Monday, November 10, 2008

First, there were Horses

One of the memorable adventures on my first full day in Kazakhstan was a surprise ride on this gentle animal, which at first glance I thought was a life-sized statue, as he stood in utter stillness. To honor him, I begin this tale of an endeavor that has taken me to an exotic land, one of the former Soviet bloc countries that has a bright future.

For two weeks this fall, I lived in the former capital, Almaty, while researching the country's history and environment, meeting musicians, and investigating indigenous instruments. The cantata, planned for performances in late 2009 and 2010, will be written for Otyrar Sazy, the National Folk Orchestra; Koktem, the celebrated Kazakh children's choir; and the soloist Timur Bekbosunov. My collaborator, the writer Beysenbai Suleimenov, will be providing a text in three parts, detailing the rich and complex past of Kazakhstan; the devastating Soviet policy of collectivization, resulting in widespread famine and the virtual disappearance of the nomadic way of life; and the newly independent country that has forged a solid standing in the world --- it will, in fact, assume the Chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010.

In the coming days I'll be sharing images, descriptions, recordings, and videos from this initial visit to Kazakhstan, so stay tuned!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Dogwood Lodge

My sister Lynn and I drove down to Dogwood Lodge yesterday, and all the memories of living there for a year (1971-72) rushed back as we rumbled across the little bridge and into the heart of of the property, in her tiny 1991 Mazda convertible with the top down. The original Lodge (where Zelda Fitzgerald was known to attend parties, a fact confirmed yesterday by Laura, the great-great granddaughter of the owners) tragically burned to the ground, a victim of wicked Alabama lightning, twenty years ago. The great room was subsequently partially reconstructed around the original walk-in fireplace, where I'm standing with a drawing of the original Lodge (one of a numbered edition of 50, by Sue Blackshear-Bowen). When I lived there, we used all four screened-in porches on the upper level, and I gave piano lessons on my beloved Kawai piano in the huge great room, to pay for my second year at the University of Alabama. We sometimes cowered from seriously large snakes prone to hanging out in the dark bathroom, lounging on one of the enormous logs and peering down. Huge red wasps were also attracted, year-round, to the Lodge---living there was a lot like camping out, but in a spectacular structure. The Lodge was notorious for annual pig roasts that became parties stretching out for days on end, fueled by beer and rock music, and occasional recordings of Stockhausen (Momenté was the one I used), to vary the sonic ambience---always an adventure to see how long that would last. Thankfully there are still gatherings of owners and their friends and family every year in this relatively untouched paradise of forest, creek, and wildlife.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

sweet home alabama

Composers need to maintain healthy family relationships. That's what I'm doing for the next couple of days, and in the Deep South, photo ops abound. Just off Bee Branch Road (near Cottondale and Coaling, between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa), a day-glow (i.e., glows in the daylight) orange yackety-yak shack for sale. Down the road, on the grounds of the legendary Dogwood Lodge, we discovered feet growing in the forest---a cast-off art project, reincarnated as raw material for a campfire horror story. Yvonne and I arrived in Birmingham last night, put up in high style by my sister Lynn at her palatial abode on Wildwood Lake, and are seeing old family, new family, turtles, frogs, fish, ants, and giant dragonflies, More to come on the Lodge!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Julie and Doc

The knock-em-dead bassoonist with an immense lyrical gift, Julie, holding Doc the cat, in freakout mode thanks to the perpetually anxious white terrier, Ginger (in heat, and not pictured but nearby). We feasted on fresh zucchini, eggplant, cucumbers, and one fig from her expansive garden yesterday, while the koi gorged on their own appetizers, swimming in bright knots.

Off to Alabama today---Cottondale, where I used to live in the legendary Dogwood Lodge, Zelda Fitzgerald's old haunt---to visit family and sink deeper into surrealism and psychogeography during the long flight.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Flowing through Sundrenched Canyons

With stacks of books, scores, cds, dvds to peruse and organize for my fall courses, I'm often in a pretty stationery position. Composing also being primarily a desk-bound endeavor, getting outdoors for hikes or down on the mat for stretching are great releases. My personal mix tends to center around a core of canyon and paseo walks, supplemented with yoga two or three times a week, alternating and complementing the yoga sessions with a regimen of weight lifting and swimming laps in the backyard pool. In my twenties, I taught yoga to college students when it was practically unheard of in Alabama, having learned from the rare practitioners who traveled through the South and honing my knowledge further when I joined up with the Ananda Marga group. Now, I'm once again a student of yoga, but not quite a beginner, and especially like the down-home "90 Minutes of Yoga with Wade Zinter" podcast...always a challenging workout, vinyasa-style. The twists feel divine when they finally come toward the end of these long sessions.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Tarantula on the Loose

The last time I saw a tarantula as big as a hand was on a highway in Texas in the 70's. Today in a late afternoon walk in the nearby canyons, like a black mirage, the hairy monster lumbered across our path. Upon close observation, it displayed its large stinger with abandon. EUWWWW.

That was the nature highlight of the week. Fortunately there were cultural highlights as well: the always elegant and versatile Arlene Thomas and Gene Brundage (above), who entertained the members of The Dominant Club at Decanso Gardens on Sunday evening. These are two of my absolute favorite singers living in LA---soprano Arlene sang the part of 'Blue Eyes' in my opera, Wet, and Gene was hilarious as basso beer-swigging Lumberjack.

The other concert of the week attracted the film composer / performer community, packed into the M-Bar. My dear friend, composer and meltingly beautiful singer Kathryn Bostic conducted musicians during a rehearsal and performance of her music for an animated film. She was one of three featured composers; each was allowed a rehearsal without video, then a rehearsal with video but no dialogue or sound effects, and finally the taping with everything included. Kathryn gave a bewitching performance last year in The Hague, singing the part of Marie Laveau in scenes from my opera, Phantasmagoriettas from Crescent City. It was a joy to work with her on that project, and a blast to hear her music for film earlier this week on the BMI-sponsored program, 'Songs, Shorts, and Scores.'

Sunday, August 10, 2008

summer saturday in valencia

Ahhh...the first non-pressure completely free day since returning from Vienna nearly a month ago.
In retrograde:

watched the chinese team excel in men's gymnastics while getting some emails out;
made salad for dinner with the nippy 'joelle' olive oil from the central valley, a market find;
took yvonne shopping at target;
saw film, wall-e, with yvonne and ed, marveled, tried to hear erika's cello in the string section;
popped blue popcorn and smuggled it into theater;
read chapter on wagner in c. abbate's book, In Search of Opera, to consider for my course;
swam some laps and discovered innards (rat? bird?) on the bamboo rug outside, gift from cat;
laundry and more laundry;
booked flight to birmingham AL over Labor Day to visit sister Lynn and her son's new baby;
short hike in Rice canyon, hot at 10 AM (photo is from nearby Ed Teasley canyon) ;
purchased handsome white wicker hamper, to replace one that died after twenty years.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Bus Träume

Finally a chunk of downtime, starting with seeing the film Dancer in the Dark, lit up by Björk's award-winning, insane performance, as she launches into fantastical Busby-Berkely-inspired numbers driven by the rhythmic / mechanical factory noises. Then early morning hours of nostalgic dreams for the public transportation in Vienna (seeds planted by that Lars von Trier film?). Fortunately I have this photo of bus with soccer ball wheel at the bus stop in Liesing---one of the countless images of soccer balls scattered throughout Vienna (which Yvonne never failed to point out, despite her mild annoyance with the Fussball mania). The city became increasingly obsessed with its hosting of the European Football Championship. Another startling representation (how many people besides us had double takes?): old statues in Vienna with football shoes painted onto their feet.

Back to reality: today started off skyping with Douglas Kearney as we pick up speed with Crescent City, our opera with partial performances on the New York City Opera VOX series (2006), and the Dag in die Branding Festival in The Hague (2007). Yea!!! I've missed living with our characters, especially the divine Madame Marie LaVeau.

After running various errands, and lunch with a friend, today's scorching August afternoon came to a close with a visit to the farmer's market in Newhall for luscious California tomatos and strawberries, as well as freshly baked pita bread, tatziki, and almonds. But the best stand was the goat's milk soap stall with a live baby goat, so adorable with those little yellow slit eyes taking in everything and luring in the customers.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Sucktion DVD and photos

'Surviving' often means surrounding yourself with competent, visionary, and like-minded creative energies. Obsession also a plus. A shining example: the team that our director Nataki Garrett gathered for the production of Sucktion (Elizabeth Brooks, costume design; Michael Gend, lighting design; Marianne Nedreberg, set design), and our post-production ensemble (Aleigh Lewis, videographer, members of soNu, myself, and Douglas Kearney). We managed to pull a dvd together in the past two days---as shown in one of our sessions at my house, yesterday: Sage Lewis, my assistant, Aleigh Lewis, and Nina Eidsheim; to get a couple of trailers out of it; and to post one on YouTube. Look here for superb photo documentation with clever commentary by Elizabeth Brooks: the silvery vacuum cleaner with the band soNu and Nina in her reflective dress. (I've uploaded one of EB's photos, above left, of soNu: Phil Curtis, Nina Eidsheim, and Gustavo Aguilar.)

SUCKTION (trailer)

Celebrating in Koreatown

from left to right: Phil Curtis, Nina Eidsheim, Anne LeBaron, Edward Eadon, and Gustavo Aguilar---musicians, composer, and one member of our 'crew,' celebrating after our final performance of Sucktion. We're hoping that it will be picked up by non-risk-averse presenters so that we can refine the piece and have a chance to share it beyond LA.

The ideas I plan to explore in upcoming posts will mostly relate to the life of a composer in Los Angeles. After spending one-third of 2008 in Vienna, a mecca for composers and musicians, where the stars engraved in the sidewalks, pavements, and U-bahn stations are for composers (and a few conductors)---not for film personalities---I was wondering whether the culture shock of re-entry into a city at the opposite extreme (cars instead of superb public transportation; an hour's drive and parking expense for downtown concerts instead of a five minute walk to the Musikverein; the Danube instead of the desert) would send me right back to Vienna. (Rather impossible, but one can dream on.) My friend Jane Brockman, accomplished LA composer who I spoke with after the performance on Sat. night, remarked that transitioning back here must be less difficult with the all-consuming production of my opera at REDCAT this weekend. She's right, and now that we're in post-production---constructing the requisite video and press kit---all that raw energy invested in seeing the production through will be redirected into other projects---like taking a few minutes tomorrow to bask in the sun!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

LA Times Review of SUCKTION

Link to the review:
Cyber opera with a vacuum: Three women explore their existence in wild performance art pieces for the conclusion of REDCAT's New Original Works Festival. My thanks to Mark Swed for an insightful review of Sucktion in today's LA Times (with my name twice misspelled---evidently a result of all the firings of editors and others): Congratulations to Kristina Wong and to Rosanna Gamson for their excellent works on the program. Tonight's will be the final performance of the festival.

Photos: Nina Eidsheim as "Irona" in Sucktion; soNu backstage: Nina Eidsheim, Phil Curtis, and Gustavo Aguilar; during rehearal, Elizabeth Brooks, our costume designer, introduces the 50's-style girdle to Nina while Nataki Garrett, director, looks on.

Friday, August 1, 2008

SUCKTION opens in Los Angeles

Last night we had a full house at REDCAT, with the first performance of Sucktion sharing the evening with Kristina Wong's hilarious Cat Lady and Rosanna Gamsons's wrenchingly beautiful Tov. soNu, the band for Sucktion, performed 40 minutes of music with difficult electronic changes and a demanding part for the vibes, with a scant five days of rehearsal. They are a phenomenal ensemble. Look for the review in the Saturday edition of the LA Times!

This note about the first performance of Sucktion is the last entry in the 'Vienna' blog, as I'm transitioning back from the composer's mecca to Los Angeles. A new, more long-term blog will take its place, same URL.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

premiere of SUCKTION, a HyperOpera buffa

Anne LeBaron and Douglas Kearney (American Gothic with vacuum);
Nina Eidsheim

Sucktion, my cyber-erotic 'vacuum cleaner' opera with a libretto by Douglas Kearney, and direction by Nataki Garrett, premieres tonight in Los Angeles at REDCAT with performers from the band soNu: Nina Eidsheim, soprano; Gustavo Aguilar, percussion, and Phil Curtis, laptop / electronics. It all began around ten years ago with an extreme sonic experiment: feeding nails and other objects into half a dozen homeless vacuum cleaners (rescued from the streets of Pittsburgh) during an exploratory recording session, with the soprano (and composer) Alice Shields pushing them around and screaming lines such as ‘Oreck, I knew him well.’ When the ensemble soNu approached me to write a work for their group in 2003, I decided to move ahead with the vacuum cleaner idea, and construct a ‘wordless’ experimental piece. I soon invited Douglas Kearney into this process. We invented an initial version of the work, which I scored in blazing colors, in the Microsoft Word program, Excel (a guided improvisation, allowing the players quite a lot of freedom). A recording session for this first effort ensued. Then, in 2007, Sucktion was one of 40 new works selected for a the Multi-Arts Production Fund (a program of Creative Capital supported by the Rockefeller Foundation), from over 650 submissions.

Sucktion follows a woman’s cyber-erotic transformation from abject housewife into a self-sufficient cyborg via the subversive use of a vacuum cleaner. With elements of satire and science fiction, Sucktion critiques sexism, particularly how socially reinforced female dependence on male economic dominance reduces women to domestics without agency: “clean machines.” Sucktion’s narrative arc progresses through six songs: Soap Aria, Sucktion Remix, Anniversorry, Cleaning House, Rabbitroobabot'rumba, and Cyborgasm.

When we first meet Irona (the housewife), she speaks in a patois of jingles, daytime TV and soft rock. Sucktion’s text enacts her metamorphosis into a cyborg via her adoption of an artificial language imagined as creolized English, German and onomatopoeic approximations of appliance sounds. Sucktion furthers investigations of the intersection of written text and aural performance by fusing a typographically performative libretto with experimental concert theater. The text, with its visual collisions of careening type, is at once lyrics, stage directions and environment, recreating daytime TV’s barrage of housekeeping advertisements, chat shows and melodramas in one song and Irona’s appliance-destroying rampage in another.

There are two additional performances on Friday and Saturday (Aug. 1 and 2).

Friday, July 18, 2008

Jakob Lenz, opera by Wolfgang Rihm

The Closing Chapter, Part I: Jakob Lenz

In the past few weeks I’ve been fully immersed in completing SUCKTION, a ‘woman meets vacuum cleaner and they merge’ cyborg hyper-operetta, for the upcoming performances at REDCAT in Los Angeles (July 31, August 1 and 2). Consequently I wasn’t able to keep up with daily entries, but there are some remaining highlights of my stay in Vienna that I want to share...and this is one.

Of the four contemporary operas that were part of the Vienna Spring Festival, I found Wolfgang Rihm’s Jakob Lenz (performed on several evenings in May at Hall E in the Museum Quarter) to be the most immediately part, I believe, because I had just finished reading Georg Büchner’s only ‘narrative text,’ Lenz (written in 1835), and therefore brought a deeper personal understanding to the production. Yet I’ve delayed writing about it until now, as I wanted to take my time and to absorb the after-effects of an extraordinary production that suffered from one near-fatal flaw.

Lenz, based on extant sources, is a biographical narrative chronicling nineteen days that Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751-1792) stayed with a pastor, Johann Friedrich Oberlin, in a pastoral mountain setting, hoping to overcome his schizophrenia. As a writer once admired and befriended by Goethe (who later rejected him), Lenz has been critically portrayed as being inhumanely treated by Goethe and his literary circle. During Lenz’s extended visit with the pastor Oberlin, his mental illness led to suicide attempts and to difficulties for Oberlin, resulting in Lenz’s expulsion from the village.

Rihm’s second chamber opera is more than a biographical study about Lenz. He foregrounds the societal abuse inflicted upon those who suffer from schizophrenia, and explores the extreme fluctuations between light and darkness. In the opera, Lenz was brilliantly and fearlessly brought to life by Georg Nigl, who performed in and out of water with such abandon that I feared for his health---as did critics who wrote about this production. (In Büchner’s text, Lenz often immerses himself in a fountain in the village; in the opera, Lenz would hurl himself up the side, over and down into a dumpster / tub of water, sometimes joined by other cast members/villagers.)

The flaw: there were two lengthy spoken sections, accompanied by electric guitar and a kind of bluesy folk song, that were ‘disapproved’ by Rihm in an insert in the program. In fact, these interludes dissapated the compact, focused energy from the opera, making it seem top-heavy in these lengthy interludes. The style of this music was foreign to Rihm’s highly individual writing, itself fresh and playful after thirty years. (The opera was written in 1978.) Although I wasn’t privy to the backstage developments, this usurping of the composer’s intentions by the director seems to be an unfortunate trend. Otherwise, the direction, by Frank Castorf, was terrific, and the Klangforum Wien performed with commitment and stellar artistry under the dynamic, sensitive conductor, Stefan Asbury.

Wolfgang Rihm remarks, in the program notes, that “Chamber opera is not a ‘little opera.’ It is much more, similar to the relationship between chamber music and the symphony...” He goes on to say that complexity, in a chamber context (in this case, comparing chamber opera to grand opera), can be more sharply focused and thus capable of a more intensive ‘provocation.’ Clearly he has mastered the chamber opera form, and like seeing the rare film that does justice to a novel, my memories of Büchner’s quasi-novella will forever be enhanced by this production of Rihm’s opera.

Try Breadcrumbs Next Time

After an emotional parting with Yvonne's friends Stefan and Julia (that's Yvonne with Stefan, at Schönbrunn) at the Vienna Airport, 4 AM on July 16, we made our way through security, where my Blackberry crawled out of my bag and was left behind. (After frantic phone calls from LA yesterday, it was found---big exhale---and will be sent back by courier.) We flew to Frankfurt with three hours to kill before the flight to L.A. Brilliant, we’ll take the Sky Train from our departure area (A) to the adjacent section (B) where I can turn in my V.A.T. receipts and win back some of our hard-spent Euros. We were so sleep deprived that I thought nothing of leaving Yvonne, with our carry-on luggage, in the corridor where there were chairs for her to rest in. Sailing through passport control, I went in search of the Global Refund counter, officially stamped receipts in hand. The line for the one person manning the counter was too long and bogged down to chance a missed flight, so I gave up after 10 minutes. But finding my way to that little corridor where Yvonne was patiently waiting proved to be a far greater challenge than originally assumed.

After an hour of retracing my steps, I began to feel like Alice in the rabbit hole. Every single official I asked to help me was of no use, they all gave conflicting directions. Finally in a panic I begged the three people at one of the information desks to send someone to accompany me to find Yvonne. So a very nice man with a cheerful disposition (a rare find) joined me on additional retrograde journeys. We descended deeper into the rabbit hole...I went through security and passport controls multiple times in a fruitless search along corridors of all shapes and sizes. Yvonne’s passport and ticket were in my possession, so she couldn’t go anywhere, but I knew she must also be worried at this point. Our Austrian phones were both dead...oh yes, and the Blackberry was still in Vienna. We repeatedly paged her but she couldn’t hear us in the corridor. One of the ‘helpful’ information ladies, a Brit, asked me what Yvonne’s age was. (She’s 16.) “Well, she’s old enough to hear the announcements and respond!” (As it turned out the announcements couldn’t be heard in the corridors.) After repeatedly and persistently describing exactly where I left Yvonne, we found the spot, two hours after beginning my search. By then our flight had departed. We were rebooked on a later flight, but our luggage has been shuttling between San Francisco and Seattle, due to the re-routing of the two humans (originally routed through Seattle, but had to fly through SF). Breadcrumbs are always good to have along in the emergency kit, as those fairy-tale inventors knew all along.

Now that we’re home among the palm trees and oleander, with fresh tomatoes and basil right outside and the pool beckoning, I will attempt a different sort of blog---one that continues in the larger cultural vein, but with more focus on my projects and how they are developing. First, however, a few loose ends to wrap up from the four glorious months in Vienna, to be posted later today.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Three Generations

Jiseon Yun, my student, joined composer Nancy Van de Vate (an American but also an Austrian citizen), my husband, and myself, for lunch at a Chinese restaurant near Nancy's apartment today. Nancy had kindly loaned me her synthesizer and we were returning it. Here we are, three composers spanning three generations, entertaining one another with stories, having a fine time!

Thanks to a call from my daughter to alert me about a musical event that I would ‘love,’ we made our way later in the afternoon to the Museum Quarter. Yvonne was right, the rehearsal for the opening concert of the 25th Vienna International Dance Festival, taking place tomorrow night, was riveting. Forty Indian musicians, representing three generations (the Manganiyars, of the musicians caste in Rajasthan), sit in individually lit cubicles stacked high above, and backed by a huge red curtain. The intention of the visual setting (recalling Amsterdam’s red light district), in combination with the passionate vocal music enhanced by bowed instruments, drums, and wind instruments all native to this region of India, is to seduce the soul. The Sufi poems, praising Allah, also relate the birth of Krishna. This music held me like a magnet, right at the lip of the stage. Seated above everyone and in the center of the construction (like an enlarged and lit 'Hollywood Squares' set), the animated children were obviously having a fantastic experience, especially when they sang. Vocal and instrumental solos or ensemble configurations were interspersed with sections of the entire orchestra playing. The mouth-harp performer and the circular-breathing wind player were remarkable. I would see the performance tomorrow night but will be in Graz, meeting the Koktem choir from Kazakhstan, as they participate in the World Choir Olympics. More information can be seen here.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Bohemia---Alive, Well, and Resonating

Trstenice, a small village in the heart of the Czech Republic was the idyllic setting for a yearly gathering of young composers and percussionists, a week-long course known as the Symposium Trstenice 2008. I was invited there by one of the organizers, the composer Ivo Medek, to lecture on the extended techniques I’ve developed for the harp and to perform. My composition student Jiseon Yun came from Seoul, joining the young composers for an intense week of lectures in the morning by seven faculty---composers (Ivo Medek, Martin Smolka, Uros Rojko, Jeff Beer), percussionists (László Hudacsek, Tomáš Ondrůšek, Jeff Beer) and the odd composer/harpist (me). Another gifted composer, Markéta Dvoráková, was present and helpful with many things. Lectures were followed by private lessons in the afternoon, an evening concert, and a late-night round-table discussion centering on specific topics. Training sessions were also held during the day---meaning exercise, ranging from helping Tomas, the owner of the houses, chop up fallen trees on his estate, to yoga, to tai chi-inspired stretching. Hearty meals of authentic, rustic Czech cuisine (the cherry dumplings were simply the best ever, topped with sour cream and cinammon sugar) took place around a long thick wooden table in the upper house, and concerts were performed in a barn on the grounds of the lower house. Jiseon took the two photos of my talk and my concert posted here. I strongly recommend this course to any young composer or percussionist...a high level of instruction in a relaxed atmosphere with many unique possibilities for developing work. Tonight is the final concert of the week, which I will miss but send congratulations to all the students for their performances this evening!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Romeo and Juliet at the Steiner Schule in Mauer

An ambitious undertaking...scenes from Romeo and Juliet (Stefan with Luise, then Julia with Dominik---the latter a real-life couple as well), followed by scenes from Hamlet, performed by 11th grade students where Yvonne attends school. The kicker: a complex madrigal sung by the entire class with gusto as the farewell event. School’s out in two days for Yvonne and her class...meaning that our return to Los Angeles looms ever closer! Today was a long slog of working on Sucktion in the humid heat (3rd floor, only fans for cool wind), relieved by a late afternoon foray into the nearby Café Konditorei KuK Hofzuckerbäcker L. Heiner. This full service, extravagant yet friendly café delivered a refreshing cappuccino and a sweetly pungent Fruchtorte festooned with Johannesbeeren. Tomorrow I’m treating Yvonne, as a reward for getting through chemistry and math in German, to a recital of Italian arias sung by Cecilia Bartoli at the Musikverein...another method of relieving the heat of the later afternoon.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Relocation to Vienna Suburbs

During the past two weeks, I’ve been relocating from a beautiful grand old apartment in the center of Vienna to another just over the city border, in the village of Perchtoldsdorf. In a wine-growing region abutting the Vienna Woods, Perchtoldsdorf turns out to be a sublime location to be placed under semi-imposed house arrest. I’m right up against the finish line to complete my one-woman opera, Sucktion, for the group soNu, with performances scheduled this summer in Los Angeles as part of the New Original Works festival (REDCAT, July 31, Aug. 1 and 2).

However, there are occasional forays out of the apartment that I can’t resist, such as hearing the inimitable Steve Beresford, who I’ve known for nearly 30 years but only see once a decade or so, perform at the Viennese club Porgy and Bess with two terrific Austrian players (Nicholas Bussmann: synthcomputer; Dieb 13: turntables). Chock full of electronic wonders, mix of high and low tech, and toy instruments, Steve’s dynamic, charged sessions at the piano injected the contrast of a live acoustic instrument into the evolving electronic soundscape. We caught up after the concert (Steve remembers me, after all these years, as the composer of Concerto for Active Frogs) and discovered that we both have an intense interest in psychogeography. London, where Steve lives, remains central for all things related to this amorphous but intriguing field. I’m incorporating psychogeography into my HyperOpera course this fall at CalArts. It’s an especially relevant topic for me, with the exposure to the two contrasting geographical locations I’ve lived in during my going-on-four months in Austria, and how they’ve affected me physically and psychically.

The photo taken at Schloss Belvedere, a mere five minute walk from the previous apartment and a place that I would return to every few days for the sheer beauty of its gardens, was taken from Oberes Belvedere. (There are two palaces...upper and lower.) Next to it, one of the first photos after the move, taken during a walk in Perchtoldsdorf. I was drawn to this sign in front of a dilapidated house (unusual to see in a resort village), with its color-coded announcement of two of the ubiquitous spring offerings in this part of the world---strawberries, and asparagus. The Viennese, like the Germans, are expert at growing and preparing ‘spargel’ - wild, green, and white – and offer it as a main course during the peak season. It must be the only vegetable that is purposely grown underground to prevent photosynthesis, resulting in a nutty, mild flavor in the white variety. I have to admit that the asparagus I've cooked or had in restaurants here is lush and almost meaty, compared to our American spears. Maybe we should give the Royal Vegetable more attention and respect, taking a cue from the playful and striking wood sculptures of the artist (and a dear friend), Craig Nutt. (Actually, there's a connection between Craig Nutt and Steve Beresford. They may have never met, but Craig was the major moving force behind the 1976 recording of the Raudeluna Pataphysical Revue, which included, along with covers of tunes like Volare, and our noise-driven Captains of Industry, the first recording of Concerto for Active Frogs.)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Meeting Arvo Pärt

The shimmering gold leaf and lush chandelier-lit Great Hall of the Musikverein was the setting for the world premiere of Arvo Pärt’s Stabat Mater for string orchestra and mixed choir (soprano, alto, tenor), written for the Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich, performing this evening with the Wiener Singverein. Modeled on a work from 1985 of the same title, for three voices and string trio, this version of Stabat Mater clearly reflects Pärt’s signature ‘tintinnabulation’ technique, with canonic procedures and related structural elements common to music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The Latin text, 20 groups of three stanzas (the number three---also evident in the choice of choir voices, omitting the bass---symbolizing the Holy Trinity), has been set by well over a dozen composers. Translated as ‘the mother is standing’, it is a meditation on Mary’s suffering during the crucifixion of her son Jesus Christ.

The composer, Arvo Pärt, was present for this first performance, and received an ecstatic response from the audience. During intermission, I could see from my seat high in the right balcony where he had been cornered---mobbed?---and made my way down to greet him. What a thrill, to meet this man whose music I’ve admired for so many years. He graciously autographed my program, seeming much younger in person than his photos convey. The elegant conductor, Kristjan Järvi, who also leads the Absolute Ensemble in New York, started the program with a sensual rendition of the third and fourth movements from Messiaen’s L’Ascension. Järvi spun ethereal, otherworldly and sensual textures from the orchestra that set the mood for Pärt’s Stabat Mater, which followed.

The second half of the concert, devoted to Prokofiev’s Suite from Romeo and Juliet, showcased the conductor’s affinity for rock, and rock it did. Järvi emphasized the weight and heft implicit in this ballet, investing it with a primitivism that sometimes brought Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring to mind.

Sunday, June 8, 2008


“Henze has forged a dazzling chamber music,” reports Der Standard, in a highly favorable review of the Vienna premiere of Hans Werner Henze's opera Phaedra, which I attended last Sunday evening. (The first performance was less than a year ago in Berlin, at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden.) Devouring most of the seats on the floor of the Theater an der Wien, the 20-piece orchestra (Ensemble Modern), supplanted and surrealistically stretched by occasional electronic intrusions, handled the elegant string writing, the delicate sonorities for piano, celesta, percussion, and harp, and the more stridently written brass with finesse and an extremely wide dynamic palate. The singers, despite the sudden replacement of the singer for Phaedra---Magdalena Anna Hofmann---were all enormously bewitching, especially the phenomenal countertenor and baritone Axel Köhler, who sang the part of Artemis.

Olafur Eliasson, the set designer, stole the show. His catwalk connecting the orchestra to the stage (bringing to mind fashion shows or even beauty pageants) allowed the singers to fan out from the orchestra, and to return to it as a kind of home base. Light was a major component, beginning with the steel ring that reflected beams of light around the space, twirling above, in the middle of the auditorium; expanding to three projections of the ring on the curtain, and then, when the curtain is removed, light is reflected and refracted by not one, but two full length and full width mirrors. Quite difficult to convey in words, but mesmerizing. The audience is reflected back onto itself, but not in the brash ‘in your face’ way of Richard Forman’s plexiglass (I’m thinking of “What to Wear”). Instead, the mirrored images are soft and diffuse, and serve to further break down the barriers between actors/singers and audience. (The image in the photo is taken of the mirror on stage, reflecting everything back to the audience, or in this case, the camera.) Had I attended the previous performance, this was a production to return to the next night, with its diverse layers and gripping Greek myth, retold by Henze and his librettist, Christian Lehnert.

There are two reviews in English with further details and contrasting opinions, including photos, of the Berlin premiere: culturekiosque, and musicweb.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Into the Little Hill

The one-hour opera that I saw tonight at the Jugendstiltheater, George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill, was the fourth contemporary opera programmed as part of the Wiener Festwochen. The others were Michaels Reise, by Karlheinz Stockhausen (see earlier post); Jakob Lenz, by Wolfgang Rihm; and Phaedra, by Hans Werner Henze (posts to come for these two).

There are striking parallels among all of these relatively new operas. In each, the audience was subjected to bright light, either blinding, as in Jakob Lenz (where the subtitles couldn’t be read because of the wattage pouring right into the eyes), or intermittent (the circular steel ring floating above the orchestra, in Phaedra, shooting reflected rays of light around the space); or, in the case of the opera seen tonight, two vertical rectangles providing light and design (see photo). Michaels Reise was less aggressive in this respect, yet one major component of the set design was a large circular screen that both emitted visual phenomena, and functioned as a ‘receiver’ (a typical passive flat surface for projection) as well. Another commonality: the orchestras were fully visible in each of these four operas, and sometimes integrated into the stage action. This was most radical in Michaels Reise, with the protagonist (Micheal, the trumpet player) being hurled around in the air in a contraption that seemed like some insane fairground ride, and then landing next to musicians (who were on risers, stage right and left) with whom he performed duets. The orchestra in Jakob Lenz occupied nearly half the stage, and was set apart from the chaos (this was no minimalist production) by an overhanging rectangular umbrella that also served as a receptive screen for live video. The musicians, although occupying the same space as the singers, were clearly separate. Also true of Phaedra, but in this arrangement, the orchestra was situated smack in the middle of the hall, where normally the audience would sit (from about row 10 to the last row). Again, no interaction with the singers, but visually stunning, with the bridge leading from the orchestra past the audience seated on the ground floor (many of us were above, in balconies) to the stage.

The orchestra for Into the Little Hill was planted into piles of sawdust covering the stage, and was as much a part of the staging as the singers were, although the musicians of the Ensemble Modern performed ‘normally’, not engaging in any stage action. The Ensemble Modern, however, has a long history of blurring the boundaries between music and theater, especially in the works of Heiner Goebbels. Into the Little Hill, a lyrical tale, is an updated version of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Simplistic and clear, the minimalist set, with platforms for the two singers emerging from the two vertical light boxes, not only complemented the sparse libretto, but was a foil for the intricately scored music---always in motion, often delicate but harsh when necessary. Soprano Anu Komsi (on the right in photo) approached her extreme high notes fearlessly and the sound, without vibrato, seemed like an audible manifestation of the blindingly bright light boxes. My eyes are still burning from that light! She was spectacular. The contralto, Hilary Summers, sang the roles of the Minister and the Mother with great command and presence. The 12-piece orchestra, which included banjo and mandolin (played by the string players), was conducted with assurance and flair by Franck Ollu. Directed by Daniel Jeanneteau, and libretto written by Martin Crimp.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Errand Boy for Rhythm

Saturday night, at the m.o.-x.x. jazz club in Graz, I joined Christine, her children Julia and Maxie, and a host of relatives and friends to hear a trio perform in homage to Nat King Cole. The trio was led by Simon Fanta, a young singer, pianist, and composer of exciting promise (a kind of Austrian Harry Connick Jr.!). Simon is the son of Christine’s childhood friend, Maria Fanta, an architect in Graz. The trio filled out two sets of American standards with virtuosic solos, Thorsten Zimmermann playing a rock-solid bass, and Samuele Vivian zinging thousands of notes out of his electric guitar. Many of the songs were well-known standards (All of Me; Autumn Leaves; Fly Me to the Moon). My favorite: I’m An Errand Boy for Rhythm, by none other than the honoree, Mr. Cole. “If you want to swing and shout, get your kicks and get about, I’m an errand boy for rhythm--send me!”

Friday, May 30, 2008

Birthday in Vienna

A birthday to remember, celebrated in Vienna! Beginning with being awoken by Christine, Yvonne's host mother, white and orange roses, a tiny little cake, and a lovely morning rendition of Happy Birthday sung by Christine herself. Then, off to solve the problem of where I sleep, as the apartment where I'm staying is in an old building and has disturbing presences at night. But it's great to work there during the day, light and roomy and quiet, full of the most amazing works of art.

The highlight of today was hearing the choir at the Russian Orthodox Church, part of the 'Lange Nacht der Kirchen.' Over 550 churches throughout Austria remain open, many until the following morning, with musical programs, discussions, some celebrate Mass, others rock into the next day with djs. Tomorrow I will travel to Graz with Christine, to visit some friends...shaping up to be a perfect spring weekend in Austria.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Alert---Turtle in the Flakturm!

An innocent excursion to purchase an adapter at the local store for all things Mac yesterday morning led to several unanticipated discoveries: flakturms, turtles, snakes, amphibians, birds, marmots; then ground-zero for chess; then a gratis massage (just what one needs after contemplating a book touting the merits of the Caro-Kann). My desire to escape the heat, after visiting the Mac store, compelled me to climb aboard the first bus I spotted going in the general direction of the city center. As it trundled down the cobblestone streets, I spotted the great dinosaur-like outlines (actually from some perspectives it looked like a flattened Mickey Mouse head), looming ahead. Jumping off the bus, I headed for:

The ‘Haus der Meers,’ a zoo for aquatic, avian, and reptilian critters housed in a former flakturm, beckoned with its soaring greenhouse façade climbing up one side of this monstrosity, and an actual climbing wall for climbers on the other. A number of former ‘bunkers’ were built from 1942-1944 throughout Austria and Germany (a total of 16 flakturms were built in Vienna, Berlin, and Hamburg). Their history is documented on 22 wall charts occupying three floors. What should be done with them has been a controversial topic and concern for decades. The Haus der Meers must be exemplary in its transformation of one of these mega-structures. The pièce de résistance was the top floor, flung open to the sky and offering a splendid panoramic view of all Vienna.

The rest of the afternoon was spent investigating the treasures of the chess shop on the next block, and indulging in a massage (gratis!) performed with heated jade roller machines from Korea.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Fake Beaches, Brahms in Austria, Penderecki

Last week I saw Jacob Lenz, an opera by Wolfgang Rihm. This photo of the cast was taken at curtain call. I’m still processing the opera and the book (Lenz, by Georg Büchner), a short but intense read.

After working inside today, I forfeited my last chance to see Lohengrin, opting instead for a long early evening walk by the Danube Canal accompanied by a luscious pastel sunset. Vienna must offer more benches, chairs, lounges, stairs, and fountains---wide expanses of grass, too---to sit on or near than any other city. The river was lined on both sides with informal and inviting pubs, clubs, many nestled into fake beaches, with lounging chairs sinking into the sand, and music often provided by a dj. One pub/club/hangout, a kind of immense houseboat, sported a pool overlooking the river.

Yesterday, part of the afternoon was happily spent hearing the Vienna Philharmonic perform Krzysztof Penderecki’s Adagio – Fourth Symphony for Large Orchestra, followed by Symphony No. 2 in D Major by Johannes Brahms. Penderecki’s symphony began in such a mild-mannered, gently lyrical way that I had to check the program to be sure that I was at the right concert. It evolved quickly, however, into the dissonant, clustered string sonorities indicative of his many of his other works. He requested that three additional trumpets be placed in the hall. In the Musikverein, the players stood in the balcony above and behind the orchestra, dramatically enhancing the antiphonal passages with the seated trumpets below. Lorin Maazel conducted the Paris premiere in 1989 with the National Orchestra of France, and was the conductor in this concert as well. The luminous strings in the Brahms were transcendent, even when they were only playing pizzicato. He wrote the symphony quickly, in one summer, while living in Pörtschach am Wörthersee, a town in southern Austria. Also known as the ‘Nature Symphony’ of Brahms, he invoked the beauty of the region, “the bright blue sky, trickling springs, sunshine and cool, green shade”---a comment attributed to Theodor Billroth, surgeon and friend of the composer, after playing through a piano reduction for four hands with Brahms.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Christine's Classy Celebration

Gathering friends going back to her childhood, up to the most recent addition (that would be me), my dear friend Christine Schranz (second from left, surrounded by three of her long-time pals) celebrated her birthday tonight with a dinner at the Palmenhaus. Our daughters are in Croatia on a school trip, and that meant a late and laughter-filled evening, topics ranging from hauntings to bikini waxes to the film, 'Caramel.' And that's not all...but on to a brief description of the beautiful Jugenstil greenhouse. Overlooking the Burggarten, the greenhouse was built in 1901 by architect Friedrich Ohman, replacing the earlier one that dated back to 1822. The restaurant is incorporated into the building, with 15-metre high ceilings, conservatory style, festooned with a variety of dramatic plants. At one end of the building is a tropical butterfly house with a film in one room depicting butterflies ghoulishly siphoning their 'nectar' from the bodies of dead birds...and venturing into beehives, thirsting for honey, only to be swiftly dispatched to butterfly heaven by swarms of vigilant bees. Graphic closeups of a praying mantis feasting on one of the Schmetterlingen were sufficiently disturbing to give anyone nightmares. A butterfly documentary...gruesome, macabre, yet fascinating. Only in Vienna.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Universe, Delivering

Warning bells rang, doors finally closed. Thwarted again outside the Musikverein, in my last-minute scheme to find a person with an extra ticket for sale to the evening of German lieder sung by mezzo soprano Anne Sophie von Otter in Brahms Hall. Time for an adventure! I spied a few tents across the street, set up in front of the trees leading up to St. Peter's Church. (Brahms himself---his enormous Denkmal, otherwise known as a statue---was facing away from the street festivities, and toward the Musikverein.) Obviously a festival of some sort, with a couple of guys singing and prancing on a small stage (above, right). Why not join them? Walking over, I soon landed in the arms of Su (above left), a Thai masseuse who lavished fifteen minutes of intense Thai massage on my back and shoulders with heated herbal packs. Utter bliss...after missing Erin, my incredible LA masseuse, a little more each day for these past two months. The festival was everything Thai---delicious food (fish balls on a stick, a great street food treat), cheap jewelry, incense, a few dozen smiling people, and massage! After the last fish ball disappeared, I saw that intermission was underway over at the Musikverein, and managed to take in the latter half of von Otter's concert in a pleasantly altered state. All in all, a lovely way to spend a couple of hours on a Thursday evening, just a five-minute walk away from my apartment.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Shakespeare; Gesprächskonzert; Klavierabend

From left to right: Wolfram Wagner, Martha Schwediauer, Paul Hertel, Thomas Hlawatsch, Ferdinand Weiss, and Nancy Van de Vate (some of the composers performed by pianist Thomas Hlawatsch; see my comments below, last paragraph)

Widely considered to be the greatest medieval romance, the story of Chaucer’s 14th century poem, Troilus and Criseyde, eventually found a new home in another medium---a play by Shakespeare. On Saturday night I took in a performance in German, at the Theater an der Wien. The stylish production, with seemingly extraneous material mixed in with Shakespeare’s script, veered from kitsch and camp to passion and tragedy. Imagine the Wooster Group collaborating with Pina Bausch. The dozens of enamel washbasins strewn across the stage were kicked, thrown, worn as hats, used as potties, held water and fake blood. The basins also formed pathways for the actors to run, slide, stomp, and generally propel their way around the stage. The ‘boos’ from the conservative contingent of the Viennese theater-going public, at the close of the production, were instantly drowned out by shouts of ‘Bravo’ from all quarters, for the stunning athletic performances of the actors and the brilliant direction. Several times during the performance, I found myself expecting song to emerge from the mouths of the actors, not speech. In fact, live music was woven throughout the play, a singer with an acoustic guitar, scatting scruffy German in a bizarre blues style that was perfect for this production. (Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde was the subject of Criseyde, an opera by Alice Shields, composer, and Nancy Dean, librettist. Recently performed twice in New York, it was one of the works featured on the New York City Opera VOX series, and takes a feminist approach to Criseyde. Chaucer’s treatment of Criseyde was far more favorable than either Shakespeare’s or William Walton, composer of the only other opera based on the story.)

My attempt to score a ticket to the Sunday morning concert given by the Vienna Philharmonic was ultimately unsuccessful (I turned down two that were available, too costly; they were quickly snatched up by others) but it led to something that was, for me, just as rewarding if not moreso. As I stood on the steps of the Musikverein, heart sinking lower and lower as the throngs poured through the doors and not even a standing room ticket to be had, I got lucky. Someone rushed outside, moments before the VP concert began, to sell her steeply discounted ticket (she had double-booked) to Stefan Mickisch’s final performance of the cycle “Alles Wagner!”, at the Wiener Konzerthaus several blocks away. Evidently, she preferred Mozart and Barenboim. So off I went to experience my first Gesprächskonzert, featuring Tannhäuser.

To begin to grasp the concept of this genre, think of Victor Borges minus the slapstick, but keep the lightness and witty asides, and add ferocious piano skills coupled with a penetrating intellect, fearlessly shared with the audience. In fact, Mickisch ventured into technical territory, with descriptions for Neapolitan sixth chords and the like, without losing a single audience member from the packed house. While performing excerpts from Tannhäuser, he effortlessly evoked dozens of musical influences and outright borrowings, from Bach and Mozart, to Chopin and Rachmaninoff, and many others. Themes and leitmotifs shared with other Wagner operas, such as Parsifal, were also depicted with utter clarity and, at times, hilarity. Mickisch gives numerous concerts such as this throughout Europe, and is in residence at the Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth every summer. If you're curious, order one (or more) of a wide selection of his recordings (but you'll likely need to understand German for the recordings with his commentary).

Last night, a few blocks from where I live, the Austrian Society for Contemporary Music (Österreichische Gesellschaft für Zeitgenössische Musik, otherwise known as ÖGZM) presented an evening of piano music (Klavierabend---a lovely compound word), in cooperation with CCW (CreativesCentrumWien) and INÖK (Interessengemeinschaft Niederösterreichischer Komponisten, or Community of Lower Austrian Composers). Thomas Hlawatsch, the pianist and also one of the composers, played a demanding program with passion and finesse. He might be described as a ‘composer’s performer’ (as in a ‘writer’s writer). His meticulous interpretations extended beyond contemporary composers, as he ended the program with Franz Schubert’s Sonata in A Major. The program featured composers who lived, or have lived, in Austria, and included works by two American women---Von weit, and Mein blaues Klavier, by Martha Schwediauer, and three pieces from the inventive and resourceful Twelve Pieces for Piano on One to Twelve Notes, by Nancy Van de Vate. The setting was an intimate, art-filled space in the ‘House of Composers’ on Ungargasse, near the university. The engaging moderator, Mag. Prof. Werner Hackl (president of the ÖGZM), drew the composers into brief discussions of their works, adding his own witty commentary.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Korngold's Masterpiece / Singing Vacuum Cleaner

Hans Tschiritsch, with his Zwitscheridu (hybrid cello / dijeridu; two more of his instruments are in the background), and Robert Rønnes, bassoon, performing part of a new work by Werner Schulze

In the course of one weekend: an opera, a sneak preview of a new work based on overtones, a play, and a 'Gesprächskonzert.' I’ll write about the latter two tomorrow, but to begin with, a few words about the Erich Wolfgang Korngold and his greatest work, Die tote Stadt, produced at the Wiener Staatsoper. Korngold was a ‘wunderkind’---Mahler pronounced him a genius, and the critic Eduard Hanslick, ‘a little Mozart.’ He impressed Puccini and Richard Strauss as well. His father, the leading music critic Julius Korngold, stepped in to complete the opera’s libretto after the first librettist jumped ship. (Even Korngold suffered through librettist horrors.) Composed when he was only 23, Die tote Stadt tells the story of a Paul’s intense grief for the young Marie, his dead wife; his attraction to Marietta, a woman who resembles her; and his nightmare, where he is driven to strangle Marietta after she ceaselessly mocks the dead Marie. The origin of the story, Bruges la Morte, by Georges Rodenbach, was a popular novel around the turn of the century. In the novel, the male character eventually murders his lover. Yet in the opera, the murder occurs only during the nightmare, leading to the main character’s liberation from his obsession. (A rarity in opera, to allow the woman to stay alive---although this opera nevertheless orbits around Marie, the dead wife.) This superlative production, my favorite of anything I’ve seen thus far, was conducted by Philippe Auguin, and directed by Willy Decker. Klaus Florian Vogt sang the part of Paul, the main character, and a nimble Angela Denoke, the parts of Marietta / Marie.

The endlessly inventive orchestration balanced the composer's somewhat sentimental style. Heard with astonishing clarity from where I was perched in a box seat the players, Korngold's score would be worth studying for orchestration techniques alone. He often infuses lyrical passages with unannounced clouds of dissonance to convey a sense of foreboding. One of the most obvious places he deploys this technique is toward the end of the well-known “Marietta’s Song.” Korngold must have inspired legions of Hollywood film composers. For instance, one section in the opera, a kind of signature sound for westerns (low open fourths and fifths, punctuated by brass), was completely familiar to me even though I hadn't previously heard this opera. Indeed, Korngold himself ended up in Hollywood, at first temporarily residing there in order to score a film. He then stayed, due to the danger of returning to Austria. Of the several films he scored, two of the most well-known are A Midsummer Night’s Dream (for which he arranged Mendelssohn’s incidental music), and The Adventures of Robin Hood (earning him an Oscar, and also credited with saving his life).

Yesterday afternoon I attended a seminar at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst (University for Music and Performing Arts), thoughtfully pointed out by my friend Nancy Van de Vate, an American composer based in Vienna. The subject of the seminar, new methods of overtone composition, was demonstrated largely by a partial performance of Concerto Roberto (to be premiered in Oslo later this year) written by Werner Schulze for the incredible bassoonist / composer Roberto Rønnes and scored for invented instruments, bassoon, overtone singers, and piano. Prof. Schulze gave a dynamic presentation about the work, his influences and methods, to visiting students who were participating in the International Meeting of Music Therapy Studies. The rich overtone singing of the Austrian musician and inventor, Hans Tschiritch, was surely an inspiration to these students. Hopefully they were inspired to seek out opportunities for exploring overtone singing in greater depth, to use in their healing practices. Do have a look at the site for Tschiritch. It includes photos of his strikingly original chess sets and, more relevant to this post, links to several of his instrument inventions and their sounds. Of particular interest to me, as I'm working on a short opera starring a vacuum cleaner, is the Singenden Sauger (singing vacuum cleaner).

Friday, May 16, 2008

Austrian Premiere of Michaels Reise

Michaels Reise
, the second act of Donnerstag, itself one of seven operas forming the grand cycle Licht by the late Karlheinz Stockhausen, was performed last night at the Jugendstil Theater (about an hour’s bus ride out of the central part of Vienna). With the virtuoso playing, moving, and acting presence of Marco Blaauw (trumpet), in the part of Michael, and Nicola Jürgensen (basset horn), in the part of Eva, this evening of opera needed no singers. In fact, it’s billed as ‘an opera without singers.’ musikFabrik, the adventurous collective based in Köln, was conducted efficiently and smartly by Peter Rundel.

The opera began with a brass band of trumpets, trombones, horns, and tuba playing a kind of overture. Yet the music wasn’t anything like a brass band or an overture. The harmonies and textures were were transporting, evocative of other worlds. This beginning was, musically, one of the strongest parts of the opera, and one of the most memorable.

Then the athletics and mechanical virtuosity took hold. The trumpet player, strapped, standing, into a contraption that allowed him to zoom through the space, at least 12 feet in the air, to swoop down and back up, to be turned upside down and around, all the while performing and inserting different mutes into his instrument, was simply phenomenal. The video, projected on what sometimes appeared to be a three-dimensional large round globe, and also on the scrim, served to clarify some of the ‘stations’ of Michael’s physical and metaphysical travels. It was an artistic work in its own right, with elegant patterns that dissolved and transformed into other patterns, and that explored the gray areas between representational and non-representational depictions.

Yet with all of these wondrous and quite stunning visual events, I found the opera (or, rather, this one act) lacking in a dimension that I’m finding difficult to articulate. Perhaps it was a culmination of small disappointments---the forced nature of the improvisations; the long double trill at the close of the work (signifying the union of Eva and Michael) that lumbered when it could have been a delicate and deliciously strung out gesture; or the absolute refusal of the audience to laugh at any of the lighter places with the two clarinet players mocking and carrying on. At any rate, the evening was definitely worth the investment of time. This was the first of four relatively new operas that are being produced as part of the Wiener Festspielwoche. Next on my agenda: Wolfgang Rihm’s Jacob Lenz, early next week.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Praha, Threshold to . . .

Around this time of the year, countless cultural festivals are launched throughout Europe. In Dresden, my work Way of Light was programmed on the first full day of the Dresdner Musikfestspiele. The first day (and last) full day we were in Prague was the beginning of the Prague Spring, the 63rd International Music Festival. Tonight I will see Stockhausen’s Michaels Reise, the first of four contemporary operas and one of dozens of productions of theater, music, and film scheduled during the Wiener Festwochen, which was kicked off on May 9.

But now back to Prague, ah, too short a visit! Instead of being frustrated by not having sufficient time to take in the castle or cathedrals, I decided to lose myself on the tram and walking about, stopping into bookshops and perusing Czech literature, making lists of what I’d like to eventually read, and not being able to resist buying four: May, a poem by Karel Hynek Mácha; Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hraba (also his much more widely known and critically acclaimed novel, I Served the King of England); and Severin’s Journey Into the Dark, by Paul Leppin. Twisted Spoon Press has been active in printing a number of recent translations of Czech writers into English, or of German writers such as Paul Leppin, who spent time in the Czech Republic, and whose book is billed as a ‘Prague ghost story.’ As a lover of ghost stories (there’s even a tour of haunted Prague at night, another reason to return), leaving Prague with this one was a must.

Having visited Prague twice before, I wanted to avoid crowds and look at the city from different vistas, such as the Prague Metronome (broken, alas), high above the city. The first photograph is taken from the garden restaurant of Fish, near the Franz Kafka Museum, overlooking the Vltava River in the direction of Charles Bridge. Swans glided past, along with all manner of boats. Above, a balloon with a chair attached, holding a brave person swayed in the wind (to me this is the experience of nightmares). A few hours later, I met with a composer friend, Zbynek Mateju, prolific and gifted composer specializing in works for film, television, and ballet. As I write this I’m listening to his work for ballet, Ibbur, or A Prague Mystery. Its dynamic, rich textures, often shrouded in evocative, haunting harmonies, are enhanced by the use of musical saw and Tibetan bowls. Zbynek and I are discussing a collaboration---the first time I will do this as a composer, although I collaborate all the time with improvisational projects!

In his cd notes, Zbynek includes a quote from D.Z. Bor that I’d like to share with you, as it captures, as much as two sentences can, the essence of this magnificent city. “I do not know any other city like Prague which attracts the people living in it in such a remarkably magical way, spiritually weathers them and offers them so many places of its troubled past to visit. It looks as if the dead are calling us living to a place where they spent their earthly existence at some time, so that they can whisper that Prague does not bear its name “práh” (threshold) for nothing---that in reality it is the threshold between this and the next world, a threshold which is much narrower than anywhere else.”