Reflection and progression

2013 is coming to a close.

It has been quite the year. Back in March, I had a post go viral. For a blog that's been around for 5 years at that point and garnered no more than a few hits, it was astounding. That post got me linked and quoted on several sites, including an NPR station and several bloggers. I was also able to email some people in the San Francisco Orchestra, and learned more about what was happening.

From there, my readership has stayed somewhat steady, small, but steady. The year was spent more in cultural commentary and reactions, from what happened to opera to a long series of posts about "entrepreneurship" and the arts.

I jumped headlong into those conversations, had a length discussion with Jeffrey Nytch and others over at Greg Sandow's blog. It was a good conversation, and Nytch and I further sent off a few emails to each other, started mainly because his audio players weren't working well on his site, and I wanted to listen to his music!

April was a crazy month that saw my first 10 minute play, The Story: Alec and Grugh, get performances during InTENsity 2.0, produced by Frank Higgins and Tony Bernal at the Fishtank in Kansas City. It played to packed audiences (though a couple seats short of a sold-out run. SO CLOSE!) and I got to work with some of the best actors in Kansas City.

At the same time, Black House and KCEMA was ramping up rehearsals for Rites of Being. Rites was an evening of brand new short operas, all having some sort of electronic component. It was an incredibly varied night of entertainment, from the more abstract stories to fun satires, and music going from post-minimalist to improvisational to more modernist. My opera, Till Death Do Us Part, was given a great premiere by Stacey Stofferahn and Nathan Granner. Special thanks to Eli Hougland, Simon Fink, and Stamos Martin for their string work, and Brad Van Wick for hitting play on samples.

That production also saw me return to the podium as a conductor. It's something that I seem to do once every couple years, tackling projects that just happen to fall in my lap. Conducting is a fantastic challenge, and something I'd like to do more often. Some may not know, but I was originally going the route of a conductor, many moons ago, before deciding on composition. First a high school director, then wanting to go professional. The first visit for my masters was to University of Washington, to go in conducting.

The Spring stayed busy--I had scores to prepare and send for June in Buffalo and a presentation to prepare for Electroacoustic Music Studies Conference 2013 in Lisbon, Portugal. But it was the email I received at the end of April that changed my 2013 more than anything else.

I was sitting in my medieval music history course when my phone went off. I was beyond annoyed; usually I'm a good student and have my phone off or on silent during class, but my brain was foggy from too many late nights. I pulled it out to silence it and say the sender was "Fulbright." So much for classroom etiquette. I opened the email.

I got as far as "we are happy to inform you..."

Then I threw my phone. Yes, I threw my phone, in class. Everyone stopped and stared at me, so I did the only thing I could do--I quickly added to the conversation happening in the class. I have no memory of what was said, or even the topic for the day. I do remember my friend Joey coming up to me afterwards and giving me a look of "what the fuck was that?" So I told him.

Then went outside and started screaming and laughing. I fell over in the damp morning grass laughing louder than I had ever laughed in my life. And I called everyone.

April was a crazy month.

Rites of Being went splendidly. In June, I traveled to Buffalo for JiB and had a fantastic time. And I wrote a series of posts describing the experience and the various insights from the festival. I returned for a short while, the I flew off to Lisbon, Portugal for EMS 2013. I love EMS, made some new friends, and loved Lisbon.

July passed quietly. August saw me move back to Indiana for a few weeks, staying with my brothers. Most of my possessions were stowed in the empty basement of some dear friends in Kansas City (shout out to Justin and Jamie!), while various music books, my electric piano, and my recording equipment were loaded into my Jeep to go to Indiana.

It marked the last major trip for my 1995 Jeep Cherokee.

August was a wash--I was broke, living with my brothers, and just biding my time till I left for Stockholm. I did get one last trip in--my bff took me to a Cincinnati Reds game. Nothing like the American past-time right before I left the country for 10 months.

The day before I left, I was still broke. I had borrowed money from my brother to pay for my apartment. For food money...

I sold my Jeep. I had owned it since 2002, a graduation gift, partially paid for by me, and partially paid for by my parents. I put my old car down, plus another $1200 from my pocket...so about $3K down. My parents covered the rest on the car payments. It had driven all over the US, to Denver, Kansas City, Lawrence, Milwaukee, Chicago, Traverse City, Cincinnati, Columbus (OH), Dayton, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Princeton, NYC, Boston, Syracuse, Rochester (NY), Wilmington, Baltimore, Morgantown, Paducah, and many more. I put roughly 175,000 miles on it myself. I never did get to all 48 contiguous states, nor to Canada like I had hoped. Still...to have a car for 11 years. It was sad to sell it for $350. I was happy for the money. I could eat. And it wasn't worth much more than that, honestly...

The first month in Stockholm I was sick and adjusting. I also wrote a great many posts about outreach, symphonies (and why I don't write them), and lots of cultural critiques, most interestingly on why I don't care that a famous person dissed a young artist. And it goes on to explain why historical context is so important.

My time in Stockholm has been amazing. I've written one 10 minute piece, wrote a piece of software for algorithmic composition (a skeleton of what I plan to use in my opera, hopefully...), got a commission from the Ghettoblaster project, which is nearly finished. And wrote a bit about what noise means to me. I've been to a ton of concerts, both metal and classical. I've finally started befriending people in the metal scene, and hopefully will get more interviews as time goes on.

But I've already gotten one HUGE interview--Anders Bjorler! Such a big deal. Anders is a great guy, and I had tons of fun in Gothenberg. Hopefully this will spell more interviews in the spring!

In the meantime, I've done a lot of anecdotal research, looked at crowds, made comparisons, and did tons of research. I found tons of songs using folk material, from various settings of Bellman's Epistles of Fredman No. 81, to less distinct influences. I found references to folk tales here and there. And started looking more into the political usage of the music. This has really stepped up after talking to Anders and hearing about the different ways that the people he knows deals with music.

The opera is going swimmingly. I did NaNoWriMo, more or less, and wrote the entire libretto. And then revised it. And revised it. And then five more times. I've written a bunch of melodic material, and come January 3rd, the blitz is on...every day in a studio working as many hours as I can...no excuses.

So, 2013 has been a year to remember. Hopefully, it's just the beginning of even more grand adventures.


Ruminations on Noise

I was recently contacted by an associate who's working on quite the interesting project. I'll keep things on the DL until everything is announced, but here's the basic premise: use recycled "noise pollution" to create pieces to be played through recycled boomboxes creating a striking sonic and visual image. The boombox setup is not a boombox, but instead two large walls of boomboxes wired together.

Two things struck me as interesting--first off, I was working my way through R. Murray Schafer's The Soundscape, so the idea of "noise" and our sonic world was already keenly on my mind. It's a must read for anyone working in the electronic medium. While some of the research is a bit dated, the ideas are fun, the prose is interesting, and it is informing my listening.

The second was the use of boomboxes as the playback system. We're talking lo-fi systems, cobbled together, not matching at all. Something about that just tugs at my mind and says screams "YES!" It shows the power of nostalgia and my wish to make something beautiful a bit dirty. This from the guy that sheds a tear every time he sees someone pull out a pair of stock Apple in-ears.

I decided, very quickly, that the piece would be a soundwalk, of sorts. I've also grown more and more intrigued with how sound and music is perceived between people. Coupled with some of the ear cleansing and soundwalk assignments from Schafer, and a form started to coalesce in my brain.

I recorded some of the areas in Stockholm I frequent--a local galleria where I shop; the subway; a pedestrian tunnel underneath the pendeltag, or above-ground commuter rail; the construction outside KMH; a hallway outside the studios of KMH; and one incredibly unique recording of several people playing a hammer song on a cast bronze canon! This canon to be exact.

I chose the locations because of they all incorporated different ideas of "noise pollution." I had a long conversation with my brother Marty about what exactly noise pollution is. I had said I wanted to steer away, at least slightly, from the sounds that most think of as pollution in urban environments. I live near an airport in Stockholm, the smaller Bromma airport, and so the sound of engines, autotraffic, and planes overhead are "keystone" noises in my life--a phrase used by Schafer to describe sounds that are more or less always in your life and make up the majority of the sound we hear. The same can be said of subway travel--after living in Brooklyn and now in Stockholm, the sound of the metal wheels grinding on the rails don't bother me like they did the first time I jumped on a subway.

Marty brought up public playing of music by stores and by people with bad headphones pushing the sound to 11. That is also an irritation for me, as the cacophony of mixed music because a blur and a distraction. We also talked about voices--the roar of a crowd can be quite loud, either in the streets or at an overpopulated restaurant or bar. In the US, the sound of people didn't bother me. My ears would flit between conversations, pick up interesting bits here and there, or ignore the conversations entirely, letting them drift into the background noise. In a coffeeshop, like I use at the beginning of this new piece, conversations would either be attended or fall into a background and forgotten. It's like the phenomena discussed by Schafer in regards to airplanes: people in Vancouver were normally describing far fewer airplanes being heard than were actually flying overhead. They weren't attending to the sounds, so it fell far back and joined the landscape.

In Sweden, the human voice is a bit different. There's no flitting between conversations. My Swedish is incredibly poor, especially in understanding it when spoken. Attending to any conversation takes all of my focus, and even then it's picking up one or two words. Worse than that is the general frustration. I practice with Rosetta Stone, read Swedish whenever I can, and practicing pronouncing words constantly, and yet I feel as though my grasp of the language doesn't improve. When I'm in dense situations, such as the subway, hearing many independent conversations (more here than in NYC, as the cellphones work just fine in the tunnels), I feel that frustration keenly. Instead of choosing to attend or ignore, I'm forced to ignore and feel incredibly frustrated by my inability to understand the language.

Swedish, in most contexts, has become noise.

I feel the separation between myself and people here. I feel more alone in a crowd because I wonder if I can even communicate with them if I want to.

Then, I hear English.

No matter what I'm doing (often times reading), I immediately stop and attend to the conversation. You can call it eavesdropping, I call it spiritual release. Here are people that, if I want to, I can connect to without barrier.

This is one example of what one person (myself) considers noise. It's specific to my current location and understanding. Another example comes from living in the country as a kid.

How many of you have been able to sleep when several crickets have decided to go crazy on the music, repeatedly, right outside your open window? What about with mice scratching in the walls? And in the summer with cicadas and other loud insects it's almost unbearable, especially when combined with the heat and humidity. What some see as unique experiences, full of life and interest, became an annoyance to me as a child.

Now that I hear those noises much more rarely, they've become nostalgic.

Even over time, sounds can move from noisy annoyance to sweet nostalgia.

As I sit in my apartment during the day, I'm realizing just how much air traffic there is. I had told a friend that it seemed like the traffic from the airport was light, only a couple airplanes an hour. But now, as I'm taking more time to sit and concentrate on the sounds, I realize that's not true. The roar of the engines is pretty constant, drowning out the sound of cars. The only sound more present, constantly, is my fan, which runs ceaselessly even in the winter. The Swedes know exactly how to build a home for the cold, but it feels too heavily sealed for me, a man that's spent more time in old, drafty home and apartments than in new, thick walled Northern cities.

I've learned a lot about my own listening habits and the sounds of my environment. I try to do a lot of these activities at least once a year, just to acclimate myself. I've also incorporated some into my teaching (any students remember going outside the PAC at UMKC, closing your eyes, and drawing a picture of sounds around you? And me walking around beeping my phone...).

This piece was an exploration into what I consider noise to be, and, interestingly to me, I think I produced something that turns "noise" into something I consider to be quite beautiful. Some reactions right now are "eerie" and "creepy" thus proving just how different we can perceive music. I guess some people really love closely packed sine-wave drones while others equate them to their use in horror films. I'm gonna blame Jerry Goldsmith and his score to Alien. Great score...

I digress. I strongly encourage everyone to check out R. Murray Schafer's book, as well as try some of his listening assignments. Some of my favourites listening exercises (not distinctly all Schafer's):

  • If you live in a city, pay attention to and note every time you hear a bird. How many did you hear? What types?
  • While sitting in your room, concentrate on the sound around you, and try to sing all the pitches you hear. Is it just 60Hz? Are there other pitches and drones in your life beyond the florescent flicker? Improvise with the sounds.
  • If you have a phone that transmits data, put it up to the cable of your headphones and start surfing the web, or downloading something. Listen to the rhythm of the data transfer. You can also do this in some cases with an external hard-drive (but not always). 
  • Listen to and write down every sound you hear outside your window for 30 minutes. 

These are a few I like to do on a regular basis. The second one I did almost every day working at Earl Girls--the air compressor was tuned roughly to an E, with harmonies that sounded more minor than major. I'd often hum or whistle tunes to it while filling confetti canons tanks with air. The only music I sketched during that time was something for oboe and piano...which ended up with a whole lot of E minor work in it


13 Really Awesome Facts About Music That You Never Dreamed Were True!!!! (NSFW!!!)

1) Did you know that this is the first time the music business was D.I.Y.? Before then, everyone either went through a record label, a major organisation, or a king!

Of course, that's not true at all, and it's a claim that I just continue to not understand...First off, almost all chamber groups have been D.I.Y. for as long as I can remember. The idea that a group like Eighth Blackbird was formed, immediately had representation, and were world-wide superstars is a myth, just like it was a myth that Liszt just burst on the scene as an international superstar. We make it sound that way, but it's not true...And don't get me started on the Troubadours. Some were a part of specific courts, yes, others were not, traveling during the summer months, and playing at minor courts and fairs. Nothing more D.I.Y. than that.

Perhaps, a better phrase should be "The first generation in America since 1980 that has been raised in economically depressed times, and lack the financial backers that existed during the 80s and 90s." That's not nearly as sexy though.

2) Playing music in rock venues, bars, and clubs is the only way to save classical music!

First off, it's far from the only way to save classical music. Secondly, when this conversation comes up, it quickly devolves into a fight of elitism vs. the common man, snobbery, the tyranny of the recital hall (from the dress to the heightened stage), the Ivory tower, and on and on and on.

Why not ask some practical questions? First off, how loud is a rock concert? How compressed is the dynamic level? Does it matter if people are talking when a band is pounding out 135 dB of sound in a small club? Does it matter if people sing along? Do classical performers have any idea how to perform in that situation, with stage monitors instead of hearing each other acoustically, or a live engineer that can handle translating a cello into a decent sounding instrument? Do the venues even want to book the bands?

Small story: I had a chance to set-up a concert with Eighth Blackbird. UMKC was bringing them in, and I pitched a "side-by-side" concert with members of 8bb and students sharing the stage playing works by UMKC students. 8bb chose the pieces to play (after a quick check from a panel to make sure everything was up to a professional standard). One of my jobs was finding a venue. I contacted several venues with about 3 months of head time, asking about dates to book in the club. Before even asking the venues, I checked to make sure dates were open. I either got no reply or "we don't book that kind of music."

That was Grammy award winning, world-renowned eighth blackbird. Tell me again how your newly formed string quartet is going to get gigs at the same venues as bands. Sorry, there isn't an LPR style club in every city.

One note: I would like to see audiences be a little less uptight. I'm tired of getting the stink-eye when I laugh at lines or staging in operas, tap my foot a bit too vigorously, or move a bit too much in my seat. You can bet I'm enjoying the music, perhaps more than all of you around me. And yes, I "get" the music. If I didn't love it and understand, I shouldn't be ABD and on a research scholarship in music.

3) Research in music no longer requires facts!

You'll notice I made no links above. They are no longer necessary. Generally speaking, journalism has taken over as the main mode of understanding classical music. Blogs and small zines are the trusted sources, just as aggregate sites and sensationalist journalists are where we get all our news. This means, I no longer have to fact check, pour through intense amount of journal articles and books, find previous research, or really do any academic work. Since it's printed on the internet, it is now true.

This saves me so much time. I used to spend time researching a topic and going analysis on it. I'm guessing my blog now counts as active publications as well. That's awesome--getting into conferences is difficult, and I was tired of actively researching "the analysis of interactive multimedia" and "definitions of a score in electronic media" and all sorts of other scholarly pursuits I had, presented on, and had published. Now I can just toss it out my facts in all their glory, Buzzfeed style!

Thank you Buzzfeed!!!!

4) Orchestras are archaic, no one loves them!

I've said it before, and I'll say it again--the biggest issue in classical music is marketing. The basic scheme for marketing is to keep the base happy with little or no push to expand. Another anecdote that is obviously a perfect illustration.

During the past week, I have convinced several people to go see Salome at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. How did I convince these people? I summarized the plot, told them the composer, and compared it to music they knew--easy with Strauss: "The opening of 2001: a Space Odyssey." Salome is NOT a hard show to sell! The story is awesome, the music is Romantic, and it's on the shorter side. People were interested in Parsifal as well, but the over four hour time is rough for a first (or rare) opera appearance.

The Royal Opera here does TV spots. It's always Papageno and Papagena's song from Die Zauberflute. Also a good opera to go to, if a bit on the hokey side. But it's just brief audio, and "Come see the show!" That's a nice reminder, but it's not going to generate much interest. Sorry marketing departments for operas and symphonies--the best way to get people excited is contact. Maybe more flashmobs. Flashmobs are still popular right?

5) Large opera and orchestra non-profits must always make money!

Oy...yeah...sure. All non-profits must always make a profit. Continuously.

In actuality, many businesses don't operate at a continuous profit. There are fluctuations between years, poor product releases, etc. But non-profits don't exist to make profit, they exist to to fulfill their mission. This should be done in a "fiscally responsible" way, but that doesn't mean making a tidy profit every year. That's actually against the law, and it means you're not spending enough on your mission.

Just like the US government cries over having a balanced budget and having lower taxes without understanding the trade-off (a smaller private sector), non-profit boards are operating under the same ideas. I just can't fathom an orchestra with a permanent home and little to no rent doing fewer concerts, and most of them poor excuses for pops. How does this serve the mission? And how does it generate revenue? I'm just a lowly rural raised poor musician who don't understand none of them big city words or ideas, but it just seems a bit off to me...

6) Money is the only measure of success in music!

I'd love to be rich. I'd love to get rich playing music. But it wouldn't make me all that successful.

I've made a living in the music business before, as an engineer, a lighting guy, and other tech type stuff. I've made money performing (not much). I've made money from my compositions (even less).

I've also traveled to multiple countries, all over the US, presented papers, had music performed, gone to festivals, workshops, and conferences, made many friends, and helped more than a few young musicians start their own lives in music.

I almost typed careers, but that's not what this is.

Perhaps, as musicians, that's all we need to do--stop saying "I want a career in music" and start saying "I want a life in music."

7) Fusion with popular music is the only way to save classical music! It's so original and exciting!

L'homme arme. That's all I should have to say, right?

L'homme arme is a secular song dating from Renaissance France. By secular, I mean, more or less, a pop song, a tavern song, a minstrel's song. It was a song, more or less, about a man taking arms (not ripping them off, but getting a sword) and how all men should be finding a sword and mail (as in the armor). It was written during a time when there was a Crusade happening, so it could allude to that, or it could allude specifically to St. Michael the Archangel.

It was incredibly popular to use in Masses. In fact, popular tunes were often used in Masses as the cantus firmus, Josquin des Prez and Dufay are two of my favourites. And don't get me started on dance suites, which of course were stylized versions of popular dance music, done in a soloistic fashion.

Yep, fusion, it's brand spanking new

8) I just invented this awesome thing: I CALL IT THE WHEEL!!!

You might have noticed a bit of theme evolving here. A central issue I have with almost all the current writings about the current crisis in music and how classical music must evolve is that it lacks any sort of historical context. Everyone is reinventing the wheel.

Listen, we've all been there. How many times have I sat down to write a piece of music and said "No one has ever done this before! I'm awesome!" Then, because I'm some sort of masochist, I decided to do this novel thing called "research."

After 45 minutes or so, I'm in tears tearing up all my manuscript paper. Woe is me, it's been done!

Then I realize that this is fantastic. If it's been done, they can tell me how to do these hard parts. Then I can build off of it, tweak it, perfect it, add my own twists, give characters different voices, duck tape a kazoo to the trombone, or possibly put wax paper over the bell to make it a META-KAZOO!!! Shit, someone did that too? Well, did they do it while playing multiphonics and dancing a jig? Thought not...

Maybe because it's a horrible idea. But I'm totally going to make David Whitwell do that in my next piece. BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA

9) Music is completely subjective, cannot be judged in any way...except for music sales! What sells is obviously the best!

I don't even think I have the strength of snark left in me to go into this. Suffice it to say music can objectively be broken down--you can tell when a band plays well and when they don't. If a piece of music is boring, there's probably an objective reason why.

Now, people do have different tastes, and what is boring to one may be transcendental to another. This is true. But there's still better created music.

For instance, I have a friend whose music I just don't fancy. Whenever I hear it, it just doesn't get me going. However, I can tell that it's crafted wonderfully and deserves praise. I can also tell when performers nail it and when they don't nail it. I've listened to pieces that, conceptually, just did not work well--they sounded arbitrary, lacking in organisation, thought, or care, and seemed to just didn't fell flat. And that they could easily be done better.

And if we take the idea that tastes are different, and that objectively good music exists in many forms, then all sales show is what is currently popular with a group of people with the means to purchase the music. And if we only champion that which is most popular, well...Let's just say if this was civil rights, we'd be in trouble...

10) To be a musician and have a career, one must go to college.

In classical music, to have a career, yes. Your pedigree matters as much (or more) than your skills. For a pop musician...Bob Dylan didn't. Neither did the Beatles. Miley Cyrus has been a child star and took voice and acting lessons, but not "proper" conservatory training. Same with Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. Timbaland started DJing at around 15 (thanks to being in the hospital from a stupid coworker).

What you need for success in popular music is drive, marketing, time, and lessons (if you're a singer or instrumentalist). Just like most pursuits, you can do this without going to college. The trick with other pursuits, such as classical music, or chemistry, is that there are social hurdles and resources available in university. For instance, if you want to start a rock group, you can find some friends, purchase some used instruments, and start practicing. You can sign up for guitar/bass/drum/vocal lessons, get better, and by the time you're 18, be very proficient (if you put in the time and have the drive). Numerous groups have done this.

If you want to be a classical musician, say, a cellist and play in a symphony, you need to practice in symphonies. Your middle school and high school may have these, but the jump from HS to pro is like the jump from HS to pro in sports--a few people can pull it off, extreme talents that have been training for a long time, but most need more training. And stepping up a level in orchestra after HS isn't easy to do outside academia.

So, don't get tied to the idea that you have to go to college if you want to do pop music. And don't get tied to the idea you have to go to college in music. Rivers Cuomo, of Weezer fame, has a degree in English.

For a fun comparison, Dolph Lundgren (Rocky IV, Johnny Mnemonic, and many others) has a masters in chemical engineering and turned down a Fulbright to MIT. Which, now being in Sweden, I understand--the Fulbright isn't as well known here by the students. Still, mind-blowing considering I'm on a Fulbright.

I don't think he regrets his decision, considering his success...

11) Opera is in English!

One of the first questions I'm asked about my opera is "What language is it in?" Everyone seems surprised that it's in English. Granted, English wasn't the most popular language for music for a long stretch of time, but it's far from a new idea. There are English art songs dating back a long way, to folks like Dowland. And Henry Purcell wrote opera in English during the Baroque. Thomas Arne and Handel did it later, and, skipping forward quite far, there's of course Benjamin Britten.

We can just forget about Elgar, can't we?

Why is this still not a known fact? There are undoubtedly many reasons, and even though I've done more than my fair share of finger pointing during this, I'm actually not going to do so now. OK, maybe I will--popularity. If it's not Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Rossini, or any of those other super well known opera composers that singers and audiences adore, then it's not done. And if it's not performed, then how would anyone know about it?

12) Music and musicians aren't political, ever!

Well...guess I should quit? And we can toss out Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner, Britten, Elgar, all the nationalist type composers in the 19th century (Grieg, Dvorak, Sibelius, and into the 20th century with guys like Bartok and Vaughan Williams).

Sorry, but music as political thought is as old as...

Well, you remember those troubadours I brought up earlier? Yeah, there was a whole bunch of that going on. One of my favourites is the epic song The Song of the Albigensian Crusade. It's an epic poem written by two separate authors who both had distinct personal views. It was meant to be performed to music, in the same way The Song of Roland and other epics were. And, well, it's about as political as you can get. I wrote a paper on it once. But research papers don't matter much, so just take my word for it.

And, of course, since I'm here in Sweden researching political musicians in the death metal scene, I can say with a little authority that, yeah, they might have had some political agendas. Maybe. I mean, they said they did, but that doesn't mean they actually did...

13) No one brought classical music to the masses until the 90s.

Well, I mean, other than all the examples above. Those don't count though. I need more examples, new and fresh examples.

The Town Hall in New York City. It was founded in 1921 by the League for Political Education, who were main fighters for the 19th amendment. They wanted to create a place where people of all social ranks and stations, and has a long history of being an open type of place. The seating is open, no box seats, and no obstructed views. This was meant to show the ideals of democracy (socialist commies. Also, normally, I would have cited this as it's pretty much verbatim from Wikipedia, but, ya know, that's not needed anymore).

There have been numerous classical and pop concerts given here, from Rachmaninoff to Dizzy Gillespie to John Cage's 25 year retrospective, to Whitney Houston. It's also known for it's poetry readings (I didn't need Wikipedia for those facts).

NYC Opera, now defunct, was created as the "people's opera," bringing mostly light productions to NYC at reasonable prices.

Singspiel houses in Vienna premiered many of Mozart's works. These houses were not the high brow Royal Vienna Opera House, but more relaxed places where the style of singspiel (more like an English ballade opera, the precursor to the music) were performed. They were cheaper, had drinks, and many shows were presented as parodies, often of the higher class. Hence why if you search through Mozart's operas, you see a lot of jokes at the expense of nobles.


My snark is finished. I was actually tired of it a while ago, but decided to press on to get to that last point.

This is, obviously, parody, satire, and snark. It's also a scathing critique.

What really differs from what I've done above and what we've been seeing in other places? Are my arguments all that different?

One difference is I'm not presenting the "popular" opinions. I'm reminded of Howard Zinn's "A People's History of America." I am not Zinn, not making that claim at all. But Zinn presented views of events that were from "the losers" in the fights.

History is often told from the winners point of view. It's also often told by the loudest individual, or the person telling the majority of people what they want to hear. It's how presidents win elections and HuffPo gives millions of clicks a day.

I'm going to lay my hand on the table and throw away what little subtlety was in this post, that tiny shred that was nearly there: Everyone reading this should have questioned every single statement I made. Many of you probably did. A fair portion of you should scoff at my opinions because they are unfounded.

You are correct.

And so are many of the articles you've read in the past week that you've liked. A study of five people is not a study. Asking 100 people nationwide about your local arts organisation proves nothing.

And the unfounded opinions of one man are just unfounded opinions.

Perhaps, we should all be demanding more from our pseudo-philosophers and demand some real proof, action, and ideas, rather than taking things at face value.


An Interview with Anders Bjorler

An interview with Anders Björler

December 4th, 2013, I headed to Gothenberg, Sweden. I decided to take the train. It’s an easy form of travel in Sweden, relaxed, and easy to navigate. I woke up feeling a little under the weather,  and was a bit worried the travel wouldn’t do well for me. I’m a piss poor traveler. My weak immune system deals poorly with recycled air.  I slept most of the ride, read Game of Thrones the rest. My questions were already prepped, so it would be nothing more than brushing up once I got to the hotel.

The hotel is decidedly Swedish. The bed is small, with a mattress pad. The hotel is a bit off the main roads, tucked into apartment buildings. Still, it’s fairly nice, especially for the price. Worth the 500 meter walk from Central Station.

Before going to meet Anders, I brushed up on my metal. I listened to some At The Gates and The Haunted. I jotted down some specific lyrics I might be interested in asking about. Really, I already knew the gist—folk influences, social and political themes in the music, asking about the significance of the use of various calendars in his new album Antikythera.

It’s hard to distill nearly three hours of continuous conversation. I had decided to forgo recording the interview and had decided on a more narrative syle of write up instead of a transcript. Because, for me, this experience wasn’t about the exactitude of the answers, nor my memory.

We met at a Starbucks in Central Station. I was sipping an Americano to warm my hands. Sweden gets damn chilly when the sun sets, and it sets damnedly early.  Of course it was a Starbucks Americano, so it tasted terribly. I saw Anders through the door, he came in and we shook hands. Then the talking began.
He asked me about my project, what I do. I asked him about music he liked. The first music he mentioned was Prokofiev.  Then Shostacovich. Next Penderecki, specifically Symphony 3. Anders mentioned he loved the Russian aesthetic, so melancholy and dark. I talked about all the classical musicians that liked metal, admittedly for similar reasons, as well as the great playing.

Next Anders asked me if I was looking into folk music. I mentioned I was, and that I was interested in folk influences. As my guess and “preliminary research” showed, it is indeed an influence for some metal groups. The ones I thought of particularly (In Flames and At The Gates) it definitely was. Anders grandfather played violin and folk music was a part of his life. I’d heard as much in interviews, but it doesn’t mean it actually goes into the music.

But it’s definitely there. If you listen to his latest album you can hear it most clearly. The similar melodies, the melodic minor scales. You can also hear guys like Esbjorn Svensson, Prokofiev, and all his work in metal music. Anders told me that influences come from all over, from everything he hears, so he can’t pin down any while he’s working. There are major influences, like folk tunes and classical music that are apparent, and which he admits to listening to on a regular basis.

I asked about the title of his album, Antikythera and the relationship of the song titles. Most of the songs are based on different types of calendars; the Callipic Cycle, the Saros Cycle, and Lunar and Solar eclipse. There’s one titled “223” which is how many gears one device had. The connection to the music? It’s a title, nothing more. Anders told me he had watched a documentary on the Antikythera mechanism and thought it was really interesting. To keep all the songs tied together, he picked different names of calendars. The material itself wasn’t worked out with the title specifically in mind. It may be fun to see if there are some odd occurrences, moments when the amount of years in a cycle correspond to some musical moment. Is there something about the numbers 76, 18, and 54 subconsciously in the music? I highly doubt it, but some musical scholars will spend their time mapping it. I, for one, will take Anders at his word, and accept the music for what it is without dissecting subconscious compositional methods.

The music he worked out in a short time—the general form and ideas were put together in two weeks. I joked that before the Fulbright began, I never could have believed it possible to put together 40 minutes of music in a couple weeks, but when you have time. And time is what Anders has, devoting it to working on music, making documentaries, and having beers with a random American wanting to ask him questions.
We later talked about the general attitude toward folk music. Anders told me that most everyone hears the music at some point. It’s taught in schools, but then promptly forgotten. The general populous tends to like the latest pop from America…or slightly older than the latest. Folk is as niche in Sweden as most everyone else, but there’s at least a general awareness.

We talked a bit about folk music in America. How there’s folk music from later immigrants, music from Ireland, Sweden, Italy, and Poland. And how there are distinctly American folk, like spirituals, American hymns (I thought of shape note hymns and American prayer books), and even loosely jazz. But I told him how so much of that isn’t attached to the everyday culture of the “majority” of Americans, the white middle and upper class. That when they hear folk, it’s Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, the newer folk music. Even older collectors, like Charles Seeger or Alan Lomax aren’t as well known. It’s not that these people aren’t completely unknown, but compared to Sweden where if I bring up the Epistles of Fredman, songs by Carl Michael Bellman from the late 18th century, it’s at least known. Of course it may help that there’s a Bellman beer which prints the epistles on the back. The beer itself isn't all that good, but the mass produced beers of Sweden aren't all that good...

And, of course, lyrics had to come up. With groups like Coven, with Jinx Dawson saying that she was a Satanist and meant the words. Then Black Sabbath and later the new wave of British metal and groups like Slayer where the lyrics were more about obliquely about social norms, fighting against perceived ills, and rebellion. There was a punk aspect to the lyrics. It was less about the paganism of Norway, though the imagery was always there.

Same with the Swedish metal scene. They wanted to speak, be heard, and protest…something. I asked about what they protested, and Anders talked about a combination of having the freedom to choose and being socialist. They didn’t want to system of ownership inherent in Capitalism, something which was spreading in Sweden at the time. And yet, they wanted the ability to choose their own path, something that the social system in Sweden somewhat prevents. Everyone should be equal in Sweden, share the wealth and opportunities. Some people, especially younger generations, seem to rail against this. They want the freedom, the opportunity. Metal music expresses this, in its abstract way. There’s often talk of fighting imperialism, being forced into horrible situations, and general melancholy and unhappiness. The longer I’m in Sweden, the more I understand…It’s not just the winters that can cause this issue (though they are cold and dark).

Of course, I contrasted this with life in America. What so many young Swedes see as opportunity in America is a false conception. We talked about the level of capitalism, quipped about how the current conservative Swedish government is still more left than the farthest left group in America.

What about all the “devil talk.” It’s just that, talk, symbolism for other things. Anders told me about how secular Sweden is. He group in a secular household, and didn’t care one way or another about religion. If there was a message regarding that in the lyrics, it was a message of “look at all the world is learning! Open your eyes and accept all that’s happening.” Less a condemnation, and more a “C’mon guys, the world is a big place.” He contrasted this to Norway, which seemed to be a more religious country. There was more open rebellion against Christendom then, but they were more driven by Paganism—as Varg Vikernes put it, “They (the Christians) desecrated our graves, our burial mounds, so its revenge.” It’s a long time to hold a grudge, but, for some, that can happen.

Metal has a link then with personal rebellion and expression. It’s a very personal form of expression, as most music is. It reminded me of punk music, but instead of straight forward speeches there is complicated symbolism. Instead of raucous cacophony there is intense virtuosity. The message can get more obscured, with the vocal styles and the poetry, but it is there…at least in The Haunted and At The Gates, and with some of the groups Anders is more familiar with.

The concert environments themselves seemed different though. I recounted for Anders my experience in a metal club in Stockholm with a trash band. Everyone was so happy. The people in the mosh pit were smiling. Crowd surfing was happening with laughing. After an encore, the bass play dove into the audience and was carried all the way to the merch table by the two largest men in the club. They dropped the bass play, everyone full of laughter and smiles. I compared this to  in America, when I’d go to a pop metal group, like Bullet for My Valentine, and see a mosh pit where people came out bloody. When going to OzzFest (which Anders played in 2005 with The Haunted) and seeing the outfield destroyed at then Deer Creek Music Center. He told me he saw the same thing happen when he went on tour with The Haunted. I asked about if he saw a difference in the scenes between American, Sweden, and Norway. He said it seemed more laid back in Sweden.

And, of course, it came to the Norwegian Black Metal guys…or rather, guy. Anders described the whole thing as more of a fluke, a few guys that took things way too far. Of course everything was really tied to one band, Mayhem, and really around one iconic figure, Varg Vikernes. Is it so much of the negative hype really tied to this one group? Of course there are tales of Ozzy Osbourn and the bat, the displays put on by GWAR, and other extreme metal bands, but it seems the death metal scene in Sweden wasn’t into that. Instead, they let their music do the talking, with political lyrics.

We went back to talking about folk music. Since I started drafting this, Anders has been so kind as to send me links to tons of Swedish folk music, both traditional and new takes. I’ve listened to a few as I type, but I’ll have to give it a more concerted listening. I can hear the influence of the melodies, the sad melancholic tunes that Anders described. The simple melodies, the layering of voices; now that I’m becoming aware of the music, the sounds are becoming more identifiable. It’s interesting how this heritage can become part of the culture.

This was a meeting of two musicians, both passionate about what they do. We connected over beer (I had one too many), spoke of many things, and I learned more about Swedish culture and the connections to death metal in three hours than I had from watching and reading all the interviews online, and going to the concerts. And what I learned that was most important?

That metal, like all music, is a deeply personal way of communication. Even composers who are modernists, use stochastics, chance, or improvisation, or ignore all “programmatic” ideas of their pieces are still trying to communicate something they find deep about their existence. This may be the Duvel talking, but I found it invigorating. You never know what will happen when you meet a stranger for beer. This time I walked away a wiser and better man.

Thank you Anders Björler for taking the time to meet with me.

Also, a special thanks to Johan Lundgren. He sent out the email to Anders and got this rolling. Also, his pickups are more than a little amazing and famous. If you’ve heard Meshuggah, you’ve heard his pickups. http://www.lundgren.se/

And a special thanks to Björn Juhl, who put me in contact with Johan. His pedals are also well known, under the moniker of BJFe designs. Check out some here http://www.bearfootfx.com/

And these aren’t ads, they really are thank yous! Moving across the Atlantic, setting myself up in Stockholm, and getting things rolling has been a crazy enterprise! Without Björn Juhl and Johan Lundgren, this wouldn’t have happened.


NaNo-Post Mortem

I knew these to be myths, some with grains of truth, others completely falsified for reasons both benevolent and nefarious--Boots, from Mel, Act I, Scene 1

This year I took on NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month.  However, since I am not a novelist, nor did I plan on writing a novel (at the moment), I did it with a different twist; to complete the libretto to my first full length opera. Mel, as it is tentatively titled, is my doctoral dissertation and a part of my Fulbright project here in Sweden.

This autopsy of the month was originally going to be distilled into a bullet-point style advice column. After ten minutes of writing, I was annoyed with the format. I was beginning to sound like all the online advice columns I have come to dislike over the past three months. Those dealing with opera are some that I've especially come to loathe.

So, instead, I'm returning to the roots of this blog. I'm sure only a handful of you have read that first fated post, in May, 2008. I was sitting in a hotel room in North Jersey...can't remember which. I was working a gig for Concert Quality Sound, a commencement. My memory is foggy on specifics, but I'm guessing it was Stevens Institute of Technology. Moot point...

In the beginning, this blog was about my first opera, Cake. That seems like a good place to begin, to reach the ending. I was a foolish youth, as I am still a foolish man. Cake will always have a place in my heart, however, it showed off my lack of skills. The libretto is passable, the music at times had drama, other times was lost in translation...my own translation, from mind to paper.

Cake is an adaption of a short story by Eileen Wiedbrauk. Neither of us had written a libretto or a play, so there was a lot of stumbling around. Me writing a draft, sending it to Eileen. She'd give some feedback, and I'd jump back at it.

For a first go, Cake made for a pretty good show. The story was conveyed remarkably well considering my inexperience. The short story is gripping, a nice combination of seeing someone's neurosis upfront, while leaving details to the imagination of the reader. Hopefully, the readers imagination starts to take off just like the main character, Sarah.

Because of the inside the head moments, it gave me chances to write some arioso passages for Sarah. Prose and poetry, poetry and prose, attempting to marry them in some fashion. Again, it was passable. As a novice, if I hadn't had a story to work from, I would have been lost. There I was, learning a new style of music, studying opera, and trying to synthesize everything into something new. I lacked the writing skills to start from scratch.

And I learned two very important things going forward about librettos. First that I wanted to work from original material as often as possible. There are so many operas of "unoriginal" material, based on books, plays, folk tales, and real life events. I wanted to do something different.

Second, to work with a librettist from now on.

It appears I followed only one piece of my own advice.

I knew it, but I didn’t believe it. Belief is a different matter, a deeper matter. To live is to believe.--Boots, from Mel, Act I, Scene 1

Flash forward, I knew when I started my doctorate I had to "one up" my masters thesis. Cake is a twenty one minute chamber opera for three singers and piano. Obviously, my dissertation could be no less than an hour, for more voices and chorus, and a chamber group (or possibly full orchestra). When I told my composition professors this at the beginning of my idea, they were against it. Didn't want me to spend so much time on a single piece. My retort was simple "When will I ever have this much time again?"

Moving forward several years, I helped spearhead an opera project in Kansas City, along with Hunter Long and Black House, and the Kansas City Electronic Music and Arts Alliance. Of all the composers involved, I was the only one who had written an opera. Everyone took their own path, some writing their own librettos, some choosing to work with a librettist. One commonality I found invigorating--most wanted to have original stories. In fact, a few bristled when I suggested we all take a scene from a play, or all choose from works by a single author. It gave me joy to see so many people want to write contemporary operas with new stories.

I mentioned it all to my brother, and he came up with a great story. It was about coffee, a simple morning ritual. Till Coffee Do Us Part is a farce, a piece of satire, presented relatively bluntly with a telegraphed message at the end. Think...Mozart.

My brother, unfortunately, wasn't able to finish the libretto, but I took his story and wrote the words myself. I was in a playwriting course taught by Frank Higgins, a fabulous playwright whose play Black Pearl Sings has been making the rounds in professional and amateur theaters.

I had joined the playwriting course not to become a playwright, but to understand how plays were written. I was already in talks with various writers, trying to convince them to write a libretto for my doctoral thesis. The class, for me, was a way to learn all the background I didn't have, that combination of prose and poetry, dramatic pacing, the specifics I felt I lacked my first go round.

What happened is I turned into a bit of a playwright. Never encourage me--a piece of advice mentors never seem to hear, even though I often tell them. When encouraged, even slightly, I end up doing things. In this case, I wrote The Story-Alec and Grugh, a funny little ten minute play that had a wonderful premiere in April. Sadly, there were a couple seats open one night, so I can't say it played to sold out houses...just nearly sold out.

With this encouragement, I set off on libretto no. 2. Of the many great lessons I took away from that course, editing was easily the largest. Monumental, I would say. Gargantuan.

I edit my music, but not in the same way I edit words. It's mostly about typesetting editing. By the time I've sketched and realized on paper, the piece is complete. I may move a note or two around in that final stage, but, normally, the music is nearly complete before I put it on paper.

The same is true for my writing. This entire post was written in the shower, gone through in my head this morning, from bits and pieces that have been floating in my mind for the last couple weeks. Yes, there was a "draft" earlier, a failed attempt at a form. But this isn't so much an edit of that draft, as it is a complete rewrite, based on similar ideas.

The Story went through six rewrites. Till Coffee went through four, and if I had time, would have gone through at least one or two more in rehearsals. The process of editing a play during a first run is different--words are cut in rehearsal, entire speeches marked out, even pages torn out. In music, the idea is to walk in with a finished product. The composer's jobs is complete once the score has been handed off. Only in a "workshop" setting does one bring multiple drafts, work through problems and ideas. If it's just a premiere, well, it better be ready, because we have three rehearsals to get it right.

The Story had four rehearsals. Shortly before the first one, I met with the director, and we did more or less a line by line reading. He tore it apart, in the nicest way possible. My pages were full of marks by the end. I thanked him, from the deepest bowels of my heart. This was an experience we don't get often in music, someone going line by line, tearing apart a single word choice as well as wondering what an entire three pages were really about. From "Are you sure about this word" to "Over these four pages, the energy stalls. Where's it going?" That night, I went home and feverishly edited.

The first rehearsal I saw was a dress in the space. They had done a few on their own, and had wanted to work some things out themselves. The actors ad lib'ed some lines, the ending was changed slightly, action was amplified. I marked down their ideas, vetoed a couple, and expanded a few. It was wonderfully collaborative.

Till Coffee was more polished when it arrived in the hands of the performers, but not polished enough. It needed editing. Still needs editing. But it was hard enough that if I started messing with the notes, there's a fair chance it wouldn't come together. I made the choice.

Mel is a different story altogether. Cake, within a short time of it's conception, was given performance chances. Till Coffee was written for a specific evening. Mel has no performance opportunity. It's scope is such that self-production is almost entirely off the table. The story itself is grand, 11,100 words of text, including stage directions, are spread over 65 pages. It's a solid three acts with an epilogue. My estimates of time sit at around three hours. I've cut nearly a thousand words from the story, and I'm not positive what else can go.


I never meant to write another libretto, especially one this large. I'm not positive, but I'm relatively confident I've never hit 11,000 words. This blog is at 1600 or so at the moment, longer that Till Coffee by 500 words. Till Coffee runs 16 minutes or so, straight through. If set at a similar pace, Mel would be 160 minutes. And Mel will have scene changes, instrumental numbers, and at least one dance.

Mel has gone through seven edits this month. I did a marathon of writing over two days early on, kicked out 7000+ words in one day. The original draft was written in a week. My final edit is sitting beside me, a complete retyping of the document following editing by hand. This was another technique I picked up in the playwriting course. It mirrors how I write music almost exactly, writing first by hand, then setting in the computer. It's a wonderful way to catch errors, and make further revisions.

The poetry is much stronger in Mel than either Cake or Till Coffee. The story itself is stronger, I think, with a clear rise in action. There's a lot left to the imagination of the audience. My goal was to try and reveal information as the narrator learned it--a play that operated in two time scales.

I’m real, really here.
Not a fake princess
A real person, real person
Real…The moon is so bright
The night so clear
I feel I could fly away-Mel, from Mel, Act I, Scene 2 

The story itself deals with complex themes. I attempted to couch these themes inside events that would be understood in our time with specific references, but universal enough that people outside my own experience will understand them. We live in conflicted times. A War on Terror rages when most people want a return to normalcy. Protests shoot up all over the world, fighting for basic human rights and liberties. Tyrannies are overthrown, only to be replaced by military juntas. Sectarianism is running rampant in the world, as people splinter into small warring factions. These small factions are simplified into two groups, us vs. them, a binary understanding of a situation.

Mel attempts, in its own way, to break this down. To take a page from Kierkegaard, it's the individual within a crowd, the idea that it's not only what one person sees, but how one sees it, that defines a thing. I'm not an existentialist scholar, nor do I subscribe to their viewpoint, however when tied to the idea of the United States, where individualism reigns supreme, I thought to actually take a look at an individual.

But American individualism is not existentialism. There's an odd viewpoint in America: we hold the individual to be the highest priority, to such a level as to ignore ramifications. You cannot encroach on me, and what I do to you when you encroach is your fault, not mine. Only a country so confused could create spawn the assembly line, the perfection of the factory, a place where the individual no longer exists. Only in a place so confused would a populace separate individuality at work, sacrifice eight to ten hours a day (if not more), for the chance to express oneself personally after hours.

Only in a place so confused would we fight for individualism, small government, and states rights, while in the same breath use those powers to take away rights from other groups.

What I've come to realized, slowly, while working on this libretto, reading large amounts daily, that it is not, in fact, an American condition. That was my folly, my level of individualism. Even as I moved outward, attempting to create a more inclusive identity, I let nationalism get in the way. This idea that, somehow, personal experience is shared across this nation in such a way that there are overarching trends. That the individual was the crowd.

And that our crowd was different than your crowd. That some gross generality could describe the complexity of the American mindset. You see, it all crept in.

There’s more to what’s happening, and more ways to make changes than challenging police. You’re an aspiring journalist, tell the world what’s happening! Give voice to the people.--Boots, from Mel, Act III, Scene 1 

That is the essence of Mel. The story of two groups, a bifurcation, a schism in viewpoints, generalized into a binary. A story told by two people, whose viewpoints twist, weave, separate, and merge.

At the end of this process, I am mentally fatigued. This blog has been about current events of late, me following trends, responding to criticisms, putting together Buzzfeed style lists. I was sensational as the rest, then I tried to move away from it. Now, I dread opening up my feed to see what's coming in, to read the latest news, the crisis here, the gloom there, the blown out of proportion story here. Hence why no posts, why I've sequestered myself away from the internet except for cartoons and the occasional Rooster Teeth/Achievementhunter show. Why I'm sick of politics, and even trying to watch a comedy about politics made me feel ill, because it was a surprisingly good satire, which meant reality and fiction were fusing in ways that made me squirm...Especially when my mind was tired of dealing with the problems.

To read a report based on a study of five people. To read a response on an industry the writer does not understand. To read a story where some sort of odd, perverse metanarrative has been created, a narrative that always seems to have an "us vs. them" mentality, that there is a right way and wrong way to do things. It's a structuralist mentality in a post-post-structuralist world. Modernism and structuralism went hand in hand, post-structuralism and post-modernism as well. Now we're seeing a rallying cry against this, a movement post-post-modernism, that one author gave the name authenticism.

I had written Mel before I read this article, but the author is naming a movement that has been growing for years. It's a movement I first actively joined in NYC, where wiser and more learned friends introduced me to a wider world of philosophy. Where I met viewpoints as different from my own as possible, and experienced both the group and the individual.

To me, that's what Mel is about. It's not about eclecticism, in the sense of I must fuse my experience to create a post-modern narrative. It's not about creating a post-structuralist text; the many themes are at once calculated and unconscious, and of the several readers of the text, differing viewpoints have been given. And I enjoy that.

But the point of this opera is much like that of the other operas I've written--it's a story about people. Mozart's operas were about people, their journeys, as much as it was about the events that take place. Billy Budd is as much a psychological journey as it is a series of events. Salome is a disturbing scene, but we learn a great deal about humanity from it. Wagner was often heavy handed, giving the audience every clue into his mind, and yet gave leeway for the imagination to take flight--the many versions presented, from minimalist, to post-apocalyptic all try to show various different parts of Wagner's grand message, from the power struggles in Valhalla, to the frailty and strength of humanity. There are personal stories within these large schemes. And one can always question "who's story is it?" Is it Figaro, Cherubino, the Count, or Susanna's story? Is it all of their stories? Is it Captain Vere, Billy Budd, John Claggart, or Danskers story?

Our music is our attack, my mouth a cannon
My words break down walls, shatter defenses
Protect the weak from the wolves
Release the people from oppression-Nick, from Mel, Act II, Scene 3. 

I don't believe I can change the world with my music anymore. But I do believe I can make people think, consider the world around them, and see the world through someone else's eyes. Most of all, I wanted this opera to say something, to take a personal stance, to show where my loyalties lay. There probably won't be many questions about my beliefs, or whether they are in the music. They most certainly are, as are the beliefs of the characters, all of my friends, and all of the influences in my life.

Because while some say musicians and actors should stay out of politics (what do we know if it anyway), I disagree. But there are many ways to serve political ends. It's the essence of an argument. It can be turned into a competition, an "us vs. them." Or it can become a discussion. The exchange of ideas can be heated, but does it have to end in punch? If it's about winning or losing, how far are people willing to go?

Mel isn't about punching the audience in the face. It's not about parading on stage and telling the audience exactly what they should think. The audience is not "The Man," nor are they "The Dragon."
We’re more than our clothes
Than the makeup we wear
And the hairstyles we bear
We’re more than hollow shells
Or dress up dollss--Mel, from Mel, Act I, Scene 2
 One person's point of view is an important way to see the world. What is a group, except a gathering of individuals? We can study their trends, the ideas of large groups, but it only works in generalities. A statement such as "Most people are good," leaves room for "Some people are bad." Even the terms good and bad are subjective. To a socialist, spreading the cost of healthcare between all people, and giving all people at least the same basic level of care is important. To a capitalist, the individual takes precedence, the rights of one man to have or not have insurance, and their right to personalize it as much as possible. Commercialism is about showing individuality through purchases, be it a TV or insurance. To accept a universal system is to lose the individual. "Us vs. them." But is it?

If a group is made of individuals, and the idea is agreed upon by a majority of individuals, then is the choice really negating the individual? Can the group be understood through the eyes of one person? Or several people? And can the views of several people be distilled into large movements? Can large general trends, which can be pushed and pulled in a wonderful assortment of ways, actually tell an orchestra who its audience is? Is a graph enough? Good studies seem to pair statistics with anecdotes, direct quotes from the interviewees.

The group vs. the individual, is it even a dichotomy? Are we falling into the same trap by trying to separate these ideas? It's been long held that researchers can learn a great deal about a society from its culture. One can read Shakespeare and better understand the time period, what people wore, and how they acted. Art can be a mirror to society. Or perhaps a magic ball. We see ourselves and we see others, but always through mediation.

Scriabin was said to be synaesthetic, but research shows he probably was not. Yet he created a colour organ, a device that displayed colour and sounded music. Messiaen was most definitely synaesthetic, and that played a great deal in his music, to the point he wrote a book about it. Yet his music was not about synaesthesia. It was most assuredly informed by it, as much as Quartet for the End of Time was informed by his religious beliefs and his experiences during World War II. No matter how universal Messiaen's piece are (and I believe they truly are), they are still tied directly to the individual. They are tied to Messiaen and his view of the world, which then informs the listener. Still, the listener is informed by his own knowledge. Those knowing of Messiaen's experience will hear Quartet differently than those who do not know his experience. And, interestingly, other synaesthetes will not see the same colours as Messiaen, even after they read is descriptions.

I accept these things wholly in Mel. That what I include will influence what others hear and see, but it won't be the exact message. There will be overlap, of course. Our cultural experiences are shared, creating shared memories. History is told through these shared memories, often the memory of the winner. It's why Howard Zinn's People's History of America was so controversial--it questioned that idea of memory. It questioned the idea of a winner, but it kept to an "us vs. them" mentality. Zinn tells you how you should think of these events. I heard a presentation given about burial rights for Southern soldiers, and women's organisations that sprang up to make sure that Southern soldiers were given proper burials. It interested me to think that there was even that level of "us vs. them," that in losing, Southern soldiers were even denied the burial of their choosing. By being on the wrong side, they lost a human dignity. Sad, when one reason for the war was to give human dignity to a group of people who had theirs revoked.

Myths, though, have a powerful potential. They can feed upon our beliefs and grow stronger.--Boots, from Mel, Epilogue.

Man has created myths since the dawn of understanding. They explain thunder, seasons, death, life, and the whole of human experience. Pantheons were created, personifications of events, feelings, and ideas. In many places, this separation of the human experience into small bits were slowly swallowed by a single deity. An individual.

Pantheons had a hierarchy, often created through bloody war. The Greek Gods battled the Titans for supremacy, and defeated the Old Gods. It explained why giants were no longer seen, and why the myths were held in places long ago and far away. But each story told a tale, a parable.

The parables of old are repeated over and over. Jesus told new versions of old stories, parables to show a philosophical viewpoint. Old folktales still exist in this world, holding over from the pagan days--stories of trolls, faeries, giants, magic armaments, djinn, and worlds parallel our own, yet somehow separate. These stories explain the human condition, give warning of avarice and pride, and seek to teach lessons. Aesop's Fables give some of the same advice as Jesus.

Mel exists in this world. Myth is an explanation of reality. Reality seems more amazing than myth. Some believe the Illuminati control world governments. The reality isn't far from the myth, in a sense, but the myth seeks to distill a complex problem into a simple explanation. Morality, complex power struggles, physics, metaphysics, life, and death are all complex problems. Each individual deals with them in their own way, seeks to come to an understanding of it to bring peace into their lives. For some this is in religion, others philosophy. Others seek physical comforts.

Mel is this world, our world, and all other worlds. The characters are searching for understanding, of each other and their circumstances. "Do you ever wonder why we're here?"


That was what I went through this month--piecing together all these ideas. It had been jangling in my head since last year, with outlines, notes, and drafts of speeches starting in the spring of 2012. When I write, be it papers or music, the entire piece is written in my head. This happens consciously and subconsciously, talking or singing to myself in the shower, or having it swirl through my mind as I read Ursula Le Guin or George R.R. Martin. A hundred ideas, swirling around, until they finally coalesce, and come spewing out in long sessions.

We all write differently. We can even write in different voices, depending on what we're writing. The voice of this article has changed since the beginning. Shall I go back and edit it, for continuity? Or allow the reader to see what happens, see how the discourse itself changes the character of my writing?

I set out to explain the process of creating the libretto to Mel. I'm not much of a technician, so I left the technical aside. You won't find much talk of feet, rhyme schemes, or accent patterns. They are there, often discovered while writing, then edited for continuity. Other times, they're noticed, used for a short time, then thrown away in a fit of stream of consciousness, and left to dangle.

Like I've read so often lately, I've taken an argument and turned it into a philosophical discourse. I've been reading R. Murray Schafer's The Soundscape. The tone is similar. As is the tone of many other philosophers. I unconsciously took the tone, and the style, as my words moved from history to philosophy, from what I did to why I did it. How I did it isn't as interesting, at least to me. I'll leave that to others to analyze.

And this is where I sit on December 2nd, 2013. It's to the music now, with jumbles of notes scratched on the paper. A folk melody here. A reference back to an earlier melody there. There is, slowly, a plan emerging. Some of the lines make me sing melodies as I speak them...often the melodies are different each time. Capture improvisation, it's something I do in my works, but not always well. Again, my ability to transcribe thought and sound is not my strongest suit. Systems are where my strength lies--creating then breaking them.

NaNoWriMo was a success. My mind is tired. This article is catharsis, expelling a slew of thoughts to attempt to begin anew. I've learned a great deal from the experience. And one of the most important things I've learned is that me giving advice to young composers about writing an opera is futile.

Write an opera, if you want to write an opera. Write an opera your way. Do it with your friends, begging them to read it, do it with the supervision of one or two people, or do it alone. Create the text algorithmically from a collection of texts by five different authors. Create the music completely by intuition, ignoring any conscious use of systems.

And, just like any good improvisation, know when you're finished.