Two acts are DONE.
You wanna see scores and hear MIDI realizations?
Yeah, you do.
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.
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.
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.
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).
You don’t often get the chance to write patriotic kegger music, so this oughta be fun.
Anyway, back to the grind.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Well, it’s been a bit.
2021 was a tough year. My mother, Linda Flinn, died on June 17 after an 2-year battle with ovarian cancer. She was just a couple of months shy of 85. We’re all still heartbroken, of course, but Dad somehow soldiers on, though sometimes I get overwhelmed when I think about the fact that they grew up together and he probably has no memories that don’t involve her in some way.
Work was challenging with COVID, but we did the best we can. Owing to a concatenation of events, I had to be discipline coordinator this fall, when we had turnover in all three ensemble director positions and when the other two tenured faculty were on leave. It was harrowing and I’m pretty sure I aged several years. But the adjunct faculty, staff, and students all performed admirably, and I am pleased to say we did not have to postpone or cancel a single event for weather-related or COVID-related reasons. I am fortunate to work with people this good.
Now comes the fun part – I am taking a sabbatical of my own this spring to write an opera! The plan is to write this spring, orchestrate this summer, workshop and revise next year, then do a full staging in 2024. This will hopefully also launch a summer festival of new opera/musical theatre works here.
I will try to do weekly (or hopefully more regular, anyway) updates on my progress.
The opera will feature a libretto by my dear friend David C. Cole and will combine elements of American history, science fiction, and politics. The title is…
John Quincy Adams and the Subterraneans
John Quincy Adams, Sixth President of the United States of America (tenor, though a contralto could do the role as well)
John Cleves Symmes, Jr., explorer (Bass-Baritone)
Louisa Catherine Adams, First Lady of the United States (mezzo-soprano)
Monarch of the Subterraneans (dramatic soprano, possibly coloratura)
Andrew Jackson, General and later Seventh President of the United States of America (mezzo-soprano or countertenor)
I haven’t been excited about a composition project like this in a very long time.
In other news, I am pleased to announce that I finished several works in 2021. I wrote some miniatures for the Georgia Runoff Commissioning Project (Riff for solo piano; bent not broken for solo contrabass; Souvenir from a Canceled Trip for solo flugelhorn; Thibodeaux Breakdown for solo tuba; The First Amendment for SATB choir). A small consortium commissioned a three-movement trombone quartet, The True Saga of Charles Everett Mathews and His Search for a Perpetual Motion Machine (named for my maternal great-grandfather, who never found one). For my new-found interest in alto trombone, I wrote Everything About This Is Wrong, an exploration of a poem by my friend Emily Vieweg and scored for solo alto trombone with flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, soprano sax, horn, trumpet/flugelhorn, timpani, vibraphone, and snare drum. I finished the orchestration of Concerto for Piano and Wind Band.
My article on techniques of developing variation in the music of Morton Gould was published in GAMUT, and it’s nice for that research to have found a home. Might mess around and start writing a theory textbook too.
My beloved wife and the cats are all in some reasonable facsimile of good health, and I am grateful for that. I lost a few pounds last year (10-15); the plan is to keep doing that, though the fact that I bake more might make it difficult.
I hope you’re all well. Let’s keep muddling through together.
(1) A paraphrase/setting of the UMM Hymn, the Alma Mater of my current gig. This is for a concert in memory/honor of Ralph Williams, the first-ever music faculty member at UMM (and composer of the Alma Mater).
(2) A suite of miniatures for solo violin called pARTita, for David Cole.
(3) A very short opera, beginning what I think is a warm-up for a larger work (and eventually, hopefully, a full cycle of operas based on a science-fiction book that permeated my youth).