Cave Painting, Composer Style

Always interesting to emerge from my dark composing cave and encounter the bright flashing lights at a DJ gig. Last week I stumbled blinking from my studio, where I’ve been editing and orchestrating The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, and dropped into a pumping club-meets-classical show on the Kennedy Center’s Jukebox series called Mercury Soul. Here’s an overview of those two projects:

My opera is in its final stages after two years and two workshops. The primary things I learned from the workshops were simple on the surface: where to tighten, and where to give more space.

Tightening is almost always needed in new opera. Often I love the arias of new works, but the oversetting of plot-driven passages always makes me impatient. I like to move rapidly and naturalistically through these sections to create a huge contrast with the big singing moments, which are usually when a character dwells upon one idea while the plot takes a pause. This opera is driven by an Information Age kineticism, so the scenes were already fast-paced and less needing of cuts. But we did find a few places to tighten. There are a few Tarantino-esque scene reprises that, on the second time through, needed less of a literal repeat. It’s amazing what a few nips and tucks can do.

On the other end of the spectrum, more space was needed on a micro-level around key words and phrases. This was primarily because I kept the scenes moving so quickly, and also because of my aforementioned aversion to over-setting of plot text. Conductor Michael Christie and librettist Mark Campbell suggested a bit more air here and there around a meaningful word or two. Just a beat or so significantly helps the singers be better actors, and it helps the audience understand what they’re singing. The accumulation of these details can make a big difference over the course of 90 minutes.

With the workshops behind me, I set about the herculean task of orchestration. These days it’s my version of cave-painting: whatever you’re doing, you can be sure that I’m deep in my hole orchestrating this piece. An opera is something like a concerto in its orchestration approach, since you always need to hear the soloist. I’m doing the best I can to imbue the orchestra with visceral punch without overpowering the singers.

Interestingly, the most important element in opera orchestration is how you handle the one thing not in the orchestra: the singers. The better a composer understands the tessitura of each singer, the higher likelihood they’ll project no matter what’s happening in the pit. I think of vocal writing as kite-surfing in micro-climates: each voice becomes a different instrument with every interval of a third (whereas instruments tend to change by the octave). I’ve gotten to know all the wonderful things about Ed Parks and Sasha Cooke’s voices over the past year, hopefully I’ll do them justice.

Gear shift.

I emerged from my studio and headed to the Kennedy Center to mount Mercury Soul there, a refreshing change from the minutia-obsessive world of opera orchestration. Mercury Soul show intersperses DJing and club production with sets of classical music, and it primarily occurs in commercial clubs out in San Francisco where the non-profit is based. But we’ve done many institutional events over the years with groups as far-flung as the Chicago, Pittsburgh, and New World Symphonies, and bringing this hybrid musical event to my current artistic home was exhilarating.

The Kennedy Center can go big like few other organizations. I’ve seen in my position as composer-in-residence that the place has the ability to create large, immersive experiences in stunning ways. My new music series KC Jukebox takes format exploration as a key ingredient of every concert, using projected information and fluid environments to reimagine the concert experience. So I knew our crackerjack production team could turn the top floor of the Kennedy Center into a club and set about finding the repertoire.

For this show we complemented Bach, Stravinsky, and Adams with composer and hip-hop violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain, whose energetic string quartets were a perfect fit for the club-meets-classical collision. A big added bonus was Daniel’s improvisational abilities. This guy not only has stunning chops on the fiddle, but he understands the nuances of grooving over electronica. Whenever he would sense a mix from me, he’d start evolving his jam accordingly, so that we both transitioned together. This may sound obvious but, in fact, playing an instrument over a DJ set can be punishingly difficult. The harmonies migrates so quickly; the tracks vary greatly in their density level; and, at the end of the day, records cannot react to the live player as in a jazz trio. Daniel mastered all of these challenges with the confidence of someone who truly understands both worlds.

A strong turnout for the event confirmed that DC is hungry for immersive and challenging artistic experiences, and the Kennedy Center is uniquely positioned to make those happen. Maybe some critics and bloggers may not want to hear classical music presented this way, I passionately believe that creative formats are the next frontier in our field, and our audiences have encountered a lot of challenging music in the most entertaining social platform. And anyway, I kind of like the experiment of moving from Stravinsky to Prince to techno within ten minutes (they play well together).

Now I return to my California composing cave, grateful for the time in the sun but ready to take a fresh look at the opera. If you have any interest in seeing The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs lift off next summer, tickets just went on sale here.