Tag: contemporary opera

Daron Hagen: The Human Element

A conversation in Hagen’s home in Rhinebeck, New York
November 17, 2014—1:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Although his catalog includes symphonies, more than a dozen concertos (including one for the Japanese koto), works for solo keyboard, wind band, and string orchestra, plus over 30 chamber music compositions (among them four formidable piano trios and a particularly noteworthy brass quintet), Daron Hagen finds his greatest fulfillment as a composer when he is working on an opera. He loves telling stories and opera’s inherently collaborative nature, but at its core he loves the human element of singers, the fact that their musical instruments are contained within them.

“If you have a cold you can’t sing,” Hagen explained when we spoke to him at his home in Rhinebeck, New York. “Or it fundamentally changes you from a tenor into a bass.”

Even though he had been composing many different types of pieces from the very beginning of his career (innate abilities as an orchestrator fetched him arranging gigs since he was in high school), the human voice has always inspired him the most. His older brother introducing him to Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd is what made him want to be a composer. (“For a 14- or 15-year-old boy who was looking for poetry and a world to live in, it was the siren call. Come on in. Do this.”) And one of his earliest heroes was Leonard Bernstein who, though a triple-threat pianist-composer-conductor who also worked in a wide variety of genres, was most widely known for his musical theater works. In fact, sending a letter to Bernstein containing a recording of Hagen’s first orchestral score is what actually opened the first doors for him. Bernstein actually responded, recommending that Hagen study at Juilliard with David Diamond (which he did following studies with Ned Rorem at Curtis). Eventually Hagen had an opportunity to work directly with Bernstein during the final stages of composing his first opera, Shining Brow, which is based on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright.

But before he had begun work on that opera, Hagen had already composed a ton of art songs. (To date there are over 200.) He’s quick to point out, however, that “opera is not an art song writ large and an art song is not a short opera.” Yet it’s difficult not to interpret Hagen’s art songs as stepping stones toward his writing operas, especially since a song cycle he wrote based on poetry of Paul Muldoon led directly to his collaborating with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet on that first opera as well as three others: Bandanna, which is about corrupt border patrol officers; Vera of Las Vegas, in which an IRA hit man on the lam becomes involved with a cross-dressing lap dancer; and The Antient Concert, in which James Joyce and the celebrated Irish tenor John McCormack face off in a singing competition. Since then, he has created three additional full-length operas: Amelia, which has a highly complex narrative centering around the real life story of the daughter of a Vietnam POW; Little Nemo in Slumberland, based on Winsor McCay’s classic children’s comic strip; and A Woman in Morocco, another extremely complicated saga about culture clash, adultery, murder, and human trafficking.

For Hagen, the process of creating an opera is such an immersive experience that his life can be fairly neatly divided into chapters that correspond to the operas he has completed thus far.

I’ve always put everything on the line for every piece, but there’s a humility in trying to learn how to write operas. … You spend two years writing the initial document, then you go through another six months of production, and then if you’re a real opera composer, that’s when you start a piece, after the first production because then it’s time to make the piece better based on what you’ve learned.

As far as humility goes, Hagen claims he is no longer interested in advancing his career as a composer and is only willing to take on projects he deeply believes in. Now a husband (his wife is singer/composer Gilda Lyons) and the father of two young sons, for him family has become central. And yet opera still inspires him, in part because he sees parallels between writing opera and parenting.

Writing opera taught me how to let go of myself when composing, to become the characters, to make myself the servant of the story, just as I have learned by becoming a parent that my life is no longer about me; it is about my sons. Both have served as a font of solace and redemption for me. … When I stand at the back rail of a theater and feel an audience move with the drama that I have composed (but which has been brought to life by a hundred musicians, actors, designers, and technicians), I feel the same sense of pride and terror that I do standing at the fence watching my son swing a bat in baseball practice. I feel pride because I played a role in creating the opera (and my son), and nurturing it (and him). It’s the “children and art” paradigm: I feel despair because, even though every ounce of my soul shall have been poured into the process, it shall never have been enough.

*

Hagen's grand piano with a manuscript score illuminated by overhead lamps.

Daron Hagen’s piano. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

Frank J. Oteri: When we talked to Joan Tower for NewMusicBox nine years ago, she said that she believed there were two different kinds of composers: vocal music composers and instrumental music composers. She said that she was an instrumental music composer and could never imagine writing an opera even though at the time she had just completed her very first choral piece and it’s very nice. You’ve written both vocal and instrumental pieces that I’ve been very moved by, but then recently I read in one of the columns you wrote for The Huffington Post that opera was your favorite wheelhouse to play around in. So do you think there’s something to this dichotomy? Do you operate with a different mindset when you write for voice as opposed to when you don’t?

Daron Aric Hagen: No, it’s all the same for me. People write what they’re paid to, if they’re professional composers. I think over the years you develop a track record for one thing and you become known for it. And more people ask you to write for it. So then, perforce, you’re known as an opera composer because those are the things that got recorded or performed most frequently. But I knew from the beginning. The first piece that I had published by E.C. Schirmer was an organ piece, back in the early 1980s, but I remember Robert Schuneman, the man who owned the publishing house, said, “What do you want to be known as?” I didn’t really think it through, but I think I was right—I asked him to publish two song cycles, and that set the tone. I’ve written a lot of instrumental music, but the problems of a singer singing are so human in their intensity that I gravitate toward that. I used to live with a violinist, and I love instrumental players, but if you have a cold, you can still play the violin. If you have a cold, you can’t sing. Or it fundamentally changes you from a tenor into a bass.

Table with fruitbowl, water pitcher, glasses, and a tray with various additional fruits.

Hagen explained that when singers come over the rehearse he always makes sure to have food and beverages ready for them on his dining table. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

FJO: So what does wheelhouse mean for you?

DAH: I believe in gesamtkunstwerk—the total artistic statement—so I just love writing operas. I love being in the theater. I love the process of figuring out dramaturgy. I love the technical problems involved. I also love the human element, but mainly I think you have to wake up in the morning and just ask, “What can make me do all of that work?” And as I get older, it’s harder and harder for me simply to begin a piece that I’m not interested in. I’m the most interested in opera.

FJO: You said that a professional composer can write whatever he or she’s been asked to write, and you started out with an organ piece, and then introduced the vocal pieces. But even when you’re not writing a piece with a text, most of your pieces have a narrative attached to them somehow. Your third piano trio is about your brother. The double concerto you wrote for Jaime Laredo and Sharon Robinson is based on characters in the commedia dell’arte. Even your two early wind band pieces have elaborate back stories to them that kind of drove your process in writing them. So it seems that whatever kind of piece you ultimately write, you always want to tell a story.

DAH: I’m a narrative sort of guy. I am always very happy to have process movements within a larger piece. What I mean by process movements, at least what I think I mean by them—something that is involved simply with working out some cellular ideas. If you talk to somebody like Michael Torke, he would say that narratives aren’t necessarily true anyway. You can say anything about anything. Ned Rorem has that famous quip, “If it was called La Strada instead of La Mer, would we still hear the ocean?” So, since music is abstract, I think that the application of a narrative is my business. Whatever makes the notes come out is good.

FJO: So you don’t care if other people know the story.

DAH: Not really.

Music notation for orchestra.

An excerpt from “Falling Flowers,” the second movement of Genji, a concerto for koto and orchestra by Daron Hagen. Copyright © 2010 Burning Sled Music (ASCAP). All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: But when you write an opera, they get to know the story.

DAH: Then it’s all about the story and knowing what the story’s really about.

FJO: But you also regularly engage in abstract musical processes, even in the operas. I’m thinking about how in Shining Brow the materials that different characters sing have a specific intervallic relationship to each other. Two pairs of characters are a tritone apart and the four keys of the four characters spell out a full diminished seventh. Most people in an audience listening to this music as they watch the action unfold are probably not going hear that.

DAH: But they’ll intuit it. That’s the wonderful thing. When an audience intuits modulation, that’s one of the reasons I love tonal music so much. If Joe lives in the key of B-flat and he seduces Mary, and she lives in the key of E-major, won’t she move into his key? Or does he move into her key to get her to move into his key, or do they remain bi-tonal, and therefore somehow illicit. An audience doesn’t have to understand what’s going on to intuit that we’re moving. That’s why Strauss is so wonderful.

FJO: There’s a story about how you got turned on to wanting to be a composer after your brother gave you a score and a recording of one of the Benjamin Britten operas.

DAH: Billy Budd. It had everything—naval battles, good and evil, men singing and sounding virile, and profound tenderness. It also had great literature; it had Melville. For a 14- or 15-year-old boy who was looking for poetry and a world to live in, it was the siren call. Come on in. Do this.

FJO: But your exposure to it couldn’t have been a complete tabula rasa. You grew up in a household where you were undoubtedly exposed to a lot of music. It wasn’t like suddenly there was this opera and you had never heard opera before.

DAH: I heard all those things, but my brother Kevin was involved in drama and in opera. He went to college to be an opera singer, and he made me mix tapes of Blitzstein, Copland, Bartók, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich. The first four or five years that I listened to music, he fed me everything other than what I heard on Wisconsin commercial classical radio—which is now a contradiction in terms, I suppose. It was him teaching me things by turning me on. And I miss him very much because he still has a lot to teach me.

FJO: What’s amazing about the impact that hearing this music had on you is that it led you to start writing music on your own, just kind of doing your own thing based on stuff that you heard. Then you wrote an orchestra piece, conducted the premiere of it, recorded it, and somehow Leonard Bernstein wound up hearing that recording.

DAH: I had fallen in love with music. I was manic. I was already orchestrating—pirate orchestrations of musicals for different high schools—and I had already gotten some gigs from the Milwaukee Symphony to arrange Bacharach tunes for the pops and stuff like that. But I was not going to my classes anymore. I was a sophomore in high school. I was not interested in anything else. My mom wasn’t worried about it; she knew as long as I had a passion I was going to be okay. But she didn’t know what to do with me. So I wrote a piece for the youth orchestra in Milwaukee and conducted it. And she said, “Where would we send this? Where are you going to college?” And I said, “I don’t know. I mean, I don’t even know if I’ve got what it takes to be a composer. I just love to do this.” I had just read a book that talked about how Helen Coates had been Bernstein’s first piano teacher and became his personal assistant and protector. So I said, “Why don’t we send a score and a cassette to Helen Coates and ask her to give it to Mr. Bernstein?” The way that you do when you don’t know anything about anything, and you’re from Wisconsin. I don’t know what I thought I was doing. But my mother must have written a heck of a letter because he got it, and he wrote us back. He said your son should go and study with David Diamond at Juilliard, and ultimately I did.

Historic photo of a teenaged Daron Hagen holding a baton as young musicians play instruments.

A teenaged Daron Hagen conducting a youth orchestra in 1979. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

So I was very lucky. I didn’t get into Juilliard right away. First I got into Curtis and studied with Ned Rorem. I remember stepping into the lobby in September of I guess 1982 and I started shaking because it was like being in Triple-A ball and walking into a major league ballpark. I suddenly realized that if I could hit the ball out of the park here, I might actually get to do this for the rest of my life. I thought maybe I could be an arranger or an orchestrator for real composers. There was a big disconnect, and I think there is for a lot of young people. Leonard Bernstein was this little four-inch tall person on TV out there doing that stuff. Maybe not for you, growing up in New York City, but for me, that was a different universe. And it wasn’t until I got to Philadelphia that I felt as though I was even there.

FJO: I could be wrong, but it seems like Ned Rorem had a more profound influence on you ultimately than David Diamond did. Well, David Diamond is a hard person to think of as being a mentor to anybody.

DAH: I’ve known Ned a long, long time, and he’s a good friend. And I’m very, very grateful for everything that I learned by listening to him on the telephone talking business during the three years that I studied with him and during the five years after that when I was his copyist. I don’t know if I was particularly influenced by Ned. Frankly, the music that I wrote after I studied with Ned is pretty much exactly the same as the music I wrote before; it’s just more polished and more professional. Studying with David was more of an education in how to survive a difficult and abusive intellect and aesthetic. He was brilliant, and he made me write fugues and get my craft. He believed that craft would set you free, and that if you were unable to acquire sufficient craft, you shouldn’t get to play. I remember when I left Ned’s studio, he said, “Why go to Juilliard? You’re ready; just start.” That was 35 years ago, but I still think about my teachers all the time. I owe Ned Rorem a debt that I’ll never be able to repay properly because I was in Wisconsin and he took me as a student at Curtis and changed my life. If he had done absolutely nothing else, I would always owe him for that.

Gilda Lyons, Ned Rorem and Daron Hagen with Rorem's arm leaning on Hagen.

Daron Hagen’s wife Gilda Lyons (left) wih Ned Rorem (center) and Daron Hagen in 2013. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

FJO: But certainly your sensitivity to singers and to text is indebted to him.

DAH: I was doing that before I met Ned. I’ve got probably 20 or 30 songs that I wrote before entering Ned’s studio that are published, and they’re sort of indistinguishable from the ones that I wrote after I worked with him. He had some rules like don’t repeat words, and don’t do this and that and the other thing. While I was studying with him, I didn’t do those things because I don’t want to fight with him. But I was setting Joyce and Proust and Yeats, and a lot of other people, and I’d already written a couple of musicals before I got to Curtis. I’d written a lot of art songs already. I had also accompanied a lot of songs, even in early high school. And I myself had been a singer, so I knew the issues. My mom was a writer, so I loved poetry. I wrote a lot of poetry, the way you do when you’re 15-years old. So, I was already there, and meeting Ned was sort of like meeting exactly the right guy at the right time for my proclivities.

FJO: So it was validation.

DAH: I think so. Absolutely. No one was more surprised than me. It was really great studying with Ned, coming from Philadelphia to New York on the train and seeing this famous man who knew Cocteau and who wrote those diaries where he said all those smart and naughty things about everyone, to have to stand up to that and prevail, to run toward the knife of a strong personality and survive, and keep my own independence and identity intact. That was, I think, the best training that a young composer like me could have had.

FJO: Better training than writing fugues?

DAH: Yes. David had so many issues with me that were not musical. I’m not sure how much I got from David except a lot of technique and the ability to work in large-scale forms.

David Diamond and Daron Hagen wearing jackets and ties and standing in front of a piano.

Daron Hagen with David Diamond (left) a week before Diamond’s death in 2005. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

FJO: In terms of the music you were writing at that point, the earliest works of yours that you include on your website only go back to 1981. You mentioned early songs of yours that were published later on. But you were obviously writing a lot of other stuff, too, during those years, and the thing that actually got you paid attention to in the first place—by no less a person than Leonard Bernstein—was that orchestra piece. He obviously liked the piece, but you apparently no longer do.

DAH: Well, it sounded a lot like the dance episodes from On the Town. So it’s easy to think that he probably would have said, “There’s a young composer worth his salt!” But it was derivative—not intentionally, but because I loved those.

FJO: I was listening to a bunch of your early songs; that was the earliest stuff I could find and I always like to begin listening as close to the beginning as I can. It didn’t give me a clear picture of the early you though because most of them exist as part of song cycles that you assembled many years later, which somehow re-contextualize them and give them a different narrative arc.

DAH: I believe that if you finish a piece of music, it’s out there. I have a lot of songs written when I was in my late teens and early 20s that are performed far more frequently than things I’ve written recently. That’s just how the chips fall. I did grow up in public as a composer. I’ve got a lot of pieces out there that I wouldn’t write today. I just felt that if I was going to be a composer, I should give them to people and have them played.

I don’t say, “Gosh, I’d never do that again.” I accept that that’s who I was when I wrote it, but that’s very hard to market when you deal with publishers. If your style shifts—and I am quite eclectic within my narrow range of expressive motion—they say, “Well, I don’t know who this fella is. He must have been influenced by other people.” But that’s just because if they’re learning my music, or you said you spent some time with my music, you might hear something from 1981 that sounds a lot like Barber, and then something from 2012 that sounds like—oh, I don’t know, how about Die tote Stadt—something by Korngold, and you’ll wonder, “Who the heck is this guy?” Well, it’s music. Nobody’s going to get hurt, if you’ve got a healthy mind. What I’m interested in is moving people. I want to have the conversation. I want the music to come out. I want it to happen. I want to have something happen in the listener’s heart and in their head.

I’m not interested in styles or any of that stuff. Music is music. It’s not brain surgery. It’s an art. The only thing as I get older that I still get sort of exercised about is: leave people alone about the kind of music that they write. Just admire them for having the courage to put it out there and to take the reaction of the world, which is often brutal and uncaring. Nobody really wants to hear what we have to say. Why are we doing it if we’re not narcissistic, crazy people? Well, I do it because I crave the interaction with the audience. Who cares if it sounds a little bit like Korngold for a little while? That’s the way that character who’s singing it or those words, or that emotion, or that moment needed to be expressed. That’s why I loved Lukas Foss. Because Lukas was music. Lukas wasn’t interested in narrowly packaging himself as “this.” He was interested in taking music and having an interaction.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you repeat back the characterization that Ned Rorem once said about you. He said that you are music.

DAH: That’s all I ever wanted to be. And now, I’m 53 years old, and I have two very young sons, three and six years old, so I am a father. I am music in a reflexive way—like breathing. We don’t have a choice about whether or not we’re going to breathe, the alternative is unacceptable. I don’t have a choice about whether I am a composer or not. It’s just what I am. Writing music is like breathing. What I choose to be as a father—the human interaction that I have with my children—is more difficult, more challenging, and more fulfilling than writing music. However, I’m a composer and I can’t not breathe. You know what I mean?

FJO: But to take it back to this idea of narrative. Your early songs, in and of themselves, didn’t necessarily have a narrative; some of the poems you set are just aphoristic. But by putting them together and forming cycles, you created narrative arcs for these songs. You created larger structures out of them. So I’m curious about how you decided to make those building blocks, especially after noticing that the recording and the printed score were not the same. You obviously decided to make a definitive version of it after the recording came out.

DAH: I wish that I had made it as an artistic decision, but the only changes happened because I didn’t get the rights to an Anne Sexton song. So they couldn’t release it, and I stuck in its place Walt Whitman, who’s always safe, because he’s public domain. I’m sorry to be boring about that. But I do get your more interesting question, and the answer is yes, you can create a psychological narrative. You can make the poems talk to each other, though they are by vastly different poets living at different times, and that absolutely, positively really turned me on. And it always has. Song is so much more sophisticated than most people think it is. The way you set something, if you really have all the technique to do whatever you want, means everything. Those kinds of decisions are the subtle, incredibly powerful tools of a good art song composer. I’ve seen a lot of people who think art songs are sort of like complicated Stephen Sondheim songs, or are long, elevated, story songs. Those aren’t art songs. One of the reasons Ned is such a terrific song composer is because Ned gets the psychology. He goes in there and he sets the essence of it as he sees it. Even when Ned is dead wrong, he has something trenchant to say. Ned doesn’t need another person saying nice things about him. But I get that and I love that.

FJO: But it seems in your compositional trajectory that creating the narrative arcs in these song cycles led directly to you writing your first opera. I don’t know the back story, so I’m kind of fishing for it here. But I do know that after several of these early song cycles featuring different poets that you stitched together, you did an entire song cycle of poems by Paul Muldoon. He then became a very significant collaborator of yours for many years.

Daron Hagen and Paul Muldoon leaning against a stone fence in the countryside.

Daron Hagen with Paul Muldoon at his home in East Amherst in 1992. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

DAH: Well, I met Paul at the MacDowell Colony, and he was obviously destined to be a superstar literary figure. Even when he was young the way we were then—this was back in the early 1980s—I remember being so impressed that he had a collection of poems out from Faber; he was in his 20s or something like that. I read through them, and I heard music immediately. So I set two or three of them, and we did a joint presentation at MacDowell. But I didn’t think about him anymore and went on with my life. Then I ran into him the next summer at MacDowell, and I got a phone call asking me to write an opera about Frank Lloyd Wright, and without even thinking—again, it’s a reflexive thing—I just leaned out of the phone booth and said, “Paul, do you want to write an opera?” And he didn’t think; he just said yes.

I still think Shining Brow is the best thing that we did together. It was our first opera. I’m profoundly grateful to this day that he dedicated the libretto to me. We wrote three other operas after that. One called Bandanna, another one was called Vera of Las Vegas, and the final one called The Antient Concert. It was a terrific collaboration. Paul is probably the smartest human being I’ve ever met besides Bernstein. The most extravagantly gifted writer in the English language that I’ve known. Working with him was inspiring at every single moment.

FJO: Before we talk further about Paul, I just realized that we haven’t yet talked about you actually finally meeting Bernstein.

DAH: I avoided him. While I was at Curtis, I met him once. Then David Diamond kept telling me during my lessons that he was telling Bernstein all about me. But then I found out when I finally went to the Dakota to meet him—through Craig Urquhart, who was his amanuensis at the time—and to have what was essentially my first lesson with him, he said David hadn’t told him anything about me. So I had tabula rasa. He remembered me, with that great generosity of spirit he had. I was able to bring in a lot of the second act of Shining Brow to play and sing for him and to work with him on it. He was a big hero of mine as a kid. In my 20s and early 30s, anybody who inspired me and intimidated me, I wanted to meet and work with if I could, to overcome my intimidation and learn what I could and then move on. He was sort of my Mount Everest of intimidation. Quite rightly so; he was an extraordinary man.

Leonard Bernstein holding a cigarette and studying a score as Daron Hagen looks on.

Leonard Bernstein (left) studying a score by Daron Hagen (right) in 1986. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen

FJO: Sadly he died before the production of Shining Brow, but I know that you dedicated the score to him.

DAH: I did. The complexity of that kind of man is what I think appeals to me about opera. Opera can be that complex. Opera is not an art song writ large and an art song is not a short opera. You can write an opera and have a 20% understanding of what constitutes opera. But the more I learn about opera, the more I understand that I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s really going on there when you’re dealing with somebody who’s a real opera composer. That to me is the thing that keeps me coming back to the table for opera. A character in an opera can be singing about how much he loves the soprano, but he can in fact be in love with the tenor and be in denial. He can be lying to himself, and the orchestra can be telling the truth. And the soprano can be singing a duet with the tenor about how they both hate him. That’s life. That’s true to life. I love that.

FJO: The episodes in Frank Lloyd Wright’s personal life which inspired Shining Brow are certainly filled with these kinds of complex relationships and intrigues.

DAH: But you have to make it sound simple. If people underestimate you in the theater, it’s because you have put them so at ease with your language that they’ve been made vulnerable, not to manipulation, but to the message and to the story. That’s the sweet spot for somebody who has truly subsumed their own creative ego and personal ego to the story and to the communion of making great dramatic music theater.

Man and woman outside a Frank Lloyd Wright-styled building.

Frank Lloyd Wright (sung by Kevin Kees) woos Mamah Cheney (Lara Lynn) at Fallingwater from the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh’s site-specific production of Shining Brow, summer 2013. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

FJO: So how does this play out in the music you wrote for Shining Brow?

DAH: Well, Shining Brow is about lying versus the truth. What is the truth? It’s also about borrowing versus stealing. It’s about what price you’re willing to pay for your own personal actuation. That’s why we chose that point in Wright’s life. That’s on a superficial narrative level. How do you find musical equivalents to that? If I take a theme of Richard Strauss and I make variations on that theme to underpin a cocktail party where Frank Lloyd Wright’s wife is standing here and he is seducing another woman in the room, what is my music saying about that relationship? If I make it like a huge mechanical clock, where all of the other people at the party are basically cogs in his great machine, what am I saying about society in 1913? For me to have the audacity to take Richard Strauss, not in a post-modern fashion, but to have an onstage piano trio playing variations on the love theme from Rosenkavalier, which he took his mistress to see and met Strauss at, all of those dialectics are at play for an intelligent auditor. If you can do all of that, and make it sound like—oh well, he’s just this kid being eclectic—then again, it’s the sweet spot.

That’s the secret of a show like Shining Brow. A bunch of drunken newspaper reporters sing a barbershop quartet and the music sounds vulgar and crude; what makes you think as a listener that I didn’t mean every fine gradation of that crudeness, not just to be a characterization of those men, but to take you to a place where you as an audience member felt my hand and judged me as an author? Then I become Frank Lloyd Wright, and you’re judging me. It’s not games. Those aren’t games. That’s the journey. That’s the communion. That’s going to church and seeing the priest lift the host up and thinking about what must be going through the priest’s mind while he’s doing it. That is a comprehensive, theatrical experience, and providing the music for that creates the context.

FJO: It sounds to me that your ideal listener is somebody who really is paying attention.

DAH: Absolutely. But as a Norwegian Lutheran, I was brought up to not point to myself. If your head was up four or five inches above anybody else’s in the room, it got batted down. Any sort of intellectual pretention was treated with derision. The upshot of that is that my music is crafted so that you don’t have to know anything and you’ll have a nice time in the theater. My ideal audience member knows everything, of course. But I want everyone to have an aesthetic experience. So you have to have a sliding scale. That’s why my hero is Richard Strauss. You can go hear a Strauss opera and not get anything and still have a lovely aesthetic experience. But the more you know, the better it gets.

FJO: In terms of what people know, Frank Lloyd Wright is an American icon, but most people don’t know his personal story. He doesn’t come off so well in your opera; he’s kind of a bad guy.

DAH: Well, so many iconic people are bad people. It’s one of the things we learn as we grow older, right? Bad people make great art, etc. But I don’t necessarily think he comes across as such a bad guy. I think he comes across as a profoundly narcissistic, talented, self-centered fellow, who really gets it on the chin when his house is burned down and his mistress and her children are killed. I think we chose the one point in his life where he had the maximum opportunity for rebirth. At the end of the opera, he really became the Frank Lloyd Wright that we remember and revere, though he had done great things up to that point. To me, it’s the “Springtime for Hitler” syndrome. Everyone is humanized when they sing. So you have a great deal of responsibility when you set somebody to music because you make them worthy of others’ compassion.

FJO: That’s certainly true for the characters in your next opera, Bandanna. Hearing them sing elicits empathy and sympathy for them even though they are really corrupt border patrol people who are basically determining who gets to come in to this country, who gets to have a better life, who doesn’t. They play awful Iago-esque manipulative games with each other. There are no uniformly good characters in Bandanna.

DAH: Mona’s alright. She’s a good person.

FJO: I’m not so sure. Her husband wrongly thinks she’s been unfaithful to him, but there was a reason he believes that; she most likely had cheated on him previously.

DAH: Her possibly having been unfaithful, yes. Well, I don’t know. I mean, I had just gone through a terrible ten-year marriage when I wrote Bandanna, and I specifically wanted to talk about evil and the different kinds of evil. I asked Paul to—well, we co-wrote the treatment. Anyway, there’s Jake who does bad things with the best intentions. And then there’s a super bad guy, Kane, who just does bad things because he can. Evil has been bifurcated and turned into two bad guys—two different kinds of evil. The characters were not ever meant really to be believable. We were to see as an audience these people over there doing this thing, going through a ritual of self-abnegation and basically a huge Day of the Dead mass where, like chess pieces, they were moved to their demise.

From the staged premiere of Bandanna at the McCullough Theater at the University of Texas at Austin, February 1999. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen. University of Texas Opera Theater

From the staged premiere of Bandanna at the McCullough Theater at the University of Texas at Austin, February 1999. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.
University of Texas Opera Theater

The music for that show was all about moving up and down a sliding scale from music theater to opera and from atonality, polytonality, strict tonality, serialism, and octatonics. All of these things were going up and down. It was a huge intellectual edifice constructed on anger, betrayal, and evil. It was sort of like dumping cement on the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl. When you experience that opera—which is an angry, dark opera, and I get that—you come out hopefully with some sort of catharsis, having gone to a very sad neighborhood. But what that catharsis is, I don’t know. It’s a strange, hard piece that way. The music also uses the most accessible music I’ve ever written for a show, because it also was about falling between two places. It was about living on the border. There’s lots of stuff about the middle zone in the show, but it was also about the difference between opera and American music theater, which is the great conversation of our generation, the previous generation of American composers who write so-called traditional music theater works for the American theater.

I’m not talking about the avant-garde or something strictly commercial like Jersey Boys. I’m talking about the area that something like Candide functions in. Bandanna owes its most trenchant debt to a show like Candide which is about the difference between musicals and opera, and falls in the middle. So anybody who loves great operas is going to dislike Bandanna because it’s got such musical comedy stuff in it. And anybody who loves musical comedy is going to find it hopelessly pretentious half the time. What it does succeed in doing is forcefully posing the argument about pushing these two heads together the way that the characters are pushed together. It’s also a baritone-fest. It’s a testosterone fest. All the men are singing at the top of their ranges all the time.

FJO: It’s also a wind band fest.

DAH: It is!

FJO: It was even commissioned by CBDNA [the College Band Directors National Association]; it’s actually really unusual for them to have commissioned an opera.

DAH: It was the brainchild of a man named Michael Haithcock, who is at University of Michigan now, and Frederick Fennell—the great Freddy Fennell, who was a genius. I presented the score of the opera to him with great pride at some conference and I said, “Do you have any advice?” And he said, “This show is going to be a great failure because there are three kinds of band conductors. There are the high school guys who are going to hate it, because they don’t understand it. There are the maestros who are going to love it, but they don’t know much about opera. And then there are the fellows who are the great commissioners, who commission a lot of new music, and God bless them, but they’re not going to know what to do with it because they can’t get into the pit.”

I accepted the commission knowing that there were four or five commissioners who came in at the level that entitled them to stage the show. But none of them did. They said that it was because it was too high or too hard for college singers. I knew more about writing for voices than they did. I’ve worked with a lot of college singers. It’s certainly doable. There were also a lot of problems with the commissioners not being comfortable with the subject matter, with the fact that I used an onstage mariachi band that had three violins in it, and at the 10:30 spot in the book, when the Willow Aria happened, I used violins. They felt that was a betrayal of the spirit of the commission, which I thought was unfair because the metaphor was that winds breathe. Mona was already dead and strings don’t have to breathe to sound. It was a great theatrical coup to have sustained strings during that aria. But a lot of people were very angry with me.

FJO: But it did get staged and eventually got recorded as well, in Las Vegas.

DAH: UT Austin was where it was premiered.

FJO: In both of these places, immigration is a sensitive and divisive topic. Actually to this day it’s a hot-button issue all over the country. So, in terms of the subject matter, you hit a nerve.

DAH: Well, I don’t know. I think we’ll leave it at this. The running time of the opera is about 126 minutes. Opening night ran I think about 215 to 220 minutes. There were players missing from the orchestra. There were a lot of issues. It was not the ideal premiere one would have wanted. But Tom Leslie at UNLV [University of Nevada Las Vegas] loved the score, so he rehearsed the band at UNLV and I came and I conducted the cast album a year later in Vegas. And the show came in with the timings and with the speeds that I wanted. But still there was a fundamental disconnect. Band guys don’t really understand that when you say 126 to the quarter in a vocal score for an opera, some singers are going to do it at 120. Some are going to do it at 132. When you get into the pit, it’s going to slow down because the musicians are six feet below the stage. Or you have to slow it down because the stage director needs more time to get the guy across the stage. These are all issues that are alien to band directors. So this was a real crisis of confidence. Once I conducted the cast recording, I said that’s it. I’m happy that the document is now as I insisted that it be. And I walked away from it. There was a ten-year prohibition from re-orchestrating it for orchestra, then that expired. I was going to re-orchestrate it, but then I got into other things. Someday I’ll re-orchestrate it and maybe cut 10, 15 minutes out of the show. Maybe there are some cringe-worthy moments where the language is just too unbelievable for the characters to say, which I might ask Paul to revisit if we go back into the show. But nobody questioned the efficacy of the orchestrations, which were really cutting-edge, commercial wind band orchestrations. Everyone was happy with that.

FJO: There are very few other operas and musicals that are orchestrated just for winds. There’s Robert Kurka’s The Good Soldier Schweik, Ralph Burns’s original Broadway orchestrations for Richard Rodgers’s No Strings also actually had no strings, and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. I can’t think of any others, but it’s actually a great idea. It’s disappointing to hear about the lack of connection between band directors and singers since any university with an opera department probably also has a wind band, since every school has a wind band, and they would probably rehearse way more than any orchestra ever would. It ought to have been a match made in heaven.

DAH: Well, one would think so. I suspect, though I made be attitudinizing and it’s not my place to say, most of the opera departments didn’t want to have the band director in the pit because they felt that the band directors didn’t know how to work with voices. Or they were told that it was too hard. You know, it is hard. Opera is huge. I don’t know, maybe Bandanna just wasn’t good enough.

FJO: Well, your next collaboration with Paul was certainly more practical, but it too presses a lot of buttons.

DAH: Vera!

FJO: Getting back to what you said earlier about making characters worthy of others’ compassion when you set them to music, there’s been this whole brouhaha about the recent production of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer. Some people claimed that it empathizes with terrorists for precisely this reason, because we get to hear them sing their side of the story. As all those debates were raging, I kept thinking that there are plenty of other operas in which extremely unsavory characters sing, even terrorists, including two of the central characters in Vera.

The cast of Vera in Las Vegas

From the staged premiere of Vera of Las Vegas at Symphony Space’s Thalia Theater in New York City, June 2003.

DAH: They are both IRA irregulars, aren’t they? Well, Vera of Las Vegas is a very personal show. The eponymous character is an African American cross dresser, a female impersonator. It’s about personal reinvention and the price that one pays for not coming to terms with one’s past. It is a very subversive piece. It’s about using pop conventions to disarm the listener so that they are forced to think about something that they don’t want to think about. The New York premiere of the show was done in a cabaret setting. I think my favorite memory from opening night was seeing Ned Rorem at one of the cocktail tables right at the edge of the pit and at the edge of the cat walk, with Gary Graffman, the pianist who was then director of the Curtis Institute, his wife Noami Graffman, and Leonard Garment, the father of the clarinet player in the orchestra—Paul Garment. Leonard was Richard Nixon’s personal attorney and was on the board of Yaddo and the Jazz Museum of Harlem. They all were sitting at one table. My wife had to step in at the last moment to become one of the chorus girls. The girls are all dressed in these latex short skirts with fishnets and so forth. They’re counting five against six, and they’re singing this really complicated text, and they’re supposed to be strippers at the same time. In a nutshell, that’s what Vera of Las Vegas was about: counting five against six in four-inch stiletto heels and fishnet stockings in front of Richard Nixon’s attorney, the director of the Curtis Institute, and Ned Rorem. That pretty much summed up the show for me.

My bad marriage had ended, and it was time for me to reinvent my life. And in fact, that show was about how everything had to stop. I stopped teaching after that show. I had reinvented myself. For me, it wasn’t about sexuality. It was about reinvention. Since then, Brian Asawa, the great Japanese-American countertenor, has sung it. An Irish, middle-age countertenor, Jonathan Peter Kenny, has also done the role. So Vera has become not associated so much just with the African-American experience but with all sorts of reinventive experiences. The show is done frequently. I get a lot of fan letters, very personal letters from primarily young men who are coming out, or coming to terms with evil or abuse. I’m proud of it.

FJO: There’s a quintessential line in the libretto that haunts me: “It’s struck me that men and women are basically the same.” It’s practically anthemic.

DAH: Yes, and it’s sung while the terrorist has his hand on the penis of Vera; there’s a Crying Game moment. Obviously, it’s a trope that we’re playing. Of course it’s obvious, and it is anthemic; it is what the show is about, among other things. It makes people very nervous because it is absolutely sincere in its post-modernism. Everyone always associates post-modernism with irony, right? But it’s absolutely sincere. What do you do with that? That makes people have panic attacks.

FJO: It is somewhat unsettling to see these two very macho, straight terrorist guys, and then have one of them realize that he can be open to a very different identity. It totally defies expectations.

DAH: Well, he desperately wants not to be who he is. He wants to be reinvented himself. Vera of Las Vegas was part of a trilogy we never finished. It follows a BBC play that Paul wrote, called Six Honest Serving Men, where it is set up that they probably killed another guy. And in fact, at the end of Vera, Taco confesses to this murder. It was supposed to be followed by this opera called Grand Concourse, which was to take all of the women from Vera and make them stewardesses on one of the planes heading toward the World Trade Center. Doll was going to be in first class because she became an air marshal. Vera was going to be in a nightclub in Brooklyn, Taco was going to be her manager, and Dumdum was going to be in a cab driving somewhere near the World Trade Center. The hymn “Go Down to the River to Pray” would cycle through that every five minutes as the plane got closer and closer to the towers. We never wrote that show, obviously. I couldn’t get anyone to commission it.

FJO: I find it interesting that the first two operas you wrote with Paul were both very American in terms of their subject matter, whereas with Vera in Las Vegas he was really able to address Irish themes.

DAH: I’m not sure that I really understand what Paul is talking about when it comes to the Irish experience. When it was toured in Ireland I was careful to allow myself to be schooled on what Paul was talking about. And I still don’t really understand what he was saying.

FJO: But you were still able to write a score for it.

DAH: Well, because I was talking about some different things. You know, there was plenty of room in Vera, and there’s plenty of room in setting Paul Muldoon to music to have an entire other dialectic going on. If Paul was dealing with a narrative that was about ideas, I could center on the emotions, and the psychological verifiability of the behavior of these people. I could emotionally warm them up whereas they could in fact be rather emotionally inaccessible as poetic characters.

FJO: This is probably true for The Antient Concert as well, which is also a work with Irish roots—John McCormack and James Joyce.

DAH: It was about the evening of the Feis Ceoil, the all-Ireland singing competition when James Joyce actually would have beaten John McCormack, had he not failed the sight-singing part of the competition because he didn’t read music. I was invited by Paul quite generously to teach at the Atelier when he was at Princeton. We staged it there with student singers, and it’s been done a number of times since.

Two men dressed in suits, one gesticulating with his hands.

From a 2005 staged workshop of The Antient Concert at Princeton University’s McCarter Theater featuring Sean Effinger-Dean as McCormack (left) and Matthew Bernier as James Joyce (right). Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

It was a one-hour opera where I took six Irish folk songs that they conceivably could have sung that night. When John and Jim went up, we’d hear what was going on in their heads. When Jim would go up, he’d see Nora Barnacle and he’d see his dead mother. For me, it was an opera about the struggle for Joyce to come to terms with his selfishness at the time of his mother’s death. It was also very Straussian, you know—what’s more important, the words or the music?

I told Paul that I would set it word for word exactly as he wrote it, because I had changed all three of the previous librettos substantially when I set them to music. I’d rewritten big portions, but always clearing these changes with him and always insisting that he publish his original version with Faber. I insisted that he do that out of respect for him. Usually librettists by contract are required to publish only what appears in the vocal score. But I love Paul, and I respect him. He’s such a great poet, so I wanted it to be the way he wanted when it was in print. But with Antient Concert I decided I’m going straight. That was my score for him. I dedicated it to him. At the end of it, Joyce breaks down and he says, “mea culpa” as his mother is dying and I thought, “Well, Paul and I have done what we can do now.” The words are very complicated. We did it at The Century Club in New York and that was a wonderful dream audience because they’re all really well-read people. But my favorite productions are in Irish bars, because you find people who are really well read, but they’re all drinking, and there’s a sort of an alcoholic truth that emerges if you’re a little stoned when you see that particular show. I like that it captures part of what I wanted to do with it. And I thought, “Well, an audience is going to have to come to terms with the highly allusive, complicated lyrics of Paul Muldoon.” Of course, Paul went on to make a rock band and write lyrics that do nods to Cole Porter, another great lyricist. But at that time, he was more interested in writing poetry that could be set as an opera libretto. And I’ve moved onto other librettists since then.

FJO: The next opera you worked on after those collaborations with Paul is very unusual in that your initial idea for the opera is completely different from the way the opera turned out. Amelia wound up having a completely different story than the one you started out with.

A staged scene from Amelia, in the center are two hospital beds, to the far left a man in uniform walks through a door and above it all is an old propeller airplane and its pilot.

From the 2010 premiere production of Amelia at Seattle’s McCaw Opera House. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

DAH: Well, Amelia, just like Vera, was about coming to terms with your past in order to say yes to the future. The original treatment that I sold Seattle Opera told that story through disparate scenas and situations, whether it be Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, or the Wright Brothers in flight, or a young woman whose father was shot down in Vietnam. She was one of the characters; she was based on Gardner McFall, the woman who ultimately wrote the libretto. That story was there interwoven with other stories. Icarus and Daedelus were already on stage in that version, and of course, Amelia Earhart was a character in that [original] treatment. That treatment was like a big blue cloud of ideas, sort of like the Adams bomb opera [Doctor Atomic].

I was forcefully led to understand that for this particular project, a through story was going to be required in order for it to move forward, and could I suggest one. They signed on to my blue cloud, but when it was time to make a narrative, I called Gardner McFall, and I said, “Would you mind if I took your real-life story and made that the through story and had the cloud occur around your through story?” Because she’s an artist and courageous, she allowed me to do that. So I wrote another treatment which then coalesced the blue cloud into things that come out of her head: dead people show up, Icarus and Daedelus are in her bedroom while she’s with her husband, her dead father is in the living room having coffee while she, as a little girl, is singing to the stars, and he comes out from 1968 to talk to her. So all these multiple realities and multiple timelines centered around the through story. The story credit goes to Stephen Wadsworth, who worked with Gardner and me to take her life story and make sure that an audience could follow that narrative. There’s a creative distance there which is a manifestation of what dramaturges do.

This is something that I had never done before. My operas had always originated purely with me and my librettist, co-writing a treatment. For me to welcome other people to the table was me accepting that this is the way the opera world is much of the time. And I welcomed Stephen to the table to have another voice. It forced me to convince him and an audience that that would work. That is saying yes to collaboration. And for me, it ended the second act of my life, because I ended that opera with the sounds I heard when my son was born. When it ended, I had told the audience my truth. I was willing to do anything to take that blue cloud of truth and distill it and head for that final moment. It was my truth, and I told it. As an artist to be able to have that moment in your life, one time in your life, when you know you nailed it, that was worth everything.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that Amelia ended the second act of your life, because this work also marked a turning point in how you handle your music as well as the rest of your life. You not only became a father, you moved away from New York City to here in Rhinebeck and you also became self-published. Of course, none of these things happened overnight, but the composition of Amelia occurred in the midst of all of those things. It seems to me that all those changes also had an impact on what interested you as subject matter for opera. You’d written operas about Frank Lloyd Wright’s less-than-savory persona, corrupt border patrol people, IRA terrorists and gender ambiguity, and the inner turmoil of one of the great writers of the 20th century. Amelia was a heavy story that dealt with the Vietnam War.

DAH: When you talk about it this way, I sound like a pretty troubled guy.

FJO: But your next opera, Little Nemo in Slumberland, was an adorable children’s piece.

Costumed members of the cast of Little Nemo in Slumberland featuring woman holding a stick with a giant sunflower on top.

From the world premiere of Daron Hagen’s opera Little Nemo in Slumberland at the Sarasota Opera House in Sarasota, Florida, in November 2012. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

DAH: Well, because of the baby who was born at the end of Amelia, that opera is dedicated to my son, Atticus. The next opera I wanted to write was something for him, and it was in fact dedicated to my second son, who came along just before I finished that opera. I said yes to that opera because—you’re quite right—because of my wife and because of her giving me an opportunity to become my best. My value system over the last ten years has gradually gone back to the value system that I had when I was 15- and 16-years old, inculcated by my parents. I think because of the way that Amelia was received—it was a success and everything, and that’s great—but the way that I received it within myself, and what I receive from my chosen industry, my colleagues, and from how I felt after I had said my truth, I realized that I was no longer writing music because I had an ambition to write music. I want enough money so that I don’t live in fear. I want to be able to support my children, be a bread winner. But I want to be able to write music about things that I care about, so the self-publishing, all of that is a piece. I’m not quite sure how to express it. I’m not the composer I was the night that Amelia opened. Everything changed for me. I realized that you can hit it out of the park; you can have bases loaded, a homerun, everybody in the stands, and it still doesn’t matter. Whatever it was that I thought that I wanted to achieve by doing that was clearly not enough for me and it was clearly not the right thing.

Nemo was certainly not fraught; it’s a perfectly lovely piece. The next opera was called A Woman in Morocco. That’s the one I’m doing now, and that’s about human trafficking in North Africa in the late ‘50s. It is about that issue because when I was 15-years old, I saw my mother being badly treated and I couldn’t do anything about it. Now I can protect myself and I can have a conversation about that.

Music notation for voices and piano

An excerpt from the vocal score of A Woman in Morocco. Music by Daron Hagen, libretto by Daron Hagen and Barbara Grecki. Copyright © 2013-2014 Burning Sled Music (ASCAP). All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured. Reprinted with permission.

I suppose in order to get myself up to be able to work as hard as you have to work to write an opera, and to develop it, and to change it, and kill it when it’s not working, you have to care deeply about it. It’s not that I’m settling old scores, it’s that if I’m going to do this, I want it to be a force for social good. I want to make things better. I want to speak truth to power, because that is what still gets me to write those notes out. So, if it’s more polemical, if it’s more like Blitzstein, that’s fine. I’m good with that, because it’s the only way that I seem to be able to fight back against the oligarchy. I have very little control over the universe, but I can do something and hopefully support my children at the same time. I mean, I’m always 30 days away from absolute disaster. I suppose we all are now. But as an artist, if I’m going to do it, I’ve got to put everything on the line. So now I put everything on the line, but it’s not like Amelia. It’s not that I’ve pulled my horns in, it’s that I understand that it doesn’t have to be so much about you. It can be about you doing this thing in order to do what you think needs to happen. I don’t know if that makes sense. I’m still working it out. Opera helps me to do that.

I’ve achieved everything that I wanted to achieve. I’d like to be at the Met; that would be great. I’d like to have multiple performances at big houses all the time. I’m directing at regional houses like Kentucky Opera and there’s a commercial show that I wrote for Skyline in Milwaukee. The reason I’m directing is it allows me to get in and really feast off of the interaction between actors and message. I don’t have to sit in the room as a composer and watch somebody else be my executant or translator. So I can still get excited about that.

A darkly lit stage with trhee women: one standing, one sitting at a desk, and another on the floor leaning against a chair.

From a staged production of A Woman in Morocco at the Butler Opera Center in Austin, Texas in November 2013. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

FJO: To go back to the very beginning of this conversation, when we were talking about being a vocal versus an instrumental composer. At this point, we’ve spent so much time talking about the operas. But you’ve written a lot of other music. I don’t know if those other pieces seem so deeply entrenched in your life story. It seems like each opera was a chapter in your life that you were working through, and then you get to the next one, and the following one is the next chapter. Do you view all of your music that way, or are these pieces so big that they then take up such huge chunks of your time that they become your life?

DAH: I’ve always put everything on the line for every piece. But when you spend two years writing the initial document, then you go through another six months of production, and then if you’re a real opera composer, that’s when you start a piece, after the first production because then it’s time to make the piece better based on what you’ve learned. So then you’re talking about another year of revisions because nobody has written the great American opera the first time out. I know how to write; I know how to craft a symphony. I know how to make a piece that has a beginning, a middle, and an end that will fulfill the commission, get a standing ovation, and I walk away. But there’s a humility in trying to learn how to write operas. In opera, if a woman is singing about how her husband is beating her, I don’t know how not to give it 150% at that moment. So yeah, I guess if you’re talking about stakes, there’s no greater stake than having an opera house sitting on your shoulders, talking to 2,800 people who paid a lot of money to be there, and trying to have communion with them—getting everybody together and having a catharsis together. To me, that is gripping. That’s grown up stuff. That’s truth, that’s justice, and hopefully good tunes. All in one transaction.

Photo of interior of room with grand piano, shelves, chair, and wooden floor.

Daron Hagen’s living room at his home in Rhinebeck with a shelf containing the vocal scores for all the Verdi operas in back of his piano. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

I’ve got the vocal scores over there for all the Verdi operas. You read through them chronologically, and it isn’t until he’s written probably nine or ten of them that he starts to really get it, as far as I can see. It’s the same notes. It’s the same bag of tricks that he’d been using for 30 years, and yet why is he getting it then? In Rigoletto, when they’re pulling the bag with the body in it across the stage at the penultimate moment in the show, why does he have a solo clarinet? Every time I see Rigoletto, all the hair stands up on my arms. That’s the genius of a real opera composer.

FJO: Except that one of the big criticisms of that piece is that although there’s a body in the bag, she comes out of the bag to sing a final duet before she actually dies since convention required that the prima donna gets to sing at the end of the opera. It’s a gorgeous duet, but from a narrative point of view, it requires a real suspension of belief.

DAH: But that’s opera. Writing opera taught me how to let go of myself when composing, to become the characters, to make myself the servant of the story, just as I have learned by becoming a parent that my life is no longer about me, it is about my sons. Both have served as a font of solace and redemption for me. Because I’m not angry, and I’m not crazy; I relish reality, and I relish being part of something larger than myself. I savor the give-and-take with a living audience that writing opera gives me. When I stand at the back rail of a theater and feel an audience move with the drama that I have composed (but which has been brought to life by a hundred musicians, actors, designers, and technicians), I feel the same sense of pride and terror that I do standing at the fence watching my son swing a bat in baseball practice. I feel pride because I played a role in creating the opera (and my son), and nurturing it (and him). It’s the “children and art” paradigm: I feel despair because, even though every ounce of my soul shall have been poured into the process, it shall never have been enough. That’s the heartbreaker, and that’s the incentive.

Daron Hagen points at a detail of a photo in a frame on the wall as FJO looks on.

Daron Hagen (right) in his composition studio showing memorabilia from various productions of his operas to FJO. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

Remembering Robert Ashley (1930-2014)

Robert Ashley

Robert Ashley in 1985 during the Chicago performances of Atalanta (Acts of God). (All photos herein courtesy Jacqueline Humbert unless otherwise noted.)

By now most readers will have already heard the sad news of the passing of composer Robert Ashley on Monday, March 3, 2014. There have been numerous obituaries from around the world which have offered extremely eloquent tributes to his enormous contribution to American music and, in particular, to contemporary opera. Since Ashley’s work was by design extremely collaborative, we wanted to honor his memory on NewMusicBox by having his key collaborators—each of whom are important creators in their own right—share their personal stories about working with him over the decades.—FJO

Joan La Barbara
Thomas Buckner
Jacqueline Humbert
Tom Hamilton
“Blue” Gene Tyranny
Sam Ashley
Melody Sumner Carnahan
Dave Ruder
Alvin Lucier

CelestialExcursions

From a performance of Celestial Excursions in Germany, 2004: (left to right) Robert Ashley, Jacqueline Humbert, Joan La Barbara, Sam Ashley, and Thomas Buckner.

Joan La Barbara
To begin at the beginning, I first worked with Robert Ashley in 1974 at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, a wonderful structure and, as I recall, round.  The Sonic Arts Union had been invited by Festival d’Automne, and David Behrman and Alvin Lucier had each conceived new vocal pieces for me.  David’s was Voice with Melody-Driven Electronics and Alvin’s, Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas.  Bob decided to have me play solo viola, which lay in my lap; I dragged the bow over a string very slowly making non-pitched ticks that were fed to a complex electronic gating system which allowed a story Mimi Johnson was telling to be heard by the audience (or not) depending on whether the gates were opened or closed.  I didn’t quite understand how the gating worked but as I listened to Mimi, I realized that she was relating a story about us and was getting to a part that I wasn’t sure I’d like revealed in public, so I managed to get those gates closed.  It was a good time to be in Paris.
I interviewed Bob for the SoHo Weekly News, a publication that was left free on SoHo doorsteps in the ‘70s. (Ah, those were the days…)  I had decided to write preview articles because I was appalled that my fellow composers were being reviewed so badly (if at all) and that perhaps by providing some insight into the work in advance, they’d get a better chance at being understood by critics as well as the audience (especially since some eschewed program notes altogether).  Bob and I spoke about the “internal dialogue” as he called it, the “conversation” that one has with oneself before allowing words to leave the mind and take up their existence in the outside world.  It was a concept that fascinated me, affecting a lot of my work and one piece in particular, Performance Piece, which I subtitled Ashley gave me an idea, dealing with the process of thought involved in real-time composition (sometimes referred to as “improvisation”) and requiring that in performance when I was thinking in “pure” sound, i.e. music, I would reveal that but when I started analyzing, as we often do when composing in real-time, I had to let the words flow out.  It is more difficult than it sounds, involving crashing the barrier between left and right brain activities.
Bob’s clarity of thought in conversation was astounding, delving deeply into process as well as profoundly exposing personal experience.

The operas reflected his view of the world, taking his own stories and blending them with historical fact, fiction, and fantasy to build complex interwoven tales that required several hearings to fathom (if then).  During pre-rehearsal periods, the individual singers would discuss the nature of their characters with Bob, learning only somewhat later how he had constructed each one based on his perception of some aspect of the singer’s own personality and persona layered into the texture.  He gave us each tonal centers onto which we imparted our own take on the story, the message, and how the person we were playing might inflect it, based on background, circumstance, upbringing, status, life history.  And yes, there were the “songs” that we each, as all good singers do, made our own.  But the words, the tonality, the chord structures, the underpinning, the music, were all Bob.  (Though we did grouse a bit from time to time about not being given more direct instruction, we did get direction, correction, and encouragement to go further with each interpretation.)

If I had to pick one opera as a favorite, I guess I’d choose Dust.  It is direct and clear in its political message—that old men wage wars and young men fight them (now young women, too, but the Korean war, which Dust was about, more or less, was fought by young men—except for the nurses, doctors, drivers—but I digress).  It has songs that can be sung and remembered.  It wears its heart on its sleeve, the way Bob often did; it was raw, revelatory, insightful, direct, and confrontational, with a few obscenities thrown in for emphasis.  The characters were larger-than-life in-your-face tell-it-like-it-is, yet with that tinge of sadness, melancholy even, reflecting back as it drove home the truth inside the stories.

The production process was complex.  Bob wrote and rewrote before the drafts were sent to the singers.  The instructions were in the scores but the depth came in individual sessions when we discussed the characters and their pain, their joy, their world views.  Then we each went our separate ways to work on how to let one’s voice reveal the inner truths, the opinions.

We worked several weeks in the recording studio at Mills College, creating the tracks for Improvement, learning to “ghost” each other’s vocal inflections and deliveries, adjusting to each other’s quirks and traits, subsuming one’s own personality into another’s to “get it right.”  These were the work sessions that went into the CD tracks, that became the backing tracks, that were played back through in-ear monitors, that we then improved upon in live performance even as we had to keep matching what we had already done.  Not easy, these tasks.

Layers of complexity: verbal, sonic, vocal; intentionality hidden, lessons imparted.  Bob was continually reshaping the performance, even moments before we walked onstage.  “Do it faster”  or “Lay back, don’t push.”  Process that as you exit the wings.  The “Notes” came before, rarely after each performance.  Not to throw us off balance but to up the ante, sharpen the awareness, rip the rug out so we wouldn’t become too secure or settled in any one interpretation or delivery.

Now Eleanor’s Idea had several versions, especially with the advice letters, as Now Eleanor (the name of the principal character) gradually receives the information, the “word”, the language, the passion.  It goes beyond speaking in tongues to absorbing and processing the culture of The Other.  Lessons learned, lives perfected, infinite repetitions until … now, no more.

Music with Roots in the Aether, the set of videos Bob conceived and directed on a select group of composers whose work he felt needed more explication, is a set of gems that have yet to be fully studied and appreciated.  Each places the composer’s interview in a setting designed to reveal a central aspect of that person’s being. (He let the music speak for itself.)

How does one discuss years of knowing even over great distances?  Years of exploring another composer’s process and ideas and way and means of notating or disseminating information will take years of reflection and more than a few words.

How do I process his loss?  I am still coming to grips with it, looking back over the years and reflecting on lessons learned, stories told, funny experiences, as well as more than a bit of sorrow that there was not more time to do the work and do it even better the next time.  There is a new generation of singers taking up the older works with their own interpretations, and taking up the new work, which we will experience soon at The Whitney and elsewhere.
Good-bye, Bob.  You will be missed more than you could have known.

Ashley in Lithuania

Mimi Johnson, Robert Ashley, Jacqueline Humbert, and Joan La Barbara in Vilnius, Lithuania in November 2004 for performances of Celestial Excursions.

Thomas Buckner
It is difficult to write about his work, so soon after the death of my dear friend and colleague, Robert Ashley. He was not only a wonderful composer and writer, but also a deeply compassionate man and a dear friend. I will take refuge in some history, and see where that leads.

In 1982, the Arch Ensemble for Experimental Music, based in Berkeley, California, which I founded and co-directed with composer/conductor/bassoonist Robert Hughes, received a consortium grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and got to choose a composer to commission. We chose Robert Ashley, whose work we had become familiar with partly due to the fact that he was director of Mills College’s Center for Contemporary Music (the world’s first public access electronic music studio, as far as we know). Robert Hughes said at the time, and I agreed, that Robert Ashley had “the most original mind in contemporary music.”

Little did I know at the time that that decision would lead to my spending the next thirty years working with Robert Ashley, during which time I had ample evidence of his originality as well as his unique understanding of the nature of speech as music. Bob had heard me perform in California, and so, instead of a piece of occasional music, he set the “Odalisque” arias, from his then current opera Atalanta (Acts of God), for baritone and chamber orchestra. He chose to write out the speech rhythms in musical notation since we would not be rehearsing the piece together. It was very complicated, a real challenge. I know from this experience how much more efficient and natural Bob’s alternative notation is for his work. I had just returned to my hometown of New York City after 20 years in California, so I didn’t yet have much work and had a lot of time. My roommate in New York was the great hand drummer Big Black, best known for his work with Dizzy Gillespie and Randy Weston. Black learned the rhythm of my part by ear, as he did not read music, and we performed it over and over until it was locked in. I went to Bob’s apartment, just across Canal Street from where I was living, and sang the part for Bob. Unbeknownst to me, this was the beginning of an audition. Bob came out to the performance in San Francisco, and afterwards asked me to sing in the next performance of Atalanta, which was to be in Rome in a couple of months. When he found out that I could sing in Italian, he had the Odalisque arias translated into Italian for the Rome performances, the first of which became the recording of the opera. It was a baptism by fire, singing with the great “Blue” Gene Tyranny and Bob’s tape part, made with the Golbranson Palice organ that he had also used in Perfect Lives.
Speaking Italian is much closer to singing than speaking English, so the “Odalisque” arias are fully sung in a recitative style, “spontaneous musical invention based on the natural declamation of the text,” as Bob called it. It was a perfect fit for me, as was the next piece Bob composed for me, My Brother Called, which combined composed melismatic singing on the syllable “oo” with spontaneously invented speech song based of the declamation of the text. We met several days a week to develop the style of that piece, which eventually became part of his opera eL/Aficionado. Whenever I perform a work of Bob’s, people always say he writes for my voice better than anyone else. He knew his singers’ strengths and weaknesses better than we do ourselves.

In all the many pieces he has composed over the years, Bob has never repeated himself, either musically or in his extraordinary texts. Yet his music always sounds like him. I know of no higher praise.

eL_Aficionado

Thomas Buckner, Jacqueline Humbert (seated), Robert Ashley, and Sam Ashley in eL/Aficionado, Geneva 1994.

Jacqueline Humbert
It is difficult to express how significant an impact, how great an influence one life can have on another. I will make an attempt though it will be incomplete and inadequate.

I had known of Robert Ashley’s innovative music for years before beginning to work with him in 1980, first as a designer and subsequently as a performer. I admired his great intelligence and astonishing imagination. He was astoundingly prolific as well. Over the years he became a north star for me; an inspiration, a creative genius, and one of the best friends I’ve ever had.
It was both an honor and a pleasure to have worked with Robert for so many years. Through his many operas the ensemble toured internationally, were recorded and broadcast widely, and given the chance to perform the vivid characters Robert created, so varied from opera to opera. Robert was incredibly generous in providing the many opportunities to all who worked with him for so many years and we are all so very grateful and humbled by the experience.

Robert had it all; grace, charm, wit, and a voice like velvet or smoke, depending on the character. He is already sorely missed. The world has lost one of the truly great ones.

RobertAshley and JacquelineHumbert

Jacqueline Humbert and Robert Ashley at a recording studio in the mid 1990s.

Tom Hamilton
Originally, Bob knew me as a composer who was fairly new to New York. One evening in 1990 he saw me at a concert and said, “Tom—what do you know about this Macintosh MIDI stuff?” I told him that I made my living as a freelance recording engineer. He said “Really, I didn’t know that” and took my card. The next day he followed up and invited me to his studio. (I thought I was there to fix a piece of equipment.) What he wanted was someone to work with him every day and finish the CD version of his new opera Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) for Nonesuch Records. The studio was pretty bare bones at that point and so we built it up to be able to create the electronic orchestra and do a multi-track mix. I had come from a traditional studio background—large tape machines and bulky gear in general. I discovered that Bob had that same background, though dating from even earlier origins. And like Bob, I also came from an electronic music background, working with the earliest analog synthesizers, developing an oblique approach to composing, and running a studio at a university. This was all very familiar territory.

Later in 1990, Bob got some gigs in Honolulu and Portland for a small grouping of his ensemble. He asked me to be part of the tour, which enlarged my role from just working in the studio to doing the mixes and audio processing on the live performances as well. The style for me was much less pre-planned than in the studio recordings, and Bob encouraged me to develop the mixes as improvisational performances. It felt like I was creating a fictitious sound world for the singers to live in.

In an important way, that first year that I worked with Bob set the tone for what became a quarter-century music lesson. Bob was very generous in sharing his knowledge and insights, and in the studio, when he’d say “let’s take a break,” it could mean a 10 minute concept discussion on something we might have heard the night before. Or I would ask him about something bothering me on one of my own pieces, and he would come up with just the right aphorism. “If you have a system—stick to it!” was something that he practiced daily. His cautionary “don’t make the ship too big to fly” saved more than one session from ending up in a cul-de-sac.

Much has been written about the colorful and insightful texts in Bob’s operas. In 2001 Bob did a reading at Black Oak Books in Berkeley in conjunction with a performance at Mills College. The person introducing him said that, “Ashley’s writing makes experts out of all of us.” There was always that quality in the air; he would write or say something and a beat later we would think, “Oh yeah.” Except that Bob thought of it first. It’s part of what made the experience of the tours so unique. That feeling that it was beyond just doing the work; it was stretching the brain into a new form.

The texts in Bob’s operas have kept his fans enthralled for decades. A prominent characteristic was a story being told in a style that created an ambiguity between pitch and narration. “Is it singing or is it speaking?” the critics would fret. Bob always called it singing. I never heard him describe it any other way. It forced a different idea of what music could be. Listening to any of the stories in Dust as performed by Bob, Sam Ashley, Tom Buckner, Jacquie Humbert, and Joan La Barbara, you can hear that dichotomy played out with much variety, depending on mood, style, and the individual character that was developed. Last year Bob recorded a long solo part to a forthcoming opera called Quicksand. There was always a reference pitch in his headphones. And how those vocal resonances and references would play out was still an unknown, as the orchestras hadn’t been developed beforehand.

Less has been said about the electronic musical structures in Bob’s work that I helped make in all of the operas since 1990. For each piece, we would work at least a year just on the electronic orchestras (and he always called them “orchestras” and organized them that way). He was very eager to learn more about MIDI and the operation of sequencing software. Even at a time when the popularity of the MIDI protocol started to fade he would always say that for him “it was a dream come true.” He typically would spend a morning transferring his notations, calculations, and separations from paper to workstation. I would arrive in the afternoon and one or both of us could start out by trying out instruments, adding layers, and coaxing the synthesizers into fulfilling one or another possibility of a particular sonic element. The resulting orchestras would provide the sonic framework or context for the singers.

Very often the resulting accompaniments would start accumulating complexity. Bob loved to hear multiple rhythmic delays swinging the notes around in the background, and some of these same processes would eventually be used with the singers as well. But we would usually create a separate track just for the singers consisting of basic chords, click track, and other helpful cues, as a way for them to navigate through the sonic traffic. By doing this, we could get as fancy as we needed with the accompaniment while making sure that we weren’t creating unnecessary performance confusion. In the rehearsals, the singers would be free to develop their characters unencumbered by the distracting accompaniment elements that we loved hearing in the final mix.
After working for one or two years on these pieces, we would start doing performances, often somewhere in Europe, where I would perform the sound mixing and processing, having then been part of the process from the first session to the final performance. And there was compensation in having an extended family that reached beyond the work itself; a group that could make something that sounded good, then fight about restaurant choices, take a day off together, and just stay in touch. And Bob always treated me at face value: I was a composer and a sound designer. Both things at once.

Every now and then, Bob would tell me that he had nominated me for some award, which I would then shrug off as a hopeless and quixotic mission. He would just lecture me, “You probably won’t get it, but you’ve got to go for it.” Only once did it work and it was enough for me to go to a festival and present a piece for a week.

I’m working right now with a group of 6 wonderful young singers, developing Bob’s last opera CRASH for the Whitney Biennial. They are the newest group of talented people to love Bob’s music and to work on it so diligently. CRASH is Bob’s most autobiographical piece. There are references to many of the pieces I’ve worked on in the past, and to stories from an earlier time that I’ve only heard in the retelling. As usual, Bob figured out a way to make music out of the words themselves. It’s a wonderful way for me to stay in the present.

Ashley Dinner in Europe 1999

A break during the 1999 European tour of Dust; (left to right) Joan La Barbara, Sam Ashley, “Blue” Gene Tyranny, Tom Hamilton, Jacqueline Humbert, and Robert Ashley.

“Blue” Gene Tyranny
I first met Robert Ashley in 1962 when I was 17 and he was 32. I had just left home in Texas with all my belongings in a paper bag and headed for Ann Arbor where a friend said a wonderful new music scene was happening like the one Phillip Krumm and I started in San Antonio. I had heard a few early electronic works by Robert (e.g. The Fourth of July) before I came.
When I got to Michigan on the bus I was given a place to stay with Gordon and Jackie Mumma and Mary Ashley helped me find work at the Institute for Social Research.  And Robert said, “Bob Sheff has arrived in town, so let’s do a concert.” That’s the way I began working with him for the next more than 50 years, starting with the ONCE Festival and the whole lifestyle. (ONCE was more than just a concert once a year.)

Robert was an accomplished pianist having been misled by his friends into being recruited into the Army band in Texas. He taught me the secret of bebop. Robert was my friend and also acted as a mentor—he being 15 years older than me—in a big brother style, which I greatly appreciated. He always encouraged the people he knew as well as his students to develop whatever fascinated them, but like the best teachers never imposed a style or a “correct solution” and this has been appreciated by the many people he encouraged. In a similar way, inspired by Bob, contributors put together the ONCE festival, the ONCE group, and the Sonic and Arts Union. In Ann Arbor, he and Gordon Mumma created the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music which later led to the establishment of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College in Oakland, California, a non-profit public-access facility where synthesizers, a recording studio, a film editing studio, and a new music library plus one or more free concerts every week could be accessed by anyone.

All of Robert’s compositions show his admirable intelligence, gentle humor, and love of humanity. One of the earliest graphic and electronic pieces, She Was a Visitor for chorus with audience participation, is about how the actual sound the phonemes making up a word add an extra layer of meaning; this is how rumor is spread. (“It sounds like she’s arriving by trains, boats, and planes.”) His opera Perfect Lives is about the subtle realities of a small American town, a fascination which he and I shared in our different pieces. Robert Ashley made the first change in the structure and content of opera in the last 300 years.

All the personalities mentioned in Robert’s operas are appreciations of real people. His earlier graph pieces have personages like Kit Carson and Sitting Bull. There are references in his later operas to Giordano Bruno and Peanut, who now sits in the traffic island with the other disenfranchised people of Dust, remembering their lives. Some works are partially or wholly autobiographical and all persons are presented in a very touching and moving way. In his compositions, Robert often showed his compassion for abused and marginalized persons. For example, in Van Cao’s Meditation, he showed the Vietnamese composer still working on his pieces in isolation even though Van Cao was ostracized politically in his country. Bruno, who figures in Perfect Lives and Improvement (Don Leaves Linda), was burned at the stake for his discoveries and religious beliefs.
Like the most original composers (for example John Cage), each piece of Robert’s will teach you something you didn’t know before, and while the structure will be exact, each performance will come out completely different every time you perform it. “Confusion just means you are learning something,” he said. There was a mass excitement at the end of a performance of Combination Wedding and Funeral at the Judson Memorial Church in New York City in the ‘60s.

Many of Bob’s instructions to me about various pieces required me to realize a concept, for example in Dust he said to me, “No patterns. No melody. No harmonies. Just make sounds that are somehow your impression of playing the piano and trying to interest a girl dancer (Joan Jonas) who shares the stage with you.” In order to do that I had to go back in my mind to before I studied the piano and forget everything.

Robert prepared his friends for his passing, again with humor. He remarked toward the end, “Well, no more solitude.” There are many subtle conceptual works that are probably just being understood now, for instance the Illusion Models and the String Quartet Describing the Motions of Large Real Bodies, which like The Wolfman deals with the transformation of people in a world with random or Brownian Motion where that randomness is seen as a natural part of life rather than an abstraction. Conceptual art is not the same as abstract art.

Dinner in Paris

Dinner in Paris following a performance of Dust in July 2001. Left to right: Thomas Buckner, Jacqueline Humbert, “Blue” Gene Tyranny, Cas Boumans, David Moodey, Sam Ashley, Joan La Barbara, and Robert Ashley.

Sam Ashley
I feel honored that I was able to work with Bob for so many years. It would be hard to say just how much I learned from him. It’s more like everything I know about music has been influenced by Bob and his work. He was a wonderful composer and to be sure a very dear friend.

Here’s something interesting: Bob based even his choices about his death on an idea of 14 year cycles. Why this simple fact is so wonderfully amazing is that it shows what music should really be about: living your ideas; practicing what you preach. Where the idea of 14 year cycles might have come from is not important here; in fact even the specific idea itself is not the point. What’s so wonderfully impressive is just that he would not hesitate to make the most fundamental choices according to his musical ideas.

Outstanding.

About sadness…
Yes, Bob died.

I have gotten really many personal messages from people expressing their sadness. They say “I feel so horrible…” then they add “…and I know you are feeling horrible too.”

But allow me to introduce something radical: don’t do the sadness part. Yes I know what’s intended: the sadness when somebody we love dies says he/she meant a lot. That’s wonderful. But the radical thing is to separate that appreciation, admiration, love from the sadness, keeping the loving admiration and respect, but dispensing with the heavy sadness.

Now, I know that sounds real strange to a lot of people. I have tried to express this several times over the years when friends I loved have died, and it has never really been easy to convey. So I understand. But I have to keep saying it. I mean, to care, to know that it matters, yes! That’s all good stuff.

There’s some background to this. Please don’t read this the wrong way, and I don’t know how to say it without running the risk of seeming pretentious, but: I have been a mystic for more than 45 years. An actual “shaman.” That’s not a word I toss around because it’s cool. I’m sure I’ve spent at least one third of my actual lifetime in trance. Being a mystic for real just means one thing ultimately: trance, lots of trance (“meditation”, whatever). Like hours/day every day. Everything that could be considered real “shamanism” flows from that. Because of this I have come to be (sorry if this sounds pretentious, hopefully it doesn’t) more comfortable with my own mortality. More than I would have been without the mysticism let’s say. So honestly, when someone I love dies, and I know that they were aware of what they were doing, it’s not something to be screwed up about. If you want to meet somebody in the spirit world… then be careful with the heavy emotions. They overwhelm the subtle stuff.

Now, some of you may know that I was in New York just recently visiting Bob and Mimi. I can tell you that it was my opinion that Bob could put his will behind healing and hang around for a few more years. Just for fun. And by the way Bob had such a strong intuition that he could have been a mystic if he had wanted to be. He was one in some ways. I mean he wasn’t in the full time sense, but he had a natural talent for it that was absolutely top notch. But the point here, of this letter, is: he decided that he didn’t want to try to heal. And I do mean this. He decided. He felt intuitively that he couldn’t recover. (He specifically told me that.) So although I disagreed, I can see it like, say he had decided to move to another city. I might think it’s a dumb move and tell him so, but to imagine that I’m entitled to say “No you can’t do that. I won’t allow it.” That would be sort of absurd. Ultimately it’s his choice. No big deal. Bob died like that. And incidentally he says so in his last piece CRASH (a beautiful piece, too).

So, look, I love you all for caring and I really do mean that. Thanks. But honestly, don’t worry. Keep it light. Trust in what I say here, and maybe even look into finding those things for yourself, too. Sadness is not doing anybody any good. And I know for a fact that Bob had pretty much the same attitude; he didn’t want anybody to be all consumed with sadness. That’s why he didn’t receive visitors for the most part in the last month or so.

Dust

Thomas Buckner, Sam Ashley, Robert Ashley, and Jacqueline Humbert during the Japanese tour of Dust in 1998.

Melody Sumner Carnahan
Nothing I had ever read or heard affected me like hearing Robert Ashley’s recording of “The Backyard” through a clock radio in a studio apartment in Palo Alto in 1978. After listening over and over to “the yellow record” I realized that free will was possible. I knew what I wanted to do. I followed that voice to Mills College where Bob agreed to be part of my 3-headed MFA committee (creative writing, book arts, and media arts). During the following decades, he lent his voice to many of my stories, which has resulted in audioworks and CDs.

As founder and editor of Burning Books, I worked closely with Bob to publish four complete librettos as books, beginning with his opera Improvement, and including Perfect Lives, Atalanta, and Quicksand. Working on books with Bob was such an education because of his precision with language and his completely original perspective on just about everything. The photo below was taken in 1984 when I was interviewing him for The Guests Go In To Supper.

Melody Carnhan with Robert Ashley

Melody Sumner Carnahan with Robert Ashley, courtesy Melody Sumner Carnahan.

Bob was always a big supporter of my writing. He read and commented on everything I sent him. I read everything of his I could get my hands on. He wrote real letters. I conducted many interviews with him, in bars, in his studio, at my various residences in Oakland and New Mexico. During some of the lean years in New Mexico, Bob and Mimi kept Burning Books busy working on projects like Bob’s low rider opera, Now Eleanor’s Idea. He always surpassed himself. Never repeated anything. His thriller-ish novel, Quicksand (2011), was written to be produced verbatim as an opera libretto. Concrete is a monumental work in an entirely new form.

Bob began a memoir in recent years, which he later expanded for CRASH, which Burning Books will publish along with Concrete. Bob left us many masterpieces and much to do.

Afterbank

Robert Ashley with the next generation of performers who have embraced his music: Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, Aliza Simons, and Gelsey Bell from the 2011 Varispeed production of Perfect Lives. Photo by Leonor Torres, courtesy Dave Ruder.

Dave Ruder
Recently a good friend, a singer by training and by vocation, commented that in my bio these days “vocalist” is the first of multiple descriptors I give myself. She was surprised. I thought it over. I’ve never been supremely confident in myself as a clarinetist, don’t seem that special compared to the million other guitarists around, haven’t been composing much per se in the last few years, have barely touched electronics of late. And yet, I find myself very busy musically. What is it that I do then, and when did it all start revolving around my voice? It all goes back to Robert Ashley.

Ashley’s biography gives hope to searching eclectics. It took him years to take his piano playing seriously, but he let it go a few years after finally feeling up to snuff. In his 30s, he made a name for himself with his style of open composition, dealing primarily with group dynamics, but gave up composing before the decade was out. In academia, he earned a doctorate but never claimed it and helped build a renowned music program at Mills, but it wasn’t where his heart was. And then, in his 40s, starting from the ground up, he used what materials he had at hand, most of all his own voice, redolent of Michigan with hints of the South and mixed in California and New York, and he made an astonishing body of work.

That was his journey. Mine is a very different one, but thus far it’s also brought me to my voice. There were years of warming up to this idea, in which I told and retold myself the melodious jokes of Perfect Lives like a middle schooler fawning over a PG-13 comedy. There were early attempts at performing the piece in public by reading it, which grew into the interpretations by Varispeed, through which we came to know Bob. Getting to hear his voice in conversation gave me new insight into the ways he heightened his speech into something more musical. The way he explained it to the cast of That Morning Thing, struggling to find the right way to pose short, simple questions in rehearsal, was that you had to “make it a little song”. At first, it was difficult to highlight what he was doing that differed from his everyday cadence, but gradually, with little other instruction, the switch flipped and we were all going crazy with our newfound powers of musical speech.

One of the greatest things that can be said for Bob’s band-leading is that he recognized that his iconic voice was best left to himself and he always allowed performers to find and develop their own voice. A piece like Concrete is a beautiful example of singers telling stories that at once convey Bob and the singer with complete clarity. In putting together Bob’s final piece, CRASH, the six vocalists have been asked to articulate three primary voices of narration, each vocalist inhabiting one of these voices at some point in the opera. While we’ve worked to fully explore the implications of each voice and have incorporated styles and techniques from one another with Bob’s blessing, we are ultimately playing the parts in our own ways.

The influence of the music of Robert Ashley is so thoroughly assimilated into my core that it’s never far away. In the too short time I got to know, he helped me find what was unique about myself. His vote of confidence in my work inspires me to work harder, be more open and more honest. His work remains a familiar mystery, to be puzzled over for decades to come, and through my investigations I’m amazed to come back home to my own voice. Thanks Bob.

Ashley European Tour 1999

Robert Ashley (far right) and his entourage during their 1999 European tour.

Alvin Lucier
I remember one night in L’Aquila, a beautiful city in the Abruzzi Mountains of Italy, the Sonic Arts Union—Bob, David Behrman, Gordon Mumma and myself—were sleeping in a dormitory room arranged for us by our sponsor. Throughout the night we could hear Bob reciting something in his sleep. He may have been rehearsing one of his vocal pieces or practicing ranting, a form of utterance he picked up and admired from those deranged people roaming the streets of New York. Anyway, it was entertaining and didn’t bother us at all. It was simply a part of touring with Bob.

For a few years in the early ’70s Bob Ashley wore a leather jacket.  Every time he moved there was a crackling sound. He was a walking sound piece.  If you closed your eyes and he walked into the room, you would know it was him.  We were talking once about the future of music and he said he thought it was going to consist of pops and clicks.

Sometime around 1970 or so, the Sonic Arts Union was performing at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.  After the concert Bob and I went out for a drink. Since Yellow Springs was dry, we had to drive to Xenia (coincidentally the name of John Cage’s first wife), Ohio. We drove through cornfields.  You know how straight those roads are. Pretty soon we came upon a roadhouse. We went in and the first thing we saw was a huge electric organ. It was just sitting there idle. I think it was a Wurlitzer. There was a row of men and women sitting up at the bar talking to each other very seriously.  It seemed to me that none of the couples was married because they were having such interesting conversations. They were having fun, smoking and drinking.  We sat down and Bob started talking about Jimmy Smith, the jazz organist, and the legendary pianist Bud Powell. After a while we went into Xenia to get something to eat. When we stopped at the same roadhouse on the way back, the scene was exactly the same. Here were these Perfect Lives going on and on. It felt timeless.

Robert Ashley in Japan

Robert Ashley in Japan for the seven city tour of Improvement in 1994.

After Einstein

There is a peculiar way in which Einstein on the Beach resists critical discourse. The infamously plotless opera contains so many scenes that defy explanation that to even try to describe them, you risk sounding ridiculous or pretentious or both. Maybe this is why reviews of the production tend to be so polarized, expressing unconditional love or unequivocal disgust. Deeper analysis that might invite nuance or ambiguity rapidly lands you in the realm of the absurd.

But things happen in Einstein that are at least possible to describe, and it’s worth trying to figure out what might give this work its strange power. Because it is strangely affecting, maybe even transformative. I finally had the chance to see it this Sunday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and while it didn’t quite live up to the cumulative hype that I’ve been subjected to over the years, I’m not sure anything could.

For one thing, Robert Wilson’s visual design is impeccable. Some of his images are so instantly iconic, like the tall brick building against blue sky, that I can’t figure out if I’ve seen them before or not. And there’s an extraordinary, almost synesthetic connection between the visuals, movement, and sound. The balletic interludes choreographed by Lucinda Childs, where the patterns in the music and dance seem to be practically identical, stand out in this regard. But there are other synesthetic touches too, like the book-reading figure constantly shaking his head, or the furiously typing court clerks who seem to be synchronized to the fastest arpeggios. Not to mention the various characters who scribble figures in the air, writing on an imaginary blackboard or perhaps spellcasting in time with the music.

Oddly, I find that I have relatively little to say about Philip Glass’s music on its own, maybe because others such as Kyle Gann have already written about it so extensively and eloquently. More often it’s the way that music is used that grabs my attention. The fact that the organ’s bass line (A! G! C!) is already playing when we walk into the performance space suggests that the barrier between the world of Einstein and our own is permeable. I appreciated the ability to move freely in and out of the hall as desired, which I took advantage of once. The music was also pumped into the lobby and hallways, and I enjoyed passing through zones of variable sound quality, meandering through a forest of bandpass filters. With this accompaniment, it’s a bit like you and the other concertgoers are part of the work too, silently waiting in line for the restroom or walking to and fro along lines of hidden navigation.

The text often seems like an afterthought in this opera. At least on Sunday, the volume levels were inconsistent, with some speakers strongly resonant and others almost lost. (An older woman in the row behind me kept asking, “What did she say? I don’t understand!” She didn’t make it to the end of Act I.) The densely patterned, mesmerizing poems of Christopher Knowles are a natural match for the additive rhythms of minimalist music. The texts by Samuel M. Johnson don’t fare nearly as well. I still don’t know what to make of the judge’s speech in the first trial scene, in which he preaches about women’s liberation in a screechy falsetto that’s played for laughs. It mostly reminded me of Kate Beaton’s Straw Feminists. There’s not enough context for me to tell if it’s meant to be critical or sympathetic, but regardless, today it comes off as tone deaf and awkward.

Johnson also wrote the story about lovers on a park bench that is read over the final Knee Play, and I’m apparently one of the few people who have a visceral distaste for this beloved ending. What I find interesting is that, even among those who love it, there’s disagreement about what it’s there for. Some (like the LA TimesMark Swed) find it sincerely meaningful, while others find it ironic, a deliberately vacuous attempt to summarize something inexplicable. I think that both interpretations reflect poorly on the work—the former is painfully mawkish, the latter is pointlessly cynical. The reality is probably somewhere in between, and I have to give it credit for that balancing act, but it still rings false to me. The opera has already brilliantly succeeded at melding the familiar and the strange; why do we need a speech to put a button on that? It also puts a sudden teleological spin on the rest of the opera, which is exhilaratingly freeform until we’re railroaded into this destination. The penultimate, climactic spaceship scene may be partly to blame for that, but it’s hard for me to judge that scene too harshly, with the glorious sci-fi high camp of its flashing lights and floating glass coffins.

D. J. Sparr: Playing Well With Others


Composer and electric guitarist D. J. Sparr draws energy and inspiration from interacting with other musicians. “That’s why I compose,” he says, “to get to the point where I can be actively working with other musicians.” A full schedule of composition commissions, performances of his own music and that of other composers, and educational residencies ensures that he gets his fill of that vitality.

Sparr grew up playing electric guitar (à la Eddie Van Halen), but put down his axe for a time during studies at the Eastman School of Music. Then, inspired by the composer-performer faculty members at the University of Michigan, he started performing again within the realm of classical music. He has since performed the music of Michael Daugherty, Paul Lansky, and others, as well as his own compositions, such as his electric guitar concerto Violet Bond, written for the California Symphony where he currently serves as Young Composer-in-Residence.

Beyond the electric guitar, Sparr has built a varied catalog of works for chamber ensemble, orchestra, and vocal music. His short-form opera Approaching Ali, commissioned and recently premiered by the Washington National Opera, is based on the book The Tao of Mohammed Ali by author Davis Miller, with a libretto by Mark Campbell. It tells the story of a writer at the brink of middle age who visits his boyhood hero in person in an effort to rekindle the spirit and enthusiasm of his youth. This poignant and charming work could serve well as an introduction to opera for people of any age or background.

Educational outreach is a substantial part of the composer’s work with the California Symphony, as it was during his three-year residency with the Richmond Symphony’s Education and Community Engagement Department and while he served as a faculty member at The Walden School. He takes cues from the performance and creativity workshops of Michael Colgrass for his own educational work, employing exercises such as drawing graphic scores and conducting on the spot. “It’s fun to work with kids, and it’s nice to get to know them,” explains Sparr, “and then some of them show up at [my] concerts, so it’s pretty cool.”

Early on in his composing career, Sparr found that what he needed to realize his own artistic goals was not located in Los Angeles, New York, or other large cities, so he left the urban landscape, moving first to the mid-Atlantic coast, and then to Richmond, Virginia to build a life that focused on the more basic needs of, as he puts it, “shelter, food, and writing.” He continues:

The combination of finding the people who support you, writing as much music as you can, and being as nice to everyone you meet as you possibly can, including being happy for their successes—there’s a saying that “A rising tide lifts all boats”—is really the key to making it work. And the composing world looks pretty great right now.

With Approaching Ali under his belt, a new large orchestra composition in the works to wind up his California Symphony residency, and a debut CD of his chamber music works coming out on Centaur Records later this year, it looks as if Sparr is reaching musical high tide. Hopefully his electric guitar case is waterproofed.

Reports of the Death of Opera Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Soldier Songs

A scene from David T. Little’s Soldier Songs. Photo by Jill Steinberg, courtesy PROTOTYPE.

Two worthy and penetrating studies of opera take as their premise the idea that the form is dead. In A History of Opera (2012), Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker declare that the genre is “a mortuary” and “a thing of the past” even as they grant that recent decades have seen “a remarkable global increase in operatic activity.” They bolster their mournful claims in part by stacking the deck, paying scant heed to works from the past half-century or so. They sum up Henze, Tippett, and Glass in about a sentence apiece, allot fewer pages to Britten’s operatic output than to Handel’s Rinaldo, and fail to mention Kaija Saariaho at all.

Then again, why kill off opera only once? Slavoj Žižek and Mladen Dolar had upped the ante with Opera’s Second Death (2001). They argue that opera came into the world “stillborn,” “as something outdated.” The notion is tenable given the antiquarian passions that drove the Camerata de’ Bardi and the form’s other progenitors, and the themes of loss, retrospection, mourning, and (would-be) resurrection obsessively revisited in Peri’s Euridice, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, and countless other operas throughout the centuries.

Žižek and Dolar propose several candidates for “the last opera,” including three monumental unfinished works: Puccini’s Turandot, Berg’s Lulu, and Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. And while they, like Abbate and Parker, acknowledge that composers and wordsmiths go on writing operas, they insist that the genre remains “a huge relic” and “an enormous anachronism.”
To my mind, there are two ways to respond to the gloom that permeates A History of Opera and Opera’s Second Death. The first would be to hide the books from the artists crafting and performing new operas lest they get wise to the idea that theirs, to quote Dolar, is a “zombielike” pursuit. The second, jollier and less obscurantist, would be to invite the authors to New York to sample remarkable work of the kind that I have seen and heard in recent months. (Two birds, one stone: perhaps then Žižek really would host Saturday Night Live.) Incidentally, those imps at Britain’s Royal Opera don’t seem to believe that opera is dead. They recently commissioned four new full-length operas for the 2020 season—inspired by the writings of none other than operatic-prophet-of-doom Slavoj Žižek.
Here in New York, on an icy February night following a brutal storm, Experiments in Opera’s New Shorts program played to an overflowing house at Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room. With sizzling playing by Hotel Elefant, ten new ten-minute operas, each preceded by a video interview with the composer or creative team, captivated young and old alike. (The audience ran the gamut from children to golden agers, the latter in far smaller measure than typically seen at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall.)

Abbate and Parker note that nearly all now-canonical operas were seen as “disposable” when they had their premieres, and that exorbitant costs limit the risks that today’s major companies can take with new works. At New Shorts, no-frills direction by Louisa Proske, Stewart Kramer, and David Levine made plain that effective stagings need not be elaborate or costly. (The same holds true at big houses: the Met’s spare-to-the-bone production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, to be revived in May, is one of the company’s most powerful offerings.) As for the fungibility of the New Shorts operas, only time, that most wayward of arbiters, will tell which ones have legs. Their variety and consistently high quality impressed me, though, and the audience’s enthusiasm never flagged during a program of pithy works that added up to an epic-length evening.


Verdi and Britten celebrate landmark birthdays this year, and one reason why their operas endure is because so many were based on works by major writers, including Shakespeare, Schiller, and James. Two of the most compelling New Shorts operas also draw on illustrious literary sources: Bodiless by Gabrielle Herbst and The God’s Script by Justin Tierney. The latter sheathes in fierce, gorgeously orchestrated music a dramatization of Jorge Luis Borges’s “La escritura del dios,” the story of an imprisoned Mayan priest, sung with command by Jeffrey Gavett, who seeks to decipher a divine message encoded in the spots of a jaguar he sees for only an instant each day. Just as the novella’s narrator tells of “vertigo” and a “labyrinth of dreams,” Tierney’s score circles time and again around the same intervals, its claustrophobic darkness pierced by glistening threads of violin tone or washes of flute over prickly percussion.

Bodiless is a surprising title for a work based on “deconstructed text” by the philosopher Hélène Cixous, whose most celebrated essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” extols the “luminous torrents” and “unheard-of songs” that course through women’s flesh. In her setting, Herbst spins a web of soaring phrases and ululations for three sopranos: at New Shorts performed by herself, Ariadne Greif, and Lucy Dhegrae, all wearing lacy, shredded costumes with intertwining tendrils by Zaida Adriana Goveo Balmaseda. With no discernible action or narrative trajectory, Bodiless seems more rhapsody than drama. That said, its repeated phrase “the roar of light” suggests an affinity with Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (“Wie, hör’ ich das Licht?”), an opera whose own static Handlung traces an erotic journey beyond the body, and whose love music, all echolalia and vocal arabesques, similarly eschews singularity and sense.

Collector

Mark Emerson in Aaron Siegel’s The Collector, photo courtesy Experiments in Opera.

At the opposite extreme to Bodiless is Aaron Siegel’s The Collector, a monologue performed with wry brilliance by actor Mark Emerson that layers rhythmic speech over pointillist fragments of melody in a kind of ultimate distillation of stile rappresentativo. The Collector’s colloquial tone, oblique wit, and themes of paraphilia and fixation with ephemera (postage stamps) bring to mind the loopy “pictographic ballad operas” of Ben Katchor and Mark Mulcahy, the most winsome and intelligent new operas I have encountered in the past decade. Equally droll, WOW by Joe Diebes and Christian Hawkey makes something peppy and exuberant of the superego’s implacable ostinato (“I am ashamed of”), grandly intoned by Jonathon Hampton and Devin Provenzano, juxtaposed with a litany of disgraceful things spoken by Christina Campanella. They range from the usual suspects (“my penis size”) to matters trivial (“what my phone says about me”), earnest (“my hate-filled fellow Christians”), and forthrightly human (“having my butt checked”).

The Mother

Lisa Komara in Jason Cady’s The Mother, photo courtesy Experiments in Opera.

Jason Cady, whose Happiness is The Problem has just been released by LockStep Records, figured as both composer and performer at New Shorts. Sung and acted in dazzling manner by Lisa Komara and Erin Flannery, Cady’s The Mother pairs colorful scoring, sassy rhythms, and sweetly angular melodies with a young woman’s darkest nightmare: being overtaken in art and love by her mother, who morphs by outrageous happenstance from dreary crone to musical prodigy. With Ann Heppermann, Cady also acted in Matthew Welch’s The Three Truths, a robot opera based on a Sufi parable that hints at an elemental unease with the soulless, mechanical underside of vocal virtuosity. Gavett and Anne Rhodes sang with the requisite authority, and Seth Bodie designed the spectacular costumes for Welch’s opera and The Mother.

End Times

Elisabeth Halliday in End Times by Ruby Fulton and Baynard Woods, photo courtesy Experiments in Opera.

Leaha Maria Villarreal’s A Window to a Door, austerely scored for violin, contrabass, and electronic playback, explores music at the edge of silence. Her voice delicate, her presence poignant, Meagan Brus portrayed its sole character, a young woman who is held hostage—in jail? an asylum? a prison of her own making? Set in a dystopian future of planetary meltdown, End Times by Ruby Fulton and Baynard Woods shares the off-kilter humor of The Mother and WOW and shifts between the acid musings of an “existential weather woman” and the rants of a fundamentalist reverend, trenchantly played by Elisabeth Halliday and Robert Maril. The last New Short offering, Mary Kouyoumdjian and Hannis Brown’s I am a Fish, probes quandaries of identity with wild vocal writing, admirably sung by Seth Gilman, and a roiling score shot through with the sting of the electric guitar.

Theo Bleckmann in Phil Kline's Out Cold. Photo by Rahav Segev, courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Theo Bleckmann in Phil Kline’s Out Cold. Photo by Rahav Segev, courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Beyond New Shorts, New York has teemed with vital new operas in recent months. One could argue that Out Cold, Phil Kline’s monodrama that had its world premiere last fall at BAM under the auspices of American Opera Projects, is a monument to belatedness with its nods to Sinatra and Schubert, or that those touchstones along with Theo Bleckmann’s lean tone and conversational delivery represent a repudiation of everything “operatic.” But our current thinking about opera is defective, heedless of the form’s intimate currents—Monteverdi’s Orfeo, after all, was performed in private chambers at the Duke of Mantua’s palace—and bound to bloated 19th-century paradigms. Besides, when Kline cites for his boozer’s late-night reveries the Magic Fire Music that ushers Brünnhilde to sleep in Die Walküre, does he not demonstrate the truth of Nietzsche’s claim that Wagner is “our greatest musical miniaturist”? At BAM, Bleckmann was an opera unto himself, singing, dancing, and acting with forlorn elegance and consummate artistry, and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble made bright the many bewitching hues of Kline’s poison-sweet songs.

January’s inaugural Prototype Festival, produced by Kristin Marting, Beth Morrison, and Kim Whitener, showcased five new operatic offerings, selling out many performances and garnering praise from Justin Davidson, Ronni Reich, and many others. I missed Timur and the Dime Museum but did cover David T. Little’s Soldier Songs for Time Out New York. Like the bare-bones New Shorts presentations, Yuval Sharon’s uncluttered but potent staging of Little’s 2006 opera refuted the idea that opera companies need to bust the bank in order to galvanize audiences. The unit set—a sandbox—deftly conjured up the landscape on which several recent wars unfolded, and perhaps also the puerile and foolhardy spirit in which certain leaders waged those wars. And the image of blood slowly soaking through the business suit and dress shirt worn by the soldier when he returns to civilian life remains among the most haunting I have ever witnessed in a theatre.


Prototype also gave the world stage premiere of Mohammed Fairouz’s Sumeida’s Song, already familiar thanks to its fine Bridge recording and various workshop presentations. Here, too, smart rather than pricey stagecraft carried the day. The revenge-besotted Asakir is as high-strung a leading lady as Verdi’s Azucena or Strauss’s Elektra, yet Rachel Calloway, cannily directed by David Herskovits, made her wild grandeur work in a tiny performing space. And even with the fourth wall mere feet away from most viewers, Alixa Gage’s costumes and Zane Pihlstrom’s abstract set, strands of vinyl tubing aglow with the weird colors of Lenore Doxsee’s lighting, made a credible case for Fairouz’s drama of a family and a wider world undone by violence and abiding rancor. (Gage and Pilhstrom, incidentally, were part of director Gia Forakis’s team for The Kitchen’s poetic staging of Missy Mazzoli’s Song From The Uproar: The Lives and Deaths Of Isabelle Eberhardt last spring.)

The other Prototype offerings were Paola Prestini’s Aging Musician, a work in progress that happily draws on the resplendent tones of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and Bluebeard by the Dutch collective 33 1/3. An unnerving work without live musicians and with 3-D video renderings of corpses, body parts, and other ontological terrors, Bluebeard hovers between the post-human virtual and the Lacanian Real: the material ground of existence, unutterable and horrifying, shards of which can erupt in everyday life. (Quick, someone get Žižek and Dolar on Skype!)

For a “mortuary” and a “stillborn” art form, then, opera seems to be going strong, at least in these parts. In addition to the works mentioned here, recent months have brought new operas by Philip Glass, Victoria Bond, Douglas J. Cuomo, Nolan Gasser, Matthew Harris, and Thomas Pasatieri. The coming months will also bring keenly anticipated world premieres at San Francisco Opera (Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene) and Santa Fe (Theodore Morrison’s Oscar). Glancing beyond NMBx’s purview, Operabase lists some sixty additional new operas having premieres in 2012-13, at least one of which, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, opened to glowing reviews and will tour widely. This season, New Yorkers have also had chances to take in slashingly fine Adès at New York City Opera and the Met, where Nico Muhly’s Two Boys will have its local premiere in October.
Opera, then, seems to me “not completely dead”; in fact, it seems to be doing rather well. Call off the funeral and get in line to see for yourself.

***

Marion Lignana Rosenberg

Marion Lignana Rosenberg. Photo by Maeghan Donohue.

Marion Lignana Rosenberg has written about music, books, and the arts for Time Out New York, WQXR, Capital New York, The Forward, The Classical Review, and other publications. She has also written program notes and essays for Kronos Quartet, The Glyndebourne Festival, and New York City Opera.

Sounds Heard: Mohammed Fairouz—Sumeida’s Song

Sumeida’s Song was completed in 2008, when composer Mohammed Fairouz was only 22 years old. Taking inspiration from Tawfiq al-Hakim’s play Song of Death, the opera follows Alwan (Mischa Bouvier) as he returns from Cairo to his hometown in Upper Egypt. Rather than fulfilling an ancestral blood-feud, Alwan rejects violence but ends up paying a terrible price for his efforts to bring enlightenment to the village, in a plot that echoes another Middle Eastern Passion.

For a first opera, Fairouz’s work is a brilliant synthesis of Western opera and Arab musical traditions—specifically, the microtonal inflections typical of Arabic maqam which Fairouz allows to take hold in the second scene onward. Written for operatic voices and Western symphonic instruments, Fairouz’s command of traditional operatic craft would be astonishing for a composer twice his age—and at times, the work sounds almost Straussian in its textured web of motifs; imaginative and rigorous and expressive yet very far removed from any sound world that might be considered even vaguely Arabic.

One reason for this is doubtless because much of the development in Sumeida’s Song takes place within the characters’ minds, hence the intensely psychological, almost expressionist tone developed in the final arias. Another reason is that Fairouz often reserves his Arabic inflections for moments of urgency and crisis, giving his use of quarter tones a specific and musical significance. Those looking for a glib and obvious film-score, Arab-American fusion will be disappointed by this work, which casts Fairouz squarely as a serious composer of concert music in the Western tradition more than a crossover phenomenon.

Fairouz’s orchestration likewise stems from traditional 19th-century technique but is always peppered with arresting timbres and subtly shifting textures that support the drama in myriad creative ways. The first scene begins with Alwan’s mother and aunt anxiously awaiting his arrival by train, with the shrill and sudden screech of the train whistle expressing volumes. Fairouz understands that colorful sounds have an associative and expressive capacity, and his use of the orchestra—though largely traditional—reveals a composer intent on making every sound contribute to the overall psychological drama.

The opera’s libretto is perhaps not its strongest suit, largely expository and at times clunky and ill-suited to Fairouz’s vastly more natural vocal writing. And at times, I found myself wondering if the composer had shown too much concern for avoiding identifiable Arabic influence—sidestepping one kind of compositional danger only to embrace a musical blend in which classical tradition, performance technique, and orchestration threaten to smother the Arabic elements for a good amount of the score. Yet Sumeida’s Song comes off as a compelling musical drama nonetheless, a statement of tragedy and hope that speaks to a universal aspiration: that humans might one day turn away from a legacy of violence.

Several of Fairouz’s recent compositions have received a lot of attention in part because of their timeliness and thematic relation to recent uprisings in the Arab world, but this opera in particular addresses ideas and emotions that have relevance far beyond the events of the Arab Spring. Expertly recorded and mixed by Bridge Records, the disc features fine performances from all four singers as well as a taut and finely detailed account of the score by the Mimesis Ensemble under Scott Dunn. Bridge has released several new operas in recent years, including works by Tod Machover, Bill Bolcom, and John Musto, and Sumeida’s Song proves that Mohammed Fairouz is a composer whose sensitive musicianship and personal vision suggests that he is likely to claim a similar niche in the operatic world.

Air-Conditioned, Prematurely

For the past week, the hottest ticket in New York City has been for the revival of Einstein on the Beach at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Gilman Opera House. So hot in fact that, sadly, scalpers have taken advantage of the situation and conned unwitting fans into buying counterfeit tickets for the sold-out run. (I’m aware of at least two people that this happened to.) Much has been made in the press about how Einstein is one of these mythical works that everyone says is great even though few people have ever seen it. The original four-and-a-half-hour intermission-less production, debuted at France’s Avignon Festival in 1976, toured six European cities, and culminated in two rented nights at the Metropolitan Opera House on consecutive Sundays in November of that year. BAM produced a revival in 1984 and another in 1992 (which subsequently toured Europe). Over the last 20 years, no one has mounted it. Yet despite Robert Wilson’s slowly unfolding stage tableaux becoming the stuff of legend as a result of the rarity of live performances, Philip Glass’s music for this 1970s gesamtkunstwerk reached a much larger audience. A four-LP set, originally released in 1979 by Tomato Records, was subsequently re-issued by CBS Masterworks—soon to be Sony—on LP, cassette, and CD. And in 1993, Nonesuch Records issued a second complete recording of the entire opera—a rare occurrence for a contemporary work.

I’ve been something of an Einstein on the Beach junkie for over three decades. (I use the word “junkie” somewhat tongue in cheek. While I have been obsessed with the music for Einstein for most of my life, it is probably not possible to have an actual addiction caused by listening to music—something I will return to later on herein.) I missed the performances at the Met; I was twelve years old when it arrived in New York City and had no idea who Philip Glass was yet. But when I was a junior in high school, one of my music teachers suggested I watch a PBS documentary about Glass, which featured his music from Einstein and the score for Mark Di Suvero, Sculptor (a.k.a. North Star), and I was hooked. I saved up money to buy that Tomato 4-LP set, which had only recently come out at that point, and after hearing it tried to find out everything I could about this weird opera without a plot featuring glacially slow scenes accompanied by interminably repetitive music. In fact, the essays in the LP booklet, which mentioned Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream, persuaded teenage me—who up to that point had been fixated on Broadway musicals and had just started being interested in opera and contemporary classical music—to finally listen to rock. But what I really wanted to listen to was Einstein, and I did, again and again and again.

Hearing it, though, is only part of the experience. The same, of course, can be said for any opera and my exposure to staged opera performance when I first discovered Einstein was extremely limited. I’d seen lots of Broadway musicals—balcony seats were $12 at the time—but I had never been to the Met or even to City Opera. Live opera seemed out of my price range as well as not really meant for me somehow, although I religiously listened to the Saturday afternoon “Live from the Met” radio broadcasts, watched all the telecasts, attended free staged productions of famous Italian operas by Vincent La Selva’s New York Grand Opera in Central Park, and had been on a class trip to attend a performance of an opera by Michael Haydn (of all people) at BAM (of all places). This was not exactly the most firm grounding in opera performance practice, so I’m not sure that I would have even understood just how radical Einstein was back when I first became aware of it. When I did finally get to see a complete Philip Glass opera, it was the American premiere of Satyagraha in November 1981. But I did see the 1984 and 1992 productions of Einstein at BAM, and by that time I was pretty deeply immersed in opera, particularly contemporary opera. Having that context helped me to appreciate how radical the work really is.

However, when I saw it again last Friday night at BAM, it felt less radical and more like an experience of standard repertoire to me. After all, this was my third time around with it live and I really can’t remember now how many times I have heard the complete recording. So rather than being completely mesmerized, as I was in 1984 and even in 1992, I found myself—though still completely smitten—paying very close attention to minutiae in ways that I never had before. I had never before noticed the moon in the “Night Train” scene waxing from crescent to gibbous to full and waning back again. In 1984, I remember being startled by the “Trial/Prison” scene and its relentless repetitions of the “prematurely air-conditioned supermarket” speech. (Someone else in the audience back then screamed, “I can’t take it anymore” and stormed out.) This time around, however, I focused more on the amazing delivery of that speech by Kate Moran, as did everyone else. At the end of her litany, she was cheered. I missed a subsequently endlessly repeating line, “Bank robbery is punishable by twenty years in federal prison,” which was cut from the production this time around but which—since that 1984 production—seems to have been burned into my medulla oblongata. For me, Einstein on the Beach has become what works like La traviata and La bohème are to regular opera fans; I know it so well I was able to focus on the performance rather than the work itself.

One of the biggest differences between performances of standard works and premieres is the opportunity for performers and audiences to probe deeper into interpretative issues rather than trying to suss out a completely new experience. Of course, for those of us who live to hear new things all the time, the attraction of encountering something for the very first time is very high and it is usually what draws me to live events. Still, it’s very nice to have a profounder understanding of something, and it’s very gratifying when that something is a relatively new work.

I also learned something else from the experience of focusing so intently specifically on the actual performance of Einstein on the Beach, rather than the work itself, this time around. And that is that being subjected to the staging and the music is ultimately not a narcotic experience, despite the fact that it is possible to encounter the work for the first time and find it completely hypnotic. One of the criticisms of minimalism when it first started to gain a wide following was that it is somehow mind numbing and potentially dangerous, the way that addictive substances are. Similar charges have been levied against rock and jazz before, which now seem more than a tad naïve. But as recently as a week ago, the deputy director of the Police Sciences Academy in Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, has called for the government of the UAE to ban audio files called binaural beats, claiming that listening to such things is the equivalent of taking illegal drugs and results in similar mind-altering and potentially destructive behavior. Adding fuel to that particular fire, a site called I-Doser has actually been selling audio files with names like “cocaine” and “opium” for at least five years. Although after listening to a few examples of binaural beats, which basically consist of tones in the left and right ears being slightly out of tune from one another, I did not experience any kind of high; all I could think of was the music of Alvin Lucier, which I love.

As a composer and someone perpetually fixated on the listening process during almost all my waking hours, it’s extremely tempting to think that music could be capable of altering someone else’s mind—whether in a good way or a bad way, though hopefully in a good way. But like the programmatic music of the 19th century, the synesthesia experiments of Scriabin and Luigi Russolo at the beginning of the 20th century, or the New Age mantras of more recent vintage, it is the suggestive associations people attach to music and not the music itself that gives it powers beyond its abstract sonic design. Yet these associations sometimes run very deep, especially for the audiences of some traditional musics from various parts of the world. Acculturated modes of listening can add layers of meaning to music that might not be possible for the music to transmit on its own (say, to someone hearing the music by chance who has not been told about these associations). And once these layers of meaning are internalized, they are difficult to ignore. Which is perhaps also why some people gravitate toward familiar standard repertoire (whether it’s La traviata, a Beethoven symphony, or pop music “oldies” on the radio), rather than hearing brand new music. Perhaps it is also why I gravitate toward Einstein on the Beach.

Tearing Myself Away

By the time this essay is posted (Monday, April 23, 2012) I will be flying halfway around the world from New York City to Hong Kong to visit my in-laws, whom I have not seen in three years. The technological breakthroughs of the past 100 years have certainly made everyone on this planet increasingly more connected. But even in the advanced high-tech world of the early 21st century, getting from NYC to HK is still quite an undertaking—my direct flight will last more than 16 hours.

Argento

Dominick Argento signing copies of his memoirs prior to a performance during the University of Maryland’s ten-day Argento extravaganza.

Before arriving in Hong Kong and disappearing from NewMusicBox for the next two weeks (I won’t be back on these pages until Monday, May 7), I wanted to share some observations gleaned from this past weekend. Not content to take just one trip, I prefaced my Hong Kong vacation with a journey to College Park, Maryland, to attend the first couple days of a ten-day Dominick Argento marathon taking place at the University of Maryland. I managed to catch performances of two Argento operas while I was there. The first, the absurdist Postcard from Morocco, from 1971, is somewhat reminiscent of the zany theatrical antics of Richard Foreman and also seems to foreshadow Paul Griffiths’s libretto for Elliott Carter’s What Next?. The other, Miss Havisham’s Fire, is a sprawling Great Expectations-derived melodrama which has remained its composer’s favorite opera despite its critical failure during its initial run at New York City Opera back in 1979. It was great to finally see both of these works for the first time. It was also very gratifying to see a university pull out all the stops to honor a living American composer.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the weekend for me was hearing Dominick Argento talk about his compositional aesthetics during two pre-performance discussions. I jotted down a few of his quips thinking they might provide for some interesting debate here.

1. Over the years Argento has had a preference for setting prose instead of poetry (i.e. letters, diaries, etc.) According to him, poetry is written “to be exposed” whereas many of the texts that have attracted him over the years are more private musings. And, as a composer, he acknowledged that he feels freer when setting prose since poetry “has rhythms that need to be honored.” I’ve always thought that prose also makes specific rhythmic demands.

2. Argento also explained that he rarely revises older pieces because “when you revise an older piece it’s like sewing up a garment with the wrong color thread; no matter what you do, there will be a patch.” So, what then to do with a work that you feel very strongly about but which doesn’t completely work for you now?

3. Argento suggested that composers should try to write their own libretto when working on an opera, because that way they can always write to their strengths. Yet, for me, what gives most operas their depth is that they are almost always the creation of more than one person. Of course, there have been some extraordinary exceptions to this rule, but still.

4. Argento explained his devotion to Miss Havisham’s Fire, despite its poor reception, claiming that composers’ favorite pieces are usually the ones that failed. I’m curious to know what other folks here think about this one in particular.