A new space

Its always good to mix things up a bit.  My wife is a big fan of systematic reorganization, whether it’s furniture, closets (time to change out summer for fall!), what have you.  The order brings her calmness.  I am not this way about most things. Order, for me, is hard to come by, no matter the circumstances, activity, or location, so I have learned to find calmness in action and production rather than location or circumstance.  In any event, my lizard brain, the Resistance, and the minions that they rally have provided the hardest tests to accomplishment than any other factor.

In August, we moved; up, it’s fair to say. We have space – lots of it.  Garden, bedrooms, basement, the works.  And it’s quiet, compared to the crowded, but charming, city living in which we spent the last year.  “With the quiet, it will be a good atmosphere for composing,” said our landlord.

Studying the technique of creativity, you hear a great deal about the routine of the workspace: the same action, under the same conditions, creating a habit, a ritual. Habits seem to be the key – all the great ones had them; Google Beethoven and his coffee beans.  So what do you do when your workspace changes?

I had great spaces in Boston. In the several places we lived, there was a room completely to myself, surrounded by scores and reference books.  I had a beautiful harpsichord-shaped Ethan Allen desk that my wife found on Craigslist for a steal.  My keyboard and desk fit perfectly next to each other and my desktop was always at the ready, connected to my keyboard to record my improvisations or dig in with Finale. When I had time to use it, it was great.

On Bachstraße, I had a piano. Beautifully out of tune, it was always ready to dance. Not as flexible as having a MIDI keyboard, but it stretched my fingers and my ears.

Then I had none of it, and wrote 90 minutes of opera with just my ears and a laptop in less than two months.  Lots of it on a plane, even more with my wife falling asleep on the couch at her parents’ house while watching West Wing and Sherlock on Netflix.

Now I have quiet (for the moment), a small MIDI keyboard that my wife also found on the German version of craigslist for a steal and the knowledge that I don’t really need any of it to write a significant amount of music in a short time.

Why is this important?  Maybe it isn’t.  Maybe, however, there isn’t a perfect set of circumstances under which the muse can make contact, or whatever, and that in and of itself is important.  For me, at least.


Last night on Bachstraße

As the title indicates, tonight is the last night my wife, dog, and I will be spending in our apartment on Bachstraße (Bach Street, that is), named, of course, for Mr. J.S. himself.  Tomorrow, we are moving to a lovely single family house owned by a director at the opera house who is moving on to bigger and better things. This house has plenty of space, a garden, a patio, a grill, and – most importantly – a washing machine and a dishwasher, sweet baby Jesus.

While on Bachstraße for the last eleven months, I read through the first 190-some-odd chorales out of the Bach 371 (the namesake of this blog). I also completed  a 15-minute work and a four minute prelude for solo piano, a choral work on a commission for my wife’s home church in Mississippi, reworked an old choral piece, wrote a saxophone quartet, a theme and variations for Pierrot ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano plus percussion), and have completed about 60 minutes of what will eventually be a 90 reworking of my Edgar Allen Poe opera.

It was our landing point in Germany, from where we spring into our next few adventures.  But first, we’ll finish up the move tomorrow, and then will take a trip back to the states for serious family time, and hopefully some relaxation.


Willful suspension

There’s a Copland quote floating out there somewhere (maybe in Music and Imagination) wherein he spoke about his reluctance to expose himself to live performances of dramatic works as he would always get drawn in to the point of embarrassment, that the action onstage would completely encompass him to the point of forgetting that it was a dramatization, and that he strived to gain that same engagement musically, both in his own music and in his experience of others’.

I’m pretty good with words, I think.  My writing has always been solid and I like to think I have a decent command of the language.  I credit this to the Pesci Wit – everybody in my family is loud and talks quickly, so you had to be pretty deft to get a word in.  We also do tons of word play – rhymes, free association, jokes, and an increasingly creative, and ever-developing, repertoire of profanity.

However, writing words for singing is a horse of a different color, and is something that I haven’t done in a real long time, since my writing was centered on the solo, singer-songwriter, guitar-playing-in-a-coffee-house kind.  There, cleverness and off-the-wall imagery seasoned with mid-twenties pretentiousness and pseudo depth, was stirred well and served on a plate of semi-Bohemian self-deprecation, garnished with thinking about sex all the time.  Although that all could easily be adapted into an operatic setting, it doesn’t, for me.  There are places my multi-layered musical training mesh well (jazz and rock and funk and classical and show tunes and sacred music and opera and cartoon music…) but also places where I simply have lost the taste of the combination.  There’s also a feeling (however prudish or self-flagellatory) that I should stop dabbling in experiments – I can hear when I’m faking it, so I don’t have any excuses to let that slide anymore.

All that being said, I have written words for singing – all of my performed operatic works have been set to librettos by my own hand, under the skillful editing of the good doctor.  These have all been adaptations of literature into a colloquial sung dialogue that I’m particularly dedicated to, for better or for worse (opera in a contemporary American English dialect).

A few weeks ago, I came across a TV mini-series that took me in so completely, I was POSITIVE that I would adapt it for my first full length opera.  It had everything I was looking for – great characters with depth, lots of back story, unrequited love, intrigue, death – the whole sandwich AND the bag of chips.  Plus, it was modern.  Again, this is important to me, specifically, the – dare I say – contemporary expression of base, primal human emotions (whether that will date such expression to obscurity remains to be seen).  Also, it had a touch of the surreal – unimaginable, potentially absurd, circumstances that have become commonplace in the world of that particular drama.

As I have with a number of projects – including the last opera – I was immediately filled with a full steam ahead mentality, which (as was the case with the last opera) could paint me into a particularly tight corner, from which I had to figure my way out. Not that this is a bad thing, from a learning perspective, but it was a curveball with the last show.  There wasn’t enough text; there wasn’t enough dramatic flow, and a lot that had been described succinctly to provide background in the story, I was having trouble making the case operatically without it seeming forced and awkward.

So now, I’m all cautious. I still feel strongly about the piece (whether or not I will get the rights is a question for later, and if the answer is ‘no,’ then…), having been sucked in in the way Copland described.  At the end of the day, it’s just a story.

Guten Hunger

Somewhere, at some point in time, someone, or a team of someones, must have designed what a typical grocery store should look like, and then deemed that this design must be replicated all over the planet.  Even for someone (me), whose knowledge of the German language is rudimentary at BEST, it is possible to find one’s way around a German grocery store and generally know where to find whatever.

This is incredibly beneficial when coupled with the fact that very little makes me more ill at ease than the first time in a strange grocery store, especially if that grocery store is in a new town, ESPECIALLY if everything is in a language that I don’t yet understand.

The importance of food in my life can be gleaned simply by glancing at the vowel that ends my last name. Cooking and eating are two of my many passions and within them are the combined forces of home, guests, family, and hearth – not in that particular order.  Unfortunately, I am also rather competitive when it comes to cooking (and I’m  a sore loser…but, that’s for another blog).

German grocery 101: a) Globalization means kettle chips, quinoa, and Oreos; b) Germans love ketchup; c) the Käse (cheese) counter will make you want to smack your momma; d) the Fleisch (meat) counter will make you want to make yer momma smack HER damn momma.  There are also “American” sections, which yield off-brand peanut butter, Crisco, and hot dog buns “…in the American style.”  Favorite lost in translations:



2013-08-26 18.20.27

~ insert off-color comment here ~

When all was said and done, my adventure to der Supermarkt allowed me to craft a beautiful poached cod with a sauce made from a reduction of the poaching liquid, served with  mushrooms, yellow peppers and cucumbers that were sautéed then poached with the fish, sautéed beans and roasted potatoes. (thanks and apologies to Julia Child).

2013-08-27 19.42.34