Help Me Rhonda

Alabama 1957: a 49-year-old Montgomery waitress, Rhonda Belle Martin, was convicted of murdering most of her family. Her mother, all five of her young daughters, and two of her five (!) husbands—all given small doses of arsenic or rat poison over long periods of time, so that they slowly became sicker and sicker until they died. Her fifth husband she did not succeed in killing, but did leave him as a paraplegic by the time she was imprisoned. (He also happened to be her stepson.) She never confessed to why she did it; it wasn’t for insurance money, and all she ever let on was that she liked to receive the sympathy cards. After she was killed by electric chair, a note was found in her Bible that asked that her body be “donated to science, so nobody ever has to go through what I went through.”

The Big Thing I’ve been working on for about a year has been this chamber opera called These Walls about Rhonda. With librettist Matthias Hope Naroff, we developed a story in five parts (corresponding to the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) that charts Rhonda’s feelings about what she did over the course of a few night hours in prison. She revisits the past—happier times, things that made her angry, people that wronged her—and tries to make sense of her present station in life. To the rest of the world, where the press attention has died down, she is “lost to the world, forgotten.” She spends her days obsessively cleaning her meager cell and trying to attract the attention of guards in the distance with salacious songs, wishing she could return to her life as a waitress, serving people (especially men), making them happy.

I’ve written in this space before about my obsession with the American nuclear family. In many ways, Rhonda’s existence was at the polar opposite of what was at the time a growing consensus around what the American family should look like: she had five husbands, marriages that ended either through divorce or murder, and her fifth husband was the son of her fourth husband (whom she killed). She killed her mother. And then there are her five girls she killed. We focused most of Rhonda’s attention in the opera on that last fact: she spends a lot of time reminiscing about her girls, often finding them innocent in a world that she perceived to be constantly trying to bring her down.

The note in her Bible, not reported in most of the historic accounts we found, is a curious footnote to her story. It simultaneously exhibits staggering self-awareness, and also a rather self-centered approach to understanding her actions. It acts as a sort of displacement of blame, from her own agency to some unknown defect of the body. Most of the personality we created for Rhonda stems from this letter. “Have I been forgiven” she asks, “or must I ask again and again?”

It’s finally happening on May 15; more details are here. I’m conducting, it’s 60 minutes long, it’s a charming Monday evening at the theatre. Ok see you there.


Weird Week

In this weird week between Christmas and New Year’s, my neighborhood is quiet, gray, & I’ve been holed up in my apartment scrambling to tie up some loose ends for 2015. A lot’s been happening with me (!): my new ensemble, Echo Chamber (more on this in a moment), has given its first 2 concerts; I’ve written a whole big pile of music for some dear friends; I did some arrangements for Derek Piotr, coming out on an EP early next year. Most of my days as of recent have been spent editing / staring at (other people’s) new operas, which is simultaneously very edifying and very exhausting also. I was in London in June, where I had occasion, among other things, to saunter through the Soho red light district. Here is photo evidence:


On the front burner are two string quartets, for ETHEL and for the JACK (we’re feeling the uppercase, so mostly the music sounds like I’m shouting at people, but what else is new). Until now I haven’t written any string quartets, possibly because I’ve been scared into a corner by Haydn and Beethoven and Bartók, with whom I spent most of my cello-playing high school years. The ETHEL piece is rather liberating, in that sense, because they’re an entirely different breed of string quartet, 1) being amplified, and 2) having the viola and cello on the outside. So you can imagine that I’m having a great deal of fun relegating the poor violins to background status. In any case, these two quartets coming to a New York near you mid-2016!

On the Echo Chamber front: I’m, along with Adam, helping run this sextet—clarinet, piano, percussion, violin, cello, bass—which is dedicated solely to commissioning and performing contemporary work. I wrote a thing, Light Echo, for the group, which we’ll do in February at Pulsing & Shaking, and we’re in the middle of sorting out a bunch of exciting commissioning projects. The current item of interest is a Kickstarter, which we’ve put together to help create four new pieces of music by Brooks Frederickson, Matt Frey, Molly Joyce, and Pascal Le Boeuf. Go watch our cheeky video and then BACK the project & help make new music happen! olé!

Speaking of high school, I’m in the middle of this incredible book Home Fires, by Donald Katz, which details the development of the postwar American suburban family from 1945 through the 1980s (I’ve just made it out of the 60s, barely alive). What’s incredible about this thing is, because it’s written as a sort of ethnographic study of a single family (which happens to be composer Ricky Ian Gordon‘s family, as it happens), one gets a kind of insider view of how the suburbs developed over time, and how the usual stereotypes (alienation, false sense of community, etc.) came into existence. We see the planned Long Island suburban communities morph from charming, almost-utopian enclaves into streets of houses with families pitted against one another, especially as the counter-culture takes root. It’s a highly detailed, almost neurotically thorough year-by-year look into the American nuclear family. Beyond that, it also offers a quasi-firsthand account of the turmoil of the late twentieth century in this country.

If you know anything about me, you know that I have a strange obsession with suburban America and literally anything to do with it. One of my favorite favorite books, Music for Torching by AM Homes (are we sensing a pyromaniac theme here?), details a suburban, presumably Westchester, couple who within the first 20 pages burn part of their house down and flee to a motel with their 2 young children. The book goes on from there: husband cheating with a younger woman only known as The Date (who at one point forces him to get a pubic tattoo during his lunch break), wife having a Lesbionic Awakening with the Perfect Housewife a few doors down, children scattered across town. You should all read the book, like right this second, but know that it ends in a horrifying & thoroughly chilling scenario, which serves as a kind of indictment, I think, of the potential energy built up by a divisive, every-family-for-itself suburban culture. This subgenre of work, rooted in John Cheever’s reading of postwar American life, isn’t unpopular: American Beauty, The Ice Storm (both book and film), Freedom. What makes the pairing of Home Fires and Music for Torching particularly piquant, though, is that the latter is, one feels, the (il)logical extension of the former. The suburbs are built up and destroyed from within, and then we arrive at Paul and Elaine’s batshit existence (and conclude with the aforementioned Scary Moment).


So it’s the end of the year. I made a list of things I liked this year, not necessarily in order:

1. A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

If you want to be entirely devastated, read this book. I was crying in Tompkins Square Park through the last quarter of it this summer. I still think about the characters, often, many months later.

2. Blue dress, Julia Wolfe
3. Ruins, Dan Nicholls
4. Patrol, Steve Martland

I could have chosen any number of Martland things—I’m minorly obsessed with his music right now (and always)—but Patrol is unique for him in that it doesn’t involve big band-like instruments. It’s quasi-Baroque, and quasi-Arvo Pärt, but also driving and relentless in its fast and slow music.

5. Home Fires, Donald Katz
6. Island Life, Grace Jones
7. King, Queen, Knave, Nabokov

Love triangle!

8. O Shudder, Dutch Uncles
9. Celestial Excursions, Robert Ashley
10. Gospel According to the Other Mary, John Adams

Finally, if you grew up with the British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances like I did, you’ll appreciate this outrageous Twitter account, @HyacinthReacts.

The River Deepens

So what’s up with me is that, for the past few months I’ve been completely whelmed, as anybody who knows me can attest to, by Robert Ashley’s 2003 opera Celestial Excursions. For the uninitiated, Ashley’s operas are more in line with the non-narrative operas of Glass and Reich (Einstein on the Beach, The Cave) than with Tosca. The bulk of the libretto is not sung, but in fact delivered in a spoken manner in very precise metric patterns, occasionally with a single pitch provided for a kind of sprechstimme effect. Here, Ashley’s honed this technique such that often, the singers are creating very difficult, intricate vocal patterns.

There’s something about Ashley’s libretto (about The Elderly and Aging) and the way he’s created these dense, difficult rhythms through the spoken word that’s particularly compelling. And the music! The entire piece is ‘in C major’ (harmonic structure thanks to Kyle Gann’s old-ass website), performed by the electronic orchestra, plus live jazzy piano riffs, developing a kind of limitless atmosphere well-suited to the dreaminess of the content.

Ashley has created 5 characters, each with amazing descriptions:

a man in the witness protection program
washed and dressed and ready for fun
eternal vigilance
formerly a very sophisticated lady
a man of the dark imagination

(Washed And Dressed And Ready For Fun, for 3 oboes da caccia and theremin.)

The first act, “Is it light yet?,” deals in early-morning dreams; Robert Ashley’s ‘character’ establishes the amorphous identity-shifting of the whole piece with his opening line “I’m in the witness-protection program.” There’s a charming love letter, enhanced by Ashley’s delightful Mid-Atlantic drawl; the line “his chief erogenous zone lay inside his head;” a strangely satisfying encyclopædic aria about the Pleiades over the refrain “No;” and the final section, a heart-wrenching dream about an adopted daughter, Walnut.

Where the going gets good, though, is in the second act, “Asylum,” in which the four members of Ashley’s ‘band’ are residents of an assisted-living facility, and Ashley is a kind of counselor. The residents are petitioning Ashley for asylum, and it quickly becomes clear that they don’t mean a Political Asylum, but rather one from somebody/thing named O, ‘One and Only,’ who seems to be a mental apparition. To relieve tension, the residents break into song in short, highly-digestible numbers, a favorite being The Baguette, in which Joan La Barbara argues that 1 cannot both write in English and have a baguette for breakfast (or the opposite, that one cannot write in French and have a breakfast of oatmeal), as typified by Beckett:

Near the end of the act, things get existential; the residents start asking about dualities. “Dead and gone?” “Muslim and Jew?” “Antonym? Synonym? Antony and Cleopatra?” “The burden is always the same?” Before it’s over, Ashley tells a few jokes (“Two cannibals are eating a clown”). The whole thing is delightful.

Ashley’s pop songs—a fixture since Perfect Lives, but here in particularly earworm-y form—have been stuck in my head for months. It’s almost ten o’clock kids! Do you know where your mother is? The harmonies for each of them are always roughly the same, their emotional landscapes ranging from cheerful (The List) to Ethel Merman (After All The Stuff) to Capitalist Mantra (Love That Stuff) to utterly bizarre (Depression, I Like Q). Each, I think, expresses a deeper nostalgia and melancholy apropos of an opera about old age; they’re slightly out of it, harkening back to musics of the mid-20c. The emotional content of these short interludes tracks with the ‘drama’ of the intervening passages: in moments of faster-paced back-and-forth dialogue, we have songs like It’s Only Fun; at the end of a long string of dualities, we have It’s Almost 10 O’Clock. The final song, Years of Desire, has these words:

Years of desire,
A moment of madness,
Ladies’ choice.

Am I crazy, or is this incredibly haunting?

By the final act, “The River Deepens,” we’re all ready for an Einstein-ian nighttime story, and that is exactly what Ashley provides. Each of the 4 actors delivers a kind of stream-of-consciousness monologue about a wide range of topics, from a nightmare involving a road trip to the burning down of grandmother’s house (which has a rare 6/8 feel—most of the opera is in a very straightforward simple meter).

The final one, however, is what really gets me. Delivered by Joan, here a college admissions counselor, the aria tells a short story about a college course invigorated by a student she otherwise wouldn’t have admitted because “she scared me.” The story itself isn’t particularly remarkable, but at the very end, Joan finds the previously-scary student in a coffee shop. The student admits that she was previously haunted by a ghost (a recurring theme in the opera), but the course enabled her to relieve herself of this nuisance (perhaps suggesting why Joan no longer found her scary in the end). It’s all a bit nonsensical; the aria ends with an abrupt, exasperated “I never saw the woman again. Higher education!” In this last scene, the music is constantly churning, as always, yet feels settled, remaining in a very comfortable C major 7 chord, electronic sounds zhooshing above.

After each of the four monologues, Ashley delivers the simple line “The river deepens as it gets down to the sea, the river deepens.” By the final few seconds, the music drifts away, shifting to e minor, and Ashley intones the sentence in a particularly solemn fashion, sending frissons of pleasure down my spine.

The text of the opera often seems ridiculous and random (Twitter spam, anybody?), however there is, in fact, a structure. I was titillated to discover that, for example, ‘Mr. or Ms. or Mrs. N’ in the first act foreshadows the second half of the second act. The character of eternal vigilance rattles off a few random dualisms (“legal immigrants and illegal immigrants, Jews and Arabs, French and Germans, east and west, rich and poor” etc.), and then mentions “old jokes not quite remembered fully.” This moment calls to mind the deep-end that everybody runs off two-thirds through Asylum.

The moral of the story is that you should all watch the 2009 revival at La MaMA here, and also purchase the record here and sing (or, rather, Declaim) about baguettes in the shower.

I’ve had a busy few months. Pulsing & Shaking had its second set of concerts, which were really spectacular if I do say so myself. The second night went on for about 3.5 hours, but I think it was all worth it in the end, when Palladium Percussion killed it in their performance of Julius Eastman’s Gay Guerrilla. Onwards to next year! Manhattan Saxophone Quartet also premiered Minor Details a few days later, the recording of which is now up here.

I’m also currently in the midst of doing some arrangements for Derek, from his new album Bahar (out May 5; stay tuned). A bunch of his tunes on this record are all about that bass (clarinet), and so what I’m doing is adding more woodwinds and secret celesta. We’re going to perform these a bunch over the next few months, which I’m so excited about. It’s so humbling to work with an incredibly talented vocalist, providing new/different clothes for beautiful music. Watch this space, we’re coming to a Brooklyn near you this spring!

Erev Christmas

It’s Erev Christmas, and—in a short entr’acte in preparations of sweet & sour duck—I thought I’d give a quick update to this space. Nota bene, I also put up some new recordings on this thing.

This fall—which has felt, in characteristic New York fashion, more like Summer XL, and now Deepest Depths of Winter—has been something of a whirlwind for me and for the New Music Community At-Large. I wrote some music for Palladium Percussion which they’ve been doing a bunch and of which they just did a studio recording; I prepared an hour’s-long concert of my own music for my degree; a metric tonne of planning for Pulsing & Shaking’s sophomore year has been happening. On that last point: this year we’re going hard. There will be music by a whole bunch of young New York-based composers, some Reich, some Gordon-Lang-Wolfe, outrageous Julius Eastman played on four (4!) marimbas to close the whole thing. Watch this space for more about all that, mark your calendars for February 23 and 24, and also go check out our web presence. For the diehard New Music Folk among us, I’ve been doing fun little interviews with some of the composers involved, which we’ll be releasing slowly but surely over the coming weeks.

Also, Death of Klinghoffer happened! After what seemed like endless amounts of bickering in the press, the thing actually opened, and I couldn’t be happier. Regardless of what you think about the opera itself, I hope you all went and supported the home team; it was a stellar rendition of one of Adams’s most affecting and beautiful works. Perhaps this isn’t the venue to discuss the politics of the opera, however I will just say that, for all y’all who think it is anti-Semitic (or know people that do), send them an MP3 of Marilyn Klinghoffer’s final aria. Not only is it incredibly affecting—much more so than most Adams arias I can think of—it gives her the last word on the whole situation, roundly condemning the events. How this is not anything but respectful, I can’t quite imagine. In fact, the Met’s trailer for the opera offers a pretty nice smorgasbord of everything offensive in the work, and puts it all in context. It seems most of the anti-Kling press didn’t do their homework!

I just finished reading this excellent book, Modern Music and After, by Paul Griffiths, which I am goading everybody I know into reading. It’s a bit heavy on the European modernism (one particularly notable section was the ten-page exegesis of Ferneyhough), but on the whole very well-researched and a good refresher on, well, modern music; it starts with Boulez!

One result of this has been my current obsession with Claude Vivier, spectralist and crazy gay Canadian, with a particular knack for ending pieces abruptly. I can’t stop listening to his last work, Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele, which notably predicts his own death by male escort! It’s outrageously expansive; the music sort of envelopes one whole, especially in the second half (which feels eerily like the Bed aria in Einstein, right?), in which our protagonist—also named Claude—declaims a story in which he meets a man that he is romantically interested in, who lures him into his bedchamber, and then stabs him to death (at which point the piece, you guessed it, ends abruptly). Amidst all of this, a choir is ululating in an imaginary language, and a soprano unfolds a beautifully barren poem about death in winter. There are tuned gongs! And weird synths! Anyway, I can’t get enough of this thing. Go watch this utterly bizarre staging of the piece:

Finally, in light of what’s going on, I’d encourage everybody to go listen to the aforementioned Julius Eastman. His indelibly political music—a gay, black, occasionally-homeless composer!—seems the most appropriate at this moment. Here’s some.

Conflict & Resolution

To celebrate the beginning of June, I am sitting here neglecting various compositional & engraverly duties, instead listening to Owen Pallett’s new album IN CONFLICT, which is, I think, exactly what the doctor ordered. For Me Right Now, it is the perfect mix of propulsion and energy, and also back-seat lamentation. “The Riverbed” has been stuck in my head for three days non-stop. Have y’all seen the video for it?

The whole album feels obsessive. Each song—every lyric, every harmony—seems intricately crafted, and in fact the entire album is preoccupied with only a handful of ideas. Snippets from the songs haunt each other, which is unsettling in the best possible way. The last track, a kind of outro, is the most deliciously electrified Philip Glass-Satyagraha moment I’ve ever heard (perhaps unintentionally, but one hopes not), fully laden with melancholy & sadness. Go ahead & buy it & make it your early-summer jam.

Simultaneously, I’ve finished this new fiction by Richard Powers, ORFEO. It’s sort of bizarre: the protagonist, a 70-year-old composer-turned-suspected bioterrorist, Peter Els, finds himself attempting kitchen genomics in a craze to create a new music. The book is divided between his current quagmire, fleeing from the government across the country in a Partchian fashion, and snapshots of his life, from birth through university years discovering an avant-garde voice, having a daughter, leaving Boston and family for New York’s nascent ‘downtown scene,’ creating a minor scandal with his historical opera. As mainstream fiction, the book is thought-provoking and engaging, if a bit excessively nostalgic at times. It’s a big book, littered with Els’s obsessive musical tics, constantly preoccupied with effervescent, fleeting melodies (so painstakingly described), and the music that inspires him, always cycling through his mind. When he turns to amateur bioengineering as 70 approaches, the patterns of DNA seem like music to him, beckoning to be tinkered with to engrave a new music, to make his mark on the world. And he certainly does, ending up being wanted for bioterrorism! It’s a crazy-town premise, but perhaps less than one might care to imagine, given the recent NSA fracas. The book almost seems to presage incursions being made into personal privacy, of the Facebook or Presidential kinds, which all clicks nicely into place mirroring Els’s tour-de-force opera that seems to portend the 1993 FBI raid of the Branch Davidian compound.

The thing that really threw me for a loop, though, was Powers’s in-depth descriptions of various pathbreaking pieces of music in the modern era: relating the Quartet for the End of Time to Els’s own search for timeless music in a particularly striking dozen pages; hearing Proverb over the speakers in his frenzied return to his old school’s coffee shop, economics students slowly slinking away (for what reason I’m not quite sure); Musicircus. The whole book, in fact, felt a bit like a big New Music Inside Joke. It’s a bit surreal to be preoccupied all day with technical musical terms and obscure (at least in the big picture) works, to then sit down and read about them in mass-market fiction! One wonders how much somebody without musical training would be able to glean from the book not knowing what a chromatic scale or spectralism are.

What goes completely unmentioned is the book’s namesake, which I’d imagine is Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the first opera to remain in standard repertoire 400 years later. Els’s entire life seems to be marked with loss of some kind or another: from losing his first love to the siren-call of the +44, to leaving his wife and daughter (his only “decent composition”) for New York, to becoming disillusioned with the aforementioned historical opera. The man retires in suburban Pennsylvania, teaching people in a nursing home about the music he loves; surely everybody’s nightmare. And then, the government investigates HIM for seeming to have caused a bacterial outbreak around the country! Of course, Powers doesn’t take the obvious way out, tracking the plot along that of the Monteverdi. BUT, the poignant ending, which I won’t disclose, sees Els making a very Orfeian gesture in front of his utterly weirded-out daughter. This moment, which gave me chills, isn’t necessarily dependent on knowledge of L’Orfeo, but knowing how Orfeo ends up—ascending to heaven guided by a willing Apollo—gives the whole thing a tear-streaked luster. It’s a very clever resolution to an unbelievably well-researched book. I wonder how many years Richard Powers has spent attending Bang on a Can marathons. Somebody call him up.

Pulsing Music

I haven’t written in this space hace mucho tiempo, so I thought I’d give a quick update about what has been UP over the past few months. First of all, the inaugural set of concerts in that music festival that I run (along with Evan Kent), was a big success. All the performances were superb, everybody worked hard, and the results were, I think, really top-notch. The first night was sold out, and the second night (in a larger space) had a fantastic turnout too. We did a lot of stuff; it was a sort of survey of the New Music world in New York over the past 40 years or so. There was music by David Lang, Timo Andres, Matt Frey, and I conducted this great piece by Conrad Winslow. My solo piano situation, Piano Cycles, also had a performance, as well as a bunch of other pieces by NYU students. The NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble did pieces by Nico Muhly and Philip Glass (Motion and Music in Similar Motion, respectively, which is the best coincidence ever), and the latter had funky video projections also. The goal was, of course, to get people (performers and audiences) excited about New Music, and we got there, I think. Some exciting projects are arising from the festival, and there’s a sense of urgency among many of the musicians who were involved about doing more contemporary music. Veni, vidi, vici, one supposes. The whole event was really, er, Pulsing & Shaking.


Simultaneously, I’ve been sort of in my bunker, trying to finish up a bunch of exciting projects. At the beginning of March, the NYU Symphony did this piece I wrote for them, Just for the Record, which was a lot of fun. (It came, as it were, right off the heels of Pulsing & Shaking, which ended up being One Crazy Weekend.) I also just wrapped up more orchestra music for the Dynamic Music Festival, another contemporary music festival, this time comprising a group of 16 composition students in and around New York. They corralled 15 musicians from the same geographic area to do the pieces, and the delightful David Bloom will be conducting everything. They’re currently running a KICKSTARTER, to which every one of you should be sending mad ¥¥¥¥¥¥. (The funds from the Kickstarter will be used to pay all the musicians, which is the exact correct move.)

Coming up, it’s a whole constellation of exciting projects. Right now, I’m working on more Twitter music, this time based on that thing that happened a few months ago on Twitter in which the comedian Kyle Ayers live-tweeted a str8 couple breaking up on a rooftop adjacent to him, in (where else) Brooklyn. After that, it’s some organ music, and then assorted things for smaller ensembles to be written over the summer. Before that happens, though, there are a bunch of performances scattered around the east coast between now and June (some frantic music in Pittsburgh, a setting of William Carlos Williams up at Bard Conservatory, this weird quartet for violin/cello/harp/piano in New York, harp music in Toronto, etc., plus Dynamic Music and twitter music).

What now feels like ages ago is I went to London back at the end of November. I sort of snuck out of New York before Thanksgiving and went to see what is most assuredly my favorite stage work, Philip Glass’s 2nd opera Satyagraha, in its third (!!) run at the ENO. I was Deeply Movèd; I cannot listen to the last 15 minutes or so without bursting into tears. I think the man sitting next to me was freaked out. It was so great, though, and you should all see it if it’s ever in your hometown. I saw it in 2011 at the Met and so began my obsession. Also in London:

Jehovah’s Witnesses

Tanzanian Visas

Lucky Plant