My Year of Opera: September

Ok, the digest version of this blog seems to be here to stay. I’ll do my best. September was a bit of a whirl, I don’t quite remember what order I saw these but I’ll do my best. Didn’t I just say that?

Petitgirard: Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man

Watched this on the Naxos Video Library and wasn’t terribly impressed. The first act was not compelling to me, mainly because I couldn’t latch in to anyone. Am I supposed to feel for the huckster? Is it his world that I care about? The conflict with the doctor could have been really interesting and I think if it came first that strife could have really driven the drama. As it was, I never found a hook into the story. The staging was really lame, too. Lots of people just standing around, saying who they were and why they are there. This was telling, not showing. Dull.

Bellini: Norma

I watched a lot of “standing around while singing” operas this month. I think, if you are going to have minimal stage action, bel canto is the way to go. This was an older production from Toronto in 1981 with Joan Sutherland as Norma. The story is pretty straight ahead, of course, and the setting has just about nothing to do with the basic idea of love and death and sacrifice and murder and all the standards you’d expect from opera stories. I like this opera and really enjoy listening to bel canto rep so this was enjoyable.

Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos

I was pretty hard on Elektra when I watched it a while ago. To be fair, I thought watching a Strauss opera that wasn’t steeped in Expressionism might change my mind. Sadly, this was a non-staged version of the one-act version given in concert from the 60s. Beverly Sills was in it but it really didn’t engage me. Maybe if I saw a real staging of the opera I would be more into it but I didn’t care for this setting. Some nice ensemble writing with the 3 sisters, though.

Puccini: Turandot

I watched the “from the Forbidden City” version of this many years ago and thought it was dreadful. Last night I watched the MET version from the 80s which was pretty bad ass. The opera sounded a lot weirder to me than I remember and the lush visuals were really good. This opera could be a bunch of people standing around but there was enough musical and dramatic tension that it worked.

This month was big for me coming to terms with action and staging. For my tastes, drama needs to be clear. Action has to be inherent in the plot. I’ve seen a lot of staging that has to artificially add motion (those meaningless dancers in Doctor Atomic, for example) and I just don’t care for it. While I have no objection to concert staging of things and some works can be successful that way, I’d rather just listen to an opera than watch people stand there while singing. Whatever stories I stage, I want there to be motion and direction inherent in the story and music.

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Counterpoint in Composering: Second Species

Gah. There are too many configurations here. Some of these are better than others, I’m not going to bore you with a detailed slog through the rights and wrongs. Consider this a public “working out” in a contrapuntal way.

2:1:CF (2:1 in the soprano, 1:1 in the middle, CF in the bass)

Assessment: This one is probably my most technically correct. Yeah, there are times when all voices move in similar motion. It is rather hard to not have the 2:1 voice not in parallel thirds over the CF.

1:2:CF (1:1 in soprano, 2:1 in middle, CF in bass)

Assessment: This one just sucks. bland monotonous line in the middle, cramped and stunted. Moving on…

2:CF:1 (2:1 in soprano, CF in middle, 1:1 in bass)

Assessment: I’m easing up on myself a little, tapping into the Gradus ad Parnassum flexibility. I remember how liberating Gradus was in comparison to this book. Fux was a composer while Salzer and Schachter were theorists (I don’t know that either composed). I find some of S&S suggestions a bit too restrictive at times.


Assessment: Too many repeated notes in the soprano. Very leap-tastic bass line but in a good way.


Assessment: Open structure FTW! By not worrying about weak-beat doublings so much I was able to write an actual line.


Assessment: Yes I arpeggiate a triad without compensating. I was arriving at the peak and needed to keep going. I think this is my best line so far even though there are doubtless technical errors.

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Counterpoint in Composering: Assignment 1

The assignment for my counterpoint class was simple: compose 3 note-against-note counterpoints. Two of these are in two voices (one above the CF, one below) and a three voice example with both new voices on top of the CF. The students chose their own CFs for the 2 voice examples and we all used the same CF for the 3 voice.

Here are mine. I have temporarily given up on Lilypond, just because I needed to actually get these things done in a timely manner.

1:1 Above Cantus


Generally speaking, 2 voice exercises don’t give me much trouble. This one, though, was tricky and I think it is the only time I felt like I HAD to start on the 5th. Working from the octave was no good. Yeah, I have a 12th between the 2 voices. You want to make something of it? I tried not to do it but I couldn’t get a peak note in this short of a time without resorting to something like this.

1:1 Below Cantus


Measure 6-7 was tough. There didn’t seem to be a way to reach the peak A without repeating the D. The CF is nicely balanced with leaps in the first half and steps in the second. This feels like a good bass line, though.

3-voice (1-1-CF):


I am not overly proud of this but it will do. Yes there is a 10th(!) between the middle voice and the soprano in measure 6. What else could I do? The soprano was leaping so if the middle voice was moving in similar motion it would need to move by step. Sure, that would put the voice on a D, which is no big deal, but then what? Repeat the D? And then move to C-sharp and repeat it? Too static. The middle voice doesn’t peak, either. I couldn’t come up with a better solution without repeating a whole lot of notes in the middle voice.

I lack the fluency in 3 voices that I have in 2. But that is why I am doing this,right? If I don’t do it, I won’t learn nuthin’.

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Counterpoint in Composering: In-class work

Today in my counterpoint class we worked through our first three-voice first species exercises. I put a cantus firmus on the board and we talked through all the considerations of 1:1 in three voices.

Here is what we came up with:

The biggest issue we ran into as class time ran out was how to get a peak in the soprano line (the F in measure 6) while still compensating for the E-flat to B-flat leap immediately thereafter. Also, the middle voice has a prominent melodic tritone shape in measures 3 – 6 which, as an isolated line, bugged us. Other than that, this seemed to be the best of all possible options for our first outing.

I worked through an alternate solution right after class during my office hours. I was able to fix both problems. I wanted to maintain the opening of our example and retain as much as I could while still showing a sense of revision. Here is what I did:

What I changed:

Moving from an 8/3 sonority to an 8/5 in measure 3 took care of the middle voice’s tritone. Also, putting the cadential resolution of ti-do in the middle line let me compensate for the soprano’s leap to (and from) the peak note. While that leap to and from the peak F in measure 6 is certainly not ideal, I do spend the rest of the line filling in the gaps. I can’t think of another way of peaking on that F and compensating without leading to parallel octaves.

What a minute. I’ll be right back.

What about this?

So moving the peak note to the G in measure 7 allowed for immediate compensation and I ended up with more variety in the soprano line overall. The middle line keeps its peak and while I’m using more ties than I ought to, I think the line still has direction and shape. Yes, now my soprano and bass are in parallel 10ths for 4 notes in a row but I could fix that by moving the soprano to an F in the last measure (causing unequal fifths with the middle voice, I think 4 10ths is better).

The other thing I’m doing is learning Lilypond. One of the first things I did was learn to replace the default font (ugh) but I can’t quite make the scripting work out to hide the time signatures. Baby steps. I’m learning. I used to put my counterpoint homework into Finale when I worked as a monitor in the music computer lab at KU back in ’94. It just feels like the right way to learn Lilypond.

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Counterpoint in Composering – First Species

I picked a random cantus firmus from page 11 of the Counterpoint in Composition text and wrote counterpoints for each possible CF position.

Example 1: Cantus firmus in the bass


This is my first one and I was rather surprised at how much more restrictive Salzer and Schachter are than Fux. While there are some glaring errors (all voices moving in similar motion m.4-5, soprano leaps while upper voices move in similar motion, unequal fifths into m. 10 with all voices moving in similar motion AGAIN) I have to say I’m more satisfied with the soprano line than I am in the version where I fixed some of these errors:

More correct but not as good? Still some errors of the soprano leaping during similar motion of the upper voices, though. That happens to me a lot. I’ll get better at it, I promise.

Example 2: Cantus firmus in the soprano


This one was a lot easier, even though the book said it wasn’t going to be. Going in to measure 9 was rough and the only option I had that I liked was the octave+sixth that I’m supposed to avoid. Well, I’m hoping all the oblique motion obscures the undesired interval. This isn’t anything to write home about but I did it.

Example 3: Cantus firmus in the middle


I actually liked working on this one. Sure, I approach measure 3 through all voices moving in similar motion. I also have well-defined lines in the outer voices and other than the direct 5ths in measure 7 those outer lines seem fine. The soprano and bass each have non-consecutive high and low peak notes. Boo-yah! And I have more full triads and more open spacing than in my previous examples. I feel good about this one.

The takeaway?

I care more about line shape than I do motion relationships. A good line is better than being 100% correct.

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Counterpoint Homework

Remember my whole “Summer ad Parnassum” blog series from a few years ago? Sure you do. Well, I’m at it again in a limited series. I’m teaching counterpoint again and this year, instead of the Fux, I’m using the Salzer and Schachter book Counterpoint in Composition. I love this book for many reasons and I’ve adopted it as a textbook because of its analysis component. Half of my course is species counterpoint and half is analysis. With this book I feel like I’ll be better at bridging the gap of how counterpoint informs analysis.

The text also works with 2 and 3 voices within each species chapter and, well, to share the family secret*, I’ve never exactly done 3 voice species work. Believe me, it is hard for me to come clean with this. I know it is the most shocking thing that has happened on the internet, at least from a species counterpoint perspective.

To amend this ghastly whole in my contrapuntal soul, I’m going to work through 3 voice species exercises and critique them on the blog. I’m still getting used to some of the guidelines and considerations so expect these first few to be rough around the edges. The counterpoint shall be swift. The counterpoint shall be painful. And I shall show no mercy in all my counterpointing.**

*if you just said “My grandmother was Dutch” then I fear we are on the same wavelength.

**if you got that reference, we are definitely on the same wavelength.

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My Year of Opera: August

Okay, this is my last “digest version” of this blog. I promise. Each opera will be getting full treatment for the rest of the year. Unless it doesn’t. Who can say? Anyhow, this finishes off all the operas I watched for August!

Die Zauberflöte

I’ve seen it before, the old DG video lurks in my bunker on 2 VHS tapes. This was Kenneth Branagh’s film of the opera and I thought it was delightful. Staged in WWI with the British army it made sense that the opera was sung in English to go with the setting. And Mozart works well in English, I think. The voice types are light enough for the text to be understandable. The plot is still an incomprehensible mess at times but I really dug this. Branagh also used the film setting well; this isn’t just a staged production. Available on Netflix!

Perfect Lives

Listened to it many times but this is the first time I saw the whole thing. There are some scenes available on YouTube, sure, but the DVD is really cool. It doesn’t work well in one sitting. I found it better when I watched one or two scenes at a time. Each scene is about the length of a sitcom and the space between viewings lets you digest the dense information that he packs in each story. Also, the connections between scenes was stronger to me after that digestion time. My brain got overloaded if I watched too much. I bet Robert Ashley is a big fan of Arrested Development.

Alice in Wonderland

Unsuk Chin’s opera was, to sound unkind, the exact opposite of everything I’d ever want from an Alice in Wonderland opera. It isn’t that I didn’t enjoy it, I just have a totally different read of this story than she did. This was more of a surreal oratorio which highlighted the Greek tragedy and German Expressionism you didn’t really associate with Alice in Wonderland. Ever. The music was great, I’d listen to it again, but outside of a few visual stars (the caterpillar, for one) this was not much of an opera.

Luci mie traditrici

Salvatore Sciarrino’s opera wins the “sounds awesome” award. Crazy colorful, flutes and glassy strings, countertenor, all that stuff. The man writes some really fantastic sounds and, much to my surprise, the vocal lines struck me as very singable. Sung in Italian without subtitles, I had only about 3 sentences on Wikipedia to tell me the plot. Essentially, it is the story of Gesualdo without the main character being named Gesualdo (supposedly Schnittke was working on a Gesualdo opera at the same time). Very stylish staging with minimal but focused light. The staging matched the music, I only wish I had subtitles so I could understand the libretto.

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My Year of Opera: July

Digest version as I get caught up on blog posts. The opera watching has been happening but the blog posts have been lacking. Here is what happened for July, the recurring theme was “American Opera.”

1. Doctor Atomic – John Adams

I watched this around July 4 because of irony. Musically, I enjoyed it. Story-wise, it was weak. The moment, the night before the atomic bomb test, is certainly ripe for emotional exploration. What I found lacking was the connective tissue of the story. Luckily I knew some of Gerard Manly Hopkins’ poetry and that Oppenheimer was a fan of his work. When he just bursts out in “Batter My Heart” the opera hasn’t set up any context for that to happen. Characters weren’t introduced at all, or ever called by name at times, so I wasn’t sure why some people were there (from a plot point of view, musically things worked). Also, there is no action. This production was better than the one I fell asleep to on PBS a few years back.

2. The Fantasticks

My mother’s favorite musical. It was turned into a movie in 1995 and, while the story is cute, the movie didn’t make a good case for the musical. The music was a lot quirkier and less predictable than I expected. Oddly enough, my favorite song from the musical was one that was only used in the movie (it was a replacement for “It Depends on What you Pay” and was never recorded on any soundtrack). The movie made some bad choices in casting and tone and also edited out/rearranged stuff that weakened the whole work. I’m going to reserve final judgement until I see a different production.

3. Trouble in Tahiti – Bernstein

Now THIS is what opera should be. Perfectly scaled small cast, small story, with the direct/metaphorical plot issues in excellent balance. This is the kind of thing I want to write. Why isn’t it performed more? Or is it and I’m just not noticing? Based on my recent watching experience, it seemed like the model for Powder Her Face but in the suburbs without the sex.

4. Trapped in the Closet – R. Kelly

One of my students told me I should watch this for my project. Naturally, I knew Weird Al’s Trapped in the Drive-Thru extremely well but didn’t know the source material. I didn’t realize that Yankovic was doing a DIRECT parody of this song, I just thought he was doing a style parody. In general, I think this works well for the first oh, 10 chapters? Basically once the midget showed up I thought Kelly began running out of ideas. Then the story became a more and more preposterous series of coincidental connections. It became eye-rolling. And musically, the groove is certainly sustainable for a long time but 40-some minutes is excessive.

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My Year of Opera – JUNE: Robert Ashley

As I hit the mid-point of the year, I found myself in a rut. Here I was, diligently watching an opera each week, but getting really bored with it. It became an obligation. Finding something I was really excited to see was getting harder and harder. I didn’t want this to be a year of me just watching random stuff. Motivation was lacking so I took a break.

Instead of watching anything specific for the last 3 weeks of June, I instead listened to the entire recorded opera output of Robert Ashley. I did a few road trips and took them along, I accessed what we didn’t have in the CMU library via the website I didn’t approach these in any chronological order or anything, I just started with Perfect Lives and kept going with whatever seemed interesting. I’ve heard a few of them before but I never steeped myself in Ashley’s music as much as I did in June.

Why do this? Well, I was getting tired of the traditional opera tropes: big soprano arias are in the first act. Tenor arias are in the start of act 3. The lower the voice, the meaner you are. Bad things happen to innocence. Tragedy, tragedy, tragedy. Too many pieces are treated as Holy Relics of Serious Art and rarely does it seem like anyone is having any fun doing this. I know a lot of this has to do with the literature I’ve been watching. Short story long: I was interested in a different interpretation of opera and who better than Ashley to deliver it?

So I listened to them all. I’m not going to review each one. My favorites are Perfect Lives, the second collection of recordings from Atalanta (especially the scene “Empire” which I’d love to perform myself some day), Now Eleanor’s Idea was my favorite story, and Celestial Excursions probably contained my favorite music overall.

Ashley’s vision of opera is fascinating. Plots are pretty incoherent. Earlier this year I had read Kyle Gann’s book on Ashley so I had a vague notion of what was supposed to be happening in each opera but if you just pop the disc in and expect the story to be told to you, you are in trouble. Maybe that is why I liked Now Eleanor’s Idea so much; the plot is laid bare and the twists and turns are easy to track.

I was struck by just how consistent Ashley is in his musical textures. Static harmonies with reciting pitches is really what happens throughout. I envision a grad seminar on his music and the students cursing a “drop the needle” listening test. To my ears, everyone but Robert Ashley sounds artificial/mannered when they are singing. I can easily listen to Ashley’s voice and speech patterns regardless of what he is talking about. One day, it seemed like he was talking about real estate a lot (I listened to Foreign Experiences and eL/Aficionado the same day).

Improvement is one that I need to revisit. I had heard the opera before this binging experience and have had several key people tell me it is their favorite Ashley opera. I had a hard time connecting with it the first time I heard it and it didn’t improve much last month. That being said, the fact that others like it so much tells me that there is something there. I’ll be spinning it again in the near future, probably until it clicks.

So now I’m interested in shaking up the system a bit, looking for operas that aren’t in the conventional canon. My next entry, Doctor Atomic, doesn’t really thwart anything, but I’m going to scour the Naxos Video Library for some of their “deep cuts” and more unusual operas. I still have plans to watch Perfect Lives as soon as the DVD comes to our library. I hope that is soon. I’ve only seen clips on YouTube and want to watch the whole thing.

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Held back

I’m a Buddhist and a zazen practicioner. I listen to a lot of dharma-related podcasts and one recurring idea that has come up recently is the idea that we get in our own way. I’ve noticed this a lot in my creative work; my compositions are generally worse when I try to Make Them instead of Let Them Be. Personally, I have a lot of work to do to “get out of my own way” and I was inspired this morning to talk about how I hold myself back (especially musically). I apologize in advance for this “public therapy” sort of posting. You don’t have to read this.

It all boils down to this: I should be doing something else. When I’m at home with my family, I should be grading or composing or planning. When I’m grading, I should be composing or spending time with my family. When I’m exercising, I should be grading or composing. When I’m meditating, I should be spending time with my family or grading.

I shouldn’t be sleeping, I should be working. I shouldn’t be working, I should be with my family. I shouldn’t be teaching, I should be taking time off this summer. I shouldn’t be sitting around, I should be making more money. I shouldn’t be blogging, I should be doing my job. I shouldn’t be doing my job, I should be taking care of myself.

I shouldn’t be writing this piece, it is too impractical. I shouldn’t be included on this program, I’m only here because of personal connections instead of merit. I shouldn’t be writing music, nobody wants to hear it. I shouldn’t be writing something this simple, performers aren’t going to want to play it. I shouldn’t be proud of my work, I should be self-deprecating. I shouldn’t be proud of my work, it isn’t any good. I shouldn’t have the job I have, I’m a nobody who knows nothing and a fraud.

I shouldn’t be a faculty composer, they are blights on the musical landscape (as we’ve heard many people say this summer). I shouldn’t be paid so much to do my job. I shouldn’t have health care because it is too expensive. I shouldn’t get tenure because I don’t have my music published by a third party. I shouldn’t be composing because my job is teaching, not composing. I shouldn’t call myself a composer because my job is grading, not composing.

Whatever I’m doing, I should be doing something else.

It gets crippling after a while. I’m working on it. It isn’t easy. I’m not the only person dealing with these sorts of issues, of course. But when I get out of the way, when I set all this stuff aside and just Do Something, the world opens up. I think I throw all these mental blocks in my way because I’m frightened of what would happen otherwise.

I shouldn’t have the life I have, I don’t deserve it.

What if I did deserve it? What if I actually believed that? What would my life be like then?

Back to work.

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