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.
In every facet of my life, at work, at home, in my studio, in schools, at institutional venues, I always get asked the same question: “What are you trying to do? And how do you know if you are doing it?” This is an exacting question and one that I don’t often take that much time to engage with. Part of my hesitation is that it is difficult and asks me to get serious about looking closely at how and why I do the things I do. Well, I took a stab in the area of my art-making and shared the results of that stab on the Experiments in Opera blog. Perhaps next I will see whether it is possible to test how I am doing at my supposed outcomes.
Two weeks ago, I opened my social media feed first thing in the morning and found that a friend had posted a video of Glenn Gould in honor of the pianist’s birthday. Being a fan of Gould’s music, I clicked on the video and found myself once again mesmerized by the intensity of the music, Gould’s technical virtuosity and his wholly identifiable sound. No one else plays the piano like that!
I watched the video totally engaged with the image on the screen: Gould’s hunched posture, balletic hands, typewriter fingers. I was moved by the video, and not just because I love the patterns and contours of Bach, but also because I felt close to Gould and his perfection. I was sitting virtually feet away and felt the energy of his body and focus. Great speed of his hands and the depth of his muscle memory.
I was moved by the essence of virtuosity. The evidence of something I have never seen elsewhere; the fleeting sense of a once in a lifetime encounter. When the video was over, I slid the red slider on the bottom of the screen to the left and watched it all over again.
What happens when the magnificent and transcendent can be manipulated so freely and shaped so easily by the viewer? What was I really taking away from the experience of watching this video at my desk, alone, on headphones. As much as I was experiencing the thrill of virtuosity, I was also tittilized by intimacy of my encounter. In short, I was a voyeur.
As I often do in situations where I am encountering art, I decided to make a list of things I definitively noticed about the video. In this mode of noticing, the only things that matter are those that are objective (inasmuch as objectivity is real). Here are some of my noticings:
- The camera moves slowly in and out
- Gould bobs his head and gesticulates with his free hand
- There was a closeup of his hands from above, so we could see his lateral movement up and down the piano keybaord
- Closeup of hands from the side so we could witness his claw-hammer fingers pecking at the keyboard
- Close mic’d audio so we could hear Gould hum the melody.
- Quick cut edits back and forth between these shots that reminded us that he was engaged in all of this activity at the same time.
This is what virtuosity looks like. Not playing fast and accurate, but mastering the space of music. The forward and backwards, inwardness and outwardness of energy, the sense that a single person, with the same biological traits that you and me have (Gould only had ten fingers after all) could live in the world so differently.
When we see this kind of power on stage it feels momentary and fleeting. The sounds in the air really are just waves bouncing over and over off walls and into our little ears like a miracle. And we feel like we are in the same space as the performer in such a way that makes us implicit in the power of it all.
On video, Gould’s power is super sized. His hands devasting machines that are well outside of our beings. We hear his sounds, but usually through the mediation of microphones, and then headphones so our connection to the sound cheap and consumerist. We have nothing to lose in the process. On top of that, we can watch the clip over and over and it is always the same.
In the end, I think there is a quiet relationship between this kind of video of virtuosity and pornography. The power is all in the gaze. The impact of the images and sounds too consumable to be anything other than transactional. I may feel like I have touched the heavens, but all I have gained is the buzz of my hormones trotted out at a casual command for an encore performance.
I have worked with large cultural institutions for long enough to know that there are some things that they are good at, and other things that they really struggle with. Experimentation and the willingness to embrace failure are two areas where large cultural institutions have something to learn from their peers in technology fields. I am fascinated by the tales of how much of the technology we take for granted started as experiments on R&D campuses around the world. This spirit of research and development is key to continued growth in just about anything, including artistic practice and administration.
I wrote about the importance of R&D over at the EiO Gab Bag and hope you will check out the full piece.
Over at Experiments in Opera’s Gab Bag, I penned some thoughts about what kinds of narrative structures are being explored by today’s video and TV series. It’s pretty clear to me that the work of artists in ‘television’ is the most inventive and probing work being done today. I am fascinated by the way we tell stories through art and this short piece asks us to examine how the stories are being told and what we gain and lose in choosing one approach over another.
In the last decade of dialogue about technology in the arts classroom, there have emerged two primary approaches. On one hand, say those interested in direct experience, software and hardware are the new materials of art making, and learners should be able to explore how to make new forms of art out of ones and zeros. On the other hand, say the tool-toters, technology is not the subject of learning, but a tool to help enable the real learning that still takes place in the analog world of pen on paper. Lost in this reductive binary arrangement is another emerging idea about engagement with the web (and all the myriad technologies that sustain its infrastructure) as a new kind of art form that creates the kinds of emotional and intellectual responses that all great art does in one way or another. We can call this approach the conceptual approach.
This idea is the basic premise of a new book by artist, writer, and teacher Kenneth Goldsmith, entitled ‘Wasting Time On the Internet.’ The title refers to a class that the author taught at University of Pennsylvania that gave students permission to create assignments for each other exploring the fun, danger and rigor embedded in the 21st century’s relationship with devices and web-based information. But that class is just the starting point for Mr. Goldsmith’s agenda to envision the Internet and all its attendant devices as a new frontier for art-making of the highest order.
The majority of the book is devoted to the kinds of conceptual examinations of art history that suit Mr. Goldsmith’s background as an experimental poet and founder of Ubu Web, one of the internet’s premiere locations of archival materials from countless art movements of the 20th century. Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Pop Art and many other movements are ripe for examination as precursors and predictors of our current culture’s engagement with the world through our devices and the web of data and information we call the Internet. Goldsmith’s written exploration of these ideas in ‘Wasting Time…’ posits blogs as a new kind of memoir, mp3’s as extensions of reproduction-based art, and the browser window as a surrealist object akin to a Joseph Cornell assemblage box. For students of art history, these assertions make thrilling links to how art has deeply impacted on our everyday lives.
Returning to the lens of education, the most eye-opening thesis of this book is that learners and teachers should embrace devices and the Internet as a means to achieve the flow of emotional and intellectual development that is a hallmark of all true learning. Gently brushing aside the concerns about technology as distracting from real learning or dangerous to the health of our society, Goldsmith uses his perspective to argue the fractured, multi-tasking, non-narrative experiences of engagement with the Internet are good for us.
Two concepts from the book stick out as important for artists and educators to reflect on. The first is the idea that Goldsmith calls ‘affect,’ or the “powerful but often invisible emotional temperature in any given social situation.” This feeling of energy or tension among a group of web surfers, Goldsmith asserts, “goes a long way to explain how hyperemotional social networking is,” and accounts for “why things go viral on the networks.” In the name of ‘affect,’ Goldsmith’s students generated a fantastic list of ways to ‘waste time on the internet’ by tapping into the drive behind sharing, disrupting, and watching the activity of others online. Affect is a huge part of what makes classroom environments or small group collaboration work when it does. Learning is often more powerful when it takes place within a social setting.
The second, related concept that Goldsmith explores at some length is the idea of ‘infrathin,’ a “state within states” minted by the artist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp hesitated to define ‘infrathin,’ instead described “the warmth of a seat (which has just been left),” or as Goldsmith asserts “the lingering warmth of a piece of paper just after it emerges from the laser printer or the chiming start-up sound the computer makes, signifying its transition from death to life.” ‘Infrathin’ is connected to the notion of affect, in that it contains in its meaning an emotional and sensory hum that one needs to stop and reflect on in order to recognize its significance. It is a whispered realization that the world we live in and interact with is quietly wavering from moment to moment between the real and the virtual, the present and the future/past.
The idea that, as arts educators, we should be responsible for teaching toward a greater understanding of this wavering and reflect on it through our art-making is a welcome and radical departure from the current obsession with gizmos, apps and data collection. Goldsmith’s book, while at times tangential to learning through technology, nonetheless helps to frame the conversation about the power of our technologized world through an aesthetic lens that embraces the core experience of the internet as revealing, important and not going away. Our engagement with the web, Goldsmith asserts, is social, phenomenological, and transformative. He makes a strong case that the internet itself is a work of art that we all help to shape. I would be interested to see what a full engagement with this approach looked like in our arts classrooms.
Recently, I had the pleasure of organizing and leading a robust conversation among opera-makers as part of the New York Opera Alliance Opera Fest. I was interested in finding out how composers in particular think about their role in the collaborative process of opera creation. The conversation, which was held at Hunter College, proved to be animated and at times charged, as the creators on the panel expressed their personal ideas about how to make work together and what great work might look like depending on how it is made.
Read the entire conversation at New Music Box.