Friday, May 23, 2014

Writing an opera? Am I insane?

For a long time, now, I've had an idea for an opera. I even started planning and writing parts of it. A reading of a couple of bits of it taught me two things:

  1. I like the direction this is going.
  2. I need to rewrite it.

Yep. Rewriting a supposedly finished song is a pain, but so is surgery. The hope with both is that by enduring the pain and effort you'll not only recover from the surgery, but come out in better shape than when you went under the knife. In this case, it's more like plastic surgery. I've got to trim away some bits to slim them down and put in implants to fill other bits out.

My original goal for this summer was to finish the opera. I've got a feeling I won't get it done, though. Writing an opera is a big deal for a composer. It's a massive undertaking and everything seems to hinge on the libretto. How do you tell the story, within a reasonable amount of clarity and time, and still make it musical? How do you explore all the aspects you want to without writing several operas? Series might be all the rage in movies and books these days, but I don't want to follow Wagner's example or writing a multi-part debacle like the Ring cycle. I'll be content to write just one opera per story, thank you.

Part of the problem is I've never written an opera. The prospect is a little intimidating, honestly. I've studied a few operas and written vocal and orchestral music so, I'm not exactly flying blind. It's more like I'm flying through heavy fog with a malfunctioning locator beacon. I need a flight plan.

And that's my plan of attack, really. I've got a three act outline created, with various scenes blocked out. It's a historical subject, so I've done some research and have some text selected to use for some parts. Now I just need to isolate different bits and get started.

I'll try and keep you posted.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Moving the Studio

Moving to Logan to go to school doesn’t just mean moving my family, it means moving my home studio. Even though our house is small, we’re losing about half of our square footage moving into an apartment. My studio is pretty small, consisting of a laptop, two near-field monitors, a six-channel mixer/interface, a microphone and a couple of keyboards.  It all fit’s nicely in and on a small desk I picked up at a thrift store.

While that’s not so bad at first glance, keep in mind that I’ll be moving it from my basement to my front room. That’s not so nice. Adding more furniture to an already small living room, coupled with the fact that it is a shared space (two kids and a wife), does not sound like a good recording space. Couple that with the fact that I only have a wall between me and my neighbor, and it just gets worse. Then again; the acoustics in my basement room weren’t all that great, either. It just had the advantage of being away from the common living area.

I’m not sure how much mic recording I’ll need, though. Mostly I do instrumental music, and my output is going to be limited for the next couple of years while I go to school, anyway. In fact, the next recording project I’m planning is a solo piano CD, and I can do that with the soft-synths on the laptop. There should be a few nice spaces with pianos and such at the fine arts building, anyway. As a student I doubt it would take much for me to get access to them if I needed to record something more involved.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

What Kind of Musician Am I?

It has become increasingly apparent that I need to decide what kind of music I want to be known for and what kind of musician I want to be known as. I was warned about this several years ago by my friend and fellow composer, M. Ryan Taylor. I’ve been thinking about it all this time, but it’s finally come to a point where I don’t feel I can delay this decision much longer. It’s as much about soul searching as it is defining my audience.

 This is not an easy decision for me. I grew up hearing early country and western music from my mom, who would sing older country and folk tunes that she learned from her father.

 When I was a teenager, I dreamed of playing piano and singing pop and jazz songs in clubs, or playing my trumpet in a jazz group. I know. A teenager who wants to grow up to be a lounge act is one weird kid. At the time, I was listening to a lot of big band music, like Maynard Ferguson and Glen Miller. I was also spinning folks like Chuck Mangione, Tim Weisberg and Tangerine Dream, along with a few pop and rock acts like Billy Joel, Rush and Dan Fogleberg. On top of that, I was digging the likes of Beethoven, Mozart, and the occasional John Williams soundtrack. I was listening to a lot of genres. My own music was mostly love songs designed to woo the young women I was interested in.

 During my senior year of high school, I discovered three musicians that changed my way of thinking about music: Arnold Schoenberg, Phillip Glass and George Winston.  I started writing new age piano music. At the time I thought minimalism was pretty cool, but twelve-tone serialism was the silliest thing I’d ever heard of. Still, I did write a short twelve-tone piece for a music theory course I was taking. It wasn’t until college that I developed an ear for, and the musical understanding of, the language of modern art music. Now I’m hooked.

 In college, I was introduced to electronic, event oriented music and had a mind blowing experience. I was moved beyond rational thought, somehow understanding the structure and language of what I was hearing from the very first tones. Needless to say, I started writing electronic music as well.

 That is the exact problem. I love it all. I’ve written music, and continue to write music, in almost every style imaginable, but you can’t make a name for yourself doing that. You need to specialize. When someone asks me what kind of music I do, and I start running down the list, a little of this and a little of that, their eyes glaze over. I need to be able to describe myself in a simple, short, and clear way. I’ve never been able to do that.

 I know that making this decision doesn’t magically bar me from working in other styles. It does require that I focus my output more on one area, though. If I’m going to market myself within a pigeon hole, I’d better have a product that reflects it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Music Video - The Penitent

Last year, the Salty Cricket Composers Collective (SC3) held a concert of organ music. We were talking to the Cathedral of the Madeline about hosting, but for some reason that fell through. We ended up holding it at my alma matter, the University of Utah. When the call for scores went out, I was so taken with the idea of having my work performed at the Cathedral, I wrote something inspired by their namesake, Mary Magdalene, aka Mary of Madeline. She is the Catholic Saint of the Penitent. Although I am not a Catholic, as one who often needs to repent, I could relate.

In order to honor her, I took her name, Mary of Magdalene, and used an old composer trick to create the theme. I extended the letter names of the notes, A, B, C … and so on, to create the pitches for the melody. In this case, m = F, a=A, r = D, y = D, and so on.

The piece turned out to be more “in your face” than you might expect for a work on repentance, but true repentance can come with a great deal of soul searching, spiritually gut wrenching “in your face” moments, so I’m okay with it.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Music and Consciousness

I miss composing. I really do. I've gone back to school and, between my day job, school, and family responsibilities, there’s not much time to make music. It sucks.

The stress mounts each day I'm unable to make music. A little time with my piano or guitar can be helpful, but I really need at least 2 hours a day to make me happy. When I'm composing music, I lose track of time. I believe my consciousness enters a different state where my focus precludes the passage of time and nearly everything else.

Performers often experience this loss of time, as well. When a work is mastered and performed well, so that the performer can stop worrying about technical issues and focus on the musical expression, something subtle changes in the mind. The fingers know which keys to press, the lungs when to breathe and the attention is focused on the emotional energy and musical thought. The performer, instrument, and music become as one.

The experience is truly amazing. Recently I was able to play one of Chopin’s Nocturnes nearly perfectly, for the first time. Sure, I made a few minor mistakes early on, but overall it was a decent performance. There are a few scale-like runs in the right hand that I had struggled with. That evening I rendered them flawlessly. Everyone else was in bed. I had the living room to myself. The house was quiet. As the last notes faded into silence, my consciousness came back to the room. A feeling of peace flooded through me. I held onto that sense of “rightness” as long as I could, but of course, it left me as the requirements of living returned.

In light of that experience, and many similar ones, I've started wondering about the nature of music, and consciousness. The experience was not unlike being in deep meditation, leading me to wonder if creating this kind of music may be a similar activity. All acts of creation may share these similar consciousness changing traits.

This sounds like a research project to me.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Music Video - Thanksgiving Partita

A minimalist viola and cello duet. Writing this, I tried to capture that calm, together feeling we all hope for when family gets together, even if we rarely get it. I was blessed to get the performers I did. Both are regular players with the Utah Symphony.

Of Chants and Strings and Opportunities

I’m feeling very excited, and grateful, today. There have been a lot of composing opportunities that have come my way these last few months. Nothing that will be immediately profitable, I suspect, but I don’t know anyone who wakes up and says, "I’m going to compose music because the money is so good."

In any case, I’ve got several works on my musical plate right now. Currently, I’m trying to finish a string quartet, based on an old chant. I’ve put aside setting D&C 121 to music for now. The SQ has the earlier deadline. There are actually two SQ’s. Barlow Bradford, of the Utah Chamber Artists, has commissioned the Salty Cricket Composers Collective (SC3) to come up with two string quartets based on two different chants for an upcoming concert. SC3 has opened it up as a contest. The two winning submissions will be chosen by Mr. Bradford.

Obviously, I’m hoping to win at least one spot, but if not, that’s okay. I’m really enjoying writing this piece. It’s a tonal/modal work, and I think I’ve got most of the major bugs worked out. I’ve certainly got the major themes and harmonies done. Now, it’s down to editing and finalizing the details: articulations, dynamics, and so on. It’s been a real joy to get back to my “tonal” roots. Studying composition in college was a wonderful experience, but also a strange one. Three years of learning traditional harmony, voice leading, and counterpoint only to be told, “Don’t write that way.” Tonal music was looked down on by my professors. They favored the second Viennese school – Schoenberg, Weber and Berg – over the first. It feels like an almost total disconnect.

I can’t blame them. As much as I love Mozart, I get tired of listening to him all the time. I want variety. My professors approach was to “break me” of the aural habits learned from a lifetime of listening to Beethoven so that I could write what I wanted, in any style. Or at least that’s what they told me. I’ve found that artistic choices at University to be as politicized as the war between Democrats and Republicans.

In any case, after years of writing atonal music, I find myself moving more and more back to the tonal. Recently, I’ve been rediscovering my love of movie soundtracks, minimalism, and 19th century romanticism, especially the work of Chopin. In any case, it’s certainly be a fun trip.