Wednesday, December 13, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra

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

Five sections:

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 28, 2017


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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Something new preceded by something blue

Gilding by Lynne Rutter
There comes a time in a young person's life where she has seen it all, done it all. My 19-year-old cashier down at neighborhood grocery started a sentence with 'well, when you get as old as I am,' then, soon after, told me she was off to The Cheesecake Factory in Union Square in just a bit, and I wondered if she was trying to pick me up, especially after seeing how very cross she was when I came to the store with Lynne.

I have a clear memory of my Father, a sermon in which he described the numbness of a young man brought on by sleeping with a different woman every night. I assumed at the time that meant that my father thought that was bad, as he used the voice that he used when he wanted you to feel his sadness, but at the time I hadn't slept with anyone and I remember thinking that I was sure I wouldn't be numbed by that at all, and that it sounded like it might be absolutely delightful.

But as the second childhood of my senescence develops, I'm becoming almost young enough to feel such an ennuitic apathy.

A couple of recent deaths took me by surprise and have been weighing on me: our cobbler, the nicest guy, very expensive, who you couldn't drop off a shoes without having an hour-or-two-long discussion about politics and everything else, and whether he was on the right or left I was never sure, and who brought his very sweet son - with his dissonant prison-bike-gang-member look - into the business after some troubles that might have involved the law; and Al Despain, my research advisor from grad school days, whose mustache I've found myself sporting this last month, heavily enmeshed in the military-industrial complex, a member of the JASON group, always willing to skim some DARPA and Naval Research Lab money off to support my computational music projects because he liked everything that was interesting and difficult, whose family came to the Americas in the diaspora of the Huguenots.

It's hard to let them go. Death sneaks in on the quietest feet, stealing away the life, the career, the knowledge you've built, bit by bit, until nothing remains.

Somehow, through this cloud of death and depression, I'm putting together a couple of new projects. Gerhard Lehner is bringing Peter Wagner down from Klagenfurt to our Florentine palazzo this week to discuss Szent Istvàn. Herr Wagner is writing the libretto, and I've seen an early draft. The sailors, as rats, perform war poetry and other writings each for each other, building a case for and against until the torpedo arrives and sinks the ship in an ignominious way - which is the point of the piece: all the puffed fluffery surrounding war and power, all swept away, all ridiculous.

The other, which I have been hesitant to announce, is an adaptation of Robert Harris's She Who Is Alive. It's a great story, with a fascistic political aptness, a cinematic bearing, darkness and light and some dear-to-my-heart strange tangential flips. Anyone who loves me will know that a dialog that splinters off as follows will thrill me to my bones:
“Do you think there will be a war in the near future?”
“I don't know.”
“If there is a war, who do you think will win the war?”
“The National Homeland.”
“Are you afraid of death?”
“Are you a coward?”
“I don't know.”
“Do you believe the end of world will occur soon?”
“How long has our planet been inhabited by human beings?”
“About one million years.”
“Do you believe in the theory of evolution?”
“Y es.”
“Do you believe that history is an upward spiral?”
“I don't know.”
“Are acquired characteristics genetically transmitted?”
“Do you believe that our planet is being visited by supermen from outer space?” “No.”
“Are mutations the product of the love of alien beings?”
“Why do we face the North Pole when we pray?”
“Because it is the Homeland of the Gods.”
But sometimes announcing something makes it real, and that's what this is. I've bought a new video camera back in August - a Sony A7SII - which works incredibly well in low light, and I'm thinking this piece will be a film, lit with only fireflies and phosphorescent algae. I took Laura out when she was staying in Berkeley for her performance in Powder Her Face, and we tried it the camera, stealing a bit of Brett Dean's One of a Kind for the soundtrack. Hopefully he will forgive me.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

SMS Szent István

Blessed are those who died for carnal earth
Provided it was in a just war.
Blessed are those who died for a plot of ground.
Blessed are those who died a solemn death.


Blessed are those who died, for they have returned
Into primeval clay and primeval earth.
Blessed are those who died in a just war.
Blessed is the wheat that is ripe and the wheat that is gathered in sheaves.
-- Charles Péguy (as quoted in Peter Wagner's libretto)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

UKSUS 2016

We gave UKSUS a good brush up and comb out and trotted it out once again for the perusal and hoped-for edification of the Oakland Arts Audience, as well as those who happened to be caught up in the rush. This all at the end of last August and early September, but just now I begin to write, it being a production of some mean energy outlay and the recovery time long and sometimes arduous. For a while after, I was kept in a smallish white-painted room in the sanitarium at Mainz, daily cleaned by the young Eugen (or perhaps that was the name of his dog), but those in charge have now allowed me out on my own recognizance, and so I now convalesce here in our Palazzo in Firenze, listening to the bells calling us to vespers.

The gloriousness of Kharms' writings came through even better this time, for two reasons: one because it had all sat with us for a while, and things that had seemed obscure originally now were transparent as a pool of clearest water, and two because of the wind which was just then beginning to blow: a wind of authoritarianism carrying a scent of those old bad days of Stalin and the gang. The OBERIU's joyful silliness in the face of that continues to impress given the despair that has settled over the art scene here in the US of A, collectively wishing that we would all wake up from our odious dream;
"And so we hope that we, now, living in our own time of horror, among those who impose their piggish and tinpot will on others, can find our own place of exultation, our own reason for continuing in this life, and finally our own triumph over all that works to contain us." -- from the marketing material for UKSUS
The video came out quite well. It is above and I suggest you watch it. We put on the show at the Oakland Metro Operahouse, a space that let us spread out onto a multiplicity of stages, and that had a feel very different from the little theaters in which we usually perform. The Metro has a surprising amount of death metal and wrestling for an opera house, and the stink of beer is ever-present, and all this beer-metal-ness just freed us up. In one big change from before, we hired three soviet soldiers - the bouffon performer Sabrina Wenske and the actors Nathanael Card and Peter Overstreet - to bully the audience from the moment they arrived.  Those who came early had to queue up outside, waiting and waiting, after which their passports were stamped and they were sent from one department to another, and only then were they allowed in to where the late Pushkin lay in state, felt up and whispered to by Fefjulka and some of the members of the audience, at least one of whom tried the French Kiss.

Several of my favorite moments: One) when a woman in a motorized wheelchair arrived and the soldiers jumped up and questioned her - where is your permit for this? - and checked for bombs and contraband underneath by means of a mirror and Two) when at the end of the show, before the audience was done clapping, how the soldiers pushed and cajoled them to leave - entertainment done, time to go, out, all done now.

Of course there was also the piece itself - the actual opera - and the performers, who were fantastic. Nikola came to Stalin and Our Mama with a great and renewed intensity, plowing into the part. She seemed really angry, maybe in fact because of the aforementioned foul wind, and who since has been advocating for me to write operas full of "violent biker chicks beheading awful men."

Laura, of course, as Fefjulka - she's my angel, how much I owe her - was spot on, singing beautifully: you are a god of nine legs still brings the chills - a perfect example of music that's maybe more-or-less OK before but is brought to life by the performer, that becomes something else. I loved every night watching her and Nikola do the clockwork bit in the OBERIU costumes, and the two of them together have such soprano power in their duets - it knocks you off your feet.

Then there's the entrancing Timur, who had to jump into the Kharms / Pushkin role when Duncan was called away. He's a boy of the old empire, born in Almaty KZ before the fall of the wall, when they were still doing October Revolution Parades in Red Square instead of the hot dog stands and Stalin bobbleheads. He took on some of Duncan's bits but transformed them into his own deal and added a cavalier freakiness, and then, at the end, into a bit of geometry.

I was just now remembering how long I've known Bob Ernst, who was Michelangelo and the notebook of Michelangelo, as we go back to Jon Jost's Sure Fire, back to before that first time at the Sundance Festival, and then when Jim hired him to choreograph The Knife for Mary Forcade and Chris Brophy in the first performance of A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil. As Duncan once said, Bob can't help but be funny, but he also rips you up in his death, the cardiac arrest, after he bids farewell to the sea, farewell to the sand, and how high you are, o mountain land.
Related Posts with Thumbnails