My Year of Opera: On This Planet

Based on a recommendation, I watched Nordentoft’s one-man opera On This Planet. I wasn’t familiar with Nordentoft’s work before and I hadn’t heard of this but hey, it was only an hour long, so why not? I’ve watched longer things for worse reasons…

All in all, I enjoyed it, but found it a little stiff. The basic idea seems to be a “life flashing in front of your eyes before you die” and, while I thought that framing was very affective I thought some of the imagery and libretto to be a bit too obvious and overt, I suppose. It seemed like Nordentoft went to the first metaphor that came to mind and stayed there. Not that that is always a problem, common tropes and patterns exist because they work, but I felt myself wanting something a bit more.

Musically, the piece was fairly eclectic with some very expressionistic touches but mostly it lived in a tonal/pop-influenced box. I think an audience who is used to seeing things like Company would find this opera weird yet accessible. For me, it kind of scratched the surface of being interesting without really doing anything I hadn’t seen before. It was an enjoyable experience but not one I’m ready to rush out and say “OMG! Everyone must see this!” It does make for an approachable piece for composers interested in “challenging what opera is” (but most people who say that are only familiar with what they think 19th century opera is) but I’d steer such folks to the works of Mikel Rouse, David T. Little, and Missy Mazzoli first.

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My Year of Opera: Company (again)

The Friday following PBS’s performance of Moby Dick they showed Company. While Company was my second entry in my “year of opera” project, this was a different cast and staging. Neil Patrick Harris was Bobby and other more recognizable stars like Jon Cryer, Stephen Colbert, Christina Hendricks, and Patti LuPone.

I still really enjoy the music of this show but I find the plot a bit irritating. At no point do I ever care if Bobby gets married or not. And I always find his couple friends more interesting than him. Bobby seems like a cypher, a placeholder for Sondheim to mock the idea of marriage, a way to suggest that nobody SHOULD get married because it is a stupid, irrational, and artificial thing that doesn’t work. There is a certain smugness I get from the story that all these married couples are so dysfunctional and yet they are encouraging Bobby to get married, too. You could almost hear them chanting “One of us! One of us! One of us!”

This particular performance was better in characterization but not as good musically as the first version I saw. Bobby sounds like a role too high for NPH even though he has the charisma to pull the role off. I’ve described Company as “How I Met your Mother, the Musical” due to the plot similarities (and the fact that I honestly don’t care if Ted Mosby is even in the show) so NPH as Ted Mosby is mildly amusing.

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I don’t perform anymore. Tendonitis took my piano playing ability about 20 years ago (21 years this month, actually) and I was never really that devoted to trumpet playing to keep my chops up. Where I do get a chance to perform, though, is through teaching. My teaching is performance. I’m acting. There is a persona that I put on in order to get information across and share my passion of the material.

I am passionate about the material I teach. I really love what I do but performing is hard. Being in the academic side of music study is a rather tough slog. Nobody comes to a college music program excited about theory and history courses. They want to perform! The studio instruction and ensemble instruction is what drives them, motivates them, and draws them in to the program in the first place. I teach the courses that the students are forced to take. A significant portion of my teaching time is spent making a case for the relevance of what I am teaching alongside whatever topic I am teaching.

This means that, as a performer, I have an audience that really doesn’t want to be there and I have to work very hard to get them engaged. The persona I adopt for this is similar to what many performers do for stage presence: exude confidence, be gracious when I make a mistake, and try to create a world that the audience wants to join. Sometimes I have students that join me in the material but most of the time I get dead eyes that treat me like I am deliberately wasting their time. Did I mention that this audience also gets to rate my performance and is a primary tool for determining if I keep my job?

When teaching composition, I’m less of a showman and more in “Oprah Mode” if that makes any sense. I want the students to tell me about the world they are making and asking me to enter via their music. Then comes the critic who tries to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their execution. I have to create different personas for different students and that is more difficult than anything else. Some students are fairly open and easy to read. Others are extremely closed and I can’t connect. Fortunately, here at CMU there are several who teach composition and we encourage students to bounce from one studio to another. If someone doesn’t click with me they are likely to click with someone else.

All of this has led to an interesting disconnect at home. I’m not the person at home that I am in front of a class. My guards are down, my personas are off, and I let my vulnerabilities show. Some would think I hate my job and while I am frustrated by many aspects of it I still enjoy what I do. But, like that performer who has been in the pit of a Broadway show for umpteen years or a section violist playing Beethoven 3 yet again, it wears on me. I will always love talking about music. I will always geek out about how Bach inventions are put together, how Schumann lieder show the emotional state of the singer, or how Tom Johnson turns a math process into delightful music. I just enjoy doing it more when the audience is with me instead of against me.

November is a long month around these parts. Our academic calendar goes non-stop from Labor Day to Thanksgiving Day without break. That is a lot of time to steep in heavy critical thinking. It is hard to keep things fresh but I try. Some days I ask myself if I couldn’t be doing something else. Something that contributes more to the world. But I’m drawn back in. I’m already excited about how I’m going to change my Intro to Music Tech (which I’ve taught every semester since Fall 1997) and how I’m going to engage students in Contemporary Compositional Techniques. I think a lot of my ennui at this point of the semester is not that I want a break (I do, don’t get me wrong) but that I’m ready for the next show to start.

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My Year of Opera: Moby Dick

I live-tweeted watching Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick when it was broadcast on Great Performances this past Friday night (performed by the San Francisco Opera). All in all, it was a great production. Well sung, well staged, well plotted, with great video elements that enhanced the staging considerably. A very impressive adaptation of the story and one that hit all the major themes of the book while still being dramatic.

Musically, I could have used about 15% less conventional harmony. I don’t know a lot of Heggie’s music but what I’ve heard has been very straight ahead in terms of melody and harmony. While Moby Dick steered clear of being cliche in terms of its musical language, I feel like it needed more pungent harmonies at times. In many ways, it sounded like an opera from about 120 years ago. Or Janaceck, I suppose. I suppose that is the smart thing to do if you want an opera to enter the repertoire but…well…it didn’t do it for me.

Basically, Moby Dick was the opposite experience of Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland. THAT opera was musically adventurous while totally destroying the drama/plot elements. Who would have thought that Alice would be a more angst-ridden and expressionist experience than Moby Dick?

So what do you do? Do you favor clear dramatic storytelling over a more contemporary musical language? Does one really have to be at the expense of the other? How much of opera is a musical experience vs. a dramatic one? There are operas I’ve really enjoyed musically recently but found them dramatically lacking. In my own writing, I have been trending towards clear shapes/drama/trajectories but I think I’ve been doing it in a less-than-conventional pitch language. Of course, no opera company has invested six to seven figures in the staging of anything I’ve done.

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Under the Influence: Brent Miller

I’ve been kicking around a blog series where I talk about my influences. Not in a “I studied with this really famous person” kind of way or a “I really like this composer’s music” kind of way but in a way that acknowledges some of the people who were truly the most influential on my creative work: my peers. Like any composition student, I spent a lot more time with my fellow students than I did with my teachers. This time was largely spent doing what we composers do: talking about music and art. Usually while drinking beer. I consider myself fortunate that I have been places with not only good teachers but also interesting students who were, in many ways, more influential.

I’m going to start with Brent Miller, largely because he is coming to campus tomorrow. Brent and I met in the fall semester of 2002 at UMKC. I was starting my doctorate and Brent was finishing his masters. Brent was the president of the UMKC Composers’ Guild, a student organization responsible for putting on composition recitals. Friday mornings were the studio classes and composers took turns giving presentations on new music topics. My first Friday, Brent was setting up for his presentation and I got there early. Brent was spinning some rather aggressive rock-inspired stuff. I mentioned that it sounded like Faith No More and Brent said that he was, in fact, presenting on Mike Patton that day. I knew a little Mister Bungle, too, but clearly Brent and I operated on similar wavelengths (although he was much more steeped in that world than I was).

In December of 2002, Brent had gotten a car and hotel funding from UMKC to attend Electronic Music Midwest over at Lewis University. Brent was performing a piece by UMKC student Tim Place and got enough funding to support interested students who wanted to learn more about electronic music and attend the festival.

Well, one of the main reasons I wanted to go to UMKC was to learn more about electronic music. I had experimented a bit but didn’t think I understood it. Going to a weekend-long festival of the genre sounded like the right thing to do. So I went. Nobody else did, though, so Brent and I drove the 8 or so hours to Chicago by ourselves. Turns out we had a lot to talk about and that weekend pretty much cemented our friendship.

Brent was critically important to my development as a composer. Over the next year, he’d introduce me to the films of David Lynch, the music of John Zorn, The Dillinger Escape Plan, The Ruins, The Melvins, and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. Brent told me about Sealab 2021 and Aqua Teens Hunger Force. He acted out the opening of King Crimson’s album The Power to Believe. He taught me Risk 2210 (the greatest Risk variant ever). We talked a lot of sci-fi, too. Specifically Dune and Neuromancer. My contribution to Brent’s world was getting him to watch Babylon 5. He got me to watch Twin Peaks.

Brent was big into Schnittke at the time and also had/has a real subversive streak in his musical philosophy. He told me about a solo violin piece that got Steven Stuckey so mad he yelled at Brent in a master class. He told me about various rock shows he did and performance art/music events that sounded like manic chaotic collages of things. Most importantly, Brent is probably the one I can cite as starting to chip away my Carter/Boulez style of thinking. That interesting music could be made without making complex grids and pitch collection charts. I saw and heard music that was more aggressive than Lachenmann (who’s music Brent also told me about) and was selling out clubs around the world. While I couldn’t at the time articulate why I was so dissatisfied with the music I was writing, I think Brent is the one who showed me a musical world which was more genuine to my existence. Now I knew there were options to atonal expressionism that were, to me, just as visceral and satisfying.

So Brent is coming to Michigan tomorrow and Wednesday we are featuring 3 of his pieces. Two are for electric guitar trio (including an arrangement of 4’33”) and one is for fixed media. I have no idea what is going to happen but I do know this: it is important for the students to hear what he does. I wouldn’t be the composer I am today without having his point of view in my life.

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October is over and so is my Faust Month Showdown! I was interested in seeing how different composers treated the same dramatic material and Faust is a story that got a LOT of composers writing operas. I wasn’t able to access all the ones I would have liked but I certainly hit the big ones. I thought about doing this challenge for Romeo and Juliet but…nah.

THE CHAMPION: Boito’s Mefistofele!

THE CHALLENGER: Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress!

Both are Faust stories but with slightly peculiar slants. Boito focuses more on the Devil than on Faust. Stravinsky wrote Faust but essentially changed the names to protect the innocent. I watched both operas on the Naxos Video Library only to discover irritations with both productions. The Mefistofele performance was with the San Francisco Opera and featured what can only be described as a scenery-chewing performance by Sam Ramey. Sadly, the video was without subtitles. I was pretty solid on the plot, of course, but I do like to know what they are saying and when. But when it comes to scenery-chewing, this was a Grand Grand Grand Grand production. San Francisco knows how to do this stuff up right. In many ways, I think Boito is seen as a “one hit wonder” with this opera but what a hit it is! Lush, melodic, dramatic, it does all the right stuff. I’m sure it would get more play than Gounod if it didn’t need such a once-in-a-generation bass to handle the main role.

My colleague told me about a great video of Rake and I wanted to check it out. Sadly, what I saw was a rehash of the Glynbourne production I had already watched (and didn’t care for that much). The imagery is all based on the original woodcuts/artwork and just comes across as flat and wooden. Turns out there is a different staging (set in Texas it appears) which is visually more interesting and active but you have to hunt for it (it wasn’t on the Opera page in Naxos. Makes me wonder what else I’m missing).

I’ve never been a fan of Stravinsky’s vocal writing. Never. It sounds stilted and forced and the rhythms seem to fight the words all the time. I find this to be true with Rake but I do agree that “No Word from Tom/Quietly, night” is the finest bit of vocal writing the man ever did. I can totally see why Stravinsky and Britten hated each other. Britten could clearly do stuff with the voice that Stravinsky wanted to but couldn’t/didn’t. So there’s that…


Mefistofele! Because Boito could write for voices as if they were voices. You have no idea how much Stravinsky’s vocal writing bothers me. It makes me twitch. Like, more than a little.

SO! That puts Boito in the final round against Gounod. Two Grand Opera examples of Faust-ness! Who did it best? Who is the overall winner?

ANNA NICOLE by Marc Anthony Turnage

Yes. This opera. It wins at Faust in a way that a regular Faust story couldn’t possibly win. I bought the DVD of this opera about a year ago and was floored at how much I liked it. I thought it would be a joke piece, not to be taken seriously, but I’ll be damned if they didn’t turn Anna Nicole into a tragic figure (nyuk nyuk). But seriously, Anna Nicole sells her soul to a more convincing devil than the actual Devil. She makes a lot of bad decisions and dies a tragic death. I connected with her story more than I connected to Faust’s. Musically, this opera is sharp, witty, inventive, attractive, approachable, and meaningful. And the performance? Crazy good. This is something everyone needs to see. It is what “traditional opera” should be in the 21st century.

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Counterpoint in Composering: Fourth Species

Fourth species. The most problematic species, for me at least, and my least favorite. Using the Salzer/Schachter book made it significantly easier though: they break species TWICE with regularity. The certainly clears up things a bit, let me tell you. I did these six exercises rather quickly so there are probably strict things that I missed but I stopped caring. As I recall, this is about what happened in my Summer ad Parnassum series: 4th species burnout. I know my students were feeling it.


Assessment: My suspended voice is like an episode of Dora, “Can you find the pitch A or B?” Of course you can. There really isn’t anything else going on. The 1:1 voice = parallel thirds. So, there is that. Next!


Assessment: This one is awesome. I wrote the 1:1 first, all the way through, so I could ensure good variety of motion between the soprano and CF. The middle voice just flew into place and worked perfectly. Yes, there are a bunch of Cs in the inner voice but there are 2 honest to goodness LINES happening there.


Assessment: Not too shabby. I like having staggered arpeggiations in my counterpoints. The lines are decent. Not going to set the world on fire, though.


Assessment: Parallel thirds? Similar motion? Yup. This isn’t terrible but it is rather close. Next!


Assessment: This one is surprisingly good. The 1:1 line has a lot of independence and the inner voice is a little restricted in range but not too repetitive to my ears.


Assessment: I did not go out gracefully. This one. Ugh. I should have scrapped it and started over. I leapt a 6th in the bass because I’d already done the octave leap and wanted to see what happened if I didn’t do that. Range is a major problem: more than 2 octaves between bass and soprano at times, wildly big range of the bass, other crap like that. Oh well, 4th species is over. It wasn’t pretty (#2 and #5 are kind of nice) but Achievement Unlocked!

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My Year of Opera: Faust Month SHOWDOWN!

Okay, I’m watching Faust-based operas this month (October, Halloween, the Devil, all of that stuff). In true sensationalism form, I’ve decided to turn it into a



THE CHALLENGER: Berlioz’s La Damnation du Faust!

Both are French, both are Faust, both written by composers who have rather small outputs in the repertoire. Faust is probably the clearest example of French Grand Opera (and I was surprised how much I liked that stuff with Manon a few months ago). This was the “Dream Team” cast of Roberto Alagna as Faust, Bryn Terfel as Mephistopheles, and Angela Gheorghiu as Marguerite. Or, at least, I consider it a dream team because they are pretty darned famous (and respected) singers. I’ve been learning that famous and respected are, of course, not the same thing. As in opera as in everything else. La Damnation du Faust is half the length of Faust, and not really an opera. It is an oratorio (which I watched on DVD: the Solti recording with von Otter, Lewis, and van Dam). I’ve read that some people stage it as an opera sometimes but, c’mon, that really doesn’t work does it? Too much choir singing, too many long instrumental interludes, it is just too piecemeal a collection to be considered one operatic coherent story. But Berlioz surprised me with Les Troyens, which started this whole blog thing, so…respect.

While I do like Berlioz (biggest surprise of 2013, let me tell you) and I like that his piece is more poetic instead of narrative AND half as long, I’m going to tip the scales in Gounod’s favor. Gounod’s scenes are focused, each balances solo and ensemble singing AND plot moving with characterization. I didn’t find the final scene as transcendent as many do but I think I would if I saw it live. There is a reason that this is the “go to” opera for Faust stories and one of the more performed French Grand Operas.

BTW, the EMI video of the Gounod has the trippiest ballet sequence. Ever. Terfel in a strapless black sequin dress? Ballet dancers grinding and writhing on the floor in orgy-like fashion (not that I, you know, have first hand knowledge of that. Ahem.)? The whole scene went from dark to twisted in about a bar and a half. And it was the first time I thought, “No, I don’t want my daughter to be a ballet dancer.” And I’ve seen Black Swan.

UP NEXT: THE UNDERDOGS! Boito’s Mefistofele vs. Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress!

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My Year of Opera: Eugene Onegin

Saturday I went to the Met HD broadcast for Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. I knew nothing about the opera going in and never really thought about Tchaikovsky’s opera output. I knew he did Queen of Spades but that was about it. When I started being exposed to opera during my undergrad, one thing that I didn’t like was its (seemingly) lack of musical cohesion. I was coming from a background of instrumental music which works very differently than opera. I wanted things to be stitched together from a musical perspective and just didn’t think that happened in opera. Wagner seemed to be okay with it but otherwise it seemed like there was little holding all the music together.

Of course, that is a fundamental misunderstanding of what opera does, how vocal music works, and an unfair bar to set for any musical composition. Give Past Jay a break; he was an idiot.* Now I just show up to see what a piece does and I’m mostly pleasantly surprised at how good it is.

Anyhow, I say all this because Tchaikovsky was able to merge his instrumental instincts into an opera without beating me over the head with leitmotifs. There was one descending eighth-note motive that bound the music together without being pedantic and overwrought. The man knew drama, storytelling, and pacing, after all. I was astounded at how well the music (and performance) captured the immature infatuation of Tatiana in Act 1. That “letter scene” hit all the right spots; we’ve all been 16 and So Madly In Love that we Do Something Rash. Nowadays, Tatiana would have sat up all night and Facebook-stalked Onegin. Fortunately for us she is more poetic than a normal 16 year old.

For the record, I didn’t think that Onegin came across as that much of an asshole at the end of Act 1 as I think he was supposed to. It seemed like a rather firm “Thanks but no thanks” without being really cruel. Cruelty was saved for Act 2, of course, where Onegin becomes another example of my “If you have an opera named after you your life sucks out loud” theory.* The final act of the opera was rather low stakes, to be honest, but musically worked really well. Onegin is a bit of a putz but it isn’t like he was Don Giovanni or Faust or anything. The opera seemed to be more about Tatiana anyway; she is the soprano after all.

I would love to go see The Nose in a few weeks but I’ll be on the road. I’m really bummed about that. I have decided to make October “Faust Month” for My Year of Opera. I finished watching Gounod last night and will blog about it soon. I’m also planning on watching Mefistofele, The Rake’s Progress, and La Damnation de Faust (which isn’t really an opera, I know, but I’m going to watch it anyway). If only there was a video of Schnittke’s Faust opera…

*Current Jay is also an idiot too but lacks the historical body of evidence to prove it.

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Counterpoint in Composering – Third Species

Six times through Third Species. I find it interesting how hard it is for me to NOT repeat a note in my 1:1 writing no matter where that 1:1 voice is.

4:1:CF (4:1 soprano, 1:1 middle, CF bass)

Assessment: I really used the “hit the downbeats and fill in from there” approach. Don’t know that it made for the most interesting line, I kind of think that the quarter notes lack an independent sense of motion.

1:4:CF (1:1 soprano, 4:1 middle, CF bass)Assessment: The 1:1 line is okay but my inner voice is rather noodly. No real peak, high or low, just a lot of nattering within the C-G fifth.

4:CF:1 (4:1 soprano, CF middle, 1:1 bass)Assessment: Hey look, no repeated notes in the 1:1! And look at that awful leap compensation from the high F in my 4:1!

1:CF:4 (1:1 soprano, CF middle, 4:1 bass)Assessment: Like parallel thirds? Obviously I do. I have to say that I really like the bass line even though it has a range that goes beyond the realm of good taste (11th).

CF:4:1 (CF soprano, 4:1 middle, 1:1 bass)Assessment: Yeah. I dig this one. I think it is my most successful 4:1 inner voice. It balances the wide range to narrow range issue well (which I did intentionally to see what I’d do) and I think the line has real direction.

CF:1:4 (CF soprano, 1:1 middle, 4:1 bass)Assessment: Ugh. Just noticed those downbeat 5ths in the first 2 bars. I also have direct octaves going into measure 7. Usually I like putting the 4:1 in the bass. This time, it was rougher than I wanted it to be. Not worth redoing at this stage, though. I have to dread 4th species now…

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