Archive for April, 2010

It’s time to admit I have a problem…

I wrote one more #operaplot tweet today. It’s for Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. But as a rap. I thought that would be particularly appropriate, since the whole show is about Oedipus’s hubris, which seems to fit right into the rap genre.  So this is what I came up with…

Oedipus Rex

Ego Rex,yo! With my mad flow. Tiresias be hatin on my bling tho. Cuz I’m the king, aint no other. Is my ho fly? Word to my mother! #operaplot

See how I snuck the latin in there?

The problem is, it wouldn’t leave my head. I kept on singing the damn thing all day. So tonight, instead of promoting my string quartet, or working on my opera, (or packing for my trip to LA tomorrow), I spent my precious few free hours after rehearsal trying to produce a passable hip hop track.

So, with my sincere apologies, I will subject you to the results.

[audio:|titles=OedipusJam Rendered]

ed: I think I mispronounced the “ego” at the very beginning.  (Should be aego, not eego).  My latin teacher would kill me.  If I had ever taken latin.

If you’d like to read my other #operaplots, you can find them here and here.  I also made a fairly ridiculous attempt to classify the many hundreds of #operaplots that others have written.


Apr 2010

More #Operaplotting

Instead of working on my own opera I seem to be spending the night trying to summarize other operas in under 130 characters. Hmmm… Maybe in a few years people will be trying to summarize Failing That in under 130 characters. Assuming I’m finished in a few years.

Here’s the latest batch:

La Boheme

“OMG, so, it’s like a remake of ‘Rent’, only they used, like, CLASSICAL music. What a cool idea, right?” Cue facepalm. #operaplot (via GenY)

Turn of the Screw

Mix one part Mary Poppins and one part Sixth Sense. Turn until screwed. #operaplot

The Ring Cycle

How do you summarize an opera with over 130 characters in under 130 characters? Damn you Wagner. #operaplot

Das Rheingold

Something about three girls in a river and a dwarf stealing their gold. Ummm… never made it past the first scene. #operaplot

OK. That’s enough. I need to try to get some “real” work done.


Apr 2010

Operaplot: easily digestible operachunks.

If you’ve been following my tweets, you may have noticed that it’s #operaplot season!

What? You haven’t heard about #operaplot, the brainspurt of that blogging genius over at The Omniscient Mussel? Well, it’s high time you learned.

The rules are simple. Summarize an entire opera in one tweet (ie 140 characters, including the hashtag #operaplot). You have until Friday at midnight to submit up to 25 summaries. Then the whole lot of them will be shipped off to celebrity judge, tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Hopefully he has a good sense of humor.

The winners will be able to choose from a bounty of prizes donated by opera companies around the world, the biggest includes a trip to Ireland!

The entries are coming in fast and furious now, it’s kinda fun to watch them show up on the feed.  There’s a big trend towards writing limericks or couplets. Not really my style, but some of them are cute.

Here are my entries so far:

The Rake’s Progress

Country bumpkin moves to city,dumps Daisy Duke for Uncle Jesse lookalike. If you call that progress,you belong in a nuthouse too. #operaplot

Peter Grimes

What?!? ANOTHER apprentice!? What happened to the last one? OK, ONE more, but then I’m cutting you off. The borough’s talkin. #operaplot

The Consul

Magda:”Baby’s sick, Grandma’s sick, Dad’s missing. HELP!” State:”Take two forms, call back in the AM.” Single Payer:The Opera? #operaplot

Porgy and Bess

SBF iso SBM. Car,mule,legs optional. Happy dust OK. Just broke up w bf,so off to NYC for week. Write 2u l8r. (account deleted) #operaplot

And my personal favorite (hoping to get to Ireland with this one!):

Nixon in China

@kissinger23, new idea for comeback: covertly fund musical with me as the hero. Focus on positive. Can we get Bernstein? #operaplot

See! It’s fun! Go ahead and write some of your own! (Although if you’re starting a twitter account just for this, it may take a few days for your entries to show up in the feed…)


Apr 2010

Collect all three!

The string quartet is DONE! Actually, it was done a year ago, but now it’s been premiered, recorded, annotated, and released to the public.

The third movement Off the Rails is finally available for listening and downloading and reading about and whatnot.

So what happens now? Hmm. Good question. I’ve already submitted it to several competitions to little effect, but those are pretty much crapshoots (and the only recording at the time was a sub-optimal midi realization).

Well, what do composers really want? To create music and to have people hear the music they’ve created. So, in no particular order, here are things I can actively do to try to further these goals:

  • Network to get the piece introduced into an established quartet’s repertoire.
  • Keep entering competitions and festivals.
  • Give away the audio tracks to whoever wants to hear them.
  • Make some youtube video with potential for virality.
  • Advertise the piece using Google AdWords. (Paying to give something away for free!)

So, dear reader, if you have any other ideas to suggest, or a desire to help with any of the above mentioned action items, PLEASE feel free.

Alex Ross and Ethan Iverson make noise in San Francisco

Alpha blogger/critic/author/MacArthur grant recipient Alex Ross was in town Saturday to support his comprehensive examination of the twentieth century through music, The Rest Is Noise, and probably to prime the pump for his second book, Listen to This.   (Thanks to Amanda Ameer’s Life’s A Pitch blog for giving me the heads up.)

Ross’s book is a great read, and I’ll resist my impulse to throw in the usual adjectives here (“insightful”, “enlightening”, “thorough”) since they’ve all been used in myriad other reviews of the book from more qualified pens (laptops?).

For this live appearance, Mr. Ross would read a selection from the book about a composer, and pianist Ethan Iverson would then perform a brief selection from that composer, sort of like a companion CD that you’re actually forced to listen to while reading, instead of leaving it sealed the little plastic sleeve since you’re too lazy to walk over to your CD player and chances are you’re not reading the book in your house anyway.

So rather than a review, here’s a disconnected set of semi-coherent observations. (What do you expect, this is a blog).

  • The Herbst Theater was about two thirds full, which seems reasonable for a 10 am program on a Saturday (featuring all 20th century music, no less).  From their reactions it seemed like most of the audience hadn’t read the book and were hearing the anecdotes for the first time.
  • Sometimes the text was clearly designed to be on the page and was a little hard to track in spoken form. However, this was easily compensated for by the entertainment value of Ross reading quotes from Theodor Adorno and Louise Downes in their own voices, or at least plausible approximations. Well.  Approximations.
  • Limiting the musical illustrations to solo piano works greatly reduces the timbral palette of the composers in question.  For Gershwin and Jelly Roll Morton (and to a lesser extent Bartok) this works out OK, but presents a distorted picture of composers like Ives, Webern, and Ligeti.
  • Schoenberg’s Op 11 sounded jazzier than I had ever realized. After familiarizing myself more with Ethan Iverson’s work with The Bad Plus that made a lot more sense.  (I’ll definitely be digging through their recordings for more examples of transformative cover songs.  It looks like the Punch Brothers aren’t the only ones with a penchant for reinterpreting Radiohead.)
  • Iverson’s Allegro Barbaro may have been the least barbaro allegro I have ever heard. I don’t know if this was a choice or if Iverson has the same aversion to being awake at 10 am as I do. Some of those repeated clusters sounded more like Debbusy than Bartok!
  • Ross spends more time with jazz than most “serious” music authors, making the argument that jazz follows a parallel track with classical music, “… Armstrong the originator, Ellington the classicist, Charlie Parker the revolutionary, and so on.”  One (perhaps superficial) observation that supports this view is that I find in both Parker’s melodies and twelve tone “melodies” a similar interchangeability.  The melodies of Orinthology, Anthropology, and Moose the Mooch all kinda blend into each other.  There is a similarity in character and idiom. I find that much (but certainly not all) twelve tone music has a similar indistinguishability (especially when limited to the tonal palette of the piano, see above.)
  • I’m surprised that Ross didn’t make a larger point that the Babbitt Semi-Simple Variations and the Shostakovich Prelude in E Minor were composed within FIVE YEARS of each other! Few people realize that Babbitt and Shostakovich were contemporaries and these pieces wouldn’t clue anyone in on that surprising fact.  Hearing one right after the other is a remarkable illustration of… umm… the impermeability of the iron curtain?  The vast stylistic upheavals afoot in the fifties? The stifling effect of authoritarianism?  I dunno.  I’ll happily leave that one to the guy with the MacArthur grant.
  • The Ligeti was so damn fun! Why? I think it may be cuz he got rhythm. I’m starting to think that people misunderstand the source of inaccessibility in twelve tone music. The challenge isn’t the atonality, it’s the lack of any perceivable rhythmic structures.  There’s no pulse.  No groove. But people always seem to focus on the harmonic method, the atonality.
  • As a finale, Iverson improvised two modern pieces based upon a series of individual pitches yelled out by the audience.  My favorite (unintentionally) funny response was “F minor” (a key, not a pitch, for the non-theoretically inclined).  My least favorite (unintentionally) UN-funny response was “E double flat” (an inherently annoying pitch, for the non-theoretically inclined).  Sometimes a little knowledge is a bad thing. I’d be lying if I wasn’t a little pleased by Ross’s relief when I yelled out a plaintive “C”!
  • Iverson’s improvised pieces were convincing and felt right at home with much of the music we had heard all morning.  Which… if ya think about it… is a little unsettling.

The morning was well worth it. My only regret was not bringing my copy to get signed. Oh…and not getting my picture taken with the author for this blog. Maybe I could have wrangled a shout out like the one he gave fellow Bay Area bloggers Sid Chen and Lisa Hirsch. I gotta work on that promotion thing.

OK.  I’ve got to run off to tonight’s rehearsal for Emmeline up at Cinnabar Opera Theater.  More on that later.  And I haven’t forgotten about the third movement of the string quartet. The program notes are mostly written, I just need to get the illustrations made up. And then… world domination!


Apr 2010

My Spoon is Too Big! The non-invisible Don Hertzfeldt.

I just got home from the the San Francisco International Film Festival where they awarded animator Don Hertzfeldt their (somewhat cloyingly named) “Persistence of Vision” award. The presentation featured a 90 minute long selection of his works followed by a (too) brief question and answer session.

I had already seen almost all of the films that were screened.  Billy’s Balloon still brings tears to my eyes, even if it does go on for about 45 seconds too long (it’s a student film, what do you expect?). His latest work (Everything Will Be OK, and I Am So Proud Of You, the first two chapters of an eventual trilogy) is vastly more ambitious. Hertzfeldt has proven himself to be much more than a one gag film maker. He’s adapted his surreal, non-sequitor sensibilities to tell aching stories of isolation, regret, and possibly insanity. This is a far cry from the usual Sick and Twisted gross out fare that surrounded his earliest films. The fact that neither of these films received Academy Award nominations is further evidence of the questionable worth of that category.

His short Rejected (which WAS nominated for an Academy Award) features some very non-invisible film making. The first two thirds of the piece are typical of his early work, surreal, a bit shocking, and very funny. But in the last minutes of the piece, we start to see Hertzfeldt develop into a much more serious filmmaker.  The very medium that the characters inhabit starts to turn against them. The paper is torn, crumpled, as the fabric of their existence is threatened. One particularly haunting image is of two stick characters banging at the paper as if it was a window trapping them in. It’s shocking and scary and brilliant.

Hertzfeldt possessed a charmingly awkward stage presence as he discussed his work, occasionally breaking into surreal anecdotes about classmates chopping off bits of their digits in elementary school art class, or being mistaken for Johnny Depp while sneaking into a Monty Python reunion. He discussed how he became an animator (he wanted to do live action, but live action uses more film stock than animation which made it too expensive), past projects (an ill fated feature for a big studio) and future projects (finishing up the trilogy and then possibly a non-studio feature!)

It’s kinda amazing. Don Hertzfeldt has managed to create a living for himself solely by selling DVDs of his self produced animations, ancillary products, and speaking fees. He doesn’t do any commercial work at all (although if Kellogg’s had any integrity whatsoever they’d send him a check for each Pop Tart they sell).  How many animators can say that? How many filmmakers can say that?


Apr 2010

John Adams thinks your piece sucks

John Adams just wrote a very funny blog post about master classes.  I happen to know he just gave one over at the San Francisco Conservatory last week, so the timing of this blog entry is probably not a coincidence.

It’s a little nerve wracking reading through it. How does my string quartet match his description of “eighty percent of all student compositions”?  If you replace his tritone that “expresses life’s eternally unresolved mysteries” with my minor second that expresses the unresolved desire for unity… ummm… gulp.


Apr 2010

Radiohead + Bluegrass = Crazy Delicious

Time for another transformative cover.  This time the source material is Radiohead’s Morning Bell  This track isn’t exactly uncoverable.  There’s plenty of harmonic and melodic material in there with room for an artist to interject their own sensibilities.

And now here’s a cover by bluegrass super group, The Punch Brothers.   That’s right, bluegrass.  Chris Thiele is the driving force behind the band and is on the short list of my favorite musicians alive.  Back in 2007 I won tickets to see Nickel Creek in a 100 seat theater and it remains one of the top 5 musical experiences of my life. He recently composed a mandolin concerto (co-commissioned by my alma mater Interlochen Center for the Arts) and I swear I just read this now, but apparently he’s working on a collaboration with Hillary Hahn.  (Not that surprising since they have the same publicist, blogger Amanda Ameer.)

I LOVE this cover. Behind the virtuosic solos and Thiele’s perfectly attuned singing, there’s this percolating murmur of plucked and strummed strings. The harmonic rhythm is pretty static.  Chords don’t change very often, and when they do, it’s sudden and almost completely unprepared.  In the context of prerecorded electronica, that’s not such a big deal, but in a live “jam band” situation it’s exhilarating.  These are some serious musicians.

If you happen to be in San Francisco tonight, The Punch Brothers are playing the Herbst Theater as part of the SF Jazz Festival.  It’s going to be a great show.

Interestingly enough, Radiohead themselves released another version of Morning Bell on their Amnesiac album. They switched the meter from 5 to 4 and removed the drum track. In this version, the plodding duple meter lurches through a haze of reverb. It’s almost relentless.


Apr 2010

On the virtues of being baked

Two weeks ago I swung by the free Hot Air Music Festival at the SF Conservatory.  It was an all day affair with dozens of pieces from composers who, save for four, all shared a trait that almost guarantees that they’ll be largely unknown and unheard, specifically, they’re alive.

I was only able to attend the last four hours of the day (unfortunately missing David Conte’s Two Motets for Double Brass Quartet) but there was a lot of great stuff packed into those two hours.

Steve Reich’s 1987 Electric Counterpoint was written for Pat Metheny as part BAM’s Next Wave Festival.  It was designed to have twelve guitar parts all prerecorded by the soloist, who would then play the “solo” thirteenth part live at the actual performance while accompanied by the tape.  The composer also prepared a less frequently performed version for a full battery of guitars, which was the version performed at the festival.  No recording can do justice to the sound of a stage full of acoustic guitars strumming.  If you get a chance to hear a good guitar ensemble play live, go!

Here’s Gaku Yamada playing the solo version in recital.  Dunno who that is, but it’s the best video I could find on YouTube.  You can always buy the Pat Metheny version.

Another revelation (for me at least) was Alfred Schnittke’s Concert Grosso No. 1.  I was familiar with his name, but he was always one of those composers I was going to get around to listening to later. I think later may have moved to sooner.  I was also pleasantly surprised to see that  Liana Berube (who played in the premiere of my String Quartet) was one of the soloists.  Schnittke certainly has a lot of fun taking baroque forms and motives and layering them to the point of utterly unrecognizable noise.  It’s intense and at times nerve wracking, but damn exciting.

The piece is definitely all over the map, but when it hits, it hits hard.  Although I think I’d prefer a wee bit more coherence, stylistically.

In recent discussion about the piece, a friend said he preferred his composers to be more “baked” (in the cooked sense, not the altered sense, I assume).  More like Barber and Copland than the raw music of Ives and Schnittke. In theory, I share his preferences, but looking back at his list, while I’d prefer to have Copland’s career and skillset, I’d much rather be listening to Ives.  At my heart, I’m a pretty conservative composer, but I deeply admire iconoclasts.  It’s hard to forge a path when you’re still worshipping idols.


Apr 2010

Speaking of Pulitzers, look who just got one!

Hilary Hahn!

Well… Kinda.

Actually it was Jennifer Higdon who won the Pulitzer for a violin concerto written for Hilary Hahn. Most folks have never heard of this composer, but if you followed the links from my earlier post about Hilary, you may have stumbled upon her interviews with this now Pulitzer Prize winning composer.  It’s almost like I broke a story!  Kinda.

Maybe this video will get more than 3000 views now that she’s won a Pulitzer. Or maybe the piece will sit in limbo for ten years…

OK.  Now I gotta stop writing about Hilary Hahn.  I’m starting to sound like some sort of fan boy or something. I mean, it’s not like I’m writing a bunch of violin music, secretly hoping that she’ll champion it or anything. Nope. Not like that at all.


Apr 2010