Life Goes On

We were sitting on a high wall under a concrete walkway that led to the main building of my high school. To the best of my recollection, it was springtime of our junior year – 1991. We were talking, in very serious tones, about the nature of improvisation, and were trying to work out a definition, after which we could surely attack the thing with bared teeth. Our result: “Improvisation is the spontaneous creation of a melody.” Not bad for 16 going on 17, but I still didn’t have the faintest idea of how to do it.

The other boy on the wall with me that day was Coleman Mellett. At that time, he was simply the best musician I had ever known. Self-effacing, handsome, kind, generous and ingratiatingly goofy under a mop of unruly curls, he was the kind of friend that I felt lucky to have. We understood music the best we could, and we talked unabashedly about what it meant to us. I wasn’t on his level, but we still played jazz together and he took me to shows large and small. With him and his girlfriend, we sat (in seats!) at Wolftrap and watched a frail, diminutive Ella Fitzgerald shuffle onstage to sing “a-tisket, a-tasket.” I think about that now, and I’m amazed that I was present.

After high school, we kept in touch, then lost touch, then kept in touch again.  He was excelling at university, then continuing into professional life as an honest-to-God working guitarist. Pre-internet, I followed his career via fleeting phone conversations, or updates through the grapevine. It seemed distant – his career, I mean. I didn’t have a clue about what professional musicians did until I became one much later.

Chuck Mangione, a legendary figure in late-20th century Jazz, spoke at Coley’s funeral. Through copious tears, he told of the 15 minute audition wherein he hired my friend on the spot, which surprised me not in the least. He finished by saying “Coleman was the son I never had,” and played “Amazing Grace” on his famous flugelhorn.

When Coley and I spoke around 2000 about him winning the job in Mangione’s band, I honestly didn’t know what to say. It was an immense accomplishment, I knew, but one for which I had no reference point, so I congratulated him and listened as he spoke. He was still in a daze about the whole thing. He told me that he would look around at Mangione, and Chris Vadala on sax and think about how he had, in a way, come full circle. Vadala was a fixture at my high school when we were there, teaching all the saxophone students (including myself) and occasionally coaching the jazz bands and combos. He was an early mentor and taught me lessons about the intersection of music, work ethic, and reality that stick with me to this day. Thinking on it now, it was an embarrassment of riches to have such an accomplished professional dragging my clueless teenage self through preparations for All-Diocesan Honor Band auditions. My nephew studied under his tutelage at the University of Maryland, by which time, Vadala was a household name for my family.

Chris Vadala died last month, apparently after a long battle with cancer. I never got to see he and Coley play together, and my search for possible recordings of the two with Mangione’s band have yielded no results. But I have come across his 2008 disc, Out of the Shadows, on which his effortless playing is fully on display.  I only had sporadic contact with Mr. Vadala (I couldn’t call him anything else) after bumping into him at a conference of the now defunct (and apparently reborn under a different name) association of Jazz Educators – probably springtime 2004. My college big band played my arrangement of a Paquito D’Rivera tune and he was an adjudicator. His comment tape was mostly him busting my balls for switching from saxophone to guitar, which of course, was no help to my college big band.

This week marked the 10th anniversary of Coley’s death. His sudden passing hit me hard, and marked the beginning of a period of sometimes intense upheaval both personally and professionally.  For a long time – and of no benefit to myself, I understand now –  I compared where I was in my life to where he was at the end of his (he was about 4 – 1/2 months older than me).  Regardless of circumstances, I crept along in his shadow, which I had made myself by shining such a bright light on him and his life. This, of course, sullied my accomplishments and prevented me from taking honest steps along a path constructed of my unique developments and experiences.

I’m not sure when all that changed; probably slowly. This week, I was able to observe the anniversary from a more detached position – respectful as opposed to reverent – like observing a distant planet, still visible, that I had passed on my travels. Coinciding with this milestone in his memory, the Coleman Mellett Music and Film Project has started releasing completed and remastered recordings of an album’s worth of material that he left behind, and a documentary is forthcoming. Here’s the first one, entitled “Life Goes On.”

I can’t precicely describe the feeling of hearing his voice again. It’s a little like sitting on a wall in springtime, talking about music and experiencing terror, elation, and impatience as we sought to feel it in our hands, and see what we could make of it.


Let’s put on a SHOW!

My friend’s email came out of the blue, as most things do. She was going to be in Europe, she wanted a premiere performance, she wanted to sing my songs. Sure! Why not?  Further discussions about programming led her to flatly state, “Why don’t we just do a whole program of your songs?” OK…

At the end of the summer, I had had a good feelings about a few competitions, a university residency was in the works, and workshops of the new opera were lined up.  All of that unceremoniously went away (for various reasons) and I was left with the prospect of an empty season.  It wasn’t the first time, but the simultaneous bottom dropping out, and the back-to-the-drawingboard-ness of the residual reckoning was something I was naively hoping to avoid.

Back in the day, when my wife’s career was just starting – and we were juggling a new marriage, life in a new city, and her doctorate – one of the mantras we told each other was “take every audition.” And she did take EVERY audition, no matter how bad a fit it was, no matter what shitty comments she wound up getting, no matter that she was afraid and uncertain. Eventually, someone said “yes” and the rest is history, but before that it was unclear how it would all pan out. I had faith, though.

Later, when trying to apply the mantra to my own fledgling career out of the admin marketplace, I translated “take every audition” to mean “apply for every shitty competition you can find” and, above all “CREATE YOUR OWN OPPORTUNITIES.”  This was a way for me to think that I was “putting myself out there,” but I wasn’t, really.

The truth, for me,  is that competitions and “opportunities” take a back seat to relationships and professional interaction at every level, even if it means sending a letter of admiration to a composer whose work I admire, without any expectation of return (as Dr. See taught me).

What I am constantly reminding myself of now, is that the “opportunities” I was seeking to create for myself was the smokescreen of “value.” The topic of “value” in the artistic endeavors being way to big for one blog post (spoiler alert: there is no intrinsic value to artistic endeavor; it is also invaluable), suffice to say that an opportunity (if you’ll pardon the word) to work with people with whom you have tried to forge a personal relationship is in itself better than not, and better than never having tried at all, while under the banner of “Artistic Value.”

So, of course, I said “yes” to my friend and her wacky idea of trying to put a show on in less than three months when a third of the music had not yet been written, but THAT is another story for another blog post (which will be coming shortly).

If only it weren’t so scary

My kid has rolling obsessions with movies. There’s a repertoire of about a dozen films that she cycles through, focusing on two or so at a time and bouncing back and forth between them for weeks before we introduce her to something new, after which the cycle begins again.

The current pair are The Nightmare before Christmas and Monsters University. Sidebar: both are fantastic films with great scores, and they should be known and appreciated by everyone. Sidebar, sidebar: I’m convinced that we’re raising our daughter right.

In Monsters, there’s a scene where the lead takes his rag-tag group of miscreants on a field trip for inspiration. They cut through a fence and gain access to the factory of Monsters Inc. – the “big leagues,” as he describes it. As they peer through the windows of the factory, observing living legends of their field do their work, he asks the group if they can identify a single common characteristic among the professionals whose ranks they all seek to join. No one can. He tells the group – who has repeatedly been told that they lack the qualities needed to be successful – that there are no magic prerequisites, that these professionals bring their own unique strengths to do their best job.

This, of course, is a bit of a Disney-fied reduction, but it made me think – as I observed this film for the 86,000th time – of more relevant professional assumptions.

A variation of the “Starving Artist” trope is that the Artist is always “on,” meaning that who they are “on stage” is who they are in real life, and vice versa.  The show never ends. This is perpetuated from the top down and reinforced by the need in the artistic economy to be noticed.

One must stay in the game to win it (and, incidentally, to effect change from within). It can be an exhausting cycle and a delicate balancing act.  I’ve found, however, that while the experience of Art (capital A) is immense and overwhelming, the practice of art (lowercase a) is a normal exercise rooted in technique and discipline. The surface drama, while occasionally useful in advancing one’s own efforts, is superficial.

There are no magic prerequisites; all the monsters have their strengths.

No one told me to go screw myself

There’s a great 30 Rock episode where Kenneth joins Jenna and Kelsey Grammer, of all people, in a con job syndicate called the Best Friends Gang.  After cheating a Carvel Ice Cream Cake store out of hundreds of dollars, Kenneth is in too deep and suggests a “long con.” Grammer responds by trying to grift Kenneth out of fifty bucks.

This is the best way I can explain my experience of being an opera composer on the push to develop new projects. I’ve written about the long game before (seriously, compared to the development of an opera project, tectonic shift seems rushed), but the deeper I get into it – and keep in mind that it’s only been about four years since I went Pro – the more I’m drawn away from the fifty buck grift, and embrace the “get hired as a pool boy and get the rich heiress to fall in love with you so she’ll secretly write you into her will without telling her adult children” long con.

The pitch meeting was, as I put it in the last post, just another audition – I wasn’t expecting to walk out of that room with a commission; I was going to put it down, and see if they’d pick it up.  But as I’ve said before – and where composer “auditions” differ from other auditions – the purpose of this interaction was to secure the possibility of further interaction.  I met with the general director and the conductor, with the conductor’s assistant looking on. My pitches were fine – I stumbled where I had stumbled in practice and stumbled in some new places, but kept my head and tried to focus on not sweating. My visual materials were well received and I got to draw attention to the page I had set up for the pieces I was pitching.

We talked about co-commission possibilities (wasn’t expecting that), my flexible casting and orchestration options (which have become a signature piece of my opera pitches) and it was reinforced that the conductor is really supportive of my work, which I will take any day of the week. And that was it. The meeting, which lasted maybe fifteen minutes, ended how I wanted it to – with a chance to revisit after the summer.

I think I’m a finalist for the pool boy job.

Two months ago, this meeting wasn’t even in the cards. It took a lot of my emotional and creative energy, and today feels like a mix between the release of a pressure valve and post-show blues. I’m glad I can move on to other things that got pushed to the side while preparing for this meeting, but I know I’ll start preparing for a follow up after the summer, so, you know, the hustle never ends.

A little more than a year ago, I was in Fort Worth for the Frontiers Showcase. In preparation for that, I wrote about The Brand – “I am becoming a better opera composer.” The chess match of the long con demands something more concrete and driven. Simply put, if this will go in the directions that I want it to go, I have to acknowledge that big things could be coming at me, and I will be prepared for them.


The wind-up

I have a pitch meeting in about five hours. In these types of meetings, one proposes operas that one would like to write to people who commission and put on new operas. I’m surprisingly calm, although I am still in my pajamas and it’s almost 1pm.

This meeting took me two years to land. That’s not a typo. In April 2016, I started communicating with the assistant to a major conductor. I had met said conductor – and his assistant – on a few occasions, so that a brief reintroduction would receive a response of  “Oh yes, of course, how are you?”  My initial emails inquired about opportunities to arrange for the occasional pops-ish concert by the conductor’s orchestras. The following January, after a positive response from the conductor, I contacted the assistant to enquire about how to submit orchestral scores. I chased the assistant for another six months until I got a mailing address. Three months later, after corrections and printing, I mailed the score. Five months later, I received and email from the conductor saying he had received the score and would take a look.

That was two months ago. Things accelerated after that – the conductor liked the score and wanted to talk, the conversation quickly shifted from orchestral music to opera, he asked for pitches to be delivered to him directly. He wanted these pitches to be “100% me” (which I figured meant passion projects), and with a distinctly American perspective in subject and musicality.  I gave him two options, he liked them both, we moved to set up a meeting with the general director of the opera.

That brings me back to the present – still in my pajamas.

For an opera composer, delivering pitches is an audition. To be honest, I’ve never had a live pitch meeting – only those over the phone or via email. I’ve written a lot about crafting pitches (here’s a good one) so I won’t get into that now, except to say that I still do it the way that link describes.  But what I will do is enumerate the list of truths about auditions that have been compiled over the years by me and my wife, who, as I write this, is in a pretty large audition herself.

  1. Take every audition. I have figured out my audition/submission calculus – the depth of my feelings of rejection is inversely proportional to the number of opportunities I seek out. If I get a few rejections, but know there’s 20 more applications floating around out there, I feel infinitely better than when the only application I sent out got the can.
  2. It’s only an audition. #DemystifyArtisticPursuit
  3. You have no idea what the people on the other side of the table are looking for. This includes how you look, where you came from, what school you went to, what prizes you’ve already won, who you know, and the fact that the folks on the other side of the table are looking to advance their own sphere of influence just as much as you are.
  4. Give them what you have that day; if they’re picking up what you’re putting down then roll with that. One has nothing to prove to anyone in this business, nor should the farm be given away in exchange for the possibility of an opportunity.
  5. Get back to work. Because there’s another audition coming up. I’ve also found that massive amounts of work put into the presentation I have to make for one big audition can be used repeatedly for down-ticket auditions, email blasts, etc.


Building Character

I never wanted a big mansion, but I always wanted the quintessential big mansion library with leather chairs, wood paneling, shelves to the ceiling, and a ladder that’s on a roller track so I can slide it around the room, examine my stacks, and get lost in a book four rungs off the ground. While the smoking jacket and pipe are – at this point – not foreseen, the pretension is real, and tantalizingly delicious.

The reality, however, is thus: I have a library. It’s very small, and mostly digital. A good portion of my library exists in a storage unit in Stoneham, Massachusetts. Such is the expatriate experience.

In the portion of my library which is at hand, a majority of the volumes are in the section I have labeled, “Required Reading for Artists.” These are books which have helped me shape the way I think about how I do what I do, and how I fit what I do into my life. I frequently evangelize – thumping these books as part of the act – to anyone with the rare question of how I got myself into this mess to begin with, and I have actually purchased additional copies of these books to give as gifts, or, at least, as tokens of aggressive support for potential artistic exploration.

A few nights ago, I reread one of my favorites, Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See. I was seeking a particular chapter that pertained to my current predicament. I’m closing in on the double bar of a new one-act comedic opera for five women and piano.  The writing has been coming along at an encouraging pace especially given that I have a deadline for a draft of the work in a month. The encouraging pace came to a screeching halt this week.

The current opera is the first for which I have written a completely original libretto. A libretto is a “script,” plus all the text and stage direction that serves as a blueprint of putting the piece on stage and making it go. In the past, I have curated a libretto by collecting and combining various source material into a story line, written a new English translation of existing Italian libretti, and adapted short stories, with a few edits here and there to make things more singable. An original libretto – characters, story, action, stage direction, relationship details that will be communicated musically, even suggestions for staging, costumes, and lighting design – requires much more attention to detail from the start if it is to translate as seamlessly to the stage as I’d like it to.

The problem: this week, I confronted the fact that my characters were not acting like themselves throughout the entire work – only when the spotlight was on them. They were hollow and their interactions were perfunctory.

I turned to my library for help, specifically, to Dr. See’s book. In a chapter dedicated to the subject of Character (the one I sought out specifically), she encourages the potential writer to assemble an ensemble of personalities from one’s own life – ten of the most important people and 5-10 “creeps” (those who make your skin crawl). From these 15-20 individuals, all characters needed in the telling of one’s stories can be found, so saith Dr. See (I’ve done this exercise twice since my first reading of Making a Literary Life, about seven years ago).

I apparently needed reminding that the characters in my operas were people I knew. Everything flows from character – personality, interactive relationships, what one wants, why, from whom, and what are they willing or required to do to get it. Figuring out these problems provides timing, mannerisms, interactions, pitfalls and climactic resolutions. Who one is and what one does has repercussions. So much so for the web of characters one creates in a story where there are several people who want the same thing, as is the case in the present example.

A wood-encased library and an absurd smoking jacket seem like impenetrable armor compared to the open warfare that one’s personal characters should be employed in a side show of one’s own devising. But that’s how it goes sometimes.


The difference between Children’s Opera and Child Sacrifice

Around the corner from our apartment is a British man who runs a private copy shop. I passed him on the street recently, and he told me my print job was done and I could pick it up after the holiday weekend.  After our encounter, he thought about how it was possible for someone to exist as a composer, and asked as much of me when I arrived at his shop a few days later. This is a good question.

So I talked to him a little bit about The Hustle, the projects I’m developing, the operas I’m pushing, and to whom I am directing all this effort, because the only essential factor is making and maintaining relationships.   One has to take up as much space as possible, I said.  In my case, that means doing so in a country where the native language is not my mother tongue.

The first rule of approaching German opera houses is that if you do not do so auf Deutsch, they will not respond to you.  They may not respond to you anyway, but if you make a first contact in English, its a guarantee.

My wife’s German is very good. A German father, two summers of language school, and years of freelance work in Germany laid a foundation so strong, that native speakers need about ten minutes to realize that she’s a foreigner. Pregnancy and postpartum bureaucracy (because there is, even for citizens) shook my wife’s confidence in her knowledge of the language. You don’t really need words like placenta in common parlance, so there was a ton of new vocabulary we had to learn quickly.

Music and the theater is no different. Working on stage for two years in Karlsruhe, I learned much of the pertinent vocabulary for theater living – stage, casting, rehearsal, performance, revival, audition, warm-ups, entrance, plus all the names of the instruments, voice types, areas of the theater, and tech responsibilities and major backstage players – conductor, director, prompter, stage manager, costume, sets, lighting, props, makeup,  etc.

Talking about being a composer, however, let alone pitching new works – let alone pitching operas – requires a completely new vernacular. There is a difference between a piano/vocal score (Klavierauszug) and a full score (Partitur – which is also the word you use for an individual orchestra player’s part), which is not to be confused with Partien, which is a “role,” although you could also use the word Rolle, except when talking about principal vs. secondary roles (Hauptpartien/Nebenpartien), and there we go again. Now try to get your pitches – which you’ve already whittled down to 50 English words – into a format that makes sense. Then practice your pronunciation.

My current tack is approaching, through mutual contact, heads of Kinderoper programs. This is a blanket term that doesn’t exactly mean “Children’s Opera” exclusively, but when it does, it means “opera performed for children,” and rarely, if ever, “opera performed by children.” Opera and musical theater (which doesn’t mean Broadway) for teens or young adult audiences, and chamber opera for adults can – but not always – be included under this umbrella. Last year the local company did Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia as part of it’s Kinderoper offerings.  It’s a chamber opera, and is NOT FOR KIDS.

So I have a wonderful friend and stage buddy from Karlsruhe who helps me with my translations so that the first email is coherent and auf Deutsch, as previously described. She’s German, a native speaker, fluent in English, and a huge help, but there’s still much that can get lost in Google translation, if I’m not careful.

Also important is spelling, as I found out when one errant ‘f’ turned Kinderoper into Kinderopfer, which means “child sacrifice.” It was corrected before the email was sent, but how’s about that for a plot twist!

Notes before starting an opera

Begin anywhere.

This evening, I’ll be jumping into the my fifth opera, a one act about five interconnected women playing poker badly, and trying to peg each other’s tells, also badly.  I’m listening to Monk and Ahmad Jamal for some reason.  I don’t anticipate that it will play a part in the writing, but one can never tell, and it wouldn’t be the worst idea ever.  There’s a great Spinal Tap skit where they’re talking about Jazz and how unpredictable it is and with all the wrong notes, it’s just “an accident waiting to happen.” I think about that when I listen to Monk and chuckle.  Why does Monk remind me of Ives, but not the other way around?

I used to obsess over My Process.  Actually, “obsess” isn’t strong enough a word.  What’s stronger than “obsess?” I used to worship the theoretical liturgy that was “My Process.” Everything had to happen in a precise order, or the outcome was going to be an accident that had been waiting to happen.

Standing next to me, trying to get in my lap so that she may bang on my laptop, or better yet, so that she may demand to see pictures of puppies, is nearly 19 months of wiggle that laughs in the face of My Process. “Quit fussing and get to work,” she says, “But first – make with the puppies until I am satisfied, which will be never.”

We took a mini-vacation this summer to visit family and friends in England. While there, we stayed a few nights in the home of the aforementioned wiggle’s Godmother in beautiful Cambridge. Wiggle’s GM is a scholar of the highest order, and her house – filled to brimming with books on all topics – was an overwhelming source of inspiration. Therein was found the source material for a major double song cycle now on the docket, a fascinating psychological exploration of a near death experience in 24 parts, which has furthered my thought process in non-linear storytelling, and, pinned to a corkboard next to her desk (from which she spins books, articles, and lectures on any number of topics of which she is an authority) was a scrap of paper with two words: “Begin Anywhere.”

In the ruins of the Temple of My Process lies this scrap of paper.

Let us pray.

The Lizard is real. Eat the Lizard.

I am a big fan of Seth Godin, a marketer turned guru of all things story-telling, unleasher of creativity, rooter-outer of mediocre meeting excuses, and author of books promising to show you the route to the peaceful village of Finishing-The-Project.  He, and his cohort-of-sorts, Steven Pressfield, ganged up on me several years ago with their tales of work and patience, their stories of trust and creativity, their realities of struggle and incremental, almost imperceptible achievement. There will be a bibliography at the end of this post.

Both recognize and call out by name an entity that is bred within whose sole purpose is to stop you from doing not only your best work, but any work that will contribute to your life and the lives of those around you. Pressfield call it The Resistance; Godin, the Lizard Brain.

This beast eats productivity and regurgitates fear. It pukes it in your lap, on your work, into your mouth when you’re trying to talk about your ambitions. It is your opposition research and it uses it all against you at once. It’s goal is to ruin you quickly, so that you will never, ever, succeed.

I battle the Lizard every day. Everybody does, if they say they don’t, they’re lying.

There’s silly, courageous hope drawn from romantic Western mythology – St. George defeats the Dragon; Sigfried kills Fafner; Daenerys commands the dragons to do her bidding, etc.

I recently found my mythology here: in Australian Aboriginal grandmothers who preserve their connection to their ancestral lands through controlled burns that flush out lizards, which they grab by the tail, smack on the rocks, cook whole on coals, and eat in their entirety. Here’s another view. Aboriginal Grandmas take no shit from the Lizard.

Here’s your reading list:

Godin: Linchpin, Poke the Box, Ship it

Pressfield: Do the Work, The War of Art

also: Carolyn See: Making a Literary Life; Twyla Tharp: The Creative Habit


Welcome back (you never left)

If you’re reading this, you probably got here via a link from my new, hot-shot website, so Welcome!  or Welcome back, I suppose.

Lord know’s it’s been a while since I’ve been here. In the year and a half since my last post, much has happened – new baby, loss of family members, moving to a new city, new directions in my professional career as a composer.  A good deal of new music has been written and more is one the way. The Bach chorales that lend this blog its name, however, remain constant, as a technical foundation and an opportunity to delve into broader topics along the way.

And, along the way lie more than a few fascinating topics – navigating the opera world, hustling and the reality of arts entrepreneurship, a continuing excoriation of correlative studies being used as a rationale to save arts education, Bach chorales, whatnot.  I can’t say I’ll be writing a ton, or divulging explosive droplets of musical monstrosity, but it won’t be boring, at least. I hope.

Anyway, welcome (back).