Aug 8, 2014
Onegin: the Perfect Libretto
Jul 31, 2014
An American Opera
Jul 21, 2014
Last Rondo for Father
New Berlin. Wisconsin, March 2001
Father's decomposing body lay for several days before being discovered by a police officer face down in his own dried vomit on the floor of his den in the Big Cedar House. "We found your dad a couple of days ago," said the New Berlin cop on the telephone on 27 March 2001. "He had been ... um ... deceased for a couple of days and ... there was no indication of next of kin. So, um ... we had to track you down ... over the Internet." Two down, two to go, I thought. Unknown to Kevin or to me, he had been dying for some time-heart disease brought on by decades of unaddressed diabetes and alcoholism. I imagine that, since he was only slowing down, Father didn't see the point in paying a doctor to tell him to change his life.
Letter from Britt Hagen, 16 January 1997
"I can remember to the minute when Kevin chose his strategy for coping: it was one of those rainy spring midnights when we were in the basement sweeping the flood water toward the drain. Dad was angry with himself again for having bought a house in an obvious floodplain. Kevin was active in the Hunger Hike, and was passionately involving himself in the perhaps flawed but well-intentioned effort to feed the hungry. Kevin was quite a passionate idealist as a teen, as you may remember. I think you may have been there, too. [I was.] Dad hit Kevin on the shoulder and head, hard, and said, 'By the way, there's not going to be any more of this Hunger Hike save the world shit, either.' I watched the doors to Kevin's heart slam shut."
New Berlin, Wisconsin, March 2001
Father's emotions were volcanic. His thirst for expressions of love was unquenchable. No gesture was enough, so his feelings were always hurt. During our conversation immediately after Mother's death, he tried to explain himself to me by quoting the toast from Citizen Kane: "A toast, Jedediah, to love on my terms. Those are the only terms anybody ever knows-his own." My brothers had promised Mother to keep trying to communicate with Father. After a few months, each had a final conversation with him and-adults now, and understandably unable to love him on the terms he demanded-never spoke to him again.
Evangelical Deaconess Hospital
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 30 January 1960
Father was in his 20s, so young, tired, and devastated. He had an infant and a toddler at home being cared for by his wife's mother-a woman who didn't particularly like him. His wife was recovering from the traumatic birth on another floor of the hospital. He was alone with the dead baby-his infant child, his son Daron-and the doctor. "Cause?" he wrote in pencil, as the doctor explained the unacceptable. "German measles," he wrote. But how could that have happened? They had been so careful. "Unknown," the doctor said, and he wrote it down. This was the hardest. How were they going to get through this? The heart condition could have been caused by "Flu," the doctor said. Distraught, he wrote it down.
New Berlin, Wisconsin, 1972
I remember my brothers' faces as Father attacked each of us in turn. First, Kevin-unwilling to give Father the satisfaction of having had an effect-looked into the remote distance and seemed as it landed to bundle every belittling syllable into a gunnysack on his back. Second, Britt-fully in the moment-balled his tender fists, his eyes glittering defiantly back as he took every hurtful blow right on the chin. Finally, me-protected by my brothers, my age, and my tears-in some way off to the side, a witness to the cat's cradle of emotions in the room, vowing never to forget.
New York City, 2001
I maintained contact of a sort with Father. On three or four occasions during the two decades between Mother's death and his, I saw him face to face. We spoke on the phone occasionally. In order to avoid emotional manipulation, I'd hang up when he turned ugly. Conversations could be short.
I believe that whatever gift I have as a dramatist for creating psychologically verifiable characters and situations has grown out of the role as a family member that I adopted as a child: observer and chronicler of the interactions between my brothers and my father, my parents, and between my father and myself. The smallest and youngest-protected by my brothers-I did this in an effort to understand my emotionally volatile and unpredictable father and the effect he was having not just on the others in my family but also on me.
I loved my family: if only I could understand the effect we were all having on one another, then I could cope; if only I could identify, then I could forgive.
During his final years, I sent Father my recordings when they came out, holiday cards, occasionally a brief letter. I telephoned him only when someone was dying, like Britt ("Why should I care?" he asked, before recovering himself sufficiently to at least ask for a few details and deciding that it was probably somehow his fault) or when there was a major change in my life. Finally, as he had shed the rest of his books and papers, he returned all of my letters to me, tucked carefully back into the envelopes in which they had been sent.
It was with a weird sort of relief that Kevin and I flew to Milwaukee to perform together the melancholy task of burying him, gathering up whatever was worth saving in the house and readying it for sale....
New Berlin, Wisconsin, 1974
Father, hurling his suits into a shitty cardboard suitcase in the den of the Big Cedar House, and pledging to move out, flung the change from his pockets onto the floor and ordered me to pick it up. "Money's all you want from me; so take it!" he snarled. I begged him to stop. "I'm moving downtown." Why did I ask him to stay when I wanted him to leave? "Why shouldn't I?" he asked. "Because ... we won't be a family anymore," I sobbed. He stayed.
New Berlin, Wisconsin, 2001
In the garage sat the last in a long line of used cars and a lot of familiar, rusting gardening equipment. When we managed to get into the house, it was like a visit with Miss Havisham. Enormous, ropy, decade-old webs hung from the soaring ceiling of the front room, in which buckets sat everywhere on sheets of plastic to catch the rain which had been working its way through the roof for years and in which cheap, remaindered furniture added after Mother's death cluttered the once elegant space.
The kitchen whose floor we had scrubbed in our pajamas in the small hours as boys hadn't been used for anything except boiling noodles for what seemed a very long time. The pantry was empty. He had obviously been bathing in the sink. Between the kitchen and the library was an enormous, half-filled garbage can, which looked as though it had been placed there for our use in cleaning up after his demise.
The third floor was deserted, the master bedroom with the huge bed at the foot of which Mother died was half-made, the sheet half-pulled off. It looked (and felt) like a crime scene. Once she had banished him, sometime in my early teens, he had never again slept there; he slept on a couch in the den, where he had clearly been living for years....
New York City, December 2009
Thick, fluffy snowflakes drifted slowly down between the skyscrapers, quieting Midtown and blanketing Rockefeller Center. We had left the annual dramatic reading of A Christmas Carol at my club a few minutes earlier, promenaded past the Macy's windows, and watched the light show. I looked into my wife's shining, intelligent eyes, thanked her for the year that had just passed, and kissed her tenderly before drawing from my overcoat the new teddy bear we'd set aside to give our son. Handing it up to him, I felt his small, strong legs reflexively squeeze my neck as he bobbed up and down, squealing with delight, singing, "Papa, papa, papa!"
New Berlin, Wisconsin, 2001
Father had converted what had been my bedroom into a sort of bizarre storage room for teddy bears of various shapes and sizes, which he at some point had taken to giving out to strangers and acquaintances alike. There were dozens of them. The den, where he collapsed and died, was like the lair of some wounded animal. Stinking slightly of sweat, it was filled with broken electronic equipment, an empty Cutty Sark bottle on its side, and a single box filled with insurance papers. On a table sat a box containing what little he had elected to save of his and our family's history-letters, newspaper clippings, birth certificates, and a handful of faded photographs.
The enormous wooded backyard, which we had all labored so hard and for so many years to transform into our parent's Erewhon, was the middle of a flood plain now, the grass matted down in the direction in which the floodwaters flowed whenever it rained.
Like Britt a few years before, who emptied his Springfield hotel room before taking a taxi to the hospital one last time, father was determined to leave no Rosebuds sitting around for others to pick over. Nevertheless, it took us several days to cart away the garbage and the alarming number of broken vacuum cleaners and microwave ovens he had somehow accumulated, in order to knock the place into the barest shape before handing it over to a realtor who would then sell it after our departure "as is."
Except for the books that he and mother had acquired together in college, Father had emptied the library of the thousands of volumes he had lovingly collected. How sad those that remained looked, propped at crazy angles, cigarette-smoke-stained, moldy, and unloved.
I fished a copy of Leaves of Grass from the shelf and paged through it. Their marginalia, the handwriting so personal, so recognizable, was a testament to the seriousness with which they pursued their dialogue with favorite poets: Keats had always been Father's solace, and Milton; Mother loved Browning, and Baudelaire. A volume of Baudelaire, with Mother's corrections to the French translation interlaced with the published text, had a bookplate that read, "This book is the property of Gwen Johnson." Father had picked up an anthology of British and American poetry during the 1960s the bookplate of which read, "Ex Libris Gwen and Earl Hagen." A copy of Dylan Thomas' collected poems was inscribed, in blue ballpoint pen, "A gift from the children, Christmas, 1974."
I took the books. I retrieved Mother's recipe box from the top shelf in the kitchen pantry and gave it to Kevin, who has since handed it down to his son. Finally, I caught the kitten; Kevin's wife took it in and now gives it all the love and understanding it will ever need. Kevin dealt with the realtor; I dealt with the funeral home and the local newspaper. Writing the obituary, I couldn't remember the names of his siblings, or any facts about his life....
Mother's Diary, 30 August 1954
"She knew he was acting again and the knowledge irritated and embarrassed her-for him. However, as she watched him she knew none of these things could touch him. There was something just magnificent about him. He was completely absorbed in his pose.
He moved his long thin hands in an awkward pantomime as he talked. But, his eyes glistened, trembling over with a light that took him away from and above his adolescent posturing, and made him instead a figure taut with life, eloquent with in+tensity.
These were the moments she adored him: despising his affectations, but breathless before the drama of the emotion he was capable of evoking from within himself."
New Berlin, Wisconsin, 2001
Kevin and I had Father cremated. Kevin handled, as he had for Britt, the melancholy triage of Executorship. I arranged a memorial, to which neither of us went. Sometime later, a well-meaning relative sent a videotape of the service on which familiar-looking relatives I have never met shared sad, kindly reminiscences of a person I never knew. Father's last words to me, in January 2001, a few weeks before he died, were, "I probably should have gotten psychological help when you were boys, but there always seemed to be other, more important, things."
Jun 28, 2014
That Night / 4
Father's feet crunched on the driveway's gravel ahead of me. I carried her sparrow-light, lifeless body to the car and propped it up in the front seat. I thought of him carrying me in from the car, drowsy and happy, after a night at the drive-in, slung over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, when I was as easy to lift as she was now. He used to smell like after-shave and pipe tobacco, I remembered; how comforting that combination of smells had once been, and how intensely I had grown to detest the cloying odor of Borkum Riff, his acrid, shabby suits, and cheap shoes.
My hands shot out from my position in the back seat to cradle Mother's head when Father throwing the car into reverse caused it to loll crazily to the side.
Three letters were burnt out over the entrance: N, C, and Y. Mercurochrome-red neon letters, luridly smudged like badly applied lipstick by what I suppose to have been tears, though I can't remember, read EMERGE. It seemed absurd to pile her into a wheelchair in order to present her to the triage nurse, but there you have it: even Charon must abide by the rules. I never cry when I am unhappy, or when I feel that I am being manipulated, and I didn't cry then. I simply did my job.
A bored resident pronounced her no longer quick. The last time I saw her she was covered loosely with a sheet, her arm hanging out over the edge of the gurney, her husband twisting her wedding ring off, explaining, "These things tend to disappear in morgues, trust me."
Father dealt with the legalities of death. I walked out into the parking lot, where an empty ambulance and a cop car were parked. An exhausted paramedic and an orderly sat on the curb, sharing a cigarette, blowing the smoke out into the cold night air. I looked up at the Milky Way, stuffed my hands in my pockets, wondered what was going on inside, walked back in, found a pay phone, dropped some change in, and called Michaela in Colorado. No answer.
Victims of a car wreck were wheeled in. Blood. I've got to get out of here, I thought. "But where can I go? Where is my life? Back to Philadelphia? No. To Colorado, to stay with friends? Why not? School's on break; it is as good a place to go as any." I returned to the pay phone and booked a ticket for the first flight out. Father emerged through the crash doors. "Let's go home," he said, throwing me the car keys. "You drive."
Home. Home? Sighing, upon returning from ferrying together her corpse to the hospital, Father poured each of us an amaretto and stretched out behind his desk.
At that moment, I thought him ugly. I could tell that he wanted to talk man to man for the first time. The liquor smelled like death. I didn't want to. Mother had told him in front of me the day before that, if he didn't find a way to communicate with his sons, then we would turn our backs on him.
Father could be a captivating, charming man; he was capable of real eloquence, but I couldn't keep myself from feeling that on some level he still thought that the past few days-my mother's, his wife's slow motion quadrille with death-had been about him. He loved the law and could conjure beauty when talking about it. He had the sort of mind that remembered all sorts of things; he was skilled at recalling trivia and injecting it into conversations both to delight his friends and to disarm his opponents.
I don't know whether he was a good lawyer or not, but he adored Mother; she loved him for that. He loved her and the law with a white-hot purity that I can't help but admire. His friends and clients seemed to love him and to respect him. He was often and for long periods profoundly depressed.
When we played chess, even when we both knew a dozen moves in advance that I was going to lose, he never permitted me to resign. He liked to work with his hands, and taught his sons countless practical skills. He was very, very smart, and knew a lot; he was proud of his intellect, yet it seemed to me then that he did not understand that it wasn't enough to know a little bit about everything, that one must know a lot about at least one thing.
I often disliked him, but I always loved him; I never doubted that he loved me.
We were in his den. "All your good qualities," he began, the evening that she died in my arms, the evening before the morning I left, never to return during his lifetime, making a steeple of his fingers, "you got from your mother; all the bad ones come from me."
We both stayed up for the rest of the night. This in itself was not unusual: I had been an insomniac for as long as I could remember. So had he. Growing up, we often ran into one another after everyone else was asleep. I don't know what he did, but I knew I was never coming back, so I moved from room to room, trying to fix each one in memory.
I took her diary, several favorite books, some pictures, and two small statues she had sculpted-of Icarus hanging, a chance-ful thing, at the instant before he began his fall, and of Lear with his Fool. I wrapped them in dirty shirts and socks, zipped them into my cheap luggage, and set them beside the front door.The sun rose. Birds sang. The cab came. I left, and did not return until eighteen years later, in order to bury him.
Jun 12, 2014
The idea of composing a piece for Michael Ludwig and JoAnn Falletta came up over dinner after a concert performance by the Buffalo Philharmonic of my opera Shining Brow on the night of my birthday in 2006. Michael's beautiful, singing tone during the many prominent violin solos in the opera's score moved me to suggest that we make a violin concerto together.
For inspiration, I turned to daily life. Each evening, as part of his bedtime ritual, my wife sings our son folk songs and spirituals. A professional composer and singer, she embroiders the tunes and develops them. Through the door, or over the baby monitor, as I tidy up the home we share, I listen in. This to me is an important manifestation of the musical fabric of our domesticity. I chose four of those melodies to serve as the musical basis of the concerto.
I began with Cailín Óg a Stór, a traditional 16th century Irish air that figures prominently in James Joyce's writings and is (as "The Croppy Boy") one of the very saddest songs about the Irish rising of 1798. The second tune I explored was The Praties, another Irish ballad — this one about the Potato Famine of 1740-41 that caused the exodus of so many Irish families. The third was Look Away, Over Yandro, one of the best known and loved traditional Appalachian folk songs. The last was Amazing Grace, a beloved tune that may have originated as a work song sung by 18th century American slaves.
Despite the fact that extra-musical associations are inevitable (I wasn't immune) when one delves into the collective musical memory of folk song for inspiration, Songbook is not a programmatic piece.
On a purely musical level, the first movement consists of nine variations on "Croppy Boy." The second is a chaconne based on the harmonies that underpin "The Praties." The third is a passacaglia based on the tune of "Over Yandro." The finale bookends the work by picking up with a tenth variation on "Croppy Boy" before overlaying "Amazing Grace" and the other tunes (the effect is sort of like listening to a composer juggle) atop it one after the other for a series of five more variations, ending with one marked "quasi un mbira." (A mbira is an African thumb piano.)
Appropriately enough, the concerto receives its premiere by Michael and JoAnn with the Buffalo Philharmonic May 13, 14, and 15th — a few days before the projected birth of my second son.
Jun 5, 2014
An orchestral interlude from the opera Amelia called "Sortie," which commences immediately after Amelia collapses. It is a musical depiction of one of her naval aviator father's Vietnam conflict bombing missions. For more information, click here.
May 7, 2014
The program that Gilda Lyons and I performed last week in New York City on the Phoenix Concerts and in Hudson, New York at the Hudson Opera House "paired" songs the way that a chef "pairs" a delicacy with a wine so that something essential in its makeup is unlocked. These notes concern a program that "paired" art songs with cabaret, folk, pop, and musical theater songs in order to explore the delicious, emotionally vibrant realm that exists somewhere between them.
Why? Because, for all the periodic pronunciamentii about rediscovering the art song and bringing it "back to life" by infusing it with the conventions of pop music composers make, it has always been clear to me that the best of them have always existed comfortably in both worlds. Nothing new there: indeed, songs that meld elements of pop song, art song, musical theater, and opera represent a uniquely American gift to World Song. They also may in fact end up having been our culture's most important contribution to lyric theater.
The concert opened with "The Waking Father," in which Paul Muldoon's fraught meditation by a son—possibly on the cusp of fatherhood himself—about his father, was juxtaposed with John Ashbery's charming "Thoughts of a Young Girl." Thirty years ago I was a student of Ned's at the Curtis Institute, making the pairing intriguing on a musical level as well. Certainly, I had Ned's 1979 a capella setting of Ashbery from the cycle Nantucket Songs in the back of my mind when I set Muldoon's poem for my 1989 song cycle Muldoon Songs.
"Flights" might be a more suitable description of the rest of the program, which consisted of larger groupings of songs in English, Japanese, French, and Spanish.
The first trilogy consisted of three takes on love. First, a very young woman sang an emotionally sunny aubade for her lover in Jennifer Higdon's 1997 "Morning Opens." Fifty years earlier, a young bombardier wrote a letter to his girlfriend at midnight from his post in a bomber flying over Germany in Marc Blitzstein's tender, gripping "Ballad of the Bombardier," from his 1946 orchestral work Ayreborne Symphony. Flashing forward 25 years-an older, an experienced woman's fractured thoughts collapsed in on themselves in Stephen Sondheim's "Losing My Mind," from the 1971 musical Follies. All three songs consisted of lyrics written by their composers. The Higdon was performed as she wrote it. I arranged the Blitzstein based on the original orchestral version. The Sondheim, one of his most psychologically astute songs, deserved a fresh look, I thought; I revisited it in an arrangement that pushes it a little further into the world of opera.
The second trilogy consisted of three contemporary takes on folk melodies. It began with Judith Weir's 1987 otherworldly arrangement of "The Song of a Girl Ravished Away by the Fairies in South Uist," wherein she limned an ancient folk melody in shimmering, contemporary halos of sound in the piano. David Macbride's reposeful, sensual 2014 setting for solo voice of the female Japanese poet Yosano Akiko's Japanese tanka gave way without pause to the Peruvian singer-songwriter Chabuca Granda's vivacious, carnal vals criollo "La Flor de la Canela," which I treated as a hupango, alternating bars of six and three.
The next set followed the transit of a relationship from beginning to end. Ken Steen's solo voice setting of Denise Levertov's "The Marriage" presented connubial bliss. The ardent tenacity of Gilda's setting of a Pueblo Indian prayer in "Hold On," explored a relationship, or a life, in trouble. The moment when a relationship ends was explored in "Holy Thursday," my setting of Paul Muldoon's gloss not just on the Human, but also the Divine compact. After that, all that was left was the crippling supplication of Brel's heartbreaking "Ne Me Quitte Pas."
The final set concerned three women, or maybe one woman, alone. Gilda's Ann Sexton setting, "Seven Times" created the intimate space into which stepped Marc Blitzstein's brave, beleaguered Moll, from his 1937 labor opera The Cradle Will Rock. I took two numbers, "Moll's Song," and "Nickel Under the Foot," and combined them into a medley, and reached back to Blitzstein's original theater orchestrations for the piano arrangement. Jenny—or maybe Moll a few years later—ended the evening with "Pirate Jenny," her eleven o'clock number from Brecht and Weill's Threepenny Opera, to which Cradle, and so much contemporary American music theater, owes so much.
This was the set list:
The Waking Father (1990) — Daron Hagen (Paul Muldoon)
Thoughts of a Young Girl (1979) — Ned Rorem (John Ashbery)
Morning Opens (1997) — Jennifer Higdon (Higdon)
Ballad of the Bombardier (1946) — Marc Blitzstein (Blitzstein)
Losing My Mind (1971) — Stephen Sondheim (Sondheim)
The song of a girl ravished away by fairies in South Uist (1987) — Judith Weir (traditional)
XII (2014) — David Macbride (Akiko Yosano)
La Flor de la Canela (1953) -- Chabuca Granda (Granda)
The Marriage (2008) — Ken Steen (Denise Levertov)
Hold On (2012) — Gilda Lyons (Pueblo Indian)
Holy Thursday (1989) — Daron Hagen (Paul Muldoon)
Ne Me Quitte Pas (1959) -- Jacques Brel (Brel)
Seven Times (2002) — Gilda Lyons (Anne Sexton)
Moll's Song (1937) — Marc Blitzstein (Blitzstein)
Nickel Under the Foot (1937) — Marc Blitzstein (Blitzstein)
Pirate Jenny (1928) — Kurt Weill (Bertolt Brecht)
Apr 2, 2014
Working for Virgil
I arrived hot and tired, broke and cocky that day in summer 1987. To the left of the front doors of the grand old Chelsea Hotel hung a plaque on which were listed the names of former residents-giants of the 20s and 30s. At the bottom of the plaque, someone had used something sharp to scratch, "and Sid Vicious!"
Virgil Thomsen looked like a crazy person, sitting in his wing chair, plucking alternately at the squealing hearing aids in his ears and squinting at me like a benignant swashbuckler as he quizzed me about my background. His belt wrapped around what had to be his chest; his chin seemed to stop where his tummy began. He was shaped like the illustrations of Tik-tok in L. Frank Baum's books. When, a few weeks earlier, Ned Rorem had told me that Virgil was looking for someone to do some orchestrating for him, I had pounced on the opportunity. "But you'll have to submit to an interview," said Ned. "No promises."
Born in Missouri in 1896, Thomson attended Harvard before spending an extended period in Paris where he studied with Boulanger and became a professional and social associate of that group of composers referred to as Les Six. As the powerful music critic of the New York Herald Tribune after returning to the States, he used his position to promote his career as a composer. His legendary collaboration with Gertrude Stein produced Four Saints in Three Acts, a work I've always thought indebted to Satie's brief opera Socrate. Author of eight books, including an autobiography, he received the Pulitzer Prize and no less than twenty honorary doctorates during the course of his long and fascinating career. His relationship with his pupil Ned was often rocky, but always affectionate. "I don't mind him stealing my moves," he quipped to me once. "I mind it when he says that he didn't."
"So what's it like being a young composer these days?" he shrieked. "Where do you get your money?" he continued, not waiting for me to answer. I leant forward in my chair, clasped my hands together in what I hoped was the picture of earnestness, and rolled out some sort of answer. I don't think he heard me. The earpieces started up again, this time on different pitches. He batted his ears. I winced. He turned his head just so and they were both silenced.
"I know all about being a young composer," he shouted, triumphantly. "It's all about optimizing your leisure time!"
"What's that? Call me Mr. Thomson, or Virgil. Or boss," he finished. Now his eyes were twinkling.
"No, I don't like that. Stick to Mr. Thomson."
"Okay!" I shouted.
"What was it like studying with Ned?" he asked, suddenly in a normal tone of voice.
"Wonderful," I shouted. "Great!" I gave a "thumbs up."
"You don't have to shout!" he shouted. "I'm not deaf, you know! Okay. Right," he barreled on.
"Look, I have some piano pieces I want you to orchestrate, and some orchestra pieces I want you to turn into piano pieces. Plus, I need you to do a piano reduction of Louisiana Story. Can you do that?"
"Read my article How Composers Eat, baby," Virgil said. "I have," I shouted. "Good. Don't get stuck working on other men's music! I mean being a performer, a copyist, a professor, a critic, or getting into the appreciation-racket. Marry rich, if you can. Remain affably pushy. Try not to succumb to a conducting career-the money's good, but it kills your music."
I was hired, and worked for Virgil for nine months. Once in awhile, I ran into his secretary, Lou Rispoli, but I don't recall that Virgil ever actually asked to see any of the work I had done. Nevertheless, he wanted to supervise my work, he said; consequently, I was to bring my gear to the Chelsea and do all of the work at the table in his living room.
He was exceedingly kind to me, and treated me in a comradely fashion, like a younger colleague who, as he would say, was "on the make."
"Virgil is sort of your musical grandfather," Ned told me around that time. "There are exactly as many years between you and me as there are between myself and Virgil." Lineage means a lot to me, so I was proud that Ned had taken orchestration lessons from Virgil in the same room forty years earlier, had copied parts for him at the same table at which I was then working.
Mar 31, 2014
He Ended Badly
On 28 and 29 March, Gilda Lyons and I will perform together a recital on which she'll perform a set that includes my arrangements of Marc Blitzstein's twin numbers for the character of Doll at the top of The Cradle Will Rock.
The occasion reminds me of an evening thirty years ago.
On 30 July 1983, I attended John Houseman's production of The Cradle Will Rock at the Fairbanks. Before the performance, Houseman took the stage to tell the story of the night the show opened—Blitzstein at the piano, Orson Welles dashing around the theater, playing multiple characters, everyone afire with the moment. Ordinarily too shy to importune, I threw myself at Houseman afterwards.
"You captured lightning in a bottle, didn't you?" I enthused.
"Yes, my boy," he drawled in his Professor Kingsfield voice, "I'm acutely aware of that." I laughed.
He was disarmed. "You look like Blitzstein," he remarked.
I flushed with pleasure.
He frowned. "He ended badly."
I waited. Beat. "Yes, I know," I said. "I'm a composer."
He thrust his chin upwards theatrically as though searching for answers among the klieg lights: "Dear God," he said, exploding the G, extending the O into a melisma, and plucking the final D like a pizzicato. "What does one do with a composer?"
I laughed again, shook his hand vigorously, and thanked him for his time.
"Not at all," he said. "Good luck." He stared at me, hard, for three long beats. "You'll need it."
Mar 22, 2014
A nine minute mini-documentary about the development of the one act operatic torso Vera of Las Vegas narrated by Daron.
Mar 3, 2014
Why Fliers Fly
Prelude to Act II of Daron Hagen's opera Amelia,. For more information, click here.
Feb 25, 2014
"Love Song (Reprise)" from the 1997 Duo for Violin and Cello. Published by EC Schirmer. For more information, click here.
Feb 6, 2014
The story told by my opera The Antient Concert concerns itself with the 1904 Feis Ceoil competition recital on 27 August 1904 in the Antient Concert Rooms in Dublin, Ireland. Legend has it that John McCormack and James Joyce competed that night in the Tenor singing competition. There is no documentary evidence of this; however, Joyce did win the Bronze Medal that year (it is said that he did not agree with the stipulation that competitors demonstrate their musicianship by doing some sight-reading, and left the stage). Many believe it was McCormack's 1903 win of the Gold Medal that launched his career.
SALLEY GARDENS(Pg. 8)
William Butler Yeats' poem was published in Crossways in 1889, and was probably inspired by an 18th century song called 'The Rambling Boys of Pleasure'. The air is the traditional Irish ballad 'The Maids of Mourne Shore'. A salley is a willow tree. It was once common to have gardens of willows for osiers (willow rods), which were used for basket-making and thatching cottage roofs. The Gaelic for willow is saileach; the English useage of sally, or salley, for willow tree may be derived from the Gaelic.
THE HARP THAT ONCE(Pg. 23)
Irish poet and barrister Thomas Moore's ballad has long been associated with the traditional air 'Gramachree' which may be found in M'Gibbon's Scots Tunes Bk. II (1716) as 'Will You Go to Flanders'. Tara is the hilltop site in County Meath that was once home to the Irish high kings.
YOU'RE AS WELCOME AS THE FLOWERS IN MAY(Pg. 32)
The original song 'You're as Welcome as the Flow'rs in May' was written (words and music) by Daniel J. Sullivan in the early 20th century.
THO' THE LAST GLIMPSE OF ERIN(Pg. 40)
In 1543, Henry VIII passed laws regarding the dress of the Irish. Thomas Moore set his words to the traditional air 'Coulin', which concerned an Irish virgin who preferred her 'Coulin' (an Irish youth with long hair) to strangers. The song is about preferring exile to the oppression of English law.
THE CROPPY BOY(Pg. 53)
Although there is a resemblance to an Elizabethan lute tune called 'Callino Custurame', it is more likely that this air is an adaptation of an Irish song of the 1700's called 'Cailín O'Chois 't Siure Mé'. New Geneva, in County Waterford, was used as a prison and torture house by the British in 1798.
The page numbers above refer to the vocal score published by Carl Fischer. You can learn more about the opera here.
Jan 22, 2014
by Jonathan Allison
Associate Professor, the University of Kentucky
[Reviewed for the Fall, 2002 Irish Literary Supplement and reprinted by kind permission.]
Paul Muldoon has written several opera libretti in collaboration with the prodigiously-talented American composer, Daron Hagen. The first of these was Shining Brow (Libretto: Faber, 1993; Vocal Score: E.C. Schirmer, 1995), based on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright, first performed in 1993 at the Madison Opera, Wisconsin. Shining Brow [has been released on Naxos under the baton of JoAnn Falletta, by the Buffalo Philharmonic]. The second opera was Vera of Las Vegas, and the third was Bandanna (Libretto: Faber, 1999; Vocal Score: Carl Fischer, 2001). Very loosely based on Othello, and set in a small town on the US-Mexico border during the ominously named Day of the Dead, in fall 1968, Bandanna was first performed at the University of Texas Opera Theater in 1999. [Hagen and Muldoon created a fourth, The Antient Concert, for the Princeton Atelier in 2005.]
Vera of Las Vegas was performed by the University of Nevada (Las Vegas) Opera Theater in March 1996, and [was] performed again, in the 2003-'04 season, by the Center for Contemporary Opera, at the Nimoy Thalia Theater Space, New York City. [Subsequently, it has been toured in Ireland by Opera Theater, and revived in Houston by Opera Vista and San Francisco by West Edge Opera, among others.] Having to write this review, I thought it wouldn't do merely to look at the script printed by Gallery Press, without considering the musical context in which it grew. Admittedly, it is a poetic drama, worth discussing in its own right, but it has evolved out of a specific collaboration between poet and composer, is written with a musical setting in mind, and is best understood in that context.
The male protagonists of Vera of Las Vegas are two members of the Provisional IRA, 'Dumdum' Devine and 'Taco' Bell, whose conversation is filled with the kind of double enendres, puns and word play one has come to expect from characters in Muldoon's poems. (P.J. Kavanaugh meant it as a compliment when he described Muldoon as "a serious gamester.") Devine and Bell are en route for Los Angelos, to take part in Wheel of Fortune (not a common Provo destination, one imagines), stopping at Las Vegas on a layover. They have evidently made fools of themselves with the attractive air hostessess on the long flight from LaGuardia, one of whom — Doll — decides to introduce them to her Las Vegas stripper friend, the eponymous heroine of the piece, Vera. We have heard of Devine and Bell before, of course. Their illegal activities and disputed whereabouts were a matter of debate in Muldoon's play, Six Honest Serving Men (Gallery Books, 1995.) (That play featured a figure familiar to readers of Muldoon's poem "Anseo": none other than the little Provo "ward of court," Joe Ward). Along with one Dessie Gillespie, Devine and Bell had gone AWOL for two weeks, and, as one of the characters opined: "There'll be no light / shed on those three boys till some farmer turns / back into the field to plow the next score / and slices off one of their heads." In fact, two of them escaped such a fate, though we learn from Vera of Las Vegas that Devine murdered Gillespie, for undisclosed reasons; his memory of the murder provides one of several nightmarish flashback scenes in the opera.
Vera appears to be part of a covert INS sting to arrest the two men as illegal aliens, but it transpires that Trench and Trilby, the stereotypical MI5 men in trench coats, skulking in the background, are not only chasing Provos (they are seen interrogating Taco in a brief prelude to the opera), but are in pursuit of Vera as well, owing to a lawsuit she is refusing to drop, against a judge of her acquaintance: "a little sidebar / I had with a judge. A lot of side. A lot of bar." As one thing leads to another, Taco falls for Vera, who turns out to be a man, and marries her (er...him), in a perfunctory Vegas wedding. Dumdum gets paired off with Doll. The revelation of Vera's gender and Taco's seduction (much to Dumdum's disgust) is explicitly linked to a similar moment in The Crying Game, and Taco is allowed to have an unlikely epiphany, in which he sees the fundamental similarity between men and women: "What's the difference? A bit of loose skin...a fold of flesh...." The revelation of Vera's masculinity and Taco's latent homosexuality dramatizes one of the opera's central themes, that appearances are deceptive, and people, like places, are masked, malleable, and liable to change. As we are told in section XIII by the Chorus: "We shall not sleep, we shall / all be bound on the ever-whirling wheel of / of change, the which all mortal things does sway."
On one level, the opera (sub-titled "A Nightmare Cabaret Opera" in the vocal score published by Carl Fischer, but the subtitle does not appear in the Gallery Press edition) concerns a journey to the center of modern America ("center" is a word that gets bandied about a lot in Vera, and undermined). It is a place of materialism, greed, mechanical pleasures and phony appearances, an alienating labyrinth in which the Irish travelers become lost and transformed. To this extent, the book hints at allegiance with Hunter S. Thompson's nightmare novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, another phantasmagoric journey to the heart of darkness. Early on. in reply to Dumdum's remark "the heart of America" Taco responds, "Built of sand," Yet, the opera announces its origins in the nightmare of Northern Ireland's Troubles by repeated references to Ulster place names, horrid flashbacks to obscure scenes of murder. The flashbacks revolve around the brutal killing of Dessie Gillespie, to which Taco confesses towards the close:
"I still hear the wheeps of curlews,
the buzz of bluebottles or clegs
and then a minute's silence, more or less,
before I shot him through his dicky heart."
This antipastoral moment (those curlews and bluebottles have an ironic charge here) typifies how the Tragedy of Northern Ireland underlies the whole opera, bursting to the surface repeatedly. The word "dicky" here highlights the callousness of the murderer'd language; it seems superfluous to say that Gillespie's heart was dicky. There is callousness, too, in the presentation of Gilbey's corpse, observed by Taco — "Someone had blown / his Adam's apple / clean away" and "Gilbey's head looked like a ham on a hook." The adam's apple recurs throughout the opera — it is noted that Vera actually has one -- and is linked not only to postlapsarian predicaments but also to the Big Apple, from which the men have fled. Repetition of phrase and image plays a large part in Muldoon's technique here, sewing together the libretto in a pattern of echoes. As for the violence of the imagery, the unsettling vividness of the battered corpses, this underscores the moral vacuousness of paramilitary terror, as the libretto refuses the phony appearances offered by Las Vegas, its slot machines and casinos, bringing to the rarefied atmosphere of the operatic stage an unexpected scale of imagery that one might more readily expect in The Godfather or, indeed, The Crying Game. Muldoon writes opera, as he writes poems, on his own terms.
I was fortunate enough to get hold of a demonstration disc of a performance of Vera, released by CRI in 2003. It is well worth hearing. The part of 'Dumdum' is performed by a steady baritone of considerable range, and Taco by a competent tenor, whose reedy urgency conveys the roller coaster of emotion experienced by this troubled character. However, the tenor has been listening to too many old John McCormack records, leading him to play the character not in a Belfast accent, but in a rather forced West of Ireland brogue; that's OK, he shouldn't sound like Van Morrison singing "TB Sheets," but it jars a little at the start. Doll's part is performed by a very striking soprano, who sings very well in the duet, but I particularly enjoyed the aria "The Thing I Love About Las Vegas" (VI). Vera's countertenor performs the soulful autobiographical aria, "For I, Vera, am the Way" (XIV) with feeling. The female chorus does sterling work singing harmonies, by turns sassy, satiric, and contemplative, as The Attendants (II,IV), the Casino Girls (VIII), the Dancers (X). They perform as the Wedding Chapel Choir in XIII, and their lyrical hymn — "The ever-whirling wheel of change" — elaborates memorably a key theme in Vera.
The music is an invigorating melange of traditional operatic styles, complemented by riffs from pop songs, torch song ballads, and Broadway tunes (sometimes accompanied by big brass, or off-key jazz trumpet), and informed by a kind of brash, modernist dissonance, at times reminiscent of the blousy impertinence of the great Weill/Brecht songs of Threepenny Opera. Indeed, the Weill/Brecht relationship comes to mind as readily as the great poetic collaborations of W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten, even though both Auden and Britten have appeared as characters in Muldoon's poetry, and the poet seems likely to have taken an interest in them as writers of opera. The inclusiveness and eclecticism of the music, it should be said, does not make the opera disintegrate into fragments — it is not a mess of allusions — since the thing is sustained by a firm musical narrative, under whose control there is scope for radical variations. And the postmodern (if you will) style of mixing suits the Muldoon script, comprehending as it does traditions of high and popular culture, bringing into the great tradition of the aria the seedy, feverish world of political murder, Hollywood movies (The Crying Game, School Daze), the lyricism of Sondheim, and the sweaty passions of U2: "Remember Bono / and the Edge in Las Vegas?" But what about feeling? Is it possible that the willful embrace of hybrid styles, no matter how brilliant or perhaps because so brilliant, can render a story vacant, can ignore or crimp the vein of feeling that otherwise might be tapped? I think the answer is that Hagen's musical score deepens the emotional energy of the characters, bringing out their obsessive feelings of guilt, confusion, alienation, self-hatred, anger, and indeed affection that are implicit there. It is an emotional piece of music, and altogether rather powerful.
Remember the old bibliographic chestnut, "If the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, where is Hamlet?" Vera of Las Vegas is the Muldoon libretto, published by Gallery, but it is also the recording; it's also the sum of its performances. Admittedly, the libretto is different from the operatic text (understood here as a musical performance), and each of these texts has its peculiar strengths, but for the full effect, witness a performance.
Jan 22, 2014
by Russell Platt
[Reprinted by the kind permission of Strings Magazine, this 1998 article discusses the world premiere recordings on the Arsis label of Hagen solo string works by Michaela Paetsch Neftel, Charles Noble, and Robert LaRue.]
Higher, Louder, Faster! is a 'musical editorial etude' for solo cello that is so reflective of its time and place that its onlie begetter, Robert LaRue, should rightfully have the last word: 'Higher, Louder, Faster!, a concert etude for solo cello, is a short, ironic piece about Juilliard. Written while the composer was still a student there in 1986, it is dedicated to Bernard Rands. Subtitled 'An Editorial,' it is a composer's-eye view of the conservatory experience: a juxtaposition of Hagen's take on the ideals of 'virtuoso' performance training (as summed up by his title) and the imperatives of a newer, less traditional aesthetic. Mercifully, it is not a rehash of post-adolescent, graduate school unhappiness. Instead of revisiting his fish-out-of-water claustrophobia -- a creative nature enclosed in the sweltering, hothouse atmosphere of intense reverence for the past and a preoccupation with the 'living tradition' -- Hagen extracts a wry, affectionate revenge. For here it is the performer who finds himself out of his element, presented with a schizophrenic work whose carefree, insouciant character is all but incompatible with intricate passagework of calculated, wholly deliberate awkwardness. (Higher, Louder, Faster! is notable for its return to an original purpose of the concert etude: to extend -- not merely to reinforce -- instrumental technique.)
[All of the works discussed in this article are published by ECS Publishing, Boston, MA, and, like the Arsis recording, available through all major online retailers.]
Jan 22, 2014
The Finisterra Trio performs the second movement of the Hagen Piano Trio No. 4 on their Naxos release "Complete Piano Trios of Daron Hagen." For more information, click here.
Jan 22, 2014
Adagietto from Symphony No. 1. For more information, click here.
Jan 8, 2014
Oboe soloist Linda Edelstein is accompanied by the Wisconsin Philharmonic, conducted by Alexander Platt, music director, in this, the slow movement of the Hagen Concerto for Oboe and Strings. For more information, click here.
Jan 6, 2014
A Woman in Morocco / 6
Episode 6 of the "Making of Morocco" video blog. Daron shares lessons gleaned from the pre-professional staged premiere at the Butler Opera Center in Austin.
Dec 14, 2013
Speaking of Vera...
In 2003 Composer and New Yorker music writer Russell Platt sat down with Daron to discuss Hagen's opera Vera of Las Vegas.
Russell Platt: Vera of Las Vegas is your third opera written in collaboration with Paul Muldoon. How did it all start-and what makes it work?
Daron Hagen: Paul and I had just finished the long process of following Shining Brow from composition through production when Paul Kreider, on behalf of the University of Nevada Las Vegas Opera Theater asked us for a new opera on a subject of our choosing. Having just created a very large, traditionally-crafted theater piece, we wanted to let our imaginations run wild, try to make words and music work together in new ways. Textually, the libretto rings changes on a sprawling sestina. Paul calls it the verse-vehicle for the serendipitous. Musically, the score is a series of variations on a rhythmic and motivic cell. Wedded to these two very powerful forms, the words and music could move forward like a mad juggernaut, seemingly "all over the place" but always tightly controlled.
DH: Paul and I co-write filmic treatments for our projects, then Paul writes the words for a scene, and I set it to music, making changes to the words when necessary. On the telephone, by email, or by fax, I then show him the changes and he lets me know when he thinks I've harmed the literary viability of the words. Since I approach his words with admiration and delight, this is extremely rare. When I set Paul's poetry, I don't even consider altering the words, since they were conceived from the outset by Paul as poetry, not as libretto.
RP: We can read from the synopsis that this is a work about a couple of not-so-bright IRA journeymen who wander into a trap-a many-sided vortex, really-in Las Vegas. But what else is it about?
DH: The opera is still teaching Paul and me what it is about: transformation, the relationship between appearance and reality, the horror of terrorism, and the state of extremis - all of these things, but so much more. Naturally, Vera makes more "sense" when it is staged, but it is also a lot more fun, scarier, and sexier. For example, it is one thing to read in the liner notes that Taco is being interrogated at the beginning of the opera, but quite another to witness it - the blows, the blood, the cries of pain. It's one thing to hear a chorus of strippers sing to their customers and quite another to see them do it while they're dancing. Charles Maryan, our stage director, tells us that what we've really written is a shooting script - we were thrilled to hear that - and that he's been staging it as such.
RP: I think, despite the commonness of the subject matter, that there is something compellingly noble, even heroic about this piece that you and Paul have written-it's not just verismo, slice-of-life type stuff. Am I on to something?
DH: I think that you cut to the core of the piece. Words and music create a bridge between the audience and the characters in the opera: Taco and Dumdum are murderers, Vera's a transvestite, Doll's a spy. Not necessarily people one would want to spend an evening with. Or not? Paul mentions that, in Northern Ireland, "appearance and reality are extremely difficult to establish, and an expert on the tragedies of Euripides may turn out to be a trigger puller." Life is Art, Art is Life. But Rotten people can make great Art, and Great people can make rotten Art. Good people can do terrible things; terrible people can do good things. The important thing in this opera is that all the characters, despite their baggage, are attempting to transform themselves into something better than they are, and we, as audience members, can't help hoping that they'll succeed. That transaction ennobles us all, gives us hope amid the wreckage.
RP: Eclecticism seems more fashionable than ever before, but it strikes me that the two of you have very different notions of what variety in art can mean. Paul has this wizardly way of finding different spins for a well-worn group of words-like bar, horn, strip, or lemon, just to name a few in this libretto-that seem to drive the libretto along as much as the "plot" or the characters' urges or intentions. You however, are a flagrant (if you'll allow me) polystylist-we've got tonal classical music here, in addition to jazz, Broadway, 70's folk rock, intellectually organized chromatic music, and more. Do you try to make a kind of "sense" of Paul's virtuoso wordplay-a kind of musical correspondence, if you will-or just go with your own sense of flow?
DH: What strikes you as polystylist is to me the spinning of "well-worn groups of notes" just as Paul does when he spins "well-worn groups of words." The words and music are up to exactly the same flagrant mischief.
RP: After Mozart, music history seems to be divided between composers who write operas and those who write just about everything else. But you do both, having also written a copious amount of orchestral music, chamber music, band music, choruses, songs. Do you feel apart from the pack, or part of a new wave?
DH: I went my own way a few years ago and am not really aware of who, among the composers I grew up with during the eighties and nineties, has written what or for whom for the past ten years. I don't even know who is a member of the pack now, let alone where it is heading! I listen carefully to new works by composers who are old friends, to my students' new pieces, and to the recordings and scores that young composers send me. I don't listen to my own music. Writing music, learning it to perform it as a pianist or to conduct it takes whatever musical energy I seem to have.
DH: I have been trying to make my instrumental (so-called "pure" music) more like my vocal music and vice versa. I've never differentiated in my own mind between so-called "abstract" music and "dramatic" music. Music in itself is an abstract art form. When music is tied to words it seems to me to become even more enigmatic because what is one to do when setting a word like "rheumatism" for example? It is a beautiful mouthful of a word to sing and to set, but as I have it, I know firsthand that it is unpleasant to have. Shall I set the word to "painful" music? What is painful music? Or shall I set the delicious sound of the word to "delicious" music? Madness!
RP: You've acknowledged Ned Rorem and Leonard Bernstein as two of your most influential mentors. On the surface these two seem to have a lot in common, but they're actually quite fundamentally different: Ned the aristocrat, Lenny the man of the people. You've written an opera about a "vulgar" subject, that has all these "vulgar" styles in it, and yet your word-setting has this jewel-like precision to it-like a princess traipsing through mud. Is this an aspect of your artistic personality-or is it just Vegas? Just America?DH: I love composers who pride themselves on their "good taste." I wonder how much of their conception of what constitutes "good taste" is really just a manifestation of their creative hangups and social pretentions? The Truth often appears as vulgar. Fact. Why else would they react so virulently to a piece like Vera? I also love your image of a princess traipsing through the mud. She must be named Vera, of course, and she must embody the Truth. Every character in Vera sings the way they do because, if I were they, those would be the notes I would sing. That's what gives the notes their dignity. At a certain point, you've either found your voice or you haven't. This was how I found mine. Lenny's been gone for over a decade now; Ned's become an old and treasured friend. Is Ned really aristocratic? Was Bernstein really a man of the people? Is the subject of Vera of Las Vegas really vulgar? The truth is that both are just tremendously gifted, hard working composers trying to reach the next double bar and that Vera's no more vulgar than a walk down Broadway on a Saturday afternoon.
Dec 11, 2013
Telling a Secret
Mother shaped my image because she needed a subject, she loved me, and because I was available.
Atop the bookshelf in my sons' room sits a terracotta sculpture of me for which I recall sitting for Mother during the summer of my ninth year. As she smoked Pall Malls and fashioned the gritty clay on the back porch of our house, I saw my form slowly take shape beneath her expressive hands. I remember the shrill metallic burr of the dog-day cicadas mingling with the purling of Paganini Violin Concertos-to which we listened, mother having been a violinist well into her teens-one after another, as she worked on the statue for the entirety of that idyllic summer.
When my buddies swung by and asked me to play Last of the Mohicans, or Star Trek, or Rat Patrol in the woods with them, Mother said, "Listen, go ahead if you like. But if you want it to look like you, you have to stick with it; don't be surprised if it starts looking a lot like your brother Britt."
At one point, while modeling the feet, she simply sliced them off with a bit of cutting wire and dumped them into the clay pail. I fished them out, saying, "They look fine to me." "Yes, they're okay," she replied, "but they're not your feet." "But nobody will know that except us," I protested. "But we'll know," she sighed. "Where's the satisfaction in not getting it exactly right?"
She draped a wet cloth over the statue, and for the next few days executed sketch after sketch of first her own feet, and then mine: "I've got to freshen up my skills so that I can understand what a foot really looks like," she explained. Resuming her sculpting, she was happier with the results: "Let's roll up your pants a bit, like Tom Sawyer," she said. "Now that I've captured your feet, I want people to see them."
As far as I was concerned, we were done. There was more: "Inspiration is the secret," she whispered. "Otherwise, this will just be a statue of a little smiling boy. What do you want your secret to be?" I was a serious child. "How can a statue have a secret?" I asked. She didn't answer. "I could be hiding something behind my back," I ventured. "Good," she laughed. "Don't peek; I'll put something in your hands behind your back when we're done working on the front." In due course, the piece was finished and fired; when we picked it up at the kiln, I learned the boy's secret: he was clasping an enormous toad.
Dec 4, 2013
Backstage at Avery Fisher Hall on 14 October 1992, the New York Philharmonic’s trumpet players surrounded me. The first rehearsal of my Philharmonia had just ended. “Okay, Daron,” said Phil Smith, “the first thing you’ve got to understand is that trumpet players are like fighter pilots. When a section violinist screws up, nobody can hear it. When we crash and burn, everyone hears it.” I nodded respectfully. “So do you want me to change the opening?” (All four trumpets were required to play antiphonal valve trills on high C’s from four different spots in the balconies. It was the most brutal set of parts I’ve ever written and I knew it.)
George Coble, sitting in for the concert, said, “You did this to us because we’re the best, right? You’re trying to bust our chops?” “No, no,” I insisted, but he was right. I blushed. “We’ll play them where you wrote them, because we can.” He looked at the other guys for support. “But you had better put them down an octave if you ever want to hear the piece again,” admonished Vince Penzarella. They all laughed and slapped me on the back. The piece received great reviews, but it seemed clear to me that to these men I had abused the privilege, delivered an unnecessarily difficult piece, and squandered a great opportunity: Philharmonia fails inasmuch as it will never be frequently performed.
The next evening I sat next to Kurt Masur in the composer’s box as below Michael Morgan made his New York Philharmonic debut with Philharmonia, commissioned (thanks to then composer in residence David Del Tredici) in celebration of the orchestra’s 150th anniversary. “Fascinating,” he said to me during the applause afterwards. “It is really five very short pieces, is it not?” “Yes, sir—it consists of five one minute pieces and a cadenza for the trumpets.” “Hmm,” he said, and suddenly smiled mischievously. “You made them work, didn’t you?”
Although the Philharmonic had performed my music before—Common Ground, at Aaron Davis Hall on 27 July 1990, conducted by Lawrence Leighton Smith—this night was my debut as a composer at Avery Fisher. I was thirty.
For more information about Philharmonia, click here.
Nov 30, 2013
The pictures were often in black and white, but the music was always in color.
Father was plastered. I’d been sent by Mother to pick him up at a cocktail lounge on Wisconsin Avenue. In no condition to drive, he pounded on the driver's side window. "Slide over," he commanded. I was sixteen. For the first time I had the nerve to refuse him the keys. I drove us home; it was not pleasant.
It was as though Father, who we had been losing as a family to drinking and depression by dribs and drabs over the course of my childhood, had finally made himself into the Man Who Lived Downstairs. Music alone couldn't yet fill the emptiness I felt, and I was too sheltered a suburban Midwestern adolescent to adequately come to terms with the wild, impractical, somewhat lurid thoughts and desires my brain was generating.
My first pilgrimage to the Oriental Landmark Theater, a Grand Prewar Temple to the Tenth Muse—as the Italians refer to Cinema—in Milwaukee that evening, provided me with a refuge, a chance to see grown up movies, of which many our parents would never approve, a place to dream, to share Communion in the Dark, to play. Brian Anderson put it beautifully: “We didn't just visit or even inhabit the Oriental. We infiltrated it, climbing the organ loft and spelunking the tunnels. Any movie would do. If the media can be the message, sometimes the venue is the vision.”
In writing about the Oriental do I not succumb to what Gore Vidal in Screening History described as “the American writer's disease, the celebration if not of self, of the facts of one's own sacred story?” The Oriental was the crucible in which I first began ginning up mine. Hormones and an unshakeable belief that in some specific way I had something unique to offer the world provided the cocktail of raw material.
An English teacher named Diane C. Doerfler provided the catalyst. Doerf, as we called her, was an inspirational teacher, a planter of seeds. I recall her now as I saw her then—gamine, a lovely combination of Katherine Hepburn and Jeanne Moreau, seemingly something of a Transcendentalist, personally elusive. She began the year by etching in a quick rat-a-tat-tat of chalk on the board LIFE = ART. Then, she paused, turned back to us grinning like a Siamese cat, scanned the room, purred, “Well, what do you make of that?”
Thanks to the movies I saw at the Oriental and the books that Doerf gave me, my world was enlarged at the expense of myself, enabling me to grow into and desire access to, the world at large. When I told Doerf I intended to move to the east coast, she presented me with the volume of John Cheever's short stories I have to this day: “Read these,” she said, throwing me a rope. “He and Updike seem to get it right.” Only a few years later I would befriend the writer Susan Cheever at Yaddo. I imagine Doerf would be pleased to know that I told Susan about her gift.
Later, when I taught music history, albeit in reverse chronological order, among other things, at Bard College, I emulated Doerf’s teaching style. My students maintained diaries. Exams were open-ended. The more connections they could make between seemingly unrelated concepts and themes, the higher they scored; this rewarded associative and assimilative thinking, because students who thrived on regurgitating facts and dates always scored far below the ones who thought creatively. Most students hated it.
Designed by Gustave A. Dick and Alex Bauer, the themes of the Oriental's decor are in fact East Indian, with no traces of Chinese or Japanese artwork. It is said to be the only standard movie palace ever built to incorporate East Indian decor. Opened to the public on 27 July 1927 as the flagship of a chain of 47 movie theaters operated by John and Thomas Saxe, Irish brothers who began as sign painters at the turn of the century, the 1800-seat Oriental incorporated elements of East Indian, Moorish, Islamic, and Byzantine design. It included three eight foot high chandeliers adorned with images of the Buddha, eight gleaming black porcelain lions flanking a massive tiled ceremonial staircase to the balcony, hand-painted frescoes of Turkish scenes, dozens of custom draperies, and literally hundreds of elephants—elephants everywhere, from the bathrooms to the 1920s smoking lounges to the remotest corners of the balcony.
Faltering, after fifty years of continuous operation as a traditional movie palace, it came into the hands of Robert and Melvyn Pritchett, Milwaukee brothers and electricians who acquired it in 1972. In 1976, they agreed to a proposal by the Landmark Theater (then Parallax) chain to take over programming.
There were six enormous Buddha statues—three on each side of the broad orchestra—adorned with glowing “rubies” in their foreheads, smoldering green eyes, and dim orange pools of light that warmed their ample tummies from below that remained on until the marquee was shut off, the work lights extinguished, and the lonesome ghost light turned on. The Pritchetts clearly loved the palace, and tolerated my adoration to the point where, on several occasions just before locking up for the night, they allowed me to perform the ritual.
The Oriental also boasted a shallow orchestra pit suitable for a vaudeville-circuit-sized ensemble of about 25 players, access tunnels, storage rooms, dressing rooms (with smeared autographs of once near-famous performers still on the walls), and a spacious stage with the original rigging still in place, and an organ's pipe loft. During my day, the organ was in disrepair. Now restored, every Friday and Saturday before the 7 PM show, the plush sounds of the Kimball Theatre Pipe Organ—the largest of its kind in a theater in America and the third largest in the world—introduce the film before the instrument sinks into the pit.
For a while, the theater was also a live performance venue—I saw Laurie Anderson there. The Violent Femmes got their start by standing in one night as the opening act for the Pretenders. When I knew it best, the Oriental was still a calendar house, a place where adult things happened. It had danger implicit in its darkness, its smoky smell, in the avant-garde and erotic films on its monthly bill of fare. In 1978 a double feature set you back $2.50—well within the budget of a teenage refugee from the suburbs in possession of a probationary driver's license and his mother's car.
Communion in the Dark, the sitting around a campfire telling stories to explore the unknowable, remains one of the chief reasons I compose operas. Truffaut's La nuit américaine explores the theme of whether making art is more important than life for the people who make it. First seen at the Oriental, this film led me to a comprehensive engagement with Truffaut's films over the years, which climaxed in meeting him at the end of a retrospective of his work at the Regency Cinema, a second-run house on Broadway near Juilliard, in 1986. When I began my opera Shining Brow, which explores this, I asked Paul to make this one of Frank Lloyd Wright's foremost concerns: “Can a man be a faithful husband and father,” asks Wright, “and still remain true to his art?”
Suspending the audience’s disbelief being the first step in making art, I made conscious note of the strategies filmmakers used to do it. During those years, I assembled the psychological and emotional skill set required for coping with life as a creative person. I couldn't help watching films critically; I was keenly aware of the artifice, and loved it. The venue was a refuge, but the films were not an escape.
That August 1978 evening the double bill was Casablanca and To Have and Have Not. Although it would be years before I understood that is only a single step from Steiner to Strauss, from the moment Max Steiner's grand Warner Brothers Fanfare began, I was enthralled—more by the music than the images and narratives. Steiner's godfather had been no less a musical force than Richard Strauss; his piano teacher was Johannes Brahms, and he took composition lessons from Gustav Mahler. These men took their work seriously: as the saying goes, “there was also a movie going on.”
The large and appreciative audience knew the film, hissed the villains, and cheered the great lines. It was the first time I ever felt surrounded by an audience so in tune with the rhythm of a script and set of actors that they literally sighed in unison. A few folks mouthed the dialogue along with the actors. Men wept openly during Rick's breakdown scene; people stood up when partisans at Rick's began singing La Marseillaise in an attempt to drown out the Nazis singing Die Wacht am Rhein; couples consoled one another when Rick and Ilse parted.
It transported me. During the intermission, I began prowling around the theater, which already felt like home. (The only other place that has affected me in exactly this way is the artist colony Yaddo—more about that later.) My parents were on their own Revolutionary Road in the suburbs, their lives together unspooling. Mine was rapidly expanding here, in the semi-darkness, among the threadbare velvet seats, the mildew-perfumed draperies, the dicey wiring, illuminated only by “emeralds”, “rubies”, and a shaft of light slicing down from the projection booth to the broad, off-white screen with a blemish in the upper left hand quadrant.
The second feature began: Ernest Hemingway's story, adapted by William Faulkner, directed by Howard Hawks, with Humphrey Bogart and ... Lauren Bacall. “You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? Just put your lips together and ... blow.” The frisson I experienced was real. Seeing the film thirty-five years after it was made, I could not in my wildest dreams have imagined that I would one day meet Bacall—well, fall at her feet, anyway—on a stairway at the Dakota on my way to a lesson with Leonard Bernstein.
Twenty-six days later, I brought friends to see Toshirō Mifune in Hiroshi Inagaki's great Samurai Trilogy. There were only about thirty people scattered around the theater. The first of countless games of hide-and-seek was played out in the soaring balcony; the illusion that we were alone in the vast screening chamber became, during the third hour, a reality. No doors were locked and we got into everything: the dressing rooms, the tunnels, and the service closets. I watched Musashi's duel from behind the screen, lying onstage on my back with a sand bag beneath my head, my fingers interlaced at the nape of my neck.
That October, I was given a tour of the projection booth during the screening of Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits and 8 ½. My epiphany came during the latter, when I realized, watching the screen through the same hole (the “fourth wall”) that the powerful projector was throwing the image through, that all of the settings in Fellini were intentionally artificial so that they would appear on film as hyper-real. Opera.
The next week West Side Story continued to counterpoint my evolving young thoughts. I'd seen the film on television, of course, and had spent fifth grade walking to and from Linfield Elementary School singing the tune of Maria, substituting Jean Wilson’s name. (I didn’t learn until Marni Nixon herself told me 25 years later over drinks in New York that it was not Natalie Wood’s but Marni’s that made me fall in love with Maria.) However, I had never seen the Jets swoop across a three-story tall movie screen. The boys leapt; so did my heart. The hair on my arms stood up. We were being invited not to buy into the idea of a bunch of tough street kids dancing but to witness their spirits flying through the air.
The Oriental provided my first introduction to serious camp. The double bill was Humoresque and Johnny Guitar. (Truffaut famously referred to it as a “phony Western.”) The film was to me like Weiβbier with a slab of lemon in it: all the roles, from Joan Crawford to Sterling Hayden, seemed clearly gender-swapped. Paired with an even higher-camp classic starring a beautiful young prizefighter of a James Garfield, a leonine Crawford, a rumpled Oscar Levant, and Isaac Stern's hands, it made for a swampy, soupy, delightfully sentimental evening at the movies—one impossible to forget.
Lower camp was also on the bill. The Oriental is the world record holder for a current and continuing film engagement. The Rocky Horror Picture Show has played as a midnight film since January 1978. I was one of the original regulars. I dressed the part for a dozens of showings, danced the Time Warp, brought bags of rice, toast, squirt guns, newspapers, and so forth, knew my lines (“Dammnit, Janet!”) and delighted in the lovely community of genuinely joyful people that has made the Oriental the U.S. record holder for a continuing engagement of the film.
On 8 December 1978, during a double bill (East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause), I held hands with a date (Carol Hallanger) for the first time. Leonard Rosenman's sophisticated modernist scores (he studied with Arnold Schoenberg, Luigi Dallapiccola, and Roger Sessions) for these back-to-back knockouts floored me.
Uan Rasey’s incomparable trumpet playing on Jerry Goldsmith’s stunning Chinatown score (released in 1974, but already in rotation at the Oriental) drove forcefully home for me the fact that a single perfect theme ideally performed can carry the tone of an entire motion picture or (as I learned later) opera.
Eleven days later, more film noir: I saw The Third Man for the first time and immediately determined someday to turn it into an opera. In fact, I pitched an updated adaptation of the Graham Greene screenplay in 2006 to Speight Jenkins, Intendant of Seattle Opera. Lime's entrance, the bemused, amused anti-hero reveal of a very handsome young Orson Welles, about whom I was already something of an aficionado, is entirely operatic, hand of author. It is hard for me now not to have in mind beside it the much later anti-hero reveal of Welles in Touch of Evil, a movie that heavily influenced the tone and structure of my operas Bandanna and A Woman in Morocco, which in execution is essentially an homage to my theatrical awakening at the Oriental.
In 1981, I took my Mother to the Oriental to look at a Hitchcock double feature. During intermission Bernard Herrmann's music for the final few minutes of Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 was playing. Mother reached for my hand and, as we both stared at the blank screen, told me that she had been diagnosed with a particularly nasty form of inoperable lung cancer. First, there would be chemotherapy. There would be a rally. Then she would "get bored" of dying, get on with her life, and die. "I'll come home to take care of you," I said. "Christ, no," she said. "I want you to get on with your life. Get out of here." The music stopped. The lights dimmed. We held hands.
There's a splendid, self-sufficient egoism in being young. Closed about with unearned affection from parents who will love you no matter how selfishly or casually you behave, you're free to indulge independence and individualism.
Becoming an adult is realizing alone-ness, understanding how tenuous the integration of lives really is, and facing the unpleasant necessity of having to earn affection. You're not born into other people's lives, people who will love you immediately and irrevocably; pamper your whims and love you for them or despite them. This is a sober fact that's shattering to comprehend, but it makes an individual sooner than the cocoon-like, womb-like protective existence of adolescence.
Love is lost so easily: you can't strangle it by putting it on a golden chain, expecting it to understand it's free to move only a few feet in either direction. Nor can you pick it up and fondle it only when your fancy so pleases. You treat it gently because it is volatile, owes you nothing except if you prove there's been a continuous effort to earn it. Then you've crushed out 'selves' into one 'self' that's the basis of all sympathy and human understanding. Love is selfish-but you must never be, for fear of losing it.
Nov 9, 2013
When he was a kid, my big brother Kevin had long, beautiful fingers. I loved watching him practicing Debussy's "Claire de Lune," which he played with supple intelligence. I idolized him. He wrote a book, which our Father typed and Mother illustrated, called "Sverre's Saga." He was tall and slender, a determined long-distance runner; he edited his high school yearbook, and starred in and directed plays. He was a touchingly baffled Antrobus in "The Skin of Our Teeth" and a deliciously unhinged Pope in Rolf's "Hadrian VII" in which he cast our brother Britt as one of his Cardinals. The sight of the two of them onstage, chewing scenery together for the benefit of a nearly empty 1600 seat theater, was dazzling.
He had "baritone hair" before anyone knew what that was, and sad hazel eyes that drove girls nuts, although he never really put two-and-two together and realized that he could have been a cad if he hadn't been such a good man.
He fell in love with opera as a teenager. Giuseppe Verdi was his musical hero. (I am an opera composer today because of Kevin's influence and guidance.) He loved how characters in operas expressed their feelings: openly, at the top of their lungs, like crazed animals.
His own singing voice, a rich English horn-colored lyric baritone, was ideal for Sondheim and Mozart, but not large enough for the heavy Verdi roles that had inspired him to major in voice at UW-Madison. So, he turned to orchestra management, and married Ryan's mother, Judy, a violinist in the Milwaukee Symphony.
He was very, very good at running symphony orchestras, and he ran a number of them during his career. Here are two anecdotes about his professional life.
The first involves Tchaikovsky's "1812" Overture. Kevin had just been given his first job, as operations manager of the Milwaukee Symphony. He had been tasked by his boss to arrange for the sound of canon fire during the finale, as is the tradition with the piece. Kevin rang up the National Guard and requested artillery. After a few beats, the astonished corporal on the other end of the line replied, "Um, yes, sir. Will that be with, or without, nuclear warheads?"
The second anecdote involves his very dear friend Lukas Foss. They were on tour together somewhere in Europe and, the orchestra having tuned up, everyone, including the audience, was waiting for Lukas to come onstage and ascend the podium. No Lukas. Kevin was used to packing extra socks, batons, and even pants for his forgetful friend. Backstage, there were three doors: one led to Lukas' dressing room; one led out to an alley behind the theater; the third led below-stage. Looking for his socks, Lukas had chosen the wrong door. Kevin was unfazed. In short order, he found Lukas in the basement, happily looking up at the numbered traps of the stage above. "Isn't this fascinating?" Lukas asked. "Yes," Kevin calmly replied, handing Lukas his socks and guiding him upstairs. "You know it is time to conduct now, right?" "I wasn't worried, Kevin. I knew you would take care of me."
As a child, Kevin was assigned a genius-level IQ. He sometimes read three books a day. For over thirty years, he and his Lifetime Friend, conductor JoAnn Falletta, sent each other boxes of books to read -- everything from Proust to pulp. As we packed up Kevin's belongings the other day at his house on Alhambra, the mailman delivered a new box of them.
Kevin adored our Mother. Every one of his Better Angels came from her. He passionately loved his Son, who has grown up to be such an extraordinary man, married to a woman that Kevin compared to our Mother in grace and strength and fundamental goodness.
Less than 24 hours after Judy gave birth to Ryan, Judy and Kevin brought him to be snuggled by our Mother, whose last few hours were thereby filled not just with the cancer that killed her but also the promise of a brand new life. Kevin never, never ever stopped missing her.
He put up with me, his arrogant, selfish little brother, ruefully endured my youthful attitudinizing, and was deeply devoted to Gilda, my wife, the love of my life, and the mother of his young nephews, Atticus and Seamus, on whom he doted.
And now, at the all-too-young age of 57, he has reached the end of a road that he chose nearly forty years ago. He died, too soon, but not entirely unexpectedly, in the little house he loved so much.
Last night, the house naturally seemed wrong without him, so I put on one of his treasured old LP's: Verdi's "Falstaff," and cranked it. I opened the windows to let the glorious strains out into the night, and settled with his cat Max on my lap in the pretty rose garden in the backyard on which he had worked so hard. The rain had come, as though summoned by his passing, and I could smell the desert he loved so much. I knew then that he had found relief.
I believe he's now young and flashing those hazel eyes and flipping that ridiculous baritone hair in a better place. His beloved friend Ralph Berkowitz is there, and our brother Britt, and our Mother. He's happy, healthy, and planning a magnificent medieval feast for us all. We'll only be allowed to eat with our hands and, if we're lucky, afterwards, he may play "Claire de Lune" for us, or even treat us to the sound of his clear, ringing baritone, the voice I first heard and loved as a child, and which I shall never forget.
Here is a link to his public obituary in the Albuquerque Journal.
Oct 31, 2013
Love Comes With a Knife
Listen to "Love Comes With a Knife" from the new opera A Woman in Morocco, opening October 25th at the Butler Opera Center, in Austin, Texas.
Oct 9, 2013
The George Washington Suite is enjoying a four performance run at the Provincetown Playhouse in Manhattan. Daron spoke for three minutes about the short opera prior to its initial performances by the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh as part of their "Night Caps" cycle of mini-operas.
Oct 7, 2013
I unlocked the padlock and shoved the old door hard. Cobwebs parted, a jet of dust shot up, and a wave of stale air pulsed through the doorway. I tripped over a caliper I'd left on the workshop floor the week before when I'd finished building my two year old's bed, swore quietly, looked around at the cardboard boxes, and sighed.
Unlike Father and Britt, who methodically, unsentimentally, threw out nearly every personal paper before dying, Kevin died unexpectedly, leaving a dozen boxes of memorabilia to be sorted through. I had not planned to spend the morning with his things, but I was looking for an old script. I peeled open a box and plunged my hand in. "Ford Sworn In" read the headline of the Milwaukee Journal in huge type. I paged through section one. Odd how sexy the line drawings of women in underwear still struck me as being—far more titillating than today's airbrushed eye candy ads. I smelled the newsprint.
Here were programs from shows he'd been in. Class notes from a graduate school course in collective bargaining. Season brochures from orchestras he had run. Touring schedules for conductors he'd worked with. His very young son's letters to him after he moved away—the heart-rending children's writing. I glimpsed a few words—"…I am making a garden and planting 'forget-me-nots' in the shape of the letter R."
I had read too much. I closed the file. A file of letters from his wife. Mother's wallet. Father's wallet. Britt's wallet. Kevin's wallet. Death certificates.
At the bottom of the box were a dozen photographs I'd never seen before. I gathered them up like Prayer Cards, cleared a stool, and sat down to look at them. Britt, morbidly obese and desperately ill, newly-converted to Mormonism, anointing Kevin's head that last Christmas with oil. "Maybe this will make my hair grow back," Kevin had joked. Kevin seated on the sofa next to his son. Kevin in Italy, with "Orso in Italia" scrawled on the reverse.
A summer 1988 picture of Britt and me in Kevin's Wauwatosa kitchen. Britt, in his precise, cramped handwriting, had written, "Britt: Republican; Daron: Crypto-Communist" on the reverse. I could barely look at the picture; yet, Kevin had saved it. I looked at myself: lips etched in a line, staring straight at the camera, determined to survive the chaos of our childhoods. I took in my crisp Brooks Brothers button-down, the right eye already dark and hell-bent, the left still pretty clear, the first hints of jowl under the jawline. The brutal air of self-protection. Then I looked at Britt, only three years older than me, already beginning to burn out.
Nature teaches us also how to let things die.
Twenty five years later, looking at the picture of one dead brother, I finally wept for the other one. Funny, huh?
Oct 1, 2013
Morocco / 5
Daron discusses crafting the electro-acoustic sound collages imbedded in his new opera A WOMAN IN MOROCCO, and describes composing the jazz ballad "Love is a Knife" that figures prominently in the story.
Sep 2, 2013
Hagen family images chosen by Daron to accompany a live performance of his arrangement of the traditional spiritual, Wayfaring Stranger, excerpted from his Piano Trio No. 3.
Aug 14, 2013
A Woman in Morocco / 4
Having finished the vocal score of the opera, composer Hagen discusses balancing engraving, orchestrating and revising duties with other projects, shares early set designs, the addition of Kentucky Opera to the development table, and plans for the multi-media components of the work in progress.
Apr 16, 2013
A Woman in Morocco / 3
Daron discusses the development of the aria "There Was a Woman," from the opera A Woman in Morocco.
Jan 25, 2013
It was just a house. But it had been our home. Countless dramas had unfolded within its walls, secrets had been shared, stolen, and kept. Father had died in it a few years earlier and my brother Kevin and I had put the place up for sale. It had changed hands and I had figured that was that. But, in February 2010, I was for twelve hours in Milwaukee to appear on Tom Strini's new public television show. I had a few hours to fill, so I drove out to my childhood home for one final look.
I reached the loop at the end of the cul-de-sac and stopped the rental car a few houses away. I did not intend to knock on the door. I thought maybe I would walk around the lot, peer into a window or two, and then go. Two large German Shepherds barked wildly. A huge Harley Davidson logo decorated the front of the house. Motorcycles parked in the driveway. Trespassing wouldn't be wise.
Two children played within. "What the hell," I sighed, throwing the car into park and climbing out. I knocked on the front door. Their mother cracked it open. Awkwardness.
"I'm sorry to bother you," I said, removing my tweed cap, "but I grew up in this house. Might I come in for a moment?" She was kind. "Honey," she called over her shoulder to her husband, "someone's at the door." The man who had bought the house "as is," a man who clearly could handle himself, climbed the stairs and wrapped my hand in his.
No longer an overturned Viking Longship, the front room was simply that of a suburban tract house. The corrupt roof had been entirely replaced and was now dotted with bulbous skylights. Everywhere the cedar ("It was too far gone," the Father said, "we tried to save it, but it was too far gone.") had either been removed or painted over. The Lannon stone hearth still bore the pockmarks in it where Britt had lit firecrackers. My oldest brother Kevin's room, the library, was now their little girl's room, and was filled with dolls, a television, and homework.
We walked the short flight of steps to the third floor. The father tapped on his son's bedroom door. We entered. A pale young boy looked up at me, curious and a little alarmed. This was the room Father had filled with stuffed animals after I had moved away, the room in which my brother Britt had protected me, the room in which I had realized that it was Father who was at fault, not us. Curtains now covered the enormous picture windows through which I used to watch the wind whip the trees back and forth. "The view scares him," explained the boy's father.
I looked at the door to the master bedroom. What had once resembled and felt like a crime scene was now nondescript. I looked at the place on the floor just in front of the bathroom where Mother had died in my arms. There was the jagged gouge Father had made hammering his pipe against it during one of their mournful moon plays.
We walked down two flights to Father's den, now filled with exercise equipment. I imagined Father standing at the top of the stairs to the basement, the three of us boys standing in our pajamas in brown water up to our calves, pushing it around with brooms like gondoliers, the rain falling so hard that the house vibrated.
We walked down the steps. He had finished the basement. I thought of Cinnamon's dried shit scattered around the oil furnace, looked for the workbench at which I had built electronic gadgets with Father in junior high school. I swear I could smell molten solder.
Entirely in the moment, I "hung" like a computer stuck in a logic loop. Was it really time to go? Was this really how this story was going to end? I saw Britt, Kevin, and me again for an instant, so young. The house's new owner cleared his throat and the moment flew apart like a blown upon dandelion seed head.
Life resumed. I led the way back up to the den. "Let me show you something," he said, shuffling with his large hands through a pile of compact discs on a table a few feet away from where the cop had found Father dead. "Before you go: here," he said, pleased that he had found it, handing me a copy of Silent Night, the Christmas album I had made in 1997, "would you mind signing this?"
Jan 14, 2013
A Woman in Morocco / 2
Dec 19, 2012
Waiting for a Sign / 5 May 2012
I strolled around Battery Park City before turning east towards Ground Zero. The line snaked for blocks. I joined it. I could have sworn that, before I smelled the Atlantic on the May 2012 breeze sidling down the Financial District's narrow, crowded streets and over the eleven-year-old open wound, I smelled that day's unforgettable admixture of smoke, fused metal, aviation fuel, and something else. Freedom Tower, unfinished, thrust into the mist on one side. Dead ahead, the roar of falling water rose from the negative space of the World Trade Center's enormous footprints.
I remembered looking out the window of Jim Kendrick's Trade Center office years earlier, far, far down at the Staten Island Ferry and the Statue of Liberty, both rendered toy like. Or drinks at the Greatest Bar on Earth. I recalled a hundred trips to Erewhon on the Staten Island ferry, looking up at my New York skyline.
A few weeks earlier, for the first time since 9-11, I'd reluctantly taken the Ferry to attend a concert on Staten Island. Headed back, I stole glances at the Financial District, expecting to feel something. All of the romance was gone. Standing at the rail late on a lovely sunny spring day, the harbor the color of an opal, I could have been looking over the water at Seattle, San Francisco, or Venice. Any City. Not mine.
I made the head of the line. Bone-chilling air swept up from the pit. Came the familiar alienation effect, the objectivity, the feeling of no longer being there. "My thirtieth year in New York," I said to myself aloud.
"Wow," said the bearded thirty-something in front of me. He carried a copy of The Fountainhead and his ear buds throbbed with Bjork's latest single. Startled that he had overheard me, I made believe that I hadn't heard him. "You must be old," he said, meaning nothing by it. "Oh, I don't know," I said.
As once I had, the next generation of so-called art composers had long since arrived in Gotham, most of them convinced of their worth, eager to please and to be pleased. For a while, I'd even tried to read the pap of their blogs. I'd ventured out to New Music concerts and found the music—most of it, anyway—as inconsequential as I found much of my own.
It had been years since I'd attended a performance out of anything but a sense of reluctant obligation. The crowded subways, covered in graffiti, that once I loved, had been cleaned up; but now I hated the crowds, and the noise. Times Square had come to resemble a corrupt suburb of Disneyland.
I thought of the Big Cedar House in which I grew up. In the end, I knew, it had been nothing special. It had just been like a lot of houses, on a street like a lot of other streets, in a suburb like a lot of other Vietnam Conflict-era suburbs. I'd raced as hard as I could away from it. Thrown a ring by acceptance at the Curtis Institute, I had grabbed it for all life, and never stopped—until this moment.
"Move along," a cop said to me. I looked up from the memorial. "Listen, friend, a lot of people are waiting to take your place," he said, looking through me. I really knew that. I smiled at him, stuffed my hands in my pockets, and felt suddenly a decade younger as I headed back toward the Winter Garden.
A cab driver leaned out of his window and swore at me in Punjabi as I crossed the West Side Highway. I had to smile. I had moved to Gotham in 1984, there forever to stay. Maybe I had overstayed, but I had grown to understand the bitch in my bones: I simply could not rear children in a city I understood, but no longer loved.
My heart (once locked securely up inside of me and therefore protected from the hurly-burly of Gotham) now resided outside of me in the form of two little boys, my sons, whose journey was just beginning. It was past time for me to take them and go. The New York that once I had come to be a part of, I now realized, had died the day the Towers fell.
Behind the Winter Garden, the yachts bobbed in their slips like toys. I stood, hands stuffed in my pockets, a slight breeze caressing my face—cool, professional, like the like the hands of a nurse. I waited for a sign.
Dec 6, 2012
A Woman in Morocco / 1
Daron Hagen discusses the genesis of his new opera A Woman in Morocco.
Oct 25, 2012
'Most pieces,' Virgil Thomson once quipped, 'withdraw themselves.'
I've always believed that it is a composer's job to write music, not to waste energy thinking about whether that music will be of use after he is dead. Nevertheless, at a certain point, one has to acknowledge one's strengths and work from them.
After thirty years studying, attending, composing, and coaching opera, I have begun to finally realize that I am only barely beginning to understand what writing one entails. One successfully produced opera is a composer's visa at the border; two means you've bought property. I'm not certain how many operas one has to write before citizenship in the opera world is earned; I only know that every time I finish one I feel further away from understanding how to make one.
My vocal music in general and my operas in particular have engaged me the most intensely, made on the repertoire the closest thing to a lasting mark. Yes, 'all that we see or seem,' as Poe wrote, may be a 'dream within a dream,' but—given my choice—there's no place I'd rather spend my dreamtime than in a darkened theater, observing as the magnificent human and mechanical apparatus of an opera company in motion brings one of my operas to life.Harry Shoplas handed me a shiny euphonium when I was nine I think because I was husky and looked like I could manage carrying the thing back and forth to school. He quickly switched me to alto saxophone—my brother Britt played the baritone saxophone in Harry's super-cool dance band and I aspired to playing with him. I loved the smell of wet reeds, and the taste of cane, but I could never get the thing to play softly. Our fifth grade band concert closed with a song called Spanish Eyes which I recall because it was the last time I touched a saxophone.
My sixth grade teacher Norman Cummings allowed me one Halloween to organize, direct, and star in a live recreation over the Linfield Grade School public address system Orson Welles' 1938 Mercury Theater production of War of the Worlds. Rehearsing and performing it with my chums was my first exposure to live theater. I was euphoric; like a cat with his nip. A year later the talented, driven, somewhat emotionally unstable Wallace Tomchek at Pilgrim Park Junior High School painstakingly taught me Norman Dello Joio's lovely 1948 art song There is a Lady Sweet and Kind. I was a boy soprano with a quavering vibrato; my dead-straight bangs were the work of Mother and a pair of pruning shears. He introduced me for the first time to a world in which poetry and music are inextricably intertwined. If the passion for drama came first, music followed quickly and came with greater ease. Combining the two—becoming an opera composer—seems now to have been inevitable.
The choral repertoire Tomchek taught us was sophisticated and eclectic—challenging Gesualdo madrigals, slick 'swing choir' arrangements in close nine part harmony, and a yearly fully-staged musical with orchestra which he designed, directed, rehearsed, and conducted. Since then I've attended professional productions of my operas that weren't as excellently produced. He cast me in supporting roles (I hadn't the looks or vocal power to carry a leading role), and gave me opportunities to direct. I recall with particular fondness directing Dan Quakkelaar and some other friends in Thornton Wilder's The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden.
Kay Hartzell conducted the choir at Brookfield Central High School. By then I was more interested in music than words. She allowed me to whip up some parts for small combos for the spring musicals. Kay was a gifted and caring choral director. When, twenty three years after graduating high school, I returned to hear Kay's successor Philip Olsen conduct We're All Here, a work commissioned by Phil and Milwaukee's fine professional contemporary music ensemble Present Music for chorus and mixed ensemble, I was astonished and moved to recognize in the chorus the faces of the children of the boys and girls with whom I attended High School.
I think I learned the most, though, from observing my brother Kevin first organize a professional theater troupe called Act One Productions, then direct and star in (Kevin as Pope Hadrian VII, left; with Britt, right, as His Grace Cardinal Archbishop of Pimlico) a production of the profoundly eccentric Frederick Rolfe's Hadrian VII to an audience of about fifty people huddled together in the middle of a 2600-seat theater. I was in awe of my brothers and the glorious popular failure that was their excellent production. Kevin's next production (highly successful) was Weill and Brecht's Threepenny Opera, in which I was delighted to be cast in a non-speaking walk-on role as one of Macheath's henchmen. Kevin was a fine director, already displaying as a teenager the talents that would later serve him so well in his thirty-year-plus career in orchestra management. I owe my introduction to Blitzstein, Britten, and to opera in general entirely to Kevin.
Although I did write the music and libretto for a thirty-minute operatic monodrama called Through the Glass (I staged it and conducted) which figured in Ned's accepting me as a student, and I had written a musical called Together in my teens, Shining Brow was my first professional opera, written when I was in my twenties for the Madison Opera. The libretto was by poet Paul Muldoon, with whom I went on to write three more operas. A big, traditional sprawling opera with a large cast, chorus and orchestra, Brow ran over 130 minutes and established my reputation as a theater composer.
I have only written operas whose characters are coming to grips with the same issues I am as a man at the time of the creation of the opera. I can't imagine working from any other place.
Vera of Las Vegas, which I identified as a 'nightmare cabaret opera in one act' was anything but cabaret—it was a searing, subversive examination of the American Dream's seamy underside. Commissioned by the University of Nevada Las Vegas for its faculty and students and running sixty minutes, with a libretto by Muldoon, it was at first intended to serve as the middle act of a trittico which would have begun with Paul's playlet Six Honest Serving Men and concluded with Grand Concourse, which dealt with the destruction of the Twin Towers. (Maybe someday we'll write them; I hope so.) Scored in two versions, big band with string quartet and jazz quartet, it is my most-revived opera. The Irish revival (a European premiere, by Dublin's Opera Theatre Company) and subsequent tour were some of the best serious fun I've had in the theater.
Having chosen issues common to myself and my characters, I then can (and must) respect them enough to let them choose the sort of music they are going to sing, not me. If my operas have been deemed eclectic it is only because the characters in them have been. First I merge (as an actor does in his role) with the character I am writing. Once I cannot separate the character from myself in my own mind, I am ready to hear the kind of music I must sing. The character's age, access to education, cultural reference points, etc. all function as parameters in my conscious mind; how the character feels emerges from the subconscious: I think, feel, and improvise the orchestral part, sing and play. The rest is instinct and dictation. Exactly to the extent to which the subconscious leads, the character comes across to me as psychologically and emotionally verifiable.
The third project with Muldoon was Bandanna, a two act re-telling of the Venetian story of the Moor set on the Texas-Mexican border during the summer of 1968. Commissioned by over a hundred university bands, it was scored for band, utilized a big cast and chorus, and has proven to be the most problematic of my operas when revivals are contemplated, since the fact that there are no strings in the pit can be a deal-breaker with opera companies large enough to mount it.
I have written, in this order, four major female roles: Mamah Cheney (an upper middle class Caucasian proto-feminist who left her husband to take up with Frank Lloyd Wright and was destroyed by it), Vera (an African American transvestite Lap Dancer from the red earth country of rural Virginia in the throes of personal reinvention—it was Vera's quest for personal reinvention, not his gender issues, with which I identified), Mona Morales (a lower class Caucasian woman married to a Latin man who, in a fit of jealousy, murders her), and Amelia (an upper middle class Caucasian who has lost both parents, is on the verge of childbirth, and moves from loss to recuperation).
The fourth opera with Paul was called The Antient Concert. I subtitled it 'a Dramatic Recital for Four Singers' and string quartet (or piano). The opera concerned itself with the 1904 Feis Ceoil competition recital on 27 August 1904 in the Antient Concert Rooms in Dublin, Ireland. Legend has it that John McCormack and James Joyce competed that night in the Tenor singing competition. There is no documentary evidence of this; however, Joyce did win the Bronze Medal that year (it is said that he did not agree with the stipulation that competitors demonstrate their musicianship by doing some sight-reading, and left the stage). Many believe that it was McCormack's 1903 win of the Gold Medal that launched his career.
I have identified more intensely with the four major female roles in my operas—especially while writing them—than any other characters I've created. I believe I can track the progression of my own mourning for my mother through my characterizations of these women.
For the purpose of telling a story about the collision of words, music, performance, sex, death, and nationalism, Paul and I chose five traditional ballads that Joyce and McCormack might have performed that evening, and used them as the musical and textual foundation upon which the piece was built. Consequently, throughout the recital, the characters shifted between 'performance mode' and the expression of their inner thoughts. Premiered at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, my favorite production of this work so far has been a site-specific staging that I did at the Century Association in New York. I would like to see it done in a good Irish pub anywhere in the world, with a beat-up upright piano and four singers in street clothes moving in and around the patrons as they enact the story.
My pre-compositional Process has never changed. I retype and reformat the libretto to reflect what I intend to do to it musically, storyboard it on the wall, and illuminate it with various colored pens and pencils-say, red for one character, blue for another, orange for another; musical / poetic themes and motives that I want to 'track' also get colors. Standing with a glass of wine and dreaming on the entire act is as close as I'm likely ever get to understanding how a painter must feel working on a mural. A real sense of the pallet of ideas at hand is literally rendered in the colors arrayed on the storyboard.
A fully-realized trittico called New York Stories with libretti by me and the New York playwright Barbara Grecki followed. Three twenty-minute-long slices of life for a man and woman each, the individual titles were Broken Pieces (about a woman of a certain age who shares a piquant romantic moment with a tile man when he comes to fix her bathroom), Just for the Night (about a bag man who barges in, uninvited on his sister on Christmas Eve, and is turned away), and Cradle Song (a portrait of my wife and myself when our son was about six months old, a young couple trying to get their infant child down at the end of an evening on the town).
Once the entire opera is 'on the wall' I decide what the most important dramatic moments (the 'emotional nuclear reactors') are in each scene; I specify what the climactic moment of the opera is, work downwards in triage fashion to the least important moment. I do not compose 'from left to right.' I compose the music for the most important half dozen moments in the opera first. The music for the rest of the piece then spreads outwards from these key moments like concentric ripples.
In Amelia, a two act opera written with Gardner McFall and Stephen Wadsworth for Seattle Opera, a first time mother-to-be, whose psyche has been scarred by the loss of her pilot-father in Vietnam, must break free from anxiety to embrace healing and renewal for the sake of her husband and child in this original story unfolding over a 30-year period beginning in 1966. Amelia interweaves one woman's emotional journey, the American experience in Vietnam, and elements of the Daedalus and Icarus myth to explore man's fascination with flight and the dilemmas that arise when vehicles of flight are used for exploration, adventure, and war. The opera moves from loss to recuperation, paralysis to flight, as the protagonist, Amelia, ultimately embraces her life and the creative force of love and family.
I believe in workshops. But I also believe that if an opera fails, the ultimate blame is the composer's, so he, and not the stage director or librettist, should be the pilot.
Jul 17, 2012
Writing Nemo / 2
Daron discusses his latest opera, Little Nemo in Slumberland.
May 30, 2012
No Empty Rooms
Yesterday was a good day for my four year old. He dressed himself. He helped me fold laundry. He held the tools as I first took apart in our room and then, in his room, reassembled, his 11-month-old brother's crib. "Righty-tighty," he responded seriously, as I asked him which way to twist the Allen wrench. When his babysitter arrived, he greeted her lovingly and led her to the table, where he drew a picture of Elmo and the fish in his fish tank, which tomorrow we'll put in the mailbox at the corner of 144th and Broadway, addressed, with great care, to "Elmo Monster, c/o Sesame Workshop, One Lincoln Center, New York, NY 10023."
And last night, my two boys shared a bedroom for the first time; their parents stumbled, exhausted, toward another day's end, happy, somewhat shell-shocked, and encountered our selves looking at a television screen that hasn't been turned on in nine months. We flicked through a hundred channels—Bollywood, Aljazeera, SyFy, Martha, Oprah, IFC, TMC, many now dark because we had simply stopped subscribing. I hit the "off" button and we sat, in unaccustomed silence, and wondered what to do next.
The family circus would begin again in under seven hours. Privacy, the luxury of time to dream, even to crack a book—all these things would be placed on hold for another twenty-four hour cycle, post bath-time, post story-time, post snuggle-time, post.... But, for now, we sat and wondered about the sudden inrush of moments. How would we spend them? Sleep? Gosh, yes. A conversation? Overdue. Life, so full, made the idea of "taking stock" seem ridiculous: each of us had work to do, E-mails to answer. The office door was closed, the temptation to reengage for the moment merely that.
My wife and I are both busy professional composers and performers: we're fulfilling commissions, cultivating contacts, curating concert series and music festivals, supporting colleagues, keeping family as close as we can. I fly to too many cities for premieres and revivals of my operas, and she mixes with her colleagues in the New York New Music Scene. Our boys remain, as always, central.
We decided to combine having children and making art, determined not to accept a big house full of empty rooms in place of something more humble filled with love. Art, we hoped, would continue to be made, despite the fact that children take time. I've learned something as obvious as it is important: in my case, it is harder to raise children than it is to make art.
Illnesses last longer. Relationships evolve more slowly. False friends fade. Phone calls are sometimes forgotten. This morning, my youngest awoke at 5 AM and fell asleep in my arms for his nap at 8 AM. His sleeping face was a Botticellian vision. The older boy, when I emerged from the room they now share, said, "Papa, are you going to have some time to work today?" I had to weep with gratitude.
"Room after room, I hunt the house through we inhabit together." I recall Browning's poem, which I set to music as a student in Philadelphia in 1981. In our home there are no empty rooms.
May 26, 2012
Daron discusses the genesis of the Sky Interludes from Amelia.
May 9, 2012
[Daron Hagen discusses the commissioning and composing of Genji: Koto Concerto.]
May 1, 2012
Marc Blitzstein's music is not an obsession of mine, but I do find it indispensable. Marc's musical DNA-strict adherence to economy of means, a passion for combining words and music, an abhorrence of aesthetic pretentiousness-is woven contrapuntally, inextricably, into my music, and has been, from the very start.
Marc's music is powered by the ironic marriage of opposites. A fierce advocate of the poor and disenfranchised, he was born in Philadelphia in 1905 to affluent parents. Determined to write music popular with Regular Joes, he studied composition and piano at the Curtis Institute. Then he went on to Berlin to study with Arnold Schoenberg and to Paris where he worked with Nadia Boulanger. He began as a modernist, but he turned populist in the 1930s, shortly before he (an openly gay communist) married novelist Eva Goldbeck. Three Portuguese sailors in Martinique beat him to death in 1964 after a sexual encounter. In 1937, he entered Broadway history when the Works Progress Administration shut down The Cradle Will Rock-an opera presented as a musical. As the story goes, director Orson Welles and producer John Houseman walked the musicians, cast and audience from the Maxine Elliott Theater to the nearby Venice Theater, where-in order to evade union restrictions-they performed the piece from the audience, with Blitzstein (not a union member) accompanying from an upright piano onstage.
To some, Marc's signature gambit of destabilizing tonality by throwing a suspended fourth in the bass was crude. But, like a beat cop's billy club to the ribs, it got things moving. Minus Blitzstein's example and inspiration, Leonard Bernstein might have been a very different, possibly lesser, composer.
# # #
One rainy November 1980 day Karlos Moser, then head of the opera program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I was an undergraduate music major, and I were working through some songs that I had contributed to a review he was concocting. My introduction to Marc's music had come when Karlos cast my older brother Kevin as Ben Hubbard in his production of Blitzstein's Regina during the late 70s. Karlos mentioned in passing that the State Historical Society possessed the Blitzstein papers. Thrilled, I had sprinted across the street to the archives, filled out a request to see them, and was astonished to be granted immediate access. Within thirty minutes, I held in my hands a Photostat of the manuscript of Blitzstein's fair copy of the first page of Cradle. I was 17.
Odd it was, a year later, to find myself a student of Ned Rorem's at the Curtis Institute, composing and practicing on the same pianos Marc once did, passing his graduation portrait (along with everyone else's-Leonard Bernstein, Ralph Berkowitz, Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss, and on and on) on my way each week to my piano lesson. Odder yet to have landed there in part because of a letter from his friend Bernstein to my mother, telling her I was "the real thing," and encouraging her to send me to Juilliard (that's another story) to study with another of Marc's close friends, David Diamond.
# # #
John Houseman's production of Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock at the Fairbanks opened on 30 July 1983. I was there, seated in the first row. I still weighed about 160, sported a Blitzstein-esque moustache, and was still a student at Curtis. Before the performance, Houseman took the stage to tell the story of the night the show opened-Blitzstein at the piano, Orson Welles dashing around the theater, playing multiple characters, everyone afire with the moment. Ordinarily too abashed to importune, I threw myself at Houseman afterwards. "You captured lightning in a bottle, didn't you?" I enthused. "Yes, my boy," he drawled in his Professor Kingsfield voice, "I'm acutely aware of that." I laughed. He was disarmed. "You look like Blitzstein," he remarked. I flushed with pleasure. He frowned. "He ended badly." I waited. Beat. "Yes, I know," I said, "I'm a composer." He thrust his chin upwards theatrically as though searching for answers among the klieg lights: "Dear God," he said, exploding the G, extending the O into a melisma, and plucking the final D like a pizzicato. "What does one do with a composer?" I laughed again, shook his hand vigorously, and thanked him for his time. "Not at all," he said. "Good luck." He stared at me, hard, for three long beats. "You'll need it."
# # #
Summer 1985. Saranac, Serge Koussevitzky's home overlooking the Berkshires across the highway from the Tanglewood grounds. Late one evening, after hearing me improvise at the piano in Marc's style and a discussion about Blitzstein's music, Bernstein asked me to have a go at completing Sacco and Vanzetti, the unfinished opera for the Met found in the trunk of Marc's car after he died. I told him I'd love to have a try, but couldn't afford to do it for no fee.
A few days later, at Bernstein's behest, Jacob Druckman approached me on the back patio and put a little money on the table for the project on behalf of the New York Philharmonic, for whom he was then serving as composer in residence.
My instinct was that, as I did when offered a job as Aaron Copland's final amanuensis, I should refuse it. I told Druckman that I felt that if I wanted to establish myself as a composer, then I needed to be known for my own music, not for what I had done for others'. He said that I had a point, and was impressed enough by the professionalism with which I handled the situation to speak to his wife Muriel about a ballet commission.
Having my hands on Blitzstein's sketches was just too inviting an invitation to refuse. After spending a few days with them, I concluded that the most responsible thing to do was to leave the thing alone-they were just too fragmentary, too raw. The finished score would require the creation of too much original material to make it coherent.
That May, Eric Gordon helped me to find the manuscript of Marc's Piano Sonata, which hadn't been performed publicly since the 20s so that I could program it on the concert series I was putting on in Philadelphia and New York.
# # #
During spring 1990, I was fortunate enough to work on my first major opera Shining Brow with Bernstein. As Bernstein once did for Marc with Trouble in Tahiti, I did for Lenny: I would play and sing the scene from Brow that I was working on. He'd amble over to the bench, push me to the side, and start playing off of my manuscript, squinting, sort of wheeze-singing as he briskly double-checked parts he wanted to speak to.
"Okay, baby," he'd begin. "Try this." He would "put over" a few bars of what I had written and veer off in a new direction, improvising an entirely different line reading. Then he'd stop, suck on his plastic cigarette holder, quickly page to a different part of the sketch, find something, and say, "Or you could have used this from before, like this." He'd play a few bars.
"No, that wouldn't work," he'd think out loud. I'd improvise a different line reading. "No, no, you can't do that!" he would laugh, "Marc did that in No for an Answer! Do you know that one?" He'd noodle a few bars. "No, that was Tender Land. Ugh. God." Laughter.
During Wright's Act 1, scene one pitch to his future mistress, I quoted the New York, New York rising fourths motive that he had first used in Trouble in Tahiti, and then in On the Town, on the word, "suburbia," "Nice lift," he said, "very Straussian. But you follow it up with stuff that sounds like Ned's little Frank O'Hara opera. Did I steal that from him for Tahiti or did he steal that from me? I can't remember. I know you're talking about theft by putting stolen music in his mouth, but you should come up with something else there." At some point, I pointed out that I had been modeling the character of Wright musically on him, and the relationship between Wright and Sullivan on him and Blitzstein. He got it: "That's Maria. No, it's the orchestral play-in to the first scene of Marc's Regina," he mused aloud. "Well, yes, I stole it from Marc." Silence. "But he stole it from Aaron!" (Generous, warm laughter.)
It still felt, a few years later, at the family's Dakota apartment (the day Brow received its workshop run-through after Bernstein's death), as though he slouched still in the chair in the den, sipping a scotch, pulling on his plastic cigarette holder, growling one of the last things he said to me: "Play and sing that part again, baby-the part that sounds like Marc."
# # #
"Before I forget, I want to tell you that Marc used to like to sit over there," said David Diamond, squeezing my hand and pointing at a spot far down the lawn near the rose garden. We were sitting on one of the pews in the Yaddo Music Room. Life-sized full body portraits of the Trask children loomed over us like gravestones. The June 2005 air was lively. Late afternoon light streamed through the leaded windows.
Elaina Richardson had asked me to curate a recital of music by composers who had worked at Yaddo. Michael Boriskin and his Music from Copland House players performed. I wanted to honor David, with whom I had studied, so I programmed his early Flute Quartet. I also suggested that he be invited and, to everyone's astonishment, he agreed to come. He told me that he had wanted to visit Yaddo once more. I looked at David: his impeccably tailored gray serge sit hung loosely over his diminished frame. His blue shirt's collar was crisp. There was a large New Zealand-shaped liver spot on his scalp over his right eye. What remained of his hair was colorless. His skin was papery and luminous. His rheumy eyes brimmed with tears. A few days later, on 13 June, he died.
That day, however, David's observation was piercingly clear: "Marc cared," he whispered urgently. "When he composed Regina here, he could sing and play every note. He knew words. You remember I told you once that he rewrote the entire libretto for Lenny's Trouble in Tahiti without needing to change a note of the music?" (When David reminisced, the facts could sometimes be sketchy, but the point was always clear.)
In May 2007, I sat before the upright piano in the Acosta Nichols Tower studio, the one at which Marc had written Regina, writing with trepidation the title Amelia over what would become the first page of over four hundred pages of piano sketch of my breakthrough opera about flight and rebirth. A bird flew in through the open door and flew frightened circles high above me in the white cone of the ceiling. I got up and spoke quietly to the bird, "You'll be okay, friend. Everything will be fine. The door is open. Fly through it." As though on cue, the bird swooped down and glided back out through the door to safety in the surrounding forest.
It was the spirit of Yaddo, yes; but it was also the spirit of Marc.
Apr 17, 2012
My treasured friend Ralph Berkowitz turned the page without fuss on 2 August 2011, within a stroll of his 101st birthday. Making up a program today for a music festival for which I serve as artistic director, I thought long and hard about Ralph. You see, I found myself tempted to program one of my own pieces, a set of piano variations commissioned by Ralph and based on a four note theme constructed from our conjoined initials.
While in Albuquerque on 12 December 2001 for Gary Graffman's performance of the left hand piano concerto that I had written for him (Seven Last Words with the New Mexico Symphony), Gilda and I made a point of spending a long afternoon and evening with my brother Kevin and Ralph at Ralph's cozy Albuquerque bungalow. A Curtis graduate (a member of its very first graduating class) born in 1910, Ralph was Gregor Piatagorsky's accompanist until the cellist's death in 1972. He was also a composer, arranger, and arts administrator, and was largely instrumental in keeping the Tanglewood Festival alive following Serge Koussevitzky's death. That doesn't even scratch the surface of all the fascinating things Ralph was and did.
A gracious host who understood his fellow musicians, he had placed a copy (opened, naturally) of the published score of my Piano Variations on the rack of the exquisite Steinway that filled a third of his living room. I glanced at it and saw that he had covered the score with fingerings, and had analyzed the music in several colors of pencil. Along with framed pictures of Bernstein, Copland, Heifetz, and the rest atop the piano there stood a picture of Ralph sitting in the balcony of Curtis Hall in the spot where my Curtis classmate and best friend Norman's parents had sat with Ned the evening of the performance of my memorial symphony for Norman. Ralph was seated with Menotti, Barber, and Rosario Scalero. "Can you tell me about those days?" I asked Ralph, bringing the picture over to him. "Sure. They are all here with us right now. Look," he said, the index finger of his hand drifting toward the other side of the room.
After reminiscing for a few hours, the light fading, Ralph lit a cheroot, waved the match, placed it in the ashtray at his elbow, took a small sip from his scotch, and sighed. "I don't believe in regrets." He smiled. "Listen, honey," he said, when he didn't call me sweetie, "I want to tell you a dream I've had hundreds of times over the past sixty years. And you can tell me what you think it means: A long, dark limousine pulls up in front of my little bungalow. I walk out to the curb to see who it might be. Inside sits a beautiful young woman in a flowing white dress. She rolls down the window. 'Do you think,' she asks sweetly, 'that it's right that the Virgin Mary should have to pay for gas?'"
Apr 16, 2012
Seattle Opera's lovely overview of Amelia. Read selected reviews of the premiere production:
Huffington Post (Katz); Wall Street Journal (Waleson); Financial Times (Loomis); New York Times (Tommasini)
More informaiton about the opera may be found here.
Apr 12, 2012
The Waking Father
A Quodlibet, for the First Day of Spring
My favorite tree, the sycamore shows the process of exfoliation more openly than any other tree. The cause of the dappled appearance of its trunk is found in the rigid texture of the bark tissue, which lacks the elasticity common to the bark of other trees, so it is incapable of stretching to accommodate the growth of the wood underneath and the tree sloughs it off....
4 May 2009
My beloved 15-month-old Angel Boy-
Early this morning as you slept in your crib, dreaming of Triceratops and Froebel blocks, your Papa finished the final orchestral score of his seventh opera, Amelia, which he began sketching nearly four years before you were born. Long before you were conceived, your Mama and I knew that this opera would be our gift to you. Your name graces the score, of course. You'll be shown it when you're older, and you'll be told stories about whom your parents were when it was being written. We wonder whether you will learn to read music someday; I wonder whether the score's musical secrets will ever become plain to you. Your mother gave birth to you just in time to be cradled in her arms as the opera received its workshop; you'll be old enough to sit between us both in your own seat, snappy in your first tuxedo on opening night.
To me, the essence of music is singing. That's why the final ten minutes of the opera are a big instrumental sweep to an extended a cappella vocal nonette at the instant Amelia's baby is held aloft by her midwife, and then placed on her Mama's chest for the first time. The orchestra suddenly drops out, and the entire cast (doctors, nurses, family both quick and dead) raises their voices in a harmonically static contrapuntal celebration of the word "love."
Increasingly restrained in my expression markings as I age (because music says what it says, and who am I to know what it is saying, even though I wrote it?), I nevertheless allowed myself the only descriptive tempo marking in the two hour score when I wrote above these measures "unreeling like a montage of kisses."
The ensemble ends with Amelia singing "anything is possible" to her baby, ghosted by a woman (who may be Amelia Earhart, and into whom I poured my feelings for Mother) wearing a flight jacket and jodhpurs and gazing contentedly out into the opera house, singing Mother's dying words, "I was never bored."
New mother and father weep with joy, just as when you were born your Mama and I wept. On the other side of the stage stands an old man-who may also be Daedalus, and into whom I poured my feelings for Father-whose son-who may also be Icarus, and into whom I poured my feelings for Britt-has just died, following a fall from a great height. Slowly, he departs the hospital, clutching a small cellophane bag containing his son's possessions.
Your timing is perfect, for as I typed the date at the bottom of the final bar of the last page of the orchestra score, you awoke, and the music of your cries erupted from the baby monitor a few feet away. Life is music to me, and the music you and your mother make is the most beautiful of all.
...Atticus and I perched daily in the bay window of our sprawling Hamilton Heights Pre-war apartment's music room and looked down through the branches of the sycamores at the people and traffic moving on Broadway, five floors below. "Taxi cab," he exulted, pointing. "School bus! City bus! Limousine! Ah!" His joy was complete: "BIG truck!"
Two old men played dominoes in the sliver of park tucked between the north and southbound lanes. A drug dealer patrolled from 143rd Street to 145th and back again, slapping hands with clients. Spanish-by far the dominant language in the neighborhood-drifted up to us, along with a few bars of (part, unbidden, of the collective memory of most New Yorkers, in E-flat major) the Mister Softee jingle. Mothers pushed strollers west toward the 28-acre Riverbank State Park, a block away, with its spectacular promenade views of the Hudson River, the Palisades, and the George Washington Bridge....
On my cheek I felt the summer breeze on which were carried the comforting smells of grilling brats, newly cut grass, lake water, and Leinenkugel beer. Picnic Point, jutting out into Lake Mendota, in Madison, Wisconsin. I stood where, beneath the same sycamores, Father had bent on his knee to propose to Mother. I searched the twilight sky for my favorite star and found it, mouthed a little prayer, counted to three, balled the keys to my Madison apartment in my fist, threw them as far out into the lake as I could, whispered, "Goodbye."
The early morning sun on Lake Como behind Gilda made her glow like a Tintoretto as she blew on her tea. The light through the sycamore leaves was the visual equivalent of two dozen violins playing micropolyphonic parts very, very high, the upper partials tingling like an atmosphèric sound mass, shimmering, tintinabulous and gossamer.
Holding her hand, I glanced up into the branches forming a canopy above us as we lunched at the Hotel Excelsior Splendide. I was forcefully transported in my mind to the instant of my first memory: I was two years old, holding Mother's hand, looking up from within my stroller into the canopy of Elm tree boughs that intertwined over 28th Street in South Milwaukee like the fan vaulting above the nave in Bath Abbey.
...Standing nude in Denoon Lake, looking back to the beach and admiring Mother as she worked the Saturday Review acrostic....
...Most days, after playing together for an hour or so, changing, and having breakfast, Atticus and I walked together hand in hand to the park. The sycamores there filtered the light just so. We sprawled in what Whitman called "the interminable grass." We looked up into the sheltering branches and I whispered to him, "You know, honey-if there are trees in heaven, then they must be sycamores." His golden ringlets shook as he silently nodded his darling head up and down in solemn, happy agreement....
"Daddy, did you come to tuck me in?" I murmured contentedly. The sunshine, exercise, and fresh air of an entire midsummer day spent with Mother at Lake Denoon had rendered Kevin, Britt, and me as somnolent as nursing kittens. The hot day had warmed the unsealed cedar interiors of the house so that, even now, hours past sundown, it still smelled fresh and wholesome. Father had returned from Chicago for the weekend. It was past my bedtime.
The envelope, addressed to Master Daron Aric Hagen, Esquire, had arrived at the Big Cedar House that afternoon-the first piece of mail I had ever received. It sat, much caressed and deeply treasured, propped against the lamp on the bedside table. Inside was a typed letter that said simply, "I love you, son." I felt his scratchy chin. I smelled his aftershave when he leaned like a weeping willow over me. He tenderly kissed my forehead, and then gently closed the door behind him as he left.
I heard my own heart, the susurration of the rain in the trees, Britt's steady, healthy, reassuring breathing across the room in his bed as he slept, and then, from downstairs in the Big Cedar House, the sweet, quiet mousseux of my parents' affectionate laughter.
...My own music stopped in my head for a moment and I heard instead Benjamin Britten's music for Captain Vere. Was it Pears' voice from the distant past emerging from speakers, or Bill Burden's ringing tenor heard live from the stage? It didn't matter. "I was lost," Vere was singing, "on the infinite sea, but I've sighted a sail in the storm, the far-shining sail, and I'm content. I've seen where she's bound for. There's a land where she'll anchor forever...."
...Having spent a perfect summer day collecting interesting stones from the lake bottom and piling them on the dock for Mother to admire.
Kevin and Lukas had organized a festival of Bernstein's music, performed by the Milwaukee Symphony. Just before I excused myself and headed back to Kevin's house, Bernstein took the copy of his book Findings that I had brought with me to his suite at the Pfister Hotel and read the inscription Mother had written on the flap:
"To Daron- On his recital debut at Curtis, when the whole world was opening for him. My fondest hopes are that your 'findings' result in your being a humane and mostly happy man. Love, Mom"
"What could I add to that?" he asked, rolling a pen between his fingers like a cigarette. We'd been talking for hours. "Humane. And mostly happy," he mused. Beat. "She said it all. Or enough, anyway." Another long beat, as he thought. "You know, you'll have kids someday. Then you'll understand. How much she must have loved you." He scribbled "For my DH, Love LB" and the date and looked up at me, smiling crookedly. "You'll see."
Summer 2010...Atticus unearthed stones in the sandbox. Gravely, he presented each to me for admiration and approval-stone after stone, before carefully piling them beside me on the rail. I examined each closely; praised every one of my little Far-shining Sail's discoveries exactly as once Mother praised mine.
Apr 11, 2012
Writing Nemo / 1
Late on a November 2011 night in Chicago, I leaned back in my chair and looked out over Lake Michigan from my aerie at the Renaissance after having had drinks with three of my former Chicago pupils. All stand-up, ambitious, talented chaps who've banded together to found the Chicago Composer's Orchestra. Earlier that day, I attended a performance of New York Stories at the conservatory featuring the Chicago Opera Theater young artists who would play the larger roles in their production the next year of Amelia.
Walter Isaacson's just-published Steve Jobs biography slipped from my hand to the floor as I nodded off. Leaning forward to pick it up and set it on the side table, I opened at random to the page describing how Jobs as a child wired his family's home for sound. Father, who had been a radioman in the navy, and I did the same thing when I was a kid. I was amused to read that Jobs had also exploited without his parents' knowledge the two-way capability of speakers, thereby learning things about his family that were better left unknown.
Why, I wondered, did I turn away from my teenage passion for code and electronics? The science fair ribbons are still in a box somewhere, one for an elaborate "composing" algorithm I called Play it Again, IBM using BASIC written in 1978 using the Milwaukee County Public Schools mainframe and a teletypewriter linked by telephone modem. I excelled at logic; I had no interest in or flair for mathematics.
The next midnight, in Sarasota, I settled into a deck chair on the balcony of my hotel room, listened to Brian Eno's Thursday Afternoon, and looked over the Gulf of Mexico. "What's the difference really between New York and Miami?" my driver had quipped as he dropped me off. "In Miami you can feel the air; in New York you can see it." Laughing, I told him, "Here's the corollary to that one: the only problem with New York is that it is full of New Yorkers!" Laughing, he drew my heavy bag easily in one smooth motion out of the trunk and placed it at the curb. I handed him a twenty and told him to keep the change. To my surprise, he responded, "Please, let me carry your bag to the front desk."
"I find," I had begun my part of the Nemo press conference earlier in the day, "that I have over the years become something of an expert on insomnia." Most people laughed; one reporter tapped mirthlessly at the keys on his laptop. "Hence, it was a pleasure to write an opera about a little boy who can actually sleep at night. An ambitious dreamer, I didn't learn to sleep at night until I married Gilda. With two small boys, I accepted this project because I wanted to underscore its message for them: we do need the world of dreams. Without dreams, we have nothing left to us but hopelessness and the cold reality of our existence." The Eno ended. Did I really believe all that? I asked myself. Yes, it had turned out that way.
The tropical breeze sashayed heavily ashore. Shuffle mode cued up "Another Hundred People" from Sondheim's Company on the iPod. I hadn't even thought about the song for years. Sondheim's lyrics and music bubbled away in the dark. I was eleven, the show had opened three years previous; already I had the words and music memorized, and had written my first musical Together in emulation of it. Now I realized how, as a teenager, the show had shaped my conception of what New Yorkers would be like. Did I still love New York? I asked myself. No, not particularly.
Mar 19, 2012
Stung / 1973
During the 1973 Christmas holidays, my brother Britt took me to the movies to see The Sting. Scott Joplin's music, which underwent in part because of its use for the film's soundtrack a massive reappraisal, captivated me. The Entertainer was lovely, of course. However, it was Solace, a haunting, sad tango, which drove me back to the piano. (Two decades later, I used two bars of Solace as the thematic basis of one of the "Wedding Dances" in Bandanna. I also paid homage to Joplin in Heliotrope, one of my most frequently performed orchestral works, based on a snatch of the great Joplin-Louis Chauvin piano piece Heliotrope Bouquet.)
Having forgotten what my first piano teacher Adam Klescewski taught me, I re-taught myself how to read music. I sent away to Belwyn Mills in New York for Vera Brodsky Lawrence's just-released Scott Joplin Complete Piano Works and taught myself Maple Leaf Rag, The Entertainer, and Solace by writing the letter names of the notes next to the dots on the lines and spaces.
I loved writing prose. But language frightened me: words were far too falsely specific, too easily (and willfully) trivialized by the clever. By contrast, music was abstract, meaningless in itself, and, simultaneously, capable of conveying the ambiguity and subtlety of the finest emotions. Whereas feelings could be evoked in prose, music could-if it was good-speak directly to the lizard brain.
Now, I feel, I hear music that in that moment encapsulates what I feel, and-with pencil on staff paper-I notate it. A lifetime dedicated to eliminating the "static" resulting from fidelity being lost in imperfect transmission between states has rendered composing reflexive. Then, the feeling and the music were already clear-sure, the emotions were puerile; the musical ideas with which I identified them owed a great deal to the music that I listened to. From the start, though, the Process-and my orientation to it-was clear: I would always aspire to be the sort of composer who wanted his listeners to feel something.
Now, I generally work out an entire movement of instrumental music in my head before sitting down at the piano to quickly "take dictation" by jotting down a roadmap in "short score." This sketch places all of the woodwinds on two lines, the brass on two more, the strings on several more, the way that film composers still do before handing the sketch off to orchestrators, who then (as Sid Ramin and Hershey Kay did so beautifully for Leonard Bernstein) parcel out the lines in the conductor's full score, or partitura. Once that is done, I move to the computer where, as I transfer the sketch into full score using notation software called Sibelius, I do a second draft. I do not listen to the computer's MIDI playback.
(MIDI is an acronym that stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, a method devised by engineers to enable computers and digital instruments to communicate with one another. It makes possible the digital synthesis of musical notation. This synthesis has become so sophisticated and ubiquitous that most casual music lovers are unaware that synthetic sounds now account for a large component of otherwise acoustic commercial music, including film scores, multi-media scores, and of course, pop music. As for vocal music, the use of live pitch detection algorithms has become so common in Western popular music that being a pop star no longer requires the ability to carry a tune.)
At the age of fourteen, I still needed help hearing complex contrapuntal textures. Back then, I recorded myself playing half of the orchestra on the piano on an open reel tape recorder and played the other half with the playback-a variation on what garage bands fooling around with early 8 channel mixers do. After a few months, I realized that, if I continued working that way, I'd never develop the sort of technique I aspired to. I made a conscious effort to overcome the need for it, and did. Sampling makes of many young composers nowadays collagists. That is neither good nor bad. It's sad that they can't hear it all in their heads, though: the human brain's still the best computer, and that's where all the good editing takes place!
Then, as now, I invariably sang my vocal music, accompanying myself at the piano. Then, I did it because I intuited that the singer and the song must be one. Now, I do it because I know that melody (and by extension all music, arising as it does from the act of singing) must be created acknowledging the physical effort required to produce it. How a singer feels physically when performing a phrase is a crucial manifestation of how he feels.
Mar 18, 2012
Failing to Soar
Keen to see Gian Carlo Menotti's Goya—his final, giovane scuola-style opera—on its feet, on 15 November 1986 I took the train from New York to Washington to attend the premiere. A few days later, the music critic Donal Henahan, with a casual, calculated cruelty astonishing even for him, described Goya as "a rather stupefying exercise in banality ... a parody of a Menotti opera." At the time, I found the review (slipping the word "rather" in like a shiv before the word "stupefying," as though Menotti had failed even at being entirely stupefying) insolent and fatuous. But I was still too young to understand how profoundly disrespectful he was being, and how wounded to the core—after two-dozen operas and a lifetime of service to his art—Gian Carlo really was.
The pain in his voice on the telephone when I reached him at his hotel the morning it ran in the newspaper was heartbreaking. "He's just a critic. You're Gian Carlo Menotti," I sputtered uselessly, unable to believe that somebody who had accomplished so much could be so hurt by someone whose opinion mattered so little in the end.
I realized during the next three or four beats of silence on the line that I had overstepped. What did I know about life at his age, his level of achievement? What did I know about his art, his soul, really? Nothing. I was twenty-five and had accomplished little; he was seventy-five, had founded two music festivals, written two-dozen operas, and won two Pulitzer prizes. I felt embarrassed. "I'm sorry," I said. "I know that what I say doesn't matter."
"Ah, caro, someday you'll understand," Gian Carlo sighed. "Be a good boy. Good luck revising your Edward Albee opera. Send it to me when it is done." I promised I would, but ultimately didn't. "Let's plan to speak soon," he said by way of farewell. If I could have hugged him through the phone, I would have.
I have come to understand how Gian Carlo felt that day. I have learned that the more people in the audience that are visibly moved by a piece, the worse the review this sort of critic writes. Do they feel that the audience, a member of which they are, it must be said, may be moved, but that they themselves are too sophisticated? If a composer is having any serious impact with audiences, he is bound to accumulate some truly terrible reviews. I've received my share. I have been fortunate, for the most part. I was nearly fifty before a music critic played the "inspiration" card, writing that my Amelia "fail[ed] to soar because its music is the well-crafted music of a good composer, not the inspired music of a great one."
"How ironic," I mused, reading the review, "that, you who create nothing are evidently able to identify inspiration so well. How unfortunate for me, whose entire life has been spent creating things, that I evidently do not have access to inspiration."
Mar 13, 2012
South Milwaukee / 1961
My first memory is of looking up from within my stroller at the sunshine streaming through the canopy of elm leaves in front of my grandparents' duplex (my parents rented the upstairs flat) at 2018 South 28th Street in South Milwaukee.
"Previous pregnancies" listed on my birth certificate included two "children now living" (my brothers Britt and Kevin), one "abortion prior to twenty weeks," no "children born dead-20 weeks or more gestation," and one "child born alive-now dead" (the Other Daron). Gwen Leone Johnson was thirty-two years old; Earl Arthur Hagen was thirty-three when I was born to them on 4 November 1961 at 9:50 PM at Mount Sinai Hospital in downtown Milwaukee. I weighed six pounds and eleven ounces.
I am named after a Norwegian ancestor called Dorn. Dorn's father, Hans Hansen, bought land in an area of Norway called Skjeggestad. Later generations of Hans and his wife Ellen Larsdatter took the name Skjeggestad. "Hagen," a section of that land, means "garden" in Norwegian. Dorn adopted it when he emigrated.
Dorn arrived in Wisconsin in 1887 accompanied by his older siblings Lars and Lina. He was twenty years old. His cousin Josefine Hem, who had already emigrated from Norway, invited him: "So everyone who has travelled about says that this place is the best in America-especially for newcomers because here the climate is more like the Norwegian and the water is good to drink," she wrote to him on 14 November 1886.
Passage from Christiana to Hull between decks, rail fare from Hull to Liverpool, passage aboard a Cunard steamer to New York, and rail fare to Wisconsin for the three of them cost 450 Norwegian kroner. Six years later, Dorn was admitted to the Mendota Hospital for the Insane in Madison. A year later, he was paroled. Wrongly accused of making off with an envelope from a Sunday collection plate (it was later found exactly where he had said it was), he hung himself by the neck.
My middle name is Aric — spelled that way because my parents wanted all of their boys to have middle names beginning with "A" like Father's: Arthur, Alanson, Arvid. Aric is a variant of Alaric, the king who led the Goths in the conquest of Rome. In Old Norse, it means, "Rule with mercy."
Hagen is a royal boy's name of Irish and Gaelic origin. The Irish pronounce it, as Father did, hay-gen. But it is also a variant of the Old Norse Hakon, derived from the elements ha (high, chosen) and konr (son, descendant). The Norwegians pronounce it hah-gen. The German variant is pronounced hah-gen as well. Leonard Bernstein once wheeled on me suddenly at a dance party at Tanglewood, clutched me by the shoulders, and roared theatrically into my face from inches away, "Was tatest du, Hagen?" It was a quiz, of course. The correct answer was World Domination, but I didn't yet know Wagner's Götterdämmerung, so I answered, meekly, "The name's of Norwegian and Irish, not German origin, maestro."
As an undergraduate voice major, Kevin began pronouncing our surname in the Norwegian manner. When I moved to the east coast, he had already begun his career in arts management and I began running into people who wondered why he said it one way and I another. I took the Norwegian pronunciation myself, not only to accentuate my Norwegian lineage, of which I am proud, (as opposed to Irish, of which I have plenty, and am equally proud) but because I wanted to reinvent myself. Although childhood friends still address me as hay-gen, I still prefer to be addressed as hah-gen.
You can still see some streets in the near north suburbs of Milwaukee flanked by tall stately American and Dutch elms. This was the street tree of choice for Milwaukee and many mid-western cities. Its tall vase shaped form with the leaves touching mid street created a cool, cathedral-like feeling on city streets. During my childhood, all but a very few of them were felled by disease.
Mother's father, Howard Johnson, my Grandpa was a retired steelworker. He had enormous knuckles, hands like gnarled tree roots, and hobbled with obvious effort on devastated knees. Built like a bull, decades of hauling steel beams destroyed his constitution. The sugar wafer cookies that he sneaked me from the bottom drawer of his bedside table smelled like Bengay and Copenhagen chewing tobacco. He occasionally took me with him to Sons of Norway meetings where I drank Orange Nesbit soda pop from the bottle as he ate steamed fresh cod and drank Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Back then, there seemed to be a tavern on practically every South Milwaukee corner. Grandpa spent a lot of time at the one at the end of the block, on Rogers Street.
Mother's mother, Berna Berman, my Grandma took after her mother, who used to run away from home to live for a few days at a time with the Potawatomi Indians living in what's now inelegantly referred to as Pigsville, about a quarter of a mile away, in the Menominee River Valley. An industrial zone for decades, much of the valley served for a long time as the largest rail yard in the continental US. In 1991, the Potawatomi built a casino there.
Grandma left her job as a schoolteacher to marry Grandpa. She was imperious, proud, and had — especially as she aged — a hyperactive imagination. Her penmanship was exquisite. After a fall in her 60s, she developed severe rheumatism in both hands that made her knuckles look like rhizomes. Fearful of losing use of them, she sat for hours in her living room watching television and wringing them. A passionate gardener, she was particularly proud of her huge White Cemetery Irises, larger than a man's clasped hands, with orange furry tongues lolling out of their cupped palms.
She began assembling her crèche — which consisted of dozens of individually painted figurines — the morning after Thanksgiving. I recall being relieved every year when Jesus was placed in the empty manger. Christmas Dinner at her home — the one time all of my cousins, aunts, and uncles gathered — was elaborate and delicious.
I particularly loved Mother's brothers, Keith and Garth. Their sons and I were born within hours of each other. Keith's son Jace K. Seavers (his mother remarried) grew up to be a successful jazz composer, lyricist, and bass player in Nashville. I am proud of how Garth's son, my cousin Garret, has risen through the ranks in the United States Air Force to Chief Master Sergeant.
Grandma believed in the literal resurrection of the flesh. She had my relatives moved around in the family plot before her death so that when it happened the first people she would see were ones she liked. She insisted that Father be buried behind her.
Mar 11, 2012
"Disney," wrote Donald Oliver, "is prepared to pay a "Media Buy-out" to the copyists who worked on The Lion King. This Buy-out covers new use for media not in existence when the original League/Union contract was negotiated, like internet, ring tones, mobile apps, etc. It's a flat fee which was newly negotiated by the League and the Union ... you're due $292.50 which can buy a fair amount of chicken-feed ... or Pampers."
"Mouse Money," I mused, reading the E-mail while leaning over the laptop in the kitchen, waiting for my espresso machine to sputter to a stop. I recalled the summer of 1992: I needed money. I had promised myself to confine my pianism to collaborative recitals; consequently, pit work, rehearsals, vocal coaching, and piano bars were no longer an option. I knew that it would be a grave professional mistake to assume once again the yoke of copying my colleagues' music. However, having turned away from Academe as a source of income to supplement commissions, and without sufficient commissions to cover expenses, I could not afford pride. I was compelled to return to music copying.
Don, one of my former private pupils, ran (along with Paul Holderbaum) a respected Broadway copying firm called Chelsea Music. Don heard that I needed work and was kind enough to find a place for me at one of his desks. I ended up working there for three years as a freelance proofreader and copyist for Broadway shows, films, recording projects, and cabaret acts.
Chelsea Music's office was a magnificent disaster in medias res. Everyone there knew that, despite the fact that work that was still coming in, the (nerve-wracking, intellectually exhausting, physically unhealthy) era of hand copying on Broadway was ending. The forlorn atmosphere (so different from the tweedy atmosphere of the Fleisher Collection years earlier, where I had also labored as a copyist) suited me. One wall consisted of grimy windows that looked north towards Columbus Circle. There was a battered spinet, pictures of the composers and performers for whom the shop had worked on another wall, file cabinets filled with musicians union invoices and contracts, shelves stacked with boxes of parts, conductor scores, and six desks for copyists. Several denizens were smokers, so a cloud of cigarette smoke blued the air. Combined with the smell of sweat, the dust generated by electric erasers, and the ammonia given off by the ozalid-printing machine in the corner, the air was toxic.
I was grateful to serve as a member of the music preparation staff (usually as a proofreader) for Broadway productions of Steel Pier, The Lion King and Les Miserables, as well as revivals of Cabaret, Annie, Chicago, and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Whistle Down the Wind for Really Useful's Washington production. I recall watching songs from the show, comprised of a melody line, lyrics by Meatloaf, chord symbols, and a bass line, come in on the fax machine. Most of the other projects blur together in my memory.
Chelsea handled Liza Minnelli's musical materials for her. She was putting together a new Vegas show. Since she was a client of such long standing, Don and Paul led the team themselves. Brian Fairtile, a professional horn player who had turned to copying for extra work and discovered a real gift for it, joined them. I proofread. We all wanted to see Minnelli, so we piled into a cab together and hand delivered the charts to the rehearsal hall next to the Port Authority bus terminal where she was scheduled to read them with a band made up of crack New York freelancers. "How-do-you-do's" and so forth over, she settled on to a stool, and the players sat back in their chairs.
For the first time, everyone started reading through the book together. John Kander had written something new for her. It clearly engaged her, because without warning she rose to her feet and became Liza Minnelli. Everyone in the room experienced a sudden charismatic, emotional ripple effect. The hair on my arms stood up. Every player sat bolt upright. Extraordinary.
The espresso machine stopped hissing. I poured it slowly over the steamed milk so as not to "bruise" it. I returned to the end of Don's E-mail: "There's no free lunch: In order to get this money, you must sign three forms and provide a CLEAR copy of your passport or other government ID (you know the routine) to prove your US Citizenship. For the Disney Copyists rate sheet, please just return page 1. For the I-9, please just return page 4. For the W-4, please just return page 1."
"And then," I thought, "the Mouse will not Roar but rather Cough Up."
Mar 1, 2012
AMELIA in Houston
Edythe Bates Old and Moores Opera House at the University of Houston presents the first major revival of my opera AMELIA, with libretto by Gardner McFall and story by Stephen Wadsworth first commissioned and premiered by Seattle Opera in 2010. The performances are scheduled for January 26, 27, and 29. The stage director is Buck Ross and the conductor is Brett Mitchell. The fine coach / accompanists are Katherine Cicson and Yanira Soria. I have made a new 25-player orchestration that will make the opera accessible to smaller opera companies. The production also features projections as the major scenic element, making AMELIA more economical to stage.
I'm delighted to have attended several staging rehearsals. Working with the talented cast, Buck, and Brett, has been a real pleasure. This production will be terrific. It was particularly nice to attend the first complete run-throughs in the opera house, prior to the inclusion of sets and lighting, with the conductor and accompanist in the pit and the houselights illuminated. It is my favorite part of production—the point at which an opera composer really gets to interact in real-time in the opera house with the work, giving notes, making slight alterations for the house itself, interacting with the director and conductor.
The Moores Opera House is a true gem. Truly, it is one of the loveliest small opera houses in the country. I feel blessed to hear AMELIA in such an intimate setting. At slightly over a thousand seats, it is configured like a small European house of the sort that Verdi composed for. It is truly enlightening to hear how well even a youthful voice carries, how very clearly the words come across.
I'm so delighted with the two casts for this production that I'm listing them here, with my thanks, and hopes for a great run:
FLIER: Ashley Neumann, Kirsten Leslie
YOUNG AMELIA: Angela Schmidt, Melinda Harrison
AUNT HELEN: Rebecca Kidnie, Lynda McKnight
TRANG / NURSE: Marion Dickson
AMELIA: Megan Berti
AMANDA: Elizabeth Evans
DODGE: Chris Trapani
ICARUS / YOUNG BOY: Aaron Casey, Peter Tran
COMMANDING OFFICER / GOVT OFFICIAL: Ryan Ford, Alex Bruce
PAUL: Trevor Martin, Jared Guest
DAEDALUS / FATHER: Joshua Green, Jacob Kincaide
HUY / DOCTOR: Fredy Bonilla
INTERPRETER / DOCTOR: Dennis Gallagher
CHAPLAIN / GOVT OFFICIAL / PRIEST: Jordan Koenig
NVA OFFICER / GRIEF COUNSELOR: Ryan Frenk
VIETNAMESE SOLDIER: Eric Kao
For tickets, click here. For more information about the opera, click here.
Below is Seattle Opera's overview of the opera, and links to some of the reviews of the premiere production.
Selected reviews of the premiere production:
Jan 21, 2012
Starbucks / 1996
The Starbucks in which I worked during summer 1996 had once been a bank. Paulie, the manager, a pimply troglodyte ten years my junior, had been clawing his way up the Coffee Ladder since graduating high school. I had just been denied tenure at Bard, had just quit my teaching job at the Curtis Institute, and had finished a temporary appointment at City College of New York, filling in for David Del Tredici. I didn't have any commissions. I was broke. I needed a job.
"Listen, Hagen," he said, intentionally mispronouncing my name to rhyme with Reagan, "Maybe you think that you're better than me, but that doesn't change the fact that you pack the espresso too tightly when you make lattes."
Lincoln Center, forty blocks south on Broadway—it had only been four years since Philharmonia's premiere by the New York Philharmonic—had never seemed so distant. "Sorry, Paulie," I said, tamping down coffee into the barrel, attaching it to the espresso machine, and twisting it tightly to the right. "Mister Kelly," he corrected me. He was enjoying this. "Are you serious?" I asked. "Dead," he replied.
"You need to act like you understand that I'm the manager and you're the junior associate," he said. My "coffee comrades" included a brilliant, painfully shy PhD in philosophy from Columbia nearly twice Paulie's age and an alcoholic writer with three widely praised published novels behind him. We didn't think we were "better" than Paulie was—just smarter, talented, and better educated. Nevertheless, he was our boss; we were the ones jerking coffee to cell phone-wielding teenagers. I dreaded most when former Juilliard classmates stopped in; I didn't hate their surprise, I hated their embarrassment and pity.
Paul Sperry called one morning, offering a commission, surprised that I'd landed behind an espresso machine. "Paulie," I said, "I'm going to need to take tomorrow's shift off." He sighed theatrically. "Why's that?" he asked. "I need to meet with a friend to read through some music," I said, not seeing the point of lying. "I can't let you out to pursue your hobby, Hagen," he said, amused.
Instead of heading north to Starbucks the next morning, I headed south to Paul Sperry's apartment. I described to Paul the piece that I had in mind for him: Songs of Madness and Sorrow, a "dramatic cantata" for tenor and chamber orchestra based on a treatment written by Mother for me in 1982. Mother's words would serve as the emotional apotheosis of the piece, which would otherwise consist of texts assembled from turn of the century Wisconsin newspapers, diaries, and literature. (We ultimately recorded the work for the Arsis label with the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, Paul singing, Victoria Bond conducting.)
William Weaver, after a delicious dinner at his apartment in the Village, had a few years earlier, asked me to write on a piece of paper what I would like to compose Merrill Songs and simply wrote me a check for double the amount and slid it back across the table. Paul wrote me a check to commission the piece on the spot. I'll never forget the grace or generosity of either gesture.I quit the Starbucks job. Still feeling shattered and ginger, but with a few dollars in the bank, I began the very long process of pulling myself together.
Jan 3, 2012
Book of Days / 2011
I pulled on the heavy front door. The familiar alienation effect, a cool objectivity, set in—every bit as chilling as the refrigerated air that streamed out of long-closed Day's Deli into the swelter of my first night on the east coast. Looking around the musty Common Room, I took in the received hauteur on the tender faces of the students—even younger than I remember ever having been.
Faculty member Ignat Solzhenitsyn was scheduled to play the piano; two students—a clarinetist and a violist—were to join him, in the first performance of a slight new suite for trio commissioned by the school. I had returned to Philadelphia and the Curtis Institute to bow. It was March 2011. Beforehand, I dined with Emily Wallace. Over a bottle of champagne, we discussed her passion (and specialty) Ezra Pound, and how it might feel to set foot in the school again now that we are both former faculty members. We strolled together beneath the sycamores and across Rittenhouse Square.
During the concert, next to Emily, I sat where Samuel Barber had sat—between Ralph Berkowitz and Gian Carlo Menotti—in the picture displayed on Ralph's piano in Albuquerque. I nodded a secret farewell to Ralph from the seat he so loved; at 103, he had only a few days earlier joined his departed friends. Perhaps he had already had a chance to answer the Virgin Mary's question—the one she had asked him for so many years from the back of her black limousine in his recurring dream.
The première of Book of Days was velveteen, the performers suave. As I listened, I disengaged from the moment. The first movement, "Monday," began with the little chorale I composed for Ford Lallerstedt during the first week of classes I attended at the Institute. The tune was a gloss on the tune of "Ring a Ring o' Roses," a nursery rhyme which has come to be associated with the Plague.
The second movement was an instrumental version of my setting, from the cycle Phantoms of Myself, of Susan Griffin's poem "Her Sadness Runs Beside Her Like a Horse." It was a tribute to Karen Hale, my dear friend, for whom I composed Days Without You, a cycle of Anne Sexton settings for soprano and orchestra (now withdrawn) that she premièred in 83 under my baton in Curtis Hall.
The burgundies, blood-reds, and dirty vermilions of "Tuesday" were a recollection of the night I fell in love with my then girlfriend, sprawled on the richly-carpeted floor in the dark, listening to her practice the Bartok Solo Sonata in the Horszowski Room on the institute's second floor.
The clarinetist performed "Wednesday," her solo movement—my musical recollection of how it had felt in Curtis hall as a student when, tears coursing unhurriedly like molasses down my cheeks a few seats away, I had first heard Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps performed—purely, before learning its title, history, or program.
Together the trio performed "Thursday," a recollection of the night that I visited Norman in his hospital room. I listened to the sound of the heart monitor that I had imitated, "slap-tongue," in the clarinet, doubled with pizzicato in the viola, just as I had in Amelia as Icarus died. I followed the quotation of the tune to which Norman had set our favorite poem, Roethke's "The Waking."
"Friday" treated music from the beginning of Amelia, as though to give an idea of whom I have become. "Saturday" revisited music first written for a setting of Byron's "Sun of the Sleepless" in my cantata Light Fantastic in order to give a taste of the insomnia that set in like a piton during my Curtis years.
The final movement, "Sunday," revisited the Plague chorale. It was meant to soothe, to draw closed the curtain on those years. Hearing it brought me out of my reverie. I felt as though a cool hand had been placed on my hot forehead.
Of course, nobody in the audience would perceive a sliver of my secret narratives; what mattered to me was that I felt that each movement expressed in notes things that I had left unsaid at Curtis. Music is an abstract art, yes; it means, as the old phrase goes, whatever we say it does. —Or nothing at all. When the piece was over, I only knew that I'd managed to say goodbye.
The familiar Institute smells of wood polish and upholstery, mingled with the (genteel, mostly older) audience's winter coats, bay rum, and Chanel No. 5. I rose for my bow and looked out over the audience, recognizing nobody. I twisted my neck to see who was wearing the Chanel and could have sworn that for an instant I saw Mother seated at the end of the row, cancer-thinned, cheekbones like quotation marks, eyes bright and attentive, skin translucent, mauve silk blouse tucked into khaki chinos, hair bobbed boyishly like Amelia Earhart. She smiled warmly. How strange—the details that return, thought forever forgotten: it was what she wore the evening in November 82 that I conducted the premiere of my violin concerto, the orchestra arrayed on the floor where now sat the audience, Michaela's talent youthful and glowing, my nascent gift just beginning to shine. Mother raised her hand gently then as though reaching for a cup of tea; she did so now, and extended her palm outward toward me, waved gently, smiled, and vanished.
Dec 20, 2011
Orpheus Afire / 1981
My army-surplus backpack filled with books (Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel; Melville's Moby Dick; Christopher Isherwood's Christopher and His Kind), music paper, some pencils, and a sandwich, I stood in the middle of Philadelphia's Thirtieth Street Station contemplating my future in the wee hours of an August morning in 1981. The air streaming up the escalators into that glorious 30s Art Deco celebration of the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad at its height, having just disembarked the Owl, felt like cold sweat on the back of my neck.
Small planes could land on the station's roof—it was that big. As built, it even included a chapel and a mortuary. To me at that moment, it was the belly of the whale, site of my final separation from known world and self. I was nineteen, ripe for transformation, and had accomplished nothing; I seethed with potential, eager for the road of trials to unfurl before me. The first time I looked up into the sad, blank eyes of Walker Hancock's ebony statue of the archangel Michael cradling a dead soldier, the first whiff of the city itself as I traded the station's cool stillness for the clingy, alluring fetidity of the early morning air— these two silent things I'll never forget.
Too excited to be scared, I walked. After a few hours, I ended up at Day's Deli, a block away from Curtis. The refrigerated air that poured out as I opened the door smelt of burnt toast and grease. (I learned later that what I smelled was scrapple.) The coffee I ordered as dawn broke was just terrible, the eggs not much better. I loved them. Two old men drank tea and argued about Goethe. My sixty-something server had a broad south Philly accent and called me "honey." When I told her that this really qualified (no kidding) as the first day of the rest of my life she smiled wistfully and brought me a free piece of pie.
A self-assured young man carrying a viola case stood on the top step of the stairs leading to the school's front doors. I thrust out my hand and told him my name. He rapidly sized up my muddy shoes, faded dungarees, worn polo shirt, and beard. Looking away, he shook my hand without telling me his. He seemed amused. "What's you're name?" I asked. He told me. Excited, I asked, "Are you the son of the famous musician?" He rolled his eyes and grunted, his disdain palpable. "Uh-huh," he said with his back to me as he shoved open the heavy door and disappeared into the school.
The most powerful scent, as I stepped into Curtis for the first time that sweltering morning was of furniture polish. The second was of dust; the third was the booze on the breath of Clarence, the burly African American security guard, as he drawled, "Now who might you be?" Back then the stairway was not yet enclosed, so the odor of the chunks of camphor that were placed in the pianos in the studios upstairs drifted faintly down. I took it all in.
On one wall hung a Norman Rockwell painting of a woman who looked to me as though she may have been an angel. Whoever she was, I knew that I loved her. Intensely drawn to the portrait, I walked straight over and stood before it, feeling suddenly loved in return. Shirley Schachtel, the elegant, gently formal, and kindly receptionist, joined me, touched my arm and said, "Yes, that's her."
Shirley explained. The extraordinary only child of the magazine and newspaper magnate Cyrus Curtis, founder of Ladies' Home Journal, at age thirteen in 1890, Mary Louise Curtis, writing under her mother's maiden name (Mary L. Knapp) joined a staff of fifteen people at Ladies' Home Journal, the first year of Edward W. Bok's long tenure as editor. Bok, fourteen years her senior, took her for his wife when she was nineteen. After consulting Leopold Stokowski and Josef Hoffmann on how best to train talented youngsters in 1924, she established the Curtis Institute of Music. Mrs. Bok purchased three mansions on Rittenhouse Square, joined and renovated them, and invited a faculty of prominent musicians to teach there. In 1943, thirteen years after Edward Bok's death, she married the director of the Institute, violinist Efrem Zimbalist, becoming Mary Louise Curtis Bok Zimbalist.
Much as I was determined to spend my life composing music, the milieu in which I grew up never prepared me to expect that I could ever really earn my living that way. —As an orchestrator, maybe. —Or scoring movies. —Or teaching. Actually, I hadn't even really thought that far ahead. Looking around, I realized that somehow I had landed in the Majors. Influential people would hear my music; great players would perform it. I began trembling and forgot to breathe. A cold sweat smeared my forehead. Noting my distress, Shirley guided me quickly to a chair near the fireplace.
I smelled her delicate perfume as she placed her hand on my shoulder. There were goldfish in my stomach; I looked down at my hands to steady myself. "So, you're brand new. Did you come to compose?" she asked. "Yes. Oh, yes," I answered fiercely, looking up. Oh, I was Orpheus, and I was afire.
Oct 29, 2011
Diamond in the Rough
David Diamond studied at the Eastman School with Bernard Rogers, in New York with Roger Sessions and in France with Nadia Boulanger; while living in Paris, he also befriended Gide, Roussel, Ravel, and Stravinsky. He was a superb artisan whose neo-classic works grafted intense lyricism with a neurotic and deeply felt hyper-contrapuntal compositional style. He became a star in the compositional firmament quite young, and spent the rest of his career beguiling and reviling performers and colleagues.
A serious drinker when he chose to be, he preferred very cold, very dry champagne and excellent vodka, if it was available, followed by brandy. He loved good food, arguments, and books. Those he deemed pretentious infuriated him. It seemed to me that he felt that Society had short-changed him; it had contradicted his hopes. While his default mien was grave, he could be pixyish and ebullient. Posterity was important to him: he left behind meticulously crafted ballets, eleven symphonies, concertos, ten string quartets, numerous chamber works, and many admirable songs.
Bernstein famously referred to David as "a vital branch in the stream of American music," while Virgil (for whom David briefly worked) wrote, "Composers, like pearls, are of three chief sorts, real, artificial and cultured. David Diamond is unquestionably of the first sort; his talent and his sincerity have never been doubted by his hearers, by his critics, or by his composer colleagues."
Our every conversation ultimately circled back to the three intertwined things we had most in common: anger, depression, and chronic insomnia. Were the causes chemical, or the result of pathological narcissism? Were they darker, more Nixonian?
"When I was younger," David told me once, "I rarely slept, always worried about money. My anger and my hostility drove me to extremes of behavior that must have seemed theatrical to some. Sessions, for example, when I confessed to him in a lesson that I intended to kill myself by jumping out of the balcony at Carnegie Hall, admonished me to jump from the second tier, as jumping from the first would leave me with broken legs, while the latter would guarantee a split skull, or at least a broken neck."
I identified acutely.
A superb raconteur, David's reminiscences of the 30s and 40s were peppered with vivid character sketches of Greta Garbo, Clifford Odets, Carson and Reeves McCullers, Copland, Bernstein, and Blitzstein, among others. A compulsive diarist, the shelves in his Rochester home contained dozens of books filled with his graceful, athletic handwriting. He confided to me over the years—usually in dark asides after some perceived slight—that he was writing an autobiography that would settle this or that person's hash.
After David's death, Gerard Schwarz, who genuinely loved him and continues to champion his music, loaned me a copy of an unpublished manuscript.
Having read it, I understand now why he chose never to complete it: the first fifty pages ring with his feisty voice, and promise a memoir as pleasurable and captivating as an evening spent drinking champagne with him and listening to him tilt at windmills, lacerate colleagues, and fearlessly describe the old days. Sadly, the document loses its way, tells rather than shows, never progresses far beyond the 60s, and becomes a circular argument, exactly the sort of self-justifying document that David, as an avid and careful reader, disliked.
David could change in a heartbeat from needy to imperious. Consequently, he made many enemies during the course of his career; not just his enemies questioned the accuracy of his memory. I believe that David tried hard to be truthful, and that the extraordinary intensity of his feelings (he was as brutal with himself as he was with others) sometimes distorted the way he perceived the world.
Lessons could be grueling, especially if he had gotten it into his head that you had betrayed him. I used to write music reviews for EAR, a downtown new music magazine. For a (rave) review of David's Symphony No. 10 (premièred a few weeks earlier by Bernstein with the American Composers Orchestra), I had created what I thought was a pretty spicy lead: "Diamond's Tenth looms over the audience like an enormous tombstone." Someone had gotten a copy into David's hands. "You have a deep-seated subconscious desire to destroy me," he raved. "Get out of my sight!" I had gotten my first taste of David's legendary temper. In my case, at least, it was always as fleet as it was quick. David's apologies, when they did come, were always sincere. I admired him, and I always accepted them.
For Ned I composed three art songs each week for three years—one on a poem of my choice; one on a poem of his choice; one of a poem he had set. For David I crafted two fugues (each more elaborate than the last) a week for two years—one on a fugue subject of his choice; one on a subject of my own devising. Ned's regimen helped me to learn how to access my emotions and express them fluently with musical notes. David's regimen helped me to learn how to explore the relationship that those notes have with one another on the abstract, purely musical level.
David's obsession with fugue as a compositional procedure mirrored his lifelong effort as an intellect to make sense of the world in which he lived. His fury, when Bernard Rands innocently asked at the end of a composition seminar what the point of writing fugues was at the end of the twentieth century, was not comical, it was existential.
Oct 21, 2011
Juilliard / 1984
In autumn 1984, I had the impression that there were three main kinds of (artistically, if not commercially) viable serious concert music being composed in New York City. There was Uptown: complex, modernist, academic, and internationalist pieces composed by graduate students at Columbia University and performed on college campuses. There was Midtown: Americana composed by the pupils of David Diamond and Vincent Persichetti; modernist scores by Milton Babbitt's and Elliott Carter's students at Juilliard and performed at Lincoln Center. Finally, there was Downtown: west-coast style minimalism melded to east coast visual art by folks like Philip Glass and performed in Greenwich Village lofts and galleries.
Philadelphia to me had been a place of safely rounded corners, Quaker gentility, and staunchly old-world values. Curtis consisted then of a cozy, slightly rundown townhouse filled with heavy old furniture, and oil paintings in a town in which buildings could then not exceed in height the statue of William Penn atop City Hall. There was an air of provincial, tweedy arrogance. It was possible to know all of one's fellow students. A typical Curtis student jibe back then was that musicians at Curtis were there because they were good; musicians at Juilliard thought they were good because they were there.
The New York I moved to after my first Yaddo summer was a place of dangerously hard edges, opinions stated as facts, and new-world chutzpah. Like Latin America, which I also love, the cheek-by-jowl juxtaposition of Life and Death, Good and Evil, Wealth and Extreme Poverty, Man and God, inspires a heightened awareness of possibility, an intensification of experience that renders life more vivid, the appreciation of its fragility more poignant.
My bedroom in the sprawling fifteenth floor apartment I shared with painter Charlotte Hastings and a succession of short-term lodgers at 467 Central Park West (then one of the Upper West Side's dodgier neighborhoods) looked out over what are now pricey condominiums but then looked like the ruins of a castle. (It was in fact the 1887 New York Cancer Hospital, located on the block front from 105th to 106th Streets. The beautiful red brick and brownstone chateau was among the first cancer hospitals in the United States, with round wards "to diminish hiding places for germs.") The apartment was two blocks from the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where, after too much coffee at the Hungarian Pastry Shop each morning, I read the Times in the cool, half-light of the apse as the organist practiced Messiaen.
My scholarship at Juilliard (it was for some reason named after Irving Berlin) covered tuition, plus a little extra, but to earn money for living expenses during my time there I relied on professional music copying gigs, and playing the piano for pit orchestras, dance classes, and in cocktail bars. My teachers and supporters, knowing I needed cash, helped me by throwing several meaningful composition prizes my way.
Finally, and most importantly, I began to make a little money as a serious composer.
The first commission I received was from Mark Gottschalk and the Loomis Chaffee Academy for A Walt Whitman Requiem, the second came from the International Chamber Artists Series for Trio Concertante, and the third was from the great organist Leonard Raver, for Occasional Notes. When Leonard sent the piece along to Robert Schuneman, the president of E.C. Schirmer, a music-publishing house in Boston, Bob and I began a relationship that has spanned the entirety of my professional life.
I attended Juilliard for three years, and can't recall ever having socialized there. I had friends, I guess. I kept my distance from my colleagues-so much so that most thought that I still lived in Philadelphia.
It was an easy assumption to make. Juilliard felt then to me as though it was in a constant state of implosion. A concrete and glass bunker whose small, even windows looked from the street like gritted teeth, it was filled with windowless practice rooms, state of the art dance and theater facilities, and hundreds and hundreds of harried, fiercely competitive students.
I had decided (for better and for worse) in high school that standardized tests (as well as "grades" of any kind) as a measure of accomplishment and achievement (much less of intelligence or—Heaven forbid—talent) were ridiculous. I viewed Juilliard as a place to hang my hat while I undertook the challenge of beginning a professional career. Plus, I didn't intend to become an Academic. Consequently, the compilation of an attractive college transcript meant nothing to me. I tested out of the theory curriculum, orchestration, and secondary piano requirements. There was a literature class. I read all of the books in the first week and told the teacher that I'd show up for the final exam. "Then the best you can do is to pass," the instructor threatened. "That's fine with me," I agreed.
With the naïveté of a young man in a hurry, I told Mary Anthony Cox, the famous Boulanger-trained ear-training teacher, "Ma'am, I don't foresee having time to practice for your class." I customarily sat beside Martin Matalon-who went on to be recipient of the 2005 Grand Prix des Lycéens and 2001 Prix de L'Institut de France Académie des Beaux Arts. Martin was an immensely charming young Argentine composer who at the time seemed to have arrived at a relationship with the study of ear training similar to mine.
Oh, it was exquisite torment. "Honey," Mary Anthony would command, with her mild southern accent, "sing me a half diminished seventh chord in third position starting on la." My mind would go utterly blank. Then she would make it worse by trying to help clear the air with a simple question. "Honey, you're at 66th and Broadway and you want to get to 92nd Street. Which train do you get on?" We all sat in a circle. The tension was incredible. Cruel snickers. "Uptown or downtown?" she would encourage, sweetly. "Ah ... um," I'd begin, having lost the ability to speak, let alone sing, let alone find the pitch la. Making things worse, out of the corner of my eye I could see Martin, bright red, eyes squeezed tightly shut, writhing with the effort required to not lose it on the spot. To be fair, when Mary Anthony called on Martin, his discomfort, which was every bit as acute as mine, had the exact same effect on me.
Never defy an ear-training instructor; never attempt to force potty training on a toddler. You will lose and they will win. Wise Mary Anthony laughed last and long: following graduation, in order to teach it effectively as one of my duties as a faculty member at Bard College, I ended up having to continue practicing ear training for another nine years.
Oct 18, 2011
Wallace Tomchek was the first person I ever met for whom music was a religion. Wally's passion for (and absolute commitment to) musical excellence was terrifying and irresistible. I loved him for it. Wally taught chorus and drama at Pilgrim Park Junior High School. The first art song I learned and sang—Norman Dello Joio's 1948 There is a Lady Sweet and Kind—he taught me, thereby introducing me to a world in which poetry and music inextricably intertwine.
One day after chorus class when I was fifteen, he called me into his office and commanded me to recite my (then) favorite poem. I launched into James Weldon Johnson's great narrative The Creation. After I had declaimed about ten lines, he cut me off. "Really?" he asked, incredulous. I shrugged. "Okay," he said. "Now set it to music."
Over the next few months, I made of it an ambitious piece of juvenilia—a 25-minute-long cantata for four soloists, mixed choir, five violins, piano, and large symphonic band. I began setting poetry by Poe, Whitman, Rossetti, Frost, and Joyce from a Harcourt anthology of British and American poets edited by Louis Untermeyer that I turn to for poems to this day. My love for setting words to music has never flagged: I have since set over 250 poems short and long, written dozens of works for chorus and multiple voices, and set seven full libretti.
The challenging, college-level choral repertoire Wally taught us was both sophisticated and eclectic—challenging Gesualdo madrigals, slick "swing choir" arrangements of tunes like Johnny Mercer's Dream in nine part close harmony, and a yearly fully staged musical with orchestra which he designed, directed, rehearsed, and conducted. Since then, I've attended professional productions of my operas that weren't as excellently produced. He cast me in supporting roles (I hadn't the looks or vocal power to carry a leading role), and gave me opportunities to direct. I recall with particular fondness directing a production of Thornton Wilder's The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden.
In August 2007, while composing Amelia at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, thirty years after singing the music of the Nymphs and Shepherds myself as a child for Wally, I attended a performance of Monteverdi's Orfeo and thought of him. "Ahi, stele ingiuriose! Ahi, cielo avaro," the soloists sang. I remembered Wally's sudden rages, his brooding silences. "You've got to feel the music! Do you have any idea what these words mean? You've got to make them real!" he used to rail at us.
His arms windmilling, he would literally tear hair out of his scalp when we disappointed him. "Monteverdi lives. He is right here with us. This is not just music. This is something more. If you can't understand that, I don't want to hear you!" Frustrated, he would sweep to his office, slam the door, and leave us counting the beats of silence.
As the soloists sang "Non si fidi uom mortale dib en caduco e frale..." and the orchestra and audience listened, I sang the same words as a child in my memory: "Let not mortal man trust in fleeting and frail happiness, for soon it flies away..."
"Art," Wally would proclaim to a roomful of adolescents craving acceptance, "is not a popularity contest!" "...che tosto fugge, e spesso a gran salita il precipizio è presso." "... And often the precipice is close to the highest summit."
Wally took our class on a field trip to a screening of the movie version of the musical 1776. William Daniels' portrayal of John Adams—part James Tiberius Kirk, part Charles Foster Kane—enthralled me. A lifelong admiration for and fascination with the historical figure ensued. I adopted as my credo an Adams quotation: "There are only two creatures of value on the face of the earth: those with the commitment, and those who require the commitment of others." I solemnly swore to myself that for the rest of my life whatever I lacked in musical talent I would make up for in hard work and commitment.
Wally concocted a patriotic pageant called Spirit of '76, "a rock celebration for young Americans," with music by a gospel composer named Paul Johnson. Our troupe toured around the southern half of Wisconsin with it. "Let freedom ring," I recall squealing, gripping the microphone in as close an approximation of a rock star as I could at the age of fifteen dressed in white polyester pants and bicentennial logo tee shirt. As I sang, I looked out over the audience of six hundred psychiatric patients at the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex. One man, careening up the aisle, arms flapping, joined me—delirious, rapturous—in song. As he neared the stage, orderlies converged and frog-marched him off. "Did you see that?" Wally exulted. "The stakes change, but the hands don't! Now that's the music business!"
When Father brought Wally (who I had not seen in two decades) on 25 July 1997 to Chicago to attend a revival of Shining Brow we met for a cup of tea beforehand in the Hilton lobby. "You look like a young Napoleon in that tuxedo," observed Wally. I laughed, asked, "Did Napoleon wear tuxedos?" "It does look good," admitted Father. "Where did you rent it?" "I bought it a few days ago at Brooks Brothers—my first tuxedo." I was relieved when he didn't ask why I would need one, or how I had managed to afford it. "Your dad dragged me down here," said Wally, half-serious. "He told me I couldn't miss a revival of Shining Brow. You have no idea how proud he is of you. Really. No idea." I looked at Father: he was.
On 29 December 1997, Wally swept off into the "built up dark." I think about him with gratitude every time the curtain goes up on one of my operas. If a flair for drama came first for me, Wally inspired me to fuse drama with music. So much so that becoming an opera composer seems to me now to have been inevitable.
(Here is a link to a blog by another former pupil of Wally's. This person, struggling with chronic fatigue syndrome, draws strength from things that Wally taught her. It is quite moving. Click here to read her remembrance of Wally.)
Oct 9, 2011
Sound Carried Forever
My Father Earl Arthur Hagen was born on 16 February 1928 in the tiny town of Boscobel, Wisconsin to Jenny Thelma Taft, a housewife, and Joseph Hagen, a mechanic. He was second oldest of fourteen children: Beryl, Earl, Ester, Donald, Louis, Clarice, Larry, Richard, Michael, Patrick, Caryl, Phyllis, Bryant, and Alan. He never spoke about his father, his mother, his siblings, or his grandparents, the Tafts—we are distantly related to President William Howard Taft. I did not meet my grandparents on Father's side; I do recall meeting Donald several times. During my lifetime, he told me (though, to my relief as a son, his sister Phyllis tells me that he did attend his father's funeral) that he never returned home—not even for his parents' funerals.
Glaciers, ice floes, and penguins touched Father's life. He enlisted in the Navy in March 1946, received his boot training at San Diego, and went overseas that May. He stopped in Guam, Saipan, Pagan Island, China, Japan, New Zealand, and Samoa. Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd led an expedition called Operation Highjump in 1946 to Antarctica. Father was a talented radioman with the rank of communications specialist. "They didn't know," Father told me, "what problems the ionospheric conditions there would cause for the communications gadgetry. We didn't know then how navigation for flying would be affected. We didn't know about life there. Back then, it was as close as my generation could get to something like walking on the moon."
The ship on which he served, the icebreaker Burton Island, and a supply ship ferried Byrd, his dogs, his men, and his equipment South. "I got to know Byrd," Father told me. "He was very much of a gentleman, a very handsome fellow. He was one of the Byrds of Virginia. It was special because he was kind of a childhood hero of mine. I had read all about him." They journeyed as far south as they could, crashing through sheets of ice.
"As far as you could see, it was white ice," Father said. "There was a sort of pristine cleanness about it. Sound seemed to carry forever."
The Burton Island left Byrd and his men to set up their base camp, Little America IV. The icebreaker then headed out into McMurdo Sound in the Ross Sea. They found Captain Robert Scott's base camp there, just as it had been left 42 years earlier, when it was abandoned. "Everything was pretty much intact. There was even canned food and newspapers." On 28 February 1947, the icebreaker returned to Little America IV to evacuate Byrd, his men, and their 47 dogs.
Shortly after returning to San Pedro, his ship was sent to the Arctic Sea, at the opposite end of the world. On its way North, it picked up an LST, a type of landing craft, in Seattle. "It was loaded with electronic gear," Father told me. "We towed it behind us, but we didn't know why we were doing it." They towed the craft as far north into the Arctic Sea as they could and beached it on an uninhabited island, electrical gear, and all. Father said that they later learned it was part of an early warning system to alert the US of an attack from the Soviet Union.
I am told that as a toddler I loved fondling the spot where his earlobe would have been had he not snapped it off by accident one morning somewhere in the Ross Sea while serving watch on deck. "I tossed it overboard," he laughed. "What did I need it for?"
Oct 7, 2011
Atticus pelted up and down the aisle of the empty Palace Theater in Albany on 8 May 2009 as David Alan Miller rehearsed my Fourth Symphony with the Albany Symphony Orchestra and the Albany Pro Musica Chorus. At the beginning of the rehearsal, he asked me to say a few words.
"But don't say too much," David admonished, needlessly. "Don't take up too much time." I was surprised that he thought that I would want to say anything. We both knew that nothing I could say would matter. The piece's value lay, as Arnold Schoenberg said, not in the How, but the Why. Professionally, I no longer had anything to prove and the music, essentially the same style I wrote when I was fifteen, had said whatever I had to say.
I don't remember what I said, but it was brief. A program note had to be confected, so I wrote these words: "As E.B. White categorized his New Yorks, I categorized my Hudsons for the symphony: the first movement (in which the chorus sings words by Samuel Clemens about another river) explored the Hudson Upstate as a metaphor for that which is gained and lost when a person reaches the Age of Reason. The second was a portrait of the Hudson as it meets the ocean. The third (in which the chorus sings words by Walt Whitman) was a musical evocation of the thoughts and the views I'd had over the years as I watched the Lordly Hudson flow by during those countless commutes."
As I lifted Atticus up in my arms and listened to the sumptuous massed sound of the chorus and orchestra performing the symphony's first phrases (Whitman's "This is the hour for strange effects in light and shade...."), I realized that I didn't particularly want even to be there. But I wanted keenly for the symphony to have been played for other people, and I wanted it to live on, and to be played repeatedly.
"Doesn't he sometimes wonder," the chorus sang as the movement ended with the same section of Clemens' Life on the Mississippi Ned had set 25 years earlier, "whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade? Something's lost." I didn't realize that I had been weeping until Atticus, snuggling in my arms, rubbed the tears on my cheeks in little circles with his index finger. "Are you okay, Papa?" he whispered. "I'm getting better, darling," I answered, hugging him close until he wriggled free and darted off down the aisle towards the orchestra.
Sep 19, 2011
The desk clerk at the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia looked me up and down, noted my dungarees, and sniffed. It was the morning of 18 April 1991. Bill Smith and the Philadelphia Orchestra were slated to premiere my First Symphony in a few days. I'd come to attend rehearsals.
"The Orchestra is paying for the room," I announced proudly. "Sure," he said. "But I'll need a credit card for the incidentals." "I don't have one. May I write a check?" I asked. "Not without a credit card." Two beats. "Then I'll register and promise not to incur incidentals," I said. "That is against policy," he said smugly, looking away. I blushed, pride bruised.
I rallied: "Kindly call Bernard Jacobson at the Orchestra. I'm sure that they will guarantee my check." "Hmm!" he sniffed, made me wait as he took a call. "Give me the phone," I said, temper rising.
Dialing Bernard's line, I felt shame and embarrassment collecting behind my forehead. Soon it would congeal into a fiery crown, a migraine. Bernard's delightful voice boomed with laughter when I explained the situation. "Oh, do put the little man on, will you?" he chuckled. The astonished clerk accepted the receiver and held it as though it were unclean. How gratifying it was to see his face grow stiff, and then slide downwards as an omelet flung against a wall. Astonished, doubtful, he cradled the phone and accepted my check. "So, the orchestra is playing your music?" He was still shaking his head as I stepped into the elevator.
Bill Smith had insisted, despite his failing health, on conducting the premiere. Before the first rehearsal, Bill and I conferred in the semi-darkness of his backstage office at the Academy of Music, a dozen feet away from the dressing room where, a decade before, I first met Bernstein. A stroke had left him quite frail, but his eyes still shone brightly. "You see, I've fulfilled the promise I made to you four years ago over pints at the Parting Glass in Saratoga," he smiled. I had walked over from Yaddo, and he had just come from a rehearsal of Daphnis at SPAC.
At the end of the rehearsal, concertmaster Norman Carol and principal violist Joseph de Pasquale approached me. "I'm so glad to be playing something by a young composer that gives us melodies with soul in them," said Norman. Joe shook my hand, and said, "I don't know what will happen to this piece, but I'm happy for you, and happy to play it."Bill clasped my hands in his violently trembling hands and said, "Beautiful. Beautiful—there's your first symphony at last." With bravado, he vowed to premiere the next one too, but we both knew he was dying.
Sep 1, 2011
The Air is Gray
In Manhattan, 9-11 dawned crisp, cool, and clear. Exquisite. My wife had only just left for school: the subway took her from 96th Street Station down to the World Trade Center where she transferred to a train out to Stony Brook where she was finishing the course work for her doctorate. My nephew had just moved to New York to begin college, moved into his NYU dorm room. I finished my first cup of coffee at around nine, sat down at the piano to work. The phone rang.
"Baby, turn on the television. A man just got on the train and said that a plane has flown into the World Trade Center. They've stopped the train. The conductor said there are no trains behind us. I can see the smoke." "Are you okay?" I asked. "Yes." "Okay. Sweetheart: stay off the phone. Call me when you get out to Stony Brook."
I squatted in front of the television and turned on CNN in time to see the second plane hit at 9:03. I called my nephew. "Where are you?" I asked. "I'm on the street, Uncle Daron," he said. "The air is gray." "Get up here as soon as you can," I ordered. "Start walking north now, fast."
I sprinted out to the deli at 98th and Broadway and bought staples and three gallons of spring water. The sidewalk vibrated with the thunder of military aircraft streaking fast and low southwards over the west side.
Later: "I'm in Stony Brook. Everything's locked down: nobody's getting out or going in to Manhattan," Gilda said. "You're okay?" "Yes. I'm staying with Matt and Sally."
I walked out to Broadway. Tractor-trailer trucks hurtled south in convoy through the dark at top speed, ignoring all the lights. I followed them on foot. Smell of steel. There was a super-fine white film of grit on everything. Cabs with the back seats ripped out headed downtown like a fleet of ferryboats.
Reflexively, I headed toward Midtown. I couldn't get past Washington Square. "Go home," the cop said, exhausted. "Oh. For God's sake just go home to your family." I stared at him, wringing my hands. He softened. "They're making sandwiches to send south over there across the park," he said, pointing. "Maybe they need a hand."
I remember thinking how beautiful the weather had been while standing stupidly at a folding table and spreading bright yellow mustard with a broken plastic knife on one piece of white bread after another.
I have lived in Manhattan since 1984. I used to take the trip to Erewhon every couple of weeks on the Staten Island Ferry just to rekindle—by watching "my" beloved skyline first recede then—on the return trip—regain its majesty. After that day, all I could think about when I took the ferry was the presence that absence makes. I haven't boarded it since.
Several months ago I had a long conversation about 9-11 with the Captain of the Police Precinct in which I now live. I asked him what the most enduring feeling he felt that his colleagues on the force retain about that day. "Shame," he said. Surprised, I asked why. "We're ashamed that it has taken so long to rebuild Ground Zero. There should have been something there within a year."
Aug 12, 2011
Genji With Orchestra
Yumi Kurosawa and the Orchestra of the Swan, conducted by David Curtis, perform Daron Hagen's Koto Concerto: Genji.
Jul 21, 2011
We're All Here
I had made chamber music in this Frank Lloyd Wright Unitarian Meeting House as an undergraduate in 1980. October 2002, in receipt of a commission for a new large-scale work from Present Music and the Brookfield Central Chorus (the group in which I sang as a teenager) for mixed chorus and chamber ensemble, I had chosen in collaboration with Philip Olsen (the conductor) and his students three poems. The last was Charles Sprague's poem The Family Meeting, which serves as frontispiece to the 1843 James Fennimore Cooper novel Wyandotte; or, The Hutted Hill-a tale of colonial border life, planned and written in the spirit of his better-known novel The Deerslayer.
I looked around the chapel. Wright wrote that he designed it to suggest "the wings of a bird in flight." Actually, to me the upward sweep of the roof toward the stone rostrum resembled more the hull of a ship approaching a glass prow. Massive picture windows looked out at the trees covered in orange, red, and yellow leaves. The seating was designed so that parishioners faced each other as well as the minister, enhancing a sense of community. Like the Big Cedar House, it was heated by hot water circulating through pipes imbedded in the concrete floor-at the time a construction innovation.
Phil began the third movement. Fifty or so teenagers sang:
We are all here!
I do not sentimentalize music making: my responsibility as a professional is to listen to my music critically. But I felt weird and I wanted to understand why. I closed my eyes and tried to enter the moment. Once I let go, I began feeling dislocated in time. It was as though I had just taken a bite of a sonic petite Madeleine.
All who hold each other dear,
Each chair is filled-we're all at home
My cheeks were wet. Eyes closed, I took off my glasses and wiped them on my shirt. When I opened them, I saw an Impressionistic painting of the chorus in which I sang as a boy.
Bless, then, the meeting and the spot;
Of course, they sounded like us. Of course, they looked like a drawing of a photograph of us. The feeling of disorientation intensified.
For once be every care forgot;
I felt slightly giddy. I put on my glasses and searched their faces. Some were harder, some were softer, some were new, and some were composites. Of course, they looked and sounded familiar: I had composed something for the teenage children of my high school classmates.
Let gentle Peace assert her power,
And kind Affection rule the hour;
I felt Britt to my left and Mother to my right. Familiar ghosts began filling the pews-sort of a spectral episode of This is Your Life. I thought of Louis Sullivan singing "So much so," in Shining Brow, of poor doomed Morales singing "again and again," in Bandanna.
We're all-all here.
The sanctuary rang with their healthy young voices. "Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength," I recalled the 8th Psalm and shivered involuntarily. With each repetition of the words "We're all here," I felt like a feverish child whose hair is being stroked by his mother.
"Enough," I heard myself say, aloud. "Enough, now."
We're All Here, the last movement of a three-movement memorial to victims of the AIDS epidemic, was intended to serve as an agent of consolation and healing. I didn't think that I would be one of its recipients. Sentimental the music may be, mediocre the poetry may be; but, if after I die there were to be held a modest memorial service, I would like it to end with this movement.
May 31, 2011
Dealing With Vera
Vera of Las Vegas, a "Nightmare Cabaret in One Act" with a libretto by my frequent librettist Paul Muldoon, has just gone into pre-production for a revival by Opera Vista in Houston, so I thought I might share a few thoughts about how the piece came to be.
The opera is based on "Everything Must Go!" a brass quintet originally composed at Yaddo in 1992 for the brass section of the Orchestra of Saint Luke's in New York. The title referred to the fact that I hoped to create a piece devoid of sentiment, entirely process-oriented, pure music-whatever that is. I also meant it to refer to my feelings, from which I felt increasingly remote.
I "assembled" the quintet and the opera that grew out of it rather than "composed" it by writing four ideas (a D-A-B-flat motive, a rhythmic cell, a skein of sixteenth notes, and a quartal-harmony chorale) on flash cards. I sat at a table, shuffled the cards, and dealt them in different patterns before me. I then notated the results. This injected aleatoric compositional procedures into an already "non-expressive" mechanical process.
When in October 1995 Paul Kreider (then the Chair of the Music Department at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and now Dean of the College of Creative Arts at West Virginia University) made official the request for a chamber opera for his faculty and students to première, I leapt at the opportunity.
I asked Paul Muldoon to write the libretto. We co-wrote a detailed treatment comprised of six ten minute scenes that included several characters from and references to his already-written one act play Six Honest Serving Men. Paul wanted to follow Vera with another act. We went so far as to co-author a detailed filmic treatment called Grand Concourse that put our characters on planes headed to the Twin Towers on 9-11.
Edgy and risky, Grand Concourse was for me the ultimate project that got away. I envisioned the stewardesses singing variations on the hymn Down to the River to Pray as the planes hurtled toward the World Trade Center and the drama on the ground unfolded. As risky as Vera was, Concourse would have taken us further. I am very sad that the act will never be written.
Despite trying steadily for about five years, I could not interest a single opera company, college, or foundation in Concourse. (They were interested in doing Vera, but no more along those lines.) Was it still too close to 9-11?-still too close to the bone? My music? Paul's words?
Throwing cards on the table like a blackjack dealer to compose seemed the perfect wedding of subject and process. The eclectic, evocative, yet abstract, and emotion-free nature of the quintet's ideas made it perfect raw material to shape into an opera about Las Vegas.
So, when Present Music in Milwaukee asked for a work for large ensemble I took the opportunity to revise and re-orchestrate the quintet for fourteen instruments. The result was An Overture to Vera. Present Music premièred it in August 1995 at the Milwaukee County Art Museum.
Tom Strini "got" the piece. He wrote in the Journal Sentinel, "It is 'Scheherazade' meets 'A Night in Tunisia,' complete with bop-inspired walking bass lines and exotic, chromatic tunes snaking up and sliding woozily across the strings. Out of nowhere, Tchaikovsky's ghost bursts in with mournful chorales for violin, viola, and cello. I'm not sure what to make of all this, but I can report that it held my interest and made me laugh."
Carolann Page, whose creation of the role of Pat Nixon in John Adams' Nixon in China had moved me to ask her to create the role of Mamah in Brow, agreed to create the role of Doll. Kreider played Dumdum, a role vocally tailored to him; Patrick Jones, who had appeared in the first production of Brow, agreed to sing Taco.
The eponymous role of Vera I tailored specifically to the voice of counter-tenor Charles Maxwell, for whom (on commission from my friend William Weaver, in memory of James Merrill) I had composed Merrill Songs and with whom I had premièred them in Manhattan at the Danny Kaye Playhouse. I cast students as strippers, lap dancers, dealers, and flight attendants, and confected a jangly, colorful Nelson-Riddle-style Big-Band-plus-strings score.
I knew that I needed, at the center of my examination of true lies, a character that embodied the themes of the opera, and a voice type that did the same. Vera is a female impersonator in the story; but, just as a contemporary male soprano (as opposed to a castrato) is not trying to sound like a woman but rather to create an idealized sound in the female vocal register, Vera dressed as a woman to reveal the deeper truth of her nature through artifice.
"Truth," Vera sang during her last-minute torch song, "is a business that needs illusion, some sleight of hand if it's not going to fold or belly up." One might say the "subject" of the opera Muldoon and I ginned up was the relationship between appearance and reality.
Beginning with Everything Must Go's and An Overture to Vera's fistful of "abstract" ideas allowed me to build a dramatic edifice atop and to conceal in a seemingly eclectic score the tight organization required to keep things from flying apart, musically.
About the libretto Paul said, "I'm thinking of the sestina, the form that rings the changes on the same six end-words in each of its six-line stanzas. This time, the changes were rung on a great thirty-line stanza that, despite its affinities with a juggernaut, allowed me to jitterbug." The fantastical story was dreamed up together in Paul's cozy office at Princeton. I scrunched up in an easy chair with two legal pads on my lap-one had my architectural plan of six sections of ten minutes' duration each, and the other had on it a list of things I wanted Paul to address in the libretto. Paul sat with his feet up at his desk, periodically rising to walk around the room while talking, pulling books off the shelves, and fondling the spines, tucking them back in.
Some of the thoughts I jotted included: "Kundera wrote of compassion being the Devil's gift in Unbearable Lightness ... What is Vegas, "Not ideas about the thing," pace W. Stevens, "but the thing itself?" ...Virtu => Captain Vere => Vera ... Melville's "mist" => Vegas' erasure of night and day ... to be truly subversive, Vera must sound like pop music, be organized as rigorously as pli selon pli ... disarm and entertain with cocktail piano, slip the knife in with the words ... these folks are like Auden's bunch in the back of a cab in Age of Anxiety ... Auden, Britten and Gypsy Rose Lee all living together ... Madonna's a bore; it is her production values we study and adore ... Didi, Gogo, Dumdum, Taco ... strippers in stiletto heels singing quintuplets in three quarter time while being sexy ... Vera must reveal her heart to soft 70s folk rock ... dancers never count anything remotely similar to what composers think they will ... all my former teachers will hate the music I write for this show; that's a good starting place ... I will please nobody with this score ... the music must seem cheap, like the characters seem cheap; but it can only seem so by being anything but under the surface: consequently, so-called smart people will dismiss me for slumming-so much for the Curtis crowd! ... This is a piece that must sound on the surface eager to please but in fact not give a damn ... remember why critics hate Lenny's MASS while remembering what it is about that piece that makes people love it ... one must seem raw while in fact being infinitely polished ... fiction always wins because it is packaged better ... critics always think they "get" music-especially when they don't ... stamp on the hand gets you readmitted, stamp on the arm means you escaped ... Is Vera Garbo?" And so on.
In the preface to the vocal score I wrote, "[these] four characters are deeply alienated individuals suffering from denial and an inability to connect emotionally with one another." At the time, my identification with the characters that Paul and I ultimately penned was complete: "Their truths," I wrote, "are buried in pasts to which they return in increasingly spasmodic, acid-trip-like flashbacks... it's a slow-motion spiritual meltdown. These people are desperately unhappy, entertaining themselves in order not to have to face the fact that they feel dead inside."
I was being dragged down by sentimentality and nostalgia-personally, by what I had come to believe was a self-destructive, sentimental view of marriage, and professionally by a self-defeating nostalgic conception of the manner in which I thought that a "serious" composer should behave and compose. I knew that I desperately needed to reinvent myself.
Unlike Bandanna, in which irony did not play a role, in Vera I treated nostalgia and sentimentality ironically in the classic sense that there is an incongruity, discordance or connection that goes beyond the most evident meaning, and that in the expression of my meaning I used musical language that normally signifies the opposite. Taco confessed to a grisly murder over a tenderly pastoral quasi-Stravinskyian accompaniment pattern; Dumdum experienced an orgasm of self-awareness in which he confessed to a terrorist bombing over surging, sturm und drang romantic chords.
Like Bandanna, Vera's dialectic was intentionally brutal (not "cheap"-that implies inferior quality of materials and workmanship and Vera like the character herself, was nothing if not well put-together!) because I wasn't interested in covering my tracks stylistically on the way to "drilling down" into the subconscious ooze of the characters' truths. Vera's power as a score in my opinion lies in its nothing-to-lose willingness to "let it all hang out" aesthetically. It goes for broke because its characters are broken.
In Vera, I claimed the 70s folk rock I wrote and played as a pre-teen, the Broadway mannerisms I come by fairly, having worked there, the cocktail piano licks I ran my hands through so many times as a twenty-something in piano bars. In order for the entire piece to live and breathe, at the heart of all of the cleverness and sleight-of-hand there had to exist a nugget of entirely guileless sincerity. For that reason, Vera's eleventh-hour torch song was actually a fleshed-out version of the title song of a folk rock musical called Together that I wrote at the age of fourteen-long before I had developed the craft to erect an aesthetic fortress of clever deniability around the expression of my feelings. I learned by composing Vera that everything does not, in fact, go.
Vera received its concert première on 8 March 1996. "Leave town, you fucking pervert," the voice on the hotel answering machine began. "I read about your pervert piece in today's newspaper, I want you to know that there are God-fearing people living here in Las Vegas, and that we're watching you."
As it happened, the short-term cultural impact of my little opera upon the upstanding citizens of Las Vegas was minimal. Although Vera has since become my most frequently revived opera, only about a hundred people showed up for the performances in the 1800 seat auditorium, scattered about like the handful of people who showed up for Kevin's production of Hadrian VII, or like little boats on a wine dark sea of empty seats.
By May 2011, Vera had been revived a half dozen times, sold-out in its New York stage première (even Tommasini had raved in the New York Times), toured Ireland to excellent reviews (the Irish Times and Times of London were particularly good), been released on compact disc, and sold out, despite never even having reached record stores.
Vera has become my most frequently revived opera. Over the years, I have received hundreds of moving emails and letters from people in the throes of personal reinvention who respond not just to the music but also to the libretto. It seems to touch people more deeply than all of my other operas except Amelia. Vera's been portrayed by an African American male soprano, middle-aged and overweight Caucasian countertenors, a Latino countertenor, and even a tenor in his own octave. I find each new take as moving as the last. Vera is, after and above all, a state of mind, a changeling, and an evolvement.
[Afterwards: Opera Vista's production in Houston has just closed a three-night sold-out run with a rave review in the Houston Chronicle. I salute them!]
Mar 23, 2011
Orpheus and Eurydice
...I wrote around this time a triple concerto for violin, cello and piano for the Amelia Piano trio and a consortium of youth orchestras called Orpheus and Eurydice. The idea was that the solo parts would be of professional caliber and the orchestra parts playable by average youth orchestras./ As it happened, I just wrote a triple concerto that could sound good with any regional professional orchestras and the youth orchestras sounded just fine.
I treated the soloists as operatic characters. The first movement, Eurydice and Orpheus, introduced us to our characters and celebrates different aspects of their happy life together. The piano played the role of Orpheus; the solo violin and solo cello together played the role of Eurydice. The narrative was comprised of a theme and ten variations. The "theme" was really a sequence of chords, timbres, and melodic motives rather than a traditional melody. Much like an overture to an opera, this movement provided the harmonic and motivic language for the concerto / opera to follow. The first two variations featured rolled chords in the piano - Orpheus strumming his lyre. The third variation introduced a melody over the chords; this melody was associated with Eurydice. The fourth variation placed Orpheus in the piano and Eurydice in the violin and cello soloists. Variation five fragmented the theme, while the sixth variation introduced "added tones" to the chords before the seventh variation blossomed with a clearly recognizable statement of "Eurydice's Song" in the solo trio. The good-natured sparring of the couple in variation eight settled into a cozily domestic ninth variation. The movement ended with the trio alone, recapitulating in their purest form the chords presented at the beginning by the orchestra.
The second movement, Orpheus' Lament, was an aria in the form of a rondo. The trio as a unit portrayed Orpheus in this movement. In the first (A) section, Orpheus sang in the solo strings in a pan-diatonic harmonic language of his love and sorrow. Orpheus expressed his sorrow and anger in the second (B) section, moving into the solo piano and expressing himself in brittle, octatonic-scale based music. The orchestra returned Orpheus to the musical language and mood of the first section. A drum entered as he began getting worked up again. The soloists shifted once more into octatonic language as Orpheus determined to save Eurydice from the Underworld. The movement climaxed with Orpheus approaching the River Styx and gazing across into the Underworld.
Orpheus in the Underworld began with Orpheus strumming his lyre in the piano as the strings in the orchestra portrayed Charon, singing as he rowed him across the river. Orpheus heard Eurydice's song in the violin, answered her in the cello. He then followed the sound of her voice until at last he found her and they sang a joyous duet over a fervent chorale built from the first movement chords. At this point, the piano was Orpheus' lyre once more, the violin was Eurydice, and the cello was Orpheus' singing voice. Orpheus was warned not to look back at Eurydice as he leads her out of the Underworld. The movement ended at the moment that Orpheus did just that.
The final movement, Orpheus Looks Back, took place after Orpheus has returned to the world of the living. In the piano, he sang a nostalgic love song; he tried to convince the Gods to release Eurydice. He heard Eurydice in his memory singing in the solo strings, turned to music itself for strength and solace as the elemental sequence of pure chords returned in the orchestra. He rapidly worked his way through the series of emotions dealing with loss: anger, denial, bargaining, finally, acceptance as the trio played alone. The lovers were finally united in Orpheus' heart and soul. The concerto / opera ended with Orpheus calmly looking forward, anticipating the day when in the Afterlife he and his Great Love would at last be reunited.
The parallels with my experience as the man who euthanized his mother were obvious to me, at least. For better or worse, the music came out because that is what I was thinking about.
At a reception after a concert at which the Amelia Piano Trio performed Orpheus and Eurydice with the local youth orchestra in Corvallis, Oregon on 16 December 2007, a pale, slender youth of about fifteen dressed in black approached me with a book in his hand that he had liberated from a local library. It was Ned's Nantucket Diary.
"Would you sign this for me?" he asked.
"Why, for all love, do you want me to do that?" I asked.
"Well, you're in here, a couple of times."
"So?" I asked.
"That means that you have met Ned Rorem."
I saw that he was creating himself out of whole cloth, that his task would be ever so much more difficult than a male soprano's like Charles Maxwell's had been onstage (a man singing in a woman's octave not trying impersonate a woman but be something different) at the Danny Kaye Playhouse when we premièred my Merrill Songs. It was also clear that Ned's book had come to him at a crucial moment, and that it had helped him. That I existed meant that a Real Life Ned existed somewhere, and not just between the covers of a stolen book. It meant that perhaps it might be possible to be who he wanted to be or become.
"First," I said, drawing the boy aside and giving him a hug, "return the book to the library. Then, order a new one online. Send it to me. I'll take it over to Ned's place the next time I see him and ask him to sign it. Then I'll send it back to you."
A few weeks later, the book arrived. I took it to Ned. Over chocolates and tea, I told him the story, and presented him with the book. He inscribed the book to the boy as though signing a credit card receipt, sighing, "Oh, Daron, I'm just so tired."
Feb 17, 2011
I sincerely regret that it has been years since last I did it, but during the eighties I used to begin each day at Yaddo by carrying a thermos filled of coffee out into the woods that separated the Yaddo estate and the Saratoga track. What a privilege it was to drink coffee as the sun rose, watching through the chain link fence as the jockeys breezed the magnificent horses.
Sometimes Louise Talma joined me. Coffee in one hand, unfiltered Pall Mall in the other, fascinator firmly perched in her thin, mouse-brown hair, paper-thin cotton sundress ironed and washed into within a memory of itself, Louise was as childlike as I ever saw her.
Over dinner she could uncoil herself in an instant when someone said something stupid. Lashing out, she remorselessly cut the offender dead with the fewest of stiletto-like remarks. With the slightest twitch of her upper lip, she would indicate to me that she wanted a light. Her "church lady" glasses were so old that they had gone out and in to fashion more than twice. Dinner nearly over, dessert dispatched, coffee poured, nobody dared tell Louise to wait to light up until after dinner drinks were poured on the back porch.
Louise was born in France in 1906 and educated at New York University and Columbia. Her compositional voice owed most to her time at the Conservatory in Fontainebleau. Unlike Diamond, Louise—after working with Boulanger—remained a close friend and colleague to the great pedagogue.
Once, sitting with her at a concert at which one of Lukas Foss' pieces was being performed, I felt her hand close around my thigh like a vice as the work ended. "Oh, for God's sake, Lukas!" she ejaculated in the silence between the last note of music and the first beat of applause.
Louise was the only composer who could convince Thornton Wilder to write a libretto. (Ned's Our Town, on a libretto adapted by Sandy McClatchy, with whom I would in a few years write Little Nemo in Slumberland, came long after Wilder's death.) The Alcestiad, through which Louise and I once played together, was a mercurial and turgid score, by turns reminiscent of Hugo Weisgall and Stravinsky—the Frankfurt Opera House mounted a production (with Wilder's words translated into German) of it.
I was her favorite, summer in and out, at Yaddo—and, once or twice, at MacDowell. I'd pick up her bourbon at the liquor store, her chocolate at the Price Chopper, her smokes at the drugstore. Her music? Never much cared for it. But I adored her. Outgoing mail was placed in a communal basket in the linoleum room. "Dear One," she would say, using her pet name for me and handing me some letters, "will you take these into town when you buy hooch and mail them for me? I don't like other people knowing my business."
In 1996, in her sleep in the Pink Room at Yaddo, after having spent many summers at Yaddo and at the MacDowell Colony, she made her ending. Afterwards, many were astonished to learn that she had left a million dollars to MacDowell and not a penny to the place in which, having for years composed and enjoyed her nightly bourbon and chunk of chocolate, she had retired for what she had thought was only the night and was instead eternity.
Jan 21, 2011
Authority v. Power
One sweltering summer day when I was six Father inadvertently taught me the difference between Authority and Power. The perennially leaking roof required repair. The sun beat down on my brothers and me. Our feet sank into the tar and gravel of the roof as we watched Father pour molten tar over the offending spot. My big brother Kevin ventured, "Dad, it's going to slide off the roof. I don't think we're doing this the right way." It was obvious even to our father that he had made a mistake. As we silently watched the tar slither into the flowerbeds below, Father's fist shot out and connected with Kevin hard enough that he staggered. "I'm your father," he snarled. "That means I'm always right. Never forget that."
That summer I began repeating silently afterwards everything that I said immediately after saying it aloud. Because I moved my lips when I did this, people could tell. I saw a child psychologist a couple of times. I do not remember what I told her, but obsessive-compulsive disorder was the diagnosis. "Fear of Father" played a role. Although after about a year I stopped repeating myself, I did formulate at the time a prophetic, unequivocal, almost resigned feeling that I would die young that never passed.
My brothers and I banded together only once to ask Mother to intervene when Father swung, slapped, or kicked. "What kind of men would you grow up to be if I came between you and your father?" she replied with cold pity. "You'll have to work it out yourselves. Go."
In retrospect, I'm not surprised that—sitting in Uiehlein Hall and listening to the Milwaukee Symphony perform Dvorak's New World Symphony at the age of seven trying to decide which of the many instruments on stage I would most like to play—I decided to become a composer first and a performer second. It was because Father had unintentionally taught me that although Power can compel, it does not last; Mother had by example taught me that Authority could inspire, and therefore last forever.A composer's life deals with these truths daily. Every time a new piece of music is read for the first time the composer starts with all of the power and no authority. Authority, like love, must be earned. If the music inspires and moves the performers, then the composer's authority grows. If it does not, well, as Virgil Thomson once told me, "Don't worry about withdrawing pieces, baby; they have a way of withdrawing themselves."
Jan 10, 2011
The French flight attendant noted my unwillingness to switch to English. "Je suis désolé. Vous êtes un Américain. Il est de votre pays," she said, sadly. "Je suis entre les pays," I tried to joke, twisting my head away from her and looking out the window at the World Trade Center as we flew past. "Paris," I thought. "Berlin. Vienna. Rome." I wrung my hands. "New York."
Rain slapped against the taxi's roof. The twenty-dollar bill balled in my fist had been in my wallet for six months, untouched. I pressed it into the Pakistani driver's hand and tumbled out of the taxi on to Saint Mark's Place. I jiggled the key in the broken lock of the door with the anarchist graffiti on it. That it worked and the door opened was neither a good nor a bad thing. I climbed the six flights to my apartment. My clothing smelled of airport, my luggage of aviation fuel. There was nothing for me here. I'd warned the girls to whom I'd sublet the place that I'd need to crash overnight in the guest room before heading back to Europe.
It was after three AM. They were asleep upstairs in the loft. I threw my bags into a corner and collapsed on the futon. After a couple of hours of sleep-the most in a row I'd had since leaving Luxembourg the week before-I woke with a start to the sound of two men having sex rising up from the floor below in the airshaft, the sputter and wheeze of steam venting from the radiator inches from my head. Then silence. The refrigerator's compressor kicked in.
I thought of the night a decade earlier when I had returned home without warning my parents and had overheard their sad 4 AM duet. "Let me in. Let me in," Father had keened like an animal. "Oh, Earl," she pleaded in an exhausted, intimate voice. "For God's sake, please leave me alone."
Clara padded in and curled into her accustomed spot in my armpit. Without me, there was no sadness here. In the silence, I heard first the girls' murmurings, then their sighs, then their gentle morning conversation not entirely muffled trickling down from upstairs like soft, warm rain mixing with the sound of rain on the roof.
The alarm chimed. 24 October 1989 began. Tender good mornings were exchanged. Bare feet padded down the steep flight of steps from the loft. I smelled brewing coffee. This sleepy and contented world had nothing to do with me. Caitlin returned to the loft. My books, scores, recordings, my cat, even the hundreds of treasured letters, may as well have belonged to someone else. I dressed silently, fed Clara, and let myself out, leaving my passport and backpack by the door to signal that I'd be back.
The 5 AM air was crisp and lively. Stragglers in pairs stumbled down St. Mark's Place; men left the baths across the street arm-in-arm. Round the Clock was open. I settled in and ordered coffee, eggs, and rye toast. Five hours to kill before meeting with Lukas Foss to talk through the score of my new orchestra piece Heliotrope prior to his first rehearsal of it with the Brooklyn Philharmonic at Cooper Union. I paged through the Times, the Post, and the Village Voice.
The coffee sharpened my senses. The food disgusted me. I had not told anyone that I would be coming back, even for a day. No one was relying on me. I didn't exist. I thought with pride of having graduated-over pizza and Hindemith-with the girl who played the viola whose father taught at the conservatory in Marseilles, from vous to tu. How insipid my life was. I went to the bathroom. Diarrhea. I was dehydrated. I looked at myself in the graffiti-covered mirror. "I hate this place," I said to myself. I threw cold water on my face from the faucet and returned to my table. My breakfast had been brought to my table. Nauseated, I shoved the plate away untouched, dropped some money on the table, and began walking north.
Times Square. Standing in front of the statue of George M. Cohan at 6 AM, I watched a weary sex worker stumble by on the arm of her client. I asked a cop for the time. "Go home, kid," he said. "Get some sleep." I stuffed my hands in my pockets and surveyed the closed peep shows, the forlorn Jersey kids too drunk to catch the PATH train home, the exhausted chicken hawks heading to breakfast at Howard Johnson's.
By 7 AM, standing in front of the Lincoln Center fountain, I had worked up a cold sweat. Tearing off my shoes and socks, I plunged my feet into the icy water and waited for a cop to roust me. Instead, a teenage girl walked up, wordlessly placed a to-go cup (in 1963 the Sherri Cup Company set out to produce a to-go cup that would appeal to the many Greek vendors in Manhattan; this was one of those) of black coffee next to me, and walked away. It was white, with blue stenciling on it that read in faux Greek letters "We Are Happy To Serve You."
I sipped the coffee and stared at the Marc Chagall murals decorating the Metropolitan Opera House façade. The watery, brilliant autumn sun felt close enough to touch. Feverish, I heard myself say aloud, "I am only a 'fugitive pigment'-my appearance changes over time." Sweating coldly, I realized I was going to vomit. "I am washed out by the sun," I thought. I threw up in the fountain. Raising my head, I looked from side to side. The plaza was empty.
"Sick again at Lincoln Center," I observed grimly. I used my shirt to dry my feet, replaced my socks and shoes. Too nauseated to feel embarrassed, I walked to a street cart in front of the Empire Hotel. Fishing in my pockets for change, all I could find was francs. "And for the penny in your purse," I recited, tittering weirdly. I recalled Father throwing change at me as a kid and decided to pour them all into the vendor's hands, "I'll ferry you!" I accepted in return a stale bagel and a bottle of water. "Get outta here, you creep," I heard him mutter to my back as I headed west towards the Hudson River.
By 9 AM, I had made it back to the Village and had settled into my favorite chair at Caffé Reggio on MacDougal Street. I particularly loved the window nook just to the left of Reggio's front door. It was to me a safe and familiar place-in it, I had written a lot of music, savored Balzac and Patrick O'Brian novels, argued aesthetics with colleagues, and courted women.
"Here," said the server as she brought me a second espresso. "You're as white as a sheet. You need to put something in your stomach." She placed a sandwich before me. "It's on the house." I bolted it. Then I nodded off.
Two hours later Lukas Foss awakened me. "Are you okay?" he asked. The server had let me sleep. I waved my thanks to her; she looked up from her book and smiled. "Better than I have been for awhile," I admitted, stretching. He sat down across from me and pulled the score of Heliotrope out of his satchel. "I used to meet Lenny here when we were your age," he laughed, and ordered a cup of tea.
Out came his "reddy-blue" pencil; he jotted in the score as we talked. When we had finished he shut it with a sigh and pushed it aside. "What I love about your voice is it's-for lack of a better word-joyful, seemingly effortless fluency," Lukas observed. "You can do anything. And in pieces like this, you do." I laughed. "Would you please write that down and sign it?" He looked up, serious.
"People will call your fluency facile; they'll hold your eclecticism against you. There isn't a lot of 'live and let live' among composers and critics," he said. I realized that he was talking as much about himself as he was about me. "Some will think you do the things you do because you haven't got talent, or good taste, or because you're self-indulgent, insufficiently self-critical, or because you aren't well-trained. If you are none of those things and you still insist on being yourself, then you are a threat to their aesthetic stance and ... they do their best to ... make you fail or ... at least to marginalize you."
It was my favorite season in the Village. Cool air, people bundled in sweaters reading the Times (then nice and fat, the paper of record, filled with indispensible opinion and taste makers' words-the must read for every serious New Yorker) with their friends in sidewalk cafes, fresh-faced NYU co-eds, newly-minted New Yorkers, bumping into things because they're looking up at the buildings instead of where they're heading. Lukas and I strolled through Washington Square Park and savored the light as it streamed through the sycamores trees. "Breathe deeply," quipped Lukas, as we passed a fistful of fellows smoking dope.
The Brooklyn Philharmonic's oboist could be heard giving the "A" as we entered the hall where in 1860 Abraham Lincoln delivered his great address. I had memorized parts of it for forensics in high school: "Let us have faith," I declaimed to Lukas, "that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it." Lukas stopped, surprised. "Lincoln," he said. "That's nice." I reached for his hand; he gave me a hug instead. "Have fun," I said.
Jan 9, 2011
"Before I forget, I want to tell you that Marc used to like to sit over there," said David Diamond, squeezing my hand and pointing at a spot far down the lawn near the rose garden. We were sitting on one of the pews in the Yaddo Music Room. The June 2005 air was lively. Late afternoon light streamed through the leaded windows.
Elaina Richardson had asked me to curate a recital of music by composers who had worked at Yaddo. Michael Boriskin and his Music from Copland House players performed. I wanted to honor David, so I programmed his early Flute Quartet. I also suggested that he be invited and, to everyone's astonishment, he agreed to come. He told me that he had wanted to visit Yaddo once more. I looked at David: his impeccably tailored gray serge sit hung loosely over his diminished frame. His blue shirt's collar was crisp. There was a large New Zealand-shaped liver spot on his scalp over his right eye. What remained of his hair was colorless. His skin was papery and luminous. His rheumy eyes brimmed with tears.
"Marc cared," he whispered urgently. "When he wrote Regina here, he could sing and play every note. He knew words. You remember I told you once that he rewrote the entire libretto for Lenny's Trouble in Tahiti without needing to change a note of the music?"
I stood up, walked to the front of the little ensemble, and addressed the audience. Comprised almost entirely of local high school students enjoying a rare glimpse of the estate's inner sanctum, they were attentive and excited. "A word about teachers," I began my memorized introduction. "I have been a member of the corporation here for a number of years, am in the middle of my career as a professional composer, and have addressed many audiences and classrooms filled with students. It has been twenty years since I had a lesson with the amazing man sitting a few feet from me. Nevertheless, I am more nervous now speaking in front of him than I have been before any audience in the interim. Teachers that we admire and adore have that effect on us. That's a good thing." There was a sprinkle of laughter. I asked the audience to acknowledge David and they applauded warmly.
"You know," he said, sitting down, "I can actually see them all around us: Lenny, Aaron, Virgil, and Marc." He meant it. More tears.
The concert over, I asked my wife to take a few pictures of us.
"I think that it is an illusion that the dead have left us, David," I ventured, as we posed. He smiled, and released my hand.
I thought of our monthly telephone calls, my periodic visits to Rochester to see him as the years unspooled: "How are you David?" "Terrible. My heart, you know." "But Jerry is doing your music." "Yes, but he's the only one."
"They're all here, Daron," he said, with conviction, "especially at Yaddo." And then, voice trailing off, "I've driven so many people away; I've lost so many...."
At that moment, a dozen schoolchildren from the audience surrounded us. They had loved his piece. He smiled radiantly, accepted their praise, and asked them their names.
David died of heart failure a few days later on 13 June.
Dec 24, 2010
"Thank you for being so patient with an old man," Virgil Thomson said in a high, shrewd simper as I stepped inside his apartment at the Chelsea Hotel on 27 May 1987. I handed him the week's work. "Pshaw!" I laughed. "Who's old?" He smiled with delight. "Ned tells me you're writing a ballet." His interest was merely polite. "Uh huh," I said, "at MacDowell."
"Honey, did you study strict counterpoint?" he asked. "The strictest, Virgil," I laughed. "Invertible, and so forth?" he asked. "Uh huh." "Eh?" "YES!" I shouted. "And you're still studying with Ned?" "No." I said, "That was a couple of years ago." "Sorry," he said. I walked over to the Duchamp as he instructed me on how to proceed with the reduction of the suite from Louisiana Story. He looked up at me. "It's lovely, isn't it?" he asked, in an entirely different voice. "Mmm," I agreed. It was one of those perfect moments.
I excused myself and headed for a date with a young ballerina from the City Ballet. Things between us had become strained, in part because she had informed me a few weeks earlier that her previous boyfriend had tested positive for HIV. Even for a straight male, AIDS had turned sex in Manhattan into a game of Russian roulette. Furthermore, emotional intimacy frightened me, possibly because I was afraid of the crazy things I might say in unguarded moments. I was too selfish, too raw, and too resentful of time stolen from composing to be of use to anyone else. I had become quite the egoist.
Waiting for my date, I called the health clinic from a pay phone at the corner of 14th and Fifth Avenue and asked for the results of my recent HIV test. I was put on hold. The first coin dropped as a new voice came on asking why I was put on hold. "I have no idea," I replied. "Listen. I want the results of my blood test, if they're in." Beat. "Oh," replied the nurse in a strained voice. "What's your code number?" I gave it. I was put on hold again. I thought about every woman I had dated for the past two years. I thought, "This is the way I feel before going onstage—a combination of anticipating the worst possible news and the potential for ecstasy." I thought of how well Mother had told me of her cancer, and then how well she had fought her battle with it."Hello?" It was the voice of the clinic's AIDS specialist. Why was he on the line? "Your results are—," he began. At that moment a bus rushed by and the taped operator broke into the line, demanding another quarter. "—Normal," he said. "—Deposit twenty-five—." "What's that?" "—Please deposit twenty-five—." "Oh God, that's great—." "—Next three minutes." He rushed to get the words in: "Good luck." "—Please deposit—." "Thanks," I said, and replaced the receiver. For a long time I just stared at my hands.
Dec 23, 2010
Norman Stumpf was profoundly gentle—lanky, bearded, and extremely bright; he wrote music of delicate beauty and intellectual suavity that did not aspire to "hand of author" moments any more than he did. He was my best friend, frequent tennis and jogging partner, fellow music-copyist, and co-diviner of the moods of our mentor, Ned. My first night in Philadelphia, he took me to a tiny dive called "RN's" next to the medical college that was to become our favorite haunt (the nurses were really cute and friendly) and, along with composer David Powell, tried to prepare me for life at the Curtis Institute.
On 29 November 1981 we stood together in front of the Academy of Music where we had just heard Bernstein conduct the Orchestra Nationale de France.
"C'mon, that's gotta be him," said Norman, pointing to a pair of figures sharing a smoke on the front steps. The taller of the two was definitely an usher. We recognized him because he admitted us to Philadelphia Orchestra concerts without tickets. The shorter of the two was clearly Leonard Bernstein.
We had attended the concert to meet him. I had memorized the thirty-second story I would deliver backstage when finally given a chance to meet the maestro. The line was long. I rehearsed under my breath as I waited, surrounded by the smell of minks, drinks, stale perfume, cigarette smoke, and sweat: "You wrote my mother a letter," I said. "I'm here in Philly now, studying with Ned. Thank you for helping to make that possible." I reached the front of the line, looked down, and saw a small man with a hairy chest cradling a tumbler of scotch on his belly with one hand, a cigarette in a holder dangling from the other, dressed in a silk smoking jacket, smiling a crooked, toothy smile. Out tumbled my speech.
"Fine," I stammered, "just fine.""Good. Good. Work hard. Write a lot of music. Music needs you," he said. I blushed. "We need you. Come and see me in New York sometime." Big Hug, two beats too long. The minks swept in.
Dec 23, 2010
In the garret top floor classroom of the mansion at 1726 Locust Street sat Ned Rorem with a pink scarf around his neck, draped against the piano as though awaiting his close-up. 15 September 1981, the day we met; the day of my first lesson. Before him on the rack sat the vocal score of my little monodrama Through the Glass, and the full score of Triptych, a sprawling orchestra piece into which I had thrown absolutely everything I had learned, from swooning Debussyian strings to Lutosławski-esque "event boxes;" from tender chorales to slashing climaxes. According to Ned's Nantucket Diary, I was "the new one from Madison, bearded, bright, and seething with a desire to please."
Ned motioned for me to sit down. I watched in silence as he paged slowly through the orchestra piece—minute followed minute, page followed page. (Years later Diamond told me that this was the same hazing that Sessions had given him.) Finally, he jabbed his finger at the same fistful of measures that Catherine Comet had liked and said, "This. This is good. I don't know what to make of the rest."
He turned to the little opera, stretching like a cat. "Do you read?" he asked. "What do you mean?" I asked in return. He motioned at the score. "You've written your own libretto. Don't do that. Yours is pretty good-what I can make of it. You understand words. And I am extremely impressed that you conducted it and stage directed it yourself."
"Thank you," I said. "No. I meant: do you read" he continued, ignoring me. "Fiction, history, biography ... memoirs?" For the next fifteen minutes we talked about literature. "Read my diaries if you haven't already," he commanded. "That will be a good starting place."
Ned may have had in mind a character out of Simenon or Proust, but he seemed to me more like a character out of Balzac. His lisp surprised me; the brutality of his criticism did not. Like most intellectuals, he stated his opinions as fact—I had been brought up to expect that. There was something magnificent about him; he was completely absorbed in his pose. His affectations embarrassed me; his commitment to carrying them off impressed me.
I had just read Philip Roth's Anatomy Lesson in which a character observes: "I know writers. Beautiful feelings. They sweep you away with their beautiful feelings. But the feelings quickly disappear once you are no longer posing for them. Once they've got you figured out and written down, you go. All they give is their attention." Ned seemed to me to be the sort of man who thought he had you figured out within minutes. He obviously wasn't teaching because he enjoyed it; so I intuited right away that I would have to perform, to be extraordinary, in order to get the best from him.
He handed me a sheet of paper on which he had typed Robert Browning's Love in a Life. "Set this to music this week. And set another of your own choosing. Keep the piano part simple. Use an ostinato." He turned his back to me by way of dismissal. "I am coming back to Philadelphia in a week. We'll see one another then. Be a good boy."
Dec 22, 2010
Lake Michigan sprawled to the right, the beautiful, sober Chicago skyline to the left. The 10 October 2007 air was chilly and clean. Happy, I left the Hilton early for a run, stopped and stood, panting, by the Belvedere Fountain, and remembered the night in 1977 when I sat, overcome, having just heard the Chicago Symphony perform Mahler live in Symphony Hall for the first time. I remembered the night in August 1997, when Brow was being revived at the Blackstone Theater a few blocks away: that night I looked out over this spot to Lake Michigan from the Cliff Dwellers Club's terrace and wept with relief that the previous decade of my life—especially the brutally destructive marriage that was the centerpiece of it—was finally over.
After freshening up at the hotel, I walked to the great Adler and Sullivan designed Auditorium Building. Completed in 1889, since 1947 it has been the home of Roosevelt University where, for the semester, I was serving as the Chicago College of the Performing Arts' Composer-in-residence.
I reached the teaching studio I had been assigned and took a seat at the Steinway that filled half of it. Outside the window and only a few dozen feet below, the El rattled northwards in a smooth curve. I sat down to practice. As a form of meditation, I was playing extremely slowly through Bach's f# minor Prelude. My mind alternated between the music, my pregnant wife in New York, and my Father as a young man walking these streets. Sullivan had opened offices on the sixteenth and seventeenth floors of the Auditorium tower. I was teaching only a floor below where Sullivan had mentored a young apprentice named Frank Lloyd Wright.
Some students arrived to perform Dear Youth for me. The talented young woman sang The Picture Graved in My Heart and then burst into tears. "That line kills me," she said. "Which one?" I asked gently. "Oh, the wondrous manly beauty," she said. "I have a brother in the army. I can't stop thinking about him when I sing that line." The pianist and the flute player looked away. "Let's talk about the technique of creating the moment as a singer," I said. "Perhaps that will give you a place to go to keep something of yourself in the moment."
She nodded and I plunged in. "The line should start low and soft as you sing the word 'oh' in a normal voice," I began. "You shouldn't try to project the low C#—it's a pillow-talk intimacy. You should only add volume as your voice moves into your chest while sliding upwards through the minor ninth in a moaning portamento to the fermata-lengthened D."
She sang the line and smiled. "Okay, now what?" she asked.
"A full-voiced throb should enter your voice then, when you can feel the diaphragm beginning to tug because your air is running out. You should feel risk there: the audience intuits that you are running out of air as you shift into your head with the last of your breath; your body and the audience's bodies share not just the reflexive response to the human moan, but the terror of running out of air."
She sang the line a few times. I leapt up and cried, "Yes, yes, yes, can you feel that?" I pressed my hand on her abdomen. "You were scared, weren't you? You were scared you were going to run out of breath. It made me apprehensive, too. That's a good thing." She looked doubtful. "But my teacher tells me that the most important thing is to always sound good," she said, doubtfully. "I know," I agreed. "And that's the rub. Only you can decide what 'good' is. Does Tom Waits' voice sound good to you?" She was silent. "I love Tom Waits' voice," I said. "I love the authenticity of his voice. The challenge is to sound good and to be true to yourself so that you remain authentic. Let's move on."
"The flute should enter just at that moment, matching the timbre of your voice," I counseled. "The wail should pass without fuss, normal voice and diction taking over as a breath is taken and the words 'the wondrous manly' are clearly enunciated ('wondrous' is a word that speaks for itself; it doesn't need any help from the composer or the singer); there you should make a slight stress, a little vibrato on the word 'beauty,' like the woody, thick vibrato you get high on the violin's G string, even a sob, before the last of your air is gone and the line ends, not tapered off, but snuffed out."
The trio performed the song a couple of times, thanked me, and left. A moment later, the singer returned. "Thank you, Mr. Hagen," she said, with a moving urgency. "I love the songs so much."
I sat alone, far from home, and felt emptied. I was too sane to feel as though we were all anything but slightly mad to have gone through the soul-searching of the past two hours. So much energy expended by everyone on a humble little song cycle. The El rattled by. I heard a few bars of Der Winterreise drift up from a practice room one floor below. I needed to walk.
I called my wife, who was looking for a new apartment for us back in New York; we discussed her day as I walked down Michigan Avenue towards the Art Museum. The sun slipped into Lake Michigan. I pulled my blazer closed and hunched my shoulders against the wind. "These were the streets he walked," I thought of Father. Looking up, I realized, "It's the same sky."
I had been commuting to Chicago to make money just as Father had forty years earlier. Since I had never seen the place he worked all week long as our family grew further and further away from him, I decided to walk the same route that he (he too preferred the Hilton) used to. I reached the intersection of Michigan and Wacker Drive and turned left, followed the Riverwalk to Clark Street, turned right and crossed over the Clark Street Bridge. On my right, the tall glass and steel building that once housed the American Bar Association thrust up into the sky like a knife.
Dec 14, 2010
Next door to The Curtis Institute stood the once magnificent, still dustily opulent Barclay Hotel, home to Eugene Ormandy and his wife. The almond mauve, curtained dining room was appointed like an interior from Visconti's film of Death in Venice crossed with the funeral parlor in Tony Richardson's film of The Loved One.
"Oh my," Gian Carlo Menotti said, dipping his nose into a second martini, "the two of you boys have gotten me tipsy!" Curtis had arranged for Norman and me to take Gian Carlo out to lunch on 12 December 1981 following a rehearsal by Joseph Silverstein and the school orchestra of his Violin Concerto. "So what would you like to know?" he asked, taking a seat and wiping his lips delicately with a napkin.
During the fifties his operas had been awarded two Pulitzer Prizes-one for The Consul and one for The Saint of Bleecker Street. An Italian by birth who, despite retaining his Italian citizenship, proudly referred to himself as an American composer, he wrote for NBC the infectious Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, along with two-dozen other operas.
"Opera," Norman said, "we've got to talk about opera." "Right," I agreed. "Why don't we talk about la parola scenica?" I asked. "Ah," Gian Carlo smoothed the tablecloth with his long fingers as though creating a space, "you are referring to Verdi's phrase-well, let me tell you...." He began with Verdi, pinpointing the key phrase of music in his favorite scenes; then he moved on to Richard Strauss. His description of collaboration was trenchant: "A stage director looks at a scene one way," he began. "The composer looks at the scene in another way. The librettist sees it a third way. The composer must craft a scene so clear in intent that all three are compelled to agree."
Dessert demolished, coffee drunk, Gian Carlo called for fruit. Eyes twinkling, he said, "Boys, I know that you invited me to lunch. But this is my hotel, and I have already told them to charge it to my room." He raised his hand peremptorily. "Don't spend your money on an old man; spend it on something fun."
After making us promise to remain in touch, he rose gracefully from his chair and glided out of the dining room. Deprived of his gravity and glamour, we felt like men in a lingerie shop, surrounded by elderly Ladies Who Lunch poking at their salads and stout executives tucking into their steaks. I slipped a pear into my jacket pocket on our way out. Walking down Locust Street, Norman and I were pleased to have unanticipated mad money in our pockets. "I feel..." I began. "...As though the world..." Norman continued, patting first his tummy and then his wallet. "...Is our Oistrakh," I completed.
Dec 14, 2010
Whether they were trained at the Curtis Institute or the School of Hard Knocks, on a Broadway Accompanists' Bench, or by Peering into a Moviola, every composer thinks that they can write a great opera. Some have. Most haven't.
At fifty, after having composed eight operas (and hours of symphonic works, ballets, chamber music, and song cycles), I've Merrily and Not-So-Merrily rolled through my "Hills of Tomorrow" phase, my "Franklin Shepard, Inc." phase, and passed through to the other side-to what happens after the curtain falls.
That's when I realized that the more that I think I know about music, about theater, about the union of words and music, about what a dramatic beat is, the more arrogant I am. I've learned to mistrust actors' tears (and my own). I've found humility as an author, standing at the back rail of theaters, looking out over an audience, and taking their pulse, riding on it, as they ride the pulse of the show itself. Or not.
The night that I finally knew that I had arrived (in my own mind, at least) as an American opera composer was 8 May 2010.
Commissioned by Seattle Opera, my seventh opera Amelia had taken-from first sketches to the night of its premiere at the McCaw Opera House in Seattle-nearly six years to compose. The culmination of my life to that point as a composer, Amelia was about to be launched with a 3.6 million dollar production by one of America's largest companies.
Alone, it had been part of my job to walk nearly every foot of McCaw during rehearsals, in order to ascertain what the audience would hear and see from every angle. I had "infiltrated" the theater just as I had the vast old Oriental Landmark movie palace of my youth. The dream of being a world-class opera composer that I had formulated there thirty-two years earlier, lying on the Oriental's stage on my back with a heap of musty safety curtain beneath my head, fingers interlaced at the nape of my neck, watching films from behind the screen, had become reality.
From where I stood in my tuxedo at the orchestra pit's rail, looking up into the slowly filling 2800 seat theater, it looked as though the house had sold out. The seats formed a wine dark sea of plush red velvet.
The susurrus of the audience's pre-performance chatter washed over me. Happy, confident, I turned my back on the audience, looked into the pit, reached down, and shook the concertmistress' hand. "Thank you, Emma," I said. "My pleasure, really," she smiled, returning to her seat. Classmates from conservatory days now members of the Seattle Symphony looked up and smiled; I waved and smiled in return, grateful.
I glanced down at the opera's full score on the conductor's podium. Amelia was my sixth opera, so I performed a private ritual by discretely tapping the wood of the pit rail six times for luck. The jitters came. Turning back to the house, I let out a very long breath.
My very sanity-the way I crafted it just behind my eyes-was on the line: the future, the present, the past, the living, the dead, the imaginary, all coexisted simultaneously in the opera, just as they did in my head. I was sharing not just my vision, but also my truth. The critics would soon slap me down in the morning, but, for now, it was my turn to sing.
I remembered the night before my first Juilliard audition in July 1979. I stood at the lip of the Uris Theater pit, desperate for someone to talk to, and poured out my anxiety about the audition to come and my excitement at standing right where I was during the intermission of Sweeny Todd to its surprised, amused keyboard player.
Reflexively, I turned back to the pit and made eye contact with David McDade, the opera company's chief accompanist, seated behind the piano. He smiled up at me in return, mouthed, "In bocca al lupo" silently. I smiled in return and mouthed, "Crepi!" Chuckling, he gave a little wave and looked back to his music.
In a few seconds, the houselights would go "to half," and Gerard Schwarz would walk briskly to the podium.
I looked back at the audience, and tried to recall the instant that I became aware that music was always flowing through my mind.
Was it the night Father commanded me at age five to sing Friedrich-Wilhelm Möller's saccharine ditty The Happy Wanderer again and again for the only house guests I recall our family ever having entertained? After the first half dozen times, I realized that Father was drunk, and that nobody was listening; in fact, people were embarrassed for me as, crimson with shame, terrified of what would happen to me if I stopped, I sang on and on.
Maybe it was when I was nine, bundled up in winter gear on the school bus, my warm breath as I quietly sang steaming up the window. I sang then because it made me feel better. Does it still? At what point did the melodies I sang become my own? Were they always?
I headed for my seat. Catching my wife Gilda's eye, I nodded, noting with pure joy how dazzling she looked in her opera gown. I took my seat next to her on the aisle-a composer's privilege. My brother, my nephew, and Gilda's generous and loving family surrounded us.
"Am I crazy?" I asked myself as the oboist gave the "A" and the aural primordial soup that a professional orchestra creates in response as they tune before the entrance of the conductor bubbled gently up from the pit. I thought of Monteverdi's Orfeo: "...che tosto fugge, e spesso a gran salita il precipizio è presso."
I adjusted my bow tie and cummerbund. Both were tight. I had come to Seattle to attend rehearsals, revise as necessary, to learn as I always did, by observing the process of discovery, and staging. Wife and son in New York, I had returned to a quasi-feral state during the past six weeks-the debilitating insomnia, the depression, the dizzying mood swings, had all roared back.
I felt lost, alone, and agonizingly overexposed.
I felt the Koi jumping in my stomach. "Do I simply suffer from a peculiar form of Norwegian Lutheran Histrionic Personality Disorder?" I wondered, half-serious, the sweat beginning to pool under my collar. "Is it so important to me that this opera be a success that, even if it is not, I will make it one in my mind?" I had judged colleagues harshly over the years who I felt had "gone around the bend." Perhaps I had finally reached that point myself.
I thought of my 20s, of how I was once jealous of others' self-absorption because I was certain it held-as I believed mine did-secrets of self-knowledge. I assumed that the self-absorbed held, so closely and tenderly, many brave secrets and thoughts that would heighten and illuminate my search for identity. The enormity of deception was due-like my current jitters-to my own arrogance.
As it happened, either these people had checked out, gone benignly insane, or had closed up for sanity-it was as simple as that. At the heart of the Sphinx, through the labyrinthine passages, was the rifled vault of a dead Pharaoh-no more. My frustration and anger were comical. In sadness, I had grown up.
I thought of my infant son Atticus, asleep now in his crib back in the rented house on Queen Anne. We had decided that he was too small to witness the shooting of the Vietnamese girl at the end of the first act. Still, I felt him there with me, seated contentedly on my lap, his fingers curled like a frond around the thumb of my hand, golden hair wild and falling in ringlets on his tiny, strong shoulders. Forever in my mind it will be my boy to whom Amelia coos "Hi, baby" at the end of the opera.
I twisted around and looked up into the balconies, checked my watch, and mastered myself. It was time to let go of my own concerns and to be the professional that I had worked so hard to become. My responsibility was to gauge the effect as an author that the opera was having in real time on the audience around me and to make mental notes of changes I needed to make in order to improve the piece.
"Worrying once again my 'barb of sorrow'," I thought ruefully as the house lights dimmed. I whispered the most fleeting of prayers, squeezed Gilda's hand, and blinked hard as in silence the curtain glided upwards.
Aug 30, 2010
I think of myself as an artist, and know that I have done the work to earn the privilege.
I know that I am able to do what I do because I am protected by others, and because I stand on the shoulders of hardworking immigrants, farmers, laborers, white-collar parents, and mentors. When I was in my twenties, I met many successful fine artists in mid-career. I asked them questions, listened to what they told me with interest, gave them gratitude and respect, and learned from them. I have learned, as most successful artists do, that mentors eventually become competitors, and betray you in the end.
I am a composer. I'm old enough now that younger artists (with whom I have a difficult time relating) seem disinterested in what I do. I make a living writing something called concert music. That means that it is too musically complex to be popular, but also too accessible to nonprofessionals to be deemed academic. I compose not because I hear music in my head nearly every waking moment (I do) but because I write what I hear down and hand it to people to perform.
I am a professional not by design but by default, for three reasons: I prefer to be paid to compose, my identity is so intertwined with the creative act that I find the amateur's sentimentalizing of "inspiration" embarrassing in its naïvte, and I embody the vast effort of making what I do look (and sound) easy. As a person, I have learned (with no regrets) to accept unending financial jeopardy, unceasing hard work, bad reviews, and a growing sense of irrelevance.
Because I also love words, I nearly always associate my own music with the poetry that I love. Despite loving words as intensely as I do, I chose to become a composer. Why? Because music simultaneously means anything, everything—and nothing at all. Because words seem to me to be too easily twisted, too willfully misunderstood, and too easily used against one—as Henry Adams wrote, "No one means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous."
Nadia Boulanger's dying words are supposed to have been, "J'ecoute la musique sans commencement ni fine." What difference does it make whether that music was happy or sad, or even understood? Like life, it is always both, its meaning mostly sensed—we don't really know much about it, we admit, but we know what we like.
I've been told by people who said that they loved me that love isn't enough, but I know that it is. Like music, love streams endlessly on whether we partake of it or not. One hopes, I suppose, that the music of our lives will be, as Mother once hoped mine would be, "mostly happy." In any event, it is only life that ends; the music never stops.
Aug 2, 2010
Life and Death, Good and Evil, Wealth and Extreme Poverty, Man and God, live in very, very close proximity in Latin America. For me, this proximity inspires a heightened awareness of possibility, an intensification of experience that renders emotions more vivid, the appreciation of the fragility of life more sanguine.
Once, in Nicaragua-the birthplace of my wife's mother, a place for which I have profound affection, and to which we return as often as we can-our visit coincided with the weeklong festival of San Sebastian. During the previous week we had enjoyed a horse-drawn coach ride around the colonial city of Granada-a town which has been dressed for wealthy travelers-and boated on the fresh water of Lake Nicaragua-a lake so large that you could drop Puerto Rico into it. We trekked up the paths surrounding the active cone of the Masaya Volcano, made our way through the bustling markets of Masaya and Jinotepe, and spent our last morning in La Boquita on a ten mile walk on the beach to the shore's point (which revealed another point beyond that) at dawn. All the while, we were treated to incredibly lavish and sumptuous meals prepared by our Tia Leyla as well as delicious foods in fine Nicaraguan restaurants. We were treated so wonderfully that our hearts were bursting.
Either it was a discarded bone needle of the sort used by fishermen to repair their nets, or it was a stingray's barb, a rusty nail-whatever, the four inch long espina passed through my wife's foot like a red hot knitting needle through butter when she stepped on it in the Pacific surf.
The patriarch of the family there, Tio Ricardo, is one of the foremost horse trainers in Latin America. The horse is absolutely central to society there not just as a beast of burden, but as a mark of culture and prestige. One day we attended the Ipica-a huge equestrian festival-in Diriamba where $100 workhorses were ridden proudly next to $150,000 show horses. Because of his personal charisma, character, and his talent as a horseman, Ricardo seems to know and be respected by everyone-from the peasant driving his burrow down the street to the President of the country, Enrique Bolaños, to whom we were introduced at one of the house parties that Tio and Tia brought us to during the festival. We were honored that the president took time not only to meet Gilda, Chris and myself, but also to have an actual conversation with each of us.
She turned chalk white, one foot out of the water, the other in. 'Don't move, I said.' 'I don't know what it is,' she said. The pain moved across her face like a shadow. I bent down in the waves and felt for her foot as, reflexively, she lifted it.
The festival of San Sebastian celebrates the meeting of the patron saints of Diriamba (San Sebastian), Jinotepe (Santiago), and San Marcos (San Marco). Evidently, statues of San Sebastian and Santiago were en route from Spain when the boat carrying them capsized. Fishermen then found the statues floating in the ocean, dry and safe in sealed boxes, as close to each of their intended destinations as they could have been. The folklore surrounding them is that, with this history, they must be traveling companions, and very close friends. Each year San Sebastian invites both Santiago and San Marcos, as he is from another nearby town, to celebrate with him in Diriamba.
Blood poured out of both the top and the bottom of her foot and into the water, on my hands, all over her suit. I checked the entry and exit wounds. Clean. Tore my shirt off and bound her foot. It staunched nothing. 'I've got to get you to the house. Don't look at the blood,' I said, trying to tie the shirt more tightly.
Citizens from each town carry the statues from Diriamba, Jinotepe and San Marcos to Dolores, a town in the middle of all three Saints' homes, where the three meet and then parade back to Diriamba. A huge Mass is celebrated in the basilica there and everyone processes, carrying the saints' statues, accompanied by extravagant, beautiful dances and music. Children as young as four years old, all dressed up in elaborate costumes and throwing themselves into the moment; faithful of all ages walking on their knees to fulfill promises to the saints; the incredible smells of fresh-and delicious-festival foods like picadillo, chicharrón, yuka, and nacatameles as well as of horses, people and the spent gunpowder of fireworks-all overwhelm.
'I'm okay,' she protested. 'I can walk.' Putting weight on the foot, she nearly passed out. I looked back at the house, across a finger of water and far up the beach. There was no one for three hundred yards in any direction. 'I'm going to ferry you, baby,' I said.
We attended Mass in the choir loft above the front door of the basilica with several priests, and five or six members of the family, leaning over the rail and looking down towards the altar. People were packed tightly in as the choir sang. At the appropriate moments in the Mass, probably three thousand voices inside the basilica, another several thousand outside in the square, sang.
'Sit down, brother,' said Chris, as I placed her in the chair on the porch of the little bungalow and he took over. The blood had by that time soaked everything we had on. 'You look like you're going to pass out,' he said, grabbing my arm. 'You should sit down.' My tailbone connected with the ground as I nearly fainted from the sprint up the beach.
The cardinal finished, the procession began. The statues of the saints, covered in ribbons and silver Milagros were carried down the central aisle, preceded by dancers, huge waving flags, drummers, and flute players. The basilica shook and I felt what it is like when air itself trembles. Deafening fireworks exploded outside, thousands sang, and-a few feet away from us in the belfries-the bells began to peal.
Now that she was safe, my mind began to fly off like a kite whose string had broken. 'Like stigmata...' I shuddered, trying to steady myself by looking out to sea. The fist around my heart seized. Blood still pulsed from the wound, but her color was returning. 'Kierkegaard called it-what was it?-a barb of sorrow?' I was joining my wife in shock. 'If it is pulled out, I shall die,' I remembered. 'Why couldn't I accept this dissonance as simply as harmony; why couldn't I make order emerge from this chaos?' This was being alive.
Every hair on my goose-bumped arms stood on end in the heat as the procession passed out of the church through the doors below. I was guided to a rope and allowed to help toll the bells. Flying a dozen feet up and down, drowning in the sound of the singing, of the bells, of the blood pounding in my head, I looked first one way to see waves of people reaching up to touch the saints as they passed in the plaza, then another to see the enormous Christ hanging above the altar, hands and feet nailed with barbs of sorrow to the Holy Rood, then another to see the huge clappers inside the bells, then another to see my wife's ecstatic face as she sang, and then another to see the bullet holes pocking the belfry's inner walls.
Jul 5, 2010
New Berlin, Wisconsin, winter 1969. It was very late. Rain tore down through the thick forest surrounding the Big Cedar House the way that it does in Nicaragua—like machetes whacking at the branches. I was eight. Britt was ten. Through the picture windows I could see the trees flailing in the wind, black and white except for when the lightning turned them a lurid, verdant green. I realized that the basement would flood again tonight—if it hadn't already. Father was out of control. We lay very still in the dark, listening as he hurled pots and pans around in the kitchen downstairs.
The crashing stopped. The rain slapped in sheets against the windows with a sound that I now associate with someone slapping change down on a bar. I wondered what had happened to Kevin, whose bedroom was directly across from the kitchen and who had doubtless been in the middle of it. I knew that we were next. Neither of us had the faintest idea what we had done wrong. Britt whispered in the dark, "When he gets here, stand behind me." My beagle, Cinnamon, curled between my ankles, poked her head up, and cocked her ears.
The door flew open. Cinnamon scrambled under the bed. "Get up, Goddamit," Father roared at me. Britt pulled his knees up to his chest and curled into fetal position. Father grabbed him and pulled him out of bed. He thudded to the floor and then sprang suddenly to his feet. He glared his defiance at Father, balled his tiny fists. I was too scared to cry.
I pulled myself to my feet and stood next to Britt. He put his arm around my shoulder. I looked up at Father. His small, yellow teeth clenched the stem of his pipe so hard that it seemed to vibrate. His eyes were wild. His face was distorted, beet red. The sheer volume of his emotion hit me like a wave. It was overwhelming. I began trembling violently. My flannel pajamas were wet. I shivered. I had peed myself.
He raised his hand above his head. It moved as though encountering enormous resistance. I could tell he wanted to hit something. I bit the inside of my cheek to keep myself from crying. Tasting the blood, I wailed, "Stop it!"
It was as though he had only just noticed I was there, so focused had he been on the playing out of his own emotions. "Stop it. Stop it. Stop it," he yelled back at me, snapping his pipe in two. The word fuck twisted out of his mouth. We stood there looking up at him as he pulled himself together.
He spun around, turned off the lights, slammed the door shut, and stomped downstairs.
Sobbing in the dark, Britt still hugging me, I had an epiphany: it was him not us. We hadn't done anything wrong. It was like flipping a switch. Father never really reached me again.
Britt stripped off my pajamas, pulled out a tee shirt and some underwear, tossed them on my bed. I could see that there were tears rolling down his cheeks, but I knew that to acknowledge them would be to compromise his dignity. I put on the dry clothes and gave him a hug. He shrugged me off. "Do you want to see my booger collection?" he asked, after a few minutes. I was breathless with excitement. "It's right here, on the wall, just behind my bed." I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen.
Apr 3, 2010
Vienna Zentralfriedhof, February, 1990. I first saw The Third Man on 19 December 1978 at the Oriental Theater and, sitting in the dark as the final credits rolled, I made myself two promises: first, that I would visit Vienna, and two, that I would one day turn Graham Greene's novella into an opera. I wasn't Joseph Cotton and this certainly wasn't a film, but I was standing in the spot where Holly leaned against the cart and watched Anna walk away and knew it.
Harry's cosmopolitan, decadent; Holly's provincial, innocent. Holly's naïveté is suspect in itself. It makes his take on morality dangerously simplistic—he's blind to his own hypocrisy. After visiting the children's ward and seeing the horrible end result of Harry's criminal act, Holly's forced to kill him, forced to sacrifice personal loyalty to moral obligation. Although I loved Welles' portrayal of Lime (who wouldn't: the bad guy always gets the best lines—especially if he's a well-read scenery chewer who gets to supply his own!), I am hard-wired to identify with the character of Holly.
Greene ultimately accepted the satisfactoriness of Carol Reed's ending. Reed had crafted something deeper than Greene had intended, perhaps. Certainly, as many film critics have suggested, Anna might be understood to be a stand-in for Vienna, and Holly for the occupying American forces: one must recall that Holly's on his way to the airport and out of her life. Anna's supposed to betray her love (albeit for an evil man) for not just the fellow who killed him, but for a fellow who is about to skip town?
I had come from Venice to pay my respects. Treading the same streets trod once by the west's greatest composers hadn't had the effect on me that I'd thought it would. I was prepared for the place's chiaroscuro of timelessness and decay. But I hadn't experienced the sort of ewigkeit in Vienna that I had hoped for and even expected—the eternal now; instead, I had felt smothered by an eternal and never-to-be-forgotten yesterday.
I spent the afternoon in the Musiker section. Beethoven's monument left me strangely unmoved; Brahms' impressed, but didn't warm me; I felt nothing as I admired Schoenberg's chilly modernist cube; it was Schubert's that squeezed my heart and wouldn't let go. Cold, unexpected tears. Slowly, as the afternoon wore on, everything became grayscale. Snow began to fall.
Broke, I could either copy music in a garret on the Margaretengürtel or on Saint Mark's Place—it made no difference. I'd been living abroad for nearly a year. It was time to go home.
Jan 6, 2010
I resolved to leave Philadelphia on 13 February 1984 while completing a setting of Wallace Steven's poem A Clear Day and No Memories.
Except for the occasional pitch that I checked on the piano, the lovely old brownstone at 2214 Delancey Place was silent. "As if none of us had ever been here before," I sang Wallace Stevens' words under my breath, jotting the notes quickly as I set the poem to music. "And are not now:" I continued, and heard the painfully simple single line Interlude in the piano that followed in my head as I wrote it. I had been composing for over six hours. I was on. I knew I would finish the piece in a few moments.
I heard in my imagination my friend Karen Hale's voice in my mind's ear, singing, "In this shallow spectacle," and raced ahead of her to get the phrase down on paper so that the next could be heard clearly. "This invisible activity," she continued. Ah.
I heard in my mind's ear the final piano interlude that would follow in a couple of bars, ending the piece, skipped ahead, and wrote it down. "This sense." I heard one long note. A critical voice piped up, said, "Nobody will understand the sense of sense if you set it, a one syllable word, on a long note." The other voice asked, "But isn't that the point?" Decision made, I slashed the final double bars down, signed my name, set down the date, sat back, and sighed.
My "farewell piece" to life in Philadelphia, Three Silent Things (a song cycle dedicated to my friends and housemates Karen Hale, soprano, Michaela Paetsch, violin, Lisa Ponton, viola, and Robert La Rue, violoncello, with whom in a few weeks I would première it in Curtis Hall) was done. The last song had flowed out in one stream over the course of the past seven hours.
I rose from the piano and poured myself another cup of coffee, looked out the tall windows of the third floor room facing out on Delancey Place, and saw myself in the windowpane. I toasted my reflection: "To New York," I murmured. "And to ... getting on with it."
My tiger kitten Clara (a gift from composer Kile Smith who named her brother Hendrix) mewed plaintively from her perch atop the piano. I scratched her tenderly behind her tiny ear. No bigger than my fist, she purred appreciatively and went back to sleep.
I slid out into the hallway as quietly as I could. The light had burnt out again. Pitch dark. Michaela began playing the mournful opening phrase of the chaconne of Béla Bartók's Sonata for Solo Violin. An audience of one, I listened through the door.
In the silence that followed, "No thoughts of people now dead," sang in my mind. I continued gingerly down the hall to the steps. "Young and living in a live air." Reaching the second floor landing I heard through Lisa's door Shostakovich's melancholy Sonata opus 147-his final musical thoughts. Time seemed to slow even more. I sat down on the step, placed my head on my arm, listened as the noble, eloquent adagio in memory of Beethoven unfolded.
Silence again. "Today the mind is not part of the weather." Dust suspended in midair seemed to cease its constant random motion. My diaphragm kicked. The music had literally taken my breath away. I gasped. From behind another closed door, Robert began to play the Prelude from Bach's Cello Suite No. 1. Knowing I would leave this place forever, I realized at that moment that it was the most beautiful music I had ever heard.
Dec 31, 2009
Learning How to Be
The ones who are most lonely are those who cling to useless things and, knowing their uselessness, cannot let go.
I realized that I had hit bottom in 1998 and then, worse, was unable to touch the bottom at all, when I dreamed this conversation: 'You know, of course, that you are dead?' asked Charon. 'Oh?' I replied, 'do you recall how I came to die?' 'Yes. You hugged your soul to death. You put your forehead down against one arm and you thought of yourself until you suffocated.' 'Is this, then, my resurrection?' 'No. This is the coroner's report on causation.'
I told myself then that I would stop singing a duet with the past; I would now sing a solo with the present: I would try to regain my sense of self, talk to someone regularly about the depression, rededicate myself to composing.
Soon after Paul Sperry commissioned Songs of Madness and Sorrow, a real-estate transaction involving my landlord and the one across the street in which my downstairs neighbors and I were pawns landed me in a new place on 98th Street, between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive. The apartment was dark (the windows, all heavily-barred, looked out at a three-story-high wall of schist), noisy (it was off the lobby and next to the elevator), and smelly (the exhaust from the laundry room below vented just outside my window). But it was mine.
I am aware of how many friends noted my distress and helped me to climb back to my feet. Don Oliver, a former pupil, ran a Broadway copying house called Chelsea Music; he heard I needed work and was kind enough to find a place for me at one of his desks. The Bandanna commission enabled me to wean myself once more from copying and proofreading. I set to composing it with ferocity. Commissions from old and new friends came over the transom and I sank my teeth into every one of them like a starving animal. Over the course of a year or so, I regained financial and professional viability. As projects came in, were completed, and their premieres happened, the natural rhythm of a working composer's life cycle began to reassert itself. Things were looking up. I was no longer baling with both hands; my craft was seaworthy.
Between 1998 and 2001, I composed a fanfare for the Madison Symphony, several band pieces for Michael Haithcock and the Baylor University Winds, a Third Symphony for the Waukesha Symphony, an overture called Much Ado for the Curtis Institute's 75th Anniversary, an hour long cantata for chamber orchestra, children's voices, and tenor called Light Fantastic for the Ohio Opera Theater, a Serenade for the Oakwood Chamber Players, Phantoms of Myself, a song cycle for Ashley Putnam, an Oboe Concerto for Linda Donahue and the Waukesha Symphony, an overture called Suddenly for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and Larkin Songs, a song cycle for Paul Kreider commissioned by the University of Nevada Las Vegas; the Knoxville Symphony commissioned Advance, the New Mexico Symphony and the Buffalo Philharmonic commissioned Seven Last Words, a left concerto for Gary Graffman, and a four movement suite celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Yaddo called Angels was premiered by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
I began teaching again (but only as a visiting artist) with stints at Princeton, Baylor University, Miami University in Ohio, and the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I began accepting conducting invitations: the Madison Symphony, the cast recording of Bandanna, Ohio Opera Theater. I also began seriously collaborating as a pianist again, with Ashley, Paul Sperry, and other singers, and cut my first disc as a pianist, accompanying Paul Kreider in an all-Hagen recital. Returning to serious, disciplined practice for the first time in years helped to restore my confidence as a pianist in particular, as a musician in general.
I had decided that it was for other people to have children and fulfilling personal lives; I would continue on as I had now proven to my satisfaction that I could, and successfully so, composing, conducting, playing the piano, entirely focused on work. Excellent projects were in the offing. One afternoon, during jury duty-a nasty capital crime-my appendix flared. It was the first sign that, although I had retaken control of my life, I wasn't living a healthy one.
During a telephone conversation one day with a friend I'd known for years I began to realize that my proud 'solo with the present' was a pathetic, selfish, and lonely thing. I appreciated this friend's excellence the way that one acknowledges the sun as a crucial natural resource. She had observed from a distance the sad disarray of my personal affairs and the effect that it had had on me. An accomplished artist herself, she did not judge me, seemed to accept me as I was, offered wise counsel, understood more about me than I did, and respected me enough not to try to fix me. The simple joy I derived from our friendship inspired a reawakening to the art of direct, caring conversation. Talking to her was-and has remained-like standing on the deck of the Staten Island Ferry on a cold winter morning, leaning into the wind, looking towards Manhattan as it nears, holding in one's bare hands a freshly-baked, warm loaf of bread; wholesome, nourishing, healthy, and good.
A few months later, during another conversation, she revealed an injustice that she had just endured and I suddenly-and completely unexpectedly-felt a violent wave of protectiveness surge through me that I had never, ever felt before. I recognize it now as a physical symptom of my rejection of Sartre's nausée, the reawakening of my soul to the epistemic possibility of actual happiness, the crushing out of 'selves' into one 'self.'
I was astonished when it became clear to me that I had fallen in love with my wife, the finest person I have ever known. There was no haste in our courtship, because we felt as though there was all the time in the world. We dated for a year (traditionally and respectfully); then we became engaged for another year; finally, we lived together for a year before marrying. My wife led me back to being alive, and chained the Black Dog.
Returning to Bellagio after a decade for a second residency at the Villa Serbelloni, it was as though everything I recalled in black and white and from a distance was now close up and in color. This transformation has extended to every facet of my life, including my music.
In 2001 a pack of madmen brought the Towers down. Composer and pianist Craig Urquhart reminded me of what Bernstein had written, 'this will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.' This would be my response, between 2001 and 2006: a requiem for AIDS victims called We're All Here (chorus and mixed ensemble); a Chamber Symphony for the Albany Symphony; a brawny, brainy set of piano variations for the extraordinary Ralph Berkowitz; a second flute sonata; a skit for the National Symphony called Susurrus; a sprawling anti-war cycle for baritone and string quartet on Auden poems for Paul Kreider and the Amernet String Quartet; a one act opera (written as part of a second stint on the faculty of the Princeton Atelier) called The Antient Concert with a libretto by Muldoon; a double concerto for Flute and Cello for Jeffrey Khaner, Sara Sant'Ambrogio, and the Albany Symphony; a song cycle for treble chorus and string quartet called Flight Music, based on Amelia Earhart's last flight, and written for Present Music and the Milwaukee Choral Artists; Sappho Songs, for two female voices and cello; and the first of a trilogy of one act operas about life in New York called New York Stories.
Between 2006-2008, I completed Amelia, wrote the second and third acts of New York Stories, Symphony No. 4 for chorus and orchestra for the Albany Symphony, a triple concerto for the Amelia Piano Trio and a consortium of youth orchestras, a double concerto for Jaime Laredo and Sharon Robinson to play with the Sacramento and Vermont orchestras, two more piano trios, another fanfare for brass, a suite for piano for the Van Cliburn competition, various small choral works, and the first sketches of my eighth opera, Little Nemo in Slumberland, for the Sarasota Opera.
From the beginning, we knew that we wanted to have a child. We emerged from the cave on 98th Street after six years and moved into a cheerful, sprawling Pre-war apartment overlooking Broadway in Hamilton Heights. The place is large enough to raise a family, bright enough to feel the heat of the sun rising as I play in the music room with my son every morning, dedicated to the proposition that these moments of bliss can and should be sustained, blown on like a taper, encouraged, cherished. I am not accustomed to remaining in the moment, but I am trying to learn.
Because of these moments I have come to understand Roethke's poetry more deeply, and why it has always meant so much to me: there was a man who understood depression who undertook the task of braiding together his past and present lives in an effort to bridge the distance between a child's consciousness and the mysteries of adulthood. As I sit drinking my coffee and watching my son (now 22 months old) play with his toy bus, I savor the sound of his voice as he sings. He has an excellent sense of pitch, and occasionally goes to the piano to depress a key. At that moment he invariably looks to me, expecting me to match the pitch, which I do. Delighted, he goes back to his toys, and back to his own singing. He doesn't just repeat the songs he has been taught; he improvises upon them.
Recently a recording of my piano trios was released. The first two were written during the eighties; the second pair during the past several years. He becomes clearly agitated when one of the first two are played, points to the speakers, shakes his head 'no-no-no,' until I switch to one of the second pair. All were written by the same composer, but a different man. One is not his father; the other is. How can he tell the difference?
I retain a vivid memory of being nine, bundled up against the winter cold on the school bus, my warm breath as I quietly sang, steaming up the window. I sang because it made me feel better. It still does. At what exact moment did the songs I sang become my own?
I think of the terracotta sculpture of me for which I recall sitting for my mother during the previous summer, observing and learning how to be as my form slowly took shape beneath her expressive hands, listening to the shrill metallic burr of the dog-day cicadas mingling with the purling of Paganini Violin Concertos as she worked. I only intuitively understood the lessons she was teaching me as a child; it wasn't until my wife helped me rediscover them that I have begun to understand them. Certainly, my son's earliest memories will be of the sound of his mother's beautiful voice, singing to him. Possibly they may also include playing with his toys beneath the piano in our music room, the susurrus of rainy-day traffic five floors below on Broadway accompanying the strains of Amelia, emerging warmly from the piano above him as I composed.
I am happy.
I now sing a duet with the future: my son will be seated next to me on Amelia's opening night; my wife, talented composer, visual artist, vocalist, educator, and mother, will be seated on his other side. I am doing the best, most grown-up work I have ever done. I have hopes for it. My operas have always been about what concerns me in life. Amelia is no different: the eponymous character, a person who has lost her most beloveds, dreams herself back to health, with the help of her family (quick and not), and her imagination (Icarus, Daedalus), and gives birth for the first time, embraces life in all its glory. That is Amelia's story and it is mine. I, like Amelia, had to learn how to be.
Most days, after playing together for an hour or so, changing, and having breakfast, my boy and I walk together hand in hand to the park. There is a sandbox there in which he delights in scooping up fistfuls of sand, laughing as he watches the grains pour back to the ground through his fingers, and out of his grasp, like receding memories, or half-forgotten tunes. I find not the sifting moving, but his laughter as he watches it happen.
'I was lost,' sang Captain Vere in Billy Budd, 'on the infinite sea, but I've sighted a sail in the storm, the far-shining sail, and I'm content. I've seen where she's bound for. There's a land where she'll anchor forever.' These words and the music to which they are married first brought me to tears as a young child. I thought of them this morning, standing to the side in the park as my boy collected interesting stones for me, just as at his age I collected them for my mother, stacked them on the railing next to me, and beaming as I cooed over each.
My little far-shining sail.
Dec 3, 2009
I moved to New York in September of 1984, took a room in an apartment at 467 Central Park West being sublet by the painter Charlotte Hastings on the advice of composer Rick Baitz. We had met at Yaddo earlier that summer, along with novelists Laura Furman and Lynn Freed and poet Gardner McFall, all of whom-along with essayist Nora Sayre until her death-have remained my lifelong friends.
I was an industrious diarist during the eighties, filling thousands of pages in a tiny cramped hand with descriptions of meals with all sorts of interesting and famous people from the worlds of art, music, and literature, accounts of the consumption of an enormous amount of culture: theater, concerts, and the ballet. There are long transcriptions of heart-to-heart talks with colleagues about art. Inspired by Balzac's novels (which I worshipped), I suppose I wanted to portray myself as the ultimate New Yorker: creative, urbane, witty, caustic, immensely well-informed, successful, and attractive.
I had thought to use those diaries as the basis for a description of 'my New York' during the eighties, but in flipping through them I find that the experiences of the nineties have made me disinterested in regurgitating those days in any detail: people I loved dearly and haven't thought about in decades are described in vivid detail, situations best forgotten are revisited, some of the most vicious things that people who are these many years later my friends told me about myself are carefully preserved. I don't view the New York I knew then as some sort of Sodom to which I must not look back. Rather, it served more as an island in the River Acheron.
Six years after throwing up in the bathroom at Juilliard and being shooed back by Diamond, Persichetti, Carter, and Babbit to Wisconsin with my tail between my legs, I had returned and entered graduate school there as one of David's students. My contemporaries were a talented bunch: Richard Danielpour, Lowell Liebermann, Behzad Ranjbaran, Kenneth Fuchs, and Laura Karpman, to name a few. During the three years I attended classes there, I never once set foot in the building to socialize. I didn't like the claustrophobic physical layout of the place itself. I did not take pleasure or satisfaction in being a Juilliard student, though I did learn an enormous amount. While I was a Juilliard student I so kept my distance from others that most people thought that I still lived in Philadelphia.
I had in fact become a dedicated, proud New Yorker.
My most treasured New York activity: running around my adored Central Park Reservoir, the pleasing exactitude and physical satisfaction of accomplishing 3.2 miles each day, the periodic small-talk with Albert Arroyo, the 'Mayor of Central Park,' while stretching, the ritual of saying a little prayer while rounding the northeast corner followed by the perennial exhilaration of greeting Gotham by looking south over my left shoulder towards Midtown over the glittering water and chuffing loudly, season in and out, as above the trees sough and whisper.
I remember the familiar rhythm of the concert season itself, rides on the Staten Island Ferry every few weeks just to admire the skyline from the harbor, hours spent studying in the Hungarian Pastry Shop and, across the street, at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine; concerts attended grudgingly that turned out to be life-changing, the satisfaction of reading the Sunday Times on Saturday night, the smearing of time that would occur when walking down streets that I had not visited in several years, only to see soaring new buildings already showing signs of weathering where once a favorite mom-and-pop diner once stood. I remember the African American preacher who spent every day walking up and down Broadway shouting 'Hosanna' to passersby, having achieved a delirious, semi-ecstatic state through exhaustion and hyper-ventilation; the fellow who for years entered subway cars on the Seventh Avenue Local wearing a colander on his head who would wave a broken saxophone in front of him and announce 'I am the saxophone player from outer space. Money makes me go away!' The stress and challenge of substituting as a pianist in the pits of Broadway shows, the snarky pleasures of playing in piano bars, or the long hours spent working as a music copyist. The walks from the Bronx to the Battery down Broadway, just because I had the time and loved the City. And work, constant, daily, reassuring, inspiring, and exciting, because it was new, and because it was in New York.
Between 1984 and 1990, I composed my First Symphony for the Philadelphia Orchestra, a birthday tribute to Leonard Bernstein called Grand Line for the Denver Chamber Orchestra, a ten minute skit called Heliotrope, commissioned by ASCAP to celebrate its 75th Anniversary and premièred by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and my Second Symphony, which was premiered in individual movements at first, by the Saint Louis Symphony, the Milwaukee Symphony, and the Oakland East Bay Orchestra. I wrote a long ballet for the Juilliard Dance Division, commissioned by Muriel Topaz, Jacob Druckman's wife, called Interior. Chamber works included my first two piano trios, my first string quartet, first flute sonata, flute quintet, harp trio, and a trio called Jot! for clarinet, marimba and piano for the New York Youth Symphony; solo works for violin, viola, cello, and piano; a Walt Whitman Requiem for chorus and string orchestra, and a dozen or so choral works for various churches.
During the fall of 1989 I moved to France. At first I lived at the Camargo Foundation, in Cassis, having sublet my apartment on Saint Mark's Place to one of my students, and cavalierly sprung at the last moment on the chair of the music department at Bard College, where for five years I had been teaching part time, the news that I wasn't coming back in the autumn. 'How long will you be gone?' she asked. 'Forever,' I vowed, savoring the idea. 'Well, let's take it one semester at a time,' she answered. 'I'll find someone to take your place. Just let me know in a few months whether you'll be back.'
During those years I kept a stopwatch and set it each morning to tick off eight hours. Every day I either composed, copied parts, or played the piano until the time had run out. If I stopped to take a walk or go to the bathroom, or eat, I'd halt the countdown. The idea was that, no matter what, each day shall have included eight hours of work.
The Camargo Foundation's composer studio then had for some reason the complete Noel Coward vocal scores, as well as nearly the entire major operatic canon, including Strauss. I had the oddly pleasurable experience of reading through every one of Coward's revues and operettas, from London Calling to Cowardly Custard. If it is true that he read not a note of music, he either had an incredible (unnamed) arranger or a suavity at the keyboard which makes his piano parts play the way butterscotch tastes: if ever there is a chord where an extra finger is likely to fall on an extra chord tone by accident, more like as not, it will be thrown into the chord, the way that a pianist might indulge at the end of a long evening spent covering standards in flattening his hands and 'filling things out.'
It was by reading through Richard Strauss operas at the piano during that time that I learned that they were in fact 'arrangements,' so difficult is it to disentangle the chords running through them from the web of exquisite counterpoint that the orchestra so deliciously churns out, page after page. Otto Singer's 'arrangement' of Der Rosenkavalier, for example, made me develop the score-faking chops that admiration, fear and respect for my score reading teachers never allowed me as a student to develop. After awhile, my hands learned that every key has a geography to it on the keyboard, that, more often than not, once one really internalizes the fustian weave of counterpoint in Strauss vocal scores, they are actually pretty easy to 'put over.'
Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Wolfe all were devoured during my first few months in France. I'd make a huge salad in the morning with greens scrounged from the farmer's market - all slightly over; the vendors would give them to me for free at the end of the day. I was lucky; I read all three authors before it was too late. I'd then end each day by writing in my journal for an hour or so. A few years ago, I slogged through that river of words. It now strikes me as the worst sort of pabulum. Nothing I wrote then interests me now.
I returned to New York briefly during this period to attend the Brooklyn Philharmonic's premiere of Heliotrope in the Great Hall of the Cooper Union. Before the concert I had a conversation with Lukas Foss, who was conducting my piece. He told me that he understood why I had written it, but that few colleagues would. 'You've written music about music,' he said. 'People rarely understand these sorts of pieces or give them much credit.' He was proud of me for having left New York and counseled me to return to Europe as soon as possible. 'You have plenty of time to work on your career,' he said. 'Read, fall in love, practice, and learn the repertoire.'
After Camargo, I lived off of the commission fees that had come when I completed and submitted the works composed over the previous six months. I worked for cash as a busboy in a seafood restaurant in the evenings, ate dinner for free with the owner and his staff. Most days I spread the International Herald Tribune and Le Monde side by side on a table at a library to work on my French. I'd walk for several hours, and then settle in each afternoon at my regular table at a waterfront café in Marseilles. I undertook the reading of my mother's nicotine-stained 1934 Random House edition of À la recherche du temps perdu, comparing it to the French language edition I'd just purchased, as slowly the coolly amused waitress dropped ripped receipts, lifted franc notes from the little pile in front of me, stacked saucers, and kept the coffee coming.
I had only the clothes in my backpack. I arrived in Venice for what I thought would be a day trip; I ended up living there for months. I thought I'd never leave. On a lark, I decided to hop a train to Vienna. The actuality of being rootless finally caught up with me while I was walking along the Margaretengurtel: I hadn't composed in months, and there was nowhere I had to be. No matter how many epiphanies I chronicled in my journal, I was basically just a bum.
A treasured former pupil has for several years kept an apartment in Beijing; his beloved lives in Berlin; he returns to the States for business and family visits. We have never discussed what it feels like to be an expat. I find that I am no longer curious. 'An artist,' a close friend counseled back in the eighties, 'is an outsider to begin with. The idea that you can be an expat nowadays is sentimental and misguided.' The night before my conversation with Lukas, I met with Frances Richard. 'You just want to think of yourself as an expat,' she said, entirely sure as always that she had my number. 'You don't actually want to have to live there.' She was wrong. I wanted to live somewhere; I just wasn't sure where anymore.
Standing in the Piazza San Marco very early in the morning on a December day in 1989, bathed in that insalubrious, marrow-chilling, surgically gray mist that seems to simultaneously rise from and fall into the canals, I thought about a morning a few months earlier back in Manhattan when I'd risen and descended to the Korean deli in my bathrobe carrying a coffee mug in order to buy a Times and a scone, only to be tackled by a handsome young coked-out Captain America-type arbitrageur looking behind him waving a hundred dollar bill at his aggravated cabdriver and thanked God I was here, here instead on this island where I thought I'd live forever.
Psychologically, between September of 1991 and September of 1998, I experienced a gradually deepening depression that I can only compare to Daniel Quinn's version of the 'boiling frog' story: 'If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will of course frantically try to clamber out. But if you place it gently in a pot of tepid water and turn the heat on low, it will float there quite placidly. As the water gradually heats up, the frog will sink into a tranquil stupor, exactly like one of us in a hot bath, and before long, with a smile on its face, it will unresistingly allow itself to be boiled to death.'
Emotionally, the period was a lot like witnessing the sun rise very slowly over a field of icebergs into which one has inadvertently sailed during the night.
Nevertheless, during that period I composed three operas in collaboration with Paul Muldoon: Shining Brow for the Madison Opera, Vera of Las Vegas for the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and Bandanna, for a consortium of over a hundred college bands. For orchestra, I wrote Philharmonia for the New York Philharmonic to commemorate their 150th anniversary, Fire Music for the Long Beach Symphony (for which I also served as composer-in-residence), Built Up Dark for the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra, and my Third Symphony, for the Waukesha (Wisconsin) Symphony Orchestra. For soloists with orchestra, I completed a Concerto for Horn for Soren Hermannson and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, a concerto for Flugelhorn for the Woodstock Chamber Orchestra, and a Cello Concerto for longtime friend Robert La Rue and the American Symphony Orchestra. For orchestra with voices, I wrote Joyful Music and Taliesin, two large-scale works for the Madison Symphony and Chorus, and Stewards of Your Bounty for the Moravian Music Festival Chorus and Orchestra. I penned a surprising amount of vocal music: Dear Youth, a song cycle for soprano, flute and piano, for the Sonus Trio of Baltimore; Lost in Translation, for baritone, oboe, cello, and harpsichord, for Frederick Hammond, the prominent harpsichordist and scholar; a large-scale song cycle based on Muldoon texts called The Waking Father for the Kings Singers; and Merrill Songs, commissioned by William Weaver in memory of James Merrill. Instrumental chamber works included two large works for brass quintet: Everything Must Go! for the brass quintet of the Orchestra of St. Luke's and Concerto for Brass Quintet, commissioned by the University of Wisconsin for the Wisconsin Brass Quintet to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the School of Music; An Overture to Vera for large mixed ensemble for Present Music, in Milwaukee; and the Duo for Violin and Cello. For chorus, I created an album-length suite of Christmas music arrangements, as well as a handful of smaller commissions from large churches around the country for single anthems.
Paragraphs like the previous one are not very interesting to read. I rang those changes just now because-whatever enduring value those pieces may or may not have as works of Art-they saved my life. Well-not the pieces themselves, perhaps, but the process of accepting the commissions, composing them, working with the performers, hearing them premièred, seeing them through publication with their various publishers (at that time, E.C. Schirmer and Carl Fischer), and then moving on to the next one.
During this time I also taught composition and theory for two days each week at Bard College, served several semesters as a sabbatical replacement at the City College of New York for David Del Tredici, taught for several years on the Literature and Materials faculty of the Curtis Institute (teaching composition to non-composers, though I don't know why, except that I was asked and said yes), and for a semester as composer in residence for the Princeton University Atelier, at the invitation of my friend Muldoon and the writer Toni Morrison.
What was the problem?
Depression. Norman was taken by it. Ned says that he struggles with it. The untreated, destructive effect it had on my father destroyed my parents' marriage. After my mother died, he then lost his relationship with his sons to it. My brother Britt succumbed to it; my brother Kevin struggles with it every day. So do I.
I find depression embarrassing to discuss. I am not talking about feeling blue, or even very sad. I am describing a state in which it can be impossible to feel, to sleep, to even function as a person. Being that depressed is not a sign of personal weakness; one cannot simply 'cowboy up' and get on with things-though many people, including myself, do think that that is exactly what they are doing when they don't reveal to anyone else how severe their symptoms really are. Depression is not self-indulgent. Depression is not a competition. Depression is the Black Dog.
Most of the nineties-even episodes that should have been idyllic, like a residency at the Rockefeller Foundation's Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, or working sojourns at Yaddo-were marked by an inability to take pleasure in things, along with every other typical symptoms of depression. If my life was a sinking ship (and I believed that it was) and I was its captain, then, by God, I was going to go down doing my job, composing as prolifically as I could, losing myself in my work.
In 1997, overruling his faculty's recommendation, the president of Bard College denied me tenure; I resigned rather than teach out the rest of my contract. In retrospect, doing so was probably one of the wisest decisions I ever made. I had long outgrown and lost interest in the role in which I had been cast. At the time, however, it felt like a defeat. Having joined the faculty disinterested in Academia and things like tenure, I had allowed myself to be seduced by the steady money and the Idea of tenure into wanting it.
A few days later, Britt telephoned-incoherent for the most part, but clearing for enough brief intervals to tell me that he was sorry that I was going to burn in hell, that he forgave me for having 'defiled' our mother's privacy by having set some of her words to music after she died a few years earlier, and for a host of other things, some imaginable, others not. I couldn't tell what drugs were making him high, only that he was flying and (he said) in an enormous amount of physical and mental pain. 'If I check into the hospital, with my immune system compromised the way that it is, I know I'll catch pneumonia and die ... I'm throwing everything away, cleaning my room here at the Hilton so that nobody will have to come and take care of things ... then I'll get a taxi, go to the hospital, and die.' This he did.
'The rewards,' as Aaron Copland said of being a composer, 'are likely to be small from a practical point of view. No money in the bank. No good reviews in the paper the next day. You really have to be strong. By that I mean in the sense that you must be sure that what you are doing is absolutely what you mean to do.... Composing is a lonely occupation, and perhaps there is some advantage in the fact that many composers must add other more social activities to their schedules in order to make a living.'
Although I kept composing (because composers are born, not made, and I really had no choice in the matter), the ability to dream up new projects-key to the freelance composer's ability to survive-had withered away. For the first time in ten years, I wasn't socializing, teaching, listening to music, or attending concerts-all my usual ways of interacting with the world. I had no commissions to fulfill and none in the offing, no money, no teaching jobs, no piano gigs, and a welter of debts that were not my own, but for which I was nevertheless legally responsible.
I was a free man, yes-an individual, forced to decide for myself what is right, not a victim. I possessed the skills to seize emotions and shape them into meaningful musical forms-but to what end? I have always thought, as Roethke said, 'by feeling. What was there to know?' That I could not feel was what frightened me, because while creating music was a confirmation of life, I was no longer feeling anything doing it. Exactly ten years after graduating from Juilliard, I was in hot water, indeed-not in a tranquil stupor, but rather an emotionally paralyzed one.
I got a job at Starbucks and was grateful (at least I was compelled to interact with my coffee comrades) for it.
The great tenor and teacher Paul Sperry wanted to get together to read through the pile of songs that had gathered on his piano-submissions from composers young and old who were either looking for him to premiere them, commission them, or get them out to his talented students. 'I can't,' I said, 'I have to go to work.' 'What are you doing these days?' he asked. When I told him, he was shocked. 'That won't do,' he said. 'I'll commission something. Come on over and we'll discuss it.'
Paul wrote me a check on the spot (in much the same elegant manner that Bill Weaver, after a delicious dinner at his place in the Village, once asked me to write on a piece of paper what I would like to compose Merrill Songs and simply wrote me a check for double the amount and slid it back across the table) and I wrote for him Songs of Madness and Sorrow. I shall be forever grateful to him for the lifeline that he threw me at a time when I was going slowly under while baling with both hands, no shore in sight.
Dec 1, 2009
I remember my older brother now not as he saw himself or as he sought to be perceived by his brothers or friends but as our mother saw him: nine years old, tender-hearted, small fists stubbornly balled at some injustice, fearsomely witty, intelligent, profoundly able to give love and even more hungry to receive it, back turned to the dark and for some unknown reason already the proud owner of a bruised heart. He was a willowy boy with long beautiful eyelashes and a smile that began tentative and blossomed almost with relief. When contemplating mischief, that smile was an invitation to disaster. God he could be funny.
Mother loved him best because he needed it the most. Britt, our Father's image, worshipped her. Father loved Britt as much as he loved himself; he hated him the same way. The violent fights between Britt and Father were hair-raising. Britt was little; Father was big. The rest was, while not inevitable I suppose, classic. Mother understood her son as completely as she understood her husband. But she couldn't come between them, and she couldn't be there all the time, or for the rest of his life. And then she was gone.
The lovely young woman who taught Art at Linfield Grade School told Britt when he was ten that he had pretty eyelashes. He came home that day and cut them off. Why? Sometimes, when my son, less than two years old, is testing boundaries, he'll look up at me with an exact replica of Britt's smile and I feel as though my heart could break with love and fear and all the rest.
We had a beagle who during the coldest winter days preferred to relieve herself in the basement next to the furnace where it was warm rather than outside in the snow. During the week, while Father was in Chicago, these little accomplishments accumulated, since nobody went down there anyway and they were easier to clean up once they had dried. Friday afternoon after school and before Father's arrival, Britt was charged with the cleanup. He forgot. Came the Three Taps of Death (father's pipe against his metal ashtray) and the Summons. We were lined up next to the furnace and quizzed. My God he was furious, his pipe fairly vibrating between his small, yellowed, clenched teeth: 'What do you think the neighbors think when they look in the windows and they see the floor covered with shit?' he hissed. The terrified silence was broken by Britt's tiny voice, sincerely looking for the bright side: 'Well, at least they know we didn't do it!' Britt's relationship with Father—and Life—can be summed up in the emotions that filled the ensuing seconds, as Father first raised his hand to strike Britt and then let it fall back to his side as he was compelled to acknowledge the painful absurdity of the situation.
During my first years in New York he wired me hundreds of dollars to help me get by. So did Father. His letters were gorgeous and sad, and his voice in them echoed his favorite authors—Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. He never got past them. There are good people in the world I have never met who loved him and understood him, yet he lived in the same city as Kevin for three years before meeting him for dinner. I loved him so.
He reached out for help in various directions—to the Masons, to the Mormons, to unworthy associates. After awhile he stopped writing, but we spoke occasionally on the phone. The last few conversations he rambled incoherently. And then he was gone.
By the age of forty, when the coroner examined him, he had what she described as 'the largest liver she had ever seen,' that he had cirrhosis, of course, but also all three strains of hepatitis, was morbidly obese, and that the insides of his lungs—he was, like mother, a chain smoker—were in some places black. 'This was slow suicide, and it took him years,' she said.
According to his diary, most of which he destroyed, he spent his last hours doing his laundry so that he would leave a good impression.
Nov 28, 2009
Ferry Me Across the Water
This is what it was like to be inside my head on 27 September 2007.
"You've thrilled me with this opera," Speight had said a few hours earlier. After having pushed with nearly desperate intensity for the past nine months to compose it, I had just finished playing and singing through Amelia's completed vocal score for him. He had green-lit the project. Amelia would take flight. It was a good day. I was relieved, proud, and happy. I strolled from Seattle Opera's rehearsal studios and shops to the Colman Dock, boarded the Bainbridge Ferry.
Mother inspired me to embrace the examined life. Tomchek showed me how deeply committed an artist had to be. Ned taught me by example the personal toll that remaking one's life as fiction levies. Doerf it was who encouraged my already obsessive-compulsive habit of "looping back," of conjoining every experience in real-time to memories, literature, and poetic correlatives.
Consequently, arms draped over the ferry's railing, a rolled-up copy of the vocal score of Amelia in my hand, I was not surprised when the memories and free-associations began. A voice sang to the tune of my own setting of Christina Rossetti's words,
Ferry me across the water, Do, boatman, do.
The boat, engines churning, backed away from the pier, shuddering. Roethke's great villanelle-the one Ned had set and assigned to us to set. The one Norman had set which I had woven into my memorial symphony for him, the one that had over the years become talismanic for me-drifted into my mind. Norman had ended his voyage at the end of a noose.
I looked down at the aquamarine wash. The ferry nosed into the bay. I reached into my pocket and drew out a penny. "For you, Charon," I said, dropping it over the side for remembrance and luck. As the coin fell, the breeze caught it and it seemed for a moment to hang in the air. Father's voice as a young man sang,
If you've a penny in your purse, I'll ferry you,
I pictured him carrying sleepy me over his shoulder to bed and tenderly tucking me in. I thought of him after a few drinks-seething with frustration, looking for someone to belt. So. Angry.
A seagull shot past. I thought of the elegant little birds that dance in the air above the Ravenna-Bellagio ferry. Two trips: the first, like a negative, slogging in 1994 through marriage with Donna; second, vibrant and colorful, happy at last, a decade later, Gilda's intelligent face alight with pleasure as the sycamores flanking the ferry dock blossomed with flocks of startled golden birds when the boat met the pier. This time I heard Mother's voice, singing,
I have a penny in my purse. And my eyes are blue....
You and Father loved one another, I know it, I thought. I don't idealize you, Mother; I don't demonize you, Father. You're both just lost to me.
The waves began to chop. The ferry surged into the middle of Elliott Bay. As a freshly minted New Yorker during the early 80s, I rode the ferry to Staten Island and back every couple of weeks to rekindle my romance with Gotham. Then lunatics brought the Towers down. I stopped riding the ferry. The skyline no longer fed me. It had come to signify the presence that absence makes. An incomplete middle-aged man, I thought, sadly, I just cannot manage to let go of my dead. I haven't finished mourning them.
"How are you, Grandma?" I remembered asking, insipid with wine, from a bar in Marseilles, Christmas Eve 1989. I had run away to Europe for what I thought was forever, but I was still lonesome. "I live in a nursing home. I eat through a tube in my stomach. How do you think I am?" she replied, sensibly. Beat. "I'm living in Europe now," I said, proudly. "Do you think Mama would have liked that?" There was a burst of spooky crackling on the transatlantic line. "I never understood what the two of you saw in living abroad," she sniffed. I tried another tack, reported brightly, "Common Ground is going to be played by the New York Philharmonic." I sensed her bewilderment. "That's nice, honey," she replied. "When are you going to get a job?"The wind stiffened. Shivering, I stepped inside the cabin. It hadn't been Grandma's voice; it had been M's, singing,
So ferry me across the water,
Do, boatman, do!
Letting go with a sigh, I recalled the feeling, just before dawn in Venice, in December 1989, of being lost in Dante's "dark wood." Left to my own devices, bereft of guidance, I had spent hours walking in circles. I was hopelessly lost. Finally, I dropped lire into the mouth of a broken payphone. She had left me, but she was still my heroin, and I needed to hear her voice. My shoes sloshed in the icy Aqua Alta. The heavy lire fell.
I heard a whirr, a click, and then a connection. Someone spoke French. It was her new lover. Disgusted, I threw the receiver at the phone as hard as I could and turned away. More stumbling around in the darkness, soul-sick. More crossing my own path, bathed in cold sweat. I was in withdrawal from her! At last, I made the Fondamente Nuove. I slipped on the stone pier and landed on my hands and knees in the water. The wind off the Adriatic slapped seawater on my face. I shook my head and opened my eyes, wide. Rainbows suddenly haloed the harbor lights. I saw stars. Quickly, I closed my eyes and rubbed the saltwater out of them, hands cold. When I opened them, I looked up, and again saw stars, but this time strewn crazily across the sky, making up the diadem of the Milky Way. It felt as though someone had punched me in the stomach, hard. Suddenly, I heard nothing, and couldn't breathe. My ears began to buzz. I looked down at the stones of Venice. Breathe! I thought. Why not just crawl, right now, into the sea? Do I even have the courage to pull it off? Hell, I already feel like I'm drowning. A strange voice sang,
Step into my ferry boat, be they black or blue....
I blacked out for a moment, but my diaphragm bucked like a startled horse and I suddenly heard the keening of the wind, the slapping of the waves, the sound of a harbor bell, crazy, bouncing across the water. I exhaled. I dragged air in, whether I wanted to or not. I got to my knees. I screamed. My diaphragm reflexively clawed another breath. My head pounded. I got to my feet, fell back against the wall, and looked north: there was San Cristoforo. Christ, it looks like the Canaletto, only with no lights on. I heard myself giggle weirdly and realized that my teeth were chattering. Enough, Goddammit, I swore. I curled my fingers into claws and shook them, then wrung them, and then shook them as fists, growling with frustration, anger, sadness, futility, and loneliness. So much so, I thought. I sang,
And for the penny in your purse...
The moment passed. I stuffed my hands in my pockets and found ₤7000-about five bucks-enough for two shots of cheap rye at an all-Nite bar. I drank, and then put my head down on the bar and slept there for a while.
When I woke up, the sputtering fluorescent lights on the floating dock outside the bar buzzed B-flat as I boarded the first vaporetto of the day. I rode free, was ferried around Venice for a couple of hours in my sleep. In time, after the sun had risen and the seats were needed, the captain who had been watching over me awakened me at the Venezia Santa Lucia. I boarded the first train to Vienna, and began what would become the twenty-five-year-long journey back from the furthest I probably ever got from home.
And for the penny in your purse...
I sang, disembarking at Bainbridge and boarding the ferryboat back to Seattle. Wanting alcohol, instead I bought a cup of coffee-one of those blue ones with the Greek lettering on it; one like the one I had been given by the stray girl years before when I, stretched to my limit, had thrown up into the fountain at Lincoln Center. The liquid was the color of skin, I thought, blowing on it. I stood in the bow and leaned into the wind. Soon, the Seattle skyline slid into view.
I remembered watching James Holmes die. I remembered watching Mother die. I remembered saying goodbye to Britt on the telephone knowing that within hours he would be dead. I remembered cradling Norman's head as he screamed, "For Christ's sake my head will just not stop hurting." I remembered Father reaching tenderly into Uncle Keith's casket to cover his eyes with coins. My brothers Kevin and Britt sang, in thirds,
And for the penny in your purse...
Rossetti's poem is about Charon, but it must be the Acheron, not the Styx-yes? And is the other character Euridice? "Drunken Noonan as Amelia Earhart's Charon," I mused. "Or James at Yaddo, ferrying Yaddo guests in the company station wagon from the Saratoga train station to the Otherworld-."
A drink would do nicely, right about now, I thought; as I sipped my coffee, the Seattle skyline, beautifully, spread its wings before me.
The tempo of my thoughts accelerated again as it arranged and rearranged mental correlatives: " -Charon as train conductor, checking Euridice Eva Marie Saint's ticket in Hitchcock's North by Northwest, Cary Grant unknowingly beginning his hero's adventure up the Hudson concealed in the compartment above her." I recalled seeing the film for the first time as a teenager at the Oriental Theater in Milwaukee -.
Enough, I protested. I was powerless to slow or mute my thoughts. The music roared.
"-Or Charon as the solitary commuter I recognized but to whom I never spoke every week for a decade as I sped north to teach at Bard on the same train as Hitchcock's lovers. -Or Charon as bartender, serving a drink to The Hero with a Thousand Faces as he begins his Campbellian journey in the cantina scene of Star Wars. -Or as Bobby in Sondheim's Company, stalled halfway between verses of Corinthians. -Or as the stewardesses (charming Charons-all) on the planes hurtling towards the Towers in the unwritten sequel to Vera of Las Vegas-." Enormously loud, from inside my skull, a three hundred-voice choir belted,
And for the penny in your purse...
It felt like a hot piece of metal behind my eyes. "Enough," I heard myself say, aloud, exhausted, a little scared. "Oh, for God's sake, enough now." A drink will stop it. If I were high, my brain would still race, but I wouldn't care. No. No booze today, I thought. I want to be here.
I pressed my thumbs hard into my eye sockets and concentrated on the sound of the water sliding alongside. I heard the ferry slap, and then embrace Pier 52. When I opened my eyes, through the "stars" I less "saw" than "felt" in my peripheral vision a deliriously happy boy with golden ringlets of no more than three years streak across the deck, trailed by his joyful, loving, and exhausted parents. I remembered another peripheral vision-the evening in summer 1984 at Yaddo when I met the shade of Katrina Trask.
"I will not drink today," I heard myself say aloud.
Nadia Boulanger's dying words are supposed to have been, "J'ecoute la musique sans commencement ni fine." What difference does it make whether that music was happy or sad, or even understood? Like life, it is always both, its meaning mostly sensed-we don't really know much about it, we admit, but we know what we like.
The music in my head began to fade. The craving for booze moved offstage, and to the left. I disembarked the ferry and looked around. Gilda sang, sotto voce, with infinite tenderness, to her pregnant belly,
And for the penny in your purse, I'll ferry you.
It began to drizzle. I concentrated on listening to the sound of the rain. The effort resulted in slowing my pulse. The tempo of my thoughts slowed; the volume of them subsided. The sound of the rain gave way to the characters in Blitzstein's Regina singing "Consider the Rain," and then to a vivid recollection of smoking a cigar, years ago, on the second floor screen porch of the Yaddo mansion, during a summer downpour so heavy that the air was gray. "It's called 'liquid smoke,' Steven Burke had explained as I held the Cuban's heavy smoke in my mouth. Then, the memory of Britt and Mother smoking and talking together on the back porch of the Big Cedar House on a warm summer night: she loved him best, because he needed it the most.
I've been told by people who said that they loved me that love isn't enough, but I know that it is. Like music, love streams endlessly on whether we partake of it or not. One hopes, I suppose, that the music of our lives will be, as Mother once hoped mine would be, "mostly happy." In any event, I thought, only life ends; the music never stops.
I looked into the Seattle sky, opened my mouth, and felt the raindrops fall on my tongue. One last memory came: "Strong, or weak?" gurgled Madame de Lancie as she peered up at me with her sweet, slightly stoned eyes from behind the steaming samovar. "Not so strong," I'd tell her, smiling kindly in return, looking around at the talented children around me in the genteel, slightly threadbare Common Room of the Curtis Institute, and feeling out of place.
The rain tasted sweet. My suit was already completely soaked. There was no point in seeking shelter. It was a good rain. It was a good day. I didn't feel cold. I looked at the spiral bound vocal score of Amelia curled up into a telescope in my hand. Already the rain had caused the notes to run and blur. So it goes, I thought. I couldn't help but smile.
Oct 2, 2009
That Night (2)
I grew up in a big, beautiful, drafty, Frank Lloyd Wright-style cedar house ringed with eight foot high picture windows in New Berlin, Wisconsin into which my parents had poured as much money as they had. My mother was a sculptor, visual artist and writer; she was also a gifted gardener who cultivated dozens of different irises, roses and annuals.
When I was small, Father was the breadwinner; he would leave Milwaukee on Monday mornings and return home on Friday nights, each week slightly more unraveled from the fabric of our family's life than the last. Sometime during the late sixties, my parents—while I, for whom they couldn't find a sitter, waited in the car—went from one Chicago Loop hotel to the next for hours one awful night, looking for her beloved brother, a sensitive, talented visual artist who had taken his life.
Proud, hard-working gardeners, in the summer we would buy bags of cocoa bean shells from the Ambrosia chocolate factory and spread them over the generous, manicured flower-beds. The smell, in the midday sun, was an intoxicating mélange of cocoa and countryside, the aromas of the various flowers mingling with freshly-mown grass.
Mother was a writing protégé of Mari Sandoz at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. After serving as a radio man in the Navy, Father courted her there, earned a law degree, and promised her that he was going to support the family so that she could pursue her Art and together they could raise their children. After graduation, he worked for the American Bar Association. At some point they moved from the flat on Milwaukee's South Side that they rented on the second floor of my grandmother's house to the place they bought in New Berlin.
Mother loved the wren's call, and managed to entice at least one to move in each summer. She disliked blue jays ('Nasty, bossy birds,' she would say, stubbing out her Pall Mall and pulling on her gardening gloves) and crows, and fought multi-year battles with a very intelligent squirrel we named Ralph, who seemed able to pillage every birdfeeder we installed. The cicadas each summer were deafening. I'd run into the middle of the lawn, close my eyes, lean my head as far back as it would go, feel the sun on my face, spin around, and imagine I was swimming in the hot, healthy air above me, awakened after a seventeen-year-long subterranean slumber.
She wrote short stories and submitted them to the big east coast magazines: The New Yorker, Dial, Saturday Review, Ladies' Home Journal, and so forth. Her cover letters were written on stationary inscribed with our home's name, Brightwood, and the return address. She raised her three sons, made Art, submitted manuscripts.
On the weekends, Father set his sons to work beautifying the yard. We designed and erected retaining walls from truckloads of broken concrete, built traffic bond pathways, cut down trees. Father built for my brothers and me a sandbox nestled into a crook of the stream surrounding our property that was as big as a tennis court in which I constructed labyrinthine sand cities. What began as a request for permission to throw up a few boards in the crotch of a tree turned into a multi-summer project to construct a scale version of our own home, with running electricity, windows, and a porch perched on fifteen foot high stilts.
I recall standing in Denoon Lake as a very, very young child. I looked back to the beach and watched my mother doing the Saturday Review acrostic, having spent a perfect summer day collecting interesting stones from the lake bottom and piling them on the dock for her to admire.
I remember summer evenings at the Blue Mound Drive-In, falling asleep with my brothers in the back of a lumbering old station wagon that we called 'Thunder-n-Lightning' halfway into the first film of a double feature, orange Nesbit soda, Dad's Root Beer, Graf's 50-50, piles of sandwiches doled out by my mother from a green wicker hamper, the drowsy bliss of being carried in from the car to the house afterwards over Father's shoulder, with heat lightning flashing above and gravel crunching beneath his feet. He smelled good then—like Mennen aftershave and Borkum Riff pipe tobacco, sweat and Ivory soap.
My ancestors on one side came to Upstate Wisconsin from Norway (the Skajestaads-from the town of Hagen, which means 'garden' in Norwegian) and on the other Ireland (the Taffes-we're related to President Taft) during the 1800's. I was at first shocked, and then deeply moved by the fact that the people who figured in the Charles Van Schaik photographs (as featured in Michael Lesy's book Wisconsin Death Trip) looked uncannily like the ones in our family's photo albums; the stories in the book were eerily similar to the family lore I had grown up hearing.
We kept country dogs and cats, rabbits and guinea pigs, snakes and turtles; Father fed bags of day old bread to the several families of raccoons that lived under the garage. I spent entire days making believe I was Le Long Carabine in the woods surrounding our property, crying 'My death is a great honor to the Huron, take me!' to no one in particular.One night, shortly after having seen The Ten Commandments at the Drive-in, playing Moses on the back porch as a 'ringy-ding-ding-ding' party tootled away in the neighbor's backyard, I declaimed at the top of my prepubescent voice, 'GO TO GOD!' heard Sinatra's voice ('Strangers in the Night') stop abruptly, a record player scratch to a halt, and a glass shatter in the ensuing silence. I spent my earliest remembered days playing at her feet while Mother made Art. The long stretches of silence were broken only by the susurrus of wind, bird calls, the classical music she so loved, and the steady thrum of cicadas. I was drawn to the piano because my older brother Kevin, whom I idolized, was a gifted pianist. At the same time that I first noticed the numbers tattooed on our piano teacher's forearm I discovered on a very high shelf, along with a lot of other books about the Holocaust, an oversized book of horrifying photographs called Despotism. As soon as I discovered their existence, I returned to the pictures every time I had the chance.
I was tested by the school district and sent to kindergarten a year early. Around the age of six I began repeating silently afterwards everything that I said. Like some other obsessive compulsive children, I developed early on a prophetic, unequivocal, almost resigned feeling that I would die young; that feeling, combined with the discovery of my namesake Daron's death certificate, motivated me to grow up as quickly as possible, while living for two.
My ancestor Dorn, a devout Lutheran who, wrongly-accused of making off with an envelope from the Sunday collection plate (it was later found exactly where he had said it was) and poorly treated by his brethren, hung himself. I recall the summer I was told about him—a summer otherwise spent contentedly working on my uncle Clifford's dairy farm somewhere just shy of the Upper Peninsula bailing hay, shoveling shit, and being justly, gently and affectionately mocked for being a city-slicker from Milwaukee.
Although I didn't yet know I would become a composer (that happened when, a few years later, my family gave me the score of Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd), I did decide one day, at the age of seven, in 1968, to become a musician. Kenneth Schermerhorn was conducting the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra; they were performing the Largo of Antonin Dvořák's Ninth Symphony.
In the deep winter, beautiful sheets of ice formed over our lovely home's picture windows, making them seem like frosted Depression glass. Heat escaped through the roof, so immense, glittering, dangerous icicles—some as long as ten feet and too heavy to lift—hung down from the eaves like enormous fangs. My brothers and I used to knock them down with shovels. Much of the tar and gravel roof was flat, and required shoveling after a heavy snow. It leaked steadily in every season, sort of like a grand upside down ark, or—as I fantasized as a child lying on my back on the floor and looking up into the front room's lofty rafters—a capsized Viking Longship.
By the age of thirteen I had already begun to think of myself as a composer, spending three or four hour each day at the piano. After two years I began taking lessons from a sweet-natured young man at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. Father ferried me to them, forty minutes in each direction. I remember nothing about what we talked about during those weekly trips, only that I dreaded them. Around this time, mother caused father to agree that, if I were sitting at the piano, I would not be disturbed. After that, I began not just composing and practicing at the piano, but taking my meals and doing my homework there.
Mother's manuscripts were returned in big manila envelopes. Sometimes they hadn't even been opened. Not a single one was accepted. She had better luck when she used a mail drop in Chicago as her return address. The rejection letters from the same magazines that I have good friends and colleagues published in and working at today that she used to read, standing in her Midwestern kitchen, surrounded by children, the odor of pot-roast, and a husband running to fat, must have been devastating. It broke my heart when my mother stopped making art; I think it broke hers, too. By the time I was twelve, she stopped saving the rejection slips. When I was fifteen years old everything—the manuscripts, the slips, the letterhead, the typewriter—disappeared; she destroyed them all, gave away the typewriter, and stopped writing entirely. Even the clay and the paints were thrown out.
As the neighborhoods around us grew, so did the volume of seasonal run-off into what I recalled as a child as having been a charming brook ringing our property; by the time I was eleven, heavy rainstorms typically filled the basement of the house with several feet of water, the six-inch-deep brook became a dangerous eight foot deep river, and the sprawling backyard, into which we had poured hundreds and hundreds of hours of manual labor and so much love under our father's stern command, became a flood plain, covered with a half a foot of muck. Heartbreaking.
Around this time, I began to pretend I was asleep when Father returned from Chicago on Friday nights. He could tell. It must have hurt him terribly. It was explained that Father would now be at home all the time; he and Mother had decided that he would be happier in private practice. Mother would get a job to help make ends meet. She started as a maid at a Ramada Sands hotel managed by her brother Garth, moved into paste-up at a local advertising agency, then copy-writing, layout, and so on; she learned fast, and, by the time I left for college, she served as the creative director of a glossy regional magazine, supplanting Father as the family's principal breadwinner.
Mother took my older brother Kevin and me to New York City when I was fifteen. Kevin trembled with excitement as we stood together in the middle of Lincoln Center Plaza and gazed up into the beautiful Chagall tapestries hanging behind the tall glass windows of the Metropolitan Opera. She took us to see John Cullum in Shenandoah. I have a clear memory of seeing Raul Julia's terrifying turn as Macheath in Threepenny Opera at the Mitzi Newhouse, of loving the production, but of feeling betrayed by the new translation—I was already a Blitzstein partisan, proud of having been cast—along with my other brother Britt—by Kevin as members of Mackie's gang in a production he had produced and directed. We walked in Central Park, ate vichyssoise in an overpriced sidewalk café in Midtown (I now walk past the spot and think of her every time I go to my club) and rode the Staten Island Ferry. I recall the satisfaction my mother took in me when, viewing a picture at the Met together, I noted how 'beautiful' the man in it was. 'Yes, men can be beautiful,' she said, wistfully. I treasure a single memory of our mother hugging Kevin and me around the shoulders and telling us that we could accomplish anything in life; that as long as we did our best, nobody could ever think ill of us. I determined one day to become a New Yorker. At the age of twenty-three, I did. I've lived in Manhattan ever since.
After the worst of a series of floods, my parents allowed—except for a sliver near the house—the yard to run back. It was verdant, but neglected, loved but untended. It was painful to look at. The house was only about thirty years old, but it felt older. It was hard not to think of what the place had been and what it had become as a metaphor for what had become of our family.
Father's depressions lengthened; the distance between my parents increased. The beautiful house they both loved and where we all lived became a hotel: the upper floors were Ours; the lower half was His. My brothers left for college; I slept at home but rarely saw my parents. I disappeared into music, after-school activities, and late-night double features at the Oriental Theater in Milwaukee.
I left for the University of Wisconsin myself after a discouraging audition at Juilliard. In the middle of my second year in Madison I was accepted by Ned Rorem as a pupil at the Curtis Institute of Music. I shall forever be grateful to him for having done so. I moved to Philadelphia. According to Ned's diary, my first lesson occurred on 15 September, 1981; I was nineteen, 'the new one from Madison, bearded, bright, and seething with a desire to please.'
A few months later, Mother was diagnosed with a particularly virulent type of lung cancer, but concealed the news from me. When I finally learned of it, I insisted upon returning from Philadelphia to take care of her. I was sure that the Curtis would grant me a leave of absence. 'Christ no,' she said, with a degree of passion that absolutely barred discussion. 'I want you to get on with your life.' I returned to Philadelphia. I spoke to her on Saturday mornings for twenty minutes, made do with writing proud, excited letters home. I returned to the beautiful old cedar house for the last time in December of 1983.
That was when I placed the Tylenol in her mouth, chased it with a finger of amaretto. Her cancer had spread everywhere. The doctors had sent her home to die. It was one of those stupid, small, cold winter hours. She writhed on the floor at the foot of the bed, where she had collapsed on her way to the bathroom to throw up. Cigarette burns in the carpet. Why was I, their twenty-year-old son, sitting on the floor, cradling his mother's head? Her husband, my father, was downstairs in his den, playing Solitaire. 'I love you more than I can say,' she said, stroking my face. Her eyes rolled. I gently wiped the crusts of sputum from the corners of her mouth. 'Oh, Lord,' she sighed through her pain, 'the dosage wasn't high enough.' She looked at me with pity as I held her. 'I was hoping to die tonight, Sweetheart,' she said, looking up at me like an infant seeking the breast. A few hours later, after murmuring 'Well honey, I was never bored,' she did.
Sep 22, 2009
Organizing Shining Brow
Presenting contrasting emotional and psychological states simultaneously is the trump card of contemporary opera. Simultaneity aggravates some listeners, who prefer opera to consist of a singer, a tune, and an orchestra playing an accompaniment pattern, preferably with the tune doubled in the orchestra.
The singers were rarely doubled in the orchestra in Brow, and there was almost always another line, some sort of obbligato accompanying each character. This line was like the sound-track accompanying the images on film stock. It conveyed a parallel stream of information—the character's true motivations and feelings may not have been fully expressed in his vocal part, but rather in the oboe solo that accompanied him, because he was lying (to himself or another character) or in a state of denial. The orchestra assumed at various times the roles of each character's subconscious, omniscient narrator, or disinterested bystander; occasionally it just accompanied. A listener could either ignore it, be just attuned to simultaneity enough to be aggravated by it, or revel in it.
Shining Brow was intended to entertain casual music lovers, intrigue and inspire further study from mainstream opera fans, and to be a source of ongoing, deepening pleasure for opera aficionados as they delved deeper and deeper into the piece. The score was intentionally affable on its surface; its sophistication was in the extent to which its underlying complexity was concealed. This aesthetic was consistent with my personality and values as a person; and with the Midwestern value system shared by the opera's characters.
Composing operas is not a science; it is an art which calls upon the composer's ability not just to empathize with but to live through the story's characters: Brow's inebriated newspapermen sang a barbershop quartet because these men sounded this way in my imagination, based on their educations and the time and place in which they lived-a place in which I happened to have been reared. The characters demanded the sort of music they needed to sing, not the other way around.
That the piano trio should accompany an onstage cocktail party at Taliesin with a set of off-kilter variations on one of the themes from Der Rosenkavalier struck me then (as now) as historically appropriate—just what a well-off, musically-literate couple who had just attended the première of the Strauss opera (as Wright and Mamah Cheney did) might have requested of their hired musicians. That Wright should have misremembered the 'presentation of the rose' music from the opera in order to remind his mistress of their love in an offhand fashion as he walked away from her struck me as what a man like him might do; that Mamah shall have been a sophisticated enough woman to exactly quote the Marschallin's music back at him to not just show him that she knew he was pitching her second-hand woo but that she remembered the source better than he struck me as one way this intelligent couple might have sparred.
I imagined Wright baring his most intimate feelings to the same sort of music with which I bare mine: clear, tonal, diatonic, direct, nearly folk-song in nature. I intended for one of the century's great modernists to identify, at heart, with folk tunes and Americana. Wright was accompanied by plush, tonal harmonies in the arietta 'And her scent was it musk' and in the final aria 'I think of the balsam fir.' He often sang in a floating, vulnerable falsetto; this was in intentional to contrast to Sullivan, whose tenor was intentionally supported throughout, and Cheney, who was lofted into falsetto only when expressing weakness. Use of extended range for dramatic and psychological ends—especially in the male roles—required the casting of singers who were willing to take vocal risks which occasionally strained traditional opera fans' conception of 'good' vocal writing or 'vocal beauty.'
The gentle lyricism of Sullivan's 'I cry out from the slough of despond' was intentionally similar to Wright's 'internal' music. I was submitting that Wright and Sullivan had consonant souls—it was their personalities and life decisions that compelled them to lead such different and dissonant lives.
Mamah Cheney heard her 'translation' of the exquisite faux-Goethe 'Hymn to Nature' as a Protestant hymn because that is the music she knew and loved. The Chef was without music, apart from the 'coherent reality' shared by the other characters. Offstage murders are always scarier than onstage ones. Explaining why Carlton went berserk would have been as wrongheaded as trying to do anything but ask questions about Wright.
Shining Brow was about Wright, but it was not a traditional biographical story. Like stripping away layers of an onion, Muldoon and I explored his character first through negative space and then gradually revealed him at the opera's core. Accordingly, the first act concerned itself primarily with the tragic effect his behavior had on the lives of Cheney, Mamah, and Sullivan. The largest set piece of the first act was Mamah's fifteen minute scena; the counterweight was Wright's disastrous second act press conference in which he alternated his internal thoughts with external pronunciamentos. From then on the focus tightened on Wright until he was left very much alone.
Sullivan, in the prologue of Brow, was meant to remind any serious operagoer of Captain Vere at the beginning of Billy Budd; the townspeople and workmen's chorus intentionally made a nod to the ensemble writing for the Borough in Peter Grimes; Wright's final forty-five seconds were intended to bring to mind Peter on the beach at the end of the same opera. When Wright's melodic motive is coupled to 'Suburbia' from Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti I am making a dead-serious comparison between Wright and Bernstein; when that is answered, later by Sullivan alluding to music from Marc Blitzstein's Regina the comparison between the relationship between the two composers and the two architects and two composers is made clear. The many musical allusions in the score and literary allusions in the libretto explored the central argument between Sullivan and Wright—what constitutes 'borrowing' in Art, and what constitutes 'purloining?'
Like many operas, Brow was constructed of numerous musical motifs that were constantly developed by being placed in new contexts, whether by being wedded to new words, new rhythms, or keys, subjected to elongation, diminution, or combination with other motives. Most motives did quadruple or quintuple duty, representing not only a character but a phrase (or several phrases) of poetry, a concept associated with that character and the evolution of those characters and concepts.
Bitonality and polytonality served as the harmonic building blocks for Brow. Characters interacted through the interaction of the 'home keys' in which they were written.
Wright was identified with the tritone (often used in opera to portray the extraordinary, the eccentric, or the ill-omened), arrayed both horizontally and vertically, and a rising motif which includes the tritone. The augmented fourth and diminished fifth, so crucial in tonal music to the act of modulation, was used to portray the mercurial nature of Wright's character, his inborn need to modulate others out of their own keys and into his—a sort of harmonic seduction. His home key was B-flat major (a tritone from Mamah's home key of E major), and he was associated throughout with the woodwinds.
Mamah Cheney, whose home key of E major is historically associated with the idea of Heaven, radiance, and grace, was associated with the strings throughout. When Wright sang his final aria after her death his transference from the winds to the strings signified his identification with her; when the Maid delivered her aria it was likewise to the accompaniment of strings and two bassoons—Wright and Mamah were in the orchestra. Mamah was identified with the melody of the 'Hymn to Nature' and the love aria 'There is no balm in Gilead' with which the first act closes.
Louis Sullivan's home key was A minor, a half-step below Wright's. The fateful tolling A's with which he was associated arise from his Catholicism, the time he had spent and lost, the brooding, repetitive, circular nature of chronic deep depression; he provided the opera with Wright's chief victim and moral conscience. He was associated with the percussion section—especially the tubular bells and timpani.
When the timpani played, it bridged between Sullivan and Edwin Cheney, whose home key was C major—the relative major of Sullivan's home key—and the obsessive rhythms expanded into ostinatos. A stolid, religious man himself, Cheney was associated with the brass. His aria, 'My mouth is full of nails' moved from the brass into the strings when he sang about his wife; he was dogged by a shrill E-flat clarinet when he sang about Wright; the tolling bells returned when he identified with Sullivan, and so forth.
Catherine Wright was associated with the falling motive do-si-sol-re, which was also associated throughout with the concept of home, connubial transport, and duty. The melodic rise of a ninth followed by a long trailing descent was associated throughout with mourning, loss and destruction—whether of a person, a place, or a relationship.
The words that began and ended the opera, 'So much so,' sung initially by Sullivan and finally by Wright, were set to nearly identical music—that is, to an oscillation between A and B-flat. The oscillating musical figure, combined with the words, were spun to comic effect at the beginning of Act two, when the chorus of reporters echoed Sullivan's and Mamah's words to a somewhat altered musical line. (Cheney and Mamah oscillated between G and G-sharp; Cheney literally 'bringing her down' from major to minor.) Wright's reprise of Sullivan's utterance reinforced his identification with his old teacher; he fell downwards to a G-sharp at the very end, indicating that Mamah's spirit was hovering over him and would continue to do so; for the moment he 'lost' himself harmonically as so many characters had 'lost' themselves to him, and as Mamah had lost herself (to identical music) at the end of the first act.
Sep 20, 2009
'Music is never about anything,' wrote Bernstein. 'Music just is. Music is notes, beautiful notes and sounds put together in such a way that we get pleasure out of listening to them, and that's all it is.' Critics of words use words, as Ned quipped; so do critics of music. As long as a composer's craft is complete, he cannot (or should not) be criticized for the way it is expressed. Critics can attack the how but not the why of a piece. That's why program notes are so fraught. Virgil told me once that he felt there were three kinds: gossip, musical travelogue, and musicology. Each sort appeals to a different sort of listener, and each aggravates another. Alas, a composer must write them anyway, or others will, and they're bound to be even more misleading than one's own.A music critic can think they understand your music enough to disagree with what you were saying, but since music is abstract, they're bound to be wrong. The only place a critic can really look for a clue to your intent is in your program note. Composer-written program notes (including mine) are inevitably just as misleading and trivializing as those by program annotators. Tim Page aptly described Bandanna as 'neither fish nor fowl ... as fierce as verismo but wrought with infinite care; a melding of church and cantina and Oxonian declamation.' A theater work about the liminal zone between Life and Death, Man and God, that consciously blended and juxtaposed high and low, Music Theater and opera, was destined to fall between stools and to be willfully mischaracterized by partisans on each side. Bandanna, mongrel that it is, is very close to my heart perhaps because it is so easily and frequently misused by critics.
A re-casting of the Venetian tale of the Moor in a 1968 Tex-Mex border town, Bandanna was commissioned by a nationwide consortium of college band directors who stipulated only that I could not use strings (except for basses) in the orchestra. Neither fish nor fowl; neither opera nor musical, Bandanna was destined to please very few of its commissioners.
When, a few months before the premiere, I presented Frederick Fennell with a copy of the score, I asked him how he thought the piece would go over in the band world. Eyes twinkling, he told me that he felt that there were three kinds of band conductors: 'First, you have what I call the Educators: they teach high school band and play simplified arrangements of pop songs and movie themes; then there are the Spit and Polish Men: they play marches, and for them music history stalled around the time of Holst; finally, there are the Maestros: they could have been orchestra conductors but chose to conduct bands because they love them. These men and women are hungry for new repertoire, and can have a better grasp of the symphonic repertoire than their colleagues in the orchestra world. Almost none of them know anything about opera, my boy, so you are doomed.'
The gifted composer Eli Marshall, who stayed at my apartment during some of the period of its composition, tells me that during the weeks he was there my routine never changed: I composed for six hours, wailing away at the piano at the top of my lungs, went out to the same Mexican restaurant for dinner, brought home a bottle of wine, drank it while copying out the fair score of the day's work (I wasn't yet using Sibelius' engraving software in 1998) in the evening, passed out on the couch, repeated.
The way I 'felt' while composing Bandanna doesn't (or shouldn't) matter. Rumi describes my psychological and emotional state during the composition, orchestration, and first production of Bandanna as a 'sad neighborhood.' I suppose that my psychological distress (clinically diagnosed at the time as depression) could account for some of the opera's feverish intensity, but unhappy composers write happy music all the time, and vice-versa. William Styron's Darkness Visible was a great help to me in understanding not just what I was going through but how the characters in the opera felt. It was the raw practice of my craft though, that served as the most effective therapy-St. Thomas Aquinas: 'Why do you seek peace? You were only meant to labor.' So work continued; it was life that had become mezzotint.
In retrospect I recognize what a desperately sad, aggressive, and brutal piece Bandanna is, physically hard on the singers and intentionally crude in the way it slams together Muldoon's text and different styles of music, vulgar in its use of craft to force certain moments.
I had put my head down. I was 'toughing it out,' exactly as I had during the hours when my mother was unconscious during the last week of her life. The melancholia that had been deepening for some time continued to intensify its grip. The first production, by the University of Texas Austin Opera Theater, as centerpiece of the College Band Directors National Association's annual convention in 1999, didn't do anything to lift my spirits: it was only remotely representative of the work I had created, greeted with hostile incomprehension by most of the conventioneers; consequently extremely traumatic-exactly as Frederick had predicted, 'doomed.'
I did not find personal closure until the release, under my baton, thanks to the efforts of Michael Haithcock, Paul Kreider, Thomas Leslie and Robert Schuneman, among others, of the complete recording, in 2006.
The idea I used to generate the compositional dialectic and aesthetic of the opera was the idea of demarcation, as well as the fact that on either side of an absolute 'dead line' exists what Wallace Stevens called a 'the liminal zone.' I strove at every step to manifest in music each character's emotional, metaphysical, and psychological state by finding a musical and aesthetic metaphor for that state.
In the broadest sense, this led me to equate tonal centeredness with moral centeredness. Tonality itself was presented as sacred; everything else was secular by degree. Bitonality and polytonality were used to evoke a state of amorality. Highly chromatic passages were used to evoke the transitions between various states. Octatonic and twelve-tone passages were used to evoke a state of moral confusion, even anomie. I was writing from an emotionally extreme place manic music that was about emotional extremes, racing back and forth along technical and aesthetic continua, looking for balance. The figure below evolved on a large piece of paper over the piano as I composed:
An octatonic idée fixe was associated throughout the opera with both the handkerchief/bandanna MacGuffin and the idea of the 'liminal zone' itself. This melodic motive and its verticalization as a chord struck me as the notated 'death-cry' of tonality; associating Mona's death cry with the death of tonality was, for me, an important touchstone-it helped me to anchor the opera's musical argument.
As in Brow, I associated each character with a different array of instrumental colors. As their characters evolved, so did the orchestration that accompanied them. At the same time, emotional, psychological and moral states were evoked by the orchestration that-when juxtaposed with or superimposed upon a character's self-professed emotions-commented upon what each character was going through.
The idea of breath itself became a central orchestrational metaphor. Wind players need to breathe-for me, this fact is a powerful metaphor for life itself. For over ninety minutes, the audience listened to wind orchestra. Unveiling the three mariachi violinists-who did not have to 'breathe' as they 'haloed' the doomed Mona as she said her prayers-at the end, allowed the orchestra to tell the audience that Mona already knew that she was going to be killed, that breath itself was at an end. Following ten minutes of sustained violins, Mona's husband Morales strangled her with her bandanna, and the winds returned-as she fought for her final breaths of air-in a wheezing 'air attack' statement of the octatonic 'bandanna chord.'
I also employed procedures and formal structures customarily used by commercial and Broadway songwriters, including so-called 'first and second eights', various kinds of introductions, verses, bridges, and choruses, using the 'release' of a melodic phrase to highlight the libretto's central image, and so forth. I chose musical/lyrical structures that would best underpin or frame each dramatic event and asked Paul to execute the scene using the verse (or lyric) structures customarily associated with those musical structures, describing what I wanted by way of lyrics when possible, sending him actual examples from the song lyric canon of what I wanted when necessary.
I built upon what I was trying to accomplish in Vera by attempting to create (or dissipate) dramatic tension by causing a sub-strata of song and dance forms to proceed 'below' in the orchestra-both in accord with and in opposition to the onstage drama-whilst the demands and expectations of through-composed drama proceeding 'above' in the voices. Imposition of musical forms were used to 'slow down' the action (I:ii - 'Double Duet'), or to provide cohesion to an otherwise sprawling expositional scene (I:i) or to 'speed up' the action (all of the 'Dialogue' sections scattered throughout the opera, which in the orchestral fabric serve as variations on the 'bandanna' motive).
I adhered to this maxim (and its corollary): the longer an audience is in the theater, the slower it perceives 'time' as passing and the more important a dramatic event is, the more time the audience should spend experiencing it. Consequently, as with Shining Brow, Paul and I began by co-writing a highly-detailed, 'filmic' treatment. Dramatic events were mapped out and the amount of time-to the second-to be spent on each was decided before I had composed a note.
Sep 2, 2009
That Night (1)
Sighing, my father poured each of us an amaretto and stretched out behind his desk. At that moment, I thought him ugly. I'm sure we were both in shock. I could tell that he wanted to talk man to man for the first time. The liquor smelled like death. I didn't want to.
Mother had told him in front of me the day before that, if he didn't find a way to communicate with his sons, then we would turn our backs on him. His last words to me, a few months before he died, two decades later, in 2002, were, 'I probably should have gotten psychological help when you were boys, but there always seemed to be other, more important things.'
He talked. I couldn't keep myself from feeling that on some level he still thought that the past few days — my mother's, his wife's slow motion quadrille with death — had been about him. Father could be a captivating, charming man; he was capable of real eloquence. He loved the law and could conjur beauty when talking about it. He had the sort of mind that remembered all sorts of things; he was skilled at recalling trivia and injecting it into conversations both to delight his friends and to disarm his opponents.
I don't know whether he was a good lawyer or not, but he adored my mother; she loved him for that. He loved her and the law with a fiery, flawed purity that I can't help but admire. His friends and clients seemed to love him and to respect him. He was often and for long periods profoundly depressed. When we played chess, even when we both knew I was going to lose, he never permitted me to resign. He liked to work with his hands, and taught his sons countless practical skills. He was smart enough to know a lot, and he was proud of his intellect, yet it seemed to me that he did not understand that it wasn't enough to know a little bit about everything, that one must know a lot about at least one thing. I often disliked him, but I always loved him; I never doubted that he loved me.
We were in his den. 'All your good qualities,' he began, the evening that she died in my arms, the evening before the morning I left, never to return during his lifetime, making a steeple of his fingers, 'you got from your mother; all the bad ones come from me.'
May 13, 2009
Getting From Here to There
At the end of Act Two, scene two of the opera I am working on with my librettist Gardner McFall right now called Amelia, pregnant Amelia, surrounded by hospital staff and her husband, awakens from a coma, in the early stages of labor. Everyone's been discussing her as if she weren't there; she cries, 'Who said anything about dying?' and, after a brief exchange with her husband and doctor where she insists on natural childbirth, she is wheeled to a birthing room. The next scene begins a few hours later, with Amelia laboring to one side, and a conversation between her Aunt and her doctor on the other.
I have executed this tricky sequence of events several ways, now. The first time, before in real life my wife had our baby and together we went through the process of natural labor, and before the opera was workshopped, I determined to track Amelia's joy and apprehension from the moment she regained conscious. She did so suddenly, with no preparation but an upward roulade in the orchestra and entry on a high G on the word 'Who' — big stuff for a mezzo. It was terrible. What I perceived as a dramatic shift from one psychological state to another came off as unprepared, the roulade was melodramatic because it telegraphed for three precious awful seconds that something 'big' was about to happen, and the high G sounded ridiculous blurting, as it did, suddenly from the mouth of someone prone on a hospital bed. Worst of all, the music I thought was joyous, empowered, and apprehensive all at once sounded like something by Carl Stalling. It rankled.
Although Gardner's words were perfect, the musical tone was wildly off; it seemed ham-fisted, like a man's complete misapprehension of the dynamics of the situation. It ended with quiet burbling in the orchestra as she was wheeled out on a gurney. Here the tone seemed right. The production design was at that point such that the curtain would not close but rather the set would reassemble itself; Amelia would never leave the stage, but she would move behind a scrim and the next scene, between her Aunt and the doctor, would begin, about twenty seconds later. There would be a brief exchange, and the balance of the scene would be performed in pantomime, with the drama moving forward in the orchestra, utilizing themes from the opera associated with the characters in the scene as they came and went — very filmic and, I think effective. In this scenario, the scenelet where Amelia awoke became the transition in the course of the larger drama. This was another error in judgment on my part: demoting it to transitional status served to undercut the drama of the moment, to trivialize it, even.
Six months later, the second draft, after the workshop, an intense work session with Gardner and with Stephen Wadsworth, our stage director and story man, and after having helped my wife through her Birth Story, was more realistic, and more responsible, I think. Since the scene falls at the critical 11:30 spot in the book, it was important to begin tying up, once and for all, the various motives that had been unspooling for the previous ninety minutes. A neat solution presented itself: I backed up from the moment of Amelia's recovery of consciousness and imbedded a motive in the timpani (an S-O-S rhythmic tattoo also associated with her disappeared pilot father and the famous aviatrix in her dreams) that became a musical manifestation of her contractions. This grew until it served to wake her up, and remained, rising and falling in volume, throughout the scenelet between Amelia, the doctor, and her husband. All the joy was muted, the apprehension ratcheted up by stripping out most of the orchestral flourishes. Appropriately enough, since it was already parlando in the extreme, I needed to change very few notes of the text setting.
My collaborators and I decided to throw in fragmentary comments for the men, snatches of phrases that Amelia would 'step on' musically; this highlighted her centrality and position of power, diminished theirs, and kept the focus on her and her contractions. I was able to grab little swatches of music from her dream aviatrix's final plunge into the ocean and place them in the orchestra to complete the identification in her mind. The transition remained the same, and the next scene unfolded unchanged.
After a year, word came from Seattle that the production team needed three minutes to change the set and that my worst fear would be realized: a closed curtain — which could bring the whole story to a screeching halt at the very moment forward momentum was most needed — would be required. Although it felt like a lifetime was being asked for, what it meant practically was that ten seconds were needed for the curtain to come down, another two and a half minutes for the set change, and another ten seconds for the curtain to rise on the next scene before the exchange between Amelia's Aunt and the doctor could begin. This required yet another rethinking of the reawakening scenelet and the ensuing scene. My concern from the start had been that, once Amelia awakens, there is drama only in the rapid, successive tying up of the various stories in the opera, the emergence of the healthy baby being the most important.
The final scene drove forward entirely to the instant when the baby is held aloft by the doctor, and placed on Amelia's chest, at which point the orchestra, which had been telling the story through underscore, would drop out, and the voices carry the opera alone to its coda, dropping out sensibly as characters left the birthing room, until we heard only Amelia, her husband, and, haloing her in her mind, the voices of her aviatrix and her dead mother. An orchestral interlude of at least 150 seconds' length would need to be wedged between the moment Amelia was wheeled out and the nearly five minutes of filmic underscoring that would serve as an apotheosis of the opera's various musical ideas.
The third solution that resulted, executed nearly two years after composing the initial musical sketches of the scene, required backing up again, only this time from the moment Amelia was wheeled out of the room, and introducing into the scenelet solo strings here and there playing held clusters, up-bow, from quiet to very loud, that sound to me like what spasms of pain might feel like. These would then carry into the transition, where I would solidify Amelia's relationship to another character in her dreams with whom she identifies, Icarus, by recapitulating an ensemble set piece from a few minutes earlier in the course of which the boy in the next room 'who had fallen from a great height' had just awoken to seizures and received sedation.
The trickiest measures were the introduction of a rising figure in the strings under Amelia's cry, 'I can do this!' over the S-O-S tattoo in the timpani and the spasms in the solo strings. Then it was smooth flying (or not) as the orchestra revisits for forty seconds the boy's seizure, his sedation, and a reminder of two motives associated with 'near-death' in the opera, the 'sound' of a heart monitor in the orchestra and a swooping motive in the low strings that was a musical manifestation of what the blips on a heart monitor 'look' like, first introduced as we met Icarus an hour earlier in the opera. The effect was that we were now tracking Amelia as she labored offstage.
A very important dramatic cadence took shape just after the heart monitor's return and the begininng of the upward phrases: to me, this is Amelia's crucial 'I can't do this' moment. This moment, where the music grinds to a halt, counterbalances her earlier optimistic 'I can do this' moment, reveals her to have achieved (offstage, during events transpiring between scenes) the emotional state required for the final stage of labor. What follows are 'rising lines' from the original beginning of the last scene — themselves based on the S-O-S rhythm, and associated earlier in the opera with the aviatrix's plane taking off — atop the heart monitor figure. Amelia is heard to have found musical closure: she has moved past her intense identification with the boy, with Icarus, and with the aviatrix, rejected their fates and embraced the 'rising line' of her own Birth Story.
I believe this last solution served to make Amelia's awakening scarier, more psychologically verifiable. The transition between scenes now served a purpose: to track Amelia's progress as she labors during the hours between the last two scenes of the opera, increasing the drama of the colloquy and events that follow and, I think, enhancing the dramatic effect of the vocal nonette that unfolds like a montage of kisses when the baby emerges and our story ends.
Apr 12, 2009
When my mother was a kid there was a man in her neighborhood who used to get methodically drunk every weekend. At the peak of his damp oblivion he'd take a package of pennies and burst it open. Then he'd toss the pennies into the street with a beery nonchalance, and my mother and her friends would all scramble after them — down on their hands and knees, pushing, snatching and shrieking. Then he was Olympian.
One night just before my teens my father, throwing his suits into a valise and pledging to move out, emptied the change from his pockets onto the floor and ordered me to pick it up.
How our Gods come tumbling down. Whether our buttocks are raised away in prayer, or in a gutter chasing pennies, we'll squeeze our eyes shut to avoid watching our idols totter.
Mar 2, 2009
Lukas Foss was music; he could transport you, make you forget where you were.
'The melting major to minor chord at the very end,' Lukas enthused, hands massaging the air between his chest and the dashboard, 'is original here. Some say that this is where Mahler got the idea for the same effect in his sixth.' We were riffing on Beethoven's third, the great 'Eroica,' the score of which sat on his lap, the piece I was driving him to the Performing Arts Center to rehearse with the Milwaukee Symphony, for whom he was then (this was the early eighties) serving as Music Director.
'At the end of the second movement, I'm going to try something interesting: as the theme disintegrates—the part marked sotto voce—I'm going to remove players one by one from the tune.'
'Like Beethoven's hearing leaving him. Cool. How do the players feel about the idea?'
'Oh, they are not too happy. They are a little cross about the scherzo, too.'
'I'm making a little Rossini-esque accelerando through the theme so that it sounds like nervous laughter.'
'Beethoven's nervous breakdown?'
'Night fears following the loss of his hearing....'
'Chattering teeth in a death skull...?'
'Worse. The effects of lead poisoning.'
'Wow,' I said, turning the wrong direction on to a one way street. The sound of horns.
'What's that?' asked Lukas, abruptly conscious of his surroundings.
'We're driving the wrong way down a one way street,' I answered, as mildly as I could.
'Oh,' he replied, completely disinterested. 'Then, when the finale begins, the variations are a triumph of the...'
I pulled over. We were now five minutes late to the rehearsal and I was hopelessly lost, even though I had grown up in Milwaukee.
'... a triumph,' I attempted to complete his thought, 'of the rational, conscious mind, expressed through the excercise of craft that composing variations requries, over the irrational fears of the subconscious?'
'That's interesting you should say that,' he smiled. 'I've always thought that fugue, so rational, was, in the end—take the Grosse Fuge—his avenue for exploring madness.'
And so the conversation continued, as I drove us around for another ten minutes, exhilarated not only by the wrong turn but by the fact that I had completely screwed up the simple task of getting the Maestro to his rehearsal on time that I'd been assigned and by the welcoming embrace of Lukas' wonderful, joyful mind and musical spirit: he had literally made me forget where I was. And so the musical conversation between us continued for another quarter century.
The last time I saw Lukas was a few months before his death. My wife and I sat immediately in front of him and his son in the mostly-empty Miller Theater at Columbia University where his Time Cycle was being performed. We visited awhile. I told him that Time Cycle had not only transported me, made me forget where I was, the way he himself had when we first met, but that it had also made me forget what time it was, and he squeezed my hand, eyes twinkling. He asked after my brother, sent his love, reached out to pat my wife's pregnant belly to greet our son, and said, 'Welcome, Little Man.'
After his piece the audience whooped and hollered. Lukas asked, 'But nobody knows I am here. Should I go up?' His son said, 'Yes, of course.' He did, and received a long, loving, appreciative ovation.
Lukas was music, and profoundly worthy of love. We remained faithful friends for over a quarter of a century, and I shall miss him more than I can say.
Feb 8, 2009
Finishing the Hat
'I don't understand the business of trying to be accessible,' George Perle once said. 'When I write a piece, I write a piece that I like and I want to hear, and that I think will be fun to listen to and fun to play. That's all you have to think about.'
'This,' I recall thinking, while serving as his copyist in 1986, extracting the parts to his Dance Overture for the Houston Symphony, 'is not fun.' The meter changed every bar, metric modulations abounded, ranges were extreme; the orchestration was hyper-kinetic, almost academic. I came to realize, when I listened to a recording later, that George's music sounded nothing like it looked on the page: it evovled with seeming effortlessness, brimmed with humor, and had a pixyish sense of orchestral color. This was difficult fun for virtuoso players, and it had flowed from the mind of a very, very smart, very musical man. Lesson learned.
I learned this lesson in another way from George while copying one of his wind quintets—I think it was the one for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It required the clarinet player to alternate clarinets in A, B-flat, and E-flat, and did not stipulate at the beginning which instrument the player was playing. I played the first few bars at the piano, carefully transposing the horn into F and the clarinet into B-flat: sounded great. Then I did the same thing, transposing the clarinet into E-flat. Same deal: sounded great. Heart sinking, I played through the opening measures one more time, transposing the clarinet into A. This one seemed to me to be the least likely, since the range would be extreme, the choice of color highly unusual. Sounded great.
Feeling like an utter flat, I paged through the score, looking for the first change of instrument. That eliminated one of the three choices, but left me with a fifty-fifty chance of looking like a jerk when I went for my first working visit to his apartment on Central Park West. In the era of hand copying, the one thing a composer couldn't control was his copyist's human errors; they could derail an important rehearsal or recording session, and make the composer look foolish, or, worse, unprofessional. My pride notwithstanding, I wouldn't be hired again if my client didn't have faith in me. Consequently, asking George wasn't an option. That was when I sat down and analyzed the piece. Over the course of the next few hours, score study made the answer obvious. I learned that George Perle's music did not reveal its secrets easily. I chose the correct clarinet, and I chose, like so many others, to become a fan of George's music.
He hired me for a couple of other projects—his Cello Concerto, and something else. But, as much as I admired him as a composer, as a copyist I wasn't making enough money working for him. His music was just too labor-intensive. As copyists still say, 'Footballs [that is, whole notes] are where you make the money,' and there were precious few footballs in George's music. So I chose not to take the next job he offered, and am poorer in experience for having made that choice.
I brought the score of my first symphony to our last work session. 'I love the way you build climaxes,' he said, 'and your harmonic language is supple, but what you can really do is write tunes. I hope you know that.' Some of the best advice any composer ever gave me. That was over twenty years ago. Since we didn't move in the same circles, we never had occasion, save for the occasional holiday party, interval, or green room encounter, to speak again.
I remember standing on the sidewalk near his place shortly after that final meeting, trying on hats with the help of a street vendor. His wife Shirley walked by, nodded approvingly at a rakish Harry Lime-style Homburg I was creasing before the mirror, and said, 'Be careful which hat you choose. A hat can change your life.'
George was a master of making tough choices; tough choices that resulted in difficult, and beautiful music. He was careful about the notes he chose, and those notes changed my life.
Feb 7, 2009
The Mills Music Library stacks were to me a place of exploration and mystery during my early teens. My entre into the world of serious music occurred not through listening to recordings but through cracking scores. I would take the Badger Bus from Milwaukee to Madison, drop my backpack at my brother's apartment, and, pulse purring with anticipation, run to the cool, silent, stacks where I would spend the entire weekend paging contentedly through the treasure trove of music there. My romance with score study began during those blissful days of musical spelunking.
Notational style is as readily identifiable as a composer's fingerprints; it reveals the psychological state and personality of the author as surely (and as imprecisely) as the musical ideas that it endeavors to document. Indeed, the Arts of Engraving and Music Copying (arts obliterated, for better and worse, by the introduction of musical engraving programs during the 1980's) are as revealing to the reader of the score of the marriage of intentions of composer, editor and amanuensis as the composer's original manuscript.
Notation provides a glimpse into the inner world of composers: 'augenmusik,' a term that describes graphical features of scores that when performed are unnoticeable by the listener, is a hard concept to define—as hard to define as 'word painting,' the musical technique of attempting to have the music mimic the literal meaning of a song. As far back as the 1300's, Cordier's chanson about love is in a heart shape; another of my favorite examples is John Bull's 6-part circular canon Sphera mundi from the 1800's.
I'll never forget my delight in opening for the first time the score of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King. There, forming a cage, were the bars of music of the composition itself. A bracing flood of associations ran through my mind. I thought if Ilse Aichinger's Bound Man, whose bonds served him as a source of inspiration and strength. I recognized for the first time the irony of music being composed that seemed so free—especially aleatoric pieces like Music of Changes—by a man named Cage. I think now of Maya Angelou's lines:
'The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Measures, bars of music, attempt to cage the bird of song in an effort to preserve it, just as mad King George attempted to rescue his sanity by placing himself in his doctor's care. Of course, music, an abstract art, doesn't in itself mean anything; a composer can attempt to create through notation a psychological context in which the performer sings, but the resulting song in performance is as much the performer's creation as the composer's.
A notated score serves as an imperfect magical mirror through which the performer steps in order to enter the world of the piece itself; the performer turns around and faces outwards, from whence he came, and performs what he has discovered for those of us listening on the other side of the bars, the other side of the mirror. The mystery is that anything vaguely recognizable comes out of all this.
I found then and still find the impossible transaction between composer, performer and audience that musical notation hopes to enable eternally puzzling. It is the reaching without end for the elusive note just barely heard in one's imagination and just beyond the grasp of one's conscious mind, what Shreker called Der ferne Klang, Mahler Das Lied von der Erde, that is to me endlessly enthralling, and what keeps me composing.
For I've always felt that music streams endlessly whether we're listening or not, that it is a manifestation of the 'world without end' described in Ephesians. Nadia Boulanger's last words, according to Leonard Bernstein, were 'J'ecoute la musique sans commencement ni fine.' In sadness, a composer comes to understand that as surely as the scorpion in the old story is compelled by his nature to sting the frog and drown them both while fording the stream, a composer must attempt to notate what he hears, and by so doing, clip his songs' wings.
Even for Bird, the chart was a cage; inspiration during performance was the key. The key.
Jan 28, 2009
The Other Daron
This year, with my healthy, joyful son taking his first steps, I have felt Daron’s presence even more intensely than in the past. Daron Aric Hagen was born on 26 January 1960 at the Evangelical Deaconess Hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He weighed six pounds and ventured into this world at 2:55 AM – during one of the day’s smallest, coldest hours.
His poor heart: he arrived with congenital heart disease, atresia (absence or closure of a natural passage or channel of the body) of the aortic orifice, hypoplasia (a condition of arrested development in which an organ or part remains below the normal size or in an immature state) of the left atrium (the main part of the left auricle) and the left ventricle (the chamber which receives blood from the left auricle and forces it into the arteries).
Despite this, Daron lived for four days – long enough to be baptized, and to develop some sort of impression of his parents and of the world; certainly, long enough to have been held by them, and for them to have given to him, completely and without reservation, their hearts.
I write this based on notes written on a copy of the postmortem examination, notes written in my father’s hand. Before dying of heart disease, he disposed of very nearly every personal effect, and would have managed to erase this artifact of his interior, personal life as well, had my mother not given it to me just before she died.
Probably my father jotted the words I am looking at right now on the yellowed sheet of tissue used back then when generating carbon copies on a typewriter so that he could explain to my mother, recovering in another room in the hospital, what had happened. In the lower left-hand corner, in pencil, is written ‘Cause? German measles. Unknown. Flu.’
One of my most potent childhood memories is of finding this document among my parents’ papers. I was old enough to read, and I read my name; I read that I was dead, and I wondered how this could be true. A sense of displacement – the earliest whisps of being able to imagine adult woe, of my parents before me, of me after them; of secrets, of things so personal that they are never discussed.
For a long time, I kept the embryonic awareness of self, the sweetness and the sadness of it that were awakened by the discovery of the other Daron, secret. When I asked my mother to explain, she smiled, and told me that I had been given his name in his honor, that I was living for two, and to not be sad, that she missed him, but that she felt him with her always, always. We never spoke of him again, but he has always, always been with me.
About a decade ago in Pittsburgh, my wife (who I was then commuting from New York to court) and I were having dinner in an intimate little Japanese restaurant called Nobu. Returning from the restroom, she asked me who the happy little boy was she had seen out of the corner of her eye sitting next to me. There had been, in reality, no boy. I believed then (as I still do) that she saw not the boy but rather, to paraphrase Wallace Stevens, the boy himself. That was when I told her this story. Someday I will share it with my son, hoping it will help him a little to understand his father.
Jan 12, 2009
Rondo for Ned
'Good luck, boys,’ Michael Carrigan said as he handed us each a small envelope with thirty dollars in it. Stamped on each in a heavily-seriffed typeface that seemed to evoke the Ages were the words THE CURTIS INSTITUTE OF MUSIC. Below that was scrawled in loopy letters our name and the date — something-something-1982. Our train-fare and lunch money: we were Ned’s first generation of students at the Curtis; we were on our way to New York for our lessons.
Letter to Ned, 1 January 1983: ‘My mother died in my arms last night….’We were punctilious about ringing the buzzer at precisely the appointed hour. To be early or late was to begin our lessons with explanations. Not good. I remember that I nearly always wore a suit and tie, because I understood that respect was due, and because I also understood that a lesson with Ned wasn’t just a lesson, it was a performance.
Ned’s Diary, 12 January, 1983: ‘Daron’s mother has died. …I still see her transparent skin, the eager eyes like candles as she leaned across the table in the Barclay bar, pride subduing fever. Daron at twenty lacks the protection that I at fifty-nine still retain from my parent, tant bien que mal.’Lessons began with lunch laid out on the red dining room table. There was always a quiche from Soutine’s, Godiva chocolates, and sometimes berries. Always, there was a pitcher filled with liquid of indeterminate color that we dubbed Mystery Juice. Years later Jim revealed to me that it consisted of a mélange of whatever unfinished juices there were to be found in the refrigerator on the morning of our lessons.
Letter from Ned, 2 May 1984: ‘I read your whole diary in almost one fell swoop and was quite impressed. Diaries are dangerous, being the most subjective of literary forms (and subjectivity is boring), but yours makes it, and is the real thing.’There were books everywhere; paintings of Ned on the living room walls. Jim might pass through on his way to an engagement. On the piano would be placed copies of whichever of Ned’s pieces Boosey had just put into print. Wallace the cat, fat, foul-tempered, and plagued by seizures set off by rhythmic sounds, would flit in from the bedroom, rub on our legs, and then hiss at us imperiously before stalking out.
My Diary, 22 October, 1987: ‘Over to Ned’s for tea and to play him the St. Louis Symphony performance of Fresh Ayre. ‘What a sexy piece,’ says Jim. Ned sighs: ‘Well, it isn’t entirely successful, is it? The orchestration is too thick, too subtle — can’t you get those sounds more easily?’ He’s right, of course, but how I hate that! Finished copying the Schuyler parts — my seventh copying job for Ned — how many more of his pieces will I copy over the years?’Over lunch, Norman Stumpf, Robert Convery and I would be quizzed on the concerts we had attended, the music we had listened to, the books we had read, and whatever gossip had manifested itself at Curtis since our previous lessons. Ned didn't talk about himself. Although we were never explicitly instructed to do so, it was clear that we were expected to express ourselves as concisely and as articulately as possible. I was good at this part, so I relished it.
My Diary, 29 February, 1988: ‘Leap Year Day. A letter today from David Diamond, in which he admonishes me to ‘read, read, read, especially 19th-century novels, and be more introspective,’ and one from Ned saying, ‘Don’t try so hard to be Rastignac. A little more egoism would do you good.’Talking Part finished, Ned would move into the living room and seat himself at the piano, followed by whoever had volunteered to go first. The rest of us would sit in the dining room at the table and talk quietly, or peruse Ned’s library. (It was considered an honor to be entrusted with a book for the week.) One squirmed (or not) on a little, uncomfortable cane-seated chair next to Ned as he played through whatever one had brought. Bringing sketches to a lesson could be disastrous — we had learned through bitter experience that an entire lesson could be devoted to cleaning up our notation if we didn’t bring our work in as immaculately notated as possible.
Letter to Ned, 30 March, 1994: ‘I was delighted with your students’ seriousness and technical facility when I taught them for you last week; they adore you and are good young men. I think I offered them a lot and felt both fulfilled and invigorated by the experience. I think that A. is the most talented, B. the most ambitious, and C. the most sweet-natured. But they’re all first-rate, aren’t they?’Listening to somebody else’s lesson was as illuminating as one’s own; eavesdropping when Ned periodically took a phone call to talk business was equally enlightening. It took me a couple of weeks to realize that I was fortunate to have read all of his books before joining his studio, because he occasionally vamped — or was he testing us? we never could tell — by making points that he had already made in his published writings. We called this ‘playing tapes’ and it seemed to please Ned when we caught him at it.
'Instruction is not offered, it is seized,’ Ned would explain, pulling a pencil from the juice glass on the piano.
Letter to Ned, 29 August, 1996: ‘Young Eli, on the other hand, is a pleasure — very sweet and serious. He works harder than this school deserves, though not more than I deserve. I have encouraged him to take a tutorial with Bill Weaver and to seek out Ashbery when he’s a senior. Bill says he’ll take him as a student. A very good kid….’I had a habit back then which probably annoyed Ned enormously. If he asked me whether I had read something I hadn’t, I would say that I had, and then read the book the following week. Needless to say, I ended up reading a lot of books. I was eager to impress, and too eager for him to get to the point, to (I thought at the time) risk having my lesson derailed by my lack of erudition. It took me a few too many rather nasty, embarrassing moments to be cured of this character failing. Twenty-seven years later, it irritates me when my students do it to me with an intensity only possible in one once guilty of the same thing.
Letter from Ned, 5 July, 1997: ‘Yaddo tells me about October 23. I said no. I simply can’t do things like that anymore. Then they asked again, and said that you and Lowell would do all the work, perform all the songs — that all I had to do is curtsy. So I said yes. About your songs: Do bees make sandwiches?’I also liked to try to impress Ned by bringing in what I thought were finished pieces. ‘Ah, another fait accompli,’ he would sigh. ‘Of course, it’s finished, so nothing I say matters.’ Beat. ‘On the other hand, there’s always something to criticize; that’s why I'm here,’ he would say, drawing a pencil from the juice glass like a stiletto.
Ned’s Diary, 14 January, 1999: ‘Daron at 3 A.M. came into my sleep-sodden room to say quietly, ‘We think you should get up.’ With Sonny and the cats beside him, Jim lay there, dead….’He was at his best with me when he was the most brutal, and the better my music was, the more merciless his critique would be. He never pretended to be an academic; he was a mid-career professional. Consequently, his reactions were like dispatches from the creative and intellectual front lines, uninflected, and deadly serious. I often disagreed with Ned, but I never for a moment doubted that he was speaking from vast experience and from the gut.
Letter to Ned, 12 July, 1999: ‘Gilda visited me at Yaddo today … and showed me the letter you wrote her about her songs. What a lovely note, and boy, what a generous gesture: she was excited, honored, and grateful to hear from you.’Afterwards, Norman and I usually walked down Broadway to Times Square together, talking about our lessons. I remember that we did enjoy being Young and we talked about it, as well as the romance of Manhattan and our excitement at feeling as though we were on a meaningful journey. As ubiquitous as Starbucks is now, Brew and Burger was then; we would step into one and spend our lunch allowance on a pitcher of beer and burgers, wrangle like pups over the Big Issues, Music, Tonality, Modernism, Minimalism, and —isms in general. We laughed a lot, and the Big City on those evenings opened for us like Pandora’s Box. We were Young though, and Resilience and Hope always sustained us.
I remember when Norman took his life a few months later. I know that Ned does, too; the symphony I wrote in Norman’s memory at Curtis; Ned sitting with Norman’s weeping parents in the hall as I conducted his classmates in its single performance
Birthday Piece from Ned, 1 November, 2002: ‘Coming or going, our names are forever intertwined. Betwixt us we share eight musical letters: two D’s, three E’s, two A’s, one G, from which for your birthday, I have composed this rhapsody … the remaining letters spell RNOGRH NROR which, in ancient Celtic, means ‘Love Forever’.’Music has intertwined our lives contrapuntally for over a quarter of a century. I was hurt by the way Ned portrayed me in his diaries. But I understood that an author inevitably hurts the people around him when writing memoir well, and forgave him. We've remained ever in touch, and he's respected my privacy. Ned is one of the few people I know who 'gets' me; that's more important, as he would say, even than friendship, in the end.
Letter from Ned, 7 August, 2006: ‘Very dear Daron—My heart and soul are with you now and forever. Too tired to write more. Always—Ned.’
Oct 19, 2008
Composing for Orchestra
Composing concert music for traditional symphony orchestra (as opposed to commercial music for games and soundtracks, which is intended to be performed for microphones in a studio, recorded, and manipulated by audio technicians, which is quite another thing) requires an understanding of the culture of the orchestra as a performing unit, a specific set of musical skills-many of which can be learned only through hands on experience, and an appreciation of what it feels like (and sounds like) to both play in an orchestra and to hear an orchestra from the audience.
Orchestras are Big: they are particularly good at being Big and at expressing Big Thoughts. Rehearsal time is limited: composers who write practical pieces that are orchestrated in a fashion that makes the orchestra sound good in the allotted time get programmed. An orchestra can make complicated music sound straightforward if the composer is a good orchestrator. An orchestra all playing one pitch together in various octaves is as beautiful, opulent, and as stirring as the greatest organ: consequently, an orchestra-like any first-rate performer-can make superficial, even stupid music seem profound-at least while they are playing it.
How I Learned to Orchestrate
First, of course, there was the book: Nicolai Rimsky Korsakov's Principals of Orchestration. At the age of ten I found it at the Brookfield Square Mall Walden Books around the same time that adolescence found me. Leaning against the elm tree at the northeast corner of the intersection of Meadow Lane and Elm Grove Road during the winter of 1971, waiting for the school bus alone, poring over the Korsakov, I could feel the pull of the secret world of Musicians. In retrospect, its allure was a combination of things: its contents seemed to offer a path toward beginning to understand the unfathomable language of music; it served, as an object in itself, as a talisman or icon from the world of music, helping to make real to me a world that was still out of my reach, but might one day welcome me; finally, simply handling the book made me feel special. I read and re-read it obsessively. Had the scriptures affected me as viscerally at that age, I'd have become a minister instead of a composer.
At fifteen, Harry Sturm, assistant principal cellist of the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner, took me under his wing, devised a great summer-long introduction to the ways of the orchestra: first, I was to play piano in the ensemble for a concert; second, I was to station myself in various parts of the ensemble and listen to how they interacted as he conducted rehearsals for another concert; third, I was to take lessons in the rudiments of conducting from his assistant; fourth, I was to compose, rehearse, and conduct the premiere of my piece. The result was Suite for a Lonely City-the piece that my mother sent to Leonard Bernstein that triggered a letter from him that changed my life forever. In his review of the concert, Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Journal critic back then, wrote that I must have felt like Moses atop Mount Pisgah, looking down from the podium into an orchestral Promised Land as I led my fellow teenagers in the premiere of my first orchestra piece. I did.
Although I've taught orchestration, I've never taken a class in it. I've learned by doing, composing for everything from high school band to the New York Philharmonic and everything in between. On 13 July 1979, the summer after graduating from Brookfield Central High School, I proudly accepted my first professional fee as an orchestrator-a Burt Bacharach tune for the Milwaukee Symphony-courtesy of John-David Anello, the fascinating founding conductor of the Milwaukee Pops. I still have the pay stub. The same summer Anello also gave me my first music copying gig-extracting the solo piano part for the Yellow River Concerto.
Curtis didn't offer a class in orchestration when I was there and, in any event, I was by this point developing my chops by composing as much orchestral music as I possibly could, since the Director, John de Lancie, had miraculously (and with what now seems Olympian generosity) decreed that I was to be allowed (nay, required, since he told me when I asked him why he was allowing me this golden opportunity that he cordially detested the idea of composers 'sitting on their hands' while conductors and performers tried to make sense of their scores) to conduct the premieres of whichever orchestral works I was able to complete. He kept his promise, authorizing me to compose and conduct the premieres of about six hours' worth of orchestral music-concertos for violin and cello, an orchestral song cycle, a suite, an overture, a symphony, and Prayer for Peace for string orchestra-while a student at the Curtis, along with a dozen chamber works, a one act opera which I staged and conducted, songs, and cycles.
By the time I reached Juilliard, I was already fulfilling commissions from major orchestras, so I didn't see the point of submitting to the (then) rather Byzantine process of competing for a chance to have one's music sight-read by the second-level orchestra there. I had begun learning the brutal professional orchestra world lessons before graduation from the Curtis. For example, orchestra players (like small children) are brutally honest in their criticism of composers. And they should be, since performing a bad piece of music is for them much more like being trapped on a coast-to-coast flight with a screaming infant than most composers seem to understand. Halfway through the first rehearsal of Prayer for Peace, the composition with which I made my professional debut as a composer with the Philadelphia Orchestra at nineteen, I felt the tide of opinion turn in my piece's favor when William dePasquale turned to Joe dePasquale and said, 'I know he's young, but c'mon, Joe, let's give the kid a break.'
Dealing with Players
Orchestral players are proud members of an exceedingly close-knit community with strict codes of behavior who customarily function in a highly stressful work environment. From their earliest days at conservatory they've labored to blend well with their colleagues, to simultaneously stand out, yet serve as a cog in an enormous eighteenth century music-making apparatus. I recall observing John de Lancie's wind sectional rehearsals as a student: he would beat four, command each player to enter on beat one with their softest note, grow louder as the beat proceeded to four, and then diminish to nothing as four more beats went by. The tension was incredible. This developed the players' nerves, taught them how to perform under severe pressure, and served to shape them into a section.
Working for many years as a professional music copyist (for both concert and commercial projects) taught me a lot about what orchestral players need to see in the part that is put in front of them. Although when the parts go on the stands the composer has all the Power, his Authority diminishes every time something is harder to play than it needs to be, the notes are unidiomatic for the instruments, or when technical mistakes and errata emerge in the performance materials. Adhering to the Major Orchestra Librarians' Association guidelines is a good start. (If you use copyists, make sure they do; if you copy your own parts, know them.) Observing Norman Carol (back then the concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra) conducting my classmates in a string sectional, I once saw him toss a Krzysztof Penderecki score over his shoulder in disgust because the string parts were so poorly notated. 'Maybe he's a genius, who knows?' he cried, exasperated. 'I certainly can't tell by looking at these parts!'
If asked by the conductor to address the orchestra, speak no more than three minutes and save the description of your inner motivation for your program note-if anyone cares, they can always read it later. Don't take personally the 'Don't tell me why you wrote this thing fella just tell me if you want it fast or slow, loud or soft' attitude that can seem to come off the stage like air out of a walk-in freezer. If you've written a good piece, the temperature in the room will rise. You might even get a 'good job' or two. Orchestral players are people who want to express themselves: embraces, gratitude, even tears really are possible, if you the piece has earned them.
Orchestra players don't care about synthesizers-except if they're being used to take the place of humans. Commercial orchestrators and composers are using fewer and fewer living players, more and more gadgets. This concerns everyone.
A composer must first ask himself how he failed when something doesn't sound the way he thought it would. Making changes during rehearsals, dreaming up extra-musical rationales for why something isn't working, is for amateurs. Don't try to make up for your failure to properly notate what you heard by explaining yourself to the conductor, or by coaching the players; leave them alone. Let them do their jobs. Period.
Dealing with Conductors
Respect the chain of command. Speak when spoken to. Never address a player directly during rehearsal; all interaction should be through the conductor.
Obey the house rules: if you compose for an orchestra hurl not your sabot into the machinery. Whether or not you think the person standing on the podium deserves it, tradition dictates that he be addressed as Maestro. Orchestras are tyrannies ruled by conductors, not democracies, and that fact can be really hard on people who became instrumentalists partly out of an urge to express their individuality. One thing a conductor can count on, to paraphrase Oscar Levant, is the knowledge that the players in their orchestra will inevitably grow to despise him. With the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in my early thirties I alienated the conductor forever when, in response to his request for a few comments, I mounted the podium (another mistake) and, in five minutes, rattled off all of my notes to the orchestra. The players shuffled their feet, applauding me, but really they were just enjoying the discomfiture of their sovereign. The composer is the only person in the room who knows the score better than the conductor. Accordingly, conductors prefer that we smile gratefully and to remain mute, no matter what.
Don't be a backseat driver. Unless you are waving the stick, your tempo is not necessarily the correct one. The conductor's job is to make his orchestra and (secondarily) your piece sound good. He has already taken a risk by programming your work. I don't vouch for the veracity of this story, but I repeat it because, if it is apocryphal, then is truer than truth. It involves Serge Koussevitzky and Béla Bartók, who during a rehearsal of the majestic Concerto for Orchestra, kept piping up with comments. Maestro asked maestro: 'Can you please hold your comments until the break, and we will discuss them in my dressing room?' The maestros met; through the door a furious battle. When the rehearsal resumed, Maestro announced to the players that the Maestros had agreed that everything was going just fine.
Dealing with Management
Composers and performers rarely think about the fact that orchestras are charities, that ticket sales cover only a relatively small portion of the cost of concerts, that donors underwrite everyone's salaries. Composers are paid a fraction to compose the concertos that soloists are paid to play a single time-for entirely understandable reasons. Audiences, boards, players, and conductors are-with famous and noble exceptions-resistant to programming new works-even ones that are stylistically ingratiating. When you think about it, it's a miracle that there are as many orchestras as there are.
Try to understand that the audience isn't there to hear your piece, and behave accordingly. As far as programming is concerned, folks are there mainly to hear the soloist play the concerto; the standard repertoire celebrates the artistry of the orchestra and the players; to the audience your piece is a new piece of music is at best little bit like the relative from out of town who tags along on a date; at worst, your piece is, well, another version of the screaming baby in an airplane scenario. Management knows and accepts this, even if you do not. Usually folks in management have never heard of you; your piece has been programmed on the say-so of the music director, or the executive director joined a consortium and now they have to fulfill their side of the bargain. Be nice. Be real. Ask questions. Study the myriad practical issues they are facing, and they will try to understand yours.
Dealing with the Audience
It isn't just important that young people should meet and speak with a living composer; it is important for composers to be reminded about the fact that, to most young people, we simply don't exist. We can do something about it. If you are asked by your conductor or the education folks at an orchestra to visit schools, say yes. Be friendly, unpretentious, accessible, and do not condescend.
If you are asked to speak to the audience, keep your remarks under three minutes and don't make things up or try to be clever. Speak from the heart-that's eloquent enough. Let your music do the talking.
If you are asked to speak to donors, ask the development people in management to explain to you who they are and what they do. Respect yourself and the people around you by wearing a good suit and tie or a dress to the concert and surrounding events.
If you are asked to give a pre-concert talk, you have been given a marvelous opportunity to be an advocate not just for your piece, but for contemporary music. It isn't about you.
The soloist and the conductor are the most important people in the Green Room. Don't feel badly if people don't recognize you, or know what to say to you. Take up only as much space as your personal value system is comfortable with. Stay centered; be happy (you've just had a première!); look people in the eye when they shake your hand and congratulate you; listen to them; don't dig your toe in the ground-actually or metaphorically. Thank your conductor; thank players. If a player compliments you, savor the fact that that is not a given and thank her: we are all professionals, but no composer is entitled to a good performance.
Oct 1, 2008
'I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me.’ — Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi.David Diamond had given me the impression that student composers at Juilliard were forbidden to take lessons with anyone except our principle teacher; so, meeting with Vincent Persichetti felt sort of illicit, dangerous – especially because of the way he leaned forward over the desk that separated us on which the full score of my first symphony was spread. It was the spring of 1985, and near the end of what had been a delightfully instructive lesson. His piercing, bird-like eyes shone as spoke, his sentences came out in short, conspiratorial bursts; his cigarette smoldered, forgotten, between his fingers, the long, drooping ash hanging from the business end was on the verge of falling off.
‘Golly,’ he said, you’ve got a handsome hand there,’ Vincent said, paging through my score one last time. He got to the point. ‘Arnie tells me you won’t take his class.’
Arnold Arnstein, appreciated and respected with quiet ferocity by an entire generation of American composers, including Bernstein, Diamond, Harris, Schuman, Barber, Piston, Persichetti, and Diamond, among others, was generally believed to be the finest living American music copyist. And he really was. Years of the work had destroyed his eyes, which were reamed in red and watery, hugely enlarged by the thick glasses he wore. He taught a class in music copying at Juilliard that all of us composers were required to take. I had been working already for five years as a professional copyist, and had some pretty heavy clients, including Diamond (a somewhat sadistic employer), Elliot Carter (whose wife Helen would telephone me very, very early in the morning to ask how the work was coming along), Ned (an excellent, patient employer who customarily paid other copyists more than me), and others, and so I had figured, with casual ignorance, that I should be exempted from attendance.
‘We’ve got to figure out some sort of way to work this out, Daron,’ said Vincent. ‘Arnie’s a great copyist, y’know; he could teach you a lot.’ He shot me a quick look. ‘But, but,’ he not so much stuttered as took quick gulps of air, ‘y’know, if you weren’t so talented, I’d say, uh, sure, y’know, go ahead, take these copying jobs. But, I think you’ve gotta not do that. Um, do anything, uh, be a garbage man; just stop copying other people’s music for them.’
‘But I need the money,’ I replied. The cigarette ash fell on my score, just as I had feared it would.
‘Yeah, I know. Oops,’ he said, brushing off the ash, ‘Sorry.’ A quick, sweet smile, ‘Plus, you get half the money up front and all that; then you have to work it off,’ he sighed, looked at the floor. ‘Well. Maybe I could ask Arnie to put you on his crew for this Menotti opera he’s copying right now. I hear it’s pretty wildly behind schedule and he needs extra guys. Then you could learn from him, y’see, and get paid at the same time, and not have to take his class. How about that?’
I remembered my first 'copying job' — extracting a piano solo part for the Yellow River Concerto in blue ballpoint pen for John David Anello and the Milwaukee Symphony during the seventies while I was still in high school. And then, my astonishment upon winning a job as a music copyist a few years later at the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in Philadelphia when Sam Dennison, the curator, pulled from the shelves the same Yellow River part I had copied in Milwaukee. And then, working at Fleisher while a student at Curtis, spending hours in the stacks, combing through the collection of scores by South American composers copied by hard-working WPA chaps during the Depression — all exquisitely done, many in three or four colors, most never looked at again, let alone performed.
One of my work study jobs at the Curtis had been to copy parts for the school’s orchestra when necessary, to transfer bowings into them from the Philadelphia Orchestra string parts that Clint Newig – their coolly capable orchestra librarian – would send over. Another was to help Edwin Heilakka, the gentle, fascinating man who ran the Institute’s orchestra library, to organize Leopold Stokowski’s papers and scores – the maestro had just died and his widow had gifted them to the school. I remember opening some scores and having bread and butter letters from Aaron Copland, Bernard Herrmann, Samuel Barber, Ned, others slip out from where he had left them. My fingers practically tingled as I drew out of one of the boxes Stokowski’s full score of The Rite of Spring, which contained not just his clever orchestration changes in one color, but Stravinsky’s own modifications for performance specifically in the Academy of Music in another.
Twain: ‘Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river!'
Computer software ‘engraving programs’ such as Score, Finale, and Sibelius have rendered mine the last generation of American concert music and opera composers who shall have had the opportunity to serve our musical apprenticeships in the ancient, traditional, and I think honorable manner of extracting, by hand, using quills, India ink, and vellum, the individual parts (which are all presented together in the conductor’s full score), from whence the musicians play the single lines the composer has crafted for them. We music copyists were like monks, running into one another at Associated Music just south of Columbus Circle when we stuck our heads out to pick up supplies, meet with our clients, share with our colleagues ‘secret saves’ and anecdotes from the trenches of our drawing boards.
Twain, again: ‘Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty's cheek mean to a doctor but a 'break' that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn't he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn't he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?’My worst experience as a copyist was working for David Diamond: he had written a concerto for a soloist who, while in every other way professional, urbane, and musically sublime, hadn’t looked at his part very carefully before the first rehearsal; the conductor was frustrated by the fact that three or four errors had eluded my proofreader’s eye, but had only come to light piecemeal because not every player had attended every rehearsal. I recall the conductor spinning around and facing me from the podium at one point, shrieking, ‘Copyist! I thought you had corrected these parts!’ Everything turned out just fine. Correct them, I did: David had me change every one of the seventy or so printed parts by hand, using an electric eraser, over the course of the next few weeks to teach me, I suppose, a lesson. As far as I know, the piece hasn’t been performed since.
My loveliest experience as a copyist came one afternoon at the Fleisher Collection sometime in the early eighties: Karen Campbell, Kile Smith, Norman Stumpf, and I were all copying the parts to Louis Gruenberg’s enormous cantata Song of Faith, when I began softly humming the song ‘Another You.’ Norman picked up the tune, louder; Karen, who I could hear, but not see, began improvising on it an octave higher. Soon, the composer Romulus Franchescini joined in, and the saxophone-player copyist Bill (who actually preferred to be called Art but nobody knew that until twenty years after he retired) Daniels, and then Sam, growling in the bass, and finally, Kile, pattering a soft beat with a pen in one hand tapping a water glass and the other tapping his desk. After a little while, it died away naturally and we went back to work. It was such a moment of perfect grace that nobody ever mentioned it again.
Jul 26, 2008
Composing Shining Brow
My reflexive response, when asked, one July afternoon in 1989, by Roland Johnson of the Madison Opera, who I wanted to serve as my librettist for an opera they were interested in commissioning about Frank Lloyd Wright, was Paul Muldoon. Back then, the only way you could reach someone at the MacDowell Colony was by way of two telephone booths in Colony Hall, where Paul was seated, a few feet away, reading the newspaper. I leaned out of the booth and asked, ‘Say, Paul, how would you like to write an opera together?’
Whereas I had written the first act of Brow entirely without input, the second act I took several times to meetings with Bernstein.
We had had over the months enough soul-searching heart-to-heart talks about inspiration and authenticity, ewigkeit and the human spirit to fulfill the rankest amateur's most sentimental expectations of what serious composers ought in private to discuss. I was honored at last to be treated like a colleague by Bernstein: the ebullience and exhilaration of craft-what professionals really talk to one another about-Marc Blitzstein once described as "something called the artist's personality, plus the equation of content and form; [they] are part of the story. For the rest, listen to the stuff"-came in due course, and when it did, it proved entirely more useful.
Our ritual: a glass of Ballantine's together, a round or two of anagrams, the Times of London crossword (which he would do left to right, in rows, in the time it took him to write the letters), some light gossip, and then I would sit down at the piano and play for him one of his Anniversaries, which I had memorized for the occasion. At last, I would play and sing the scene from Brow that I was working on. He'd become tough, all business, focused like a laser beam, speed over to the bench, push me to the side, and start playing off of my manuscript, squinting, sort of wheeze-singing as he briskly double-checked parts he wanted to speak to.
"Okay, baby," he'd begin. "Try this." He would "put over" a few bars of what I had written and veer off in a new direction, improvising an entirely different line reading. Then he'd stop, suck on his plastic cigarette holder, quickly page to a different part of the manuscript, find something, and say, "Or you could have used this from before, like this." He'd play a few bars. "No, that wouldn't work." I'd improvise a different line reading. "No, no, you can't do that!" he would laugh, "Marc did that in No for an Answer! Do you know that one?" He'd noodle a few bars. "No, that was Tender Land. Ugh. God." Laughter.Around this time, Paul and I spent a week at Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Especially helpful in my portrayal of Wright in the second act were the insights that Wright protégés Edgar Tafel and Richard Carney shared with me. In the beautiful recital hall there, Paul read some of his libretto aloud, and I played and sang several arias from the opera-in-progress for the Taliesin Fellowship. I was privileged to stay for a few nights at Taliesin in Spring Green during the fall of 1991, to dine with the apprentices, and to attend a cocktail party in the same room in which Paul and I had set our fictional one. Did I feel Wright’s presence? I did – as strongly as, a few months later I felt Bernstein’s, when Brow was workshopped after his death at his home in the Dakota. Allan Gurganus suavely describes what I think I felt in both places as ‘some essence quorum of [their] souls’ intensities.’
After the company accepted the opera, it was time to choose a stage director. I suggested a young writer named Stephen Wadsworth. Bernstein had described to me how Stephen had just helped him to flesh out and extend his one act opera, Trouble in Tahiti, into a two act opera called A Quiet Place – a tricky, thankless job. Stephen masterminded a beautiful, heart-rending first production of Shining Brow which was as much a memorial to Lenny as a meditation on the career and life choices of a famous architect.
Six months of orchestrating – some in New York, the rest at Yaddo. Production. And then it went up: I remember standing during a performance at what is called ‘the rail’ of the house, behind the audience, where the authors traditionally are allowed to pace, fret, enjoy and suffer, performances of their work, with Stephen, as the tragic finale unfolded.
Stephen said, ‘Look!’
‘Eh?’ I said.
‘Look at them,’ he said, sweeping a hand over the audience, who were experiencing the last few minutes of the opera. ‘They’re all weeping.’
‘Yes, that’s where we want them,’ I said.
‘No,’ he said. ‘That’s where they want to be. You did that. I did that. Paul did it. The performers did it. Communion. We all did it. Together.’
Jun 24, 2008
'The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.' - George Bernard Shaw
As Gardner McFall, Stephen Wadsworth and I listened to the first read-through of our opera Amelia, we carefully monitored the 'feel' of the invited audience, did our utmost to be sensitive to how the opera was or was not at any given moment 'connecting' with them. It was a thrill to hear the work on its feet, as it were; it is moving to know that so many talented people are working together to realize one's vision. Although I have been down this road before, and have necessarily grown brutal about revising my work during the workshop process over the years, I felt afresh the subdued flush of communal satisfaction that only comes with collaboration. Hearing many people moved to tears helped fortify the illusion that I hold that I had as a composer succeeded pretty well in being 'of one mind' with them as they experienced our opera.
While a real-life opera composer must be (as Oscar Levant wrote of good conductors) "irrationally convinced that he is right," and convinced that he is "in control" of that "coherent musical universe," his artistic vision must also be reconciled with his cold-blooded, professional assessment of the relative "success" of his music with the audience's needs in creating the procession of psychological and emotional states required. He them must combine these with the assessments of the rest of the creative team, all of whom are monitoring the relative "success" of their contributions.After the workshop, the very sane, very hard process of overcoming knee-jerk self-defense mechanisms by accepting criticism from the rest of the creative team recommenced, and together we continued to hone the collective reality, labored to enhance the audience's suspension of disbelief, so that Amelia’s 'coherent musical universe' might now be dressed by the costume designer, made corporeal by the set designer, and illuminated by the lighting designer, all under the supervision of the stage director. If I did not pause — after having composed two evening-long grand operas, two one-act operas, and two chamber operas — to indulge in an uncontrolled giggle of delight at my good fortune, it was not because I was ungrateful, or unmoved by the enthralling Process in which we were and continue to be involved, it was because I've had that moment before, and the stakes are even higher now that I am older and more experienced: it was and remains crucial that I keep my head clear, objective, and in the game.
If the Titanic really did sink because of the substandard ore that was smelted for the under-trained riveters, it is an excellent cautionary metaphor for why composers of grand opera (which is in countless ways like an enormous ocean liner) must possess a comprehensive musical skill set before writing one. The workshop process and the delegation of important components of the composer's job (like orchestration) to others can set off the "for want of a nail the shoe was lost" sequence of events that has sunk so many well-intentioned (and expensive) projects, just as surely as a romantic, sentimental faith that the composer's "inspiration" alone will carry the day.
Jun 11, 2008
‘The post!’ shrieked Frances, rushing out of the room. An expectant pause, a temporary truce. ‘Two for my mother, one for Sophie Bentinck with a sweet blue seal of cupid — no, it’s a goat with wings — and one for Di, franked. I can’t make out the frank. Who’s it from, Di?’ — Post Captain, Patrick O’Brian
First Letters. My father occasionally sent me letters from Chicago, where he worked, addressed to Master Daron Hagen, Esquire, when I was very young because he knew that, flipping down the door of the mailbox and — sacred joy! — finding a letter there addressed to me, never failed to send me over the moon.
Returned Letters. A letter returned, unopened, is a poignant thing; one hardly knows what to make of correspondence returned in its entirety a decade or two after delivery. It has happened to me twice. During my first two years of college, I wrote a letter (sometimes two) every day to my high school sweetheart. (It helped that my student job was as a campus mailman for the University of Wisconsin, so I could frank the letters for free.) Years ago, she sent them all back to me. I’ve never opened the box, and probably never will; but they are safely stowed among my papers. Strangely, a few months before he died, my father sent me the two decades’ worth of the letters I had written to him and to my mother. I meant never to open that box either, but, just before placing it in the attic Upstate, I did; peered in, drew out at random four or five. Of course we scarcely see ourselves as others see us, or as we portray ourselves to our loved ones in prose, but the embarrassed, painful shock of recognition when I caught a whiff of the plucky, I’m-gonna-make-it tone, the rat-tat-tat enumeration of fleeting achievements, the callow attitudinizing, the ‘insider’ airs, was still as unexpected as it was acute. I quickly re-sealed the box and, shuddering, put it away.
Dead Letters. Every couple of days, the letter carrier puts in our box mail intended for the previous, now deceased, inhabitant of our apartment. Would it be more appropriate for me to write ‘Moved. Left no forwarding address’ on the envelopes (rather than the admittedly unsentimental ‘DEAD’ I customarily write in large, block letters) before placing them carefully atop the mailboxes for the carrier to take god-knows-where?
Colony Letters. How many times have I over the decades walked wistfully past the mail table in the linoleum room at Yaddo, pining for a letter? Who has not left a letter with a luminary’s return address on it sitting there for a few extra hours before retrieving it, hoping that the other guests will notice it? Or carried mail for others? (Once in Florida, Ned gave me a sheaf of letters to put into a mailbox just as we were about to drive somewhere, saying, 'In case we are killed on the road, these shall have been my last thoughts.' Summer after summer, at MacDowell and at Yaddo, charged by the deliciously acerbic Louise Talma with making sure that her letters went directly to the post office: ‘I don’t want people snooping into my affairs!’ she would grumble, Pall Mall dangling down from the side of her mouth.) That priceless epistolary commodity: a gossipy letter received while in residence from someone currently in residence at another colony.
Sung Letters. No wonder that opera composers, when looking for words of unimpeachable authenticity, first-person and emotionally-fraught, decidedly not meant for posterity, so often turn to letters: a clatch come to mind — Tatanya’s letter to Onegin; Baby Doe singing of her love for Horace; the letter aria in Tobias Picker’s Emmeline; Schoen’s letter to his fiancée in Lulu; the letter scene from Werther. I am not immune: my opera Amelia climaxes with the reading of a dead naval aviator’s ‘final letter’ to his daughter.
Lost Letters. Re-read so many times that it disintegrated in my hands, the most precious letter of my youth now exists only in memory. I’d loved her since the age of eight and had finally summoned the courage to tell her. I held her reply in my sweaty, ten-year-old fist. I turned the note over on its back, peeled it open, and read it, experienced for the first time how the entire universe can be transformed by three little words, written in the loopy handwriting of an eleven-year-old girl, I love you.
May 29, 2008
‘For this flautando pianissimo, would the first violins please lead from the back this time,’ said the gentle Voice of Authority, who sat next to me last weekend in a tiny room in the basement of the Flynn Theater in Burlington, Vermont, wearing a set of headphones and leaning over the score of my Double Concerto, making quick little pencil notations over each measure as upstairs, on the stage, Jaime Laredo, Sharon Robinson and the Vermont Orchestra, conducted by Troy Peters, performed.
The effect was as striking as it was instantaneous: listening through headphones myself, I now heard the violins in the back of my head instead of the front, and the sound, while being more ethereal, had more middle to it. I was astonished. Later, Troy explained to me that this is a fairly common request, made to elicit a little more evenness and heft from a section of strings, but it was new to me, and a revelation. ‘Concertmasters,’ he continued sensibly, ‘lead; it’s their job. So they tend to be a little ahead of the rest of the section, especially in super-loud, intense passages. This can take away a little bit from the center of the sound.’
Adam Abeshouse was the ideal producer and engineer for the Vermont project; he generously answered my questions as time permitted, and seemed to realize that I was truly enjoying the experience not just of hearing my concerto documented so beautifully but also of learning from him.
Every producer I’ve worked with has taught me things. Years ago, serving as conductor for an ultimately unreleased recording of my opera Shining Brow, I learned a lot about how to pace a session by inadvertently allowing, by being too willing to agree not to move on, a highly accomplished, well-intentioned producer to spend most of a ninety minute recording session putting the first ninety seconds of the piece in the can. In his defense, he probably couldn't be faulted, since critics do seem to form a large part of their opinion of an entire recording based on listening to the first few minutes, and he probably felt that he was protecting the project.
Serving as a producer myself for a disc of Henry Cowell art songs one evening in New York at Town Hall (lovely, but noisy space — because of the Times newspaper delivery trucks that roar down Forty-third Street late at night), I learned to be highly selective about what I ask the engineer to play back for the artists. I’m afraid that I made the process harder than necessary for the soprano by allowing her to listen to too many takes. By the end of that long evening, she seemed gallows-bound as she marched down to the basement to don the headphones like (her words) a crown of thorns.
On another occasion, producing a disc of my wind ensemble music in Texas, I was taught to stop overusing the talk-back switch by a pair of engineers who assembled a little box connected to nothing with a switch and a light on it labeled ‘conductor interrupter’ and presented it to me after the last session, saying, ‘See, Daron, now you can talk as much as you want and never stop the session!’
Over the years, producing pickup orchestras contracted to record my private students' works at the lovely old Kaufman Studios in Astoria where so many of the great silent films were shot, I figured out, with the laid back, expert help of Joe Castellon, how a producer can practically conduct the orchestra from the booth if necessary.
I learned that being a little bit sneaky is an important skill for a producer during another session with a pianist and singer. I asked the engineer to run tape (how I date myself, since now sessions go straight to a computer’s hard drive) during rehearsals and was rewarded for my deceit (and foresight) when I captured the singer effortlessly lofting a lovely, creamy high A that, during takes, he never surpassed.
Sneakiness notwithstanding, trust is a producer’s currency; without it, the process can be really unpleasant. Serving as conductor for the recording sessions of my opera Bandanna in Las Vegas a few years ago, I worked with an excellent young German tonmeister who performed a real-time mix to stereo of the dozens of microphones trained on the soloists, chorus, and orchestra. I trusted him, but knowing (and having to accept) that what I was hearing on the podium was serving not as the final product but rather as the raw material for someone else’s ears was anguishing.
As a collaborative pianist, I have learned to sympathize acutely with performers’ insecurity and feelings of over-exposure when compelled to listen to playbacks of myself accompanying baritone Paul Kreider on a disc we made together for Arsis. I loved Paul's performances, but, oh dear, how keenly I shall have liked to have fired that clumsy pianist! I was ultimately satisfied with the quality of my performance on the released disc, but during those sessions mine was the scalding self-loathing usually reserved for viewing oneself naked in the mirror after a season of unmitigated gluttony.
Working towards a recording session as a proofreader for a music preparation team that had just finished copying the new charts for a first-time read-through at Carroll's (that history-drenched warren of rehearsal studios on Fifty-fifth Street) by Liza Minelli and her big band during the late nineties, I learned an important lesson about musical charisma by witnessing an artist of her amazing caliber turning it on, dazzling and inspiring even the most hard-boiled of elite New York freelance players and then, just as suddenly, turning it back off.
Post production, the magical-mystical place where the temptation to achieve perfection at the loss of musicality, authenticity, and genuine feeling is literally at one's fingertips, is just as fascinating. Choreographing the mix-down from 32-tracks in real-time with the engineer and performing overdubs on my opera Vera of Las Vegas for CRI, I learned to alternately revel in and despair at recording technology’s ability to enable one both to ‘bury’ mistakes in the mix, and to suddenly lose a dozen hours of work by accidentally pushing the wrong button.
What producers and performers share, of course, is the joy of capturing lightning in a bottle. At one point in Vermont, Adam turned to me and with a happy, child-like smile, remarked, ‘You know, there are like a handful of people in the world who could have done what Jaime just did there.’ It was one of those moments that was at once musically and personally fulfilling. As the recording industry continues to metamorphose, I’ll keep my hopes pinned on the Process of 'making records,' hoping that it never moves too far away from that key on a kite string in a thunderstorm place.
May 21, 2008
That's Alright, Baby
A hot Manhattan autumn day in 1987. 'That's alright, baby,' she purred with that famous 'just put your lips together and blow' voice as I tripped on the stairs and fell to my knees at her feet. 'Oh my, I'm sorry!' I said, looking up at her. Chuckling, she asked, 'Are you on your way to Lenny's?' My vocal chords no longer worked. 'Rglksh,' I croaked. She smiled and patted me on the arm as she passed. A whiff of perfume. 'Have fun,' she said, rounding the corner.
As a building, Juilliard today is far more welcoming than it was in 1978. It seemed to me then to be a coldly modernist art bunker from the outside; the inside was a succession of airless, cement-walled rooms lit with nasty fluorescent fixtures and by thin windows that allowed in little light but which would have been useful as arrow holes. There was also a vague atmosphere of profound arrogance to the place that I couldn't put my finger on, one that put me off.
It was evident to me the moment I entered the room that I was to be sent packing. The men who were to determine my future—David Diamond, Elliot Carter, Milton Babbit and Vincent Persichetti—sat at a long table on one side of the room. I seated myself in a straight-backed chair on the other side, facing them. The scores I had submitted sat in a neat pile in front of Diamond.
'Lenny wrote to me about this young man,' began Diamond. A flicker of interest passed across Persichetti's face. 'Why do you want to be a composer?' asked Persichetti. 'Because,' I replied, 'it is the only thing I have ever done that I know I will never be as good at as I want to be.' My bravado was met with disapproval. Diamond moved to the piano and, moving from low to high, stabbed at six or seven pitches. 'Please sing the pitches back and name them,' he said. I started to sweat as I sang the first three or four and then trailed off. 'Your ear is not your strong suit,' he clucked, reseating himself.
Next, Persichetti moved to the piano. 'I am going to play a little medley for you of various themes. Just call out the name of each, if you can, as I play, and I'll move on to another.' The unmistakable pungency of the Tristan chord. 'Good,' he smiled warmly. I was dazzled as he segued directly into a Gershwin tune whose name I didn't recall, 'That's fine,' he said, continuing. Then I missed two, and he played something that was clearly Mozart, but what I didn't know. I began laughing nervously. 'What's that?' asked Persichetti. 'I've never seen someone do that before,' I effused. 'That was wonderful!'
'Yes, well,' said Diamond. 'Evidently the repertoire is not your strong suit either.' Carter looked out the window. Babbit looked at the table in front of him. Neither made eye contact with me or said a word. Diamond reached for one of my scores and flipped it open. After paging through it for a moment, he pushed it over to Babbit, who didn't look at it. 'Mr. Hagen,' said Diamond funereally, 'it is felt that you should go back to Wisconsin and develop your technique.'
Apr 25, 2008
Knuckles and Digits (2)
I am — for better and for worse — a pianist. For about a year I was a very, very good one. Before that I was an amateur; after that I became what I am now, a composer who plays the piano.
This morning I awoke with the first few bars of Beethoven’s Opus 49, Number 1 in my head. Morning coffee made and carried into the music room, I pulled out the well-thumbed second volume of complete sonatas and placed it on the rack, turning, for the first time in twenty-eight years, to page 355.
Apr 6, 2008
Don't Let Gravity Win
'Fugue subjects,' said David Diamond, expertly sketching one on the sheet of music paper on the piano rack in front of us, 'are like snakes.' Over his shoulder I could see snowflakes whirling outside through a tall sliver of window. 'Every one of them has a head, a body, and a tail.' Chop, he slashed a line between the head and the body; chop, he slashed another between the body and the tail.
'Or like people,' I replied, 'with a head, a body, and a tale.' He laughed pleasantly. January of 1986 — the Regency Theater just around the corner was in the middle of its three week Truffaut retrospective; Marc Blitzstein’s Piano Concerto had just received its first performance in fifty years; I was one of David’s students, having a lesson at Juilliard.
'Or a Life,' he frowned, 'with a memorable Beginning, a Middle ripe for development, and an End….' He stopped writing. 'Now sketch a counter-subject.' I took the pencil from him and began adding my squiggles to the line above his. He pursed his lips. A sharp intake of breath: 'Something memorable,' he said, 'not ... mechanical.' I tried again, but all I could think was that Life, like 'a Pretty Girl, is like a Melody.' I giggled nervously.
'What’s so funny?' he asked.
'If Life is a Melody, then Energy must be the human compulsion to organize sound into Song,' I rallied, half-serious.
'And Force is the application of creative energy,' he smiled.
'And composition is Birth?' I asked.
'And pulse is Gravity,' he answered. 'Which makes entropy, or the lack of pulse, Death,' he said, taking the pencil. 'Look,' he circled the head of my counter-subject, 'this is memorable, so why not just take the tail of the subject, invert it, and use that as the head of the counter-subject?'
Chop, I thought: the snake devouring its tail. Chop. 'In my beginning is my end. Eliot,' I risked.
He chuckled. 'Right. The Ouroborus. My end is my beginning. Mary, Queen of the Scots. Earlier. Better,' he replied with finality as through the door the three light knocks of his next student indicated that my lesson was nearly up.
I carefully placed the enormous pages of my manuscript into the elephant portfolio in which I had brought it.
'Mr. Hagen,' he said, gravely, as I reached for the doorknob. 'Don’t let gravity win.'
Mar 27, 2008
Pushing Notes Around
My generation of music copyists and composers shall have been the last to compose music and extract parts entirely by hand. It also has experienced the collapse of the record industry, the rise of digital downloading, and the end of traditional music publishing.
In September of 1988, not long after matriculating from Juilliard, I took on for the first time the role of teacher when I accepted a job teaching music composition, ear-training and theory for two days each week at a liberal arts school ninety minutes north of New York City called Bard (whose motto at the time was 'A Place to Think') College. In retrospect, it is altogether possible-because I never considered myself an Academic and had no interest in a career as one-that I may have learned during those years more about myself by teaching music than my students learned about music by studying with me.
I'd been convinced to take the job by a composer named Joan Tower during a very long van ride from Saint Louis to Kirksville. We had not met previously. Out of the blue she had telephoned, invited me to submit an orchestra piece to some reading and recording sessions by the St. Louis Symphony sponsored by what was then called the American Symphony Orchestra League. Evidently, someone else had failed to finish their piece in time. 'Joe Schwantner tells me you're a really fast composer,' she said. 'If you can get it done, we'll read it.' Over the course of about two weeks I wrote Fresh Ayre, orchestrated it, had the parts copied (I recall that Aaron Jay Kernis was my proof-reader, that Michael Torke copied some of them), and sent them off. An interview (lunch with the department chair Benjamin Boretz and talking about the Beatles; coffee afterwards with cellist Luis Garcia Renart and talking about chamber music) was arranged. I was hired, and remained for nine years-probably five years longer than I expected; certainly five years longer than I should have stayed.
Since 1988, I've taught at Bard, the City College of New York, the Curtis Institute, New York University, the Chicago Conservatory of Music at Roosevelt University, the Princeton Atelier, and given hundreds of master classes and lectures at various colleges and conservatories around the United States and in Europe. I enjoy teaching talented composers, because they intuitively understand when you're right. Technique is a must. Older, well-established composers with plenty of training who tell their students that they can be composers without developing craft are like wealthy people who opine that money isn't important.
'In the life of every human being there is a point...,' wrote the European journalist Jean Améry, 'where each discovers that one is only what one is. All at once we realize that the world no longer concedes us credit for our future, it no longer wants to entertain seeing us in terms of what we could be ... We find ourselves ... to be creatures without potential.'
Because potential diminishes with age, the older the student, the harder he is to teach. Working with a wunderkind often feels like observing an infant picking up something unknown from the floor and, looking you right in the eye with immense panache, swallowing it. Their talent is like distant heat lightning, witnessed but not yet heard-intermittent, exciting, but obscured by fuzzy logic and lack of experience.
Young composers do not have the luxury of not finishing pieces, or of withdrawing them before they are performed. They are compelled to make their mistakes in front of audiences because nobody has yet figured out a better way to grow them. Not to worry - 'most of these pieces,' as Virgil Thomson quipped, 'withdraw themselves.'
Looking to the left and right at my fellow composers (many of whom seemed to feel they were talented because they were studying there) in the composition seminar at Juilliard during the early eighties, I knew that the majority would either end up doing something else entirely or toiling as orchestrators, full-time academics, arrangers, or performers-earning a living from what Virgil called the 'musical skills racket.'
Not just pieces withdraw themselves. Composers do, too; sometimes when their dreams don't come true in reality they convince themselves that they have. I don't blame them. Who, in middle age, hasn't asked himself whether he has done the work necessary to engage honestly with their deepest selves?
Of all the subjects I've taught, my favorite is Counterpoint. The Process of studying and teaching Counterpoint is a perfect, pure metaphor for the process that is living the examined life. It all begins with the cantus firmus-the Song of the Earth, the Life Song, the New Song, first taught us by example, then created on our own by grafting inspiration to memory, training and common sense.
A composer knowingly, willfully chooses the agitation of dissonance over the consolation of consonance. The entire history of western music is replayed in courtly, stylized fashion each time one moves through the various 'species' of solutions-the lines grow more florid, dissonance is prolonged, tonality itself may become tenuous.
Studying Counterpoint develops the skills required to pursue the painfully exquisite, life-long process of linking ear, heart, and intellect together to compose melodic lines to join life's cantus firmus. Is it too grand to suggest that this is life: one's endless striving for the effortless-sounding perfect solution; the inevitability of one's failure to find it; the requisite picking of oneself up and trying again; the sudden, unexpected flash of grace / inspiration that reveals a way forward; the coming to terms with compromise; the search for climax; the cruciform elegance of the interplay between melody's horizontal demands and harmony's vertical demands; the acceptance that melody generates harmony and not the other way around; the inevitable, disappointing cliché of the final cadence.
'Writing is like prostitution,' wrote Moliere in the 1600's. 'First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and then for money.' Of being a professional composer, in 1989, Aaron Copland wrote, 'The rewards are likely to be small from a practical point of view. No money in the bank. No good reviews in the paper the next day. You really have to be strong. By that I mean in the sense that you must be sure that what you are doing is absolutely what you mean to do.... Composing is a lonely occupation, and perhaps there is some advantage in the fact that many composers must add other more social activities to their schedules in order to make a living.'
Lord deliver me from more 'corporate music'-music that is just 'ugly' enough and just 'pretty' enough, that sustains a predictable rhythm for just long enough, that throws in something novel like a turntable or a laptop triggering sound-effects, that throws in just enough 'wrong notes' to the chords to obscure triadic harmony just enough to make it seem ambiguous (read: sophisticated and progressive), that lasts just long enough, that sounds 'smart' enough to appease the expectations of self-appointed aficionados and 'dumb' enough to entertain. This is music entirely without risk, and it is a waste of time.
Some teachers prepare their students for academic life, others for corporate life; a few encourage them to choose the riskiest, most subversive path-being themselves.
It does require courage (or temerity, lack of self-awareness, or benign narcissism) to write something down and then pass it to one's brothers and sisters with the expectation of a performance. A composer who creates pieces he wants carefully listened to has asked for the privilege of spending other peoples' time; if he spends that time with a certain degree of sensitivity not just to his own but also to his listener's needs, then he accumulates authority and sometimes even a reputation for authenticity.
Oh, so you are a composer my daughter plays the flute. I haven't heard of you or your music. I thought all composers were dead. You compose music that's sweet what do you do for a living? How much money do you make? So you write symphonies like Paul McCartney? That's nice honey but when are you going to get a job? Oh, so you write ... tonal music, how quaint ... do serious people still do that?
'Only the hand that erases,' said Meister Eckhart, 'writes the true thing.' We're all just looking at the dots we've put on the piece of paper or computer screen in front of us and reaching for everything we've learned, everything we've read, everything we've heard, everything we know we don't know and / or understand yet to quietly (or not), respectfully (or not-writing, erasing, erasing some more, and writing something different), 'pushing the notes around' until we feel the subtle electric thrill that comes with the realization that the notes are finally just so. And then we have to let them go.
My favorite cantus firmuses include a really tricky one by Fux, a feisty one by Mozart, a puzzling one by Bach, and one by Ockeghem to which I doubt I'll ever manage a decent solution. Twenty years ago in Venice I bought a small sketch book that I still carry with me; on airplanes, in taxis, on buses, in hotel rooms, I've given these and countless other exercises a go. Every time I try, Music and I begin our dance anew-the familiar strains, useful shortcuts, unpleasant surprises, trends, old habits, new moves, strategies, failures. Counterpoint 'solutions' are to their cantus firmuses what music is to my life.
Every note I've ever written derives somehow from something I've heard before; every one of my counterpoint solutions has probably flowed at some time from the pen of a musician in Vienna or Beijing, Los Angeles or Tokyo, London or Johannesburg, Moscow or Managua. Over the years, a slew of my notes have ended up in my students' works-some intentionally suggested by me for the sake of argument. I am aware that every opinion I've just written has been tendered by someone sometime somewhere else-in their opinion, better. What do I know?
Mar 12, 2008
The Heightened Awareness of Possibility
The air trembled, despite the amazing heat and humidity. The hair on my neck and arms rose and stayed that way as, sixty feet above us, the bells began to peal. Below, the procession passed through the doors. I was permitted to help ring the bells. Ecstatically clutching the rope, flying a dozen feet up and down, I looked first one way to see waves of people reaching up to touch the saints as they passed in the plaza, then another to see the huge clappers inside the bells, and then another to see the old bullet holes pocking the belfry’s inner walls.
Jan 12, 2008
Kenneth Schermerhorn was conducting the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra; they were performing the Largo of Antonin Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony. Although I didn’t yet know I would become a composer (it took my family’s gift to me of the score of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd a few years later to seal my fate), I did decide that day, at the age of seven, in 1968, to become a musician.
Thirty-five years after that beautiful English Horn solo (the melody of which I sing to my son when I rock him to sleep) changed my life, Kenneth and I enjoyed a lovely lunch together prior to his conducting my cinematic blow-out for orchestra Much Ado with his Nashville Symphony. I related to him how I had been taken on a school trip to hear him conduct the Milwaukee Symphony and how I had determined then and there to become a musician. He smiled as I thanked him, and then shared with me the moment he had first decided to become one. We reminisced about Phi Beta Studio at the MacDowell Colony, in which we had both toiled as composers, and about Bernstein, with whom we had both worked — both experiences exactly thirty years apart — at Tanglewood.
’How like coming home it feels to finally work together,’ he mused.
’And how ironic, under the circumstances,’ I replied, ‘that the Largo was adapted into a song by Harry Burleigh called Going Home.’
‘Indeed,’ he agreed, smiling.
Did he remember the fan letter from the dazzled child who couldn't find a word big enough to describe how moved he had been by the experience? He laughed and said no. I told him what I had written: ‘Dear Maestro, your performance last week was just superfluous!’
He exploded in grainy, slightly rueful laughter. What a wonderful man he was to me that day. I worked hard to keep him laughing; and we both did, until there were tears in our eyes.
’I am neither a young nor a healthy man,’ he sighed, ‘but I am glad that we are finally sitting together now at this table.’
Sep 13, 2007
Knuckles and Digits (1)
Once, during a childhood piano lesson, I noticed that the digits tattooed on my teacher’s forearm were the same color as the inspection brand on a side of ham; they flitted in and out of the cuff of his immaculately white starched shirt when he crossed hands at the keyboard like crabs scuttling sideways on the beach here, just before dawn this morning, at our small house nestled in the crotch of sonsoquite created by the meeting of the Pacific Ocean and a river on the Nicaraguan coast.
In a dream sometime before dawn, Kurtz’s last words from Heart of Darkness came out of my dead brother Britt’s mouth. Entering my dream, I responded, Some Rosebud, pal and realized that we were driving somewhere, looking for my dead mother. Of course, that never happened, but my father driving himself and me to the hospital twenty years ago and my holding up from the back seat my brilliant mother’s head as it lolled from side to side, dumb blank eyes leering first at my father, then at me, did.
Aug 25, 2007