Sit on the floor

from Friday, February7th of the year2014.

I’ve been ignoring this space, and I don’t feel great about it. This past few months has been wildly busy, exciting, fun, everything, and I had initially thought I would feel the spirit to blog about the entire process of mounting Two Boys at the Met, but in late August, after our first week of tech, I realized that I wasn’t going to have the energy. The biggest difficulty of the process for me was actually figuring out what precisely it was that I was going to do with myself during all the rehearsals. The score was — for the most part — correct. I had absolute trust in the casting, and my theory is always that singers who learn something in a certain way “own” the piece much more than I can at my desk, and that their instincts are more correct sometimes than the score. Craig had created such a fool-proof libretto that the intentions were super clear, even when they were meant to be deliberately unclear, if that makes sense. Under Bart’s direction, they opened up, over the rehearsal process, into being able to make decisions in character: it’s a fabulous thing to watch. So, my role was avuncular rather than paternal. I sat there, but tried to look a little bit distracted so as not to feel like a vengeful harpy, obsessing over the score. I made encouraging grunts and muffled noises, and tried, as best I could, to promote a calm and productive team spirit. I’d go and get coffee for anybody who wanted it. I performed tech support on Alice Coote’s various iDevices. I gossiped with the cover singers, I sat on the floor and poked my head into rehearsals for The Nose. I shewed our design team Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance on YouTube.

People — younger composers, particularly — have asked me what it was Like™. It’s great, basically. There are four thousand external oppressive stressors that try to come and get in the way of progress, rather like a video game. One day it’ll be a sick singer on Facebook. Another day it’ll be a parent or my boyfriend making a silent point of not telling me how they’d read some bad-faith article in the paper, or somebody writing me an email like “congrats on that review!” or “sorry about [the same] review.” Another day, a schedule change that requires four against-the-rush-hour commutes around town. Another day, after we opened, a European opera dude invited himself to my house to tell me how much he disliked the production! Before noon! And I bought bagels! Actually my boyfriend bought bagels. But in the midst of all of this, some extraordinary, ravishing music-making, and all in the presence of the machine (and I use this word as a compliment) of the Met’s technical department. These people are wizards.

The secondary texts — the primary text being the score — of how to run the system of an opera are erotically fascinating: the codes that govern when the set moves, the codes that govern the fast costume change area in the back, the off-stage chorus, the electrician double-checking to make sure the video camera embedded in an onstage cumrag tissue box was still working. When things — as they do — go slightly wrong, there would be delicious, professional, investigations about how to not just get it wrong again, but indeed, how to make it better for the future of this production and other productions. There’s a memory bank, as it were, between shows at the Met that is, for me, as inspiring as the on-stage music making, which is pretty extraordinary itself.

The other thing that I think was unique to this piece and situation is that because it was the first Gelb-era commission, there was a huge matrix of expectations about it and what it Meant. When I was writing the piece, I knew it was going to be a specific and crazy piece. Craig and I designed it to tell that story well; the production is designed to be a delivery system for thatstory. It was not designed to solve a made-up crisis in classical music, it was not designed to attract more young people into the opera house (as if young people are moths, drawn towards a patio light). It was not designed to make any statements about the future of the genre, about the way opera “should” be commissioned or workshopped or not. It was not designed to be an argument for or against presenting work in large spaces or small spaces. It was just, I had hoped, a good show. And is it fair to ask a new piece to be anything other than good, on its own terms? Not to cause a revolution, not to solve the problems online crazypeople think need to be solved. One got the sense that many punters came to it with various other expectations in mind — particularly people In Or Near The Industry. I had to really control myself from asking the designers to project the huge, beautifully typeset phrase It’s Not About You before each act. What is is, indeed, about is a flawed romance between a 16 year-old boy and a 13 year-old boy, forensically analyzed by a woman in her 50’s. These three people circle around one another, opening up little hornets’-nests of online and offline violence and beauty. If I’ve told that story well, I am happy.

Then, I had to do an unreal amount of press. It was fucking insane. It never stopped. I wrote about this before when we did the show in London, although I’ve gotten more aggressive about it of late. My policy is twofold and strict: read nothing, say yes to everything. I will not read anything that’s written about the piece after it’s opened, which means no reviews, ever, at all — even the good ones, if not especially the good ones. The good ones sometimes seemed like people coming over your house for dinner and enthusiastically complimenting everything but the food. One finds, in good reviews, still the dangerous instinct to analyze trends rather than notes, imagined patterns rather than musical ones.

What used to be really difficult about my strategy was that I’d still read reviews of other people’s work, but not my own, which was hypocritical and also made avoiding just stuff about me into a slightly cartoon-like project. Now I just don’t mess with it at all, and you know why? Because nobody knows how to write about music, really. It’s, like, four people, maybe; certainly far fewer people know how to write about music than there are people who know how to write it. It’s a vile little human-centipede situation, reviews and previews, and you realize how silly it is when you listen to the questions people ask. I had a little running tally going, and of hundreds questions I’d be asked in an interview, very very few would be about the notes or the rhythms or even the piece itself. A few would talk about plot points as if we had invented them — as opposed to Reality, which itself had a strong creative input into the plot of the piece. The main focus of a lot of questions was: the Met, the future of opera, the merits of workshops, Peter Gelb, the Met, the Met, the future of opera, the future of the genre, elitism, Young People, ageing audience, all this horseshit buzzword wordsoup; one could almost hear the “think” piece writing itself, along with a subsequent review to reinforce whatever insightful conclusions might have been reached.

If you follow classical music at all, you know that the loudest noises are being made not by composers and musicians (as perhaps should be the case), but by a very special caste of people who like to go into the elevator the rest of us are working in, fart juicily, and then ask whahappen. When you hear their questions for advance press, you register that they’ve already made up their mind about how this two hour thing I wrote relates to a Big Narrative about the future of what essentially amounts to their livelihood. Really, I can’t blame them; if things are going well, if things are alright, if work exists on its own terms, who is going to pay the rent?

What I can do, though, is say yes to every request. I told the Met’s press people to just lay it on, because I trust them and I like them. Obviously, there’s a backlash — you start getting tweets screeching about how it’s such a huge failure that there is so much being written about a new opera, etc., but you have to just ignore (or tease) those people. You also have to ignore/tease the people who want to get all up in one’s grill about ticket sales. It’s like: do you want me to stand on the Lincoln Center Plaza with a sandwich board? I had one person who in one breath would celebrate an orchestra offering cheap seats for young people, and then in the next breath bemoan the fact that the Met had “deeply slashed ticket prices” or whatever because I suck and Peter Gelb Ooga Booga. Té in the wind. Chicopée. Writing about music reads like some combination of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and a Sarah Palin interview transcript: that combination of conspiracy theories, Chicken Little concern-trolling, deep hypocrisy, false alarms, made-up statistics, and what one imagines to be a pervasive domestic fug of cat feces, tea-stained vocal scores and dandruff-dusted cardigans. Internet people are insane. Read the comments here, just for fun.

(An aside: have we moved past that thing of articles about art appearing and then setting off an internet shitstorm and then the author being like, well, if it sparked conversation… then smugly smiling? I know I always bring it up but remember that completely vile Sasha Frere-Jones article about how indie rock wasn’t black enough, and then that nice boy Will from the Arcade Fire took him to school like six times with an apple for teacher and SFJ was like, *NPR smile* about “The conversation?” If the last two sentences of that thing I just linked to don’t make you want to put down what you’re doing, find him, and take away his internet, I don’t know what will.)

After the opera closed, I did all my dry-cleaning and discovered that everything I wore during the shows was like, fight-or-flight sweat damaged. It was so insanely fun and great and I would do it again in One Minute. I lost a scarf and a hat in the process somehow, so if you see them somewhere, send it to me at the office?

Other things that had happened: I wrote this review of the Beyoncé album that dropped in the middle of the night.

Do you want to talk about how beautiful the Orlando de Lassus “Alma Redemptoris Mater” is?

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Orlando de Lassus Alma redemptoris mater
The Tallis Scholars

Do you want to talk about how I finally got around to reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and that I totally loved it?

I’m doing another one of those Trips right now that started in New York, and somehow, over a fortnight and change, finds me in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Paris, Lyon, Paris, Lyon, and Paris again. In Los Angeles, I attended the premiere of a new piece I wrote for Anne-Sofie von Otter and Emanuel Ax: two childhood heroes, 2gether 4ever! What was extra cool about this concert was that they folded a new piece by me and a new piece by Missy inside a recital of Brahms songs and solo piano music. Anne-Sofie stayed on stage the whole time, hiding in a chair when she wasn’t needed, avoiding all those endless entrées classiques that take up time and break the mood. The LA Phil is great and cozy and familiar and professional and, really, when it’s 72° all year ‘round, how could they be anything but? Their program annotator somewhat cruelly wrote in my bio, “His opera Two Boys was widely discussed at its premieres in New York & London” which… you know. Jesus wept. One rather wants to have engraved cards made that read “Your mom, too, was widely discussed” and then on the other side “Yours in Christ, Nico xoxo,” but do you know how expensive engraved stationery is these days? Ok now I’m done talking about that. Shh.

I’ll be back in LA in April to play David Lang’s death speaks, and my goal for next time is to not be stuck in traffic the whole time and to take one (1) run whilst there. Missy and I drove out to Santa Monica to see some friends for dinner, and in the last mile before their house there were more glowing and satisfied-looking Cali runner people than there were cars. It was inspiring, in the way that feeling shameful about one’s own lumpen, black-clad avoirdupois always is.

4 Comments

  • I’m deeply in love with the fact that Reflektor is essentially the ultimate retort to Frere-Jones’s criticism. I actually hadn’t even read the article until just now and I chuckled at his mention of Sandinista! because when Reflektor came out I more or less ran up to all of my music-loving friends and shouted “DOESN’T IT SOUND LIKE SANDINISTA-ERA CLASH” and then fell over.

  • Hi Nico! I’m a composer who is close to finishing undergrad, and I’ve got a “What is it like(TM)”-type question for you, but this time it’s about process. You write I think a couple of fucktons of music (I think Taruskin defines that somewhere, no?) and what I’ve heard of it is good, which is incredible, so how do you do that? I’ve always got ideas for pieces, but there are simply not enough hours in a day to pull off your kind of output. How do you get initial ideas down? How do you plan things? Is everything set before you start writing pitches and rhythms? How do you conceive of development or melody or orchestration or…? I realize these are big questions…maybe you could do a blog post about it?? I’d be super grateful!

    Thanks!
    g

  • Stunning story there. What occurred after?

    Take care!

  • hahahahahaha! thank you for saying all that’s true, it’s all because people love it so much, music itself, and they want to be part of it and so farting in that elevator and asking whathappen is just exactly right, you made grampa’s day, write more music, please, never stop.