Welp, it’s been a summer.

I mentioned a “family health” thing a couple of posts ago. On June 17, exactly one year after we lost my mother, my mother-in-law Lauretta Beck Philhower died. She was only 71, and her loss has been a gut punch. Lauretta was a kind soul with a great laugh and a love of good music. We miss her terribly.

Then there was some reshuffling at work, and now I find myself running the assessment program for the entire institution. That’s fine. My predecessor did a bang-up job of creating mechanisms, so all I need to do for right now is top off the fluids and keep the tires inflated. This does move me into an even-larger administrative role. Be careful what you wish for, kids.

Also, I’m recovering, as the Covid finally caught me last week. Made it 2 1/2 years. Since I’m double-vaxxed and boosted, it was just a really bad cold for me. Still, 0/10, would not recommend. This meant I had to bail on playing in my first pit orchestra in nearly two decades. My guess is, the mute changes were so involved they wore me out, which weakened my immune system.

Long story short, the opera isn’t done yet. That’s OK. I have no performances scheduled. I hope to get back to work on it some this week. I can tell you that Acts I and III are finished, and if I’m being honest, the ending is beautiful – everything I would want. This is primarily due to Dave Cole’s libretto, but I’m going to allow myself a little brag and say the music is awesome as well.

The Australian performance of Triple Double had to be postponed for one month, but it happened last week. You can watch it here – it’s the second piece on the program, but do watch the whole thing, as Kara Williams and her accomplices play a variety of excellent pieces by a variety of excellent composers. This performance is easily one of the top three performances of my music in terms of quality. I was honored and humbled to sit in my living room Wednesday night and listen. My beloved, not one for effusive praise, said, “that was really good.” Check it out.

I have started opening some channels for a performance opportunity (well, the playing of a recording) that would be out of this world. More on that if it develops into something. Suffice it to say that growing up in Pinhook, Indiana (pop. 19) you don’t expect to hear your music at essentially the Antipodes of Pinhook. So once I’ve been heard in Australia, what else is there? (I’m still working on Asia, Africa, South America, and yes, even Antarctica.)

Also, I saw Antipodes of Pinhook at H.O.R.D.E. in 1996.

Thank you all for coming on this journey with me. Let’s see what’s next together.

WF

I am thrilled to announce my first Australian performance!

Kara Williams of the Riverina Conservatorium of Music in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia is giving a lunchtime concert on June 30 (June 29 for us back in the States). Among the works on the program is my Triple Double, originally for woodwind doubler and big band (in an arrangement for doubler and string quartet with rhythm section). The concert will be at 1pm local time (11pm EDT on 6/29, 10pm CDT, 9pm MDT, 8pm PDT).

Further information can be found here.

After the past few weeks, this is welcome.

WF

I’ve still got a lot of typesetting to do, but two acts (I and III) have been written.

Writing the Andrew Jackson stuff was exceptionally difficult. You want the music to reflect the person as the person conceptualizes him/herself, but you also think about the weight of history. John Adams (the composer, not the father of this work’s subject) once joked that Nixon in China was “an opera for Republicans and Communists.” He’s not far off. Almost all the main characters are treated in a fashion that aligns with their own self-perception. (The notable exception is Henry Kissinger, who deserves no quarter and no mercy and receives none.) Dave did a great job of depicting a monster who is convinced of his own rectitude in his libretto. I hope I have created an equal characterization in my music.

Now on to Act II; I have already sketched the dance variations at the heart of the Subterranean scene, as well as the transition from the outside world to the hollow world. This is allowing me to stretch out a little bit, explore different sounds. The trick will be to not rely on sonic stereotypes of “othering.” Please let me know if I fall short on this one.

I might be able to have the vocal score done by the end of July. I was hoping to have the orchestration(s) completely done by then as well, but life being what it is (family medical emergencies, “other duties as assigned,” and OH YES HOLY CRAP I GOT INTO SMT SEE YOU IN NEW ORLEANS BUT NOW I HAVE TO WRITE THIS PAPER TOO), that’s not going to happen. No worries – the plan is still to workshop it in late Spring 2023, and for that I only need the vocal score.

Like a cheap set of drugstore nails, we press on.

WF

At the corner of two dirt roads sits a building.

Swan Lake Township Hall, Swan Lake Township, Stevens County, Minnesota. Picture taken by the author on June 2, 2022 at 3:00pm.

Once you get what folks call “out in the county,” buildings are further apart. This structure is probably a good quarter-mile from the closest house. You’ll see homes, barns, garages, churches, and in many places, one of these. This is a township hall, and I would argue it is the single most important building in its area.

A township, in American governmental parlance, is an area organized to facilitate land records, road management, public assistance, and other aspects of government. In places where cities and towns are not yet incorporated – or have been disincorporated – the township is the most local level of governance. In some places, the civil township corresponds almost perfectly with the survey township, the six-square-mile units of land surveyors mapped whenever new areas came under United States control. (That story is often not pretty, and the ugliness of it should never be discounted when we tell the story of who we are.) Stevens County, Minnesota is one such place. Other counties organize their townships by landmarks and rivers, leading to the same odd shapes that permeate so much of governmental cartography.

As the most local level of governance, the township provides the clearest example of the sclerotic nature of too many local and state governments. The largest township by population in Stevens County is Morris Township, with a population of 396 (2020 Census data). Some townships in Minnesota have less than 50 people. Like too many small towns and rural areas, the population of these structures has dropped precipitously over the past century.

It would be easy to abolish townships. Many states don’t even have them. Most are tiny, and the governmental functions could easily be assumed by county governments. Like small town speed traps (anyone remember New Rome, Ohio?), some exist only to provide sinecures and pensions for long-time “elected” officials who only needed to get the votes of those around their kitchen table. Yet I cannot endorse this move. The local government is the first – and in some cases, the only – point of contact citizens will have with the idea of government. If you make access to an official who can hear your petition for a redress of grievances more difficult, you also make it less likely that your fellow citizens will stay engaged. This leads to the aforementioned sclerotic structures. Self-governance – even at the most local of levels – requires effort and commitment. These smaller governments also provide the necessary training for higher levels of governance. Recent history shows us what can happen when elected officials want to start at the top. Not only do these sudden governors misunderstand processes, they through their ignorance allow malicious but intelligent people who do understand local government to use these systems and institutions for nefarious purposes. In both situations, the end result is the same – trust in institutions is eroded, and bad actors have an easier path to engage in chicanery.

Active local governance, even – nay, especially – at the township level, is how we preserve our nation, with its government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

I promise to get back to opera updates soon, but it was important that I think about this out loud. Want to change the world? Change your corner of it. If a state has townships, that state likely has a township trustee/officer association. (Here’s Minnesota.) Learn more about your local government. Get involved. Make those township halls temples of democracy once again. The future of the Republic depends on it.

WF

Another bit of block, this time because of the subject matter.

Look, anyone who knows me knows my politics. I don’t hide them. (In the classroom I am scrupulously apolitical in the electoral sense, but I also encourage discussion about the political nature of music theory. Remember that politics does not automatically mean electoral politics – it is simply how humans engage with each other on issues that affect entire groups.) Andrew Jackson was, to put it charitably, a genocidal maniac. My librettist (the incomparable David Cole) saw certain parallels with recent events. The last line of Jackson’s big aria is “make America great once again!”

Reader, I didn’t have the music for that in me. I tried. Rejected 5-7 settings.

So he’s shouting it.

I look forward to getting everyone’s reactions to the arc of this scene, how it goes from broad humor and folk tunes to something unabashedly sinister. In many ways it is the polar (ha, if you know Hollow Earth theory) opposite of Act II, scene 2, which shows humanity at its best in the form of Symmes offering his own life and freedom in the stead of a crewman.

We’re getting there. I won’t have the whole thing done (including chamber orchestration) by July 24 like I wanted, but that’s alright. Honestly, all I need to have done is the vocal score by January for what I hope is a June workshop. (Hey, if any opera impresarios are reading this and wanna workshop it, drop me a note! Otherwise, I’ll do it myself.)

In other news, went down to Minneapolis this week for the OPERA America conference. Learned a few things, met a couple of people, and then my introversion and impostor syndrome kicked in. Still glad I went.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

WF

Since Act III, scene 1 uses two pieces of pre-existing music (“Auld Lang Syne” and “The Hunters of Kentucky”), I got out of the sketchbook a little. I decided to do most of this part directly into Finale. It’s coming along. I have about 3 minutes typeset. The example below is a bit of the chorus work as Jackson is entering the scene.

“America first.” Where have we heard that before…?

The thing about this opera is it doesn’t have a ton of traditional arias. The closest bits – extended solo/duet sections – would be the Poem Duet and Symmes explaining his plans in Act I, the Queen’s welcome and Symmes’ defense of his crewman in Act II, and Jackson’s inaugural party speech and Louisa’s exhortation to Adams in Act III. Act II features some choral work and choreography, but the chorus (now including a children’s chorus, because we’re already over budget; go big or go home!) is featured most in Act III.

John Cleves Symmes is the only major character in all three acts. John Quincy Adams and Louisa Catherine Adams are in Acts I and III, Queen Ordagova of the Subterraneans is in Acts II and III, and Andrew Jackson only appears in Act III. Symmes is arguably the protagonist (the journey is his idea, after all), but JQA is the moral center of the opera.

This is all a little overwhelming, but I have truly enjoyed the chance to just be a composer again. I even reconnected with one of my teachers (Samuel Adler) recently just because I’ve spent so much time composing. It feels good. I should do this more often. Between the two concertos, the trombone quartet, the Emily Vieweg works, and this, I’m having the time of my professional life.

Apologies once again for delays. We did a little traveling, and had to deal with some family medical issues.

I have the complete libretto now! Dave outwrote himself.

In Act II, there is an extended dance/choreographic sequence. I have written the music for that, and I have completed Act III, scene 2. I would say we are comfortably past the halfway point. (It still all needs to go into Finale, which will be several weeks’ worth of work itself, but that’s OK.) The next stage of the game will be to write Act III, scene 1 (which will feature “The Hunters of Kentucky” prominently, as it takes place during the Jackson inaugural…uh, bacchanalia).

Now to depict this musically…(Andrew Jackson’s Rowdy Party, Louis S. Glanzman, 1970)

You don’t often get the chance to write patriotic kegger music, so this oughta be fun.

Anyway, back to the grind.

WF

Act III, scene 2 is almost done. I’ve done a few cuts to Dave’s libretto, but might add some back. I want to make sure Louisa Catherine Adams gets a really good and substantial aria. Right now, she has maybe 2/3 of one. So I need to do some more reading and thinking.

Next will be Act III, scene 1, in which we finally hear directly from Andrew Jackson. That’s going to be fun to write, as I genuinely hate this guy and his fanboys.

I’ve noticed some trends in my writing. I love to use what David Lewin termed the SLIDE operation (keeping the third of a chord constant while changing the root and quality – think, say, C major to C-sharp minor) as well as moving a melody by thirds but keeping the same function (A-flat in F minor moves to F in D minor, etc.). Neo-Riemannians will appreciate those. I always want a melody that could, if necessary, soar – an opera lives and dies on the tunes, after all.

We’re traveling the next couple of weeks, but I’m bringing the laptop and sketchbooks. I hope to be able to finished Act III in, oh, a month or thereabouts. Dave assures me the libretto for Act II is en route.

Have fun, everyone.

WF

It was bound to happen. After finishing Act I (all the notes are in Finale – still have to do text, dynamics, articulation, etc., but all the notes are in) and basking in the glow of John Clodfelter and Mei-Chuan Lin’s exceptional performance of the Concerto for Piano and Wind Band (the performance and my pre-concert talk are viewable here), I ran headlong into writer’s block.

Last week I turned 49 and wrote almost nothing. I don’t know if it was the usual “just finished something big” letdown or Seasonal Affective Disorder – we got 10 inches of snow on my birthday and below-zero temperatures right after – but oof, last week was a waste. I need to remind myself it’s OK. This is not a sprint. Still, I ended up doing a lot of soul-searching, and I wonder if I need to not be a music professor for a while beyond this sabbatical. This is an ongoing debate.

But!

That first act? 40 minutes. 1113 measures. And it is good. As a composer, I’m at the top of my game. It feels cohesive, it feels suitably theatrical, the music and libretto are never at cross-purposes. Just like with the snow, I’m digging out of the writer’s block this week. I’m starting Act III, scene 2 (the final scene, with the possible exception of an epilogue). My librettist Dave, after a brief health scare (he is doing much better), is cranking away on Act II.

“But nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight/Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight” – Bruce Cockburn

I choose to kick at the darkness.

WF

PS – Слава Україні! Героям слава!

Got so busy actually working on stuff (beyond the opera, I had to write up a presentation for the Piano Concerto premiere next Sunday and knock out a conference proposal) that I almost forgot to update! No matter. This one will be brief.

I still need to typeset it, but Act I is done! I’ll be starting Act III next. Once I get some or all of Act I typset, I’ll put up a sample or two.

We proceed apace.

WF

This is still fun, but man, don’t let anyone fool you – writing an opera is work.

Took a mighty long time to put the JQA/Symmes meeting into Finale. It’s 14+ minutes long and 388 measures. This is just the piano reduction! The orchestral score (Fl/picc, Ob/EH, Cl/Bs Cl/AS, Bsn/TS, Hn, 2Tpt/Flgl, Tbn/Euph, Tuba, Hp, Pno, Timp, 2 Perc, string quintet) is going to take up most of the summer!

I am currently working on the opening of Act I, up to the Poem Duet. If all goes well, I can finish that this week and write the rest of the connection between the Poem Duet and the Symmes meeting as well as the conclusion of Act I next week, then spend the week of 2/13 editing, typesetting, and finalizing the act. I do have a couple of small distractions; I need to write a 20-30 minute talk about my Concerto for Piano and Band, which I will give on February 13 at 2pm at the University of Jamestown in Jamestown, ND. This will be followed immediately by the premiere of the two-piano version (John Clodfelter, soloist; Mei-Chuan Lin, accompaniment). The night before that, the Central Lakes Symphony Orchestra is giving a concert of music from films, so my wife and I will be driving from Alexandria to Jamestown after the gig. (Playing in that group has reinvigorated me.) And after that, of course, the Cincinnati Bengals are in the Super Bowl. We’re staying an extra night in Jamestown just to make sure we don’t miss the game. WHO DEY!

Once Act I is finished, I’ll try to put up a couple of excerpts. I’ll be writing Act III next.

Back to the grind.

WF

Approximately 20 minutes.

When all is said and done, that is about how much music I have written.

Curtain up music for all three acts, the Poem Duet, part of one transition, and now the JQA/Symmes meeting. The curtain music for each act is the same, but the tag will vary for each act to show where we are and who is involved. Motives!

Still on pace to finish Act I by my birthday – maybe even slightly ahead. The meeting was the lengthiest section of Act I, and that’s clocking in at about 14 minutes or so.

I will be asking singer friends, dramaturgs, etc. for input and advice. (I’m working on getting grant funding to pay you, but if that falls through I’ll do it out-of-pocket.) Dave Cole is doing an amazing job with the libretto – I teared up reading Act III. You wouldn’t think a cheesy plot about a minor what-if of post-Revolutionary American history would elicit such a response, but such is Dave’s talent with a pen. (He’s also a fine conductor; he will conduct the premiere performance.)

I’m going to ride this as long as I can, because I know where will be days where I write only one note and hate that note. But maybe there won’t – the practice of writing means you learn how to work around those moments where the muse is not present.

I love my gig, and I’m grateful for the sabbatical to do this, but I gotta say – at this point if I could justify being a full-time composer, I would. This is fun, even when it isn’t.

After I finish typesetting the meeting (it’s a lot! 388 measures!), the next bits are the opening of Act I and the connection between the Poem Duet and the meeting. Then I’ll finish the act and edit things. Let’s do this.

WF

Y’know, this is getting to be kind of fun.

I sketched out the meeting between President Adams and Captain Symmes this past week. The section will be about 10-15 minutes long, and I’m pretty happy with it. What’s great about this whole process is I get to think about how to make my music more explicitly theatrical. This should help my non-opera composing as well.

It has been good that I’ve been super-productive. I know dry spells are coming, but what I’ve been able to write since January 3 has been some of the best stuff I’ve ever written, and that feeling is what is going to sustain me through the inevitable dry spells. I’ve developed some other good habits too, which I hope I can keep doing even after sabbatical is over. I work out daily. Nothing big, just something to get me moving. I also practice trombone daily. Long tones (4 octaves total), lip slurs, major and minor scales, a Rochut or two (sometimes reading in tenor clef!), and if there’s anything I need to rehearse for the CLSO I’ll take a look at that. These things make a difference. They also distract me from the increasingly-deep snowpile in my yard.

Everyone stay safe out there. Get your shots. Wear a mask. Keep your distance. I want you all to be around and healthy for the premiere of this thing!

WF

Feeling pretty good thus far. John Quincy Adams and Louisa Catherine Adams would often write poems for each other, and my librettist (David C. Cole) decided to incorporate this aspect of them into Act I, to show the depth of feeling they had for one another. I set the dual poem (Dave’s original text – not many of these poems survive) last week, and also wrote the transition music to the next part of the scene. You can listen to that here, as performed by MIDI.

Here’s a little taste of the duet:

Up next – the music for the meeting between JQA and John Cleves Symmes, in which the Hollow Earth theory is explained. This segment would be mostly instrumental, with a few lines interjected here and there, while pages from Symmes’ notebook would be projected.

Back to work. Like a cheap set of drugstore nails, we press on.

WF

And we’re off!

I received the libretto for Act I and part of Act III a couple of weeks ago, so I’ve been sketching motives and the like, as well as the curtain music for Act I (which will be the same, with a couple of twists, for the second and third acts as well). JQA and Louisa Catherine Adams have a duet in the middle of Act I, and I’ve started composing that.

I’m using bits of ”Hail Columbia,” which, while now is the official march of the Vice President of the United States, was at the time of JQA associated unofficially with the President. ”Hail to the Chief” became associated during the term of Andrew Jackson, so it’ll show up as well.

This is going to be a lot of fun. By the end of this week I should have the Poem Duet done as well as some of the music in and out of it.

Allons-y!

WF