As part of Experiments in Opera’s recent production of The Nubian Word for Flowers at Roulette, I worked with director Mallory Catlett to start a new opera based on the writings of New Zealand Author Janet Frame. This new work, ‘Rainbird’ represents something of a new direction for my work in theater. Rather than writing my own libretto and setting it to music along the way, Mallory and I have been collaborating with each other and with several performers to make the piece moment by moment. This process involves much more time and energy, but has so far led to a significantly different product. The EiO Gab Bag published an interview between Mallory and I where we discuss our intentions around collaboration in general and this project in specific. Read the full interview here.
As part of this season’s Experiments in Opera program, I was commissioned to write a new short opera based on ‘The Wallet,’ a short story by the author Andrew McCuaig. Jason Cady, Matthew Welch and I came up with this project in conversation with the artistic planning team at Symphony Space. It was a great opportunity to engage with the writers and thinkers that make up the Symphony Space community. We had been wanting to do a project with short stories for a while, but as I got into the writing phase of the work, I realized that we had bitten off a project with lots of implications for my own compositional approach and style. Struck with the realization that I was writing in new ways, I decided to explore more closely what exactly was happening as I adapted ‘The Wallet’ for the stage.
Engaging with our world of art-making takes all different shapes. For me, responding to written words about art is my way of contributing to an ongoing dialogue between thinkers and their perspectives. I penned a post recently for Experiments in Operas Gab Bag in response to a fantastic book called ‘The Art of Cruelty, ‘ by Maggie Nelson. I think her book has so much to say and only wish that the scope of her critique also included more examples of sound art and music.
Read more about my case for ‘The Sound of Cruelty.’
Part of what it means for me to be an artist is starting projects all the time. Some of these new projects get finished (or funded) and others just fade away. This ebb and flow is a good thing. A kind of natural selection for personal expression.
The other side of this constant flow of ideas is that it is necessary to fix new works into a certain kind of identity in order to quickly get a sense of how they might develop. Is a piece going to be big or small, short or long? What will the form be? Where would be the ideal place for a premiere? Which musicians will play it? What is the musical language of the piece? This kind of imaginative work helps to visualize the piece and gives me a sense of what he final result will look like.
This activity also fixes the piece into its first iteration in my mind. These early decisions set the course of the work and make it possible to talk to collaborators, presenters and musicians about what it is and will become. Before a note has been written, the new piece has become a proposal, an idea, a set of parameters.
And then, if I am lucky, I get to actually write the new work.
Last year, I got the good news of a commission from Chamber Music America to write a big new composition for Mantra Percussion, a group that I have collaborated with often. The birth of the piece happened just as I described it above, with the shaping and proposal coming together about a year before I wrote a note of music. When I finally sat down the start writing this past September, I knew more or less how I wanted the piece to start and how the sections would flow together into a whole. As a result, the first period of writing went smoothly and quickly. It was a matter of articulating ideas that I had already thought through and verified as strong. Besides some basic problem solving around small conflicts that came up, this material came out how I had imagined it.
And then things got interesting. With the original image of the piece well in its way to being fulfilled, I started to write sections that hadn’t been part of the original vision. These sections had existed as word descriptors like ‘slow/spacious’ or ‘recapitulate for ending,’ but the actual material was no where to be found when it came time to write it. Undeterred, I started to tease out the notes, trying not to repeat myself too much and embracing the uncomfortable quality of material that was sounding for the first time on the page without the months-long filter of my imagination. The new material was jagged and rough. It didn’t float the way the other material had. It felt sluggish and disjointed. It didn’t sound like the music I thought I made.
I wrestled with this new material, feeling despondent about possibly having to start again and scrap two weeks worth of work. But I kept at it, shaping the phrases, gently trimming parts that stuck out as not quite right, building in the material that seemed strong enough. Through this process the new material started to feel less troubling. I began to look forward to revisiting it and happy to discover where it might lead the music in the future.
With the distance of time, the material that seemed so new three weeks ago now feels like it has always been apart of the piece. I attribute this transformation to my own acceptance of new-to-me sounds and approaches, but also to an understanding that this is how new art is made. Sometimes notes on the page are part of the original inspiration, and other times they are sudden additions or edits that mark the work as new territory. Time functions in both of these cases like the glue that holds things together– time spent digging deeper into new directions and time spent reflecting on and accepting whatever I find as part of my vision as an artist.