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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 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

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 See you tonight.

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