We had two intriguing guest composers in May, each very distinct from the other. One of my aspirations as a teacher is to introduce my students to composers from all different scenes, so May was a very satisfying month.
First up was Adam Guettel. As the son of Mary Rodgers Guettel and the grandson of Richard Rodgers, it’s facile to say that Adam was born to be a theater composer. Regardless of facility, though, it’s impossible to ignore the way this man’s music is wired to the stage. “I don’t get abstract music,” he said. “I’ve got to have a character, I’ve got to have a dramatic situation to bring my music to life.” As one might guess, Guettel had a tough time as a composition student; he had several stories of clashes with professors who couldn’t abide his artistic sensibilities. His position on the use of music is extreme – essentially, absolute music has no interest for him. I’ve known people on the opposite extreme, for whom Stravinsky’s famous dictum that “music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all” may as well be on stone tablets. I don’t understand either extreme, as I’ve expressed in my music is goop – but I love the fact that there are people who do.
Don’t assume from what I’m writing here that Guettel’s music is some kind of fluff. He thinks through matters such as pacing and scoring on a very sophisticated level. In a way, he reminds me a bit of Puccini, and I think Puccini is not taken nearly so seriously as he deserves.
Here’s the beginning of a song of his we looked at. 5/8 most of the way through, but the meters get more complex as it goes on. Harmony is late-tonal, reminiscent of Ravel:
Our students showed him some of their songs, and interestingly enough for someone who can’t abide musical abstraction, his comments were all on specific technical details, as opposed to broader emotional issues. In other words, instead of asking questions like “what is the character’s motivation here?” he was focusing on exactly how each phrase was shaped, on what tonal areas were connecting with which portions of the text. Just goes to show, people are not pigeons.
And I know you didn’t need me to tell you that.
Guettel’s visit is the first of several over the coming year. He is workshopping a new opera called RIP with our Fletcher Opera Institute next season. Hopefully I’ll have more to report as it approaches.
A week later, we had our final guest seminar with Randall Woolf. I’ve written about Randy before – he’s another composer who comes from a drastically different perspective from mine, and whose work I hold in high esteem. He’s integrated his experiences with minimalism, hip-hop, orchestration studies with del Tredici and more into a language that is both cutting edge and eerily familiar.
I have two things to add to what I wrote two years ago: New York City and Revenge. First, New York. Randy grew up in Detroit, moved to Boston as a young man, then settled in NYC. He’s a firm believer that it’s essential for a composer to live in New York, at least for a while. He made the point that musical events in Manhattan or Brooklyn often don’t get recorded for a couple of years, so you have to be there to get the immediate benefit. Point taken. I’m so glad I lived in New York for six years. There is nothing like the pace at which new music unfolds in the big city.
But I’m also really glad I moved away. Perhaps a sacrifice in engagement has allowed me more opportunity for reflection. I’ll never know for sure. In the 19th century, Paris was the place to be – yet few of the European composers we value from that time made Paris their home. The good news is that there are many valid paths for a composer to take. Take on the big city and thrive; head off into the mountains and thrive. It’s really up to you to make your work matter, wherever you are.
But why listen to me? I’m the quintessential unreliable narrator. I just found out I’ve been washing my hair with conditioner instead of shampoo for the last two weeks.
What made Randy endearing was his willingness to engage the students on their level and not only encourage them to move to New York but also give them some very helpful pointers on how to get established there. Really looking out for what’s best for them.
And now for Revenge. The full title is The Cameraman’s Revenge, and it’s a film Randy scored with string quartet and electronics. The Cameraman’s Revenge is an early example of stop-motion animation by Ladislaw Starewicz, a name I had not heard before. I know, some of you are saying, “Dillon, are you serious? How could you be so ignorant?” But this was my first experience with Starewicz’s work. The Cameraman’s Revenge was made in 1913 in Moscow, and if you aren’t already familiar with it, that is all I’m going to tell you. Go watch it.