentieth century. We find ourselves on a tropical beach, the sun setting, April Jergen riding her horse. Meanwhile, in the National Homeland, the Polemarch Rorman sings a poem he has written to his young boyfriend. His boyfriend is full of disdain. Eventually, April has a dream and fulfills her destiny for the National Homeland.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Where credit is due

We are in rehearsal for Rattensturm, and today was the first day - glorious day - where we had everyone in the room: actors, singers, instruments, video and triangle.  It made all so happy to hear it together; I could see the light shine forth from everyone's eyes. 

This piece really is Peter Wagner's.  It's his libretto, his architecture, his direction, his video, his concept.  I really am just the composer.  But the music still does something big.  The reporter from the Kleine Zeitung asked if the music was atmosphere and I said no, it really is setting the text, even the spoken text, and has a structure and impetus of its own.  In the interview, Peter talked about the „suggestive Drive der Musik“ and the goosebumps it brings forth so I think he sees that. 

But even the music isn't all mine, and while I listened I scribbled down what I remember of what I was thinking of during while writing the piece.

I explicitly stole a favorite chord progression from Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte for the virtual choir section at the end of Act I.  I don't think anyone would notice, although there is a tickling when I listen to it that makes me thing there is something in the violin accompaniment that came from another piece through a less conscious path, but maybe not. 

Ravel was a very careful composer who created very few but absolutely perfect jewels whereas, at least in this particular piece, I was scribbling as quickly as I could, the first two acts in Firenze during a week last December, and the rest in bits and pieces in my basement and here and there in hotel rooms in Europe - a process that doesn't lead to perfect jewels, but speed invites the muse. Listening to it here today I have no idea for much of the piece if I wrote it or how it was written. 

Just before, in the cathedral in Ravenna, the Empress and I heard Natalia Haszler's Credo universale. It's a lovely lovely piece, and she has a way of handling speaking and chant-like text presentation, which the Empress commanded me to use, so I did. But again, no one would confuse Haszler and me. 

When I was a boy, I heard somewhere - one of those idiotic rules that stick in the brain - that it was very bad to double instruments in chamber works, but I do it all the time, and in this piece, the way the strings and the piano mix together reminds me of one of the Faure piano quintets that Sara Klancke played, as well as some bits from Michael Nyman's opera of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. And I always like how Fred Frith would double the vocals with the violin. I did it just a little, but consciously so, so I mention it here for completeness. 

The string writing in the aria Der Krieg bringt hohe sittliche Kräfte.. is from part of Doctor Atomic that the Empress mentioned just as I got to that bit, and it was on my mind so into the pot she goes. 

When I first was thinking about this piece, I was improvising at the piano and came across some chords which, after some time, I realized were thinly disguised versions of chords I have used many times before, but shortly thereafter noticed a modal similarity to the chords that begin Schubert's Der Doppelgänger, and since Peter liberally quotes lots of texts of the time I thought why shouldn't I, so I mixed in some of me with some of Mr. Schubert's song. My favorite Schubert musics are the dark musics, e.g. the above, Die liebe Farbe, etc. 

And there is a direct setting of Ich hatt' einen Kameraden, as a traditional quote, originally suggested by Peter, as well as O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden from the St Matthew Passion - which was my father's favorite hymn and which still makes me cry. It suddenly came to mind as I was reading the War Speech by Peter Rosegger: Je mehr der Stahl geglutet, Je besser ist das Schwert. Je mehr ein Herz geblutet, Je größer ist sein Wert. And I had told myself to take my first impulse so again hop la! 

The prayer section, Aus seelsorglichen Gründen..., is the one bit that someone looking at the score and who was familiar with L'Histoire du Soldat would say hey, what?  And that's the second time I've done that with Stravinsky, but I could claim it is because L'Histoire was written right during World War I and anyway, I went to his grave on San Michele and I cried and asked for forgiveness and I feel absolved.   

I steal from myself as well, but that's common among composers.  Bach did it, and maybe that was because like me he had to write so much so fast. All of Act IV is based on an unrelated piano piece of mine: The obsidian blade is made of winter. And when writing fast, one falls back on tricks that worked before. You've got to put some notes down for the players or the producer will say why am I paying them to play when they aren't playing, so time to do the Wold thing, mixing in some arpeggios and some 5s against 3s and some 7/8s and the usual stuff. And that noisy sound I use throughout - sampled from a radiator in the National Gallery in Moscow, just around the corner from those incredibly beautiful marine paintings by Ivan Aivazovsky - is so much like the whistling thrumming noise I used in Sure Fire. But now that I think of it, this opera is all about the sea so maybe again this wasn't my decision at all. 

Friday, April 20, 2018


I may be dead, but still I hear the roads calling, the hills of home and the restless rivers wondering where I am. Mahomet has found a simile for the moon; she hangs limply, broken like an old palm
branch. Do come and visit; you may find me on the Western Front, I go out at night to watch the German rockets. They have white crests, throw flame across no-man’s land, burst into green and blue, drop down in purple rain. I gaze in awe, the last days of a beautiful world.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The sinking approaches

It is my nature to assume that I am incapable of anything.† One day this will be true, but after the anxieties of last month, I have discovered that somehow progress has been made on the Szent Istvàn opera, now about a third complete. 

The Empress has asked me whether I write my operas from one end to the other and yes, typically, yes, although I build a notebook of sketches before and during, of musical thoughts that come from the gods or hastily-scribbled improvisations at the piano, from which I steal when a synchronicity occurs. I've used some of music from the before-the-fact suite, but the majority is new, and looking back I do seem to let things simply flow from the previous to the next, except when it is time to not. 

I do have a sketch of a schema for the arc of the piece overall, and even thinking of it as an arc gives me a path to follow. Beginnings and endings are both critical, the beginning because it draws in the audience, slowly or suddenly, and a good beginning allows you some freedom in the middle. You do play the audience with the ending, you can't help it, big or little, but one of those, and not something in between.  In the middle, it's important to make it clear that the ending is nowhere near, or they will start to think beyond the piece, and you want them with you. 

Next weekend I travel to Burgenland to meet again with Peter and Gerhard. They do seem to be with me so far, and I'll need to keep them interested to the end. 

Firenze-Roma, 2018 

† the well-respected director Jim Cave points out in his letter dated 24 January that this should read "capable of nothing"

Wednesday, December 13, 2017


Back in the land of the Kaiser and the King, puffed snow falling on the tennis courts outside, xmas music drifting up through the open window cooling off the overheated room, the Empress and I basking in unfettered wifi here at the Seepark Hotel, who immediately Facebook-liked the mini Instagram video of the aforementioned snow, and basking also in a breakfast buffet with Mr Gerhard Lehner, the Impresario at the Klagenfurter Ensemble.

I've included a video above of the SFCCO concert where we played a suite of music intended for the piece I am working on in Austria. How it fits or where I do not know, since my work on the piece has so far been vague and unfocused. I'm told by everyone I work quickly, amazingly quickly, but the encroaching premiere is not without anxiety, actualized in my recent dreams involving 1) the assignment of insoluble problems, 2) fast-paced confusions about time and place, 3) doing bad things and worrying about getting caught, and 4) general teeth-clenching situations from xmas-themed horror movies.  But I think the video at least is good, mixing some HD camera footage from Clubhouse Studios with some surprisingly beautiful 4K iPhone video and also my beloved a7S II. I added some of the bass drum that we didn't have, and I tuned a few things here and there with Melodyne, but that's just me being overly attentive, when I really should be working on the opera itself instead of fucking around with my computer. 

But Peter Wagner and I did go through the text yesterday and the structure is much clearer. The ship as microcosm: from the initial euphoria of the launching and the war to be over by xmas, to the first few unexpected delays and the sodden realization of the horror, to the mortal wounding of the boat, its own machines reflecting the war's endless mechanized slaughter, to the rats escaping, the final appeals to patriotism, then the sinking and then the quiet:

Verschwinde, Mond! - Nacht will ich und Finsternis,
damit, was mich umgibt, verkohlt für immer,
und was in mir lebt, stirbt - keine Hoffnung, kein Kummer,
Ich will das große Nichts, wo kein Wind ist, wo nichts ist.

Disappear, moon! - I want night and darkness,
so that what surrounds me is burned away forever,
and what lives in me dies - no hope, no sorrow,
I want the void, where there is no wind, where there is nothing.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra

Rattensturm. Angriff auf ein Sinkendes. Orchestriert. 
On Guy Fawkes' eve, the fourth of November, the SFCCO will perform an instrumental suite from my soon-to-be-written opera on the sinking of the Tegetthoff-class battleship SMS Szent István, an event which, as it happened on the maiden voyage due to a series of mishaps and foolishnesses, was an embarrassment for the Austro-Hungarian empire, already in rapid decline post Franz Josef. However, in Italy, the country that provided the torpedoes that dealt the blow, it is still commemorated as Navy Day, June 10th, the day in 2018 the opera will premiere, the 100th anniversary of the awesome event.

Five sections:

1) A few years ago, a former attendant of the Empress took me to see A Winged Victory for the Sullen, and something about the calmness of their music has infected me. So when the librettist's stage directions commanded that the music starts in a calming and smooth manner, in the first section, The Strait of Otranto, where the battle eventually takes place, I said OK I will and let the infection run its course. In the opening, we hear that the Strait of Otranto, the Otrantostrasse, is for sailors what Verdun is for the foot soldiers at the front.

2) As the ship sails, the mishaps accumulate. They have set off late, so will not arrive under cover of darkness, and the coal is damp, sending dense black smoke, signaling the enemy. Those that love war love this, The Unloved War:
I have ... killed.
I am more agile and quicker than him.
More aggressive.
I'm the first to hit.
I have the feeling for reality,
I, the poet.
I have acted.
I've killed.
Killed as the one,
Who wants to live. 
Blaise Cendrars 
3) I was improvising at the piano and came across some chords which, after some time, I realized were thinly disguised versions of chords I have used many times before, but shortly thereafter noticed a modal similarity to the chords that begin Schubert's Der Doppelgänger, and since the librettist is liberally quoting lots of pro and anti war poetry I thought why shouldn't I do some quoting, so in the section Blessed are the young men who hunger and thirst for gloryfrom Gabriele D Annuncio's beatitudinal Bergpredigt, I mixed in some of me with some of Mr. Schubert's song. My favorite Schubert musics are the dark musics, e.g. the above, Die liebe Farbe, etc, and that darkness here is featured in the contrabassoon doubling bits of the melody.

4) The librettist, Peter Wagner, said to use Ich hatt' einen Kameraden - the German equivalent of Taps - might be too heavy handed, but I arranged it anyway.

5) Which leads us attaca to How beautifully the rockets illuminate the night, a repurposing of a piano piece of mine, arranged for the small orchestra. A pulsing but slowly changing harmony, and a dropping melody in the bells. Orchestration can do many things given a piano piece as its source: in this case, providing the swell of the performer and the pedaling of the piano.

Remember, remember the 4th of November. At beautiful St Mark's Lutheran on the hill at 1111 O'Farrell, 8pm.

Sunday, May 28, 2017


One of the most unsettling aspects of a life in art is the rapid change of its underlying assumptions. It can take more than a lifetime for one's artistic abilities to mature, but an artist who strives for, say, beauty may find, just as she achieves this goal, that beauty is no longer of interest, and that the world of art has moved along to some other metric of artistic goodness, such as the current favorite of preaching to the choir.

There is no end to the cranky rantings of elder composers who decry the loss of interest in whatever they think is still important, even though they were happy to kick in the teeth the motivations of those who came before them. John Adams, who complained early on that the Pulitzers were not inclusive enough, has criticized the more recent Pulitzer winners for being the product of the times, where we are between times of high art, sounding not unlike those uptowners who complained about composers like him.

I wonder - who is it who decides on these metrics of artistic goodness?  Is it simply fashion, like hemlines?  The standards by which art is judged seem to seem so obvious to those in the middle of it: cleverness, social justice, glorification of the almighty, prettiness, commercial success, shocking la bourgeoisie, the latest gizmos, mastery of craft.  We the artists try not to pay attention, but we all crave the pat on the back and the envelope of cash that comes with timely success. And if one lives long enough, will one eventually be able to retrieve that old checkered sport coat from the downstairs closet and have everyone tell you how cool it is?  Maybe, but most likely your own tastes will diverge ever more from those of the perpetually reinvented artistic community. How lost would the revivified sculptor of any culture a thousand years ago be in an art world where, as shifting phenomena become frozen through emergent and personal practice, the viewer is left with a hymn to the possibilities of our culture?

But still there is a desire for immortality, artistic or literal. Both are impossible to control. Several therapists ago, I mentioned how my tech colleagues seemed to be racing to develop a literal immortality for their own bodies, and he guffawed at their credulity. How much the same is this desire to that which has always been, only now clothed in the lab coat of scientific and technological singularity? A case in point: the Totentanz at Mrtvaški ples. The latest desire for immortality through technology is no different than the seeking of comfort through religion, the contentment that comes from ignoring the truth, until it can no longer be ignored.
Related Posts with Thumbnails