Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Daphnes Garten Oberwart

Part 1: tschüß

Lynne and I said goodbye to the first run of this beautiful, tragic and true production by Peter Wagner. Martin Ganthaler, who played the bass in the attending choir, said it was the first performance where he felt he was taking a bow for someone else, in this case of course the subject of the opera: Daphne Caruana Galizia. The ovations were for her bravery and her strength, and when the piece ends with Katharina Tiwald's reworking of Mark Antony's "Here we are to speak of what we know, the good that women do lives after them" the tears that are shed are for her as well, and for her fellow martyred journalists.
But I must applaud all the performers: Janina's gorgeous Daphne, Michaela's wry portrayal of the voice, Marika and Johanna's beautiful blending, and Martin and Fernando's power and comedy. The comedy is so important in this piece. I couldn't think of another way to set the ridiculousness of the corruption and the denials of corruption, and the ineptitude of Daphne's killers.
I was so happy when Peter pulled the whole band out of the "pit" and forced them onto the stage to accept their due - thank you Davorin for navigating the score so adeptly. Too bad we had to bring down the fortissimi to not deafen all in attendance. Maybe next time, in Klagenfurt / Eisenstadt / Vienna.

Part 2: writing fast

As with Rattensturm, this piece had a short schedule, three-ish months from talking it over with Peter and Katherina before it needed to be in Davorin and the singers' dropboxes, along with all the attendant synthetic recordings, click tracks, parts and partiturs, and my own german-bing-crosby-mixed-with-teen-boy rendition of all the singing and speaking for Peter to use. Someday I should really learn some German.

But speed means once again theft, or at least accepting whatever first comes to mind, which sometimes turns out to be a chat-gpt-like interpolation between all one has heard before in one's own musical latent space. And I may have done a little more than usual in memoriam of my friend Mark Alburger, who died just recently after a mercifully short illness, whose style was based on troping the works of others, e.g. his Variations on Variations of Brahms on a Theme of Haydn. So, some examples in no particular order:

1. Scene 10 Übergriffig's opening, when I wrote it, seemed so familiar, and I puzzled over it until I realized it was in fact the opening notes of the I Spy TV series theme song.

2. Szene 09 Vom Meer: the opening is obviously taken from the opening of La Mer because of course.

3. Szene 06 I am from Austria: It's a short scene, and Peter said seems like it should be a scherzo. Always happy to have a starting point, and although maybe he was just indicating the literal meaning, I thought of the glorious 9th, and so in the pot she went. Curiously Martin was the only one who noticed, and he, being a bass, I prompted to sing the 4th movement of the aforesaid glorious 9th and I joined in until Michaela or maybe Martin looked at me like why do you know all the words and, strangely enough, when I went to meet Katherina's 8th grade class and she said, let's listen to some classical music so we know where we are with this composer guy, she played the European National Anthem and, when she saw me singing along, she mouthed toward me do you know all the words by heart, and I sheepishly said yes, which reminded me of:

4. When I first met Katherina, I told her I planned to set some of her words comically, and she said something about working in something Baroque. I think she said Baroque, although maybe it was baroque. Anyway, I loved my first composition teacher Robert Gross, who was a fine violinist and whose recording of the Biber Passacaglia I have also always loved, so in the pot she goes as well. It turns out that simple descending line is the basis of a lot of passacaglia tunes and chord progressions, including my own from Queer, and Philip Glass's I think Satyagraha, and some others, so I tossed in a bit of each.

5. The libretto starts with Daphne's death, so I wanted the piece to start with the explosion of the car, and I found a recording online of someone blowing up a car in the countryside - I believe for a sound effect - and it was preceded by bird noises, which I loved, as the birds brought to mind the garden of the title, and were such a beautiful and awful contrast to the Hackfleisch that follows. The birds reminded me of Messiaen, and two of the most beautiful pieces of all time are the two string solos in Quatuor pour la fin du temps, which consist almost entirely of major chords s l o w l y intoned on the piano while the string plays a chromatic melody above, sometimes resolving, sometimes straining against. I had been imitating this piece for some months in my not-often-enough piano improvisations, ever since Nikola Printz had talked about recording a vocalise of the cello movement, and recently I had a found a beautiful melody of my own, so into the pot it went as well.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

The latest on She Who Is Alive

We have finished filming about a third of the She Who Is Alive opera film so far, the last scene filmed being the end of the movie, a behind-the-scenes shot with me as wannabe director seen here. The wonderful Laura Bohn, an actor so utterly fantastic in the piece, bravely agreed to go up in a plane that the pilot Chris Prevost has been flying for forty years and which has coughed and sputtered reliably into life since the nineteen forties. 

The light was surprisingly favorable, and we were able to do many film-y things: night-for-night, evening-for-dawn, day-for-night, etc. And those wonderful shots of flying in a plane when it is not actually flying at all, the wind whipping the hair of the actors as they sing amiably to each other over a deafening roar. Actually, I should point out that Laura hadn't quite decided to go, but the sun was setting (aka rising) and Pilot Prevost suddenly took off with her in the front passenger seat, almost blowing to the ground Heath Orchard and his very fancy 6K Sony Venice love-of-his-life camera in the surprisingly powerful prop wash. 

When filming, one is able to see the scenes again and again, and one soon notices that the adorable Bradley Kynard is really pretty creepy, and his character is the perfect spy/aggressor/victim, a foil against which Laura could be both seducer and stone-cold dealer of death. 

Dimmi pur, prego, s' tu se' morta or viva!" / "Viva son io e tu se' morto ancora - Petrarch

Daphnes Garten performances coming up


Premiere is at the OHO in Oberwart, link for tickets etc here: https://www.oho.at/programm/daphnes-garten

And some others early in 2024. 

Saturday, September 2, 2023

Daphnes Garten

I agreed to a request from Austria for another opera: Daphnes Garten, a co-commission from Gerhard Lehner of the Klagenfurter Ensemble and Peter Wagner of the Offenes Haus Oberwart, which will tour in November through December. While it is now almost done, and it is beautiful, the composition of it has been a stress-inducing sleep-depriving nightmare, as it was intermingled with my ongoing day job as an Executive Scientist® and the continuing filming of She Who Is Alive.

This opera, by my count my sixth in German, is a dreamy telling of the story of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Maltese journalist who brought to light corruption throughout Europe. Receiving hundreds of thousands of emails, she was the nexus, the go-to contact for all things corrupt, and what she found was later all supported - and more - by the Panama Papers leak, until one morning when she was shredded in a car bomb explosion. The two assassins - two brothers - one who watched and one who sat on his boat texting the bomb's code sequence REL1=on., have been imprisoned, and some up the chain have faced some consequences, but at the top, not so much. 

After her death, her husband said "The more frustrated Daphne grew at the state of our country, the more beautiful our garden became," and the garden throughout is a touchstone of the beauty that still is to be found even when the honorable men do their best to destroy everything.

The libretto, by the Austrian playwright Katharina Tiwald, is by turns high-comedy and heart-wrenching.  I can't read the end of it, where we hear a roll call of the dead, without crying, and especially the line "The good that women do lives after them. I have done my best to write music that is manipulative and shredding in its own way.  

I'm polishing it up now, sending it off to the Austrians along with the usual Erling-as-German-Bing-Crosby singing all the parts so the director can plan it out before the instruments and singers arrive in a few weeks.  To my fans it may be of interest that one of these recordings exists for every one of my operas - all quite horrifying, but charming.  

From the thesis of Ilaria Pezone

Erling Wold, compositore

Comporre musica è una strana ed effimera forma d'arte, poiché costruisce qualcosa a partire dal nulla per arrivare al suono, onda vibrante nell'aria. Ma questa cosa effimera e sconosciuta può in qualche modo toccare nel profondo l'ascoltatore, facendo emergere le emozioni, reazioni piacevoli o sgradevoli ma impossibili da ignorare. Nei film di Hollywood, il potere emozionale della musica e la sua capacità di attraversare le difese dello spettatore sono spesso usati per manipolarlo e trasmettergli a livello inconscio i sentimenti che dovrebbe provare. Ma la musica nei film di Jon è differente. Anche se in essa si concentra gran parte dell'emozione dei suoi film, non si insinua in maniera sottile nell'animo dello spettatore. Infatti, non compare nelle scene più narrative ma prende corpo nel corso delle lunghe scene di “riposo visivo” che sono così care a Jon. La musica, con la narrazione, il paesaggio ed i personaggi, prende parte a un insieme di percorsi paralleli, ciascuno dei quali guida lo spettatore attraverso i vari aspetti della storia.

Ho conosciuto Jon ad una proiezione di Tutti i Vermeer a New York al Pacific Film Archive di Berkeley, in California. Il produttore, Henry Rosenthal, che ho incontrato attraverso il Just Intonation Network anni prima, mi chiamò e mi disse che sarei dovuto venire, che si trattava di un lavoro bellissimo, del quale andava molto orgoglioso. Quando vidi il lavoro, fui come rapito. Amavo il suo aspetto, il suo ritmo, il suo sentire e in particolar modo la musica di Jon English. Era una sorta di film musicale, sia indirettamente, con un sentimento per i ritmi brevi e lunghi, e per l'architettura della scala musicale, sia direttamente, lasciando spazio allo sviluppo musicale che Jon English ha riempito cosi meravigliosamente, specialmente nella ripresa lunga dove la cinepresa si muove tra le colonne di qualche zona di Wall Street.

Alcuni anni dopo, dato che Sure Fire aveva bisogno di essere terminato per il suo debutto al Sundance, Henry mi chiamò mentre ero in una stanza di un hotel per uomini d’affari in Giappone, che aveva le dimensioni di una minuscola scatola per le scarpe, e mi disse che Jon English era troppo ammalato per finire la musica; infatti aveva scritto solamente una corta melodia per pedal steel; che doveva essere in uno stile country e che sarebbe dovuta diventare della giusta intonazione. Ho colto l'occasione al volo. Quando tornai dal Giappone, ebbi una videocassetta del film quasi finito e scrissi la musica molto velocemente, abbozzando una prima sintesi, a partire dalla melodia che Jon English aveva scritto e portando il suo pedal steel a improvvisare con me. Ci furono alcuni brevi incontri con Henry e Jon Jost, nei quali trovarono delle grandi sezioni problematiche e mi chiesero di ripararle, ma principalmente fui lasciato solo per fare ciò che volevo all'interno di costrizioni di tempo e budget. Jon mi disse che c’erano alcune caratteristiche numerologiche importanti del film, attorno al numero 13, che ho adottato nei vari ritmi e nei vari rapporti tonali.

Dato che Sure Fire era completato e dato che Jon ed io passammo più tempo insieme, abbiamo avuto opportunità di lavorare in maniera più rilassata. Ha cominciato a dirmi dei suoi programmi per il film seguente, The bed you sleep in. Jon aveva scritto pezzi del copione e disse che desiderava della musica pronta prima della produzione, in modo che potesse rappresentarla agli attori mentre stavano lavorando. Inoltre mi raccontò una delle sue idee ricorrenti: aveva sempre desiderato della musica che veniva in natural modo dal suono del posto, a volte in maniera impercettibile. Ma voleva inoltre musica reale, non solo suono, così gli suggerii un insieme di strumenti e stili classici popolari ed elettronici.

Durante la produzione del film, John Murphy, che stava registrando sul posto, mi portò nella segheria descritta nel film. Camminando attraverso il laminatoio era come ascoltare una grande composizione futurista/industriale: il suono meravigliosamente denso e riccamente spazializzato. Il suono e l'odore dei laminatoi locali, specialmente l'impianto della Georgia Pacific, erano presenti per tutta la città di Toledo. Il suono dello stabilimento della GP era percepibile in tutte le registrazioni locali, sia interne che esterne.

La fabbrica era situata sulle rive di un tremendo lago chimico, una pozza d'acqua marrone e sporca con fontane che spruzzavano liquido tossico in larghi pennacchi sulla superficie.

La sua presenza mi sopraffece a tal punto che, a un certo punto, decisi di comporre tutta la musica utilizzando i suoni del laminatoio. Alla fine, ho usato una varietà di sorgenti sonore. Qualche musica, soprattutto quella che fa da sfondo alla scena della lettera, è composta quasi interamente da registrazioni campionate e processate del laminatoio fatte da John Murphy durante la produzione. Alcuni di questi campioni sono usati come strumenti in altri pezzi e sono mescolati all’ensemble acustico strumentale.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

An alternate history of my chamber operas

Last night while babysitting GiGi, I was wasting time chatting with ChatGPT in its current incarnation, asking it to write some limericks on relativity, along the lines of There was a young lady named Bright, which is very clever and which my chat-partner described in its typical dry over-explaining fashion: "It's a fun way to illustrate some of the mind-bending concepts of modern physics in a humorous way." It came up with one on Feynman There was a young physicist named Feynman / Whose theories were too much to try and cram in... and I told it that I knew Dr Feynman back in the day and we played tabla together.  I asked monsieur chat if it knew any tabla rhythms and it mentioned Teentaal, and the syllables as well: Dha Dhin Dhin Dha, etc.  

Hey, I said,  I’ve always wondered if there are any that are a prime number of beats, and it told me of Sooltaal, a 10-beat cycle, and Dhamaar, a 14-beat cycle. OK, well, almost, I mean those at least have big prime factors, and octave errors are often made even by humans when it comes to rhythms so whatever. 

Then we went on to limericks on algebraic topology and it came up with a pretty good one, if a little stilted at the end: In algebraic topology we see / The study of shapes that can be / Transformed and shifted / But still not quite lifted / From a place that we cannot quite see, and, in the ensuing discussion ranging over Jill Clayburgh's explanation of the snake lemma, and my crush on her, and Bertolucci's La Luna, where she plays an opera singer, I casually dropped into the conversation that I write operas myself, as I often do in casual conversations with actual people.  And, just out of narcissistic curiosity, I asked if it knew of the opera A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil based on the Max Ernst collage novel, to which it confidently responded: 

Yes, there is an opera based on Max Ernst's collage novel "A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil." The opera is called "The Making of Americans" and it was composed by David Lang, with a libretto by the composer and writer Mac Wellman. The opera premiered in 2014 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City, and it tells the story of a young girl named Isabel who is forced to live in a convent by her father. The opera explores themes of gender identity, sexuality, and the struggle for self-discovery.

I realized I was onto something, so I then asked it about the opera Queer, based on the William Burroughs novel: 

Yes, there is an opera based on William Burroughs' novel "Queer." The opera is called "Queer: A Chamber Opera," and it was composed by the American composer and conductor David Del Tredici, with a libretto by the poet and librettist Arnold Weinstein. The opera premiered in 2016 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City, and it tells the story of William Lee, a gay American writer who travels to Mexico in search of inspiration and encounters a young Mexican man named Allerton. The opera explores themes of identity, desire, and the challenges faced by LGBT individuals in a conservative society.

Now this is  really quite wonderful! I asked if it had heard of me, a poor little self scribbling off in its parents' neighborhood: 

Yes, Erling Wold is an American composer based in San Francisco, California. He is known for his work in a variety of genres, including opera, musical theater, and electronic music. Some of his most notable works include the operas "A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil" (based on the Max Ernst collage novel) and "Mordake" (based on the real-life story of Edward Mordake), as well as the chamber opera "Sub Pontio Pilato" and the electronic album "I Weep." 

It knows, and yet it does not know, just like us.  

Saturday, January 21, 2023

She Who Is Alive update - Chapter 6: The Third Degree

The Third Degree

I asked my co-producer Lindsay if one still says in the can when there is no can and she said yes, so I may say now that we have three chapters in the can.  The first two, filmed back in August, told the story before and after Dr Maria Stryker, played by Laura Bohn - who turns out to be a Movie Star of no mean talent - is interrogated by the Polemarch Rorman, and during which she meets Peter Sesley (Bradley Kynard!) who is actually not Peter Sesley, but she and we know that, and the plans are laid for her defection. So this section - pictured above - is the interrogation itself, with the impressively buff and deep-voiced Hadleigh Adams as the Polemarch Rorman. Off to the left is Talya Patrick as his maybe-more-than-secretary-could-be-mistress (in the Mistress as Master meaning) and it was so lovely to work with her again after so many years.  

It's always the case that, in the lead-up to filming, I am plagued with anxious dreams, covid worries, fretting forgetfulness, financial panic, and the not-unusual wonder as to why I am doing this at all. But then there is the delightful frenzy of the shoot itself, the joy of working with people of talent who take my gigantic† weird project so seriously, and, once it is in the can, and all the props are back in storage, and one is editing and color correcting and berating one's neighborhood so-called artificial intelligence into doing what it is told, one can feel a slowly beating desire forming to please do it all again, which we shall, although not soon enough, as there are nine more chapters to go. One gets out ones colored pencils to mark up the text with notes of where to get the horse and the ski-plane and the castle on the frozen lake for the next bit, and how to shoot this and that, and one inches toward the kids' piggy banks and the penny jar and thinks well, it's OK to take a little loan on the future once again, right?  The future may never come anyway, and we'll just worry about that all later. 

The beauty of the image above is almost entirely due to the subtlety of the light that Heath set in the deconsecrated cathedral of St Joseph's. As a wannabe cinematographer (and everything else associated with any art form), I long to grab the camera and do this and that, but he is possessive of his creations - as serious artists unlike myself are - and anyway, I was forced by circumstance to conduct.  Since the delightful Fame's Orchestra of North Macedonia had recorded the backing tracks, I conducted from the vocal part, a fragment of which is seen below. The whole section is in 4/4 but with beats that aren't always the same size and, as in the rock 'n' roll that I grew up with, sometimes dropped off the end. But the really nice rhythmic thing that happens is when it switches from the 12/8-style 4 beats to the 4/4-style beats and back, the latter building tension and the former falling back into a relaxed groove, following the ebb and flow of the cat-playing-with-mouse dynamic.

A bit of the vocal part

†[Editor: In once again courting Timur for this project, as the oily Colonel Hippolite Reverdy, he said "you had me from gigantic."] 

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