San Francisco-based composer, conductor, writer, educator, and filmmaker Jack Curtis Dubowsky is a very busy man. This Wednesday night, September 9th at 7:30 p.m., he’ll take the stage along with the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble in San Francisco’s Meridian Gallery, located at 535 Powell Street, convenient to Powell Street BART. Next month, he has a new opera premiering. But fortunately, he wasn’t too busy to talk to me.
S21: How does it feel to be leading off the Meridian Gallery’s 11th season of Composers in Performance?
JCD: It’s an honor to be selected to be a part of the Meridian Gallery’s prestigious Composers in Performance series. Anne Brodzky, the gallery director, is wonderful. Tom Bickley is a brilliant series curator; the composer/performers he’s invited have been consistently cutting-edge, engaging, and talented. I also owe thanks to Adria Otte at Meridian who has been very helpful.
Innova, the label of the American Composers Forum, has released Earth Music, a compilation CD of music selected from the first ten years of the series. This CD has amazing solo performances on it. It shows the high level of quality and wide variety of music at the series as well as Meridian’s commitment to new music.
S21: Does the gallery’s space and multimedia system present any special blessings or challenges for your performance?
JCD: We are going to take advantage of the Gallery’s screen and projector. We’ve used multimedia in other shows, not only our “Live Music for Experimental Film” shows at Artists Television Access, but in our regular music concerts as well, for example our concert last October at the Luggage Store Gallery New Music Series, curated by Rent Romus and Matt Davignon.
S21: You have an extensive film music background. How did you go from accompanying films to interacting with them live?
JCD: When the Ensemble does live music to film, as we’ve done in our “Live Music for Experimental Film” shows, there is in fact a tremendous amount of rehearsal that goes into that. For our first such performance, we had eighteen hours of rehearsal time for one show. Since then, we’ve been able to reduce that amount of rehearsal time, by requiring filmmakers to submit multiple copies of their work, for example. This allows Ensemble members to familiarize themselves with the films on our own time. Even if you’re interacting live to a film, there’s a lot of preparation that goes into that, to do it well.
S21: Analog synths are like a way of life for some composer/performers in the Bay Area. Can you summarize your analog synth journey?
JCD: I bought my first analog synthesizer when I was in high school. I worked all summer and saved up $200 to buy a used Roland SH-1000. I still have it. This is a monophonic synth, Roland’s first commercially released synthesizer, first introduced to the market in about 1974. When I bought it, it was already a little outdated, but it was all I could afford. Nevertheless, I fell in love with it and played it for hours in my bedroom, making all the sounds I could. It’s a very idiosyncratic synthesizer and has many unique abilities. It’s very under-appreciated even by analog synth connoisseurs. It has a “random note” feature which is a bit like “sample and hold” on modular synths, and the ability to stack wavelengths, like an organ, even though it’s monophonic!
My next synth was a gray Roland SH-101, which I bought new. I sold that in the early 1990s when the Rave community started taking a big interest in them. It was monophonic, single oscillator, and pre-MIDI, so I was tempted by an offer and I sold it.
I needed a polyphonic synth. I didn’t have a lot of money. The best choice at the time was Roland’s JX-3P, which was polyphonic, six voices, dual oscillator, and MIDI. MIDI was new in 1983. There had never been a polyphonic dual oscillator synth at that price. It was also DCO, digitally controlled analog oscillators, which made it much more stable. I couldn’t afford the little box of knobs, so I programmed it parameter by parameter using the slider potentiometer. This helped me learn what each function was and predict how they would interact. It was actually great training for fully understanding Roland’s analog synthesis.
I always liked Roland analog synths. They were relatively affordable. They had a great sound. They were fun to program and use. They looked good, and they were used by professional musicians. If I had more money, I would have bought others as well, then and now. There’s many interesting analog synths out there, and they all have a unique personality.
S21: Which synths will be a part of the performance on the 9th? What are their particular sounds and capabilities that got them a place in this project?
JCD: The synth I’m using now is a Roland Jupiter 6. This was Roland’s first MIDI synth. The Jupiter 6 and Jupiter 8 were, in 1983, briefly, the top of the line Roland flagship synths. I am not using MIDI or any third-party modifications to the synth.
The Jupiter 6 is multi-timbral; the keyboard splits and it can have two sounds going at once. It’s a classic analog synth. It also has a great arpeggiator, and combined with a “hold” function, it can spit out sound and textures and rhythms. It’s a powerful tool for a multi-instrumentalist such as myself. We don’t use any looping. But I can set up a texture or a pattern or fabric with the arpeggiator, and play keyboard, bass, and percussion all at the same time. This procedure also can create polyrhythmic textures.
You can hear these polyrhythms as well as see the Jupiter 6’s impressive “light show” on our video for the track “Signals” on YouTube.
I like to play the Jupiter 6 as a live instrument. Instead of saving sounds, I like to create them on the fly during each concert. This creates unpredictable results, which is something desirable. It’s like Cage and Stockhausen’s ideas about indeterminacy. You don’t entirely know what will happen, and it adds an exciting, unpredictable element to the performance. Additionally, as analog synths age, they become even more unpredictable and fussy. But I believe that classic analog synths are like rare violins. Each one, especially as they age, develops quirks and a unique sound. They have real personality to them. This is now really being appreciated. Sometimes you have to work to get a good “sound” out of them, just like any instrument. But you really enjoy doing it.
That’s the only synth I’ll be using in the concert. Hall Goff, our trombonist, will be using electronics as well. Hall will be playing tenor trombone through a Digitech VX 400 Vocal Effects Processor.
S21: Will fans of your choral and opera music hear familiar threads in your ensemble performance, or will they see a completely different side of you?
JCD: The Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble music is very different than my vocal music. The human voice is a very particular instrument. It has many limitations as far as what parts are truly singable; this has to do with range, register, voiceleading, breathing, and other many technical issues when writing for voice or chorus. My vocal writing for chorus has been conservative enough that many groups are able to perform it comfortably. That’s the idea. I want my music performed and enjoyed. In 2007, The Mount Eden Chorus performed my “Quaker Peace Testimony” with the Castro Valley Chamber Orchestra. That piece is some pretty adventurous choral music, but Mount Eden is an award winning chorus, and they did a magnificent job. Other groups demand much simpler choral writing. Which is absolutely fine. There’s an enormous community of semi-professional and amateur choruses, and they deserve exciting, original music as well. I like being knowledgeable enough and able enough to write for different levels of performers.
The Ensemble is my composer/performer instrumental group. What we do is very different. We’re working much more closer to a “new music” idiom, and we incorporate ideas of structured improvisation, compositional games, polyrhythms, different meters, electroacoustic instrumentation. Some of it can be quite heady. Some of it can be quite witty or humorous, like our “Spinet Mambo,” which combines cluster chords and a traditional mambo beat created by our brilliant percussionist Fred Morgan. Some of it is just weird, much of it is very quiet and meditative, and some of it can fall into a groove, even something much like the Krautrock band “Neu!” While some of these pieces have been notated to some extent, many escape traditional notation. Or, any time they are attempted, they come out differently. Again, that’s due to chance and indeterminacy.
S21: Speaking of opera, you have a world premiere coming up for your new one, Halloween in the Castro. What’s operatic about this extremely San Franciscan subject matter?
JCD: In opera, you often find a human story nestled amid a larger, political backdrop. You see this in Tosca, Don Carlos, Billy Budd, Boris Gudonov, The Marriage of Figaro, Dr. Atomic, Appomattox, Le Grand Macabre; I could go on and on. In Halloween in the Castro, you have love, death, danger, political figures, power figures, the downtrodden, the locals of the community. You have all these archetypal characters which you find in opera. It’s also ready made for an ensemble piece, which is something the commissioning organization, the Lesbian / Gay Chorus of San Francisco, wanted.
S21: Halloween in the Castro is being billed as a “traditional opera”. Can you elaborate on what makes it traditional, and how it got that way?
JCD: “Opera” is a fairly fluid term. People enjoy dissecting what is art, what is music, and what is opera. To me, what defines opera is not so much idiom or marketing as it is form. When I wrote the initial treatment for Halloween in the Castro, I was struck by how perfectly it fit into traditional operatic form. All the action, with the exception of flash-backs to previous Halloweens, unfolds in a conceptually 24 hour period. While there are arias, duets, trios, quartets, and choral pieces, there are logical and even necessary places for act finales; that is, major sections that end with everyone onstage singing. There’s three, in particular, major finales which help create a traditional structure to the work. The first finale happens at a “community meeting” with everyone present. The second is on the eve of Halloween; everyone is getting dressed to go out individually or in groups; all these voices add together in anticipation. The third is Halloween night itself; everyone is present in the Castro for the main event and the denouement itself. And the whole opera itself is an ensemble piece, as it’s written for a chorus, with a wide variety of roles. Not all operas are ensemble pieces, but it is another strong tradition.
S21: You also created the libretto, and I’m wondering if the opera revolves around a real-life murder mystery that inspired you, or if you created new fictional plotline?
JCD: The plotline is fictional, but the basis and foundation of the opera is reality. In 2006, nine people were shot in the Castro. People have brought guns and weapons to the Castro on Halloween. It’s a very touchy situation. San Francisco is famous for Halloween in the Castro, but it has become a huge thorn in the side for politicans, businesses, Castro residents, and even tourists. It’s no longer a small neighborhood event. The Castro has gentrified tremendously, and many of today’s residents never saw what Castro Halloween used to be like before the dot-com era. There have been political attempts to “cancel” Halloween in the Castro, but that’s like trying to “cancel” New Years in Times Square, or Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Admittedly, it’s not a perfect parallel. Other neighborhoods, like the Haight or North Beach, suffer growing pains as well. This opera is really about all of San Francisco, and all of the Bay Area.
S21: What were the fun parts and challenges of making opera roles out of San Francisco’s public figures? Which one is your favorite?
JCD: Each of the characters is either archetypal, or an amalgamation of various San Francisco public figures. So there isn’t any direct, one-to-one correspondence. However, different political factions and popular approaches are represented. It’s fairly well known who the major interests in the Halloween situation are. Of course, some of the archetypes are mocked, in a very Gilbert and Sullivan kind of way, and there are of course references to real events and situations. The goal was to tell a story and to be real and true to the political concerns which are facing the Castro and San Francisco at large. Many of the characters are also based on personalities you commonly find here. And it’s a big cast with many important roles. If you come to see it, try to guess who my favorite is! Someone with a bit of myself projected into their character.