Posts Tagged ‘opera’

anatomy theater

Timur (top center) as Ambrose Strang, with (left to right, foreground) Peabody Southwell as Sarah Osborne, Robert Osborne as Baron Peel and Marc Kudisch as Joshua Crouch in the world premiere of David Lang's "anatomy theater." (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

Timur (top center) as Ambrose Strang, with (left to right, foreground) Peabody Southwell as Sarah Osborne, Robert Osborne as Baron Peel and Marc Kudisch as Joshua Crouch in the world premiere of David Lang’s “anatomy theater.” (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

Like many operas, David Lang’s anatomy theater (with a libretto by Lang and Mark Dion) – presented by the LA Opera and Beth Morrison Projects – ends with a woman dead on stage. Unlike many operas, said woman is dead when the curtain goes up, and her status has little impact on her ability to sing. Set ambiguously around the start of the 18th Century in England, the premise of the work is that the audience is the audience for a medical dissection. At the time, the only bodies available for dissection were those of executed convicts, and anatomists believed that the organs of a law-breaker were marked by their crimes, turning public dissections into moral spectacles where law-abiding citizens could see purported marks of evil in a criminal’s corpse. (Needless to say, there was also an element of inflicting further punishment on the convict even after death.)

And so we have our criminal: Sarah Osborne (played masterfully by Peabody Southwell) who, in an aria on the gallows before her execution in the lobby before the show proper begins, confesses to murdering her children and abusive husband, defiantly expresses her expectation that God will forgive her and receive her soul into Heaven — or, failing that, “if [her] Lord and Savior will be so cruel to [her] as men and women have been, [she] had rather burn in the flames of Hell.” The executioner is Joshua Crouch (Marc Kudisch), who also happens to be the impresario for the dissection that is to follow. “Don’t you feel safer?” he bellows at the gathered crowd, gesturing at the limp corpse of the hanged Osborne. The crowd — treated to complementary sausages and beer to better recreate the atmosphere of a public execution — laughed nervously, the first of many deliberate disconnects between the attitudes of the 21st–Century Americans we actually were and the 18th–Century Englishmen (and men were the only people allowed at “public” dissections) the characters treated us as. In the theater itself, Crouch is joined by Baron Peel (Robert Osborne) and his assistant Ambrose Strang (Timur). Strang does the work of cutting up the body and extracting its organs, while Peel pontificates about the nature of evil, the balances of the Four Humors, and other such sundries.

Peabody Southwell as Sarah Osborne in the world premiere of David Lang's "anatomy theater." (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

Peabody Southwell as Sarah Osborne in the world premiere of David Lang’s “anatomy theater.” (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

Not surprisingly, this is a gristly affair. Most of us would likely find a human dissection unpleasant to watch under the best of circumstances, but here the air is soured still further by the undercurrent of female objectification taken to its most literal extreme; Sarah Osborne’s body is a literal object for men to toy with, cut to pieces, and condemn. And yet, much to Peel’s chagrin, Strang finds each organ removed immaculate, describing Osborne’s stomach, spleen, heart, and uterus in hagiographic terms and utterly thwarting Peel’s quest to find the mark of Satan’s handiwork. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, it is only Strang who seems to hear Osborne when she shudders back to a ghostly simulacrum of life towards the opera’s final third.) After Peel concedes failure and departs, Crouch offers to continue the dissection informally “around the back” — for a fee, of course.

Gristly as these proceedings are, the score is a far cry from a relentless stream of horrors. There are certainly moments of strident dissonance, but there are others of transcendent radiance — much of the dissection itself falls somewhere uneasily in between, torn between the marvelous inner workings of the human body and the raging misogyny and hypocrisy that surround this particular exploration of them. The bulk of the music flits lightly between twitchy recitative and more languorous arioso passages, with hints of minimalism and art pop lurking just out of sight, but there are a few moments towards the beginning that seem to veer closer to pastiche: One, Baron Peel’s first introduction, borrowing the caustic updating of early English operetta found in Brecht/Weill’s Threepenny Opera and the other, a long and bizarre ensemble number announcing the pending description of the anatomist’s tools, poking gentle fun at certain excesses of Philip Glass.

Directed by Bob McGrath and Music Director Christopher Rountree (the Artistic Director of wild Up, which served as the pit orchestra for the show), the four singers brought their roles to powerful life. Southwell’s Osborne was by turns defiant, distraught, and desperate, displaying the full range of the human heart and showing with countless subtleties the overpowering forces that might make someone conclude that murder was their best and only means of escape from an unconscionable situation. Crouch, as played by Kudisch, is a lecherous scoundrel, driven by nothing more than the desire to line his own pockets. Timur brought an air of dazed reverence to the role of Strang, a young man, clearly out of his depth, but standing firmly by what he knows to be true in pronouncing each organ unblemished even in the face of Peel’s considerable displeasure. And Robert Osborne, in turn, was a thunderously self-righteous Peel, genuinely convinced of the justness of his cause and unbending in the face of any possible contradictory evidence. In his final aria, he sends the audience away with a dire warning to be on the lookout for omnipresent evil. “Where is evil?” he snarls, “There it is! There it is! There it is!”, jabbing his finger every which way. He points everywhere except himself.

Andriessen’s Theatre of the World

At one point towards the middle of Theatre of the World — a new opera with music by Louis Andriessen and a libretto by Helmut Krausser that received its world première on Friday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall with the LA Philharmonic playing under the baton of Reinbert de Leeuw — Pope Innocenzo IX asks cantankerously “how long is this going to last?,” followed not long thereafter by a petulant “I just want to leave!” Setting such lines in a contemporary opera always seems a bit like tempting fate, as there’s a very real chance some members of the audience will genuinely feel the same way. But the house was free of nervous chuckles at that moment, and no one seems to have taken it as their cue to leave.

Not that there wasn’t laughter at other points over the bizarre course of the evening. The Pope (played by Marcel Beekman) says those lines shortly after being transported to Egypt around 1400 BC, along with Athanasius Kircher (Leigh Melrose), a German Jesuit polymath of the 1600s; a twelve-year-old boy (Lindsay Kesselman), who later turns out to be the Devil; and Janssonius (Steven Van Watermeulen), Kircher’s publisher in Amsterdam. This follows mercurial scenes set variously in Rome and Amsterdam, and is followed in turn by a visit to Babylon, a phantasmagorical lovers’ duet, and a gristly scene where the Boy/Devil eats Kircher’s heart — just cut out of his recently deceased body — only to discover that Kircher’s soul has escaped his clutches and gone up to Heaven. If this sounds a tad bewildering, it was, though perhaps not unintentionally. In an extensive program note, the composer is quoted explaining that his score “is intended to provide a jostling, surreal, Bosch-like world summed up in the work’s description as ‘a Grotesque.’”

Demanding sense and orderliness from this, then, is probably a fool’s errand. The historical Kircher was a man of many interests, and over the course of his life published dozens of monumental tomes in a determined effort to summarize every piece of knowledge known at the time. Much of this “knowledge,” being based on 17th–Century methodologies, hasn’t exactly been supported by subsequent inquiry, but his works were wildly popular in his day, and there has been a recent resurgence of interest in his books, not the least because of their beautiful illustrations. The opera ostensibly takes Kircher as its subject, pairing his scholarly interests with the Jesuit conception of the world as a stage on which a cosmic play authored by God unfolds (hence the title), but the character of Kircher Krauser and Andriessen present takes the historical person more as a starting point for fantasy than as a goal to capture. They gives us a Kircher plagued by visions and demons, and while this seems like a clear reference to tropes associated with various Christian mystics, I can’t find any evidence that Kircher would be an appropriate fit for such things. The staging (by Pierre Audi) adds another uncomfortable wrinkle, with Kircher twitching and stimming as though he has some (unspecified) mental illness. It was a strange decision, and one I don’t really understand.

A scene from Los Angeles Philharmonic's production of "Theatre of the World." Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

A scene from Los Angeles Philharmonic’s production of “Theatre of the World.” Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Regrettably, it wasn’t the only questionable staging choice. At numerous times, both Kircher and the Pope grope, grind up against, and otherwise molest both each other and various other characters. Only once is this even mentioned in the libretto, and even then has no impact on the rest of the plot, such as it is. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the director was using sexual content in a cliched attempt to be shocking and outré, with no deeper meaning in mind. The nadir for this was probably when three witches entered to disrupt the love scene in the second half. If you were deliberately setting out to write a scene to illustrate various Queer Theory ideas about how non-normative sexualities have been demonized in media, you could hardly come up with a clearer example than this. The two lovers — identified only as He and She (Martijn Cornet and Nora Fischer, respectively) — sing a rustic, folksy duet of rapturous devotion, the picture of monogamous heterosexual bliss. They are then set upon by the three Witches (Charlotte Houberg, Sophie Fetokaki, and Ingeborg Bröchler) who, dressed in dominatrix garb, sing a jazz–inflected diatribe against the male gender, urging the female lover to join their decadent world of liberated female sexuality and ultimately striking the male lover dead. (He gets better.) To drive the point home, the Witches are working directly for the Devil himself, and make their first entrance by climbing up out of a trapdoor in the center of the stage. Subtle.

In spite of all this, there is much that is attractive in this score. Andriessen weaves together numerous influences with a deft touch, producing something that feels like a thoroughly integrated whole for all the disparate sound worlds it integrates. If some contemporary composers have opted for a path of pastiche, blithely pasting patches of different styles together without evening out any of the seams (a choice which, needless to say, can be powerfully effective at times), Andriessen instead seems to be bending his masterful craftsmanship to smoothing over the gaps until it’s impossible to tell just where one style stops and the next begins. At one point, a brass fanfare that could have been quoted directly from Gabrielli bypasses centuries of music history in mere seconds to morph effortlessly into a figure Copland could have penned — this fanfare being built around the drooping, all but atonal trombone motive that opens the work, and that elsewhere is transfigured in the woodwinds into a march that keeps threatening to become the passage from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen Mahler recycles in the first movement of his first symphony. And yet it all feels like one; the unity of the musical fabric never feels in danger of coming unwoven.

Even more astonishing is the balance Andriessen has struck between the density of his orchestrational colors and the underlying transparency of the texture. Many of the sounds Andriessen deploys are gnarly composites of several instruments, rich treats for the ear to unpick as they pass by, duets for bass and contrabass clarinet alternating with electric guitars, synthesizers, and a large percussion battery, among many other sonic resources. And yet the complexity never goes to far; the score is never muddy, even in the ferocious tutti passages that erupt at various climax points. This music is a virtuosic display of the compositional dexterity needed to balance an intricate net of details at the smallest level against overarching clarity at the largest.

Still, at times it felt like I was listening to an incredible orchestra piece that someone had, for some reason, pasted an opera on top of. There’s a long tradition of composers cobbling together instrumental suites from their operas, and I sincerely hope Andriessen continues that practice. Theatre of the World is full of attractive music, any of which I would very much like to listen to again without having to watch a Baroque Pope dry humping one of Europe’s last Renaissance men while a sarcastic publisher looks on with a Devil wearing a Batman shirt and exercise pants. Unlike Innocenzo IX, I didn’t want to leave. I just wanted to close my eyes.

Review: Missy Mazzoli/LA Opera: Song from the Uproar

I can imagine no better way to be introduced to the LA Opera than by this show. I had no idea what to expect, only hope that it might be a nice way to spend a Friday evening. Of all the shows in LA, I figured I might as well check out something brand new. I was in for a treat.

Isabelle Eberhardt, played by the incredibly talented Abigail Fischer, had several distinct lives and deaths, recollected through cobbled diary pages. Missy Mazzoli wanted to give her a proper homage through equally cobbled yet bleakly beautiful music. Using distorted guitars, stuttering electronic sounds, pure voices, and a wailing cello and flute tell Isabelle’s tragic stories. Videos on transparent scrims add further layers of emotion to the story, complementing the music. The chorus sometimes acted as a reflection of Isabelle, and other times sang duets with her. The musicians and their instruments were as much characters in the story as Isabelle. The cello cried, the flute sang, and clarinet drank coffee and the piano just drank.

One of my favorite moments was when Isabelle moved off her pillow in an opium den and sat with the pianist on his bench. He abandoned her there, and she carried on the tune the best she could. A melody usually implements small intervals for easy singing, but the song in the opium den had enormous intervals, which I imagined represented the highs and lows of drug use. My favorite song overall was “One Hundred Names for God,” when she goes through her religious phase near the beginning. The choreography was stunning, and the many different names dripped like glittering water from Isabelle’s mouth while the instruments lilted along deferentially.

Other songs featured amplified flute signaling a period of exploration, and guitar performing a heartbeat emulating blood rushing to one’s ears in a moment of high tension and fear. At the very end, when Isabelle dies in a flash flood, the guitar swells and grows like a physical presence, and cuts short the instant her life does. This perhaps sounds cliché, and rereading this review sheds light on what made the music so subtly effective in the moment. It’s a silken beauty like seeing the ocean in the moonlight that makes one wax poetic and at the same time fail to find the words. Through such a short but intense opera, the audience falls in love with Isabelle Eberhardt and our hearts break when the music ends her life.

In short, I cannot rave about this opera enough, especially the musicians. It only ran for the one weekend, but there will be many more performances by the LA Opera and from the Beth Morrison Projects this season. Buy your tickets early!

First Take: Artistic Director Yuval Sharon

All week we’ve been interviewing the composers for wild Up and The Industry’s First Take 2015, taking place tomorrow (February 21) at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Today, in the last interview of our series, we’ve got The Industry’s Artistic Director, Yuval Sharon.

Before we get into it, I want to publicly thank both Yuval and wild Up’s Christopher Rountree, and all of the musicians and staff of both organizations, for putting First Take together. What you guys do for composers ,and for the music and arts community in LA, is amazing, and inspiring. Thank you.

Here’s Yuval.

The Industry's Yuval Sharon

The Industry’s Yuval Sharon

First off, congratulations on the Götz Friedrich Prize and the numerous other awards and nominations you’ve been receiving. You’ve been getting more and more attention internationally, and that must come with invitations to collaborate and create. Has it been challenging to balance that with what you want to do with The Industry?

Thank you! I feel so fortunate that the work I have been doing has been recognized so widely for opening up new possibilities for opera. I have to say no to a lot of projects now based on the all-too-limited amount of time in a day, and that is sometimes hard. But dedication demands sacrifice, and I am so devoted to the mission of The Industry that there’s no regret on my part when I have to pass on opportunities that would keep me from The Industry. The ones I do take on are selected very carefully and with an eye first and foremost towards my artistic goals with The Industry. On the other hand, as the company is growing, I am starting to have a stronger support structure that can help me focus mostly on the artistic aspects of The Industry, and this is an enormous benefit. Hiring Elizabeth Cline as Executive Director last November is a major step in that direction, and I am so excited to see where we steer this company together in the years ahead.

In addition to providing composers a place to try out new ideas in opera, what goals are you pursuing with First Take?

First Take gives me so much hope for the future of opera. The six projects we are showcasing this year are astonishing as singular expressions, but the cumulative effect of all six is overwhelming. I want that excitement transmitted to our audience, and also to each of the composers on the program, to show them how much their work matters and how strong it is. Composing must be such a lonely exercise, especially when you are still finding your voice, or trying something that doesn’t fit in a standard operatic box.

Beyond that, the composers will receive high-quality audio and video documentation of the performance to assist them in getting their works fully produced. These are essential tools for composers; I hope, too, that as the First Take program continues (we expect to continue a biannual schedule) that it becomes more and more of a stamp of approval for other companies.

What’s your musical background? Did you come to opera through theatre or as a musician? 

I studied piano for most of my childhood and teenage years, and I sang in high school choruses. I stopped playing or singing when I went to UC Berkeley, but that’s when my love for opera really developed, as well as an interest in musicology and the interpretation of music. Now I only sing in the car — but I love doing that!

Even though I had that musical background, it wasn’t until I thought of opera in relation to theater or cinema that I finally got into it. My dad took me to the opera in high school and it just seemed like a weird, outdated ritual, happening too far away to have any visceral impact on me. It was a fun night out with my dad but not something I could take seriously. When I went to school, I started missing the experience and started thinking about opera’s theatrical possibilities.

A scene from The Industry's production of Anne LeBaron's Crescent City

A scene from The Industry’s production of Anne LeBaron’s Crescent City

What is it about LA that made you decide this was the right place to found your company? Have we lived up to your expectations?

Finding a creative home is a highly personal choice and depends more on your own goals and aesthetic concerns than external factors. For some people, New York feeds their creative spirit; for others, it’s Detroit, or Seattle, or Miami. I had a hunch that the artists and audiences that make up LA’s community would be the right one for the work I wanted to create and foster. I am constantly astonished by how easily The Industry has managed to establish itself in the cultural fabric of the city. The community here is one I feel completely aligned with and excited to create work for and with. That’s a powerful feeling that gives me the faith to push to ever new limits.

Got any new tidbits you can share with us about Hopscotch?

Only that it is the craziest adventure I’ve ever undertaken, and I am both terrified and exhilarated by the last year-and-a-half of development. It’s also the most incredible experiment in collaborative creation I’ve experienced, and I am pretty sure the composers and writers would say the same. We can’t say a lot right now, but there will be a LOT to say come October. Basically, you just can’t miss it.

He’s right about the just-can’t-miss-it-ness of both Hopscotch and First Take. Come on out tomorrow. Full details are at theindustryla.org/projects/project_firsttake15.php. For more on Yuval, visit YuvalSharon.com.

First Take: Andrew McIntosh on Bonnie and Clyde

Andrew McIntosh

Andrew McIntosh

If you’re in new music in LA, you probably know the name Andrew McIntosh. His skill as a violinist and violist is invaluable as a member of the Formalist Quartet, wild Up, and others. He’s a co-founder of populist records. And his music, as a composer, is gorgeous. He’s also the final composer on our series of interviews about The Industry and wild Up’s First Take, which takes place this Saturday at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. You can read all of the interviews at newclassic.la/firsttake. Here’s Andrew, on his opera Bonnie and Clyde.

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

In creating Bonnie and Clyde, our goal was to start from what is known about the infamous couple and work our way backwards through the stories of people around them who left first-hand accounts. Melinda Rice, the librettist, has done incredibly extensive research, sifting through biographies of family members, police officers, government officials, and friends, as well as historian’s accounts. Together with Berlin-based artist Claudia Doderer we’ve designed an experience that functions like a gallery of images of Bonnie and Clyde, filtered through the subjective eyes of the people around them. In a way, Bonnie and Clyde are not illuminated by this opera, but are left open as characters that the audience can find for themselves. In portraying this story, there are a few questions that are explored. What is it about their lives that has come to symbolize freedom and love in popular culture, when the actual lives that they led were extremely unglamorous, tedious, and full of poverty and tension? Since the accounts that have been left behind are sometimes contradictory, how do we attempt to portray a factual representation of important events in their lives? Why has our society been so fascinated be them, even 80 years after they lived? Is there something universally human about their characters that makes us identify with them?

Musically, the score reflects Bonnie and Clyde’s lives on every level. The shape of each layer and corner in the music is a reflection of the tension, the openness, and the unexpectedness of their lives. Bonnie and Clyde are embedded in the score in other ways as well. Clyde played the saxophone and a large feature of the orchestration is a pair of antiphonal saxophones (although I didn’t know that Clyde played saxophone at the time that choice was made). A classic American steel-string guitar is also prominently featured in the orchestra, as are piano and vibraphone. The only thing Bonnie was afraid of was thunder, and their deaths are represented by the use of thunder sheets. The passage of time can be felt on multiple levels as well, often with a layer that is moving very slowly underneath layers that move at more active pacing, with voices sometimes floating on top in yet another layer of time. I think that this might have been my subconscious way of expressing the constant tension between open field and city that defined their daily existence.

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

This project is the culmination of several years worth of attempts at translating my musical language into something vocal. It is certainly a different language than my comfort zone of instrumental writing. That instrumental relationship to sound has developed during 25 years of playing the violin, and it’s difficult to transcend that. Writing for singers feels naked and vulnerable, and I am in awe of the power and depth that words and human voices bring to music.

I have immersed myself in the land of performing with singers very heavily over the past few years through the work that I do as a period instrument baroque musician, working with Bach Collegium San Diego, American Bach Soloists, LA Master Chorale, Tesserae, and other early music ensembles. Also, during my undergraduate degree I spent two seasons as a violist with the Nevada Opera. I derive a lot of inspiration from studying and performing old music, and the performance aesthetic around it as well. In general, the performers tend to have common interests in creating something that is highly emotional through the use of subtlety, nuance, color, and shape; interests that I also share. I first met several of the singers in Bonnie and Clyde through working in the early music community and I am incredibly happy with the entire cast of Bonnie and Clyde.

I also just recently invested a huge amount of energy into another Industry project (Hopscotch) writing for another singer that I met through the early music community, Estelí Gomez from Roomful of Teeth. Every aspect of the vocal writing was written specifically for Estelí’s remarkable voice and unique talents. I find it incredibly helpful to have a specific singer in mind and write for that particular person when I’m writing for voice. It definitely changes what comes out on paper.

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

I don’t know that it changes my process very much, but I feel changed as a person. I still use a pen and a ruler and start with drawings of the forms of the works on blank paper, finding patterns and symmetries in the content of the material and making maps of the harmony (more or less my typical process). The only significant difference in process is that now the very first step consists of writing out the text several times by hand. I have to write it myself on paper in order to internalize the rhythm and flow of the words.

It is hard to describe exactly how I feel changed since the change is still quite new and also ongoing, but I feel that working with words and voices has unlocked something in my writing that I have been trying to find for a long time. It’s actually quite emotional to hear music that I composed come directly out of other humans’ voices – more so than hearing it through the filter of an external instrument. 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. 

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

I recently completed a 40-minute commissioned percussion quartet for the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, which will be premiered at Zipper Hall on April 10. They are exquisite musicians, and it took me over two years to write the piece, so I feel quite invested in this performance!

I’m also working on a small piano concerto for Richard Valitutto and wild Up, which will be premiered on April 26 at UCLA, as well as a chamber piece for MUSA Baroque in San Francisco, and of course Hopscotch, the upcoming collaborative Industry project.

Check out more of Andrew’s music at septimalcomma.com. Full details on First Take are up at http://theindustryla.org/projects/project_firsttake15.php. While Andrew is the final composer in this year’s First Take series, there’s still one interview yet to go: The Industry’s artistic director, Yuval Sharon, who will be featured here tomorrow at noon. See you then.

First Take: Nomi Epstein on TRANSLATION

All week we’ve been posting an interview a day with the composers on The Industry and wild Up’s First Take event, taking place on February 21. Most of those composers have written operas. Nomi Epstein, today’s guest, seems to have broken opera down and potentially created something entirely new.

Composer Nomi Epstein. Photo by Marc Perlish photography.

Composer Nomi Epstein. Photo by Marc Perlish photography.

 

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

TRANSLATION: a conceptual chamber opera is a work which distills the conceptual material of opera- a complex layering of translations-while dismissing the tradition of opera’s expressivity, dialogue, and narrative/dramatic structure.

The topic of translation has been important in my work since 2007 when I began dissecting the compositional process by looking at how an idea for a piece materializes or translates itself into an actual sonic piece of work (i.e. the various steps/types of translation this idea takes in order to get to its sonic point). I am fascinated by how the end point is so far from the beginning, clearly demonstrating distortion of the initial idea due partly to translational processes the composer can’t control -the brain processing and translating material/ideas into other formats, the interaction between the performer and the score, the sonic realization, the listeners perception, and what we can control- the type, specificity and character of notation.

When something is translated, it changes language, (be it spoken, structural, temporal, media type), and distortion is unavoidable. TRANSLATION raises questions regarding the nature of language, representation, perspective, (mis)communication, imitation, human thought process and the ontology of the individual.

Inherent in the process of translation, or changing one language into another, is some degree of loss of content, metaphor, or marker from the original language. In opera, a plot is translated into a durational structure containing text, sonic language (instrumental and vocal), characterization, scenery, casting, costumes, and acting, each attempting reinterpretation, communication, or translation of this original idea.  Each of the choices the composer/librettist makes in how to notate and characterize the plot is a way of communicating or translating the initial idea, and translational processes follow on the part of the performers while changing the written (score and libretto) into the sonic.

In TRANSLATION there are also multiple translation layers.  These layers can be perceived aurally and visually through a complexity of distorted relationships that the individual and group performers must navigate both from score directives, and performative means. The score challenges the performers to attempt their own forms of translation, but within very strict confines or structures that I have given them.

The most evident type of translation in this work is found between members of the ensemble.  Individually, each performer will explain/define her/himself to the group of performers (albeit abstractly), after which the remainder of the group will attempt to read/understand the individual.  While defining her/himself, each performer uses a language, whose syntax is created by the composer, unique to her/himself including the specificity of the voice/language, and the perspective of first person, among various other musical parameters.  When others try to “know” this performer, they each must translate information using their own tools, interpreting their findings, and realizing them sonically.

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

Though I haven’t written an opera before, I’ve written a lot for voice, and also several large scale structures.

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

No For several years I’ve been focusing on translation as a structural inquiry and as pre-compositional thought, and have also worked with text score notation.

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

Right now I’m working on a trio for Sonic Hedgehog, a US/European ensemble, a text score for my ensemble a.pe.ri.od.ic, and a large ensemble work for this year’s Dog Star Orchestra.

Here’s a solo piano work of Nomi Epstein’s, recorded by Eliza Garth.

Recordings of more of Nomi’s recordings are available at nomiepstein.com/Sounds.htmlTomorrow in of our series of interviews with the composers on First Take we’ve got Andrew McIntosh. Complete details on First Take 2015 are available at http://theindustryla.org/projects/project_firsttake15.php.

First Take: Paul Pinto on Unintelligible Response

NEWS FLASH: we just found out that the Silverlake Neighborhood Council is hosting an open rehearsal with wild Up and The Industry tonight at 8. Full details are at http://silverlakenc.org/events/?mc_id=1811. Okay, here’s today’s interview.

Paul Pinto is next up in our series of interviews with the composers for The Industry and wild Up’s First Take 2015. You can read all of the interviews at newclassic.la/firsttake. I’m particularly excited for Paul’s work, as I’ve always found what happened to Thomas Paine after writing Common Sense totally fascinating. Apparently Paul follows Paine into the afterlife. Read on.

Composer Paul Pinto

Composer Paul Pinto

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

Unintelligible Response is one scene of a large opera-in-progress I’m developing called Thomas Paine in Violence. Broadly, the piece centers around the last few moments and made-up afterlife of the American Founding Father, pitting him against the noise of the modern American media landscape. In this scene, Paine’s Spirit, portrayed by Joan La Barbara is in a timeless, placeless radio station. She has just come off the air (whatever that means) and is having a rather colorful dispute with her peers in the control room (the instrumentalists), and the voices in their heads (the manchorus).

Here’s another excerpt from the opera, titled Radio Edit:

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

I’m a singer, but I guess we all are. I’ve used my voice a lot in performance and I almost always begin a composition from the voice – even before I was writing my more “theatrical” tunes. When I was in undergrad and grad school, you know, I wrote some pretty mediocre operetta and songs (who hasn’t) while I was obsessed with music that was in the tradition of Britten. But I was a shitty storyteller, and for me, English just didn’t need to be performed that way anymore. So when I discovered Samuel Beckett, Harry Partch, Robert Ashley and some other fabulous experimenters, I started to care a different way about the English language, and specifically how to set it. So with the collectives thingNY and Varispeed, we started to create work together that experimented with text and sound. After eight years of collaboratively-written stuff, and a lot of shorter compositions, I turned to Thomas Paine and his fucked up afterlife to try to say something in my own style.

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

Not really. I started with a bunch of text, as usual, and sang it aloud a bunch of times, recorded it, listened back, did it again, etc. etc. Lots of edits later, I have a libretto, I have the timbres I want to work with, and I have pulse, a pace and a style. That’s, like, 70% of it. The last part is putting the notes in (probably 5%) and figuring out how to communicate it best (the most grueling and painful final 25%).

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

Loads! But I don’t want to go off message. I’ve decided to write this opera with malleable scenes and versions, so that I can tour with it in bits, solo, or with one or two others while I’m still writing it. So there’s plenty more scenes and segments. I’m so incredibly fortunate that it’s been picked up by HERE, a producing partner in New York, so if anyone ever ventures out there, I’ll probably be doing something Paine related. Come say hello.

Coming up soon is thingNY’s new opera This Takes Place Close By and Varispeed and Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives Jersey City and Perfect Lives Philadelphia. If you enjoy some of this work, I have a mailing list. You can sign up at www.pfpinto.com.

Paul nailed the usual link to his site that goes here for us! What a sweet guy. Tomorrow in of our series of interviews with the composers on First Take we’ve got Nomi Epstein. Complete details on First Take 2015 are available at http://theindustryla.org/projects/project_firsttake15.php.

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.