Posts Tagged ‘First Take’

First Take: Jenny Olivia Johnson on The After Time

Next up in our series of interviews with the composers for The Industry and wild Up’s First Take is Jenny Olivia Johnson. You can read all of the interviews at newclassic.la/firsttake. Here’s Jenny!

Composer Jenny Olivia Johnson

Composer Jenny Olivia Johnson

Describe the work you’ll be presenting at First Take.

The After Time has many origins.  In 2001, while remembering a series of suspicious suicides at my alma mater, I began drafting a darkly comedic, Law and Order-style opera about a series of collegiate ballerina suicides that all end up being connected to an underground sex club.  Then two things happened in my real life:  I lost a close college friend to suicide in 2002, and I witnessed a stranger’s suicide in Bobst Library at New York University in 2003.  These events forced me to rethink my project, but more importantly, they forced me to confront my suddenly acute feelings of loss and disorientation.

Traumas are rarely explainable.  They don’t easily conform to straightforward narratives.  The After Time, which is cast in spare, electronic fragments against a backdrop of blurred VHS clips, is a meditation on this aspect of loss.

What’s your background in writing opera, or for voice?

I came to opera composition from both a noise-rock and a classical-composition background.  I desperately wish I could sing, but the closest I’ve come is screaming not-so-accurate vocal covers of Liz Phair and Courtney Love in a dyke bar with my band a few years back.  I’ve always been interested in writing vocal music (sometimes awkwardly called “art song”), and I usually write my own texts, so I found that in writing my songs I also had these weird, sort of fragmented emotional stories to tell.  A mentor of mine saw an orchestral song of mine and used the term “kind of an opera” to describe it, so I began exploring what it would mean if I started calling what I do “opera.”

Does/did your composition process change at all when writing for this medium?

Once I started using the word “opera” to provisionally describe my work, I started finding myself arguing with or modifying my understanding of what the genre is in ways that I think have been productive.  I often start by imagining a series of scenes, and then either strictly adhering to that format in ways that change the musical idea, or completely ignoring the need for a scene change, and letting scenes bleed into each other in strange ways.  I think the stringencies and histories implied by the term “opera” have enabled me to think more experimentally than I otherwise might, merely because I often find that the stories that interest me most are ones that disrupt normative narration.

What else are you working on that you’d like people to know about?

One of my current passions is sound installation.  I recently created an interactive piece for touch-sensitive bell jars, LEDs, and digital audio—”Glass Heart (Bells for Sylvia Plath)”—which was exhibited at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College in 2013-14, and is scheduled for exhibition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in 2017 as part of a special show on Plath.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/113711828]

I’m also recording my first album, “Don’t Look Back,” which is a set of emotional chamber songs about adolescents and traumatic experiences.  “The After Time” will actually be on that album!  I ran a Kickstarter campaign over the summer for the album–more information about it can be found here:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1193718748/jenny-olivia-johnson-dont-look-back-debut-solo-alb

Learn more about Jenny at jennyoliviajohnson.com. Come back tomorrow for the next installation of our series on First Take, an interview with composer Paul Pinto. Complete details on First Take 2015 are available at http://theindustryla.org/projects/project_firsttake15.php.

First Take: Jason Thorpe Buchanan on Hunger

For part 2 of our series of interviews with the composers for The Industry’s First Take event, we caught up with Jason Thorpe Buchanan to discuss his opera, Hunger. Click here for part 1, and an overview of what The Industry are up to with this project.

Composer Jason Thorpe Buchanan

Composer Jason Thorpe Buchanan

Describe the work you’ll be presenting at First Take.

Hunger is a multimedia opera in four parts with a libretto by poet Darcie Dennigan that is loosely based on the novel Sult by Norwegian author Knut Hamsun, which was a sort of precursor to stream of consciousness writing.  The protagonist is a starving writer whose body and mind are gradually deteriorating, and this deterioration is incorporated into the text, music, electronics, and multimedia through fragmentation. One of the things we’ve been exploring is the idea of disorientation – the oscillation between intelligibility and unintelligibility, which reflects his state of mind, but also allows for a focus on a sort of filmic subtlety and claustrophobic or “internal” quality, similar to Hamsun’s writing in that you are really taken inside of his head. I’ve become extremely interested in constructing a situation that suggests multiple narrative threads without actually confirming any single scenario; a process that causes you to continually re-evaluate the situation with each piece of information you receive. There is purposefully a great deal of ambiguity, things left up to the participant to decide for themselves and use their imagination. For me, this is much more interesting and engaging than how narrative is typically treated in opera. For FIRST TAKE we’ll be presenting Part III for the first time in its entirety, and the first time with electronics.

What’s your background in writing opera, or for voice?

When I began studying composition, four of my earliest works were for voice – several sets of art songs & a choral work almost 10 years ago — so I’ve always worked closely with singers. During my undergrad I received a 2nd degree in Music Technology with a minor in Film, which involved many interdisciplinary collaborations including singers; two feature-length films as music supervisor, composer, & engineer. I spent a year in Germany on a Fulbright and while there collaborated with an American poet on a set of songs for soprano, baritone, & chamber orchestra. Most of my PhD coursework has also centered around opera or music theater, with my dissertation on the work of Georges Aperghis. Before starting Hunger, I actually hadn’t written any music for voice since 2010 so it was great to jump back into it. Strangely enough, I’ve just been commissioned for a choral work that will be written in the summer and premiered in November, so that will be an interesting challenge as well. I’m planning to work with again with Darcie Dennigan on the text and use the recording as germinal material for the electronics in Part IV of Hunger.

Does/did your composition process change at all when writing for this medium?

Absolutely, I think it changes fairly drastically with each piece, but the types of things I was thinking about when everything was planned, and the emphasis on fragmentation and deterioration, have definitely resulted in a process that is much more free than almost all of my other recent work. In Hunger I’ve allowed myself to react more intuitively to Darcie’s text, and I think the process has been much more enjoyable, but also challenging. I’m dealing with time in a different way; some sections contain events or checkpoints rather than a regular tempo or division, resulting in simultaneities rather than synchronizations, sort of like traditional recitative, but really taken from studying Boulez’ work Éclat. This allows the musicians to react spontaneously to one another, effectively ‘bending time’ around the singers who can then perform with greater freedom and intensity. Although the score is quite detailed, I am really thinking of it as a departure point that will cause another musical situation to take place.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSRjKcoRLWw]

I’ve previously used quite rigid systems for both formal structure and the musical materials themselves. I try to sit and think about the sound itself for each and every moment, drawing from every combination I can imagine and then sifting through the sounds available to me. The flip side is that it is easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of decisions that must be made. In a work where you’re intentionally leaving a lot of space or ambiguity for interpretation by both the performers and audience, and dealing with multiple potential narrative threads, there really isn’t a “right” or “wrong” way to go about it, so that increases the number of musical decisions that have to be made. In fact, I think more and more that the issue I’m confronted with as a composer is that, if all sounds, actions, and compositional choices are more or less equal in terms of artistic merit, then that means that some choices become essentially arbitrary. In this day and age, when any artistic decision can be justified as equally valuable, what makes something more or less “good” than another thing? 

What else are you working on that you’d like people to know about?

Well, Hunger has pretty much been my life full-time since September. We’re putting together a performance in NYC on the MATA Interval 8 Series with the [Switch~ Ensemble] and a really stellar cast including Lucy Dhegrae, Jeff Gavett, & Sophie Burgos, and there has been a lot of preparation for both of these performances with all of the technology involved. We’re also planning the New York and European premieres of the full opera in 2016/17 with Ensemble Interface. I’m just now starting on an orchestral commission that I received after winning Iron Composer 2014, which is for the BlueWater Chamber Orchestra in Cleveland and I’ll conduct the premiere on May 9th. It’ll be treated in a similar way to what I mentioned above regarding the choral work, as a sort of “digital overture” to Hunger so that the recording will provide germinal material for the electronics, augmented by the live amplified octet. Another commission to get started on is for percussion trio from Slaagwerk Den Haag in the Netherlands; two other works of mine will also be performed in September for Muziekweek as a nominee for the Gaudeamus Prize. Another project that’s been planned for ages but postponed due to my work on Hunger is for saxophone, electronics, and video, to be premiered at the World Saxophone Congress in Strasbourg on texts of Bukowski this July.

A website dedicated to Hunger, with lots of great coverage of its premiere in Darmstadt, is up at hungeropera.com. Tomorrow, we’ve got Jenny Olivia Johnson on her opera The After Time. Complete details on First Take 2015 are available at http://theindustryla.org/projects/project_firsttake15.php.

First Take: Anne LeBaron on LSD: The Opera

On February 21, LA’s The Industry and wild Up present the 2015 edition of First Take at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Arts. Excerpts from six new operas will be performed throughout the afternoon, which starts at 1 pm and runs until 4:30. The event is free. Over here at New Classic LA, we’ll be featuring an interview with one of the composers every day at noon this week, and an interview with The Industry’s artistic director, Yuval Sharon, on Friday. Today, we begin with Anne LeBaron.

Anne LeBaron (photo by Steve Gunther)

Anne LeBaron (photo by Steve Gunther)

Describe the work you’ll be presenting at First Take.

LSD: The Opera is a multidisciplinary interrogation of the powerful cultural, political, and spiritual ramifications set into motion by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann’s 1943 discovery of lysergic acid diethylamide. Unveiling obscure and extraordinary LSD-related friendships, networks, and operations that would contribute to an agitated period in American history, the opera unfolds in a panorama of dramatic events, encompassing scientific discoveries, murders, CIA classified experiments, festivities, and extraordinary meetings of minds. Characters include Albert Hofmann, Sid Gottlieb, George Hunter White, Aldous and Laura Huxley, Timothy Leary, Richard Albert (aka Ram Dass), Phil and Katherine Graham, Mary Pinchot Meyer, Cord Meyer, and Allen Dulles. A chorus (performed by instrumentalists from the Partch Ensemble) depicts groups of prisoners, divinity students, drug addicts, reporters, CIA trainees, and the Georgetown Ladies.

Once LSD was unleashed from Sandoz Laboratories, it became a much sought-after experimental drug that held promise as a weapon of mind control, coveted by the CIA and other intelligence agencies in the U.S. Simultaneously, psychiatrists were discovering how powerfully curative it could be in therapeutic settings when all else had failed. Yet LSD remains vilified as a negative force behind the social and political upheavals of the 1960’s. This opera seeks to present LSD from its origins, to its potential as a valuable tool for use in medical and carefully controlled settings. My wish is for LSD: The Opera to premiere in 2017-2018, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of its discovery.

The three scenes performed for First Take commence with the first acid trip ever experienced, now celebrated annually as Bicycle Day. Albert Hofmann, the Swiss scientist who first synthesized LSD on April 19 in 1943, intuitively returns to his abandoned research with LSD-25 when he ‘hears’ LSD (a soprano trio: Lysergic, Saüre, and Diethylamide) calling his name. He ingests a tiny amount in his laboratory. Riding his bicycle home, accompanied by LSD, he hallucinates during the journey, crash-landing at his house. Desperate for an antidote, he calls out for milk from his neighbor, Mrs. R., who arrives (played by Lysergic, Saüre, and Diethylamide, bearing two bottles of milk. Albert hallucinates her visage as that of an “evil, insidious witch.” She commands him, “Drink!” (In the full version of the opera, Hoffman’s bicycle will serve as a recurring metaphor of the centrality of LSD to the large cast of characters in the opera.) The second scene, MK-ULTRA, opens with the despicable George Hunter White (hired by the CIA to direct Operation Midnight Climax), who in turn introduces the notorious Sidney Gottlieb, head of the CIA’s secret mind-control project MK-ULTRA. (Earlier in this scene, which we don’t represent in this performance, they have both taken LSD.) In a conference room with a flip board, Sid enthusiastically unveils the new LSD-fueled MK-ULTRA project to a group of CIA trainees, fervently trumpeting its patriotic value. In the third scene, Huxley’s Last Trip, Aldous Huxley, on his deathbed, asks his wife Laura to inject him with a dose of LSD to ease his suffering. She goes to retrieve the LSD, in an adjacent room, and is surprised that visiting friends are intently gathered around a television set while her husband is dying. Then, shocked to discover that they are watching the breaking news report out of Dallas, just after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, she decries the madness of it all. Returning to Aldous, she gives him the LSD injection and sings of the Clear Light, ushering him into his final trip.

What’s your background in writing opera, or for voice?

I’ve always loved the medium of voice, and so naturally gravitated to opera. I’ve written several works for mixed chorus as well as male chorus and women’s chorus, along with settings of poetry, sometimes with unusual instrumentation such as that for Breathtails. This is a recent composition, a collaboration with the poet Charles Bernstein. The piece is scored for baritone voice, shakuhachi, and string quartet, and has been performed in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. I wrote an essay for Current Musicology about our process: http://academiccommons.columbia.edu/catalog/ac:176447

LSD: The Opera follows my sixth opera, Crescent City. Earlier operas I’ve written include Sucktion; Pope Joan; Wet; Croak: The Last Frog; and The E. & O. Line.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ygwSDJSrBdw]

Does/did your composition process change at all when writing for this medium?

My process changes for every piece I compose; in other words, the conception, scope, and context of each piece determines the process. However, writing for voices in an operatic medium provides an extremely rich palette of colors to draw from.

What else are you working on that you’d like people to know about?

SongFest, the premiere art song festival in the U.S., held each summer at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, has offered a commission supported by the Sorel Foundation. Very excited about fulfilling this commission! I’m still deciding on the text to set for two singers and piano. The premiere is scheduled for June 21, 2015.

Check back tomorrow to hear from Jason Thorpe Buchanan about his opera Hunger. Full details for First Take are available at http://theindustryla.org/projects/project_firsttake15.php. More about Anne is up at annelebaron.com.

The Industry announces First Take 2015 composers, details

LA opera powerhouse The Industry just announced the list of composers who have been selected for their 2015 First Take event. The afternoon opera-thon gives first readings to new pieces and, if I’m not mistaken, one is usually chosen for The Industry to produce. 2015’s will be at the new Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 21 at 1 pm, with wild Up serving as house orchestra.

The composers are:

Anne LeBaron

Andrew McIntosh

Jason Thorpe Buchanan

Nomi Epstein

Jenny Olivia Johnson

Paul Pinto

A more detailed post about the project is up at http://theindustryla.org/projects/project_firsttake15.php

The Industry is also holding open auditions for singers interested in First Take and Hopscotch. Interested singers should submit their resume, headshots, and performance sample web links to auditions@TheIndustryLA.org.