Gait 1

from Wednesday, February29th of the year2012.

So, I’m writing, right now, a piece for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. The deal is this: it’s gonna be somewhere around 20 minutes long, it’s gonna use all the players (which is insane, it’s like seven flutes just for starters), and it’s gonna be paired with Turangalîla. Now TurangaLIIIILA is my favorite thing that ever happened; it’s a symphony (?) by Messiaen from the 40′s, but it sounds like it’s absolutely from the future. It operates in this puranic, insane timescale and is meant to be a love-song, but it’s really this kind of ecstatic tone-poem radio city decadent bollywood xxxtravaganza genius thing. So I have my work cut out for me in terms of how I’m going to deploy the enormous (and enormously energetic) forces of the NYO.

Normally, I start with a structure and then figure out the notes and the rhythms and all that stuff later. But for right now, I’m kind of stuck with this technical concern about how to make sure I’m using all the players responsibly. The other day, I rang up Philip Glass’s house and described to him this problem, and I mentioned that there were seven flutes, and he conspiratorially whispered to me that he himself played seventh flute in his youth orchestra in Baltimore! So, seventh flute, seventh oboe, seventh clarinet, seventh bassoon: I will be hollering at you.

So here’s what I thought of. Horses! People! Walking! Running! The great thing about horses is that they have four (arguably five, or three, whatever) speeds or gaits. The wonderful photographer Eadweard Muybridge (who died in 1904) photographed, famously, a sort of stop-motion version of the horse in motion:

…and then people have made other, slightly more rhythmic studies:

…and it gets better and better:

So, just as a kind of technical way to start generating material, these gait rhythms are fascinating. If you look at the running trot, that’s a pretty obvious rhythm, right?

But then things can get sexier and more complicated with a “lateral sequence walk:”

(I know flute 7 is missing some dynamics but I don’t want to give away the surprise. Hint: it’s sfp with a crescendo)

The point is, figuring out how to use each family of winds as a kind of creature with a specific range of locomotive patterns is enormously liberating just in terms of being able to construct a bigger narrative. What kind of monster hath eight legs, or twelve, or ten? The initial procedure, here, is to construct a sort of bestiary of the orchestra, and then we’re gonna figure out how to deploy it. There’s something circus-like about the Royal Albert Hall anyway, so this feels, at least for now, totally appropriate.

The other thing I wanted to talk about in terms of structure was having a dream-sequence in the middle of of the piece, sort of right at the heart. A few years ago, I had flown from New York to London to work on an electric violin concerto with Tom Gould (he was, I’m sure, in the NYO at some point), with whom I was staying in St John’s Wood. I’m pretty sure I took one of those disastrous overnight flights that deposits one at Heathrow at sparrow’s fart, and by the time one has navigated the Heathrow Express and the station and the other station and the rolling luggage on the street and the stares of the neighbors and turned up at the house… you can imagine. So, that night, after a rather committed moment at the pub, I fell asleep hard. Then, at what must have been 5 in the morning, I had a sort of feverish and confused dream about horses, and then I realized that no, it was actually horses somewhere near me. So I kind of shuffled to the window and saw something so surreal: a mounted army unit! In full regalia clip-clopping up Avenue Road! In the mist! It was completely bizarre and I thought that either it was the end of the world or I was asleep or something to do with the sleeping pill or who knows, but I went back to bed. Turns out, this is a regular occurrence, as the King’s Troop does a little drill up there all the time — or they used to until they moved in 2012. So, I think a sort of jet-lag fever-dream equestrian moment is going to figure into this piece somehow. The structure is still Shrouded in Mysterie but I will sort it very soon. Also the piece is called Gait, obvs, and I’m going to be sort of blogging its progress as I go along.

Last night I went up into Björk’s show at the Roseland. Everybody? You all need to get over there and bow b4 the queen. This show was Genius. It’s kind of a wacky concept: nature & art & music & technology all in this dance together, and it sounds like something loosely educational in the sense that your pipe-smoke-smelling sciencey uncle would take you to, which it kind of is? She’s using all these screens to illustrate the music, not just to decorate it, which is rare — unique? One of the songs has essentially a primitive midi data but highly stylized, scrolling in real time, so you can follow along and see technically how she’s amassing sound in the arrangements: a huge cluster of sounds announces itself and you see it, hear it, and feel it. It’s very smart, and should be mandatory listening for anybody who’s taken longer than four seconds to write/think/blog about that dumb article about why appoggiatura something something Adele something something else. So over that whole conversation before it even started. Unsubscribe. Find out when the Björk show is coming to your town, and buy tickets for yourself and everybody you know.

Your mom’s events are sprawling and uneven

from Friday, February10th of the year2012.

I’m in a rental-house in Santa Fe which I am not renting; it’s been very generously given to me, and therefore, I am in a constant state of amazed gratitude. This house is huge, and huge in a way that confounds the body. My normal ritual is to hold open the fridge door with my foot while pouring half and half into my coffee; this little gesture is physically impossible because all the requisite objects are 20 feet away from one another. In New York, if I forgot to plug my phone in, it’s a matter of wiggling my thorax towards the edge of the bed and making it happen; here, it’s the business of climbing four stairs and running across a giant formal bedroom.

I swear to god if one more person emails me this idiotic Justin Davidsdóttir non-contest thing I am gonna fly to wherever it is that you are at and eat your liver with capers and gherkins and shit. Can we be real for a minute? The entire premise of this operation — and, I would add, much of what Snuggles has been up to in the past few years — is reductionist & dangerous. Check it out: emphasis mine.

Getting a handle on what’s happening in contemporary classical music is harder than it seems. Composers inhabit an artistic habitat that’s both globalized and fragmented. Some become known only in tiny enclaves scattered all over the world; others have sizzling reputations that stop at the Gowanus Canal. New York has a vigorous new music concert scene — the Ecstatic Music Festival has just gotten under way at the Kaufman Center, and it runs until March 24 — but its events are often too sprawling and uneven, or else too tiny and uneven, for a clear picture to form. Small-label recordings have proliferated, but it can be easy to miss the lone six-minute gem tucked in among an hour of middling harp music.

Now, I’m not even going to link to it because I’m so mad, but essentially, it’s two problems here. The first is: what clear picture were you hoping for, honey? We’re still alive, us composers, and are working and living and breathing, and making a taxonomic “picture” is not our responsibility or goal. It’s not even technically yours, but that’s the second point — all of this is just JD’s socially awkward penance for having written a bunch of reductive things (to which I’m not linking) about young composers a few years ago not having enough to rebel against (?) and now he doesn’t know what’s “going on,” surprise surprise. All that ish popped up again last week when he wrote a snotbags thing about Philip and got all the new music trolls out of the woodwork on somebody else’s Facebook feed. So while the intentions might not be evil per se, he’s trying to do that thing where you pump cement into an anthill: yes, you see the complicated architecture of what’s going on, but you kill the ants. I’m totally over it and I beg all of you to please not participate. Nothing good will come of it. In fact, I’m already partially regretting blogging about it but I got One More Email about it and thought I would explode right here, in the Land of Enchantment. To make up for letting anger get the best of me, I am going to read more about domestic desert fathers and I urge you all to do the same. I like the Cellarer’s pages with scriptural analysis. Also their picassa page is intense.

ALSO what harp music is he talking about that sounds awesome. An hour of middling harp music sounds precisely like what I need at this time. I’ve been listening to that Adès violin concerto Concentric Paths and am freaking out with how beautiful and great and smart and twisted and wonderful it is. I have to go to the airport, and I took a bath before bed while listening to that Adès, and something weird happened and now my hair is laid like that amazing picture they took of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed right after his capture?

I had dinner last night with a friend from high school whom I haven’t seen in about thirteen years. There is a very specific emotion attendant to such a reunion and I’m not sure what it is. There’s the obvious melancholy of one having once been much younger and looking slightly less like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and all the shaded, now-dulled distant romance of high school plus the idea that adults are somehow more connected by shared experiences than would otherwise be expected? His life after college was incredibly scattered — making my own life seem linear and prescribed (in an almost Davidsonian way!) in comparison. We’re talking studying economics but working in emergency rescue management, rock-climbing and Native American health data? Talk about non-concentric paths.

I am sitting

from Thursday, January26th of the year2012.

I’m sitting backstage at Benaroya Hall in Seattle simultaneously re-packing my bags and listening to these outrageous republican debates. I love it so much! I’m going to do a pre-concert moment in about half an hour’s time — I’ve been sent a sort of loose set of guidelines for what we might talk about and it’s a lot of Schubert — it’s the Unfinished on the same program as tonight. Last night, I premiered, along with Owen, Shara & Bryce a new work by David Lang that basically extracts all the “death” bits from all the Schubert songs. The piece, Death Speaks, is meant to be a companion to his Little Match Girl Passion, with which it was paired last night. I met Paul Hillier! I am kind of his biggest fan but I refrained from whipping out my “No. 1 Choral Music Foam Finger” and writing the Psalm settings from The Cave on my chest in latex paint.

(an aside: has everybody seen, recently, the Ian Bostridge videos for Winterreise? He looks SO fine in these videos although it’s too bad it’s no pictures of Julius Drake. Julius Drake, in addition to sounding like a lesser Ducktales character, is one of the best collaborative pianists ever in the history of ever. He’s done albums with everybody you’ve ever known about, and is a really sensitive and wonderful performer. Apparently he and my homegirl Alice Coote just did a Winterreise at the Wigmore Hall that made everybody throw their knickers at the stage; it’s heartening to know that it’s still music you can do in any octave about which people will lose their shit.)

Last night was strange: it’s very rare that I play music in public other than my own or, like, Thomas’s. I had an experience that I’ve never had before. We’ve been working on this piece for a few months, but only really started putting it together in the last few days. Playing David’s music, in my experience, is rather like cooking octopus, where either you do nothing to it at all or boil it for a million hours with a wine cork. Last night, our normally minimal approach to the fourth movement kind of went to the other side, and an unexpectedly tender moment happened in one of the bars and I lost track of my triplets!!! That’s never happened to me before; I’m normally super solid, but it was so B-flattish and delicious. By the time my eyes got back to the page, it was probably a half a second, but I sort of fudged a left-hand moment and made a weird face I hope is not on video. I should also point out here that David’s music is crazy-looking on the page. You really have to follow it like early Nintendo (scroll mode!) or you can get not just lost but destructively lost.

Everybody get back into the L.M.G.P., though. David’s music is often process-based, and when text is involved, the text is sort of subjected to the same process as the notes, sometimes to a kind of abstract effect. In the Passion, the texts and the processes driving the car align in a really beautiful dance, and each of the many, many movements has a toe-curlingly great moment. Shara and I watched from backstage and I still get deep deep cilice passion pangz from “Eli, Eli.”

Today, I got up at Sparrow’s Fart and flew from San Francisco to Seattle, just in time for the dress rehearsal for my new piece, So Far So Good. I blogged about this piece before; it’s growing on me despite its oddness. There’s a trumpet solo which sounds really really American and delish. There’s a horn line that I’m pretty sure I ganked from Harmonielehre and that’s fine with me because I love that piece more than garlic. Newt Gingrich wants to go to the moon and I’m also fine with that. Ludovic Morlot is absolutely heaven.


from Sunday, January22nd of the year2012.

Who administrates the indecency laws on the teevee? Are they laws or just conventions? I’m curious for a couple of reasons but mainly, I’ve been obsessively watching the Jersey Shore. It’s kind of incredible: totally indecent grinding is shewn, the word, “smash,” which is used as a stand-in for “fuck” is presented uncensored, and yet, there are certain parts of these women’s rumps which are blurred out. The usual swear words are bleeped out, even when one buys the season via iTunes, which seems disappointing, in a way. For $3 an episode, I wouldn’t hate a potty-mouthed Staten Islander. They appear to not be allowed t o say the word “blowjob” even though a notorious one appears to be the McGuffin of a major subplot this season? But they can fully say, “I’ma gonna smash this girl in your honor in your bed.”

I suppose I have the same question about the showing of brand names. All the blurring makes you actually run through the visual lexicon of brands in your head and be like, “…no….no….no….ah! It’s Bacardi!” It seems to undo whatever work it was put there to do.

Another anomaly: everybody is completely honest about all the various procedures they do to their bodies: tanning, hair extensions, eyebrow trimming, hour-long hair blowouts, et cetera. However! All these boys have perfectly hairless thoraxes and at no point does anybody confess to a chest wax or anything — it’s strange, it’s like the one thing nobody’s talking about despite the fact that it is, one presumes, something that has to happen at least once every few weeks?

Anybody who is interested in how the Rhode Island accent works would be well-served by studying Pauly D, who has one of the finer specimens of the same. His family comes for a visit and his mother! Her accent was almost identical to the awesome lady who works at Venda Ravioli on Federal Hill. I’ve never been happier. It’s like when Emeril (from Fall River, which I think falls in the Rhode Island Accent Watershed) says “Lamb Heart.” The Jersey Shore is a real triumph of the editing room; I think there must be a kind of Sympathetic Linguist in there with them, who seems to be constructing mini-narratives around single words and turns of phrase just for my delight!

OMG OMG OMG you know what would be the best thing in the world on Top Chef would be if they could do a post-concert meal. That’s always seems like the biggest problem in the world, and readers of this space know that I am perpetually — especially when on the road — bemoaning post-show options. Pre-show is easy everywhere in the world because all you need is hummus and red wine and some of them Stacy’s pita chips, but afterwards is complicated. Pretend, for instance, a show ends at 10. There are people who helped organize who want to come with, and then there are some people we know who want to come with, but really, what’s at the heart of the matter is six people who have just sweated and had adrenaline and lactic acidz and need to get some unfussy food with an air of the fabulous to it, to accompany an inappropriate drinking sequence — start with bourbon and move to red wine then back to bourbon! Yes ma’am! It’s a hard chord to strike: what’s required is some combination of the St John in London and the Landmarc in New York, but without it being the One Fancy Restaurant in the Place Where You’re At because usually they’re too expensive and get nervy when people order different amounts of things. Some of the best post-show moments have been stolen ones: grab one person and run to Lupa after a show at LPR. Charlize Theron just said, “if you had to cast a bean, that would be the bean to cast” right before she ate a lamb’s heart, by the way, on this week’s episode, while wearing a white goddess-toga? Also Eric Ripert. Anyway somebody tell Padma to calllllll meeeee or more specifically to call Nadia.

How are we feeling about fancy cocktails these days? I feel like there was once a time where I would seek out a complicated thing with a million ingredients and an egg made by a dude with historical facial hair, a vest, and a bow tie? But…of late…? I don’t know. I used to crave it and now…I suppose I wouldn’t kick it out of bed. The changing tastebuds!


from Friday, January20th of the year2012.

So, another sequence of travel! This particular itinerary is loosely sensible: New York to Salt Lake to Seattle to New York to Winnipeg to Santa Fe to New York to Kitchener-Waterloo to Lewisburg to New York all in approximately a month. I had a jarring month over the New Year in which I had to kind of reconcile a lot of tax mishegas from the Distant Past, reorganize the apartment and its attendant billings, redo my whole online life (unsubscribe! unsubscribe!), and carve out time to make two smart sets of revisions to Dark Sisters and Two Boys as well as start writing this monster collaboration and finish this cello concerto and learning this piece which is harder than it looks. Also all my friends had babies? So, that’s a half-assed excuse for why I haven’t been posting anything.

The baby thing is crazy. I have some friends whom I had pre-planned to visit about a week after they had the baby. In the course of things, I didn’t really confirm and then the baby was late so I ended up being the first non-family visitor to this Very Tiny Creature. I’m an only child, so I didn’t grow up around nuggets that size and it was intense for me. I’m really looking forward to being a Fabulous Uncle-style figure – I think I’m much more suited to that. I love going to the zoo and my job is basically making noise.

I just had a very heartening ride to the airport; in the course of natural banter, it came up that I was a musician, and my driver said that his daughter is in this middle school in Brooklyn. I’ve spent a few minutes nosing around the website and I’m just really happy to see all of this — the site itself is kind of nuts but it encapsulates, it seems, all the stuff going on. The model seems to be one in which kids are dancing, singing, playing a zillion instruments, acting: a kind of holistic Orff eduction. I’m into it. I wish there were some oblique way I could participate in young-ish music education; a few years ago I did some volunteer work and a few years before that worked in Colorado in a K-12 school teaching music for a few weeks and it was actually really, really great.

I’ve also been watching every second of these Republican debates. I can’t bear this whole thing with Newt Gingrich where he gets to have three wives and gay people can’t have nann and then randomly gets to still be sanctimonious about it? I can’t bear Newt Gingrich’s fake-blunt answers or that whiny scold Santorum. But it’s so fun to watch I can’t turn it off! I can’t help thinking how irrelevant my specific life is to these people and this process; I’m as involved in the process as I can be — I read everything and vote all the time, including absentee which is a Whole Process for those of you who have never done it — and yet it feels very sim-city to me. All the alarm bells in my head tell me to run far away from these people — what is up with Karen Santorum!? Have we all processed that she lived with in a sex-type way the obstetrician who delivered her? And now is homeschooling all those weeping children, see illustration? Or how about how Newt Gingrich’s second wife, with MS, was inwestigated for taking a half a million dollar bribe from some dude in Paris to win her then husband’s favor?! I get the same vibe as I do with those cancer grifters, accused molesters, Stephen Glass. Some reptilian part of my brain is constantly alerting me that something is up. Ron Paul not knowing who wrote those newsletters? The weird thing about authorship — especially before the internet — is that somebody wrote the thing. It doesn’t particularly matter who — is there anything sadder than scholarly work about the authorship of Shakespeare’s works? Yikes. Anyway, Ron Paul. Fuck that dude. Would it be so hard to find the person who wrote them and talk about it? I think that would be interesting: even if they (by which I mean The Author and Ron Paul, who may or may not be the same Entity) disavowed half the stuff and still believed in the other half, it would be, as they say, a teachable moment.

I’ve written a piece for the Seattle Symphony which premieres this coming Thursday. I’m excited! It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything purely orchestral. I’ve been in a constant state — for almost two years — of writing narrative pieces or pieces too short to have anything other than a fragmentary narrative. This commission – plus or minus twenty minutes for orchestra with no specific program – was a real challenge coming out of two operas. I have a confession: I am not naturally very good at structure. If there are four or five things that I’m fluent at, musically, structure is not one of them, and it’s always a struggle. I attribute it to the fact that my favorite favorite music in Tha Formative Years was Purcell verse anthems. I’m thinking of one in particular: Sing Unto the Lord. Check out the score here. Basically, it’s a sequence of perfect little two-minute emotional mini-statements keyed to the text. There’s an alleluia that comes and goes and comes back again. There isn’t much that relates A to B to C, which isn’t to say that the piece doesn’t work; on the contrary, it’s my favorite! Anyway, that structural model doesn’t translate very well into secular music — I’ve always said that writing sacred music is writing incidental music to a play whose plot we all know, so there is strangely more flexibility to bounce around structurally. But when I first started writing instrumental music this was sort of the model I’d use: a series of not particularly interrelated great ideas. John Corigliano, my teacher at Juilliard along with Chris Rouse, kicked my ass about it and made me listen to music with developmental (rather than additive or just Massive) structure and I can do it now! I know how to do it! But sometimes? I check back in with Purcell and those big choral works like the Te Deum which contain fast music, slow music, duets, trios, beautiful music, pomp & incense, curlicues. I’ve tried to make a version of the same for orchestra with a slightly more modern sense of structure in which stuff comes back, but changed (“stuff comes back but changed” being, I think, the one emotional gift of the romantic era I have fully unwrapped). The piece is called So Far So Good and I’m really excited! Okay now I’ve had like nineteen Delta cappuccinos and I am ready for aviation!

The war is over

from Thursday, December15th of the year2011.

So apparently the war in Iraq is officially over as of today. I don’t have much to say about that except that we should maybe all take a second (ten minutes, really) and listening to the heartbreaking third section of Steve Reich’s Different Trains.

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Steve Reich
Different Trains: III. After the War
Kronos Quartet

A few things about this. 2:05 in, there are some really delicious chords that I’ve been stealing for years. The minute this album came out (the Kronos version) I was right there sitting on the floor with a pencil and manuscript paper trying to figure out the voicings. The other thing is that around seven and a half minutes in, Reich really turns it out. In a miniature Mahlerian structure, almost, he introduces an almost folk-like melody with “there was one girl who had a beautiful voice,” followed by an anguished, central-european chromaticism on “and they loved to listen to the singing, the Germans,” which suddenly transforms into a sort of sun-dappled flautando environment for the final lines. It’s super super gorgeous.

Note that although I’m using the iconic, original Kronos recording here, there are now five or six others, including the wonderful Smith Quartet, the London Steve Reich Ensemble… more and more people, and younger people, too; this is a piece that has been so outrageously important to me, and I’m sure to a large number of young composers, and it’s great to see it falling into the fingers of our contemporaries.

The text, which Reich compiled from interviews:

Then the war was over
Are you sure
The war is over
Going to America
To Los Angeles
To New York
From New York to Los Angeles
One of the fastest trains
But today they’re all gone
There was one girl who had a beautiful voice
And they loved to listen to the singing,
The Germans
And when she stopped singing they said, “More more,”
and they applauded


from Tuesday, December6th of the year2011.

The limit of my ability to be practical in Icelandic: trying to buy “you know that rubber thing in your garage that keeps the cold air out that they sell in SkyMall that seals itself to the concrete by way of pressure? That, but for the shower.”

This is what

from Monday, December5th of the year2011.

This is what I came to Iceland for: this frozen, inconsiderate wind. The wind doesn’t belong to the land the way it would in Vermont (“the wind was running down the road towards the house.”) This wind doesn’t even see this house; the next thing it’s going to worry about is the west coast of Norway. It’s violent, outrageously cold, and I’m so so happy.

Arctic Expanse

from Thursday, December1st of the year2011.

I’ve decamped, after all the madness of Dark Sisters and the hubbub of finishing pieces before the new year to Iceland, where my schedule looks, more or less, like this:

…which is very exciting: the arctic expanse of an empty diary. I have a hearty to-do list, but it’s mainly smaller things — or smaller, at least, than wrangling together an opera. The big consideration at the time is a cello concerto for this cellist Olly Coates & the Britten Sinfonia, which will happen in the UK in March, and then will receive its US premiere in January 2013 with the deliciously named Zuill Bailey and the Indianapolis Sympherny, who commissioned the piece along with the Barbican. It’s shaped up very nicely but strangely: the middle section bears the traces of Qawwali and has — as much of what I’ve been writing recently does — a commitment to a single, unchanging drone.

You guys. Even though I didn’t have shit-all to do, really, putting that opera together was exhausting! It’s like a strange version of plate spinning because it feels like work without actually being work. It would have been entirely possible — and indeed, maybe preferable? — for me to be a ghost in the process, but eventually, my schedule freed up such that I could, and did, make a (productive) nuisance of myself. What is difficult about the process, actually, is negotiating degrees of perfectionism in other people. This is probably more of an issue for me and Dr. Rosenfeld, but really, what it breaks down to is this: the piece exists as the document I’ve produced (two very large scores), but then is received as a collection of various processes ranging from the way in which the pit that houses the scissor-lift is painted to the font in the programme to the morale backstage to the presence (or absence) of supertitles to the morale in the follow-spot booth and on and down and up and over. It is a series of interconnected decisions and, in some cases, negative-space decisions (actively not making a decision about something and “letting it be”) that really surrounds the piece and puts it into three dimensions.

Rebecca Taichman, the director, and I are similarly neurotic people who will obsess over the font of the apostrophe in the supertitles: this is probably a good thing, given what we do. The question becomes how to gauge the limits of others in dealing with these details. For me, it’s technical and emotional: when I walked backstage the other day, did the fly-operator seem angry? Is there anything I can do? Is there anything I should do? It’s a complicated issue, of course, of degrees of control, and one that I imagine composers struggle with their entire lives.

The insane, insane thing about operas is that they are reviewed (and really, evaluated) on their opening night; there’s a huge amount of weight given to the opening. In theater, or a musical, the show would have been open for weeks working out those unthinkable obstacles that no amount of workshops can help one 4c. For me, two operas in, it’s one of pace and adrenaline. My instinct, as a performer, is to rush — a funny thing happens to me once a month, where I’m playing with a pre-recorded tape, and when an audience is there, I’m Absolutely Positive that an Imp or a Gnome has crept into the computer and slowed down the recording by 25%. I have never performed Skip Town without feeling that I am being punked by the tempo gods. Tempo is so subjective anyway: one writes quarter equals 120 on the score when, in the presence of an audience, what’s actually desired is twice as fast. But who can know that? One thing I love love love about opera singers is that they react to the presence of an audience: little pauses became big ones, and they started making dramatic decisions in character, which is nothing you could ever really write in the score and is the magic fruit of an enormous collaborative process. But it adds time, and I would loved to have had another three days to cut, let’s say, one-hundred seconds out of Act I before being subjected to critical proportional scrutiny. It’s also a bit of a game to zone out the insane online chatter about operas: it’s a funny thing. People? Actually want operas to “fail,” whatever that means for art. There’s a community online of manic, smug, glee people who think they know anything about what we’re trying to do — those same vicious queens backseat programming opera seasons, revealing false information and writing in declamatory fragments. I always want those people to ask themselves if they’re really making the world a better place before sounding off on the internet; I’ve stopped reading years ago but imagine how awful it must be to be a cast member in a piece of mine, getting dragged down just because a crazy person wants to play World of Opera Warcraft? But it’s fine! We’re gonna do it all again in Philadelphia this summer and I’ma get in there with a scalpel and make the piece the best that I possibly can, which, surely, is all that can be expected from lovers and haters alike. I’m excited.

I went, on Advent Sunday, to Westminster Abbey in London, where they did their fabulous procession and where, after the same procession, Jamie McVinnie played my seven preludes on the Seven O Antiphons. Will Balkwill, a lay clerk, sang the antiphons and Jamie played the preludes; I didn’t think I could be happier until then we all took taxis-cab to St John Bread & Wine and ate five pheasants, a venison & pig’s trotter pie, and a quince Eton mess. And then, of course, the mandatory eccles cakes and lancashire cheese. There’s always somebody, isn’t there, who is spooked by the combination of the currants and the cheese; you should see what happens when these people announce themselves: a great cheering objection, rushing up, slices of ambitious proportion being proffered, thunderous applause and intense scrutiny at the first bite. Get over it, y’all, it’s delicious! Look, incidentally, at this salad of ham, egg, and a strange duxelles-like paste of hazelnut and fatback:

One of the most crazy-making things in the world is this bogus idea of a war on Christmas, which, for those of you fortunate enough not to know what I’m talking about, is a right-wing obsession in which stores who ask their employees to say “happy holidays” are participating in a giant act of secularization and Christian persecution. If you’re bored, google it and wallow, for a few minutes, in the stupidity. What’s doubly maddening is, of course, the real argument to be made which is in favor of Advent: a liturgically rich & complicated season that gets eaten up with all the horrifying premature explosions of ghastly tinsel.

Apropos of nothing: a gallery of Miss Havisham thru the ages.

And: a beautiful, beautiful Advent carol:

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Elizabeth Poston
Jesus Christ the Apple Tree

And a concert I’m very sad to miss: Albrecht Mayer playing music written for the oboe and music not written for the oboe, as well as a new piece by Andrew Norman which sounds like it does Things with the orchestra, which is always exciting. I like this programming notion, too, which is to put a new piece with old pieces played by a great soloist, and promote both. It’s kind of win-win and doesn’t make new music seem like the mandatory but feared Brussels-Sprout, nor does it force one into a ghettoized new music space where it’s just several varieties of Brussels-Sprout in random order, with tedious percussion moving around in-between and that inevitable moment when somebody drops a cymbal.

The exception to that, however, was a fabulous concert I was part of in Dublin last week, with the excellent Crash Ensemble. This is a composer-driven band, under the moral guidance of Donnacha Dennehy (whose new CD is so great, get it right now). They play amplified and are used to playing amplified. Their programming was audaciously big/small; the order of the concert was Correct rather than Convenient, but then the stage changes were handled quickly, elegantly, and without much drama. One of the funny tricks about new music concerts is that instrumentalists have to get used to dealing with everything they normally do, plus one more thing. The nature of that One More Thing changes, but it can be: save us all fifteen minutes by taking your own stand over there, or bring an extra stand light, or unclip your own microphone as elegantly as you play your instrument. It’s a skill-set that most musicians have but usually deploy without the panache with which they play; all these Crashers were excellent at balancing all the additional clippings and hookings without it seeming like a gong show. They did three of my pieces, including a big new one, a piece by Timo Andres for piccolo, glockenspiel, and two bass drums which sounds, in reality, about sixty zillion times more awesome than you could even imagine, a piece of Missy Mazzoli’s, and a piece by Sean Friar (who looks alarmingly like recently-Grammy-nominated Jefferson Friedman, yay Jefferson & the Chiara Quartet!) It was a great show, and great to see a concert of recent works and not have it feel like a solemn litany or a procession through the Stations of the Cross.

Day After

from Thursday, November10th of the year2011.

So, last night we premiered Dark Sisters! It went great. I was incredibly anxious. During dress rehearsals, I can wander around between seats, hide if something starts going wrong, text the director or the librettist little thoughts. The thing with the performance is that you have to sit still and behave like an adult, in the presence of people who won’t have seen the show before. There are so many little insane things that can go wrong: late seating, a mysterious smell. As at any opera, the music is punctuated by the tuberculitic ejaculations of people of a certain age. A watch announces that it’s 8:00: so soon after the beginning! we must have started 15 minutes late! All of these things are happening simultaneously, in a glacially slow hyper-reality. Right at the top of the show, a mysterious rhombus of projected light appears on a scrim. The supertitles go off for about five minutes. It’s one of those things where you start imagining everything else going wrong: singers falling off the stage, the piccolo player spontaneously combusting, the cables holding the screens contorting into serpentine glyphs and strangling the baritone. And what do you do? In a rehearsal, at the first sign of the Rhombus of Mysterie, you can anxiously run around and try to figure out where it’s coming from. In the show, it’s a torture chamber. Of the three-man video/scenic team, one was in the house as an audience member, one was running the show from the light-booth, and the other had already fled home to his family, and I couldn’t even make eye contact with the one in the hall, so instead I grabbed the librettist’s thigh and assumed the brace position. But then it went away; we are talking about a (maybe) two-second apparition here. But then something kind of miraculous happened, that hasn’t happened to me before: the singers were so on top of their game, and the conductor and orchestra so in sync with them, that I floated back into my body and actually watched the piece for the first time. Details I had forgotten about became clear, theretofore buried vocal nuances became precise, and the giant rhythmic footprint of the piece started to become visible. In a sense, it felt like a heightened moment of clarity after a near-accident or after one of those vertiginous shocks just before properly falling asleep. Very exciting! Everybody come see this thing!

Now I have the kind of daunting task of throwing myself immediately into another project: a cello concerto for the wonderful British cellist Oliver Coates and the formidable Britten Sinfonia. I also have to actively avoid reading reviews; it used to be easier before twitter, but now you get tagged in them by whoever runs social media for the papers, so you have to actively avoid clicking on things. There were a few English people who were trolling me by writing these screeds about how the time they spent in Two Boys is time they’ll never get back again, how really I am the most awful thing that ever happened and am indicative of a greater series of social problems, et cetera, and bury it in a link that seems innocent, so then you click, and have about twenty minutes of severe self-loathing followed by an awareness that some people really do wish other people ill. I’ve found that avoiding the entire structure is, for me, a healthier and more productive tack. I’m going to try to blog a bit more, too, and document the process of this concerto because it’s going to be sort of a Closed System, in the sense that I’m going to write it without too many distractions and in, miraculously, only four countries. It occurred to me that Dark Sisters had bits written in: Iceland, the Faroe Islands, New York, Vermont, Cambodia, Singapore, France (the CAMARGUE, outrageously), London, and some proof-reading even took place on a cruise ship near Cozumel (!).