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.
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.
LA opera powerhouse The Industry just announced the list of composers who have been selected for their 2015 First Take event. The afternoon opera-thon gives first readings to new pieces and, if I’m not mistaken, one is usually chosen for The Industry to produce. 2015’s will be at the new Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 21 at 1 pm, with wild Up serving as house orchestra.
The composers are:
Jason Thorpe Buchanan
Jenny Olivia Johnson
A more detailed post about the project is up at http://theindustryla.org/projects/project_firsttake15.php
The Industry is also holding open auditions for singers interested in First Take and Hopscotch. Interested singers should submit their resume, headshots, and performance sample web links to auditions@TheIndustryLA.org.