Saturday, November 23, 2013

Debaucheries of dissatisfaction

A month or so ago, the artist and filmmaker and genetic composer Tim Perkis stopped by for lunch and afterwards we got to talking about the unknown forces that move the world, and he told me of a friend of his who was featured in Time Magazine and thought well now I've made it and proceeded to sit by the phone waiting for the calls to come in only to find that he was slowly starving to death. 

I too have had those moments, and in fact keep, close to my heart, a short catalog of embarrassments that I pause to extract from time to time, fondling and kissing them to remind me of my hopes and dreams and idiocies: that first concert; that first award, polished daily; that first radio interview that brought Fred and Henry over to our filthy house; that first recording released on vinyl and disc; that first opera and the first time performing in Europe; and first commissions for dance and film and orchestra; and all those reviews; and the first publications; and who could forget the first fan mail from those people on the other side of the Iron Curtain, looking for copies of CDs from the perceived American underground?  And through all this one waits for the phone to ring in the growing dark and quiet.  

But any of the how-to-be-an-artist self-help books will tell you the same, something like how rien ne vient à qui sait attendre (pardon my French) but only to those who trust in the Lord or reach for the stars or maybe it is the moon, but really in most cases not much comes at all, and even she who I have paraphrased ended her poem with something about how maybe it all will come but just too late. 

So here I sit, drinking my Sazerac laced with sugar, sugar from a pewter bowl, just a hint of sugar of lead, thinking of Pope Clement II who hoped for a better life after this one, reading a recent blog entry by the fabulous Kyle Gann - did I ever mention his very great talent for coming up with the most beautiful harmonies previously unheard?  Please please listen to this one, my favorite.

I'll wait here while you do. 

Anyway, in the previously mentioned entry, Kyle writes:

I’m trying to teach the class that the canon is an artificial construct, and that it is indeed created by people in power making decisions. Musical academia has its collective narrative, critics tend toward a different narrative, the classical-music performance world has yet another narrative, and the corporate world makes decisions on a different set of criteria. All of these narratives are contaminated by self-serving premises, and none should be misunderstood as resembling any kind of pure meritocracy. And thus every student needs to judge every piece on its own merits as they appear to him or her, and such decisions should not be made on the first listening, or necessarily the second or third.

I envy the clarity of his writing as well as his harmonies, and I believe what he is saying is true, but it's so hard for me to really have faith in it. I keep waiting for that anointing, that Légion d'honneur or OBE that will never come, foolishly regretting all the avenues that have held such promise, forgetting that true happiness lies only in a slow warm remembering of past wantonness, those moments of ecstasy and after, improprieties, mistresses, secrets shared of boyfriends whose tastes in movies are so different from theirs. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Opera in Translation

Some might find it surprising that one who has only a cursory and confused comprehension of the German language would have written three German operas, but as is typical for one who possesses little and thus dangerous knowledge and who is ignorant of his own foolishness, that person has recently found that he must push himself past any modicum of decency and sense of propriety and fire his translators and take it all on himself as he is sure he knows more than anyone else and anyway he's been a bit angry and isolated in spirit lately so itching for a fight. 

And even though he believes that it's pretty obvious that true translation is more or less impossible, he does have some claim to at least knowing English which, in this particular case, is the destination language, and he feels that intimate knowledge of the destination language is probably the more important of the two language knowledge areas in question, especially when the source is poetic and anyway he can do whatever he wants, and, in several of his recent transmissions he has said, and I quote: "[we have been] working hard to capture the feel of the language in its English translation, not word-for-word, but reproducing the feeling that must have been invoked when their audiences first arrived, unprepared for what was to come." 

Now this seems at least doable. If the true crusade is simply to make something that feels the same at the cruising altitude level, then he can pretty much wing it.  But let's look at one particular moment, in particular from the Alexander Vvedensky so-called "Rug/Hydrangea" epistle, first in the original Russian:

Я вижу искаженный мир,
я слышу шепот заглушенных лир,
и тут за кончик буквы взяв,
я поднимаю слово шкаф,
теперь я ставлю шкаф на место,
он вещества крутое тесто

which, in the Austrian German version, Yulia and Felix translated as 

Ich sehe die Welt – entstellte Gestalten,

ich höre das Flüstern der Lyren verhalten,

ich fasse den Rest eines Buchstabens an

und hebe ein Wort auf – der Schrank, 

ich rücke an seinen Platz den Schrank, 

Er ist der Dinglichkeit teigiger Dank.

I should stop here and point out one extra complication, or which we in the optimization biz might call a 'constraint,' is that there was already a setting done of this, the German version, which was quite beautiful, stunningly so in point of fact, and heartfelt, and such things are not three a penny, so that maybe one would want to keep at least the basic rhythmic structure and rhyme scheme (the latter of which we should note here matches the original Russian), and so, holding German-Russian-English dictionaries in hand, and processing this all along with what my friends explained it all to be, I came up with 

I see the world - distorted appearance,

I hear the whispers of the lyres performance,

I grasp at the tip of a character

and pick out a word from the cabinet,

I move the cabinet into its place,
Thanks to its doughy materiality

Is this correct? I dunno, really, but it does kind of fit the tune and has those rhymes that may be important, and actually we start to feel OK about even the meaning and, though I said we didn't care about correctness and suchlike, I do decide to drop my pen on the ground and, picking it up, glance surreptitiously at the answer sheet on the desk at the right, the smart girl in the class who has made it known that she will in fact write you that special A+ term paper for a good enough lick job and a baggie full of Molly, and I see that she has written:

I see the world askew
and hear the whispers of muffled lyres,
and having by their tips the letters grasped
I lift up the word wardrobe,
and now I put it in its place,
it is the thick dough of substance.

OK, well, it affirms something of the same drift of it all, so maybe we did all right.  Is "letter" better than "character?"  Maybe "character" is coming from my UTF-8-centric career outside of the art world, but both of those words mean other things too. "Word wardrobe" though - not so sure about that, but I know I like "doughy materiality" - mmmm - beautiful, lovely whatever-the-fuck-it-means.  Oh right, and I did try that one giant Machine Translation Engine that we all know and love and support with our advertising dollars, and, from the Russian, it says:

I see a distorted world ,
I hear a muffled whisper lira
and then the tip of the letter took,
I raise the floor cupboard,
Now I put the cabinet in place
He substances dough

which I suppose we learn something from - especially on that "letter" issue. But "floor cupboard" and "substances dough" - well, gosh, I don't know, they don't seem to me to be quite so pleasant. 

As we can see, this descent into the levels of hell can continue below where Judas is munched by the devil without coming to purgatory on the other side, so let's now take a little holiday back to an earlier, happier time, when Mr. Composer was first requested to take his first voyage into opera-in-translation, corralling his friend Angelika Mollenhauer into doing a translation of A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil to German.  She's a native German speaker, but fluent in both English, the language of the original setting, the translation by Dorothea Tanning, Max Ernst's wife, who gave me permission in a handwritten note; and French, the language of the original text by Mr. Ernst himself, even though he was German, but a determined expatriate German, from what I hear.  Much later I found the Werner Spies translation, but I liked Angelika's even after, but prolly because I just did, and she had told me that great story about the cleaning lady and the haunted owl statue.

Now, I remember the first time I saw that German translation and I said Fucking Jesus Fuck™ what the fuck am I going to do with all these syllables!?  Ah yes, German has lots and lots of syllables. And me with my one-note-per-text-syllable fixation, learned at the knee of the songwriter friends of my youth, which I supposed meant cramming lots more notes into a tongue-twisting Teutonic nightmare.  And then the problem that where things happen in German sentences is quite different from English, and sometimes the action isn't known until the end of the sentence instead of in the middle, which I knew from my rudimentary high school German, but until one tries to re-set such a thing to music formerly attached to English, it never really is in the gut what that means dramatically. Like, for example, the fact that the big important moment suddenly happens way later, so what to do? 

Well, the answer for me was to do everything possible - sometimes squeezing it in and sometimes rewriting the music, either changing the line so the important bit happened in a different place, or sometimes changing the metrical structure. For example, just for some fun:

The original, the English version, is on the top, and the first measure is in 13/8, following the meter of the text itself, or at least the way I spoke it to myself when setting it: "Crows and harpies, come with me under my white dress" (12 syllables) with the accompaniment following, one chord per measure, changing on the white dress with a shift to 5/4.  In the German version below, I just couldn't in good conscience bring myself to pour into that 13/8 the phrase "Ihr Krähen und Harpyien kommt mit mir unter mein weißes Gewand" (18 syllables) so I altered it to two measures of 4/4 + 1/8, the accompaniment spooling out just a little longer to cover it, and, in the intervening years, my opinion about how to label such time signatures changing I believe for the better. 

Listening now to the piece in its entirety, the German still seems a bit crammed in, and I'm so grateful to Mariko Wakita for performing my learning experience so effortlessly. By the time it came to do the same for Sub Pontio Pilato, I knew what to expect.  

Uksus, the latest endeavor, is a different animal, having been written originally in German and now being moved to English. The syllable problem is now occurring in its inverse: lots of music with not much text to fill in, but being the official composer of the thing I can of course do whatever I want, so rewriting and altering but sometimes just accepting that the feel will sometimes be different, and isn't that just part of the joy of the diversities of living? 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Ontology of Recapitulation

Once again facing the final days of the attempt at Capturing, of Recording that which was never intended to be so. For those of you following along, see to the right what has become the Realization of Music in its Quintessential Reified Embodiment as Object.

Here before, trying to decide what is OK and what is not OK in this transition from performance to recording to mastering to releasing. Unlike pop musicians, who are faced with the odd difficulties of reproducing onstage their meretricious fabrications, those consumable objects brought into being using the gizmos available to the modern recording assemblist, we in the world of scribbled and unlovable scores are faced with the inverse problem, attempting to create a series of numerals that is something akin to the excitement of the live event, a will of a wisp of an ephemeral evanescence, skin and voice and membrane and eye and string and movement. 

Even the most basic capture, even after a long hunt with horses and trumpets and hounds baying, is weak and fraught with error, and performers are weak and fraught with error, and what really does one want anyway in the prey beheaded and stuffed and glass eyes put in and nailed to the wall with all the others undusted for so long: the excitement, the errors, the feeling, the greasepaint, the score, the threesomes and intrigues, or none of the above? Well, the score, who gives a shit? And as those much greater than me have pointed out long ago, the recording studio is an instrument in itself, and recordings are not and should not be performances, but something quite different. So maybe it isn't a capture at all, but rather a creation of its own, plucked ab nihilo from the bits of heaven that have floated too low and into our modest grasp. 

When I was young and foolish and wrote electronic music, the recording was all there was, and I would tinker and meddle with each small event and each change of parameter, longing for perfection but at the same time fearing a disinfected and insipid and infertile pulp. And now that we find that acoustically captured music is subject to the same endless tweaking of pitch and time and sound and place, we find ourself at the same crossroads. Looking at the guideposts up ahead we see one in particular: Classical Music, which brooks no error, which allows only the subtlest variations from the received wisdom of performances past, which has been extreme in its annulment of reality, which is filled with edits and cleaned of noise until little is left. And I worry: because of that expectation of perfection, mustn't I do the same if I wish to be valid? And I reply meekly: isn't there some power in mistakes, isn't there something there which makes us undeniably human?  But that meek voice is shouted down by others who, having done so, lead me back to the the flashing lights of the plug-ins and the lasso cursor.

So I adjust here and there, a few milliseconds added to a late entrance, a few Hertz raised on the flattened pitch, and during this tedium my mind drifts. I think: hey, what was wrong with Joyce Hatto anyway? When everyone is creating something false, why not go all the way and create something sincerely and truly false?  It's clear why no one noticed her falsehoods for some time, since all expected the next recording of the Messiaen or the Godowsky to be more-or-less like the last anyway, taking one step further Rob Haskin's interpretation of Cage's statement that he had no personal use for recordings:
... the implications of the remark are unclear. He possibly meant that the false objectification of music through recorded sound discouraged difference: the ideal state of societies comprising many individuals. A recording foreclosed a multiplicity of performance interpretations, since it was itself a finite object, and it effectively turned the act of audition into an essentially private action. Cage saw performances of music as a metaphor for social action: the audience who attended to the music as it occurred in acoustic space was just as necessary for the metaphor as the musicians who actually brought the music into existence.
Gracenote's CDDB tipped the scales on Ms. Hatto, but we see the loss of variation everywhere at my day job, the tunes from far-flung orchestras that match ever-so-closely, the live pop / rock / hip-hop recordings from Milan and New York City and Tokyo, that, sequenced and lip-synced on stage, vary only in the time placement of the internationally varied audiences' varied whooings.

And each step in that direction takes us one step further away from the days when musical experiences were real musical experiences of sight and sound and smell and parlor pianos, when we fell in love helping another reach a difficult chord, and then, laughing and falling against each other, we tumbled to the floor where real creation took place, that of love and life and music infinitely sweet.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The glistening perdition

Lynne Rutter, a woman of such great pulchritude that she outshines her utterly splendrous works and inspires envy in those who behold her, seems  so very bewilderingly happy with her lot, as much as I try to convince her that she is simply incorrect.

I know with certainty that life is and is intended to be a struggle against forces that overwhelm, an unbending fatigue coupled with an insomnia bred of fear and agitation, a hunger for successes and joys that slip through one's net no matter how well deployed nor tight the weave, an uncountably infinite unspooling résumé of failures failing comprehension or categorization, of hopes unfulfilled, of plans and intentions washed out in the face of sputtering walls of deficiency that strike in wave after inordinate wave, a sullied haberdashery selling bent needles, buttons unthreadable and ties pre-stained, whose tutelary spirit is condemned to a perpetuity of vain efforts and ripping frustration in payment for her hubris, a dream of fame and triumph that awakens to a dimly lit room smelling of must, a race unwon, a frenzy of pathetic ruttings sparking little heat and ending not in promised refulgence but in pain, sorrow and regret ending only when the curtain falls and the audience leaves and, each finding her or his car, turn on the radio, the slight amusement dispelling the memories of what once was.

But somehow one fails to learn the simple desperation of an existence beyond repair.  One dresses in the morning while scrutinizing the status updates of others seeming somehow less pathetic and is snookered in.  Oh, one says, maybe I really could do better if I just worked harder, maybe I could have a brighter future like everyone else, maybe I don't have to play Mr. Lamentable Worm dressed in these ill-fitting and not-quite-matching clothes. And with that, one begins again the process, putting in one's oar or, more appropriately, applying the shoulder and rolling, rolling, rolling the enchanted stone to its place up at the top of the hill.

Sweet Encumbrance

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

To abjure

The first time I read the Koran as a child it was a Penguin edition - yes, in English, sorry. Oddly the only line that has stuck in my head is from the prologue: a brief timeline of the life of Mohammed, viz: the 627 raid on the Jewish tribe of Qurayza where, to paraphrase: 800 men were executed in a bloody process, beheaded in batches at the edge of a trench dug in the market place, which occupied the whole day and much of the night, and the woman and children sold as slaves.

However, and this is the piece of the story that has always fascinated me, namely, that one Jew did abjure his religion to save his life. What was the process, this abjuration? Did he recite Words of Rejection? Did Mohammed's followers require this man to actually change his belief? If one truly believes something one day, can that belief really be changed the next, or are we splitting the hairs of justified true belief and its cousins?

On the other hand, there are those on the other side, and is the part of the story quite incomprehensible to my suburban middle class upbringing: how can a belief be so important that one would die for it? Especially a religious belief, which these days blow with the wind. And in the case of Judaism, from which I know nothing really, but which is, I believe, a bit vague about life after death beyond some Classical-Shade-Type existence, except for the Sadducees, who I thought were pretty clear about their lack of belief in the whole deal, so dying for it is kind of a strong step anyway since what does one get or not get?  Couldn't one get away with just saying whatever and crossing one's fingers or whatever and then believing whatever one wanted? And hasn't it been shown that one can even maintain up to six impossible pre-breakfast beliefs, so what's difficult about throwing in a few more beliefs into the mix, contradictory or no, and letting whichever bubble up depending on who is asking?

An example from my own life: my music sits atop a bedrock of beliefs, which I hold dearly, but today as we were talking about the song cycle I told Sirje of the spleen worm who hides away until I am most vulnerable and who then finds his way to whisper words of success and failure. When he sleeps, I can enjoy life the way it is, plinking and plonking out my little tunes and writing in my little blog and going through my little life in a generally nonplotzing way. But in the wake of several recent rejections, he has lately stirred, and has found his sword and placed it to my neck and now demands of me an abjuration of all I hold dear, to become something I have never been for the sake of most evil Success. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

On writing for the voice; or maybe the setting of text

I'm in the process of writing a set of songs for Sirje Viise, the inspiring and intellectually nimble Estonian soprano and neo-plaything of UKSUS, on texts penned by her hand, to be performed and recorded by her and Davorin Mori, the very talented Slovenian-Austrian conductor and pianist. And it has been wonderful. She's a great writer and a fierce collaborator who has taught me many things, and I think the songs are coming out OK, although I would never say that publicly.

In this process, however, we've had some difficulties - or should I say friendly differences about the outcome - which is I suppose healthy and productive and expanding, but there have been those moments when I've tensed up and where I've gone running off at the mouth about My Singing Knowledge vs. Her Singing Knowledge, and what is the Nature and Goal of Singing as a medium. Of course she could be forgiven for her belief that an actual singer would know more about Singing than a composer of Things Sung, but in the name of Her Majesty and the Continental Congress, I have had over the years some opinions about what is Right and Wrong in Singing and since this has all been stirred up, I felt that I needed now to organize and express these Very Important Thoughts.

Thought #1: it is my belief that if one is writing a piece where the text needs to be understood, it's useful to actually make the text be understood. Let's say you go with me to see an opera in English and you notice that they seem to have the supertitling machinery set up and you say to me, "my that's strange, why would they need supertitles if the opera is in the language of the audience." "Well, ha ha, this is the thing," I will say, and continue with "the producers know full well that, even though the opera is in English, and one might think the text is so actually important that it really should be understood, and that this fact is agreed upon by all involved, from the composer to the librettist to the acousticians, the truth is that the text won't be understood by a majority of the audience a majority of the time." At this point you notice that I seem to be heating up and you wonder why, but you go ahead and ask the question "why is that, Erling?" At which point I will start raving about how everyone involved is an absolute incompetent, and how if a composer had one iota of ability she or he or it would make the text understandable by a series of mundane but simple steps:
  • follow the prosody of the text in the setting of it, at least some of the time, or at least in the first repetition of the text, or in enough fragments of the text that one can accumulate the sense of it; 
  • pay attention to vocal ranges and open and closed vowels and etc;
  • write instrumental parts so they enhance the comprehension of the text and don't fight against it, possibly by orchestrating with some awareness of where the voice and its formants lie;
and then he may point out how many hundreds of years ago those building the hall itself should have taken into account his opinions to come and designed it to treat his words with some loving care.  Now, to be honest, even in the application of know-it-all Erling #1's dictates, it is simply harder to understand singing than speaking, and I get it, but supertitles seem like an awfully ham-handed way to deal with that. Better to have buff oiled men with cue cards.

Thought #2: This Erling who appears in thought #1 seems to be the oldest of the old fuddy-duddies, and what about the common modern notions of text, e.g. the deconstruction of text as sonic object and I say yes of course, I love it all, and actually the truth is that I don't even really give a shit whether I understand the text most of the time, and there are really few things I enjoy more than sitting in a comfortable opera house completely lost and half asleep and allowed to ignore the words because, and I say this with some awareness of how this might upset Erling #1, that following a text, to say nothing of an actual narrative, takes way more energy than just lying there and letting the sound wash over me, an undifferentiated sculptural mass of reverberant din.

Thought #3: Going back to the supertitles, I did use them once myself, in Sub Pontio Pilato, because the text was a polyglot monstrosity, and even then I couldn't stand it, and the supertitles wandered off at one point and found their own path to interesting textual commentary rather than be shackled to mere translation. And anyway, it's almost impossible to get supertitles right and to deliver them at exactly the right moment where they don't give away the joke by arriving early or falling flat by arriving late.

Thought #4: And what about coloratura, and by that I mean classical coloratura, not even the melismas so popular in the singing of the USA National Anthem at the USA sporting events of today? I hardly ever write it, in large part due to my text obsession. I admit I have a suspicion of virtuosity in general, virtuosity of the gymnastic or physical kind that is, although I do seem to love virtuosity of the cerebral kind, e.g. rhythmic balderdash and hard counting. But performers love to play things that are good and hard, and audiences, even those consisting of yours truly, love to hear them. Singers have spent countless hours honing their skills, shaping and placing their high notes and their runs and their trills and their skippings about, and of course they want to use those skills lest no one in the universe know they have them.  So I'm doing it, and I'm going to love it no matter what Erling #1 goes on about.

But in the end, I'm working with a glorious singer, whose collaboration is forcing me to do things that I wouldn't normally do, and that's always a good thing. And you know me anyway, right, my inclination toward kowtowing or even prostrating. Hand me a shovel and tell me to dig out the dirt, 6 feet down and just wide enough to lie down in and now, Erling, let me cover you with some clods and hey now, don't get up, just let us do this thing.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Uksus in Bregenz and beyond

The Uksus opera has been doing a slow tour along the Marchia Orientalis, from the initial amphibious assault on the beaches of Klagenfurt last December to the inevitable scorched earth twixt there and Bregenz last week, where the musical armada arrived as the opener of the Theaterallianz festival. I, like the Deadheads of yore, found myself following along their path in my battered Volkswagen Van, strident with rainbows and peace symbols, the site of many a conquest, and the centerpiece of many a drug-induced comatic experience.

My German, seemingly worse than ever, allows me to experience every performance like a child - a child whose parents don't mind it hearing some really naughty words in their Deutsch variants, which I then, like a child, repeat throughout the day, sing-songing the same tunes again and again. And again, because of my poor German, I tend to see the forest piece-gestalt rather than the wordlike trees, and I discern that the piece has matured as it travels, form coalescing from chaos. As it matures, I've begun to see what it is really all about, a recognition one would have hoped one would have known before one wrote the music but one is sure - without doubt - that God or her lesser angels and possibly their helper elves guided one's pen to the truth from the start.  Except possibly the ending, which may need some work.

My surprise visit did get on the Austrian TV, and there was a maestro-ish press conference where I was treated like I knew what I was talking about, and where I may not have sounded like an idiot, but one can never quite judge such things for oneself.  The piece itself was a delight to experience again, the performers wonderful, the society superb, the swimming pools and attendants and alcoholic overtaxing of my already overtaxed kidneys and liver and other internal organs which, when lightly sautéed, give a pleasant mouth feel and a pleasant tang of urine or bile or other bodily humors, as befits their function, a joyous cacophony.

I do hear whisperings from the ravens that the next performances may be in Wels, or Linz, or somewhere else in northern Austria, so I should check the oil cooling and the bed springs for further journeys - and further conquests - in the woods and valleys of the great Austrian nation.

The English-language version of Uksus, which will premiere somewhere here in San Francisco next year in one of the premier houses, is progressing through the usual tediousness of fundraising (we call it "development") but also along the exciting paths of translation and reworking and chances to fix the problems such as the aforementioned ending.

P.S.: Having now moved several operas of mine between the German and English languages, I should someday write a treatise on the differences between the two and the difficulties of moving something already composed in one to the other: way too many syllables in German, the high points of sentences coming in wildly different places, word order different in general, and again the problem of way too many syllables.

Scene 6: in which she kills her children

LaShaun undresses Trayshawn.

Dear Father,
dear Jesus,
lead these little ones
on their treacherous journey
fleshly, into your arms.
My little boy, Mr. Trayshawn Harris,
who cannot swim,
an angel in human vesture,
the water is so cold,
will chill him,
deep through his naked skin,
to his bones,
bone chilled.
But not his heart, not his soul,
with which your hand doth protect and shelter and warm,
and warm,
He runs, but she catches him and picks him up,
such a little boy, so easy to lift, yes, I hear you,
so easy to lift.
And Taronta Ray Greely Jr, take this plunge,
harsh and cold,
into the deep sea, back from where we came, each,
formed by mysteries beyond our comprehending
and swim, and founder,
and feel the chill of the water in your lungs,
tearing, searing pain,
and pass through death,
that which He has promised us,
He who, on Calvary's mount, defeated Death,
so that each of us can come into his arms,
waiting for you, my son,
my son, behold your mother, woman, behold,
my Joshoa Greely, my boy, only 16 months,
who still toddles so cannot swim,
and the water is so cold,
I send you through this passage,
like the Stargate with the lights all around.
Waiting for you,
a kindly old man and his son and the other,
less corporeal,
a bird,
halos like lights all around,
I see the light form about your brow, dear Joshoa.
Your mother is so happy for you,
my God is in you,
as I undress you.
and drops him into the water.
I feel the nubs of wings on your back,
they will lift you,
even though your body is sodden down with cold watery death.
A powerful strength will find you,
the wind from your wings drying the chill water from you,
and, swinging him by one foot and one hand, flings him over the railing.
She turns to the next child, undresses him, 
She holds out the baby
the hands of our Lord warming your heart,
his lungs breathing life into your young body,
the Resurrection and the Life,
he promised this to us all,
forever and ever, forever and ever, forever and ever.
Don't struggle my son.
I hear you,
cooing to your mother,
so easy to lift
and drop into the water,
My baby,
I can't see you,
I can't hear you, my son,
be strong,
the water is cold and you have such a long way to go.
I love you and I'm so proud of you,
strong enough to take this journey,
dangerous through the cold chill,
a bone chilling watery death,
ahead of your mother,
whose certitude,
feeling, joy, peace,
God of Abraham and Isaac,
Joy, Joy,
Tears of Joy,
On this day the 19th of October,
the year of our Lord, 2005,
we must each take this journey alone,
so alone,

I feed each of you to the sharks,
the pain of their teeth tearing through your bodies,
in the cold chill dark water,
cold to draw the life from you,
through your naked skin,
taking the life that I gave you,
that your Father gave you,
that He gave all of us.
Hold, I hear him now,
I have a phone call from him,
He's calling me.
Sorry, can't talk now, busy,
can just listen.
She drops him in.
Thank you my God,
tell me again how right this is,
each of my boys,
the cold chill of death,
the dangerous journey,
through this Stargate.
From here on Earth to Heaven above.

To be with him today in paradise,
truly this is Eternal Life,
that they know you,
the one True God,
and the one that you sent,
Jesus Christ,
Jesus Christ,
Jesus Christ,
may I not forget your words.
It is finished.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

What we worry about when we worry about Kitsch

Adorno, in a well known quote, said that Kitsch "is the beautiful minus its ugly counterpart," a kind of purified beauty without a vision of the other - what I suppose might be called the real world - with Hundescheiße and all. Now there is nothing innately wrong with this, and if I were able to somehow tap into a stream of pure beauty in my own meager compositions, I would gladly make use of it, as whatever small respite one can give an audience in this brief life is worth grasping.

However, Kitsch, when loved in its unadulterated and unironic form, has become negatively associated, and has become a word used to deny the validity of whatever the speaker doesn't care much for. The most obvious examples of the genre, for example the twee Hummel figurines that my friends' parents collected so avidly, and that made me vaguely queasy even as a child, are easy targets for those of us who aspire to the world of ultra-high art. But the point here is more subtle. The notion of Kitsch has something to do with its commodification, packaging up a subject in a manner which is easily digested, gratifying the desires of the viewer-to-be. It is this aspect which I find the most troubling personally.

Adorno is famous for another comment as well, made in an interview which touched on the anti-war songs of the 60s:

And I have to say that when somebody sets himself up, and for whatever reason (accompanies) maudlin music by singing something or other about Vietnam being unbearable...I find, in fact, this song unbearable, in that by taking the horrendous and making it somehow consumable, it ends up wringing something like consumer qualities out of it."

I think this strikes at the heart of art-making whenever it seeks to be a commentary on the horrors of the real world. In a review of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Manohla Dargis comes up with one of my favorite lines: "[Kitsch...] tries to make us feel good, even virtuous, simply about feeling." Now this is a cornerstone of the Hollywood palace of culture, well-evidenced by the immeasurable collection of movies profiteering on all tragedies past and present, from personal misfortunes to those unimaginably horrific. I've often wondered why there is no outcry, given the various institutions dedicated to the preservation of the real memory of the Jewish Holocaust, to the massively vampiric way Hollywood fills its pockets with sweetly sentimental and boffo-at-the-box-office stories concerning it. Stanley Kubrick, who worked for years on treatments of a film about the Holocaust, decided that it simply couldn't be contained in a movie, and made the point that Schindler's List and the others really weren't about the Holocaust at all.

But, fundamentally, I fail to see how any digestibly evening-length piece, created for purposes mercenary or self-aggrandizing or otherwise, can contain any tragedy. If my own Certitude and Joy attempts to do that, then in that regard it is a failure. At best, it's an essay, one more bit of ink spilled, one more personal comment on the fringes on the subject and subjects related to it. At worst, it is insidious, a piece that pretends to be real, that plays on the emotions, that allows an audience to believe that the artist has conveyed to them something of the truth, but that sets them outside an hour later on their way to buy another donut. Maybe the middle ground is somewhere in between, a show of light and spectacle and music that uses some tricks to make some points, some of which are interesting; and which is enjoyable sensorially, and which may, if it is lucky, make one think about one's own life.

The curious reality of Sister Hummel is that, even though the figures given her name are labeled as shining examples of Kitsch, they capture more of the truth of tragedy through their existence than any artwork looking back from our comfortable present is able to. The figurine pictured is based on her watercolor - The Volunteers - which enraged Hitler, who banned her art, an SA mouthpiece writing "There is no place in the ranks of German artists for the likes of her. No, the 'beloved Fatherland' cannot remain calm when Germany's youth are portrayed as brainless sissies." But even after this, and under Nazi persecution, she continued to produce her works under terrible conditions in an unheated cell with little food, covertly placing in them Stars of David, menorahs and other subversive imagery, dying of tuberculosis before the end of the war.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Toward a theory of the breakdown of the separation between audience and action

When in the presence of live sex, it is hard to keep an intellectual distance. Stephen Dedalus, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, explains by way of Aquinas and Aristotle the aesthetic view that art is Art that holds one in awe, that does not move one to action. The esthetic emotion is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing. This state is that in which understanding and insight is achieved, the state of aesthetic arrest, and in this view, the polemical and the pornographic are therefore not Art.

But here we are interested in just this, the difficult boundary between awe and motion. When presented with sex at close range and with intimacy, lust is facilitated, and lust encourages motion to the object. I felt this first when I saw Shaffer's Equus as a boy, when I happened to have a seat on the stage, so close that I could smell the actors' sweat, and when the boy and the girl undressed and prepared for sex in the stable, I was overcome with a feeling of unease, although still I looked, and later, thinking on the image of the two together, I was impelled to action.

Equus is a play addressed much to the same topic as my own Certitude and Joy. The removal of the boy's religion by society is necessitated by his violence, as the removal in real life of LaShaun's intimate religion is necessitated by her violence. In both stories there is hesitation to do so, as both protagonists are in direct communication with their gods, gods both terrifying and powerful, and in the boy's case, sexually powerful as well. His sacrament is the religious ecstasy of riding the horse in an exultation of sexual bliss, and when his little death is experienced, the cum sprays - we imagine - across the sweaty frothing bare back of the horse. To achieve our purposes, we must see something of this directly on the stage: intercourse in all its varieties, raw and direct; orgasm.

For the last 10 years, I have worked with James Bisso off and on, and more off than on, on a picaresque and fictitiously autobiographical piece titled 24x7, initially our own version of My Secret Life, but now hard to pin down exactly as it has become a sprawling epic containing a series of internal sub-operas. But I feel like I need a text more interesting than My Secret Life, maybe a story of lusty adventure, possibly a new Moll Flanders set on a boy not unlike myself. Or maybe the text should be an attempt to unfluff Shortbus, a film which caught to some extent - strangely transporting it to Manhattan from San Francisco - a world I know too well, but a film which does not have the intellectual rigor of one of my own theatrical works, although it could be argued that I have missed the point that sex can be fun and simple and not necessarily dark and deep and complicated and dangerous.

If, in addition to being pornographic, I wished to commit the sin of being polemical as well, one argument I would like to make by way of this work is how closeted so many of us all still are, and a goal is to reveal those secrets that still exist in our lives, even post our modern culture's supposed sexual emancipation. And thus we attend: (1) the idea of transparency (2) how there is no sin in sex (3) and especially how Die Gedanken Sind Frei and how fantasies, of all one's thoughts, should be the most unfettered and free. The live sex should be free as well, and range from the mundane to the violent, from the passionate to the perfunctory.

Once there is an actual concept, say even a story, casting is an issue. Who would be in it? I suppose porn actors would, or sex workers of a broader variety, or sex worker advocates, or those that are old enough to not care anymore, or those that are already out in any of a variety of perversions and inversions which take them beyond this simple task. The actors cannot be individuals who are closed or closeted, like the actors in old stag film loops wearing masks as they grunt silently across the screen, as this would defeat the purpose, that of intimacy and connection and motion beyond the aesthetic. And can they sing?  Or, more to the point, can they sing while discussing said aesthetics and also attending to the more athletic demands of the role, where breath and hair and tongue and taste intermix?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The night before last

I went to see Opera Parallèle's production of Ainadamar the night before last and, as I was waiting for my lovely wife to freshen up, I ran into Joshua Kosman, who asked me what I was up to and as is often the case when asked that particular question, I fumbled unsuccessfully for an answer, mentioning something about having just come back from the production of Uksus in Austria.  He chided me for not keeping up with the blog, and thus not tipping my hand as to what was coming up in my compositional life, but after thinking about it for a day I realized that the problem is that in general, I really don't know what is going on until it happens. Projects and ideas of projects blink evanescently into being and then blink back out again, like those bigger bosons that appear in the collisions of synchrotron output and then disappear 3×10-25 seconds later, but sometimes one or two projects will, to mix metaphors, snowball into something real. Some even make it to the master list of pieces-to-do, but it can be embarrassing to reveal those to the world or even to friends or lovers as they will invariably say, and I quote: "yes, you told me that list six months ago, and maybe you could just finish one so that I don't have to hear about them over and over." So, I hesitate.

But now, just for the sake of experiment, let me reveal to the world some of what I am working on. I'd like to produce Uksus here in San Francisco. That's a matter of money mostly, and maybe the fact that it is in German, and I like my pieces to be (1) in the language of the people or (2) in a big stew of ancient languages that no one understands. I've also been working on another long-term opera project with Jim Bisso but as it took us 10 years to do the last one, I assume this one will take 20, and that in the meantime I will write another opera or two of my own. I'm working on some songs with Sirje Viise, which may include some of her poems and maybe some of mine, and I've had a plan for ages to do some songs with Jolie Holland, and the other day Laura Bohn asked me to write something that she could perform in the Netherlands, and maybe there's a way to kill all these birds with a lot of stones, or maybe just a lot of songs. These I have actually been working on, and the last few days have been spent communing with the piano under the influence of hangovers and other other-than-normal mental states hoping to stumble across a lost chord or two. I have many processes for working on tunes, this being the most Stravinsky-esque, although I do know in my heart that there are wrong ways and right ways to write music, and the right way is to channel God through the pen on paper, so that I will try as well.

There is something aphoristic about a brief song vs. an large operatic piece. I'm sure that the popularity of the popular song has something to do with this. It is that the song leaves much out that the opera is obliged to fill in, and it is this evocation of the internal history and context of the listener that adds to a song's beauty. The more heartbreak, the more pain and joy and life one has lived, the more injustice one has seen in the world, the better the song can be.

I have a number of instrumentalist friends who have asked me for works and a few that haven't, and in that last category is the organist Michelle Jeanine Horsley, for whom I wrote a piece as I was leaving Vienna at the end of last year, and which I present here:

While you listen, I'll go back to the piano, just as soon as I've finished reading the myriad Wikipedia entries concerning the Filioque controversy.  Even though I have set and before this day spoken only the Roman version, I'm becoming partial to the Orthodox, no doubt due to my preference for the iconoclastic: τὸ ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς ἐκπορευόμενον. 


A week before last Wednesday I participated in a panel at the SPIE's conference on Electronic Imaging on Audio Identification and CopyFraud. Content identification is how I earn my living in general, and Audio Identification in specific, and although the panel veered more toward the technical and commercial questions surrounding Audio ID rather than the issues of hijacked revenue streams and false DMCA notices, even touching on the subject of Copyright in the Digital Age stirred up a thick dark muck which had been crusted over through the years, but which now threatens to break through and spill out over you, my dear reader, an assuredly idiotic act given that too much ink has already been spilt on the topic, but no matter.

My own attitudes toward copyright are idiosyncratic. So much of the discussion in the Slashdots and Boing-boings and EFFs deal with popular culture - songs and T-shirts and national tours - and I come from a distinctly non-popular culture and therein lies some of the difference. I've never cared much whether people copied what I did, and maybe that comes from the exposure at a young age to the endless Variations on a Theme by So-and-So, and maybe the Read/Write culture is the birthright of the Classical Composer. But even more so, almost everything good or bad is sitting on my website: scores and recordings and videos, and I suppose if someone took that as an indication that they could do whatever they wanted with what is there, I suppose it's possible that I wouldn't care, copyright notices or no.

Case in point: during one of the performances of Sub Pontio Pilato, I noticed the sound guy had hooked up a recorder to the sound board and when I asked him about it later he said he really liked that one chord progression - and yes, I liked that one chord progression too - so he decided to just record it so he could use it in his next electronica something-or-other. Although imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I suppose there is something just the slightest bit odd about someone absconding outright with a section of a work that took you 10 years to write and many years of fundraising to produce, walking off with it at the press of a button. But really, what can one do?  Once a bit of art is out in the world, it's really out in the world, no longer yours no matter how many F-16s are sold to unfriendly countries to convince them to prop up all the Dumbo and Bambi and Steamboat Willie protection treaties crafted by the Disney corporation.

But, on the other hand, why couldn't he have just taken the time to have written an equally good chord progression himself? Yes, I'm aware of the fact that I couldn't have conceived of that progression without standing on the shoulders of giants from Pythagorus on up, and we all borrow or steal from others at some fundamental linguistic level, but there is something uniquely mine about that bit of music, yes? Something special that caught his eye? I doubt he is going to give me attribution when he spins it in some after hours nightclub, looking good, while some sweet young cis or trans boy or girl on the latest designer sex-enhancing drug rubs him or herself against him in the dark. And didn't I work hard to give that bit some context, a context born of 10 years of sweat and toil, only to have it be cast alone and unprotected against the dangers of the world in which it now finds itself, its morality and its virtue unguarded? What if, in that moment of exposure, underpants stripped off while it attempts to cover itself with its hands it is laughed at, bullied, made fun of?  Or what if it is taken up at a political rally in a sweaty and fecund chant, a chant in support of someone who doesn't share my libertine sensibilities? What if a group of greatly evil corporate thugs steal it to sell more genetically modified soap, soap that contains compounds that don't register as date-rape drugs on the local police officer's field test kit?  As with all things, it takes years to create and minutes to destroy, and my little work, a feast for the ears, my child and my hope, can be so easily abused and raped and tossed onto the slag heap with all the rest churned through the great capitalist commercial music threshing machine.

I remember when one of my first LPs was mastered by Phil Brown and he told us the story of working just a few years before on Stairway to Gilligan's Island aka Gilligan's Island (Stairway), a tune consisting of the lyrics to the Gilligan's Island theme song over the instrumental bits of Stairway to Heaven. Even though quite clearly a parody and even though hard to imagine how it would negatively affect the sales of the Led Zeppelin composition, it seems the Led Zeppelin lawyers had no sense of humor whatsoever, and I remember reading later that, in the court documents, they referred to the original work as something akin to a national treasure, an untouchable aspect of our common heritage, a masterwork to be protected at all costs.

Saturday, February 9, 2013


I remember only fragments, entering a ruined building with an automatic weapon, putrid water pooling inside a room with stark lighting, a feeling of importance, shooting through the wall of the next room before entering, stumbling across another, smaller room where three children sit, again in harsh light, strange catatonic children staring ahead, feeling detached, just an observer. Entered the first room again, feeling like it was all starting again, the putrid pool, the stark light. 
Thanks for posting your dream. I hope you don’t mind my interpreting it:
Your dream seems to revolve around healing past emotional issues, perhaps via comparing them to similar issues belonging to another person (two rooms). 
Something may have happened when you were three (3 children), or perhaps you are trying to save someone else who was three. Whoever it was, you think this thing that happened has rendered you/them unable even to feel or react (catatonic), and therefore locked here in this state (they don’t leave). 
There might be a sexual relationship involved (gun), and/or you are using sex to do the saving (shooting through the walls). Everything is clear to you about the situation (harsh light) but you are powerless to help it (detached observer) even though you feel vital to the process (feeling important). 
You think this situation- or your trying to intervene- is the ruin of a person or relationship (ruined building), a person or relationship which is presently suffering from extreme emotional and/or spiritual limitation and negativity (putrid water). This relationship or person is not necessarily the same as that represented by the three children to whom something happened, but it could be.
You wish to thoroughly obliterate your enemy (automatic weapon), but there does not seem to be one. You are trapped in this feeling of frustration for the moment, though you seem to understand its origins, which is positive. Overall, the dream, though perhaps reflecting a very frustrating situation, is in my opinion positive, because you take action (shooting walls) and are willing to destroy the barriers to love in a grand sense (walls). 

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