Archive for February, 2010

Tonight: Respond to the call…

Cypress String Quartet celebrates the 11th year of  their Call and Response program tonight at the Herbst theater.  They’re one of a handful of San Francisco performing arts organizations that actually commissions new work. For this unique program they commission a composer to write a piece in response to their “call” (i.e. an existing piece in their repertoire.)  This is particularly fitting for a quartet that spends equal amounts of time with new music and established classics, possessing an ear for both.

This time around they break a bit from their established m.o. and add a level of indirection. They’ve commissioned a piece inspired by literature, similar to the way two pieces in their repertoire have been inspired by the written word.  Elena Ruehr‘s Bel Canto is a response to Ann Patchett’s best selling novel of the same name, and will share the program with Schubert’s Death and the Maiden (inspired by the lyrics to a song that Schubert wrote himself) and  (which apparently was inspired by the written word, but I haven’t yet figured out how).

The Cypress String Quartet’s latest album “How She Danced” consists of three of Elena Ruehr’s other works for string quartet and has been in heavy rotation since I purchased it last month.  (I was kinda hoping to have a more in depth review/analysis of it to post in time for the concert, but I’ve got a solo opera to prepare for this Sunday and my time has managed to slip away from me.)

Tickets are available at the City Box Office and are cheaper if you buy them in advance.


Feb 2010

Music vs. Film (Music wins. Not even close.)

Imagine a company that dubs old super 8 films onto VHS.  If you like, they’ll even dub a nice soundtrack of classical music in the background for your listening pleasure.

Well, looks like they didn’t always listen to the entire album before dubbing it.  And what we have here is a great example of the overwhelming power music has to skew your perceptions.  Mid-twentieth century atonality does not make for an easy trip down memory lane.

To be fair, the deck was stacked against film in this battle.  There is something innately creepy about old footage.   Something about memory and nostalgia and existential dread…

This was sent to me by Craig Good (via Robert Popper) along with a challenge to identify the piece.  I’ve completely failed.  I’ve scoured the catalogs of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Carter, Sessions, Boulez, Babbitt with no luck.  Anyone else recognize it?


Feb 2010

Hilary Hahn vs. The Richter Scales

Hilary Hahn is one of the most successful classical music artists alive.  Debuted with Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the age of 12, finished her bachelor requirements at Curtis at 16, signed with Sony at 17, and was named “America’s Best” young classical musician by Time Magazine at 22.  She recently turned 30, and like any good generation Y-er, she has a Twitter account.  Or, at least, her violin case has one.  (Take some time and click the link.  It’s ridiculously adorable.  But do come back.)

A few years ago I was torn between seeing her play a brief free show at Amoeba Records on Haight and seeing the a Blood Brothers opening for …And You will Know Us by the Trail of Dead  at the Fillmore.  It was a tough call.  I opted for the post-hardcore screamfest, figuring that Hilary was much less likely to flame out (or overdose) in the next five years.  The Blood Brothers were amazing, but the highlight of the evening was when Trail Of Dead announced a very special guest.  Out of nowhere, Hilary Hahn joined them on stage to play “To Russia My Homeland”, a song she recorded with them on their latest album, cuz that’s just how she rolls.  I had no idea.

Some things about Hilary.

  • She likes defying genres (see above).
  • She likes communicating directly with her audience (see further above)
  • She’s a big proponent of new music.

Which brings me to my point.  (Almost.)

Hilary Hahn has a youtube channel where she keeps her fans up to date as she travels and tours.  As part of this channel, in conjunction with the new music blog Sequenza 21, she has a series of interviews with emerging composers.  What a great idea!  Here’s a popular and engaging classical violinist trying to get some traction for some folks making new music.

Here she is talking to Missy Mazzoli.

But wait.  How many views does that have?  A little over 1,300?  Heck, The Richter Scales latest animation has more views than that and that’s our least successful video by far.  This is a truly world class musician talking to a composer who is no slouch herself.  And we’re getting more views with cutout animation, archival footage, and a dick joke?  Actually, our video is kinda cute, but come on, this is HILARY HAHN!

So my point?  Actually, I can’t remember. But it has something to do with the rewards for this new music thing being fairly meager.  It’s a pretty small pie we’re fighting for.  And you should all go subscribe to Hilary’s youtube channel and follow her tweets.  And if nothing else you should go take a few minutes to listen to her rock the hell out of the fourth movement of Stravinsky’s violin concerto.  Especially the end.  The Blood Brothers would be proud.

If they hadn’t flamed out in 2007.

So… why Music vs Theater?

Music vs Theater. What the heck do I mean by that? Is it a lawsuit? A wrestling match? A fight to the death? When I was pitching potential blog titles to my friends, some were confused by the implications of this particular one. After all, I’m trying to make works of music and theater, why would I want a title that makes it sound like they can’t work together?

Here.  Lemme splain…

Obviously, music and theater are separate things. And if you try to combine them in a single piece, they won’t necessarily work towards the same goal. They can operate on separate planes, like a form of macro counterpoint. Usually composers try to make the music act in tandem with the theater, illuminating nuances or internal states of characters, setting atmospheres, supporting the action. But it doesn’t always. How many musicals grind to a halt to make way for the dance number, or cram in a song that doesn’t advance the action one bit, but may sell an album? (I think I’m letting some of my preferences show through. That’s OK.  It’s a blog.)

Sometimes the music works against the theater due more to stylistic reasons. They’re different and sometimes incompatible languages.  Many audiences expect a degree of naturalism in their theater. Conversation on stage should sound like conversation in life. Sung theater immediately makes the conversation, well, less natural. The pacing of the action is altered. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it creates a challenge that must be addressed. In future posts we’ll take a look at different solutions through the eras and how well they’ve held up.

But perhaps it’s not so obviously true that music and theater are different things. After all, theater has innate music in its rhythms and sounds. And music relies on creating tension and resolution over time, a purely abstract form of drama or theater.

With Music vs Theater I’m interested in this overlap, the middle of the spectrum. The area where you’re not sure if  you’re experiencing the theater of music or the music of theater.


Feb 2010

Stravinsky the Comedian

Some really great theater can happen when opera composers play with the conventions of the genre.

In the comment section of the “What’s Opera Doc” post, Eph brought up a great bit in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Pinkerton, the brash American lieutenant  interrupts his aria almost mid phrase to offer his guest a drink of  Milk punch or Whiskey.  It’s a funny and surprising moment of reality, and reminded me of another, even more extreme example of arioso interruptus.

Stravinsky actually presses pause on an aria and then restarts it half an hour later.

In Act II, Scene 3 of The Rake’s Progress, Baba the Turk, the hero’s new wife, enters a plate smashing tirade of jealousy.  Literally plate smashing.  It’s in the score.  (“Scorned! Abused!”) In the middle of a ridiculously extended vocal candenza, Tom reaches the end of his nerves and plops his wig over her face, causing her to freeze in place, mid-aria.

[audio:|titles=Rake’s Progress Baba Before]

At the top of the next act, our now bankrupt hero’s properties are being auctioned off, including the still motionless Baba.  When this “unknown item” fetches the highest price by far, the auctioneer removes the wig and Baba springs to life, continuing the aria exactly where she left off a full 25 minutes earlier (depending on the length of intermission).  She continues her tirade, this time directed at the auction attendees. (“Sold! Annoyed!”)

[audio:|titles=Rake’s Progress Baba After]

That’s some pretty funny stuff.  (As opera goes.)  It should be pointed out that this opera was composed in 1948-1951, right around the juncture between modernism and post-modernism, which makes a lot of sense for those of you who for whom that sort of thing makes sense.  (See what I did there?)

(Excerpts from the London Digital recording with Riccardo Chailly and the London Sinfonietta.)


Feb 2010

Brevity takes time

File this under “things I’m required to do when I really should be composing or at least practicing for the workshop.”

I got an email last night asking me to supply some marketing material for the Solo Sundays gig, including a fifteen word description of  my piece for the ticketing website.  Fifteen words!  The full title of the piece is five words and my full name is another three!  That’s over half the real estate right there.   There’s just enough room for:

Brian M Rosen’s “Failing That: A Minor Tragedy” is an opera. Look! Three more words!

Somehow I don’t think that would get butts in seats.

Turns out being brief is a lot of work.  How to be pithy, descriptive, and interesting in so few words? For inspiration I turned to Smith Magazine’s Six Word Memoir project. And then checked out #operaplot over at The Omniscient Mussel, a contest where readers attempt to summarize entire operas using only 140 characters (i.e. one tweet).  Unfortunately, snark doesn’t translate well in marketing materials.

After a surprising amount of time I was able come up with both 20 and 30 word descriptions of what audiences will actually be seeing at StageWerx in ten days (assuming I find time to actually start rehearsing this stuff).

33 words

Brian M Rosen sings an excerpt from his original opera “Failing That”, in which a college student hallucinates his way through a final exam, encountering his inner demons, Einstein, and his ex-girlfriend.

That’ll have to do for now.  Hopefully the 270 words worth of program notes will be easier.

Note to readers: So far this blog has a bit too much in the “Stuff About Me” category for my taste. In the next few days I hope to write up a few posts about music and theater. You know, the title of the blog.

Update: They actually decided to go with this alternative blurb that I included, even though I thought it was less interesting. Go figure.

31 words

Brian M Rosen’s sings an excerpt from his original opera “Failing That,” in which a college student, utterly unprepared for his final exam, turns to self medication with deliriously unexpected results.


Feb 2010

Is opera kid’s stuff? Or just silly?

A friend of mine commented on Facebook that “the bulk of [his] generation’s exposure to classical music has been through Looney Toon cartoons.”  Upon reflection, I think he’s absolutely right.

A quick search shows that listverse has already compiled the “Top Ten Uses of Classical Music in Classic Cartoons” list for us. And who do you think topped that list?

Not much of a surprise, really. “What’s Opera, Doc”, the send-up of Wagner’s ring cycle.  (Ah.  “Kill de wabbit.”  Definitely something we can thank Wagner for.  Nazism, maybe not so much.)
Here’s an excerpt from around the 2:15 mark:

When I heard that bit, I was reminded of the mini-operas for the toddler set on Nick Jr. The Wonder Pets.

It’s interesting that both of these excerpts exploit one of opera’s great flaws (to great comic effect).  When you set text to music (particularly music from the classical period), you often end up needing to repeat yourself. The phrasing practically demands it. In both of these excerpts the same line is repeated several times in progressively higher registers to indicate increased tension.  To modern ears this sounds clunky, even silly. Hey Linny, instead of singing about the phone, just PICK THE DAMN THING UP! It’s a great example of the demands of the music working directly against the demands of the theater.

This gives me some ideas for future blog posts.  I expect we’ll be seeing more of these excerpts in the weeks to come…


Feb 2010

A teensy bit freaking out

Sometimes I don’t have a great sense of how much time things really take.  I figure if it’s conceptually easy, it shouldn’t take much time to do.  I neglect to schedule the actual overhead involved with the mechanical tasks. Sometimes this gets me in trouble.  I’m a little bit worried that this might be one of those times.

Read the rest of this entry →


Feb 2010

Upcoming Event: Failing That Workshop Presentation

Failing That: A Minor Tragedy (excerpt)
7pm February 28th
Stagewerx Theater
533 Sutter St (at Powell)
San Francisco, CA 94102

I’ll be performing a 25 minute excerpt from Failing That as part of the Stage Werx Solo Sunday festival on February 28th.  This excerpt will follow the arc of Steven Scafidi as he finds himself completely unprepared for a final exam.

These workshops are a great way to see a work as it develops, and also a great way for me to see what works and what doesn’t work.

I’ll be presenting my piece in the first half of the evening (note the early start time, 7pm).  My good friend, the lovely and talented Katie Rubin will be presenting a section of her solo show in the second half.   I hope to see you there after the show.

Read more about Failing That (including audio samples)  here.

You can purchase tickets here.


Feb 2010

I Got Mail!

Hey look!  It’s the latest animation from my a cappella group, The Richter Scales. I wrote it. And I sang the solo.  And my lovely wife animated it. I think it’s pretty cute. (Although perhaps a tad bit dated. It sure felt relevant when I wrote it back in 2003.)


Feb 2010