Tag: workshop

Summer Residency Snapshots: Lessons in Dynamic Collaboration

One of the most fantastic elements of American contemporary music is its dynamic collaborative ecosystem.   As a percussionist and nerd, I’m fascinated with the degree to which long-term relationships between composers and performers generate compelling music and effective advocacy. Highlighting the amazing work of musical friends is a driving force of my cello/percussion duo New Morse Code, and a gigantic part of my playing, teaching, and thinking about percussion.

In these four posts, I want to explore some collaborations that have inspired me, and take a look at the role of long-term relationships and physical place in contemporary music. Fortunately, I have a fantastic point from which to observe. Since 2015, my New Morse Code partner Hannah Collins and I co-direct a unique incubator for composer/performer collaborations. Avaloch Farm Music Institute is a residency designed for performing ensembles founded by Fred Tauber and Deb Sherr in 2015. Avaloch’s New Music Initiative is a specially curated month within this season. During each week of this month, the farm is full of preexisting chamber ensembles collaborating with composers on new work.

LuSo Percussion

LuSo Percussion (Terry Sweeney, Adam Rosenblatt, Tatevik Khoja-Eynatyan) workshop music by François Sarhan
Photo by Doug Perry

To Avaloch veteran Robert Honstein, the atmosphere at Avaloch’s New Music Initiative is somewhere between a festival, composer residency, and rehearsal. Where festivals tend to center on goals and activities, residencies on isolation, and rehearsals on focused objectives, Avaloch is an amalgamation of all three, marked by a “healthy exchange of ideas between participants,” “the gift of time and space,” and a wonderful collaborative energy. Our weekly sharing sessions are fantastic examples of this diversity and fecundity. Equal parts performance, presentation, and question and answer session, these get-togethers allow everyone on the farm the chance to share new material with a supportive community without the pressure of a formalized concert environment. I think of these events as extensions of our informal conversations and natural cross-pollination, a slightly more formal version of the lingering in doorways and pdf Airdropping we’ve been doing all week. The population of Avaloch changes each week, but ensembles who’ve been here inevitably stay in touch, play the works of composers they met while in residence, and plan concerts together.

Since the New Music Initiative began in 2015, we’ve had an amazing assortment of performers and composers from across the world, with projects ranging from burgeoning collaborations to the workshopping of grant-funded commissions. The first week of 2016’s New Music Initiative is a wonderfully representative assortment: In one night, we heard performances from Triplepoint Trio, LuSo Percussion, Arx Duo, and HereNowHear, featuring world premieres from Michael Laurello, Alyssa Weinberg, and a new work co-written by the members of Invisible Anatomy.

The diversity and dynamism of projects at Avaloch’s NMI provides both a wonderful argument for the efficacy of contemporary music in contemporary culture as well as a convenient site from which to examine and juxtapose some creative dialogues that inspire, catalyze, and drive new music. Over the course of these posts, I want to shine light on the different types of work happening at Avaloch, observing how some interesting ensembles and composers create. How can taking part in a close dialogue over the genesis of a piece lead to more sustained and flexible partnerships? How do ensembles of composer/performers break down traditional “roles” while crafting fluid, group-developed music? How can being in an idyllic natural setting, surrounded by other interesting musicians and away from one’s normal routine, impact creative work? Is it important to be friends?


View of Avaloch from the porch, the unofficial center of social activities
Photo by Kristan Toczko

I hope that my amateur-hour ethnography is not interpreted as a shoddy attempt to create a taxonomy of creative models and draw homologies between unrelated experiences.   My goal is not to say that the types of collaborations I’ve been fortunate enough to observe and take part in at Avaloch grant me authority to make broader statements about the direction and scope of contemporary music in the US. Instead, I hope to accomplish something much more selfish: to describe some wonderful music I’ve heard and to ask questions that will drive my own future collaborations and that may (hopefully) inspire you as well.

Next time, I’ll explore how some groups at Avaloch blur the line between performer and composer, taking a closer look at one group where composers perform (Invisible Anatomy) and one where performers compose (Triplepoint Trio). Stay tuned and join in our exploits on Facebook and Instagram.

Michael Compitello

Michael Compitello

Michael Compitello is a percussionist active as a chamber musician, soloist, and teaching artist. He has performed with Ensemble Modern, Ensemble Signal, Ensemble ACJW, and has worked with composers Helmut Lachenmann, Nicolaus A. Huber, David Lang, John Luther Adams, Alejandro Viñao, Marc Applebaum, and Martin Bresnick on premieres and performances of new chamber works.

With cellist Hannah Collins as New Morse Code, Michael has created a singular and personal repertoire through long-term collaboration with some of America’s most esteemed young composers. He also champions new and recent works for solo percussion in the US and abroad.

Michael is assistant professor of percussion at the University of Kansas. He earned a DMA and MM from the Yale School of Music, and a BM from the Peabody Conservatory.

It Takes a Village: Daron Hagen’s A Woman in Morocco

Soonchan Kwon, Austin Bradley, and Natalie Cummings

Soonchan Kwon, Austin Bradley, and Natalie Cummings in A Woman In Morocco
Photos by Nathan Russell (except where indicated)

Many imagine a lone composer toiling away to produce a mammoth work. The truth is subtler. While opera is possibly the most collaborative of the arts, “an opera composer must be able to build consensus for his vision among strong people with visions of their own in order to create a viable theatrical work,” asserts composer Daron Hagen. “But he has to also know how, at all costs, to keep everyone on the creative team focused on his vision, and not theirs.”

No matter how you slice it, overseeing the development of an opera seems a lot like marshaling forces for the invasion of a small country. Hagen’s recently performed (a fully-staged, “pre-professional” workshop) full-length “opera noir,” A Woman in Morocco is no exception. The preparatory planning and writing stages alone were staggering and were followed by frank and brutal revisions. At one point during production in Austin, Hagen’s Facebook status read: “Thrilled to have trimmed five minutes from the first act.” Asked why he had over-written, Hagen responded, “It wasn’t over-written for the staging I had in mind. But I’m the first to cut linking material for scene changes that were not needed for a single set.”

Soonchan Kwon (Ahmed), Austin Bradley (Teddy), and Natalie Cummings (Lizzy) in A Woman In Morocco

Soonchan Kwon (Ahmed), Austin Bradley (Teddy), and Natalie Cummings (Lizzy)

Based on the play by Barbara Grecki and following on the heels of their previous collaboration New York Stories, Hagen began adapting Barbara Grecki’s play into libretto form in the fall of 2012, during the premiere production of his Little Nemo in Slumberland by Sarasota Opera. “I’d return to the hotel from staging rehearsals in which over a hundred children were singing about the purity of a world of dreams, order a pot of coffee from room service, and delve into the decadent nightmare world of Lizzy’s seduction, descent into drug addiction, and finally, her disappearance. It made for an agreeable sort of psychic whiplash.”
After Hagen went through several drafts of the libretto with Grecki, a table read directed by Alan Hicks, with actors at Center City Opera in Philadelphia, was arranged. More meetings between Hagen and Grecki yielded a “working draft” of the libretto, which Hagen shared selectively with interested artistic directors at opera companies around the country. “When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense to have people you trust ask questions prior to the first staging. Every director ignores to some extent (and should ignore, since practical concerns like the physical layout of the stage, costs, union rules, available personnel, even the number of lighting instruments, come into their decision-making process) what you’ve written in the score. One wants feedback not on a particular director’s staging but on the document. You’d perhaps be surprised by how many people think that what they are seeing on the stage is exactly what the composer intended. That’s not going to happen unless the composer directs it himself.”

Composer Daron Hagen and Author Barbara Grecki

Composer Daron Hagen and Author Barbara Grecki
Photo courtesy of the composer

Over the course of three months, Hagen hammered out a first act vocal score, changing the libretto as he went along. This led to a first act workshop by Center City Opera. “Andrew Kurtz, the general and artistic director of Center City Opera, was kind enough to volunteer to give a workshop performance, with singers and piano, of whatever I was able to get done by around the end of the year,” Hagen explains. “I never listened to the tape, but I was all ears during the run-through itself, and I certainly incorporated dozens of tessitura shifts and prosody fixes that ‘popped’ during the process.”

Hagen spent the winter finishing the vocal score, and ploughed straight into orchestrating the piece. “I knew, going in, that I would be crafting the show for three different sorts of ensembles—a seven-player ‘agitprop’ group suitable for black box and ‘second stage’ performances, a ‘small house’ version with 12 players, and a ‘large house’ version with an orchestra enlarged to include Mozart-sized string sections. Since I did all three orchestrations simultaneously, a vocal score had to come first.” Hagen delivered the completed orchestrations a few days before the first orchestra rehearsal.

“When you think about it, the composer is the only person sitting at the table with every producing and creative partner. So, I needed to be very clear about what I needed to learn about the opera in Austin. I wasn’t worried about whether the piece was dramaturgically viable; I already knew that it was. The libretto had been workshopped and heavily revised, and I knew going in that I would be directing the thing down the road myself. My primary need, therefore, was to hear the orchestrations (I wanted to make a ‘chamber opera’ come across as a ‘grand’ opera) with young singers, and to check the viability of the ‘dramatic beats’ in the piece.”

More than a year after inception, the curtain was raised. However, as far as the development opera productions go you might say that this is still Act One for A Woman in Morocco, and it was the work at this stage that I saw produced at McCullough Theater.

Natalie Cummings and Samantha Liebowitz

Natalie Cummings and Samantha Liebowitz

Set in a small run-down hotel in Morocco in the mid-1950s, the opera tells the story of a young, wide-eyed writer, Lizzy, whose involvement with Ahmed, a worker at the hotel, sets in motion a series of events which ripple out and impact all the characters in the opera. Of course this leads, in the spirit of great tragedies, to all sorts of pain, death, and misery. The best laid plans of any good tragedy play on our hope that, despite the dark inevitability of where things are headed, they will somehow work out, and Hagen deftly plays on this most human trait, laying a bright, airy opening framework echoing Lizzy’s initial naïve outlook. As the character’s backgrounds, desires, and motives are revealed (several quite deliciously as the opera unfolds), it is in the trios where Hagen’s writing shines in particular. The first act closes with one of the most effective of these trios in which fragments of the characters arias from earlier in the opera coalesce. Short, punchy phrases in Lizzy’s aria return and play among the long lines from Ahmed’s. A third line, sung by the hotel owner Teddy, seamlessly joins these parts and, despite tight turns and nested phrases, each line is clear and perfectly placed. This trio was preceded by a beautiful aria sung by Asilah, Ahmed’s wife, a character whose story arc becomes central to the opera. Rising fourths in the piano underpin the twisting melody, and an insistent pedal builds tension as we approach the aria’s climax. Following this she switches from third person to first person, revealing that she is singing about her own life. If you followed Breaking Bad, you probably thought things couldn’t get much worse for Hal and company than they had by somewhere around mid-season four, right? Then season five shows up, and all bets are off. I won’t reveal any more about the story of A Woman in Morocco here, but let’s just say that things don’t turn out much better for this cast of characters. If you’re not familiar with Breaking Bad, then I’ll direct you to any number of Shakespeare tragedies. It’s bad news folks.

Of course, without the singers it’s all academic and the performances were both musically and dramatically really quite strong. Natalie Cummings’s Lizzy was delicate and vulnerable, made all the more poignant as the dark events unfolded, while Soonchan Kwon’s Ahmed was strong, complex, and assured. Austin Bradley’s bigger-than-life Teddy was nicely contrasted by Samantha Leibowitz’s tortured Asilah. Conductor Kelly Kuo’s command was also particularly admirable, directing the orchestra and singers through the twists and turns of a fresh and quite involved score. Hagen traffics all but exclusively in acoustic tonality, so when I heard that electronic elements were involved in this production I was very interested to hear how he would approach it. Consisting of pre-recorded and digitally manipulated sounds, including those natural (rain and thunder) and human (ululations, vocal glissandi, and a jazz trio presented as a shortwave radio broadcast), each electronic addition was subtle and organic and added an extra dimension to the proceedings.

This show was part of the work’s initial test run. Hagen will incorporate some of the cuts suggested by stage director Robert DeSimone and conductor Kelly Kuo in the next production. He also intends to lengthen and develop the electro-acoustic elements for the black-box version, which he will stage direct for Kentucky Opera in October 2014 with Joey Mechavich conducting a crack chamber ensemble, as well as the culminating ‘large opera house’ premiere at Skylight Music Theatre, with Hagen directing and artistic director Viswa Subbaraman in the pit.

Samantha Leibowitz as Asilah

Samantha Leibowitz as Asilah

“The show is 95% there, now,” Hagen says, with evident relief. “It will sit on the back burner for a few months while I write the script, lyrics, and songs for a musical called I Hear America Singing, for Skylight’s second stage. Directing Singing for them is giving me an opportunity to immerse myself in the culture of the company that will ultimately premiere Morocco. More importantly, I will be getting to know and work with the creative team that Barbara and I will be handing our baby over to.”
In the world of opera production, these are Acts Two and Three, and while the vast majority of the work will remain the same, the changes that are made through these collaborations can make or break the opera in the long term. “Yeah, it’s a long haul,” Hagen says, “and a lot of people are taking a lot of creative and monetary risks in order to bring it to life. That’s always right there in my thinking.” And it’s worth remembering that these changes require more than a solitary composer with a bottle of India Ink, a piano, and an overactive imagination. It takes collaboration on a massive scale by a tremendous cast before and behind the scenes. It also takes time; time to write, re-write, present, revise, and then do it all again. This is opera, people, and it takes a village.