Kullervo Cursing

Kullervo may be the darkest story from the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. This tale of murder, revenge, rejection, ill magic, incest, and suicide is captured in a gripping Akseli Gallen-Kallela painting hanging in the Ateneum. Kullervo curses the sky and lives in a feedback loop of anger, bitterness, and bad fortune. Kullervo is an orphan child with the world turned against him. His magical powers are used to bring revenge and never lead to any good or peace. Eventually he finds his lost parents but accidentally sleeps with his sister who then drowns herself. He curses himself, his birth, the world, and life. He is imprisoned to his tragic fate – his life and efforts can only take one path.
O my mother, O my bearer!
If at my birth you had only
Filled the sauna full of smoke;
Or had killed me two nights old,
Taken me straight to the water,
Drowned me in mosquito netting,
Wrapped up in a rag of homespun
Flung the rocker in the fire,
Shoved the cradle in the fireplace.
1200px-Akseli_Gallen-Kallela_-_Kullervo_Cursing_-_Google_Art_Project
I viewed the painting during my first visit to Helsinki in October 2017 and was instantly struck by the angst, urgency, and vibrant energy of Kullervo’s painful cry captured in Gallen-Kallela’s painting. The idea for a piece of music came in the form of a dark, almost violent duet for two bass clarinets and electronics. I imagined a piece that builds towards a rabid and primal utterance. I’ve always loved the rich and resonant low register of the clarinet, which provides the earthy foundation of Kullervo’s self destructive energy. The piece rises towards a strained high register climax – a barbaric scream of sorts.
 
My earliest vision for the piece included a soft high register tapestry of dissonance in an electronic part. I wanted to create a cycle of pitches in a stretched out and abstract passacaglia. The idea of circular pitches (D, Bb, B, F#, G, D) reflects the imprisoned feedback of bitter anger and creates an eerie ambiance. Electronic music is an unknown territory in my music. My younger inclinations lead me away from electronic music courses. Now I wish I had that background as I am often inclined to enlarge the sound world of my music beyond the acoustic. I’ve designed some larger future projects with electronics in mind and needed a smaller project or two to get started. In this case I recorded my pitch collection with long tones on the flute, violin, and piano. I manipulated isolated pitches in Audacity and then mixed everything in Logic Pro. The fixed media part is quite narrow in scope but has rich and subtle detail embedded in the slowly evolving texture. The electronic part is separate from the bass clarinet duet so I only created three separate sections triggered during the performance to help keep things on track. While I have barely scratched the surface of what is possible, my electronic part is quite accurate to what I originally imagined. The bass clarinets are also amplified with a touch of artificial reverb to help their sound blend with the fixed media part.
 
My piece runs about ten minutes and is quite a blow for two strong players. Dan Silver and Conor Brown have risen to the occasion with many conversations about fingering the notes that lie at extreme registers. The piece is grim from beginning to end and falls a bit outside my normal aesthetic. Lots of canons and fast rising lines drive things forward. There is a heavy dose of dissonance with low register seconds and sevenths. I like that the project feels a bit risky. The electronics require me to sit at the laptop and soundboard taking an active part in the performance. This is a new role for me and one that keeps me from listening at a distance. 
 
Kullervo Cursing will be premiered tonight at the Musiikkitalo in Helsinki. The University of Colorado, College of Music is cultivating a relationship with the Sibelius Academy. I have traveled with the Ajax Quartet, Conor Brown, Alicia Baker, and Dan Silver to present a Colorado concert of Finnish inspired music. I’m delighted to see this piece come to life and hope to find a nice venue for an American debut before long.

Flamenco in Spain

Attending an intimate flamenco performance in Seville, Spain was a great experience. The intensity, explosive sounds, and refinement of this art form caught me off guard and surpassed all preconceived notions. I expected a strong but tourist driven display attempting to capture a historic dance form from a long ago time. In Prague whole orchestras dress up as Mozart for tourists who are sold on the idea that one should attend a classical concert in a place Mozart once visited. It might provide a living for those musicians but the quality and authenticity of that experience is second rate. This is not the case with Flamenco in Spain.

Seville is a prime location to attend flamenco and we searched out a highly rated venue. One reviewer made the adept observation that larger venues use amplification to create the aural experience of true flamenco. A smaller venue allows the acoustic guitar, vocalist, clapping, stomps, finger snaps, and whoops to fill the space. We found a theater with a small courtyard with three rows of chairs on three sides and maybe 60 in attendance. We skipped venues that included a meal or drink in preference for a show that focused solely on the performance.

The posturing and drama of flamenco is unlike anything else I have experienced. The intensity of a look and the interplay between the male and female dancers surpasses the heightened sexuality common to many other coupled dance forms. I don’t think this pair touched once during the couples dance. The sense of anticipation, desire, and appreciation was rich and subtly erotic. But the romantic interplay existed only in hints and suggestions – far sexier than an overt display. Each partner displayed a palpable longing for the other.

Our flamenco performance featured acoustic guitar and male singer. The guitarist filled the small space with powerful playing. The singer had a raspy voice that suggested a much older age. While he often sat back in the mix of aural activity, his heartfelt singing set a sweeping emotional tone. The music had a natural ebb and flow. Soft moments gradually built with intensity as the performers got louder, stomps became more active, and the cross rhythms of clapping and foot movements faster and more complex. The louder moments were explosive and thrilling. One dancer, three sets of feet holding the beat, two clappers, a singer, guitarist, and a male shouter made a lot of noise.

The apex of the female dancer’s solo was striking. Her fast and dramatic movements played against a cacophony of music from the admiring men who sat at the back of the stage. At the loudest moments it went suddenly soft as the wild energy subsided only to build again. The cycle of loud and soft happened several times. Each climax reached new peaks.

The male dancer offered his solo last. While the female  offered a complement of beauty and power, the man embodied a display of untethered masculinity. His cycles of soft and loud involved a lot of fast footwork with a still upper body. Then his body would explode with controlled but wild arm movements and fast twirls in the small stage space. Several sections were accompanied only by a rhythm section of feet and clapping. The return of guitar and voice signaled his fireworks-like finale. By the end his fast twirls caused a shower of sweat to spin from his hair and he was disheveled but visibly elated. The authentic pride and joy drove his commanding presence. His solo was the height of the show!

We enjoyed the experience so much we booked another show in Madrid. The performers used a small stage with mood lighting, amplification, and other modern dramatic effects. The performers were good but the deeply personal expression and authenticity were absent. This second show proved we had witnessed something special in Sevilla. The intimacy of the space, virtuosity, and profound dedication to a rich and historic art form gave us a special experience. In the past, when people have mentioned seeing flamenco in Spain, a mist of nostalgia and awe moves across their face. I get it now. Authentic flamenco is spectacular.

During the most exciting parts of the performance I wondered how I could capture the essence of this explosive music and transform it for something special in a future composition. That thought has stayed with me and I don’t yet have an answer. But my passion to somehow use this experience for my own art supports my conviction to travel and attending live performance. When we see the world we are changed. Our palette is expanded and deepened. We move beyond ourselves to be swept up in the richness of a different culture or another artist’s dedication to their chosen expression. I am happy to be in Spain.

Aquanetta – Shocking Opera

(blog post written in January 2018)

Aquanetta, produced by Beth Morrison Projects and written by composer Michael Gordon, was the first performance included in the New Works Forum at Opera America (January 2018). We trekked to Brooklyn for the groundbreaking Prototype Festival. The sold out performance took place in a warehouse turned multimedia theatre.

Wow! This performance is easily the most memorable musical event I have attended in the last year (even superseding the Katy Perry concert I enjoyed with my daughter).  This opera/production was abrasive, loud, confounding, and shocking (the big reveal “fucked with my head” stated a friend). It was also awesome and ultimately I loved it. A colleague, CU Eklund Opera Director Leigh Holman, and I shared a car back to midtown and continued to talk in the hotel bar. We spent three hours digesting this experience and I think we may yet have a few more conversations about this piece. Certainly our future conversations and activity regarding CU NOW (New Opera Workshop) will always hold a special place for unexpected Aquanetta references and inside jokes. This show inspired Leigh to compose two micro-movies just for our mutual amusement. We are bonded for life because of Aquanetta!

Spoiler Alert: I will now openly discuss this production/opera. This 70-minute work offers monumental production challenges and will rarely get performed with the herculean efforts embodied in this particular performance. Sadly, few people outside of the Prototype Festival will get to experience this production. So, my spoilers will not be as sinful as discussing the plot for the latest Star Wars movie.

First, the production included the following: nine characters dressed in gorilla costumes performing tick-tock choreography with their feet, a mad scientist with a nine-inch morphine needle, the quintessential B-movie ditsy blonde nurse, a mass murder, a 10-minute opening scene featuring a 15′ high video of a black and white eye (think massive extreme close-up), excessive blood, a camera assistant who spent the entire show pushing around a human size lazy susan, and the most complicated sound reinforcement/amplification problems I’ve ever witnessed in live theatre. Then there was the fact that I completely missed a sizeable secret room that sat on the stage in plain sight the entire opera. This room usually held the majority of the cast. When revealed, I had the biggest WTF moment.

I had arrived in NY at 3AM that morning due to weather delays and spent the morning trying to catch up with life. The afternoon was spent attending the packed New Works Forum hosted by Opera America. I did not have a moment to read what we were seeing that evening and did not even realize the piece was by Michael Gordon (a favorite composer). Upon arriving at the theatre I immediately engaged my neighbor in conversation and failed to read the one-line synopsis that would have explained almost everything about the story. I knew nothing, NOTHING, about this opera and had the magical or exasperating experience of trying to piece it all together on the fly.

The majority of the opera took place in HD black and white on a 15′ projection screen just off center. The image was beautiful with a narrow focal field and high contrast. State of the art camera and projection equipment created compelling images. The music was loud, dissonant, driving with repetition, and featured guitar, violin, cello, keyboard, and bass. I am a fan of Michael Gordon’s music and have created several running Spotify playlists. For my taste, the music was strong and combined with the beautiful images to create a riveting experience. That is a good thing because I hardly understood any of the words (printed in a program – which no one could read in the dark), and had no idea what was happening in the story. Gradually archetypal characters showed up and were involved in some undecipherable story that whirled around like a merry-go-round.

The main character seemed to be a victim about to undergo terrible and experimental surgery by a mad scientist and his sexy assistants. Gorillas were there too! Eventually something happened off screen and the main character murdered everybody, EVERYBODY. She was no longer so innocent.

Here is the catch, the entire time the action happened on the screen and most of the audience had the impression we were watching pre-recorded material. I thought it was a highly edited bit of video and audio production. Occasionally a live character would show up on stage but mostly we watched the screen and heard the music through good speakers. The live performers hardly seemed necessary and I cynically thought their presence a pitiful justification for this performance to happen live. I kept wondering “why am I not watching this in my home movie theatre reclining on the couch with pajamas and popcorn?” This was a video opera and my growing irritation did not see a reason for all of us to be there.

Towards the very end it was revealed that all of this insane video and audio magic were actually happening live – every bit was created by live performers. And how it was created exceeded my imagination in spectacular fashion. It was a production feat worth writing numerous blog posts about. My mind was blown. I could not fathom the amount of choreography, technical difficulties, and directorial imagination required to pull this off. Staggering.

Question: how does a major reveal balance out 60-minutes of a packed audience watching what they believed to be a film? Does this fact that it was live all along change the fact that we  watched a screen most of the time? I don’t know. I do know that Leigh and I could not stop talking about the opera and I’m still thinking about it days later.

Turns out the one line synopsis I failed to read explained much: “In the new opera Acquanetta, the spirit of 1940s horror movies is turned inside out in a bravura, one-act deconstruction of the genre that explores how the camera can shape perception and identity.” I can’t imagine how much that knowledge would have changed my experience. I would have interpreted every camera angle and bit of information revealed on screen as some clue to the action. And all of the zany archetypal characters would have been expected rather than a delightful mystery. I would have been “in” on much of the craziness the entire time and my mind might have sat in analytical or smugly critical mode throughout. I’m glad I went in without any knowledge of the piece.

I enjoyed the evening and hope my comments do not communicate a negative review. I loved the music, production, sound, performance, and projected images. The ingenuity was staggering and I will never forget this performance. Certainly a theatre piece that can generate this much continued thought for an audience must be a huge success. Is a lot of that success the gimmick of the big “reveal”? Now that I am at the end of transcribing my thoughts I don’t much care if it was a gimmick or not. I am changed for having attended. It was simply a spectacular theatrical experience and made a great trip to NY more special. Thank you Michael Gordon, BMP, Deborah Artman, Daniel Fish, and Daniela Candillari!

Work Rhythm on Sabbatical

(written in February 2018)

I need to revisit work habits and rhythms during my sabbatical. My time on campus fills steadily from one year to the next and it is harder and harder to find meaningful time to compose. I need to reclaim creative time each day and a year long sabbatical offers a perfect opportunity to explore and refine a process that can sustain good work when the sabbatical is over. It is time to restructure, experiment, and pontificate. I’ll revisit this subject as the year progresses. Here are my initial thoughts:

I should push harder to become a morning composer. I worked late and sporadically during my school days. After Kaela entered our life I continued this pattern but quickly found tension with the family rhythm. Eventually I realized that I should write in the morning before my mind cluttered and mental energy was spent on other tasks. This was a good change but creative sessions were still sporadic. It is time to up my game. The new sabbatical day begins at 5AM. There is coffee, reading, a short bit of exercise, a few remarks in a journal, and then composition. I give myself an hour to work towards the composition. All of this happens while the house is silent and the world remains dark. I aim to get in a good 90-minutes of composing before I engage with my family. This rhythm also requires an earlier bedtime. If I am not attending a concert, I should be reading in bed by 9:30PM.

The distraction of the internet must be tamed! My administrative duties on campus create an urgent fervor with my inbox. Life seems easier when I am on top of email and compulsive behavior forces constant email connectivity. Many studies and writings about productivity and creativity identify email as an evil force. A single email can derail focused thought for 20-minutes. I’ve employed the service Freedom which blocks the internet (in whole or in part) for pre-ordained periods of time. This is good but I should take the additional step of avoiding all email and web related activities till late morning. That is my new goal – of which I am currently failing.

Running and exercise started back up three years ago because of a ridiculous bet (to be described in a future post). It quickly became a nice path towards some weight loss. Now it is essential for mental health and focused work. I naturally enjoy running but require concrete goals to make the habit constant. I work towards 25-miles a week and 100-miles a month. This robust number keeps the mental benefits of exercise strong. I alternate between audio books and music during runs, which adds to the experience. Exercise and time outdoors are great for happiness!

I stumbled into meditation during elementary school and spent two years with a regular practice. The practice stopped for more than 25 years. I’ve returned to meditation in the last few years but struggle to make it daily. There is lots of evidence that meditation benefits the creative mind. It centers, calms, promotes good sleep, increases empathy, and helps with extended focus. I want to do this daily.

My natural habitat involves clutter. I make piles, leave things out, move from project to project with fury, and embrace the idea that a cluttered office indicates a great mind. BS. I now believe a spotless studio with wide open work spaces will invite calm and focused work. Walking into a perfectly organized and decluttered studio each morning will propel me into a zen-like state of note making. At least that is the fantasy I am pursuing. Once my studio is in shape I intend to move onto the kitchen, garage, desktop, and other areas of life.

The only habits from this list that are currently in good order are running and waking at 5AM. Everything else cycles through good and bad phases. I’m eager to enact small steps to make these habits solid. I fear returning to academic duties next January without well developed structure. It is easy to lose the creative time when life on campus is full – and life on campus is always full.

I Restart the Blog (Again)

In January 2017 I decided to restart a composition blog and stick with weekly posts. I posted twice. In January 2018 I began a sabbatical and again wanted to start a weekly blog. Now in March I’m getting around to posting a few scattered thoughts written in the past two months. I’ll give up on the idea of a weekly post but I do hope to regularly share a few thoughts. Just for kicks, here is the post I put out there on January 1, 2017.

 

I’ve decided to start up my blog again, or perhaps, to finally turn my blog into a weekly occurrence.  The focus will encompass my creative efforts.  It’s purpose is to help me explore, reflect, and process all of the activities that I believe are connected to my creative endeavors.  The regular discipline of writing, refining, and posting essays will require an ongoing and consistent effort to contemplate these topics and distill my thoughts into something I might share with the world.  I think this will be good for me and hopefully there are a few readers who will find it interesting.

I am a professional composer and have pursued this vocation seriously since 1994 when I became a full-time undergraduate composition major.  Some 22 years later I’ve turned 40 and have paused to ask the question, what lies ahead for the music I have yet to write?  The simple answer is that I want to write my best music yet in the next decade.  Towards that direction, I aim to regularly learn about, investigate, and meditate upon the issues connected with and surrounding my own creative efforts.  Self examination, evolution, and artistic growth are desired.

My main creative activity is writing music for the concert stage.  My serious creative hobbies include travel photography and cooking.  I dabble in DSLR film (especially time-lapse), electronic music, and simple bookmaking as an accompaniment to my photography.  I’d also like to become a better writer of words.  As a way to support these creative activities I regularly engage in running, meditation, listening, reading, watching, and prayer.  This blog will discuss any of these topics or anything I find relevant to these topics.

I’m writing this blog for myself but I hope my words stimulate others and might even generate discussion.  Thank you for reading.

Aspen - self portrait 2015-0160