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New Shorts composer, Joe Diebes, writes:

I’m currently composing a new opera, WOW, in collaboration with director David Levine and poet Christian Hawkey.  WOW has a completely different instrumentation than that of Hotel Elefant, and so rather than trying to adapt the work I decided to try a different direction for the project.  Sometimes unexpected contraints become the seed for a whole new way of looking at a piece, and since I’m still looking for the piece, I thought why not do ‘an Experiment in Opera’.  The way I’ve been thinking about the larger work situates the singers and instrumentalists in a recording studio environment, where short fragments performed by them are sampled and manipulated by a recording engineer (instead of a conductor) and a ‘producer’ (myself).  The musicians do not follow a linear score, but rather they adhere to a strict set of rules and processes that limit what can be played at any given moment.  The combinations of sonorities, words, and action are not predetermined in any linear way, but rather unfold differently each performance depending on the interactions of the various players involved.

Given the logistical complexity of such a project it seemed senseless to try and do a version of it in the context of the New Shorts Concert.  It would require too much rehearsal, explanation, technical logistics, and personel.  And so I did what I haven’t done for six or seven years: I broke out Sibelius (notation software) and wrote a linear score that would be readable by an ensemble with limited rehearsal time.  However, I wanted to maintain the spirit and logic of the larger work.  To this end I made a note by note transcription of four measures of the Milli Vanilli hit, ‘Girl You Know It’s True’ (1988) and arranged it for Hotel Elefant.  I then subjected the four measures to a range of fragmentation and permutation algorithms to arrive at the piece that will be presented at the New Shorts concert.  The inspirational moment for this particular excerpt is the infamous CD skip that exposed the pop duo as lip-synching ‘frauds.’  One can only imagine the out-of-jointness of time experienced by Rob and Fab as their careers, stardom, and hopes were instantly dashed by a digital glitch.

 

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From New Shorts composer, Leaha Maria Villarreal:

What is opera?

When is a work ‘operatic?’ When does an aria become an art song…and vice versa? And what about rock operas?! What’s the deal with those?

These questions & more swirled in head as I mulled over my commission from Experiments in Opera for their ‘New Shorts’ concert. Because, if we’re lucky, we’ve stood in awe at the Metropolitan opera house, its chandeliers glistening, the curtain rising. As composers we ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ over Wagner’s Tristan chord. I thought of all the famous pieces and I couldn’t help but think ‘what does any of that that have to do with me?’

I decided I needed a story. That’s when Room fell into my hands.

Emma Donoghue‘s novel tells the tale of an abducted young woman and her five-year-old son from the child’s point of view. As I was reading the book I couldn’t help but wonder not about our protagonist Jack but about the courageous  Ma. What were her days like before his arrival? The subject prompted me to do some research, yielding material on the Fritzl case in Austria and the Jaycee Dugard memoir A Stolen Life. You quickly back up on safer shores: these stories throw you into dark waters. With both the fact and the fiction I was fascinated with themes of strength and resilience.

I realized I had a character for my opera.

A Window to a Door focuses on just that: a young woman who is held by an unknown captor. The lament of our protagonist slowly unfolds over a backtrack of shudders, scrapes, and hums, accompanied by violin and contrabass. As viewers, we only know what is immediately apparent. We experience what the character experiences. The moment is everything.

So what is opera? It could be anything, which is incredibly liberating. I can’t wait for the next one. For right now, it’s a girl in a room searching for hope.

 

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New Shorts composer, Mary Kouyoumdjian, writes this about her upcoming premiere of “I am a Fish:”

I have a rather deep and dark confession: I generally don’t enjoy going to the Opera. I know, I know… opera lovers, go ahead and banish me now. Something about sitting in a stiff seat for three hours while listening to a cast I can barely make out from the balcony sing in a language I don’t particularly understand about the same soppy love story being told over and over again feels redundant, alienating, and quite honestly – a little boring. So why did I take Experiments in Opera up on their invitation to write a “short” opera? Because EiO is aggressively breaking this mold I so strongly would like to push against while encouraging opera to move forward. This challenged me to think: “Well maybe today’s opera is something I could relate to?”

What resulted from this effort to write an opera a non-opera fanatic would enjoy is my piece I am a Fish, with a strange libretto written by an even more strange Hannis Brown (and I say that warmly). Brown writes:

I am a Fish is a one-act opera that explores the possibilities and confines of what we perceive as reality. John Herrington has an epiphany one afternoon, while verbalizing the sounds of words, that he may or may not be what he has always taken himself to be. He realizes that words are square pegs that fit in round holes. Is he a man because he calls himself a man? Or is he actually a woman? Perhaps he is a fish.

The text is pretty quirky and plays with the idea of being completely profound and mind-altering, to flirting with the idea of meaning absolutely nothing. When setting this text, what stood out to me was John Herrington’s psychological deterioration, and this fed my fascination with mental instability and portrait pieces, which are both common themes in much of my work. Also, Brown’s minimal text lent itself to repetition, looping, focusing on textures within words, and this immediately made me consider elements of loop-based hip hop and pop as an avenue to musically represent the text. I believe using elements of pop can help make an experimental piece more relatable, and, for me, it’s all about the accessibility while keeping things (hopefully) interesting.

All this said, there was one element that I tried to hold onto from traditional and classical opera – drama. When that fat lady sings over her tragically killed true love, you know even a tub of Ben & Jerry’s won’t do the trick; that woman is sad!!! And while there are no fat ladies in I am a Fish, you can bet that John Herrington’s character will be screaming out with dramatic intensity.

Below: A short excerpt from I am a Fish. Demo sang (amateurly) by yours truly, with the live performance to be sung (amazingly) by Seth Gilman.

From New Shorts composer, Ruby Fulton:

“End Times” is one scene from Adam’s Run, a larger work that I’m collaborating on with Baltimore writer and news reporter Baynard Woods. It is the near future and the weather has become completely unpredictable. One day it may snow while the next is 100 degrees. In this landscape, two reality television programs vie for the most watched programs in the world: Julie Shore, an existentialist Weather Woman, and the Reverend Billy Noble, a fundamentalist televangelist.

Baynard and I recently collaborated on KETAMYTH, a short opera about the dissociative drug ketamine, with texts in ancient Greek and Latin. It is exciting to now be embarking upon a larger work together and we are delighted for the opportunity to workshop a small portion of it with Experiments in Opera, as fuel for the work ahead.

One of the challenges to the libretto was figuring out how to set a quote from the iconic Woody Guthrie song, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya.” I listened to the original tune about ten thousand times. Then, I set the words in three different ways: in the style of the Weather Woman, in the style of the Preacher, and in the original Woody Guthrie style, where both voices sing together. And finally, I spliced all three versions together, determining the proportions of the three materials with a numerological system which made perfect sense at the time, but which I cannot seem to figure out again after the fact!

Another challenge was determining how to incorporate two canned sound effects tracks, a laugh track and an amen track, specified in the libretto. I decided to use the tracks as samples which will be triggered by the drum set. In the true collaborative spirit of opera, I am working with two coding friends of mine in Baltimore, Patrick McMinn and Jonah Beram, to build a sampling system for the drum-triggered tracks. I recorded the tracks late on a Friday night in Baltimore with a 9-piece band that Baynard and I both play in, the Barnyard Sharks.

New Shorts Composer Robert Ashley writes:

Resonant Combinations is a series of sixteen sounds made at the piano. The sounds come from a piano note being struck while five other piano keys are silently depressed. This technique gives the struck note a subtle harmonic aura. Each sound ends when it is no longer heard.

Resonant Combinations is one of a group of “sound-sketches” composed for the opera (in progress), Quicksand. It has been used in two earlier operas when a character is introduced, as in Quicksand, who appears to be working for or under the control of some unknown agency — in other words, willingly or unwillingly, an “agent”, or a spy.

The sixteen sound combinations are four groups of four successive harmonies, each group of harmonies made from one of the four modes (scales) that uses no interval larger than a whole-step. The transition from one harmony to the next can be accomplished using only the rules of voice-leading and without reference to root movement or root position.

New Shorts Composer, Justin Tierney, writes:

The February 9th performance of “Escritura del Dios” at the Issue Project Room presents the final two scenes of this 14 scene monodrama. These last two were chosen because they are the most telling and are narratively (and hopefully musically) satisfying by themselves as they sum up the drama and themes of the story.

In Scene 13 [A Formula of 14 Words] Tzincán finally decodes ‘the god’s script’ in the Jaguar’s spots and reflects on the power this could provide. But in the final scene, he decides, after witnessing the inner-workings of the universe, how everything is connected in a cosmic fabric (even the Spaniards who tortured him) he can no longer “think in terms of one man, of that man’s trivial fortunes or misfortunes, though he be that man” so he decides that instead of using his new found power to take back his empire and become all powerful, to await, in the posture of his death, the end destined to him by the gods.

The goal was to express and embed or even foreshadow the themes of the story musically, at the structural as well as the surface levels.  I strove to unify the musical drama by deriving all the motives of the piece, both those of light and those of darkness, from the same materials. Perhaps this will also reflect the revelation in the story that all that exists springs from a single source.

To hear excerpts of Escritura del Dios, visit JustinTierney.com

From Experiments in Opera co-founder and New Shorts composer, Jason Cady:

I recently finished composing a comic-opera short called The Mother. It’s about an aspiring singer-songwriter who is surprised to find out that her retired mother has learned how to play guitar and is writing songs. She is even more surprised when her mother becomes wildly successful.

I outlined the musical form before writing any of the words. The entire piece had to be less than 10 minutes long so I chose to focus on just one ABA aria. However, I interrupted it by inserting a long recitative in between the first A-section and the B-section. After the B-section, a brief instrumental passage interrupts the recapitulation of the A-section; during this time a couple of years pass in the story. The opera ends atypically with a recitative that follows the second A-section.

Composing the recitatives, I was inspired by a 1978 Rodney Dangerfield performance where his one-liners were punctuated by riffs from a big band. I created a similar texture with droll “ritornelli” interspersed between phrases from the singers and the “continuo” bass line and chords accompanying them.

Experiments in Opera commissioned Gabrielle Herbst to write a new opera for the upcoming New Shorts event at Issue Project Room.  Here is Gabrielle with some of her thoughts on her new piece, Bodiless:

“I used to feel guilty at night. I live in, I always used to live in two countries, the diurnal one and the continuous discontinuous very tempestuous nocturnal one. But I didn’t tell. I thought myself under false pretences in the one and in the other under false pretences differently, since I had but one visa for both. Furthermore I couldn’t have said which was the main, the primordial one, having two lives and two temporalities, which one was the legitimate or the other. I went to the one that was perhaps the other with the surreptitious joy that gives the soul wings on its way to love, to lovingness, even without going anywhere save to the depths. I have a rendezvous. What a delight to head off with high hopes to night’s court, without any knowledge of what may happen! Where shall I be taken tonight? Into which country? Into which country of countries?”

Hélène Cixous, Dream I Tell You

The inspiration and libretto for BODILESS came from French‐Algerian writer Hélène Cixous’ Dream I Tell You. She sees dreams as a way of processing extreme emotion we are prohibited to process publicly in our culture—pain, passion and ecstasy. I was interested in looking at the symbolic nature of dreams as overly emotive representations of everyday life and how that is similar to my understanding of opera—storytelling through symbols and archetypes.

I used this dichotomy borrowed from Cixous as my groundwork: “You know my love everything is false‐Dream I tell you.”
“By the Beating of my heart which does not lie.”

I was thinking about fakery and deception versus sincerity and corporeality in the waking and dreaming world and how that too relates to my concept of an opera, a play, a show, a momentary pleasure of deception.

Through compositional structure and fluctuating rhythms I tried to replicate my own experience of conscious and unconscious states—at times blurry, unstable, shifting foundations surrounding “learned” overly sentimental gestures. This relationship of blatant romance and unstable groundwork resulting in the bombastic give and take of serenity and chaos mirrors the dramatic, unpredictable state of dreams.

There have been recent scientific studies speculating that at the moment of death there is a brief period of time where your mind is still active after your body has died. Religions like Tibetan Buddhism prepare for this liminal period through meditation over the course of a lifetime. Ultimately this piece became about being left alone in one’s own mind—the difficulty and fear of that state in our current overly stimulated culture dependent on consumption. This piece is an exploration into solitary dreams and unstable quiet—hence BODILESS imagining the state of mind when the body has been left behind.

To hear some of Gabrielle’s music visit her SoundCloud page.

Composer Aaron Siegel writes:

I am working on a new monodrama opera, called ‘The Collector’ for the upcoming Experiments in Opera ‘New Shorts’ event on February 9, 2013 at Issue Project Room. I am also slogging through a much larger piece, Brother Brother, so with ‘The Collector’ I have been enjoying the opportunity to create a complete world on a small scale without all of the incredible challenges of producing a huge piece.

‘The Collector’ is a modestly straightforward story about a man who rekindles his interest in collecting stamps and becomes obsessed with the relationships he builds through his stamp collection. For this piece, I wanted to write music that followed the natural phrasings of spoken speech, but also ask the musicians to match exactly the rhythms of the performer. As you see above, I have taken the full libretto and assigned rhythmic values to each phrase. Without proper bar lines or meters, these free rhythms should be able to capture the loose precision of my ideal spoken delivery.

With this kind of flexibility, I hope I can create a simulated tension that embodies the ‘collector’s’ mounting anxiety and isolation. Stay tuned for more details….