Monday, September 24, 2012

Comedy

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.


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