Four Laughs Per Minute: What Music Can Learn From Comedy

Daniel Koren: Composer, Comedian, and Pretty Good Dancer

In his setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, premiered last week in its entirety by Cantori New York (and again this Saturday, May 10), composer Benjamin C. S. Boyle finishes each verse with a recapitulation of the refrain “Ierusalem, Ierusalem, conertere ad Dominum Deum tuum”. With each return, the treatment of this text becomes increasingly ecstatic, ultimately bursting into a ten part exhalation. After the third statement of the text, I found myself wondering, “How is he going to top the intensity of THAT one”, only to be impressed by the resources brought to bear in the next iteration.

When I mentioned this reaction to Dr. Boyle after the concert, he said that he often challenges his composition students this way. How much further can you go? How can you make this section even more interesting, more intense? This resonated with me. Often I find myself wondering if the music I’m writing is too complacent, too satisfied with what it is. Sure, it can be listenable, recognizable as worthy music, and maybe even enjoyable, but how does it compare with the greatest music ever written? Is it really the best I can do?

I recalled a performance I saw at LaMaMa just the day before, a multimedia concert, theater piece, comedy act from Daniel Koren. One of the things that impressed me with Koren was how densely packed his material was. It seemed like not a minute passed without some reversal or surprise or gag that recontextualized what we had just seen, confounding our expectations with surreal and often hilarious results. Koren’s piece was immediately gratifying and enjoyable in a way that new pieces of concert music rarely are. (You can see his videos on YouTube, but I highly recommend catching the live show if you have an opportunity. Much of the strength of the work is the interaction between the live performance and the videos.)

Koren’s act would feel at home in a comedy club, where success is measured in laughs per minute. Four laughs per minute is considered the minimum for a comedian who expects to get hired again. What if a similar metric existed for music, if there was some way of measuring interest or surprise or resolution of tension? What if you evaluated the music you wrote to make sure that every minute there was something that kept the listener going, that delighted or surprised them. Imagine applying that metric and asking yourself Dr. Boyle’s question… Are you doing enough? Could you do better?

Now composition isn’t comedy. Most of us have far loftier goals than to merely entertain (no offense to the legions of comedians reading my blog). But if we lose track of the listener’s need to be engaged, we’ll never manage to get their attentions long enough to say what we really want to. If we want a listener to listen deeply, we first need to get them to enjoy listening superficially. As we make compositional choices, are we considering the listeners attentions? Are we giving them enough to keep them interested? Are our ideas strong enough? Clear enough? Engaging enough? Can we do better?

Not a practice that Adorno would likely espouse, but then again, that one time he hosted Saturday Night Live was a disaster.

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May 2014

Review: Singing Sexbots – The Companion

The other brief opera presented last week at Roulette by Ear Heart Music, American Opera Projects, and the American Modern Ensemble took a much more traditional approach to the theatricality of opera. While The Wanton Sublime was a static, largely plot-less monologue, The Companion was a fairly straightforward musical play, with conventional scenes, dialogue, conflict, and arias. If The Wanton Sublime was a meditation on the duality of the idealized woman, both pristine, virginal, yet still manifestly physical, The Companion is a bedroom farce about the idealized man, or at least technology’s efforts to create one.

The second in a trilogy of sex themed miniatures from composer Robert Paterson and librettist David Cote, The Companion tells the story of a robotic mate, a Blade Runner-ish android that is custom built to take care of one’s domestic and carnal needs. As is often the case in such stories, the technology has some glitches, not quite living up to the marketing hype.

The piece is charming and likable. The text is well set and well sung, with conventional arias for each character eliciting enthusiastic applause. Brandon Snook, as Joe, the robotic sex toy, exudes a Ken doll appeal with the comedic sensibilities to pull off the glitchy non-sequiturs of his underperforming AI module. His owner, the increasingly frustrated executive Maya (Nancy Allen Lundy), already in debt from the purchase, overextends herself further in an effort to upgrade to a flashier model, bringing in Kyle Guglielmo as her very much flesh and blood tech support guy, Dax. Dax is a good deal hunkier than your average robotics software nerd, a darker, stubblier foil to Joe’s wax and polish, yet his advances are spurned. Why Maya would prefer Joe’s antiseptic distance to Dax’s immediate presence is a mystery that the libretto doesn’t convincingly address. Instead we’re left with Dax’s rueful musing that humans are “broken machines”.

Ultimately, the story is rather thin. The plot twists in the third act arrive already undermined since Dax’s attraction to Maya is spelled out in the second act, and Joe’s own surprise paramour is strongly hinted at back in the first. The premise itself is well worn, and would have benefited from a fresh angle other than the novelty of the operatic voice. Instead the story is largely limited to the same tropes found in any number of science fiction stories topped with a sudden and largely unconvincing resolution. One can’t help but feel that Cote’s bright libretto, Paterson’s lovely score, and the strong performances throughout would have been better served by a few more revisions of the story early on in the process. Like its titular robot, The Companion is eager to please, but could use a bit more meat under its skin.


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May 2014

Review: The Wanton Sublime

Ear Heart Music, the American Modern Ensemble, and American Opera Projects joined forces at Roulette to present two short operas that represented drastically different approaches to the melding of music and theater. Today I’ll focus on the first half of the evening and return for the second later this week.

The Wanton Sublime is an adaptation of Anna Rabinowitz’s book length meditation of the duality of spirit and flesh inherent in the figure of Mary Magdalene. The original work reflects upon the Mary myth through a number of angles and lenses, wrestling with the humanity that can be extracted from the extraordinary expectations hoisted upon this one woman, a victim, saint, virgin, servant. The text is filled with heightened language and exalted purpose. The ideas and images are of a density and complexity appropriate for the page, where the reader can pour over the text, teasing out the references, wrestling with definitions and semantic friction.

Transforming a work such as this into a piece of theater is no simple task. There is no action or dramatic arc, no story, no inherent tension or change, or development. It’s a static piece, an extended inner monologue with a series of internal perspective shifts. Stewarding this realization to theatrical experience fell to composer Tarik O’Regan, director Mallory Catlett, and mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn. O’Regan’s clear, mostly atonal setting of the text was shaded by variety of textures from the American Modern Ensemble, helping to delineate the different moods and facets of Rabinowitz’s Mary. Particularly effective were the final moments of the work, when the dissonances resolved into a sonorous and beautiful harmony. Chinn is well cast, with a confident, unerring voice, vast, expressive eyes and an arresting stage presence. Catlett’s staging imagines Mary dressed in a prim green uniform, folding laundry, performing the menial tasks required of her, God’s housekeeper. The field of flowers referred to in the text is manifested in the patterns of the bedsheets. References to light are realized beautifully (if somewhat literally) on stage.

As a whole, it’s unclear if the original poem benefits from the transformation. It functions more like an extended art song than a piece of theater. John Adams took a more traditional approach to Mary’s complex ambivalence in the first half of the opera-oratorio El Niño to great effect, dramatizing the conversations between Mary and Gabriel (performed by an otherworldly trio of countertenors). The surprisingly insightful Kevin Clark film Dogma portrays Mary’s revelation with contemporary sensibilities, and while the effect is mainly comedic, the remarkable complexity behind her situation is immediately communicated. The Wanton Sublime aims for a headier space, but one that might be more completely reached in a comfortable chair with a book of poetry, a dictionary at hand, and your own time frame than with thirty minutes in a darkened theater.

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Apr 2014

Dvorak vs Twerking

I can’t tell if they’re serious. I think they might be. I think they really might believe that the only thing that keeps classical music from overtaking Miley Cyrus in the hearts and minds (and other body parts) of today’s listeners is the twerking. If it works for Miley, surely it can work for Antonín. In their 7 minute documentary about the making of this monstrosity, they actually seem to be trying to turn a three minute excerpt of Dvorak’s New World Symphony into an internet sensation by packaging it along with a video of wiggling butts.

Or maybe this is just a ridiculous publicity stunt to drive attention towards the Belgian B-classic festival.

But either way, I hope this never happens again. Ever.

Warning: Not Safe For Anywhere


Edit: It had 500,000 views yesterday and just doubled that number of views in the past 24 hours. Presented without comment.

Edit2: 2 million and counting. Maybe we should just take some porn and dub some Debussy over the whole thing. Voila. We’ve saved classical music.

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Apr 2014

Review: Prototype Festival – Thumbprint

ThumbprintOne of the larger productions in this year’s Protoype festival was the world premiere presentation of Thumbprint, an earnest and righteous account of the first Pakistani woman to prevail in a court of law against a group of tribal elders responsible for her “honor rape“. It’s the sort of subject matter that dares you to say anything bad about it. How can one object to the story of a powerless, illiterate woman bravely overcoming all odds and prejudices to find a justice that is almost unheard of in that part of the world? What are you? Some kind of woman-hating rape-supporter? Gulp…

The work starts out strongly with a bustling scene lifted from the middle of the opera (a structural conceit that seems likely to have been made fairly late in the game). An international press corps is strafing an overwhelmed woman with questions about her life, her story, and her strength. The music is exciting, melding instruments, sonorities, and modes from western and eastern traditions, a sort of exotic minimalism. It is exceedingly pleasant to listen to. After this brief non-linear prologue, we settle into the real beginning of the story, an idyllic scene at home with our protagonist Mukhtar (beautifully sung and sensitively portrayed by the work’s composer, Kamala Sankaram) and her mother and sister (the also excellent Theodora Hanslowe and Leela Subramaniam). It’s a charming scene, filled with likable people enjoying the simple pleasures of family and love and weaving. This pastoral setting is interrupted by a pair of powerful elders who have accused the young son in the family of having physical contact with a girl from another tribe. To atone for this crime, they must send one of their own women to a tribunal. Ever brave, ever noble, Mukhtar volunteers herself to plead for her brother’s release.

There is somehow a compelling forward momentum in these early scenes, despite the fact that we know exactly what’s going to happen. This remains true through the sensitive and powerful staging of the rape scene, the dramatic and artistic high point of the evening. However, the remaining 40 minutes of the opera seems overlong and somehow both inevitable and arbitrary. We know Mukhtar is going to ultimately prevail against her assailants, but we’re not given any insight into WHY she prevails. We’re told over and over again that no one will listen to a woman, and a disgraced one at that, but suddenly a judge seems to be sympathetic to her situation. Who was this judge? Why did he break with precedent? How did her case even get to court? What role did western influence and pressure play? Exploring these questions would have taken more stage time, but in the absence of such exploration, much of the last half of the opera seemed repititious. The climactic trial itself was mostly just a restating of things that we already knew.

The production was imaginatively staged, making good use of a minimalist set consisting primarily of three versatile cots creating various spaces over the stage. The projections, however, seemed under baked and over literal. I don’t think I need to see video of slow motion smoke ever again, whether projected in an opera, a nightclub, or a warehouse rave. Similarly, I could have done without a giant thumbprint hovering over several stretches of time. The performances themselves were uneven, vocally and dramatically. The women were all significantly stronger than the men, with Manu Narayan standing out as the most consistently malevolent of the bunch.

This is a theater of certainty, of absolutes, of archetypes in place of humans, of conclusions already made. The good characters are all good all the time. The bad characters are all bad all the time. There is no room for moral ambiguity, no space for an idyllic family scene where a tribal patriarch comes home and acts as a loving and supportive father to his daughters hours after participating in a gang rape of someone else’s daughters. Nor was there any space to reflect upon the death sentence given to the accused. Does Mukhtar wish them dead? Would it change the way we feel about her if she does? These are questions about humanity that are unexplored. Instead we learn that she uses her newfound confidence to build a school for other victimized women. This is a noble and heartwarming conclusion, to be sure, but at the risk of being called a woman-hating rape supporter, this reviewer would prefer a smidge less Oprah in his opera.

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Feb 2014

Review: Protoype Festival – Paul’s Case

Who wants to live in a world too serious for snow angels?

Who wants to live in a world too serious for snow angels?

The Prototype Festival, a multi-week festival dedicated to showcasing new works of opera for reduced forces in smaller, more flexible spaces has garnered a lot of press in recent months. Last year’s inaugural festival has made it into several top 10 lists of 2013 and producer/ cheerleader/ impresario Beth Morrison was recently profiled in the New York Times (apparently her striking neo-goth rockabilly style confounded the photo editors, believing her to be too hot for the classical world).

This year’s festival largely followed the successful model of last year’s: a world premiere, some productions brought in from around the country (and world), some works in progress, and a couple of cross genre cabaret acts. Over the past two weeks I was able to see almost all of the works presented in the festival (I had already seen Visitations at its premiere at Stanford last year, and the one night only co-presentation of Elizaveta at Joe’s Pub was sold out). I’ll post brief reviews of the pieces in the days to come.

Gregory Spears’s Requiem is amongst my favorite pieces composed in the past 5 years, so I was very excited to hear the New York premier of Paul’s Case, his operatic adaptation of Willa Cather’s morally ambiguous tale of a young man who bristles against the values, expectations, and responsibilities of industrial society. Though it predates the Requiem, it shares the luxurious tonal sonorities and ornamented vocal lines of the later work. With the exception of the opening scene, the libretto is largely expository, the characters saying what they are doing and thinking and feeling, as if we are watching an omniscient narrator speaking through their characters. The repetition of lines and phrases plays an important role, as several characters are often singing their text simultaneously, creating shimmering vocal harmonies and requiring the listener to tease out the text from the mass of sound.

The voices in this production were uniformly gorgeous and particularly well suited to the material. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a cast of voices so strong in a theater so small. Jonathan Blalock‘s Paul would spin delicately earnest and precise tenor lines though a half smile/half smirk that made you half think he was laughing at you in front of your back. As Paul’s business minded father, Keith Phares used his powerful baritone to assert a compelling authority that only the hardiest of fools would ignore, yet could color his phrases with shades of loss, evoking genuine sympathy when betrayed by his son. In a smaller ensemble role, Melissa Wimbish was a standout for her brilliant soprano, as well as for her tawny mane tightly bound in an up-do that, at times, seemed poised to explode. (It is at this point that I feel compelled to mention that the members of this cast, in addition to being fantastic actors and singers, were all REALLY good looking! Certainly the kind of cast that makes one thankful for small, intimate theaters. But… I digress…)

The story is a fascinating one, and I very much appreciated the nuanced handling of the moral ambiguity of the tale. Yet as the piece progressed, I felt an emotional distance, an inability to comprehend or sympathize with the main character’s choices or ultimate plight. This may be inherent to the source material and its rubbing against my own belief in one’s responsibility to those around you, but it seems to have been exacerbated by the expository distance and static, tableau-like nature of the scenes. However, in the final moments, though a lovely convergence of stagecraft, plotting, and a no-net performance of breathtaking vocal acrobatics, I finally felt all the emotions that had been missing rush in at once, sadness, loss, and elation… transformed by the relentless and unapologetic beauty of the past hour of music, and judging from the 30 seconds of hushed silence that separated the fade to black and the enthusiastic ovations, I was not alone.

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Jan 2014

Review: Anna Nicole, The Opera

An Anna Nicole Smith opera. So obvious. High tragedy, low comedy, and all spectacle. The source material is golden.  One would think it writes itself. One would be very wrong.

The challenge (as with all adaptations, but even more so with non-fiction subjects) is two-part, first one must distill the mountain of actual events into a more or less functioning narrative. And second one must dramatize these events with a coherent and appropriate tone. Sometimes the tone takes more significance than the events themselves. Think of Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, which freely intertwined aspects of William S. Burrough’s life with scenes from his fiction, creating a hazy nightmarish meta-biography that upon watching, gave one the queasy feeling of what it would be like to BE William S. Burroughs. Or Glass’s Satyagraha, which stubbornly, insistently, (and non-violently) presents Ghandi’s life as a series of static tableaus in an incomprehensible sanskrit.

In the superlative Jerry Springer: The Opera, Richard Thomas got the tone just right. He managed to tease the humanity out of the raunch while still leaving in a great deal of humor and a hint of travesty. He seemed a perfect match to tell the story of Anna Nicole Smith. But something, somewhere went wrong.

But first let’s focus on what went right. Sarah Joy Miller as Anna seems born to this role. From the moment she bounces in on her overstuffed lamé loveseat, her wide set eyes, and stunning beauty are perfectly suited to Smith’s unapologetic sense of irrepresable self. Her bubbly, effusive beauty seems entirely guileless, which, in theory, sets up a compelling dynamic against those who see her as a shrewd, calculating opportunist. But for all Miller’s abilities, the libretto fails her. A bunch of things happen to her, but we’re given little to no insight into her role in all of it, does she have agency? Is she a victim? A victimizer? Does she have thoughts or opinions? Desires? Regrets? We have no idea. In a colossal failure of imagination, the libretto tells us no more than we could learn by watching reruns of The Anna Nicole Smith Show. And that’s a real shame.

Instead we’re treated to a host of increasingly lame rhyming couplets about “titties” and “whores”, pronounced (and properly scansioned) as “hoo-ers”. And surely there’s a german word for “That feeling you get after a stupidly obvious rhyme is set up and you hope that maybe they’ll do something more clever with it but then they don’t”. If there is, I can think of no better example of it then a chorus of women awaiting breast implants singing a line that ends with “we are restless”. Ugh. Waiting for that other smelly shoe to drop wasn’t exactly a high point in the NYC Opera’s storied history. At some point the novelty of third grade potty mouth set to serious music loses its naughty appeal and you need to actually have an idea behind it. Avenue Q, for example, stands head and shoulders above this libretto when it comes to irreverent sophistication.

But those objections are overstated. When the libretto works, it works quite well. J. Howard Marshall II, Smith’s 86 year old second husband, stands out as the most well defined character in the opera. His entrance is wonderfully staged, flying in from the rafters in an oversized chair, making him look like a shriveled ventriloquist’s dummy, greeting the audience with a hilariously understated “Hi”. He is the big fish that Smith lands with her outsized boob job, but rather than a doddering old man being floozily bamboozled, he’s a sharp, aggressive, and frank manifestation of the american dream. He earned his billions and his money will afford him the pleasures that common decency would prevent. Their quid pro quo relationship is the most crystalline, sensible, and interesting aspect of the opera. Their wedding, the finale of act 1, is a perverse tableau featuring a pill popping, huge breasted Disney princess posed in a field of Jeffery Koons sculptures, arm and arm with an octogenarian prince charming, while a single dancer in a black leotard and a camera for a head proceeds ominously en pointe throughout. It’s hilarious and chilling with a hint of tragedy, by far the most effective moment of the work.

But the promise of this setup is betrayed by the second act, which sketches out the last half of Smith’s life so summarily that it barely registers. Once Marshall ends up wrapped in plastic (like the rest of his furniture) we’re treated to sleazy scenes of her lawyer/lover Howard K Stern capitalizing on her tabloid appeal and a wonderfully surreal appearance on Larry King, but no real exploration, or even more than a passing indication of her decline, her weight struggles, or her reality TV show. A story could be made here. Does Stern’s opportunistic exploitation of Smith echo Smith’s opportunistic exploitation of Marshall? Is Smith’s need for public exposure inherent to her personality or a necessity born from the withholding of Marshall’s money? There is no way of knowing the answers to these questions, but if you’re the sort of person who likes exploring these issues, perhaps you should write your own opera about Anna Nicole Smith, because this one doesn’t seem to have the time or inclination. It’s as if in place of a dramatic arc they just gave up and said “this happened, then this happened, and then this happened”, so by the time Smith herself is wrapped in plastic, we’re left wondering, so what?

A case could be made that this is intentional, that in the end there wasn’t anything under the surface of Smith’s beauty or exposure, that in place of a human being there was just a series of money shots. If that’s the case, this is a bleaker opera than perhaps any in the repertoire. But I can’t imagine that’s the case. I have to believe that the shortcomings of this opera, like those of Anna Nicole Smith herself, are due to an ignorance, a lack of intent, a failure of imagination of the authors, because the alternative, that this outcome could be the result of a conscious, calculating brain, and the ramifications that that would entail are too nihilistic for this member of the viewing public to bear.

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Sep 2013

Arguendo – Bringing the Supreme Court to Life

Just back from NYC where I saw 16 performances in 10 days, the entire Prototype Festival of new opera, co presented by HERE Art Center and Beth Morrison Projects, and large chunks of the Under the Radar festival at the Public Theater.

That’s a lot of theater. And much of it was fantastic. When asked which productions have left the most pronounced impression, I quickly respond with Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times, Parts 1-4, and Elevator Repair Service‘s Arguendo as a close second. Both works deal with a similar approach to text, taking natural speech and transforming it through a theatrical process.

Elevator Repair Service, best known for their monumental Gatz, which consists of a theatrical reading of the entire text of The Great Gatsby, turns to the Supreme Court. They take the literal transcriptions of the oral arguments of a 1991 case regarding the constitutionality of a state ban on nude dancing and distribute the text between three performers, two of them taking on the roles of each of the justices, and one of them taking the role of both attorneys arguing the case. The delivery is slightly heightened, the “errs”, “aahs”, throat clearings and coughs are slightly more deliberate and exaggerated than they would be in natural speech. The demeanor of the individual judges are clearly delineated, it’s was delightful to watch Susie Sokol switch from the prim Sandra Day O’Conner to the scrappy Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Scalia’s bullying intellect is well rendered, but such details are likely to be noticed only by folks who pay close attention to the supreme court. Similarly, it’s unclear how well most audience members would follow the legal aspects of the arguments, with a fairly complex web of citations to previous cases. In an adapted text, an author would likely streamline and provide expository context for each citation, but no such leeway is given and as a result, large chunks of the text descend into legal babble. This is in no way a criticism, it is simply a byproduct of the process, and part of the charm of the performance.

Countering the babble are the surreal and often very funny scenarios the justices regularly hypothesize to test the extreme boundaries of the arguments, as well as the naughtiness of the subject at hand juxtaposed against the formality of the proceedings. In addition there is a large projection of a microfiche filled with citations and legal text that is manipulated by the participants to highlight the area of the law that they’re currently discussing. The piece works itself into a frenzy of absurdity as papers are strewn over the floor, justices push themselves across the room on their wheeled chairs, and the attorney shouts their final arguments regarding nudity, expression, and the first amendment.

The piece is still considered “in progress”, although it felt in fine shape to me. Granted, as something of a supreme court fan and law junkie, I’ma pretty ideal audience member. The oral arguments of the supreme court are inherently theater, although of a very different sort than what is usually presented at the Public. Arguments are less about a working out of the legal issues at hand and more about justices signaling to the other justices what legal issues are occupying their minds, preparing for the deliberations that will happen behind closed doors. But for the public, the oral arguments and the final decisions are often the only insights into the court’s thinking. In transforming this text into a live performance, Elevator Repair Service has provided a vital and entertaining exploration of the issue of expression and censorship as well as the workings of the supreme court.

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Jan 2013

Einstein and Moby and LINES, Oh My!

It’s been a big week for massive sweeping ambitious works of art. I read Cloud Atlas in preparation for the release of the movie (book is great, movie less so), saw Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick at the SF Opera, watched Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and capped the week off with four and a half hours of Einstein on the Beach while the San Francisco Giants were winning the world series (I managed to wait until the opera finished before checking the score. Game delayed on account of Glass).

Moby-Dick was a rather satisfying piece of conventional drama. Heggie’s score is appealing and easy to appreciate on a first listening. The use of computer generated imagery projected on the stage created massive sense of scale, although the combined effect of the tuneful score and projections made the opening sequence feel like the opening credits of a movie more than an opera. At the time it was exhilarating, but upon reflection, there’s something a little unsettling about an opera dressed up like movie. It’s like your mom showing up with her midriff exposed, navel freshly pierced, looking to hang out with your friends. The projections were most effective when they were creating the environment that the performers inhabited, particularly the small whaling dinghies.

The libretto streamlines the novel greatly, and the most effective source of drama is the tension between the obsessive Ahab and the more reasonable Starbuck. The secondary arcs involving Queequeg, Greenhorn, and Pip are much less well defined, holding little moral or emotional weight. At times it’s not even clear exactly what happens with those characters (Queequeq’s speedy recovery from his deathbed is unexplained, as is Pip’s somewhat spontaneous insanity). Reading the synopsis helps a bit, but I prefer a piece that can make itself understood without cliff notes. Still, between the visual spectacle and the scenes between Ahab and Starbuck, it’s a fine night at the opera.

Einstein on the Beach is a four and a half hour mega-opera that is anything but conventional, yet, 40 years later, remains deeply affecting. The libretto consists almost entirely of counting (“one two three four”) or solfege (“la si do si la si do si”) with brief, semi-coherent monologues of spoken word layered over the top. The music is monolithic, literally 20-30 minutes is spent oscillating between two or three harmonies with rhythms and accents constantly shifting beneath. In such a context, the introduction of a new harmony is startling. Much of the stage work is structured and formal, clearly delineated, with patterns and gestures that also recur and repeat over 20 or 30 minute chunks. Then there are the “Fields” the astonishing (and crowd pleasing!) ensemble pieces where dancers pirouette in precise patterns, creating arcs and complex geometries across the stage, yet never touching or directly interacting.

It is not a piece to decode or follow or explain. It is a piece to observe, to allow to seep in. Certainly there are recurrences and connections and things to notice. Being familiar with some of the specifics of Einstein’s work, I recognized the train and the space ship from his thought experiments, as well as the more abstract mathematic and geometric ideas that permeated the sets. Amongst the artifice and formality on stage, there were recurring references to the more banal aspects of human existence: the ensemble brushes their teeth, engages in a collective brown bag lunch break, files their nails. How amazing that a human, who eats bagged lunches, who brushes their teeth, who sticks out their tongue, also has the ability to combine the raw stuffs of mathematics into a model of the physical universe that human inhabits. Perhaps Einstein on the Beach is not so much about Einstein as it is an invitation to inhabit the mind of Einstein, to see the world as he might see it, to come to a unique understanding about the complex world emerging from the interactions of many seemingly simple events, meaningless in isolation, but luminous in concert.

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Oct 2012

Let’s Get Ready To Rumble!

Time to put the game face on. It’s about to get real. I’m goin’ big or goin’ home. (Continue with the conspicuously out of place sports phrases at will.)

Very proud to announce that the string quartet I composed in Paris this past summer as part of the EAMA program “Do A Little Dance” was selected as one of sixteen pieces to compete in the String Quartet Smackdown presented by Golden Hornet Productions on November 3 in Austin, TX.

And what’s a String Quartet Smackdown, you ask? It’s kinda brilliant. Sixteen pieces, each four minutes long, are paired off. The first minute of each piece is performed (by the Tosca Quartet) and the audience votes with their mobile devices to determine which pieces they want to advance. The remaining eight pieces go to the next round, when TWO minutes of the piece are played. Then four pieces get THREE minutes played, and finally two pieces are played in their entirety. The winner gets a valuable cash prize and bragging rights (and hopefully some big ornate trophy thing or maybe even a giant belt).

Looking at the lineup of other pieces, I’m in some pretty formidable company. Ruben Naeff‘s piece was written for the JACK quartet, Simon Fink has done work with eighth blackbirdSteven Snowden will have the home advantage, hailing from Austin himself, but there’s a chance he’ll actually be in Portugal on his Fulbright to work on interactive motion capture systems for large installations, which would even the playing field a bit. But there’s no denying, this is the big leagues. And no matter the outcome, it’s an honor just to share the stage.

If you happen to be in Austin on November 3, please go and support our team. And by ‘our team’ I mean ‘independent new music’.


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Oct 2012