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 princessA real person, real personReal…The moon is so bright
The night so clearI 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 cannonMy words break down walls, shatter defensesProtect the weak from the wolvesRelease 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."
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?We’re more than our clothesThan the makeup we wearAnd the hairstyles we bearWe’re more than hollow shellsOr dress up dollss--Mel, from Mel, Act I, Scene 2
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.