Real Life

from Wednesday, June8th of the year2011.

This has been a scarily exciting past two weeks. I’m still in London, still doing preparations for Two Boys, which becomes more real every day. There are posters for it in the trains! That’s something I’m kind of not quite used to. . This poster was the result of many weeks of haggling about fonts and images and blah blah blah; even still, looking at it gives such a strange impression of what making an opera is. There are hugely important people left off of this image: the librettist, most importantly, but also, the conductor, the cast, the assistant conductor, the designers: all people who, much more than I, have been living and breathing almost exclusively this piece for the past years, months, and weeks. All of this in addition to the people from the Met and the ENO who have been supporting the project from the sides and from its interior for years! The poster is the tiniest framed window into the world that contains hundreds of people all working very hard to make this piece come alive. I’m also a little unsure, on second glance, about the idea of “secret online world,” because surely it’s the opposite of that: deceptively public. But whatever. I’m a noodge. It’s a nice image and I’ve been really happy to see it in the tube and around town.

The process — which will be obvious to those of you who make operas all the time but which is new to me — is very fugued at this point. In one corner of London, the director and the singers & actors (we have thirty non-singing actors shuffling about the stage) are going through the piece scene by scene, interrogating the text, interrogating the notes. In another neighborhood, the orchestra rehearses with no singers, figuring out any scary mistakes I’ve made (did you know that despite having proof-read this thing thrice, I still had an entire section in the 2nd clarinet placed five bars early?) and negotiating a quick change to contrabassoon or tenor drum. Elsewhere entirely, the chorus is memorizing all the hocketed text at the top of the second act. It’s either very easy or very hard. I have observed one thing that I’d like to correct in a major way. Nobody in England knows who Meredith Monk is. There is a roaring lacuna where her music should be, and not just her music but her techniques; it’s a relatively common reference in my universe and one I’ve found to be completely lost on a lot of otherwise very up-2-d8 people here. So, here’s a starter package – one old, and one relatively new:

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Meredith Monk Memory Song from Do You Be?

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Meredith Monk from Facing North

Okay so, Meredith Monk. I think Hocket should be a required piece for all singers. Grab your friend and git r done. Composers in school, I will point out, have to perform a lot of exercises that don’t always engage with what our future music will sound like — twelve-tone pieces with fully serialised dynamics, piece for solo ratchet. Any sort of stylistic extension, though, will make the muscles stronger, and who knows; in ten years when some crazy gay from New York is begging you “More rhythmic! Think Meredith Monk! Relaxed but Intense!” you’ll remember that hellish week when you and your homegirl learned Hocket. Yes ma’am. Composers: do you ever feel like you want to make a little mix-tape of “necessary list’nin'” before people sing or play your work? One thing I always think is interesting is how crucial Wagner is to play Adams…? Maybe he’d disagree, but I feel like the tropical storm section from Nixon requires a stylistic awareness of Glass’s Satyagraha that slowly morphs into Das Rheingold.

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John Adams Tropical Storm from Nixon in China

I think most composers have these kinds of strange connections that resist their normal press narratives or, for that matter, the oppressive linearity of the way musical history is taught. There’s this idea that you can draw straight lines like, Schönberg -> Babbitt -> Carter -> Jonathan Dawe or whatever, but the reality is always going to be much more complicated. Like a big messy family, influence skips generations and comes, oftentimes, through surrogates: oftentimes one has less to do with one’s biological auntie than with one’s friend’s older, wacky sister, for instance.

The other big exciting thing this month is that Seeing is Believing, the Aurora Orchestra‘s wonderful album featuring my music, has been released in the UK. It’s coming later this month to the US so I’ll remind you all again about that one. I’m enormously proud of this release; the playing is superb, the programming of the disc is elegant, and the Byrd and Gibbons arrangements make me happy in a way that only music by other composers can! And yet, I get to feel involved.

Here is a video of me talking about it. Something is gefuckd with my ability to embed YouTube onto my site right now; I’ll try to get this fixed and then will repost here.

Here is the product page on Decca.

Here is a picture I took at sparrow’s fart o’clock in the morning at Aldeburgh, by where we were staying. Working in Britten-land, and having John Rutter produce this album that has so very much to do with English choral music was one of the highlights of my professional life. Also I saw sea-birds.

Another treat: on the Sunday after the premiere of Two Boys, Jamie McVinnie and I are going to play a four-hands organ recital at Westminster Abbey for about forty-five minutes, and we will be joined by Nadia Sirota. Info here, but what more information do you need? It’s in the Lord’s House, just after tea.

I’m doing a huge pile of press about this opera, which has been actually sort of fun this round. The one vexing thing I always get asked is how closely the story in the opera relates to “real life.” I like this question because it reveals so much about the interviewer’s relationship to “real life” and also, to a certain extent, to art as something distinct from “real life.” The other funny thing here is that I don’t think they have Law and Order: SVU in the +44, which, for me, is the gold standard of having a thing be loosely based on something from “real life,” but stylize it intensively enough (and set it all in Manhattan) so you end up with something that is, and is not, about real life. Another slightly more poetic variation on the same is Salman Rushdie’s Shame, which is, and is not, simultaneously about Pakistan. He offers “Peccavistan” as a complicated pun-on-a-pun (Sir Charles Napier messaged London the word “Peccavi,” meaning “I have sinned,” here, though, a homonym for “I have Sind.”) There is also a very alarming amount of legal fussy fuss about the relationship of the story that we will see on stage in Two Boys and, again, “reality” as a distinct space from theater; the fussy fuss is different in America and one wonders if it would be different again in, say, France, or Russia, or South Africa. Or Pakistan.

8 Comments

  • I can’t find a more personal way of communicating this, as you don’t seem to have a non business email address on this site. Anyway, I have a band called the Massive Violins – we’re seven cellists/vocalists that do our own arrangements of pop and rock music and we’d love to you to come to our gig on Saturday 18th June at Cecil Sharp House in Camden. Check out our website! One of the members is the sister of Dan Chandler who you know! We’re astonishing and beautiful! (erm… need to think of other reasons why you should come… Nope that about does it!)

  • This is just so ridiculously beautifully written and brilliant and insightful. Yes on the poster and all whom it must leave out. Yes on everything, really, especially on sparrow’s fart o’clock, my favorite time of day. And I hope someone will film you guys doing the Westminster Abbey thing.

  • Will Two Boys be released on DVD or CD sometime in the future? If I lived in London you’d better believe that I would be at the ENO.

    Also anxiously anticipating the release of Seeing is Believing!

  • i remember my freshman year of college i found an old VHS called Fried Shoes and Cooked Diamonds and it had some early (and somewhat randomly placed) footage of Meredith Monk performing. From there it was a lot of time frantically pouring through the records at the music library to find all i could (this of course being long after vinyl would have been the preferred medium) and spent about a week obsessing! Glad to hear you’re bringing her across the pond!

  • Nico,
    I am amused by your comments on your English collaborators’ lack of familiarity with Meredith Monk. As a European living in the U.S. I am constantly running up against such differences in cultural reference points. For example, I had never heard of “The Wizard of Oz” before I crossed the pond, and I am sometimes surprised that someone in the U.S. would not know of something that to me would be some major aspect of European culture. But aren’t such differences what makes our interactions interesting? Of course if we all had the same reference points it would be easier to interact and understand each other, particularly at the unspoken level. How boring too, in the end. You, and I, like all the others who have lived in different places long enough to absorb another culture, are privileged in that regard, but that is not the lot of most people. Then there is Art to open channels, little doors (or very large ones), so that anyone interested can experience in one’s own way things that are connected at many levels to places, people and cultures we may otherwise never know: and you hit it on the nail with your very appropriate description of the non-linear connections and influences among composers. If only we could all clearly see these connections . . .
    In bocca al lupo for “Two Boys”. I am very sorry that I will not be able to see it when it opens in London.

  • Any plans for a CD of ‘Two Boys’? Sadly I can’t make it to London owing to work commitments which is just destroying me. Once again, a wonderfully written blog; why aren’t there more bloggers who can write with such eloquence?

  • OMG that Meredith Monk totally sounds like Nico Muhly.

  • i wish i were in london (or any place near) and had Two Boys as my first opera experience..