Saturday, September 22, 2018

She Who Is Alive

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


The program notes:

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

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Where credit is due

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 20, 2018


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

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The sinking approaches

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

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

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

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

Firenze-Roma, 2018 

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

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