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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:

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.

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