Posts Tagged ‘opera’

Shannon Knox, Micaela Tobin, Sharon Chohi Kim’s Unseal Unseam is not easily forgotten

Unseal Unseam, the title of an hour-long experimental chamber opera presented on October 6th and 7th  at Highways Performance Space, doesn’t give much away in terms of the rich programmatic soil from which it grew. This palimpsest of a piece by Shannon Knox, Micaela Tobin, and Sharon Chohi Kim developed through multiple iterations of MFA projects which responded to Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle (A kékszakállú herceg vára), which itself is influenced by previous settings of a French literary version of an even older folktale. Unseal Unseam seeks to recast Bartok’s female victim as heroine. Elevating and centering female subjectivity is the project at hand, and this nastiest of fairy tales couldn’t be a riper subject.

Unseal Unseam. Photo by Katie Stenberg.

Unseal Unseam. Photo by Katie Stenberg.

For the uninitiated, the original folktale of Bluebeard boils down to a cautionary tale about the unknowability of abusive husbands and the price of female curiosity. In most versions of the story, a nobleman with an unearthly blue beard selects a new wife from a small village. Whisked to his opulent castle after a shotgun wedding, the new bride is entrusted with a set of keys and a warning that all rooms may be opened save one. Of course the curious wife opens the door to the forbidden room, wherein she finds all Bluebeard’s previous wives dead, dripping blood, in some versions, hanging on hooks. She is subsequently caught by Bluebeard, and either dies similarly, or is saved by some handy brothers ex machina.

The tale can either be read as a literal warning against male violence, or perhaps more subtly as a warning against the horrors revealed in men by unsuspecting women who probe too far, desire too much power, or demand too much from their spouses.

The plot itself is a little thin, so in Bartok’s version, the locked doors number seven, each revealing a new treat: a torture chamber, an armory with terrifying weapons, a treasury with blood-spattered coins, a garden with flowers watered by blood, a pool of tears, an entire kingdom whose clouds are darkened by – you guessed it, blood, and the final chamber entombing Bluebeard’s dead wives. It is unclear how much of this exponentially unbelievable drama is literal and how much is psychological torment, but either way, the terrifying portrait of a serial killer is not soon forgotten.

It is this melange of folk and classical creepiness with which Unseal Unseam wrestles. Before Unseal Unseam is fully started, as the audience chats and catches up, one performer quietly conjures electronic whines with pedals on the floor, nearly inaudible to the meandering crowd, invisible to society. Another performer sits stiffly at a white piano as the lights dim and a scene begins on the concrete floor. Three wives enter in voluminous black skirts, connected by red cords bound over their faces as Judith, in beige, crochets a net with her hands. The group slowly unfurl their cords, their choreographed liberation punctuated by slams of the piano lid, plonks of prepared piano strings, and hocketed, dissonant phrases of “locked… what was locked?” and “Where did this happen? Outside or within?” These snippets of plot hints are as concrete as the libretto’s narrative gets, but the haunting, spare music and visual drama unfolding are so enrapturing that not knowing what’s going on doesn’t much matter. The attention to visual impact, from costumes to props, choreography to lighting, is intoxicatingly stunning, especially given a limited budget.

Unseal Unseam. Photo by Katie Stenberg.

Unseal Unseam. Photo by Katie Stenberg.

Similar scenes unfold in different areas throughout the space, from a domestic scene with broken plates used as percussion, to a particularly arresting scene of the women singing through hands over their mouths – both their own and sculpted plaster male hands which flare into trombone-like bells. The audience moved reverently throughout these transitions, naturally matching the ceremonial pace of all involved.

Each of these scene changes is meant to represent one of the seven rooms from Bartok’s original opera, and in some cases, this is clear, as in the pool of tears represented by three amplified cylinders full of water into which are dipped vibrating chimes, and the final tomb, a spectacle of the women singing “open the doors and you will find us” while smoke is somehow magically kept within the bounds of an invisible cube. But, it seems nearly impossible to determine where each door stops and start, and when we are in each chamber. Bartok’s original is present in the overall sense of suspended terror, but everything feels fractured – the throughline of Judith’s own subjectivity has broken even the physical structure of his castle.

Chohi Kim and Tobin’s music itself is built from a balanced palette of hypnotic, cyclical vocal ostinati, lyrical aria duets, earthy classically-structured cello lines, atmospheric electronic manipulation of acoustic phenomena (bowed and rubbed metal, amplified water, rubbing a steel wool-like substance over a microphone) and aggressive metallic percussion (throwing metal objects into a resonant tin). The music is very clearly workshopped, organically developed to flow between performers. It breathes. When the singers do let their full bel canto powers unfurl a few feet from audience members after such restraint, the effect is either hair-raising or paralyzingly beautiful, or perhaps both.

To do service to Bartok, in the original, Judith is hardly a two-dimensional opera character. Neither larger nor smaller than life, Bartok’s Judith is nervy, exhibiting both love and strength and moving Bluebeard with her agency: “I will dry these dripping walls. With my lips, I will dry them. I will warm the cold stone. With my body, I will warm it… together we will overcome these walls… I will have no doors closed to me.”

But of course, by the end, she pays with her life for these transgressions and assumptions of power. In Bartok’s version, Judith may temporarily exercise the power to open doors, but Bluebeard himself is still the defining palace in which her dramas unfold and ultimately end.

In Unseal Unseam, Bluebeard himself is all but erased. Judith is the setting and the actors, the past and the present. In some ways, she seems even more victimized. She is reacting in relation to Bluebeard’s castle, but his personage seems melted into the furniture, a memory she is trying to expunge. At one point, two Judiths appear and she sings to herself disconnectedly about her body, as if trying to gain power over her own objectification. As composers Micaela Tobin and Chohi Kim explained, “…we wanted to re-focus the story on Bluebeard’s wife Judith, and make it about how she was unlocking–unsealing, the doors to her own story… In our version, Judith eventually unlocks the door that reveals her true self, and finds the empowerment and self-love she needs to walk through the final door out of her psychological purgatory.

Was the project effective? Nearly all the audience members seemed moved afterward, and it’s hard to imagine that the dazzling impact of the visual effects could have been lost on anyone. Judith didn’t seem as completely freed from her bondage as the composers might have hoped, but there are things more authentic than an effectively happy ending. Quietly undergirding the entire project was the testimony of actual domestic violence survivors. Composers Micaela Tobin and Sharon Chohi Kim note, “Shannon, Sharon, and I decided that the design and structure … needed to be informed by the truths of actual survivors of domestic violence… every prop, color, and texture you witnessed in this production came from the anonymous answers to our questions.”  The project may not have completely succeeded in transmuting pain into power, but such a success is almost never achieved. More viscerally present, and perhaps more important, were chilling intimacies of abuse which were recognizable, disturbing at a level we almost never choose to experience, and like Bartok’s, not easily forgotten.

 

Second Take: Bonnie and Clyde

Los Angeles-based experimental opera company The Industry workshopped the much-anticipated contemporary opera Bonnie and Clyde for their Second Take program on February 26, 2017. Written by Andrew McIntosh – with libretto by Melinda Rice – the performance was given at the spacious Wilshire Ebell Theatre with a large crowd in attendance. More than three years in development, the full musical score of Bonnie and Clyde was realized by a cast of soloists, a small chorus and wild Up, a 17-piece instrumental ensemble, all under the direction of Christopher Rountree.

Yuval Sharon, Artistic Director for The Industry, explained in his welcoming remarks that the Second Take preview was designed to give a complete performance of all the music in the opera. There is no acting, costumes or scenery, but the full musical forces are all present. The program notes explained that “[Second Take] showcases the new piece in a nascent and pure state; production concerns and directorial interpretation have not yet put this composition to the test.”

The six vocalists comprising the cast stood on one side of the stage, four choristers were placed on the opposite side, with wild Up in the center. A large screen above and at the back of the stage helpfully displayed the libretto as it was sung. As all the singers were stationary and dressed in formal black, the performance feeling a bit more like an oratorio than an opera. The presence of wild Up at center stage tended to emphasize the accompaniment over the singers at times, but the instrumental texture throughout was generally transparent enough that there was no compromise to any of the vocal elements.

As librettist Melinda Rice observed, “When a story is familiar, there is hardly any question of how it will end.” This perspective informs almost everything about Bonnie and Clyde, and from the opening moments the feeling is one of a somber sadness. The libretto is always on a personal and emotional plane, with much of it taken from the reminiscences of the surviving players in the real-life drama. The libretto draws material from the published autobiography of Ted Hinton to form the narrative thread. Hinton worked as a delivery man and personally knew both Bonnie and Clyde. He later became a police officer and was a member of the posse that finally caught up with the fugitive pair.

Bonnie and Clyde unfolds in 24 scenes over two acts. Act I serves to introduce the many characters: Ted Hinton (James Onstad), Clyde’s mother Cumie (Sarah Beaty), brother Buck Barrow and his wife Blanche (David Castillo and Lauren Davis), as well as the titular Bonnie and Clyde (Justine Aronson and Jon Keenan). Given the static nature of the staging, it took a few scenes to get the sense of these relationships – the acting and costuming in the final production will be helpful here – but the music and the singing were both sensitive and precise, clearly sketching out the emotional terrain. Early in Act I Cumie, portrayed by Sarah Beaty, sings a beautiful aria in the form of a letter asking the governor to parole Clyde as he “is needed here on the farm.” There is a palpable sense of pathos in the music; the hard-scrabble life of an East Texas farming family is distinctly heard and felt. When Clyde returns home from prison he arrives in a new Ford V8. Rather than return to his family and the difficult life of a farmer, Clyde is completely bewitched by the power of the automobile and the freedom this represents; you can hear this tension in the music and it marks a decisive point in the story.

The final scene in Act I is masterfully done – Bonnie and Clyde are on the run and crash their car near a washed out bridge in the country. Bonnie is severely burned and they seek shelter at a nearby farmhouse. The family there offers to call for help, but Clyde refuses and announces that he will steal their car to continue the flight. The frightened family begins to sing a hymn – as heard in the chorus – and this immediately connects with the audience on a spiritual level, much like a chorale in a Bach Passion. Act I thus concludes with Bonnie and Clyde renouncing everything that is good in their past for an uncertain freedom in the future.

Act II opens with a spoken soliloquy by Ted Hinton, and this helpfully brings the narrative forward, putting the audience squarely in the middle of the most familiar part of the story. Bonnie and Clyde are now public enemies with brother Buck Barrow and Blanche also members of the gang. In a dramatic duet, Buck is asked to renounce Clyde and return to the quiet life. The music poignantly captures the heart-rendering choice that turns on a brother’s loyalty. When Buck is killed in a police ambush, Ted interrogates the captured Blanche in a tense scene accompanied by a steady tone in the woodwinds that heightens the emotional impact. “Your husband is dead” announces Ted – and the story gains its full dramatic traction.

After a brief orchestral interlude, Bonnie and Clyde return to the stage for a duet – having been absent since the end of Act I – and the story gathers momentum toward the inevitable finish. Another soliloquy by Hinton tells of how Bonnie and Clyde ran a roadblock on Easter Sunday, killing a rookie policeman in the process. The young man was just two weeks from his wedding and there is a very touching aria sung by Marie, his intended bride, lamenting her loss. Hinton now sings of how he has ‘gotten into their future’ and believes he can predict the couple’s next move. Hinton devises a trap for the pair and at this point the music turns very dark, the solemn toll of piano chords ringing out like church bells. A final epilogue scene is unexpectedly quiet with none of the violent histrionics of the more popular accounts. Clyde is simply heard repeating: “Freedom is driving and driving and driving…” as the opera fades to its finish. After a respectful silence, the audience responded with an extended and enthusiastic applause.

Bows after the concert premiere of Andrew McIntosh and Melinda Rice's <em>Bonnie and Clyde</em>.

Bows after the concert premiere of Andrew McIntosh and Melinda Rice’s Bonnie and Clyde.

This performance of Bonnie and Clyde, although limited to just the musical elements, was nevertheless a powerful experience. The singing and playing was of a very high caliber throughout and the conducting by Christopher Rountree was flawless. The music and libretto were well-matched and artfully performed by all. The eventual staging, scenery and costuming will be an important element in portraying the relationships and motivations of the characters, especially in Act I. The singing was hauntingly beautiful, with the arias and duets more or less evenly distributed throughout the cast. The premiere of the finished production of Bonnie and Clyde is sure to be an extraordinary event.

 

Second Take: Andrew McIntosh and Melinda Rice on Bonnie and Clyde

Two years ago we interviewed composer Andrew McIntosh about his opera-in-progress, Bonnie and Clyde, before the first reading of a few excerpts at The Industry and Wild Up’s 2015 First Take program. Tonight in inaugurates the first ever Second Take, with a complete performance of the work. Andrew and his librettist and partner Melinda Rice somehow had time to answer questions in this week leading up to the premiere, which is at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre tonight at 7.

Bonnie and Clyde made an appearance in the first edition of First Take back in 2015. The Industry is now inaugurating Second Take with a full concert performance of the piece. Obviously there are more scenes and more music, but could you tell us what’s changed about the opera since First Take 2015? Did that reading alter your original conception of the piece? How did it influence writing the rest of it?

Melinda Rice, Andrew McIntosh, and the rest of their family. Photo by Kat Nockels.

Melinda Rice, Andrew McIntosh, and the rest of their family. Photo by Kat Nockels.

Melinda: Andrew and I have discussed this a lot.

In the excerpt of this opera performed at First Take in 2015, Bonnie and Clyde are on the edges of the story, both literally (singing from behind the audience) and in the narrative.

I felt their absence in First Take. I believed that we had created space for seeing other characters. But as I continued to work on the libretto, selecting the stories that I wanted to tell out of all of the stories that have been written down concerning them and their affects on others, Bonnie and Clyde crept back into the libretto, and back onto the stage.

In a vocal workshop of what was meant to be the full opera in mid 2016, I still felt that Clyde, and to some degree Bonnie, were missing, so I apologized to Andrew, who had thought his work in creating new material for this opera was coming to a close, and said that I wanted to write more for them. Scene 11, among other things, came out of that conversation.

Andrew, I heard you once say that you didn’t mind if audiences didn’t like your music, but that you cared a lot about what the people playing it felt. Is that sentiment the same with opera, in which there is – at least in many cases – a plot and staging that needs to communicate with a viewer?

Andrew: I’m hesitant to engage with this question, since I don’t remember the original context and I’m not sure it’s a statement I would necessarily stand behind. Also, I do have a tendency to frame ideas provocatively in conversation in ways that I often wouldn’t write down.

What I can say is that I do care quite a lot about the way performers feel while playing my music. I take extreme care to make the notation as clear as possible, solve issues like page turns, making sure the musicians have all the information they need during long rests, enough time for instrument changes, etc. Also, it is my goal to write with a kind of radical clarity, so that even if there’s only one note then it’s a note that requires love and affection from the performer and that it has some particular quality to it that they can engage with. There aren’t any throw-away notes in my music – every single one of them counts for something and asks the performers to engage critically in some way. Thus, it’s important to me to create something the performers will care about and invest in, since their parts are often exposed and transparent, even in a setting like Bonnie and Clyde where there are 27 people on stage.

1. Consider Bach’s Musical Offering or Art of the Fugue. They were completely theoretical exercises. He wrote the music because he was interested in exploring certain ideas in an almost absurdly focused, deep, and abstract way, to the point that he didn’t even specify what instruments were to play – it’s just abstract harmonies, counterpoint, and rhythms. He certainly wasn’t imaging what audiences might think or care about, yet that music continues to be performed and loved and evolve centuries later. If he had written only for a particular audience in some town in 18th-century Germany then perhaps the music wouldn’t have ended up as radical, iconic, and powerful as it did. I suppose the Musical Offering was written partly as a challenge from Frederick the Great, but I don’t know whether Bach expected the work to actually be played or not.

2. I have many small pieces that I’ve written for friends. One of those is the Symmetry Etudes, a set of eight pieces composed between 2009 and 2012 for Jim Sullivan and Brian Walsh (both of whom are playing in Bonnie and Clyde, incidentally). I wrote them simply as little experiments for us to play together in Jim’s living room for fun, not even for an audience at all. Yet, one of those pieces was the first work of mine to be played in Disney Hall, since John Adams happened to come across it and decided to include it on a concert. If I had been composing for Disney Hall I certainly would have written a different piece, and chances are that it wouldn’t have had whatever quality the Symmetry Etude had that made John select the piece for the concert. I don’t know.

3. The longer I live the less I trust my own judgment about other people’s music or art. I am fully aware that I can hear something and have a strong negative reaction the first time, yet completely embrace it the next time I hear it. In the past I’ve written off whole genres of music thinking that I didn’t value them, and then later realized that it is some of my absolute favorite music to listen to (eg. opera). If my own tastes fluctuate that much, how could I expect a whole audience to react or engage in any kind of predictable way? All I can do is write sounds that I love, try to write for the instruments or singers to the best of my ability, write in a way that asks them to engage intensely, and attempt to do so with the clearest voice I can find. If that resonates with people who listen then I will be overjoyed and grateful, but I also understand that I am never going to please everyone in a room, nor am I going to attempt to. Much of the music I love to listen to myself would probably have a somewhat polarizing effect on many audiences. If it speaks with intensity and clarity then it’s probably going to rub someone the wrong way at some point.

Melinda, I know you as a musician, but before this project didn’t know your work as a writer. Did you study formally? Or is Bonnie and Clyde a sort of first creative foray into writing?

Melinda: First, thank you for mentioning my work as a musician. I appreciate that.

This is my first libretto. I did release an album in 2016 with some of my original lyrics on it, words that I had been working on in 2013-14. I also studied fiction and non-fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College, as well as writing in the context of film. And at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, I was a writing minor (you could do that there, which was a pleasure).

I often worry that my desire for the accoutrements of writing (the reflection, the imagining, the words, the reading of words, the editing of words, and the physical feeling of a paperback in my hands) is stronger than the concepts I have to communicate. But on the topic of Bonnie and Clyde I have made myself comfortable through reading the words of many people affected by the couple, and the ideas in this opera that have come through that process have felt necessary to share.

Andrew, in our first interview before First Take two years ago, you said you “feel that working with words and voices has unlocked something in my writing that I have been trying to find for a long time…I don’t know where it will lead, but I have a feeling that all the work I’ve been doing with singers over the past year will have a significant impact on the future of my writing.” Now that you’ve been at it a while, can you discuss a bit about where that has led?

Andrew: Ha! I still don’t know where it will lead. I’m not in the right space yet to answer this question. I don’t usually understand what I’ve done in a composition until a year or two after it’s finished. Working extensively with singers definitely changed my musical language quite substantially, but I don’t think I could articulate the nature of the change right now. So, ask me again in 2018…

As a wife and husband creative team, how has work on this project made its way into other parts of your lives, or has your relationship made its way into working? Has there been a separation between work and life, so to speak?

Melinda: I don’t know how other people’s relationships work, how much they talk about work, how much they talk about hobbies, how much they talk about ideas. For Andrew and I and this project, we would make dates to work on the opera, and we would sometimes even leave our home and walk somewhere for the meeting, so that we were really clear in our focus. But once an idea became interesting to us and was developing, our conversations about the opera would become a big part of our lives together. It felt important, so we discussed it a lot. I don’t think either of us ever felt like we didn’t want to talk about it when the other one brought it up.

What about tonight’s performance has you most excited?

Melinda: It is an honor to get to share this opera with these musicians with an audience tonight. I am terrified and excited to feel how it is received with an audience. And I am excited that my parents are here.

Andrew: Hearing the incredible talents of the musicians on stage, hearing the whole thing in one fell swoop, listening while knowing that my family has traveled from far-away corners of the country to be here and see what the little brother is up to.

We here at New Classic LA cannot wait to hear Bonnie and Clyde tonight at Second Take. Full details on the concert are up at theindustryla.org/projects/bonnie-and-clyde. Thanks to all of the composers who did interviews this week for First Take as well – you can read all of them at newclassic.la/firsttake.

First Take: John Hastings on The Former World

The 2017 edition of The Industry and wild Up’s First Take is right around the corner. On February 24, the world’s most audacious opera company presents scenes from works-in-progress by six composers. Full details on that are up at theindustryla.org/projects/first-take-2017. Over here at New Classic LA, we’ll repeat our tradition of one composer interview per day in the week leading up to it. You can read all of the interviews – including the 2015 interviews – at newclassic.la/firsttake.

Today we’ve got composer John P. Hastings discussing his work The Former World.

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

Composer John Hastings

Composer John Hastings

The Former World is a multi-media essay on ‘deep time’, geologic history, the environment, humanity, and the artist. The work uses two focal points: the life and writings of the artist Robert Smithson (famous for his land art work, Spiral Jetty) and the writer John McPhee’s tome on American geologic history, Annals of the Former World. For me, the piece began as a process to tie together the vast expanses of time used in geology with the life of the artist. How can humans comprehend these large spans of time? Coupled with the idea of human involved degradation of the environment, the work endeavors to focus on what we leave behind, what Robert Smithson called “ruins in reverse.”

The project has several components:

      1. An acoustic guitarist performing fractured, faux-Americana styled improvisations
      2. A violin duo performing highly ordered microtonal pitches.
      3. Sub-bass frequencies articulating slow movement.
      4. 4 performers delivering a multitude of text (including parts of an essay by Robert Smithson and selections from Augustine’s Confessions) using a variety of operations.
      5. Mobile boomboxes that play back field recordings made from different locations throughout the United States.
      6. A two-channel video, detailing geologic history and the human intervention on the landscape along Interstate 80, from New York City to San Francisco.

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

Writing for voice, or opera for that matter, was not something that I was initially keen. However, as I have developed in my compositional life, I have come to the realization that text can explicate certain ideas that instrumental music can only approximate. The ability to further the musical work through words obviously makes complete sense. Starting with Sonic Baptism (2014), written for my newborn son, I wanted to include text that had special significance. The idea of layering text on a musical setting is something that I have included in my last several pieces.

Does your composition process change at all when writing in this medium?

I would not necessarily say that my process changes when writing for opera; whenever I am putting together a work I always try to leave open the door to whatever ideas and thoughts might come in. However, when working a piece this large, with so many parts, there does appear to be more opportunities for different tangents and threads to come into play. Because of that, the process has been longer, included more research, and has incorporated many more concepts than I originally started with. This has definitely been to the benefit of the piece and as I continue to work on The Former World I am sure that there will be even more to include.

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

Along with The Former World, which will probably take some time to complete and go into production, I am beginning the process of a long-form work that features solo trombone. This will also be another multi media project and will focus on the city of Los Angeles through its different built ecologies, as the architectural critic Reyner Banham described them. I am really looking forward to digging into the piece and taking the time to investigate Los Angeles and the different peoples that live in such a dynamic urban environment.

That’s it for First Take interviews this year, but check back tomorrow for an interview with Andrew McIntosh, whose Bonnie and Clyde, with librettist Melinda Rice, is slated for the first ever SECOND TAKE the very next day. Get your First Take tickets at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/first-take-2017-and-second-take-bonnie-clyde-tickets-27916364598. See you tonight.

First Take: William Gardiner on All Is For The Best

The 2017 edition of The Industry and wild Up’s First Take is right around the corner. On February 24, the world’s most audacious opera company presents scenes from works-in-progress by six composers. Full details on that are up at theindustryla.org/projects/first-take-2017. Over here at New Classic LA, we’ll repeat our tradition of one composer interview per day in the week leading up to it. You can read all of the interviews – including the 2015 interviews – at newclassic.la/firsttake.

Today we’ve got composer William Gardiner discussing his work with Thomas Rawle, All Is For The Best.

Composer William Gardiner

Composer William Gardiner

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

Our piece is an animated video opera called ALL IS FOR THE BEST. It consists of an animated film with music in close sync. We wrote the music and conceptualized it together, while I took care of the orchestration and Thomas did the animation. However it was a close collaboration and we talked about every element together. In this piece we wanted to give primacy to the directness and emotiveness of music and moving images. Both music and images have a special ability to be abstract and vague yet expressively dense and specific, and we were interested in trying to make a piece in which this quality of music and image is the life-force of the piece. Thematically, the piece is politically engaged–in some ways it could be thought of as a modern descendant of Voltaire’s Candide–but its modus operandi is not particularly verbal or literal, and we hope that causes the audience to have take an active role in interpreting it.

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

This is my first opera project, though I have written a piece for soprano and early music ensemble before. In terms of my relationship to opera, it’s probably worth mentioning that I grew up listening to baroque opera/Bach’s passions, and later became interested in songcraft in rock music. Thomas has more experience in writing for voice in that he has spent the majority of his career as a singer and songwriter. He performs and records under the moniker DRELLER and has released music through Terrible Records (US) and Goodbye Records (UK).

Did your composition process change at all when writing in this medium?

Hopefully it did not change very much. We tried to bring image, music, and singing together in a way that retains or even amplifies what we love about those things, rather than having them make compromises in order to fit together. However, working in a very fluid, multi-artform collaboration was really challenging (in a good way) and we’ve pushed each other further than we thought we could go.

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

Next up for me is a cello concerto. Thomas is about to make the next DRELLER release, which is going to be four tracks with accompanying video art.

Check back tomorrow for our next interview, and get your First Take tickets at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/first-take-2017-and-second-take-bonnie-clyde-tickets-27916364598.

First Take: Marc Lowenstein on The Little Bear

The 2017 edition of The Industry and wild Up’s First Take is right around the corner. On February 24, the world’s most audacious opera company presents scenes from works-in-progress by six composers. Full details on that are up at theindustryla.org/projects/first-take-2017. Over here at New Classic LA, we’ll repeat our tradition of one composer interview per day in the week leading up to it. You can read all of the interviews – including the 2015 interviews – at newclassic.la/firsttake.

Today we’ve got composer, conductor, and Industry music director Marc Lowenstein.

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

The work I’m presenting at First Take is an excerpt from a new opera called The Little Bear. It’s an opera about the power of children’s stories and what those fairy tales can reveal about the psychology of time, change, loss, and love. So it’s a family opera: not really a children’s opera, though hopefully understandable by older children. In this wonderfully re-invigorated era of new operas, I’ve noticed that there are not many works being written about or for families and I am very drawn to the subject and the challenge it presents in bringing those themes to the operatic musical stage.

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

Marc Lowenstein. Photo by Eron Rauch.

Marc Lowenstein. Photo by Eron Rauch.

I grew up as a singer and later became a conductor and a composer and finally a teacher as well. So, I’ve always lived in and around the operatic world. I wrote an opera about ten years ago based on the movie The Fisher King, and it was a good learning experience. Someone somewhere once said something like “everyone should be forgiven their first opera” and I still feel fondly about that one, and think of it as a learning experience. And I’ve always been interested in new operas, and feel very fortunate to work as Music Director of The Industry with Yuval. At The Industry, I’ve worked with a wonderful array of composers with different approaches to opera and I love seeing wildly differing effective ideas of how to bring music and drama to life in our present day. I particularly enjoy seeing other composers frame their individual voices in this world of amazingly diverse musical styles, and I’m enjoying the process of finding the right compositional voice for The Little Bear.

Does your composition process change at all when writing in this medium?

Not really. A lot of my non-operatic music is in fact a bit operatic. One thing, though, about writing opera is a slight uncertainty as to how all the pieces really do fit together in real life: in an actual, staged opera there seems to be a need for some accommodation for how dramatic storytelling contributes to and shapes the perception of musical time. That is a fun conversation to find oneself in the middle of, and one great thing about First Take is that it can show you relatively early in the process what in that dialog is merely theoretical and what might actually work.

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

I’m already expanding the Little Bear a little bit for a concert at REDCAT on April 6th that will also include a solo cantata for Jodie Landau and the premiere of a cello concerto for Derek Stein. And then there is the rest of The Industry’s exciting 2017 season that will include Lou Harrison’s Young Caesar with the LA Phil Green Umbrella series and the premiere of Andy Akiho’s and Yuval Sharon’s Galileo in September, two projects that I feel particularly passionate about!

Check back tomorrow for our next interview, and get your First Take tickets at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/first-take-2017-and-second-take-bonnie-clyde-tickets-27916364598.

First Take: Dylan Mattingly on Stranger Love

The 2017 edition of The Industry and wild Up’s First Take is right around the corner. On February 24, the world’s most audacious opera company presents scenes from works-in-progress by six composers. Full details on that are up at theindustryla.org/projects/first-take-2017. Over here at New Classic LA, we’ll repeat our tradition of one composer interview per day in the week leading up to it. You can read all of the interviews – including the 2015 interviews – at newclassic.la/firsttake.

Today we’ve got Dylan Mattingly.

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

Stranger Love is an opera in three acts. At roughly five hours long, with 8 singers, 6 dancers, and an orchestra built on the engine of three microtonal pianos, the music of Stranger Love is like an elemental force, offering world-sized visions of the disparate ecstasies of a human life on earth, from the gentle falling of snow to a gospel revival, and the vertigo of looking into the stars.

Drawing inspiration from Plato’s Symposium, Stranger Love presents both a love story, and the story of love, in various dimensions. Act I is the tale of Tasha and André, lovers who—like Orpheus & Eurydice, Heloise & Abelard, Rick & Elsa—are brought together by chance, and whose brief, intense joy is soon threatened. Their story unfolds to the rhythm of the seasons: Spring is the encounter; Summer, the unfolding; Autumn, the threat from without; Winter, the threat from within. Act II re-frames the story: no longer individual, it is now, in the spirit of the comic poet Aristophanes, archetypical, and the action belongs to six dancers arranged in three pairs. The final act compresses seasonal time into a single instant: it is the vision of divine love—a love supreme—that Socrates attributes to the priestess Diotima.

Composer Dylan Mattingly

Composer Dylan Mattingly

Stranger Love is deliberately counter-cultural in scale. Given the persistent fragmentation of contemporary life into ever shorter temporal intervals, hectic distraction has become a default mode of our daily experience. Large-scale art forms provide a rare opportunity to encounter and dwell within a different temporality, a kind of “slow time” (Keats) in which attention is both dilated and focused. Through the collage and sequencing of music, lyric, dance, and scenography, Stranger Love endeavors to make this kind of uncommon experience possible.

The excerpt performed at First Take begins with a small introduction to the opening of the second act, and is followed by scenes 5 and 6 from the first act. These two scenes present vignettes from the end of Summer, as the light begins to wane. Scene 5 is set against the backdrop of a midsummer night’s stillness. Here, for the first time, André begins to recognize the transience of togetherness, the eventuality of loss. Tasha responds that “Delphinium, my darling, will bloom in late summer” — now is not yet the time for tears. As Scene 6 opens, the lovers share fragments of memory from the time before they knew one another. Through these recollected moments, they try to draw one another into the sacred narratives of their lives and to imagine a future together. Against a fading light, they celebrate together “the continuous life of you and me.”

Stranger Love is being written for the New York-based new music ensemble, Contemporaneous, which I co-founded in 2010 and of I am currently the executive and co-artistic director. Contemporaneous, called “ferocious and focused” by The New York Times, is an ensemble of 21 musicians who are dedicated to the commissioning and performance of the most exciting music of now.

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

So much of the music that I love is sung. I think that’s likely true for a lot of people, and I’m attracted to the visceral power of the human voice. Something about being sung to signals to us that there is a connection taking place, that something is being felt simultaneously in you and me across the impermeable negative space that will ever distinguish us from each other.

While we often imagine Greek tragedy in an almost sterile environment, intoned in lugubrious waves of ethos, truly the experience of Oedipus, of The Oresteia, was a fundamentally musical event, a tremendously immersive show of music, dance, and poetry. In 2013, both my musical work and academic life (I have a B.A. in Classics, specializing in Ancient Greek from Bard College) aligned around the intricate and ecstatic musical tradition of Greek tragedy in the 5th century B.C. And while we imagine 70 attendees in a black box theater, the performance of tragedy in Athens was more like the Superbowl. Both the strange and beautiful patterns of the rhythm in Euripides’s words and the inherent unknowability of its true sound I find to be endlessly fascinating, and offered to me a wonderful vantage point from which I might imagine the role of the human voice in drama. Using this study as a point of departure, I wrote a large-scale work entitled The Bakkhai, which sets the seven choruses of Euripides’ terrifying and beautiful play to create my own entirely new personal and imaginary folk music. Work on Stranger Love has felt in some ways to be an extension of this communal and effervescent vocal tradition, and is as well inspired by my study of the polyphonic vocal music traditions of the Bayaka tribes in Central Africa and the choir of Rapa Iti, a small island in the South Pacific.

Does your composition process change at all when writing in this medium?

I wouldn’t say my compositional process has changed in working on Stranger Love so much as my thrust as a composer and the process of writing has led me singularly on this path towards this piece. And indeed, I don’t think Stranger Love could exist otherwise. After all, few things could be further removed from the aesthetic expectations of the modern public sphere than a five hour long piece of music and theater that presupposes the power of abstraction, the value of perspective, and the importance of total joy. I’ve chosen to write this massive opera, more dream than waking life — and closer to the nightmusic of that non-linguistic visceral space wherein we fall in love than the house of language in which we move by day — not for any monetary gain (there is none) or compelled by any external factor, but because I know it to be the best thing that I can do. I want to write music not because it adheres to the world we accept, but because it offers an experience of the world as we might hope to live it. Once we’ve imagined something, it already exists.

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

As a composer, Stranger Love is an all-encompassing experience. For an opera that seeks to be totally immersive, about an almost violently undiscerning joy in the spectrum of being alive on this planet, it would feel like a divestment of responsibility were I to ever let this piece out of my mind.

While I am not working on any other compositional projects, I am working as the executive director and co-artistic director of Contemporaneous, the NY-based new-music ensemble of 21 musicians, which I co-founded in 2010. Contemporaneous has performed over 100 concerts and presented the world premiere of more than 75 new works since its start seven years ago, and we have a big show coming up in April in NY (April 11th at Roulette in Brooklyn and April 15th in Tivoli, NY) consisting of four world premieres and incredible new large-scale microtonal music for the ensemble. I couldn’t be more proud of what Contemporaneous is doing and can’t wait to be a part of bringing these wonderful and daring new works to life (by composers Katherine Balch, Kyle Gann, Shawn Jaeger, and Kristofer Svensson).

Check back tomorrow for our next interview, and get your First Take tickets at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/first-take-2017-and-second-take-bonnie-clyde-tickets-27916364598.

First Take: Laura Karpman on balls

The 2017 edition of The Industry and wild Up’s First Take is right around the corner. On February 24, the world’s most audacious opera company presents scenes from works-in-progress by six composers. Full details on that are up at theindustryla.org/projects/first-take-2017. Over here at New Classic LA, we’ll repeat our tradition of one composer interview per day in the week leading up to it. You can read all of the interviews – including the 2015 interviews – at newclassic.la/firsttake.

Today we’ve got Laura Karpman.

Composer Laura Karpman

Composer Laura Karpman

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

You’ll be hearing a portion of my opera balls, written about the iconic tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. a work that has a lot of humor, a lot of play, but also recognizes the consequences of this historic event.

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

I’ve written several large scale works for voice including the Grammy award winning Ask Your Mama, which was a commission from Carnegie Hall, and a children’s opera Wilde Tales, commissioned by the Glimmerglass festival. I’ve always loved opera, and I grew up as a singer, singing both jazz and concert music.

Does your composition process change at all when writing in this medium?

I am asked this question a lot… is it different being a film composer from being a concert music composer or an opera composer? I have to say that I’m the same composer in whatever medium I’m working in. There are obviously differences in scoring a video game or a movie where you’re working around dialogue, but drama is drama, and honestly I use a lot of the same skills I have developed in film in opera composing.

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

I’m currently scoring or second season of Underground, a fantastic series on WGN that I’m very proud of. I just scored with my writing partner Raphael Saadiq, Step which was a hit at Sundance, and we created a song for it as well. There are lots more film projects on the horizon as well as a string trio based on California surf music. I am also currently developing Ask Your Mama as a VR project.

Check back tomorrow for our next interview, and get your First Take tickets at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/first-take-2017-and-second-take-bonnie-clyde-tickets-27916364598.

First Take: Nicholas Deyoe on Haydn’s Head

The 2017 edition of The Industry and wild Up’s First Take is right around the corner. On February 24, the world’s most audacious opera company presents scenes from works-in-progress by six composers. Full details on that are up at theindustryla.org/projects/first-take-2017. Over here at New Classic LA, we’ll repeat our tradition of one composer interview per day in the week leading up to it. You can read all of the interviews – including the 2015 interviews – at newclassic.la/firsttake.

We start today with LA’s own Nicholas Deyoe.

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

Composer Nicholas Deyoe

Composer Nicholas Deyoe

Haydn’s Head is a project that Rick Burkhardt (librettist) and I have been talking about for 4 years. Joseph Haydn died in 1809, during Napoleon’s occupation of Vienna. The chaos and confusion of this time allowed Joseph Carl Rosenbaum and Johann Nepomuk Peter, two phrenology enthusiasts, to rob Haydn’s grave and steal the head. Rosenbaum believed he could study the skull to better understand the secret of musical genius. Rick used this as his jumping-off point and created a fantastic story that blends history with satire. It’s kind of a “buddy comedy” between Rosenbaum (the lead grave robber) and Haydn’s severed head. The characters you’ll get to meet in the scenes presented on First Take are: Napoleon, both grave robbers, Haydn’s Head, an ill-tempered pair of policemen, Haydn’s headless body, and a random (and disturbingly fresh) severed head obtained so that Haydn’s body may have a new head. For this performance, DanRae Wilson has designed a Head that will be present for these scenes. I haven’t seen the finished Head yet, but the test images I’ve seen have me very excited.

The incredible cast is:
Napoleon – Jon Lee Keenan
Joseph Carl Rosenbaum – Leslie Leytham
Johann Nepomuk Peter/Haydn’s New Head – James Hayden (a happy coincidence)
Haydn’s Head/Haydn’s Body – Stephanie Aston
2 police officers – Derek Stein and his Cello

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

This is my first opera, but I’ve written a lot for the voice in the 10 years that I’ve known my wife, soprano Stephanie Aston.

Did your composition process change at all when writing in this medium?

I haven’t found that my actual process of composing vocal music has changed in this situation, but working in a dramatic context has definitely shifted the way I think about style. This opera calls on every style of music I’ve composed, often quickly changing or combined in ways that I probably wouldn’t have done in my “concert music.” There is also a lot more quotation (Haydn, of course) than I would usually use, though I’ve definitely referenced older music in my compositions in the past.

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

People should check out wastelandmusic.org, of course!
I’m also working on a collaboration with local metal/thrash/hardcore/weirdo band Grand Lord High Master. I don’t know exactly what shape this is going to take, but I’m intensely exited for it. gnarwhallaby will almost definitely be involved. GLHM’s debut album comes out this Spring on Kill All Music. http://www.destroyexist.com/2017/01/grand-lord-high-master-flexxx.html.

Check back tomorrow for our next interview, and get your First Take tickets at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/first-take-2017-and-second-take-bonnie-clyde-tickets-27916364598.

Album Preview: Hopscotch

I’m submitting this as my review of the soon-to-be-released recording of The Industry’s Hopscotch opera project, but here’s the thing: No such thing exists. Conceived by The Industry’s Artistic Director, Yuval Sharon, Hopscotch was an opera presented in the fall of 2015 in twenty four cars driving between a number of locations scattered around Los Angeles. At the start of each performance, a few audience members would get into each of the cars along with a group of performers, and would then experience part of the opera en route to the next physical location, where they’d see another scene before being whisked away in another car. To make matters more confounding, the cars travelled along three different routes, meaning that any given audience member could only see part of the whole in any given performance. Only at the very end did all of the routes converge on a central location for the final scene.

Needless to say, this project doesn’t lend itself easily to a traditional recording. Do you present each of the car routes as a unit to approximate the experience of attending? Do you present the scenes in order to give a view of the work impossible for someone who attended it to have seen? How do you balance the inside of a limo against an open-air concrete bank of the Los Angeles River?

Difficult questions, and ones without obvious answers. Fortunately, with current technology, we can sidestep some of them. With the album released as files on a flash drive instead of tracks on a CD, you’re free to open them in any order and explore the world of this opera as you see fit. You can follow each of the car routes separately, play everything in the order of the plot, or even sort things out by individual composer or lyricist. (There were six primary composers for the project and six primary librettists, all working in a range of different styles in their respective fields.) The liner notes — in the form of a wide-ranging interview with Sharon and Josh Raab, the opera’s dramaturg — encourage this kind of self-guided exploration, though elsewhere in the booklet there are some helpful lists of which tracks to listen to to follow which routes.

Unsurprisingly, given the range of artists that contributed to this project, the tracks cover a lot of ground. “Lucha’s Quinceñera Song” (music by David Rosenboom and text by Janine Salinas Schoenberg) is a sweetly plaintive verse-chorus affair, while “Floats the Roving Nebula” (music by Ellen Reid and text by Mandy Kahn) hovers in an ecstatic crystalline stasis. “Jameson and Lucha in the Park” (music by Mark Lowenstein and text by Erin Young) presents a tightly controlled dance number coordinated with spoken dialogue, while other spoken sections feature music improvised by the contemporary performing group Gnarwhallaby. The plot is a surreally altered (but predictably heterosexual) retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, and snatches of Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 treatment of the same myth rub up against bristlingly contemporary soundscapes. There are as many contrasts as there are tracks on the album.

Such stylistic diversity can make for an uneven listening experience, especially when paired with the differing qualities of the recordings. Some of the tracks are beautifully mastered studio takes, while others are invaluable field recordings from the site-specific scenes around town. Obviously, there’s room enough in the world for both of these approaches to recording, but repeatedly switching back and forth with such short notice can be a little jarring. (So perhaps another fruitful approach to organizing your listening could be to tackle all the field recordings followed by all the studio takes, or vice versa.)

These slight jars, however, feel in keeping with the nature of the project. Hopscotch the opera wasn’t a singular experience as much as it was a collection of possible experiences, and Hopscotch the album follows suit. There’s no one single recording of the work; there’s a collection of possible recordings all dizzyingly contained on a single flash drive. Elsewhere in the liner notes, Sharon describes the piece not as an opera but as a web, a series of interconnected points with many possible paths leading between them, none more inherently valid than any of the others. The more I listen to the album, the more this description feels right. This album isn’t a documentation or presentation of an artistic event that happened and is now over, it’s an invitation to enter into this world and explore it on your own terms, to find your own way through the work’s myriad winding paths, to make the piece yours as only you can. It’s an opera in twenty four cars, and you’re the one behind the wheel.

You can order the “album” at records.theindustryla.org/album/hopscotch.

The Industry is presenting two events on January 20 to celebrate the release. Details are below:

Panel discussion
Friday, January 20 (4 pm)
USC, Wallis Annenberg Hall (ANN), Room L105A
3630 Watt Way, Los Angeles
Panelists include composers Veronika Krausas and Marc Lowenstein, Yuval Sharon of The Industry, and arts journalists Mark Swed and Sasha Anawalt (moderator).

Hopscotch in Concert
Friday, January 20 (7:30 pm)
USC, Newman Recital Hall (AHF)
3616 Trousdale Parkway, Los Angeles
This special evening emceed by director Yuval Sharon will be the first live concert of songs from the opera. Six chapters from the work will be performed (one from each of its six composers), including the expansive choral finale by Andrew Norman.