Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The YKCYC Experience

We are halfway through the run of the Daniil Kharms piece here in snow-kissed Klagenfurt, the Paris of Carinthia, gateway to Slovenia and the beyond.  The experience, I suppose like all, has been unique, and not without lessons learned, lessons that almost surely will not be remembered nor even applicable in the future, but still of possibly some small interest.  It is the first time I've worked on an operatic piece from such a distance, with so many people I didn't really know, and that has required a certain letting go of the typical iron-fisted control I wield over my own productions.  The librettists and directors, the young and talented VADA, were not so familiar with opera and music theater, and didn't understand many of the conventions of the process: e.g. the vocalists' need for a handsome répétiteur or in general the diplomacies required to nurse the singers' tortured instruments through the difficult act of singing. But they've come into their own, learning very quickly, and in the end producing a lovely and affecting rendition of their work.

I hesitate to call it an opera, more of a singspiel (a word which when I write it seems even more pretentious than the former), as there are some major textual moments entwined with no music whatsoever, a situation unknown of in any previous Erling Wold opus.  I had in fact written musical settings of much more of the text, but my ostensible collaborators cut this and that behind my back, I suppose to suit their own purposes and vanities and, after much pulling out of hair, here we are.

The actors are really fantastic. Adolfo Assor, who owns no telephone, could in fact read the telephone directory (if such a thing still actually exists in the modern world) and bring an audience to rapt attention, yearning for more. When he dies, I die with him.  Rüdiger has some amazing moments - the fotzenloch bit comes immediately to mind - and the two of them together are a great comic team, especially in the Boeuf Bub sections that mark the transitions between the four boxes.

The band - the Talltones extended - has been fantastic, better than I could have hoped for, throwing my piece to the wind, adding a jazz layer that I had poorly attempted but which they, in their wisdom, simply ignored, crafting their own.  Richie Klammer sings the Divan song just perfectly, but they are all good, Emil a fantastic drummer, best I've worked with since the old old days with Mark Crawford, Tonč's masterful fingers full of expression and delight, Stefan the St. Peter of the ensemble - so critical for the bass, Michael's fabulous solo in the same tune mentioned above, and Primus, bringing just the right collection of pedals to push it over the edge from my current uptight classical adulthood back to the rock pretensions of my youth, revealing how close all that is to my freshly painted surface. Working with jazz players is very familiar to me, and they have some great advantages, sometimes approaching the music more deeply than conservatory musicians who have not had the experience, who have no  issues around the sacredness of the score, and who make their imperfections - or what would be considered imperfections in the classical world - nothing like imperfections, but charming attributes of their playing, seemingly organic parts of the music. I do like it when players make my scribblings their own, and I, in my vanity, happily take ownership of all their contributions.

This is now Josef Oberauer's third opera of mine - more than any other singer - having been in the Austrian premieres of both Little Girl and Sub Pontio Pilato. He's just good, has a beautiful warm voice and has no, absolutely no, worries about his image, willing to do whatever needs to be done for the piece. Above is Sirje Viise, a master actress, a singing powerhouse, who submits to the will of the composer, but who, in her perfection, is willing to fight back, winning the day, conquering both the land and its inhabitants. Her singing of the aria Du hast den Gedächnisstrom is simply electrifying.

I love listening to them both, especially those pretty moments that I attempt to prettify when I write them but then become heartbreaking when filtered through the instrument of an extraordinary vocalist, humbling me, reducing me to my proper position as merely, on one hand, a scribe for the divine, and on the other, the messenger delivering it to the divine here on earth. For Josef, Aus übergroßer Neugierde and for Diva Viise, Du bist ein Gott auf neun Beinen - my breathing becomes ragged and my heart palpitates.

I've saved the very last for Davorin Mori - a conducting student of Alexei Kornienko - who was brought in to save the piece, and who did.  He's led the ensemble with a sure hand, unwilling to drop it when things were not perfect, who has continued to improve its architecture and connections.  I'm so grateful, and that's all I can say.  It would not have succeeded without him.

Besides the work, there's been an enormous amount of drinking, and of cold, and of breathing second-hand smoke, and walking, and practicing conducting, and going to Ljubljana with Gerhard, and more drinking, and mentoring Sirje in the ways of demanding diva-hood, careerism and the loneliness that ensues. Soon Lynne will arrive and there will no doubt be more drinking, but surely more expensive drinking, and that to cover the sadness of the project's end, a profound sadness and grief and pain.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


Hearing the premiere of Paul Dresher's latest piece, a concerto of his Quadrachord long string instrument with the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, and especially his quick lecture beforehand on the details of the Just Intonation aspects of his piece (natural harmonics on his instrument, natural harmonics in the horns, and maybe in the trumpets, a subgroup of 15 strings tuned 40 cents lower to bring them into correspondence with some of the higher partials), I was reminded once again of the lazy connection between music theories and scientific theory. Even in my deepest and darkest days spent connected to the JI world, nothing I read - and I read a lot - ever explained, except in the most mystical terms, why Just Intonation was better than any other pitch-choosing mechanism. The purity of the intervals was mentioned, the transcendental perfection of small integers, the lack of beats, the sacredness of the harmonic series, and of course the music of the spheres. But does any of that say anything about badness or goodness or are such considerations irrelevant in the face of such revealed truth? The realities are mundane in comparison, e.g. that people like beats, that they tune pianos and 12 string guitars and mandolins and Balinese Gamelans to emphasize them, and why are small integers better than irrational number, since as Cantor found, there are more of the latter than the former? And I wouldn't be the first to point out that the JI-ness of the vibrating world exists only in some Platonic ideal, as real strings and real columns of air have harmonic series which diverge from that ideal, sometimes by a lot, and brake drums and bells and lots of other wonderful musical machines have harmonics that are decidedly inharmonic, a lovely and self-contradictory description of the partials whose frequency relationships one might otherwise think defined the word.

In music, I love such nonsense. I think it is important somehow, like reading a kōan, putting the mind in a place where mere truth is irrelevant, but I also do have a deep lasting long term relationship with science - and maybe even a love for it - which goes back to my youth, discovering one day a large cache of old Scientific Americans and reading through them all from cover to cover and cardboard box to cardboard box. It leads me to still spend days reading through scientific and mathematical articles, scribbling down my own calculations and pondering the deep search for truth. Although I sometimes dissemble when discussing it, my doctorate is not in music at all, but in Electrical Engineering, and I recall a story from those days. My research advisor was Al Despain, a wild-haired crazy man who was willing to skim off some money from his various defense grants to support me, a poor graduate student interested in the intersection of music and technology in those heady times, when one had to write one's own file system to get samples off a disk fast enough to achieve audio rates, when one had to build one's own D/A converter to listen to the audio in real time.  But Al's true love was all things military, and one day he told me to be at his house the next morning early, where we were met by a limo and, quickly chewing through several columns of Fig Newtons, headed to the airport and a quick flight to San Diego. Again, a limo, and bustled into a room, I found myself giving a talk on my thesis to a room full of JASONs, the notorious and/or acclaimed MITRE-related Defense Advisory Group, including the esteemed Freeman Dyson. I bumbled through, in awe, and wondered at the attendees most celebrated, not able to say what I really wanted to say: in fact some kind of gushing fanboy babble.

Last week, driving back from visiting my mother and my in-laws, I was reminded of this experience when listening to a Relatively Prime podcast on Paul Erdős. The subject is dear to my heart, and I glow with a very small respectability due to a paper I published with the mathematician Oscar S. Rothaus on Gaussian Residue Arithmetic, giving me an Erdős number of 5 to his 4. The podcast featured three mathematicians with Erdős numbers of 1, and one of them told how he was invited by Erdős to give a talk at a symposium where no one showed up except Erdős, the organizer of the symposium and Stanislaw Ulam, and how proud he was to give his talk to such a small but illustrious audience. In life and work, we love our icons and we hope that someday they may love us.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Opera America Songbook!

I was in New York City recently. Now, some would simply say New York but that's like saying I'm going to The City when one is in Oakland, a perfectly fine city, but meaning I'm going to San Francisco, or Frisco as only the hippest of the ultimately hip would say.  But the reason I was in New York City was to visit some of my most Manhattanite friends and to hear Jennifer Check and William Hobbs record Home, with Illustrations for The Opera America Songbook, which is now out in book and record form, e.g. on Amazon or iTunes or Sheet Music Plus.  But shouldn't the title have an exclamation point?  I think titles are always better that end with an exclamation point.

Jennifer has some major vocal powah, but she holds all that power back so nicely at the change, like the jockey controlling War Admiral in the Whitney Handicap, where the POV changes from the song to the simpler song within the song - the chilling moment - a change she handles beautifully.

Monday, September 24, 2012


Composing deep into the Vierte Kiste of the UKSUS OBERIUper, aka the Fourth Act, standing at the verge of the Freytagian dénouement, or whatever it might be, page 311 of the score and the last two pages of the libretto written by Felix Strasser (Chef-Plotmonteur) and Yulia Izmaylova (Plotmonteuse), the Vadaisten or, as I like to call them, the Vada-ettes, approaching my imposed deadline of the end of the month. The dates of the run are set and the opera is premiering the sixth of December of 2012. The casting is decided, and features two of my buddies: Josef Oberauer, who played all the patriarchs in the German language version of Little Girl shod in panties and platform shoes, as well as the lead role in Sub Pontio Pilato in its Austrian incarnation; and Sirje Viise, the endearing soprano and great wit who aided me in my Berlin Striptease last year.

During the process of the last few months, I've thought much about the nature of a comic opera, as this piece is in fact a comedy. It's been pointed out by many that there haven't been so many comic operas in the last 100 years, at least on the high art side of the aisle, and I've noticed a tendency to fall back on parody and pastiche and the easy joke, e.g. the Russian Basses and the Flexatone. Some composers transcend, but I've decided to give in to my baser desires, to avoid my rumored musical sophistication and to write something simple and possibly simplistic. Each day I thank the gods of Xerox PARC for the existence of copy and paste in the user interface, and for the minimalists of my youth for leading me to a style that made that a viable option, improving my chances of meeting the deadlines, and making it OK for one to lessen one's musical variation density.

Which reminds me: style in art is without a doubt part of the message. After reading Burgess's books on Joyce in high school, I became a believer in stylism as an expressive device in literature. Writing a paper on the topic earned me an A+ and a private moment with my English teacher, alone in the classroom, where she pressed upon me a paperback, saying that she couldn't assign this book to just anyone and I, pleased to have been chosen for my broadmindedness, took it home to read it that evening and found the main character, about my age, seduced by his English teacher by the end of the first chapter. But in the world of my chosen art form of high-minded art music, stylistic eclecticism seemed to be frowned on. From the high modernists to the minimalists was emphasized a uniformity of not only style but of texture - across a single work to be sure, but even across a body of work.  Style didn't seem to be a parameter of a work, a knob to be turned based on the desired affect, and the few examples: (1) the use of modernist musical gestures in scifi or horror films (kitschy) and (2) rock 'n' roll in Bernstein's Mass (embarrassing), were not encouraging. But in Kyle Gann's recent and beautiful eulogy to his friend William Duckworth, the following line struck me:
If the culture ever changes so that elegant design is once again as highly valued as macho eclecticism, I think it will be realized that Bill is a truly major composer; even as it is, there are many younger composers who think so.
So when did macho eclecticism become highly valued?  Here I am, with nagging doubts about not writing pieces or sets of pieces with stylistic uniformity like Glass or Feldman or Boulez or Messiaen or David Lang, and I find that I may have Missed Out on a cultural shift. Maybe I don't have to feel so bad about  having included some rock-like or jazz-like bits in the opera, whose rock-like-ness or jazz-like-ness may be emphasized by the fact that The Talltones are performing the music and that they will be several thousand miles away during the rehearsal process and I have given them my blessing to take certain small liberties with the score, even though my wife's disdainful reaction to the quasi-rock-like elements was more or less "Hardly rock at all, pfft."

My favorite bit of Charms is not in the piece, but comes from his story The Old Woman:
I can hear little boys screaming on the street - so unpleasant! I lie on the sofa and try to think up different ways I would like to execute them. The best one is infecting them with tetanus, imagining them suddenly incapable of movement. Their parents come and carry them home. They lie in their little beds and cannot eat, since their mouths won't move. They are fed artificially. After a week the tetanus cures, but the children are still weak and they have to stay in bed a further more month. They gradually recover, but I loose the tetanus on them one more time and all of them die.
the enjoyment of which is made all the better knowing he earned his living writing books for children and was loved as such for many years after he died.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

One of the crowd

While searching on post minimalism in music, I quickly came across the seminal essay by Kyle Gann from '98. It's a good read, and I'm in the camp of believers - believers that it existed that is - mainly because of the disconcerting fact that his post describes me well. One likes to think that one arrived at one's place in life by one's own decisions, one's own will, one's own process, but the reality is that one is swept along by the currents of history. I too was raised a believer in modernity, a believer in the goodness of complexity, and I too had the Damascene conversion while listening to Einstein on the Beach in the late 70s. I too can't shake off the old feelings while embracing the new and I too was led to the same places: rhythm and accessibility and tonality-with-an-edge.

It reminds me of a story that I believe Jim Bisso told me about his Palestinian friend asking him what religion he was, to which Jim replied atheist or whatever and his friend then saying no no no, what religion are you?  I mean, what religion were you born into?  That's a caste you cannot change. We put on the coat of our place and time and culture and family. I am the composer I am because I am here now and that's a choice I cannot unmake.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Opera Conference and its discontents

Finished the Opera Conference 2012 in beautiful Philadelphia, having gone in partial settlement of a debt to Opera America for all their help over the years. Grant awards that I assume were sized as moderate assistance to a major company have been to me lifesavers: major assistance to my micro-sized company.

It was a wonderful and eye-opening experience. Clearly the tides of opera have turned since I first joined in the late 90s. Back then, the Opera America Magazine's list of upcoming opera productions of the major companies would be the same every issue, changing only in which company was assigned to which opera. Which reminds one of the story of John Cage during the writing of the first Europera, being allowed into the basement library of the Metropolitan Opera, where he expected to find a vast array of scores covering the history of the art form but was surprised to find only a few handfuls, as really that was all that was necessary year by year. Now, however, companies are scrambling to present new works, either in main stage high-profile commissions, or second or third or Nth productions of smaller or exotic works that have picked up some press, e.g. the famous-for-its-humjob Powder Her Face, or the moving Nico Muhly opus Dark Sisters, the latter of which was presented at the conference, and is in the seemingly growing genre of operas about the complexities of faith.

To an extent, this sea change is due to a die-off of the Old Guard - a descriptive phrase used publicly during the conference - as well as a growing understand of the Death Spiral, to wit, cutting budgets and doing the same-old same-old and finding your ticket income dwindling and then cutting back more and round and round. As for the pilot of a small Beechcraft caught in a tailspin plummeting to earth, one needs to pull back on the stick as it were, and The Way that has been determined to accomplish this is the development of new pieces. Which might possibly be good for those of us who have been doing it. Possibly.

Some high points: the neon-overloaded Geno's vs the tradition-beloved Pat's Cheez Whiz® slathered steak competition, the Mütter museum, the call from Kent Devereaux to talk about coming up to Cornish to teach the young tykes only to find out that we were 50 feet from each other, the walking around the downtown, the kindness of the people of Philadelphia, the Philosophical Society, a bunch of interesting people from staff members of Opera America to producers to opera lovers and kooks and rich folk, the endless drinking, the Persichetti memorial, the follow-on trip to New York for the Bang on a Can Marathon and the visits with more friends, and a lovely meeting with the powerful, intimidating but also quite inviting Beth Morrison.

In the picture above, I am praying. My prayers may be answered. Time will tell.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

home, with illustrations

I've been asked to write a song for the OPERA America songbook in commemoration of the new National Opera Center.  They originally wanted words that would "celebrate the opening of a new home." This subject, though sentimental, connected with my sentimental nature, and brought forward memories of moving back and forth between the Sun-soaked White Middle Class sections of Southern California and the Scandinavian-soaked Far Northern White Midwest in my youth. Even though the commissioners seemed to back off from the theme later, expanding it to include songs about the joy or singing or whatever, I pushed forward in the original key.

When I was seven, we moved to the house in Grand Forks shown in the photo - the parsonage - as my father was the minister of the major Lutheran church in town. It was a home perfect for a young imaginative child, a house laden with a servant's quarter in the attic that could be buzzed from anywhere in the house through an electric buzzer system, a secret back staircase from the library or the kitchen up to said quarter, a walk-through pantry with a screened potato and bread store naturally chilled, a vestibule for the removal of snowy clothes - always unlocked but leading to a locked door and doorbell inside, a grand staircase to a landing with a built in padded bench lit by the sun and ideal for reading pulp science fiction, a suite of rooms looking over a mini-atrium-esque entry hall.  And, in the basement, a room with large cartoon characters beautifully drawn. I hadn't been back since I left at the age of twelve, but I forced Lynne out on the road to visit it in the deep winter a year ago and, as the temperature dropped to frigid, I was invigorated. As Viking ancestral senses settled upon me, and the soft parts of me were left behind, the memories of the smells and sounds and sights of the way things used to be came back. I had written the current owners, who were gracious on our arrival, who took us in and toured us through their revisions. The woman of the household was curious to find what I knew of the house's history, which wasn't much, but she was fascinated to find that I made the drawings in the closet upstairs. 

So then, my poem - or the lyrics as we say in the song biz - imagine a young girl moving into the house in some distant future and experiencing all that has been left behind by those who came before. 

Home, with illustrations 

A young child comes home from school, lifts the latch, and steps inside, shaking off the snow. 

She dreamed of this house before she moved here.  In her dream, there was a special room, just for her, deep down a disguised staircase behind the stairs. When she and her family arrived, she couldn't find a way to it.  But still, she hopes that someday she will. 

Looking, she finds her father, sitting at his desk, reading to himself: Kafka, old sermons, documents with notary stamps. He smiles to hear her. He turns. 

When you live in a new place, you become a new person. It becomes part of who you are.  Watching, remembering each one who lived there, their lives, each life. 

An example: a boy who lived there long before drew pictures, like old cartoons, back when the Sunday comics were printed so large, two to a page; drew pictures on the wall in a part of the closet hard to reach. 

Sitting in the sun, she daydreams and remembers squeezing herself in, feeling the walls the way he felt them, head craned forward to see.

In her reverie, she composes a poem:

How old is he now?
Is he crying?
Perhaps he thinks of me
The way I think of him
The little girl who has followed him
Into this house

The house thinks of us
And wonders 
Listening in its slow way
To the sounds of the small city
Of the way we stay so close
Inside the warmth of each other
And the warmth of this home

She thinks back to the cold bright sunny day they moved in, the end of a long drive, the snow drifting so high that she could slide down it from the second story window. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

УКСУС (UKSUS), an OBERIUper in 4 boxes

I've been commissioned to write a new opera for the Klagenfurter Ensemble, who premiered the German version of A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil years ago. I love them. So far, all I know is that it will start on or about the 30th of November 2012 and will run for 10 performances through December, which means Xmas for me in Austria, where the little children are put into bags and the young girls are beaten with sticks by the teen boys in Krampus costume. The piece is based on the works and to a smaller extent the life of Daniil Kharms and his fellows in the Russian absurdist collective OBERIU (The Association for Real Art). The libretto and direction is by Felix Strasser & Yulia Izmaylova, music by me. A cast of 2 women and 2 men, a band of 5 instruments, something like a jazz ensemble. 

Many of Kharms's works are very short, for example:

A certain old woman fell out of a window because she was too curious. She fell and broke into pieces.
Another old woman leaned her head out the window and looked at the one that had broken into pieces, but because she was too curious, she too fell out of the window — fell and broke into pieces.
Then a third old woman fell out of the window, then a fourth, then a fifth.
When the sixth old woman fell out, I became fed up with watching them and went to Maltsevsky Market, where, they say, a certain blind man was presented with a knit shawl.

A number of these are included completely in the libretto and have the feeling of dark children's stories.  In fact, after he died in a psychiatric institution during the siege of Leningrad and his avant-garde works were suppressed, he was known quite well as a children's book writer. Children, like me, are in love with nonsense, even dark and brutal nonsense. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Annotations 2 (with Illustrations)

I've been reading Laura Wittman's The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Modern Mourning, and the Reinvention of the Mystical Body, and it has reminded me of my love of the accoutrements of academic writing: introductions, forewords, terminology ('bellicist'), the overuse of the inverted comma, and most especially, the notes. I love them. To read the notes - the many many pages of notes - is to see the strata of the study, cut across the page like layers of rock thrust up along a fault. And why are they there in such quantity? Merely to entertain readers like myself? Or only to protect one from the terrifying charge of plagiarism?

It's unfortunate that, in music, it is difficult to provide something analogous: a stream of musical and textual references that flow with the performance, guiding the ear and mind to the proper references. For example: "when I wrote this passage, I was stirring my tea, thinking of the phlogistonic diffusion of the heat, liquid-like, flowing combustibly through the metal of the spoon, from tea to thumb to painful pointing finger." Or: "I purloined this set of harmonies from such and such, except I added a few and used them in reverse fashion."

But, now that I read this, I think maybe it wouldn't be so interesting, or at least not interesting enough. But let us press on.

When I wanted to write of the young LaShaun/Erling, I wanted to put it in her voice. Two things came to mind: the baby tuckoo section of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and this passage from How We Write: Writing as Creative Design, which recounts a story written by an actual young person. Note the mixing of stories and that some important elements are missing:

My, that reads an awful lot like this unfootnoted and clearly plagiarized section of the libretto:
One day in the street, a man was talking about Jesus. The sun was so bright it hurt the little girl's eyes. She was going to school and her grandma said take this lunch money. The man was talking to everyone, telling them what to do. But she knew that it was too much and she spent some of it. She was afraid of the man. When she got to school the teacher said where have you been. The girl said nowhere sorry. The light was bright behind his eyes. At home she took the toy out of her pack. The man told her to buy it. Her mama said go to bed so she did.
Ahem. Cough. I can only say I am heartily sorry for these my offenses. And also for those to come.  When I came to write the music for the my chosen section, I had a thought, a thought of a structure reminiscent of the openings of these two works:

and that is what I used, again unfootnoted and unquoted:

Oh, and up top, the "layered representation of the Lorentz transformation" of my friend Logan. On his neck reads: Una salus victis nullam sperare salutem [the only safe bet for the vanquished is to expect no safety].

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The binding of Isaac

One day, God decided to test Abraham. God spoke to him: “Abraham,” and Abraham replied “Yes, here I am.” God then commanded: “Take Isaac, your son, whom you love more than anything in the world, to the land of Moriah, to a place on a mountain that I will lead you, and sacrifice him, kill him with a knife and burn his body, the body of Isaac your own son, as an offering to me.” At this point, the author of Genesis relates not whether this command concerned Abraham, reporting only that the next morning Abraham rose early, cut some wood, loaded up his donkey and took Isaac and two servants out on the road.

One wonders what were the subjects of their conversations while sitting by the evening fire sharing a meal before sleep. Was Abraham jovial with his son, his favorite, the boy he dandled on his knee and raised to adulthood, his only son with Sarah his most belovèd wife, or was he more reserved, thinking of what was to come?
When asked how her day had begun, the day she was to sacrifice her children, LaShaun Harris related that, when she awoke, she received instructions to give her baby to Jesus, to give up her children as a living sacrifice. She was told to get dressed and to take her children to the pier, a pier she remembered from a trip long before.

After three days, they reached a place from where they could see the mountain in the distance, and Abraham told his servants to wait with the donkey while he and Isaac walked on, misleading them to believe that the father and the son were to pray and return. Unlike Abraham, LaShaun did not dissemble, and stopped by her cousin Twanda’s to tell her of her plan to throw her children into the water. Abraham gave Isaac the wood that Abraham was planning to use to burn his son’s body after he killed him, and Isaac carried it up the mountain. There is a similarity here, in the carrying of the wood, to the carrying of the cross by Christ, and there is something sinister here, the father placing such a load upon his son, while the father carries the knife and the fire.

Possibly sensing the strain in their relationship, Isaac turns to his father and asks: “Father?” – “Yes my son?” – “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” We see the rising confusion here: a three-day journey taken without explanation, taken with all the accoutrements of a ritual but without the object of said ritual. But once again Abraham prevaricates and says: “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”

The appeals document in the Harris case is a curious read: an attempt to explain the unexplainable. Society wants to label her clearly, to isolate her so that we are to not to be infected by her malady. The legal terminology used throughout is quasi-scientific, and the text breaks down into a Linnaean taxonomy of argument: rebuttals and surrebuttals from experts all in the field of the human psyche, a field that we know deep in our hearts allows for no real expertise, not a science, not even an explanation, but merely a way to classify, to categorize, and by so doing hoping to hold the real issues at bay.

Finally they arrive at the mountain. We are told that this is the place that God had told Abraham about originally although, in the story, God has been absent since his original decree. And, in fact, without any further orders beyond those of three days before, Abraham builds an altar, arranges the wood on it, and then binds his son to the altar, on top of the wood with which his body is to be burned.

Was Isaac obedient? Did he keep silent?

From the testimony of Yashpal Singh: The defendant was chasing the oldest child and taking off his clothes; he was shouting, "No mommy, no mommy." Another child was sitting on a bench and a third child was either in the stroller or on the bench. Defendant caught up with the oldest child, Trayshawn, and brought him back to the bench where she removed all of his clothing. Standing one or two feet from the railing, defendant picked Trayshawn up by one arm and one leg and swung him three or four times before letting him go over the railing into the water. He was shouting "no mommy, no mommy," continuously as defendant was swinging him.

Genesis 22:10-12 NIV: Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” My Interpreters Bible explains that the angel of the Lord is redactional for God, and thus He does intercede to derail this tragedy.

After leaving Twanda's, LaShaun took her children to San Francisco on BART, arriving in the city about 9:00 a.m. They walked from BART to Pier 7. About 3:00 pm she took the children to Pier 39 and bought them hot dogs from a street vendor. They then returned to Pier 7, where they walked around and her children played and watched people fishing. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

große Oper in zwei Aufzügen!

I've come to the decision that my next production will be Die Zauberflöte von Mozart. This production will be identical to the original Die Zauberflöte, that is, the theatrical work written by Emanuel Schikaneder (see program to the left), the triumphant drama, and will be absolutely true to it in every respect, including all the words and instructions, characters and costumes, and will, as did the original, support the triumph of enlightened absolutism oner the evils of the obscurantists, most notably personified by the Q of the N, Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina. In sooth, in a quest for an absolute and a somewhat mercurial perfectionism, I have ordered my production assistant, the Rt. Hon. Mr. M___, to  clone a copy of the Empress Consort (Holy Roman Empire) and Queen Consort (Germany) from a bit of bone marrow, a bit that I surreptitiously secreted from the Kapuzinergruft below the Capuchin Church on my last visit to Vienna, a trip whose necessary cover story was the yearly celebration of the new wine – the Sturm – but whose true raison was assumed through my intimate knowledge of the intimate pressings of the Masonic Temple Prostitutes, and thus realized by acts of which I may not be proud but were necessary nevertheless, in the service of art and its bounties.

Well, OK, identical in all respects except for - I suppose it goes without saying - the replacement of the music, admittedly a hoary and bromidic element of the great work. I know that my adherence to the text and the meaning of the work may seem fetishistic, but truths are truths and thus must be given respect.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Concerns and Annotations

Aspects of the libretto for the upcoming opera have raised some concerns among some of those who have read it or who have some knowledge of it. Those concerns come from the real event that it references, namely the death of the three children by their mother's hand. Does it represent the people, especially those people still alive, fairly or accurately?  Might it hurt those people left behind, devastated by the tragedy?

I don't know. It's too great an event to capture in words or music. The reality is that I know nothing of the mother or her life, nothing of her inner world, nothing of her motivations or her communications with God, nothing of her relationship with her family or the events in their lives or the children or their father or anything. The libretto at most is just a fantasy, a concoction of my brain and its random associations of the few reported facts and some certainly misreported information with half-memories of my life and my prejudices and desires.

The writing was quick, a paroxysm of scribbling, multicolored, in a state, my breathing ragged and heavy, without editing. I can't really justify its point of view or claim it as my own, at least in a thoughtful sense. The writing of the libretto was the closest I have come in my artistic life to direct communication with the godhead, that divine stream that flows through us all. That direct link was a new experience for me, and I found it curious I could achieve this in writing words, when in writing music - my chosen art - it doesn't happen. For me, music has too much bookkeeping and too much intellect and too many details and decisions for it to flow freely out of my pen and spread itself across the page.

But, unthreading it all now, one can see where many of the words come from and, before one forgets, one should make note of these beginnings and directions and passes through one's neurological landscape. To follow along, one needs a copy of the libretto, which one can find here.

The opening line, as the footnote notes, is from Huxley, in particular the book pictured above. When I was a boy, I was believed to be gifted and I was placed in school programs designed for gifted and talented children. I basked in this appellation and believed in it or at least wanted it for myself. When I went to college, however, I discovered that there were people so far beyond me in intellect that I understood the reality of the quote. My geek friends said their clocks ran faster than ours, and I understood this to mean that there was no way to catch up to them, that their basic hardware was different than the rest of ours.

The second line is from Genesis 22. The Abraham and Isaac story looms large in the opera, a story that is bizarre and horrifying, as horrifying as the mother's tale, if one can get past one's Sunday School coloring book familiarity with it. There is no way to make sense of it, and even my 1950s copy of the 12 volume Interpreter's Bible begins its commentary pointing out that any man who thought of it, if his thoughts were detected, would be institutionalized, and any man who acted on it would be convicted and executed.

In reading the libretto, I see how much most of the story is me rather than the mother's: the tale of my sister's illness and the descriptions of my family, my take on Pascal and my high school friend's experiments, my reaction to hearing the story of the children, my reaction to reading the court documents, my thinking through it all while sitting at pier 7 as the day fades into evening. The libretto does not help the reader or the opera audience.  It does not clearly label the edges of my story and the mother's, and they do mix frantically and fluidly. The character LaShaun, unlike the actual mother, is oftentimes saying or thinking things that I might say or think. Also, regardless of our command of the language, our thoughts are often profound, and because of this the LaShaun/Erling character sometimes slips into a highfalutin voice when representing his or her thoughts to us.

Some of the words do come directly from witness testimony, e.g., the child pleading 'no mommy' as he was thrown into the bay. But most of the words, like most of the text of the letter, and her prayer while killing the children, are my invention, except for a few bits cribbed from the Pascal Memorial. The death of the cat is the story of my cat, and the feeling of falseness in the world when the reality of death invades is something that I have felt and that many greater writers than me have related. Some bits after the murder are from the court documents, but even those are mixed up with my words and thoughts as well.

I notice, rereading the text, that are many threes, and I remember the use of threes in the score, in groupings and repeats and word painting, relating the deaths of Jesus and the two criminals on Calvary to the deaths of the three boys. Other biblical analogies appear: Jesus carried his wooden cross and Isaac carried the wood for his burning, so it is important that the boy carry something as well, but that's just a literary importance with no basis in fact.

I didn't know anything of the life that the mother had with the father, so the sex scene in the libretto has no relation to them, but is mine alone. I have felt what is described, the desire to merge with my partner but being stymied by the gap between us, and how we are all fundamentally alone, in life and especially in death. And, just to make sure it is clear, when she speaks of being left alone, and asking how He could leave her alone, this is an existential loneliness, and the pronoun He refers to God, the heavenly father of herself and her children, not the earthly father.

Society in general seems to have decided that the mother is crazy, and I've always wondered if one were crazy whether one would know. Would one have an inkling that something was wrong in one's thoughts? Would one reflect in one's own thoughts society's prejudices about craziness? I've heard something of the pain of insanity and this leads me to answer these questions in the affirmative. Thus the mother/Erling character in the libretto finds herself navigating the prejudices of craziness in herself. When her boy is sick he enters a delirium that describes a delirium I experienced when feverish with the measles as a child, and her desire to cool him in the water is my story, something I wanted.

The man with the Lorentz transformation tattoo is a friend of mine, a burning man campmate. The description of migraines is a combination of my experience, as I encountered the aura and still do; and the experience of my first wife Lynn, who had severe nauseating migraines throughout our entire marriage, each lasting several days, except during the period when she was pregnant. When vomiting forth this section, I remembered my mother telling me that Mormons believe that Mormon women will be eternally pregnant after death - a fancy interpretation of a passage in the Doctrine and Covenants - and thus the reference to pregnancy as a heavenly state.

The end of the story is me alone. When my current wife Lynne heard about the murder of the children, her immediate comment was that she hoped no one would ever cure the mother of her insanity, that the mother's bright, clear and sane knowledge of her actions would be too horrible a punishment. Those thoughts stayed with me throughout the piece, and especially the end.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Rise of Sugary Snacks

Many have pointed to the impossibility of a pure culture, a culture untainted by others, a myth like that of the Aryan Race, whereas we know that clashes of culture, taking place in those rough boundaries between worlds, are the most fecund: lush contretemps where new growth arises. Even those attempts made by Hollywood and the English Language Popular Music Industry to bring the world under a single Novus Ordo, chanted under a bright yet monocolored flag of cultural hegemony, while successful in spreading their equivalents of Coca-Cola and the Frosted Flake to all corners of the world, have not ended the process, the ebb and flow, the mixing, the finding of the center and the unrefinéd tossing of flotsam at the edges.

Even we, we who fancy ourselves members of an elite art music establishment, are in fact sullied by all we hear and see and touch, the music and the noise and the screens and speakers everywhere that carry it all, a spray of seed that oft finds a fertile womb. We try to impose our rules, our concepts, our ideas of the future of music, but we find ourselves changed by the process, more affected than affecting.

But I do wonder why the aforementioned agents of cultural imperialism have been as successful as they have?  Maybe, like the Frosted Flake, dripping with sugar, a mouth feel unmistakeable, a quick and agile crunch between the teeth, they are addictive. Maybe, like the Coca-Cola, we find that, after drinking quarts at a time, every day followed by every day, there is an itch, almost a burning in the back of our throats that water will no longer satiate. In a taxi in Ghana, I am listening to Bob Marley, and when I mention I am from California the driver says "West Coast! Tupac!" and I think how strange this is, but then I remember that I am here because my son plays in a Ghanaian drumming ensemble back home, and that those concerts are so much better attended than anything I have ever done, and again I wonder who is stealthfully and insidiously penetrating whom?

But I've finished the score for the new opera and am looking at a stack of them waiting to be delivered to the performers. Now that I am done, and I go through it, it surprises me. Where is the avant-garde boy I used to be?  It's all so sweet, chords that my grandmother would have recognized as chords, and even the rhythmic complexities subtler than usual: a hemiola here and there, a confusing accent, a few meters flowing into others. Somehow I have been tainted by the songs of my youth, the poor imitations of sophistication and what we know to be the true delight that one has in great and high art, those fluff balls offered by my friends, pushed forward by the relentless pressure of the unseen and amorphous but so sharply felt peer group, a spear through the heart. But, on the other hand, just maybe I am in fact standing at an edge looking out over uncharted territory, some new veldt whose short grass will soon be replaced by another amalgam of this and that, all stolen from somewhere and everywhere.

Related Posts with Thumbnails