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: 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.