Opera Plotz

This fall has, so far, been a large amount of insanity. The beginning of school is always a little crazy; I’m coming off a summer having written a rather large pile of music, with a bunch of deadlines looming by the end of this year. But lots of exciting projects ahead! One of the items in said pile was a percussion quartet, Keeping Time, written for NYU Percussion Ensemble, under the direction of Jonathan Haas. They really went hard on this, and the end result was, I think, fabulous. I absolutely love working with percussionists—they’re often (in a school situation certainly) the most dedicated to New Music, and at NYU are amazingly talented. Back in the day, they literally put out a record of Philip Glass’s piano etudes 1-10 on steel pans. Everybody go buy it.

The other night, I went unexpectedly to Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Met. This production is surely the height of decadence—the set design is astounding (talmbout neon green forest), and the singing was absolutely stunning (particularly Iestyn Davies, who offered a sly Oberon appareled in, again, neon green garments). I have yet to experience a Britten opera that is not thoroughly moving; this particular production used a children’s choir of both boys and girls, all of whom did a spectacular job. It’s ALL about that end of Act I aria (sung by Kathleen Kim, i.e. Madame Mao) and subsequent children-ascending-and-descending scale moment. I totally plotzed. The most mesmerizing part of this production was, I think, the scenery; Britten’s choices based on the Shakespeare were well represented by the angular, stylized set imagery (a forest made out of large rectangles with a tree trunk horizontal through them! Gray mountains subtly moving!). Also, <3 a man with an ass's head laying on a half-moon. AND perhaps my favorite set manoeuvre: an off-white bright background with sparse action going on in silhouettes upstage. Moral of the story, it was wacky at times, but incredibly moving.

A few days prior to the Britten, Nico Muhly's new opera TWO BOYS had its premiere also at the Met. The "opera about chat rooms" (possibly the most confounding publicity choice?) was really well done all around—music was largely excellent, the libretto compelling, and, again, the set breathtaking. I'll leave it to the rest of the marketing materials to explain what it do; loosely, it's based on an early-aughts murder mystery, involving a young teenage boy who lured, by way of a cornucopia of Internet personalities and a tinge of homoeroticism, a slightly older boy to him, with the express purpose of killing him. Almost half of the opera does, in fact, take place online; these were for me the most beautiful and well-wrought parts of the thing. Taken on the whole, TWO BOYS is very, very nostalgic and sad and moving, and exists for me at an interesting place, having grown up in my early childhood with AOL dial-up and a very limited, but at the same time incredibly vast, Internet.

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I have friends to this day who exist for me entirely online—and I’d imagine most people my age do—which makes the subject matter particularly touching and close to home. The clear background emotion is one of loneliness—which the early Internet’s anonymous chat rooms could easily (if temporarily) assuage. I think, however, it also hints at the point to which the Internet has gotten today. It’s very difficult to exist anonymously online. Google tracks one’s every move, and a coterie of social media websites make it very clear exactly who you are. The caveat is that denizens of the Internet still have the same loneliness problem, with the qualification that it’s now easier & more convenient to exist as your own self, rather than as a constellation of masks. Hence Weinerg8(s) et al. There’s a beautiful moment in the opera, in the first act, where both Jake (the younger boy/manipulatress) and Brian (the older) are in church at the same time, Jake as an altar boy. Implicit in the scene is an uneasy mutual knowledge, I think, that the two know each other rather intimately (Brian having bared his genitals on a “cam”—did we really have to use that word in 2001?). The only other time that the two see each other physically is in act 2, immediately before murder happens; the two come to know each other in the Biblical sense, and then Brian stabs Jake. They are in reality totally anonymous and unknown to each other, however they both have a deeper thread of understanding that they yearn for something, perhaps for each other. It’s an eerie sense of complicity in the whole thing. (Also, the fact that Brian would be so easily lured into killing a boy who he vaguely knows from the Internet—through a promissory note of employment by M15 + ££££—is strange. But it happened!). Everybody Is Lonely, we need a Lonely Planet guide for the Internet, etc. If you haven’t gone, go, and if you’ve gone, go again and scheme your loved ones into also going.

What’s up with me right now is I have a crazy amount of music to write before the end of February, essentially. Next on the To Do List is a quartet for violin, cello, harp, and piano for some dear friends. I also have a new orchestra thing to write for the NYU Symphony, as a part of this sort of composer-in-residence situation that I’ve been asked to do, to be premiered on March 3 of next year! I’m very excited to write for them; they have a vibrancy and commitment to New Music that I love, and it’s going to be a lot of fun working with the orchestra. After I finish that, there’s another new piece for large ensemble happening in late April to write, and along the way, weirdly, a set of smaller solo pieces for viola, harp, and organ. As they say in Italian, Time To Get To Work.

Meanwhile, you should all get into this WILD documentary about an abandoned Japanese island first used for coal mining, then as a labor camp for Chinese and Korean prisoners during WWII. Totally scintillating and terrifying and captivating.

In the Heat of the Day

An amount of time in coming, but: last month, I did what amounted to be this crazy-person sort of thing, in which Buck McDaniel and I performed two back-to-back concerts outside in the heat of the day for Make Music NY. (Which, in 10 words or less, is a coming-together of musicians around the city performing in public spaces). We put together two ambitious programs of new music (one at the gorgeous Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, and another at the NYPL branch on East Broadway), pieces by both ourselves & others, & we schemed some friends into partaking in evangelizing about New Music (Evan Kent, Sara Plunkett, and Benjamin Herrington).

Buck premiered one of the parts of the Cycles pieces that I’ve been working on—this one for solo piano—and with the group we also did an aleatoric, cycle-y piece that I wrote in two nights leading up to the day of the concerts, the summer solstice. Buck also wrote something similar for all of us, and with Sara we did these great arrangements of Southern folk tunes that he wrote, which you should all get into here. To finish the first set at the Basilica, we did Nico Muhly’s Drones & Piano; Buck was on piano, and the rest of us droned. I don’t think the piece was necessarily meant to involve brass, melodica (!), & cello, but it ended up being really excellent. We all droned behind the piano, in the cavernous, beautifully resonant vestibule of the cathedral—surely it was the right way to do it. The concert, which was about an hour (absolutely the correct length), attracted a number of onlookers from the street, which was of course the point, and so I suppose the plan worked in that sense.

Here’s Buck cycling (including a finger):

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At the second set, in the middle of Chinatown by the Manhattan Bridge, we had a decidedly different set of circumstances; we were on the top floor of the library, in this big “community room” that literally looked out on people’s clotheslines! Our audience consisted of a bunch of Asian mothers with their small children, a few elderly Asian men, and the very enthusiastic organizer of the thing. We did most of the music that we did at the earlier time, with some modifications (more melodica for my bigger cycles piece instead of the piano, and we did Southern Songbook using iPod speakers!). I think we managed to sufficiently freak out the ten people or so in that room (and the very enthusiastic organizer became slightly less so), but it was interesting all the same, and, if anything, well worth the trek to be in Kitchen Supply Central (I’m fairly certain Ben left us more than once to acquire pans and other utensils on our walk down there from the cathedral).

(An aside: what was really interesting for me was to be in the company of exclusively Southerners for the week (Evan from Arkansas & the balance from Mississippi). One is still recuper8ting from the effects of prolonged pin-pen merger exposure.)

What made that whole process a little more crazy than maybe it should’ve been was that I had just finished moving about a week earlier, to an apartment in the Northwest East Village [N.B.: let's all agree to never call it that, ever?], on E. 12th St. This had been a bit of a frenetic situation; the usual things: moving date moved back two or three times, painting then having to happen because there was a surfeit of Actual Drip Marks on the wall, and finally a refrigerator having to be replaced at the last possible moment because it did not actually drop below 45 degrees or so. But, j’arrivé, thank the Good Lord, etc. etc. All I can say is that I am fully over shopping at IKEA after having been to two different stores a total of three distinct times. That said, we did see this brilliant sign while stuck in traffic on the BQE after one such outing:

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I’ve been listening to metric tonnes of El Niño by homegirl (John C.) Adams recently, perhaps brought on because of this insane summer heat wave. I have very specific temporal relationships with certain pieces of music; I almost exclusively listen to Nixon in China during the winter months, and only think to put on Akhnaten in, like, March. The same goes for El Niño, which is cued specifically to July-August (though it is, in fact, a Christmas oratorio, so). I’ve been going hard on Act 2 for the last few weeks; I could listen to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson talmbout paine & sufferynge all day. What is there not to adore about this moment?

And there’s “The Three Kings,” which combines my favorite things (being countertenors and, for Balthazar, B-major):

El Niño, to me, is so effective because it’s really this larger commentary, disguised as an oratorio about the birth of Jesus, which weaves in material from all over the place (Biblical texts right next to mystery plays! Hildegard along with Rosario Castellanos!). What especially does it for me is the interplay of more recent events; see “Memorial de Tlatelolco,” relating to the massacre of student activists—who had by that time occupied universities and staged a number of protests against state repression of farmers & workers—by the Mexican government in the late 60s. While I’m not religious, and certainly not Christian, I think there’s something really poetic in the way he brings together an old, old story about the birth of one of the major figures of Western culture—a divisive figure himself—and the deaths of hundreds of students fighting against poverty. Moral of the story: it’s a great thing, everybody go listen on repeat whilst melting.

Last night I went to the first concert of the Zorn@60 celebration at Lincoln Center, which was superb. The first half was devoted to Shir Ha-Shirim, for a quintet of female singers (and it was indeed a quintet of all-stars). The second half, which included The Holy Visions (inspired—again—by Hildegard von Bingen) and an outrageous organ improvisation (The Hermetic Organ) that Zorn did, was equally mind-blowing. (He has a real proclivity for the word hermetic, appearing multiple times in the program notes & in that title also.) The great thing about Zorn’s music is that it’s timeless (as in, it decidedly did not feel like 30 minutes of unaccompanied vocal music at a time for those first two pieces). And, who knew that Alice Tully has such a gorgeous pipe organ (and, for that matter, that Zorn is such an excellent organist)! He sprinkled this fabulous effect throughout, where he’d shut off parts of the organ (can someone correct me on the Technical Terms here? I’m clueless), causing a dramatic glissando downwards, & provoking casual chortles each time from the audience.

Now. Can we all agree that laughing during concerts is possibly the most supremely annoying thing? Like, there are times when it’s obvious a composer wants all y’all to start cackling (I’m thinking this quacking in Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, for example). But, really. That organ effect was super-inventive and exciting and dramatic, and all I wanted to do was hear nothing at that moment before Zorn started slamming his forearms on the manuals again. There should’ve been some public shaming afterwards (which perhaps should have involved enjoining the offending audience members to enclothe themselves in those camo pants that Zorn wears). In any case, it was a concert well-done; yay John Zorn!

Something to Say

So I decided, finally, to make this space a sort of blog-thing. Maybe this will make everything look like I’m a real person with Something to Say, etc. In any case, I’ll try to write here relatively frequently about music, being the obvious choice, and also some bits about food, linguistix, and books will probably sneak in.

As an aside: I’ve retooled some sections of the website, including sorting my works page by ensemble type (it has this fun smooth scrolling situation!), and also there’s a new recording, by the fabulous Aya Terki, of No Matter What. So everybody should go check that out. And, everybody should put June 21 on their calendar for what is sure to be an excellent little concert sort of thing with Buck McDaniel & myself.

One's favo(u)rite meme.

One’s favo(u)rite meme.