INTERVIEW: Miguel Frasconi

EiO Artistic Director Jason Cady interviewed Flash Opera composer Miguel Frasconi about his early development as an experimental music innovator and about his approach to adapting ‘Things You Should Know’ by AM Homes for the opera stage. 

CADY: I wanted to start off with your background. I know you’ve worked with a lot of important artists like John Cage, Morton Subotnick, Joan La Barbara, and Jon Hassell.

FRASCONI: Yeah, well one name that you didn’t mention was Jim Tenney who I studied composition with up in Toronto. Jim and I worked a lot together and were really close, so he was huge influence on me.

CADY: And your father Antonio was an artist; you told me earlier that he was friends with Gerry Mulligan and Earle Brown.

FRASCONI: Yeah, I grew up in a creative household. Both my parents were visual artists, my dad was a pretty well-known woodcut artist and my mom, Leona Pierce, was also a well-known woodcut artist, but, as women did in the ‘50s, she gave up her creative work in order to make her household and family her creative work. When I was growing up every weekend was a dinner party with different people coming over like Nat Hentoff and Pete Seeger. They knew those people quite well from Greenwich Village which is where I was born.

from “On the Slain Collegians.” 1970. Antonio Frasconi.

CADY: Also, part of your background are all these interesting instruments you play. I know you play glass instruments, the Buchla modular synthesizer, piano, and also various world music instruments like mbira and gamelan.

FRASCONI: In high school I was a sort of sound freak. Living so close to New York when I was young, my dad would take me to all these great concerts. There was one really amazing series by the Juilliard Contemporary Music Ensemble that was at that time lead by Dennis Russell Davies called “New and Newer Music.” I went religiously. That’s where I heard my first Feldman, my first Cage, and my first Stockhausen during the American premiere of Stimmung. It was really quite amazing.

In the ‘60s there was this sort of antiestablishment, anti-history, anti-academia bent going on so I wanted to find creative work that was uniquely twentieth century. At the time, what people called “new music,” particularly electronic music, was uniquely twentieth century. My brother was a filmmaker and one thing he said was that he liked film because it was a uniquely twentieth century art form. I looked for music that was uniquely twentieth century and electronic music was that. I never thought of myself as a classical musician. Well, I did, but one who ignored anything before Ives and Satie.

I decided to be a composer when I was around eight or nine. My school took a field trip to the Norwalk symphony and they played Charles Ives’ Third Symphony. I had never really felt close to music, but when I heard this symphony it didn’t sound like any music I had ever heard; the only thing my young brain could equate it to was weather. I grew up in a house with a lot of windows, with trees all around, and when there was a storm you really felt like you were in the middle of it. That’s what that Ives symphony felt to me, like being in the middle of a storm. I thought “if a human being can create that sort of thing, that’s what I wanna do.” I didn’t want to create music. I wanted to create something on the elemental level of weather.

Then, when I was in high school, Fred Hellerman of The Weavers was over for dinner. In the middle of dinner, I heard this ethereal sound that seemed to be coming from the walls. I looked over and saw Fred with a smile on his face, his finger on the edge of a wine glass. It just blew my mind because I had never seen that done before. The next day I took all my parents’ stemware down to the basement and made my first glass instrument and I’ve been playing glass ever since. When I went to York University in Toronto to study electronic music with David Rosenboom and Richard Teitelbaum, I discovered that there were a bunch of students who were using glass as a sound source for electronic music. After a couple years of that, I thought, “Why don’t we get together and make electronic music without any electricity?” We started this group called the Glass Orchestra in 1977, which was a quartet I was in for ten years.

Miguel Frasconi playing some of his glass instruments.

CADY: How many glass instruments were there? I assume this was not just the Benjamin Franklin glass harmonica.

FRASCONI: I always thought the objective in this group was to create a complete world music culture. There were wind instruments, percussion instruments, a whole range of instruments, but all made of glass. Before Franklin came up with the glass harmonica there was the glass harp, which was basically basically a table with a bunch of stemware on it. So we each had one of those. We would use duck calls in tubes that would create all sorts of wonderful harmonics. You’d play it vertically, blowing the tube up and you’d get all the different harmonics as the duck calls travelled up and down the tube. One of the guys in the group called it the puke-a-phone. So basically, anything made of glass was fair game, and that’s still the way I approach my glass instruments. After forty-some years I have a lot of broken glass instruments which sound amazing: rich and full of harmonics and unexpected sound. I still use glass as a totally exploratory mode.

CADY: Getting to your opera now [*], there seem to be two possible interpretations of the story: number one, that it’s a light and funny story, or number two, that it’s a dark story and it’s more Kafkaesque or like Samuel Beckett. Yet I think you’ve chosen a third interpretation: that it is an experimental process music kind of story. Do you find the other interpretations relevant?

FRASCONI: I found it not quite Kafkaesque but definitely Beckett-esque. This story is about a fellow who thinks there’s a list or there might be a list and he doesn’t know what’s on it. So, I wanted to create a situation where the audience will be put in a position to somehow start making their own lists about what they’re experiencing.  I’ve written a few operas and I thought this is an opportunity to create an opera that has more to do with what I’m personally interested in, which is I like to create music that is not so much presentational as it is experiential.

Marbles. 1955. Leona Pierce.

CADY: The story resonated with me because I often feel like I was not there the day when the list of rules was given out. Do you personally relate to it?

FRASCONI: Oh, absolutely. The first minute is basically just people singing, “There are things I don’t know” over and over again. It felt so cathartic. At this point in my life, I have no idea what will happen.

CADY: I remember you said your piece turned out really weird. Is this opera atypical of your work? Or did it just turn out in an unexpected way?

FRASCONI: I took the same approach with this opera as I do when I play glass instruments. If I’m doing something and I know what it’s going to sound like, it’s not terribly interesting to me. I need to discover something that’s new to me. That’s the approach I took with this opera. There are these first two and a half minutes where it’s pretty static and repetitive and then it quickly switches into a totally different gear. That’s the sort of thing that attracts me to experimental music: you never know what’s gonna happen.

CADY: You perform a little bit in this opera. I’ve been thinking about how being a composer/performer is part of what Experimental Music is because it’s about having a vision that’s so unique that the composer has to be involved in the realization of the music.

FRASCONI: For me it isn’t so much about the composer being the performer but the performer making compositional choices. The composition itself allows for the performers’ predilections to come in, so it makes sense that in experimental music the composer is also a performer. Experimental music keeps the door open for performers to be more active.

[*Things You Should Know, based on a story by A.M. Homes]

Setting The Voices in Jack Handey’s Head

EiO Co-Founder, Jason Cady, is the composer of ‘The Voices In My Head,’ a Flash Opera based on the short story by Jack Handey.  In this post he discusses the interaction that happens when artists combine their style with the ideas within and beyond the work they adapt.

I’m a big fan of Jack Handey. He is a master at crafting one-liners His writing is fun, silly, and timeless. I’ve read his novel, “The Stench of Honolulu,” twice and his book of short stories, “What I’d Say to the Martians,” more times than I can remember. Handey is better known for his work on Saturday Night Live, including such sketches as “Unfrozen Cave Man Lawyer” and “Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey.”

The Voices in My Head
is an adaptation of a Handey story that originally appeared in The New Yorker. It’s a monologue by a guy hearing voices, but—spoiler alert—the voices are just the ordinary thoughts that everyone has with a few unusual thoughts sprinkled in. The character is a lovable idiot. He’s petty, mean, and dumb yet also friendly and full of wonder.

I was on vacation in Fire Island when I thought of the adaptation and music, so I felt a little more relaxed and happier than normal. I imagined the story taking place in a Tiki bar. The story had only one character, but I wanted more so I expanded the scene to four people: three chorus members who personify the “voices” plus the narrator. To keep things interesting, a different singer portrays the narrator every couple of minutes. When not playing the narrator, the singer is part of the chorus. The audience always knows who the narrator is because the singer portraying him dons a Hawaiian shirt, piano-key neck tie, and foam cowboy hat. The members of the chorus wear dual-beer can novelty hats while they dance in a conga line, compete in a limbo contest, and hula-hoop. None of these actions or articles of clothing were in Handey’s story, but they felt true to his style.

Handey’s story evoked mid-century exotica to my mind, stuff like Yma Sumac, Les Baxter, and Esquivel. I didn’t want to go whole hog with Exotica but the more I imagined it I settled on Cuban rhythms, Hawaiian steel guitar, and Honky-Tonk. This felt like a nice combo of New World sounds. I composed the piece in reverse son clave. I wrote some Hawaiian inspired licks which I play on pedal steel and the pianist doubles on ukulele. The Country yodel cadence made popular by Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams—which is the kind of decorated 3-2-1 pattern that Schenkarians love to analyze—inspired much of the melodic material.

There’s also some Funk and Minimalism in the music, but that wasn’t inspired by the story: it’s just what I do, I can’t get away from it. In the final section the pianist tosses ping-pong balls into the piano, not only for its unique sound, but because it’s the kind of experimental wildness that brings to life the anarchic humor of the story.

Questions and Answers

Miguel Frasconi’s adapation of ‘Things You Should Know,’ by AM Homes is one of the featured operas on May’s Flash Operas at Symphony Space.   As he sees it, his piece is in the lineage of experimental music stretching back to some of the very founders of this tradition in the US.  Questions, he says in his blogpost below, are the foundation of all art-making.  We couldn’t agree more!

If there was just one thing I took away from my many visits with John Cage it would be how every creative act can be thought of as nothing more than a series of questions. A painter could ask,”what colors will I use?” A composer could ask, “how does this piece start?” Then there is of course the “meta” question, which made Cage who he was and influenced anyone who came in contact with him: “Once I know what type of questions I’ll be asking, how do I then determine the answers to these questions?” That question beckons the essential experiment in “experimental music.” As an example, what we now call “minimalist” music started out being a wing of the experimental tradition called “process music,” where one could clearly hear the structural evolution that determined the answers to the more detailed compositional questions. It turned structure into a list of audible steps taken to complete the composition. Sometimes these steps involved an interaction with the performer. But still, they were all simply a list of steps to take to get to the final question, “how does this end?”

Excerpt from ‘Things You Should Know.’

I found this idea of how to determine the answer to these questions at the heart of the story, Things You Should Know. A man imagines a list. He knows that he does not in fact know what is on this list, but, still, he knows there is one. This, to me, is the essence of any art worth making. It’s the not knowing that draws me into the creative process. The more I don’t know, the more I can discover things I didn’t expect. This is the process I take when I play my glass instruments, and this is the process I took in composing my personal version of this story as an opera. I didn’t want things to simply be presented to the audience, but wanted to create a situation in which the audience experienced this need to make lists for themselves. Now, I’m not going to reveal how this happens but please come to the performance in May and let me know if I succeeded.

Letting Narrative Take the Lead

EiO Co-founder, Aaron Siegel, has written a new short opera, The Wallet, as part of the upcoming Flash Operas at Symphony Space.  Coming off the recent workshop rehearsals on March 12 and 13, 2017, Aaron reflected on the challenges of adapting a short story for the stage.  Flash Operas are premiering on May 5 and 6, 2017 at Symphony Space.

Part of what has always attracted me to opera is the opportunity to use words to shape music.  All of my theater works to date are based on scripts or text that I have written and often devised specifically with sounds or textures in mind.  This process gives me the ultimate opportunity to create a musical language that speaks unencumbered by text or the intentions of any author other than myself.  I have worked this way for close to 10 years.  Until now.

For my new Flash Opera, I am working from a libretto based on a short story written by another author.  While I ultimately wrote the libretto and was able to shape it based on my musical instincts, I was intent on preserving the shape and, to the extent that I could, the language of the short story.  

The Wallet, by Andrew McCuaig, has been published in a range of collections and anthologies.  It is an unassuming tale, with a moralistic quandary embedded inside a straightforward narrative.  It’s a story that looks to connect with the readers as well as to manipulate them.  My challenges in translating the story to the stage were to preserve the simplicity and also to emphasize the drama.  

I was struck in the process of the obtuseness of theater.  It is very difficult to show subtlety onstage in a way that has meaning.  For example, there is a cup of Coca-Cola in the short story that we first see perspiring on a table.  When Elaine, the protagonist, finds the cup she places it upright in the trash can.  From this subtle detail we are to understand that Troy (who placed the cup on the table originally) is Brutish, boy-like and careless.  Elaine on the other hand is not cruel nor vindictive.  She doesn’t want to make a mess and gently places the cup upright in the trash.  This is the stuff of character and even as it is inconsequential, it gives texture and depth to the story, verisimilitude.  The whole description takes up two sentences and less than 15 seconds to read.

Excerpt from the score to ‘The Wallet’ by Aaron Siegel, based on a story by Andrew McQuaig.

We have no such luxury in opera.  It would take at least a minute to create the same level of detail onstage and even then could hardly be said to be worth it.  Especially in an opera that is intended to last under fifteen minutes to begin with.  As a result, we lose this level of intimacy and verisimilitude. The opera becomes a portrait painted in the broad strokes of archetypes.  Instead of being simply a careless man, Troy instead must be a cad-this character trait being much easier to convey through jaunty music with an insidious undertone.  

This is an example of how my intent to hue as closely to the story as possible lead me to write music that I would not have otherwise written.  The music serves the feeling and mood of the story and characters rather than the other way around.

Then there is the matter of a brief flashback wherein Elaine recalls a previous  encounter with Troy that hints at the theme of abuse that is later brought more fully to the forefront of the story.  Again,  time restrictions prevented me from having a character step out of the action to tell this important story.  Plus, I was intent on telling a straight story that avoided any narrative trickery.  So, I had to adjust the form of the story by starting with the flashback moved adjacent to the main action, still preserving the original timing but reordering the sequence of information.  This, too, had a musical impact, giving the opening of the opera an introductory quality before the main action starts.  Rather than embodying a richer fabric of memory, the flashback material is simpler and speaks without the luxury of any framing material.

Both of these examples of the short story impacting the music and shape of the opera were successful.  They made the piece better than what I could have come up with on my own.  The story, after all, was written by an accomplished writer with a strong sense of how to bring complex ideas alive on the page.  The process has given me a new appreciation for what it means to work with a source text.  The source material becomes a partner in the process, pulling the new work into the verifiable space of existing material while I push it into unknown areas of sound.

Depicting Mandela

Nicole Murphy is an Australia-based composer and one of the featured artists of our forthcoming Flash Operas Program.  Below are a collection of her thoughts about ‘Mandela Was Late,’ her short work based on the story by Peter Mehlman.   Nicole will be in New York next week to attend EiO’s Flash Opera Workshop with the cast and orchestra for the production.

Mandela Was Late is based on a short story of the same title by author Peter Mehlman. The fictional story details the final meeting between Nelson Mandela and his parole officer after Mandela is freed from prison. The writing displays Mehlman’s dry wit, and highlights the tedium and redundancy of bureaucratic processes. My approach to transforming the short story into a libretto was to remain as close to the original text as possible, in order to maintain the integrity and comedic timing of the work. After all, it is unlikely that any attempt to rework the comedic set ups of a writer such as Mehlman (best known for his work as a writer on Seinfeld) would be an improvement. As someone who has a healthy scepticism of ‘red tape’ and bureaucracy, I was drawn to the farcical nature of the situation in Mehlman’s story. The parole officer is merely going through the motions, viewing Mandela as yet another criminal, tarring him with the same brush as every other criminal who passes through his office. He contemplates Mandela’s chance of reoffending, citing recidivism rates for criminals who have spent so long in prison to justify his thinking. And of course, it is absurd that Mandela must be processed in the same system as everyone else – no exceptions, one size fits all.

Score rev. Jan 2017 Mandela Was Late_Page_24

Score excerpt from ‘Mandela Was Late.’

Tedium is woven throughout the encounter. Initially the parole officer waits impatiently for Mandela to arrive. Once he arrives, the parole officer carries out the usual checks and searches. When he questions Mandela, the line of questioning is routine. I wanted to convey the monotony and tedium of the bureaucratic process in the score, which created a compositional challenge: Is it possible to convey a sense of monotony in music while still sustaining interest, creating contrast and generating forward momentum towards climactic moments? Another compositional challenge came in the form of the portrayal of Mandela. Representing a well-known figure is always somewhat of a challenge, and the distinctive nature of Mandela’s spoken voice was always in my ears as I wrote his lines.

When I initially read the text, there were a number of musical ideas that came to me. As I worked on the libretto I scribbled detailed notes of these ideas beside the text, sketched musical gestures on manuscript, and made a series of recordings of improvisations at the piano, while simultaneously commentating my orchestration ideas. The majority of these early ideas can be found in the completed score. During the upcoming workshop, I am most interested in exploiting the collaborative skill set of the creative team, singers and musicians in order to receive feedback to refine the piece. I am particularly interested in assessing the pacing of the opera in real time. Since comedic success is so often reliant on timing, I am curious to hear others’ opinions on the placement and timing of the text within the musical context.

Creating Satire Through Music: Cristina Lord

Cristina Lord is one of the commissioned composers for our upcoming Flash Operas Program at Symphony Space on May 5 and 6.  She has written her Flash Opera based on the story ‘Pledge Drive’ by Patricia Marx.  In advance of our upcoming workshop of her piece, we asked her about what she was thinking about as she worked and what kinds of challenges her story presented to her writing process.  Here are some of her thoughts…

EiO: While you wrote your libretto, were you also imagining the music?  How much did this impact your finished piece?

Cristina: While I didn’t have specific music in mind, I did have a pretty firm idea regarding the emotional contour. I let the text guide me with its sarcasm, self-awareness, and wit. Given this nature, I knew I wanted something humorous with dark undertones, and ridiculous in all the right ways. This led me to write frequent shifts in the music, some more rapid than others, in an array of musical languages that culminate in something unapologetically postmodern.

Pledge Drive SCORE 2a

Score excerpt from Cristina Lord’s ‘Pledge Drive.’

EiO: What challenges did your story present in terms of character and narrative?  How did you resolve these challenges with your music?

Cristina: Pledge Drive by Patricia Marx is more akin to a portrait of a character than a traditional narrative. However, it does pose important questions about society like any good narrative should. The way I see it, there are three characters in the story: Patty, the narrator(s), and the audience. While every story has an intended audience, Pledge Drive is unique in its assertively direct attitude towards the audience.

Surprisingly, Patty isn’t involved in any direct action in the text – she is only referenced (albeit relentlessly). While translating the libretto to opera, I decided it was important to physically represent her. She is unknowingly the star of the show; she is not only the focal point of humor and sarcasm, but is also the lens for questioning societal behavior. Musically, Patty’s part is very present, but never substantive. For example, she has impressive and soaring lines, but none of them involve text that push the narrative. Also, her lines are almost always dependent on the narrator.

In order to avoid the musical and narrative stagnation that can occur with a single voice, I made the decision to have the narrator be represented by two people instead of one. This approach creates a dialogue to engage the audience. It also enables this character to be more chaotic and therefore have greater impact on the audience and Patty. Furthermore, having two narrators creates the semblance of a group, which is a much better representation of society than just one would be. This way, the storyline becomes a societal commentary instead of a single person’s opinion.

EiO: What big questions do you have about how the musicians will respond to the music? 

Cristina: So much of the music relies on the theatrical interpretation, and so I’m hoping that my ideas and intentions will come across clearly. While I undoubtedly want the musicians and audience to have fun with the music, I also hope that it leaves them with questions and self-reflection.

The Sound of Cruelty

I just finished reading the exquisite, insightful, and thoroughly engaging book, “The Art of Cruelty” by Maggie Nelson.  The book is a revelatory collection of thoughts and ideas about how artists engage with cruelty, and pain, and darkness in their work.  Nelson’s arguments are erudite and opinionated and she isn’t afraid to acknowledge the role her own preferences as a critic play in shaping the argument she is making.

My only disappointment with the book is that Nelson, while writing extensively about visual art, film, literature, poetry and media art, left out any robust examples of the way sounds can or should be cruel (with the exception of several mentions of the writings of John Cage).  I can think of a number of reasons why she might have done this, ranging from the lack of printed space or the general historical divide between the ‘fine arts’ and performance based work.  But neither of these reasons feels satisfactory.  Nelson’s deep dive into performance and media arts demonstrates a willingness to embrace a wider realm of art history, and there are so many mentions of what I would consider second rate examples of artistic cruelty (see Tarantino) that surely some could have been edited out in favor of a broader multi-disciplinary inclusion.

I suggest the real reason for this omission is much more about the perceived meaning of music and sound and the way the listener and our culture at large connect with the sonic arts.

Nelson explores the idea of cruelty through many lenses, but the closest she gets to a thesis for the book comes towards the end when she discusses the artistic goals of painter Francis Bacon:

What is “deepest” for Bacon is sensation, not psychology.  And the peeling away of psychology from sensation occasions a certain sort of pain–the pain of extinguishing the story behind the suffering, and of contending directly with the sensation of suffering itself.

I find this quote to be illuminating because it so clearly shifts the onus of meaning into the viewer’s experience as opposed to the artists’ experience.  The experience of the viewer depends on their willingness to look at and acknowledge their own unease with the cruelty enacted in the art.   Whether the art is or is not connected to the artists’ own experience is besides the point.

There are plenty of reasons that we haven’t developed a culture of sensing sound as an experience.  In classical music, we connect to the ‘difficult’ sounds of late Beethoven, the Rite of Spring or Milton Babbitt to the composer or time period, tying dissonance or complexity to psychological or intellectual rationales.  Even those sounds that deal directly with noise (ie. Marianetti, Schaffer, Xenakis, Cage, Aphex Twin) are quaintly seen as byproducts of social forces, technology, multidisciplinary exercises and or politics.  So there is no room in the midst of these works to say, “the ugliness or pain is so upsetting that I must turn away,” thereby triggering one of what Nelson identifies as a prescribed response to cruelty: that it reveals to the viewer something inconvenient or more ‘truthful.’

Not to mention, it is harder to turn away from sound.  There is no real aural equivalent of shutting your eyes, something that Nelson acknowledges in her discussion of how Paul MaCarthy’s videos retain their power even when only heard and not seen.  And then there is the fact that when one engages with sound it is normally in a formal setting whose rituals exclude walking out (though surely many people ignore this rule).  Also, when we are talking about instrumental music without words or theater, there is a perceived understanding that music by itself allows room for the imagination to create its own images.  This is a sweet and misinformed idea that listeners use to make sense of the power of sound to infiltrate ones mind and reorganize beliefs and emotions. Finally, there are the technical hurdles to deeper musical appreciation, knowledge of decisions composers make that carry political or historical weight.  Perhaps Nelson simply feels she doesn’t know enough about the material of sound to place it within her rubric of cruelty.

One place where it would have been easier to connect her thesis into sound would have been the realm of opera.  I wonder what Nelson would think of the operas of Alban Berg, who uses the language of modernism to address the pain and isolation of war, sexual violence and madness.  Surely the violence of Wozzeck bears mentioning in a book that also addresses the politics of meat in Pink Flamingos? And what about the operas of Bernd Alois Zimmerman (Die Soldaaten), John Adams (The Death of Klinghoffer), not to mention the ritual performances of Diamanda Galas, which while not technically opera are certainly operatic.  Should Nelson’s book have been written a couple of years later, it would have been appropriate to include a critique of the flagrant melodrama of David Little’s ‘Dog Days’ or Missy Mazzoli’s forthcoming opera adaptation of ‘Breaking the Waves,’ a movie that Nelson chews over in her book.  

Of course there are other worlds of sound art, noise, drone, metal or hardcore music that would also seem relevant to a discussion of cruelty in art.  But Opera would seem to just as fully present that magical space of transformation for audiences to engage with the intensity of experience that Nelson so admires in the work of Francis Bacon and Sylvia Plath.  

— Aaron Siegel

Betrayed By Technology:  An Interview with Jason Cady

Jason Cady, one of the co-founders of EiO, composed his new opera ‘I Need Space’ for the upcoming Story Binge II at Merkin Concert Hall.  In advance of this premiere, we sat down with Jason to talk about his unique perspective how our lives in ‘the future’ are just a big disappointment, and how opera can and should be fun.

EIO: What’s your opera about?

CADY: I Need Space is about a couple, Janet and Ray, emigrating to Mars with their robot Model LNC500 and it takes place in 2016. One of the themes of the work is how disappointing the future has been. So it was important to look back from a perspective of how the future had been imagined back in the middle of the 20th century. In this piece, 2016 is utopian in certain ways: we’re migrating to other planets, we’ve got robots, jetpacks and hover cars. But despite the utopian aspects there are still problems because even if we go to utopia we’re still human and we’re still flawed.

EIO: Did you use different compositional styles to differentiate between the human and the robot?

CADY: I have a different time signature, tempo and key for each character as well as for when the characters are in dialogue with each other. I’m still working on how I’m going to do the voice of the robot but at the moment, I’m using a vocoder and ring modulating his voice which, if you know— what’s that British sci-fi show?

EIO: Doctor Who?

CADY: Yeah, Doctor Who! So in Doctor Who there’s the Daleks and their voices are ring modulated. I thought about retro sounds for the piece—although not necessarily retro compositional techniques; I try to avoid the clichés of modernism—but I wanted to only use equipment that was available in the ‘60s, for example, only analog oscillators, and spring reverb instead of digital reverb. And an interesting connection is that one of the inventors of the synthesizer, Don Buchla, also worked for NASA at the same time that he was developing his synthesizer.  So, I do feel a connection between space exploration and synthesis.

EIO: Do you feel like we’ve been betrayed by the technology we have now?

CADY: I think that we’ve been betrayed in that so many time saving and work saving devices have been developed, but instead of all of us working ten hours a week for a nice salary there’s just more and more productivity while we make less money than the previous generation. Instead of exploring outer space we’re glued to our iPhones, meanwhile income disparity is greater than ever.

EIO: There are very operatic themes in sci-fi, but I feel like people are hesitant to make sci-fi opera. There are always fantasy elements but there aren’t any spaceships in opera.

CADY: Yeah, there are not a lot of sci-fi operas, although ironically the term “space opera” is used for epics like Star Wars and Star Trek, but that’s supposed to mean “soap opera in space.” Most composers making opera today aren’t interested in fiction. They follow the model of John Adams (and to a lesser extent Philip Glass) and they make operas about recent historical events or biopics because they can’t think of anything original. For me, opera is about having a creative vision beyond music. It means coming up with stories and images and theatric ideas. People feel compelled to make projects that would have met the approval of their teachers. So adapting Shakespeare or making an opera about Walter Benjamin (which Ferneyhough did) is fine because that’s “serious.” But we can’t make comedy or sci-fi because art isn’t supposed to be fun.

Tricking You Into Opera:  An Interview with Nick Hallett

Composer/Vocalist Nick Hallett is a busy man.  On top of his regular work composing for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, he has just put the finishing touches on Scene 2 of his opera ‘To Music’ which will be performed at the upcoming Story Binge II on December 15 (tickets here).  We sat down with Nick to talk about ‘To Music’, his desire to subvert traditional narratives and the place of comedy in a tragic world.

EIO: Could you tell us what your piece is about.

HALLETT:  I think of To Music as a mapping of the creative process, but it also tells a very real story. It deals with a composer in his studio, and what happens when he’s trying to work and what distracts him. It’s also about and what keeps all of us composers from making music, and what music we make as a result of the distractions in our lives.

EIO:  The composer in your opera meets an admirer online. Do you feel like you’re making a comment about the future of online relationships?

HALLETT:  I’m interested in how the online experience affects the creative process and, at the same time, how it affects us on a very human level. It’s more about comparing how technology has changed our musical world and our world world.

EIO: What about the creative process you and Josh Thorson (video designer) are engaged in?

HALLETT: My agenda as a composer is to free up the voice from text. In order to do that in opera I tend to rely on video projection and what kinds of information the cinematic image can bring to the operatic stage. I collaborate with artists in the same way that a traditional composer works with a librettist.  Josh’s process is one I admire deeply and we have been working together for decades now.  He completes the storytelling process.

EIO: Do the singers still sing text?

HALLETT: Here and there. You’d be surprised by how little text was in scene one. I just trick you into thinking there are lots of words.  Perhaps I’m trying to avoid having people think they’re watching something experimental.

EIO: So it is experimental but you don’t realize it.

HALLETT: Well, I’m trying to introduce traditional narrative into an experimental matrix.

EIO: How would you describe the idea of traditional narrative?

HALLETT: Traditional narrative sets up a scene, introduces characters, creates conflict, stakes rise…theater! Opera tends to be different because of Music. I’m interested in creating an opera that mimics the storytelling devices of cinema and theater.

EIO: So people are going to be watching the second scene at Story Binge II. What are they going to be walking away with?

HALLETT:  There’s very little interaction between people in the opera and I imagine if people walk away with something specific it’ll be questions like “why don’t people connect with each other?” And “How do these people seem so alone and isolated?” I am trying to deal with reconciling this with music that has voices singing together.

EIO: Why did you decide to make this opera a comedy?

HALLETT:  I’m composing all this work with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company about what so often seems like the end of the world, so it makes me happy that I get to think about my little comedy—still a satire, still social commentary. It’s no less political because it’s funny. Did you see Dave Chappelle on SNL? George Carlin? Louis CK? What else do they make jokes about besides the most depressing stuff?

See the latest scene of To Music at Story Binge II at Merkin Concert Hall on December 15, 2016.

Riding and Talking: An Interview with Roddy Bottum

Roddy Bottum’s short opera The Ride will be featured on EiO’s upcoming Story Binge II at Merkin Concert Hall at the Kaufman Music Center on December 15, 2017 (tickets here).  We sat down with Roddy to discuss his piece, his wistful feelings about being part of an older generation, and why flutes, synthesizers and drums are the perfect musical accompaniment for a monotonous bike ride.

EIO: Tell us what your opera is about.

BOTTUM: My opera is called The Ride and it’s about two bicycle riders who are riding in a charity bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles to raise money for AIDS.  One of the riders is an older gentleman and the other a younger gentleman: two different generations raising money for AIDS riding side by side on bicycles. The opera to me is more about the generation gap between older gay men and younger gay men. The older generation of gay men who dealt with AIDS as a life threatening disease and were in the trenches for the first generation of the disease helped their friends get through life or death situations.  The generation of gay men today who are on PrEP drugs and TRUVADA don’t really view the disease as life threatening. It’s just a different relationship. And that, to me, is interesting.

EIO: You have done this ride a couple of times. What was it like to be on that ride?

BOTTUM: I’ve done the ride two times, and it really changed my life. It is a really miraculous experience. Geographically, the landscape from San Francisco to Los Angeles is the most beautiful landscape in the country.  And it is great to be surrounded by people who were only invested in this particular ride just to raise money and help people. It’s also interesting to me, what the brain does when you’re riding a bicycle for a long time. Your brain starts doing weird things. I have found it interesting to compose a libretto based around patterns and things you do in a cyclical way.  The music for The Ride is loop driven, which seems apt especially with subject matter of driving for long periods of time in a straight line. It’s really monotonous and I wanted to capture that.

EIO: The notion of conversations between generations is a fairly common thing, what does this dialogue mean to you personally, whether it’s about you as a musician or you as a gay man?

BOTTUM: For me, the story sort of transcends the actual disease. It’s not a story so much about AIDS. It’s more about a generation gap between older people and younger people. As a person getting older, I tend to look down on young people and I think that’s sort of a typical thing. An older man will say, “Oh when I was your age, you know, I had to buy my own records and hear ‘em for the first time and just spend money and like learn the record that way.” This attitude contrasts with the reality that kids today can just download music on the computer. It’s a weird place to be but I find myself going in that direction. That’s where this opera experience has taken me, dealing with my generation as a gay man as opposed to the younger generation of gay men and trying not to be judgmental and to keep an even keel with my ethics.

EIO: What do you want people in the audience to take away from this opera?

BOTTUM: I want to push a sense of history about the disease of AIDS. In one way, I think we can learn a lot from people who dealt with AIDS in the first generation.  And, at the same time I want to stress universality. It sounds crazy, but all people are created equal and are all open to the same risks and life threatening concepts that everyone else is.

EIO: The instrumentation for The Ride is really unique.  It’s probably the first piece ever to have four flutes, a drum set, a synthesizer and two singers. What was your thinking behind this instrumentation?

BOTTUM: When I approached the instrumentation of this opera I was just thinking about the theme of bike riding.   Kraftwerk’s “Tour de France,” is the quintessential bike sound to me. But for some reason flutes to me evoke the sort of bicycle spirit, I don’t know why, but that just was in my head. And using flutes and synths together felt super clean so I knew I had to dirty it up a little and add something organic and a little bit rough. Live drums felt like a good rhythm stabilizer to put in there.

The Ride will be premiered at Story Binge II on December 15, 2017.  Tickets are available here.

Bringing Agency to the Ancient: An Interview with Lainie Fefferman

Lainie Fefferman is a composer and vocalist and one of the five artists who are sharing work at Story Binge II at Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Music Center on December 15, 2016.  We met with Lainie to talk about White Fire, her song cycle for vocalist and electronics, and what its like to grapple with old stories using contemporary perspectives and musical tools.

EIO: What is the story of White Fire.

LAINIE FEFFERMAN: White Fire is starting out as three songs about the matriarchs of the Bible telling their stories in their own voice. I’ve been thinking about ways of re-owning Jewish texts in my work for quite a while, but specifically for this project I’m looking at biblical heroines and I’m trying to present their stories in their own voices. Usually the Hebrew Bible gives you little snippets and little guesses as to what these women were thinking and feeling but I decided to make a piece that really personifies the emotional takeaway of their first person narrative for me. It’s really personal but it’s also trying to give a voice to these matriarchs that are often sidelined in the biblical narrative.

EIO: And tell us about the three different songs and about the women who we’ll hear from.

FEFFERMAN: So the first song is based on the story of Rebecca, who will marry Isaac and be one of the matriarchs of the Bible. She leaves her tribe and her family and everything she knows in order to go marry Isaac who she’s never met, and she will be the mother of Jacob and Esau, the quarrelling brothers who will claim the Jewish birthright. Her story is full of adventure but also in my mind, a bit of defiance. Rebecca is really an independent spirit and a strong character.

The second song is about Lilith who is a large figure in modern feminism.  I am taking a Jewish perspective on Lilith, the character often described as the first woman before Eve. She is mated with Adam but very quickly decides that being coupled with Adam is not for her and exiles herself from Eden.  Even at God’s request she will not return to him.  God decides that her punishment will be for ten thousand of her children to die every day*.  She will give birth to ten thousand babies and they will die every day. That’s such strong imagery and that really resonated with me and I wanted to bring out the agony of that decision. That she has the personal agency to separate herself but she has this curse to contend with and the strength to bear it.

The last song is about Miriam. Miriam is the sister of Aaron and Moses and she is one of the figures in the Bible who really has a short shrift for being a strong leader of her people through slavery and exile. I’m responding specifically to her figuring in the later Jewish thought as bringing water to her people when they are in the desert when they’re wandering.  The imagery of her bringing water from a stone to give strength to her people in the desert is really powerful to me and the song hopefully evokes that sense of power and nurturing both.

EIO: Clearly you feel like very passionate about telling these stories, and I’m wondering if you could give us a little more of a sense as to why it’s so important to you?

FEFFERMAN: This project White Fire its really important to me because it’s a new branch of my musical career. I’ve written for other people to sing, I’ve written for myself singing in a larger context, but this is just me singing alone, with my laptop. This is all my doing, all my sounds, all my processing.  I’m really out there and vulnerable and it’s exciting but terrifying.

I’ve been thinking about the part that my Jewish identity has played in my music for a really long time, and this particular project is really focused on my identity as a Jewish woman – not as a Jewish thinker, or a Jewish musician, but as a Jewish woman. Women have gotten some really crappy positioning in Jewish thought, Jewish history, Jewish social structures, and in a very tiny way, telling these stories as a reinterpretation using first person voice makes me feel as though I’m claiming the tradition. I feel empowered personally, and I hope just hearing these songs other people will find their power too.

EIO: What are we going to hear as part of the music supporting the stories?

FEFFERMAN: As part of this one-woman band aspect of my project, I wanted a way to be triggering sounds on the computer in a very physical and obvious manner from the stage. I’m going to have these orbs hooked up to stands that I will hit with drumsticks and their job is to trigger the laptop to do something, so you’ll see me hit these orbs and sometimes they’ll sound like cowbell, sometimes like a bass drum, sometimes my singing, but I made the piece in a very consciously gestural way so that in the sense it’s a choreography as much as it is performing on an instrument.

EIO: How come you decided to use contemporary electronics for stories that are thousands of years old?

FEFFERMAN: When I started thinking musically about these stories it was a very different political environment. Especially now, I feel like bringing any power I can to my female identity. This is my language: electronics, virtual instruments, sound collages, synthesizers. This is my modern language and bringing these ancient stories to my own world and my own strength feels new and fresh and topical. It doesn’t feel like a historical exercise. It feels like something I need to do to feel comfortable in my own skin, to feel comfortable as an artist making work now. Even though these are ancient stories, I do feel like it is important to treat these women like the strong actors they were and not objects being acted upon.

*Note: Lainie says “I actually chose ‘ten hundred’ as the number of babies to be killed in my lyrics. Traditional texts I’ve seen use numbers ranging from 100 to 10,000.”

White Fire will be presented as part of Story Binge II on December 15.  Tickets are available here.

Sharing Many Stories in One: An Interview with Matthew Welch

Matthew Welch is one of the co-founders of Experiments in Opera and excerpts from his opera And Here We Are will be featured on the upcoming Story Binge II at Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Music Center on December 15, 2016.  We sat down with Matt to talk about his ideas and stories behind the work.

EiO:  Can you give us a sense of what your opera, And Here We Are is about and where the title comes from?

MATTHEW WELCH: And Here We Are is an opera about a burgeoning opera singer who gets interned in a concentration camp in the Philippines during WWII.  The title is a line from a Matthew Arnold poem called “Dover Beach”, and is a reference to the memoir that my great uncle, Edgar Kneedler, wrote of his time learning to become a musician and an opera singer in the Bay Area and also his time split between there and the Philippines. Most of this memoir consists of anecdotes, coping mechanisms so to speak, from his time in the Santa Thomas internment camp in Manila, Philippines in WWII.

EiO: So as a part of the evening program in Story Binge II, what part of the opera will we be seeing?

WELCH: At Story Binge II, we’ll be seeing a number of scenes that have been already explored in terms of Edgar Kneedler’s character, but the exciting part is that I’ll get to introduce a new character named Lieutenant Abiko.  Abiko represents the complicated tyranny structure within the Santa Thomas internment camp. He was the primary disciplinarian at the camp so it’s the first time in the opera that we get to enter into the mind of an antagonistic character.

EiO: In your writing about the opera, you have talked about how stories can be therapeutic. What do you mean by that?

WELCH: I believe that telling stories about traumatic events is one of the main ways to use narrative as a form to cope with the complexities of the world. This can be found in so many cultures where archetypes are developed to represent particular human experiences or particular human emotions.  And often, as is the case in this opera, we tend to mythologize our experiences as a way of connecting our particular actions and feelings with something that has meaning and is culturally relevant.  This way, we can identify as one of many people that are going through a similar struggle.

EiO: In your opera you made a point to include multiple points of view. Why is this kind of story sharing meaningful to you?

WELCH: It’s important to know that this particular opera narrative culls from many sources. It primarily draws on Edgar Kneedler’s memoirs, but it also includes anecdotes from my great-grandmother’s and great-grandfather’s memoirs. They were Edgar’s parents, also in the Philippines, and they were among a number of people who survived this internment camp. The librettist, Daniel Neer, made a decision to center the narrative around my great-uncle Edgar Kneedler.  But, since Daniel did quite the amount of research into other people’s anecdotes about the camp, he also included information from other internees’ memoirs and they all remembered things in different sequences, or with different emphasis. In a number of these other published books, Edgar Kneedler pops up quite a bit. So what Daniel was able to do was consolidate all of these into one quasi-fictive voice.  We were able to tell a number of people’s stories through a single narrative.

So, You Have an Idea for an Opera…

On our EiO website, we have a form where artists can submit proposals to be considered for our future seasons. We get a steady stream of opera pitches at this address every week and try to get back to everyone in due time. Since we find many similarities in how composers conceive of their projects, here are some helpful questions to consider as you embark on the initial planing stages of your project.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but should spark some thoughts and/or ideas. Also, our questions are mainly geared towards first time opera-makers who may be working independently of a large institution. (If you already have a commission for a piece to be performed at the Met Opera, you probably know this stuff already):

  1. Can you fully describe your opera in a single sentence?

    • While it’s not likely that any large project can be fully captured in a single sentence, it is wise to have a way to share the story, ideas, characters of your piece so succinctly that others can remember it when they try to tell their friends and associates about it.
  2. What is the projected scale of your work?

    • Production scale is a key question when estimating how much funding you will need to realize your operatic vision. Our recommendation is to organize your idea around a moderately sized ensemble of singers and instrumentalists. Is there an existing ensemble in mind? If this is your first opera, a limited scale can facilitate getting your project off the ground.
  3. What kind of budget are you imagining for your work?

    • Talking about money is tough, so it might not be the best idea to bring up your proposed budget during your first pitch, but one is often better off having a preliminary budget when starting a collaboration with a producer. Perhaps you haven’t thought of everything that you may eventually need, but at least you can begin organizing your ideas around the main constraint of independent opera.
  4. What would be your visual or theatrical strategy?

    • We get most of our pitches from composers, so we don’t expect production or costume sketches, but we do find it important that someone has given some thought to the overall look of their piece. When sending a proposal, it is helpful to include a photo or drawing, even if it is just something you found online. Opera is a multi-disciplinary form, so demonstrating one’s ability to imagine the work beyond the music is key.
  5. How can you share your ideas before they become too fully-formed?

    • We almost never choose to work with pieces that are completely finished. A finished piece gives the producer very little chance to make an impact on the terms and quality of a piece. Reach out to collaborators as you begin a project to maximize room for conversation and investment. You may believe that it is best to wait until the piece is fully formed to share, but you should realize that this approach limits the possibilities of others to get involved.
  6. Are you able to clearly articulate what you have to offer as a partner?

    • Most successful projects include multiple parties bringing their strengths to the table. You may be looking for an opera production company to fundraise for and promote your project. But if you are an active artist you probably have relationships, audiences, musicians and other established resources that will also bolster the project. Be clear about what you are bringing to the table as you begin your project. We can also suggest artists from our network to help round out the initial collaborative partnerships.
  7. How well do you know the organization that you are pitching?

    • You should avoide sending a proposal for a full orchestra, chorus, and 8 soloists to an organization that only works in small theaters.   Before you send in your proposal, get to know the organization you are pitching to. This means not only perusing their website, but also, if you are serious, going to at least one of their performances.  Not every organization operates the same way, so you want to make sure you can use language and ideas that are pinpointed to a specific group of readers.

— Aaron, Jason and Matt

Outcome to Show Them

As an artist, I often bristle at the idea of an outcome.  My work as a composer is the outcome. That musicians have music on their stands and the resulting sounds were as I intended is the outcome.  For a painter an outcome might be a painting. For a writer, poem.  

But for another segment of our artsosphere (the system of institutions, funders, presenters, etc.) the idea of an outcome is much more nuanced and varied.  Outcomes are a part of most grant applications and often come up when talking to donors.  Governments and board members also really want to know what came out of your work as an artist.  Instead of just music on a stand and the sounds in the ears of the audience, let’s take a moment and think about what else is impacted by this supposedly simple act.  

For one, I am impacted as the artist who made the work.  It may have taken me months to make that work, during which time everything in my life was at least tangentially related to the work.  From the food I ate, the books I read and the conversations I had with friends and peers, my work on the new piece changed things.  In an overly dramatic way, my life will never be the same.

How about the musicians themselves (and as an opera composer I mean both those musicians in the pit and on the stage), how have they been impacted on by this new set of markings on paper?  Chances are, the new piece relates somehow to the music they have read or acted before.  But there may be instances where they need to use their imagination to connect more deeply to new material that has no precedent.  The musicians are being asked to grow into the new music and alongside it, entering into a dialogue with it.  This too changes them.  It affects their aesthetic sensibilities (for good or bad), and may even impact on their physical facility with their instruments.  


The audience has less of a sustained experience with the work, but seeing it after all the work is done sustains the audience’s experience of the work as miraculous.  The experience of awe is something that the musicians and composer most likely are unable to have with a piece they have sweated so intensely over.  (Isn’t it always better to just eat the sausage without seeing it stuffed?).  The audience then can be shocked into a heightened state by the brief engagement with the work.  The audience might also be more likely to talk with others about the work (water coolers anyone?) thereby creating a ripple effect within a larger community.  This is representative of another iteration of the work, this time filtered through a more personal lens.

The outcomes of these impacts together are an ecosystem of engagement, personal and cultural adjustments to novel presentations, and a ‘making of room’ within communities for new voices to dictate the topics, tone, duration and ideas of their story.  

One other thing of note to this discussion is the question of duration and its meaning to the projected outcomes.  It is fairly safe to say that most of the impacts described above are fleeting and easily replaced by whatever next occupies the energy and imagination of the involved parties.  Much of the research about impact says that real change is not so much a result of programs or in this case the art being made.  Instead, the sustainable change comes from the relationships built around the art work.  This approach emphasizes further the need for composers to stay with their musicians and audiences for prolonged periods of engagement and re-engagement to make the kind of impact that that we all want to make in the world.  We make art to create and reflect on meaningful experiences, ideas and stories.  We should recognize the potential that this work has to be part of our collective world in lasting ways.

– Aaron Siegel

Research and Disruption

For a certain kind of dreamer,  Bell Laboratories feels like the Land Of Oz.  The scientists working at the Princeton, New Jersey campus were the technology explorers of their time.  In tandem to the basic telephony services that their colleagues on the other side of campus were administering, the engineers at the labs developed some of the most essential technologies of the 20th century leading to awarding of eight Nobel Prizes for Bell Labs scientists over its 100 year history.

The idea of Research and Development (R & D) has been around for longer than Bell Labs, but has been embraced by technology companies over the last 50 years in hugely influential ways.  Think of unmanned drones, iPhones, GoogleGlass and self-driving cars and you will soon understand why technology designers are on the edge of innovation in the spirit of the artistic Avant-Garde.  Through their work, we have evolved as a culture in ways that can only be rivaled by the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century.

But what about the artistic Avant-Garde? What about the institutions that have, for the past 300 years, first bucked then gradually accepted its ‘breakthroughs’ as part of the accepted evolution of art and culture?  In some parts of the art world (mainly the visual arts), we can find plenty of examples of new research and development pushing curatorial practices, exhibition schedules, capital projects and marketing.  This continued support for newness and exploration in the visual art world is mostly driven by the object-oriented obsessions of collectors.  In music and theater, however, where tickets sold are the measure of financial stability, the cultural institutions have adopted a significantly more conservative stance that all but relegates research and development to a successful subscription series, production or festival, preferring to cordon off their explorations into low-risk, half-hearted attempts to find a younger and hipper audience.

Part of the appeal of R & D in the world of technology is the David and Goliath myth, which posits that small scrappy thinkers can disrupt the hegemony and economic models of the ‘big boys’ and refresh both the creators and consumers of materials and ideas.  Nowadays, all major players in the tech market must maintain their campus of wild experiments in order to find their strategic next-steps as ideas and consumers churn.

So why don’t all the major Opera Houses, Symphonies and Presenters absorb the lessons of technology companies and create true R & D departments to help shape their strategies and audiences?  The answer is simple: too many failures.  I don’t know the statistics, but I imagine for every R & D success, there are likely many, many ‘failures.’  And as those of us in the arts world are aware, the ‘failures’ lose money and are very difficult to defend to board members and donors eager to be a part of something hugely successful.  And yet, what if true and sustainable success can only be found in one of the experiments that are undertaken by intrepid explorers toiling away in a safe environment of the R & D campus?  

Part of my interest in this question is in the work that Experiments in Opera does as a kind of research and development organization: big artistic risk-taking using moderate financial support and working hard to maintain a spirited and well-documented conversation that can inform future explorations.   This work is full of peril and plenty of ‘failures’ but always reaching towards the kind of disruption that could radically re-frame the status quo.

For now, we can only dream about what life might look like on our own artistic campus where risks are applauded and failure understood as part of the process of success. Until large cultural institutions embrace R & D as central to their strategies for growth, I will reserve my pity for the corded telephone, alone and dusty on the basement shelf in Princeton, NJ, still asking “what happened?”

— Aaron Siegel

The Straight Story? (pt. 1)

The conversation we have most frequently at Experiments in Opera is about how to prioritize narrative in opera.  Jason, Matt and I each come to opera with different sensibilities about how important the narrative is to the experience of music and story.  Composers we work with tend to fall into the same two camps that we outline in our regular programming discussions: 1) the Straight Story camp where the characters in the opera talk to each other and move directly along a narrative timeline throughout the opera; or 2) The Poetry camp where the singers may or may not be identifiable characters or have a A–>B narrative to act out, but instead ideas or images that speak through abstract ideas and sounds.

The dialogue between these two approaches to narrative seems rather common in the world of opera in general, but also in the world of storytelling on screens.  Because EiO looks to screen-oriented media as a benchmark of how audiences engage with characters and stories in the 21st Century, I think it helpful to take a closer look at a couple of popular ways that these shows work with narrative.  Rather than fit into the binary approaches of ‘narrative’ and ‘poetry’ these shows generate their stories through other information that is embedded in the DNA of their approaches.


Storytelling through Occupation

One of the most regularly accessible ways of orienting narratives is around characters.  I love the (now) HBO series High Maintenance for its innovative use of a single character to tie together completely separate narratives created for each episode.  But the more interesting aspect of this approach is the fact that the stories are connected not so much through who the character is, but by what he does. The Guy is a drug dealer and he delivers drugs to the characters who inhabit each episode.  That’s it.  That’s all that ties these episodes together, but it works so well…


Storytelling through Place

I have been particularly struck this fall by the show Atlanta, which is ostensibly about three friends, but is ultimately about the place of their interactions (you guessed it), Atlanta.  This show feels different and looks different, and not only because of the almost exclusively African-American cast, but because, for a change, the action isn’t taking place in New York or Los Angeles.   I haven’t spent much time in Atlanta, so I can’t say whether the depiction is accurate, but the narrative seems driven by a series of physical dichotomies: Country/City, Middle Class homes/Public Housing, interiors/exteriors.


Storytelling through Premise

This approach may seem like its a no-brainer, but it is really important that some stories are clearly more about generating new ideas through a premise than the characters themselves.  Rick and Morty, an animated series on Adult Swim, is an interesting example of this approach.  Yes, Rick is nuts and yes Morty is naive, but the whole idea of their relationship, love and investment in each other is what drives this hallucinogenic series that explores the power of multi-generational relationships and science.


These are three examples of how to mess with narrative and storytelling in novel and experimental ways.  There are so many other examples on screens these days, that we plan on highlighting some more series in another post.  What series should we make sure to include?


On Solving Problems

When Composers Make Opera

Joe Diebes – Pt. 2

Joe Diebes – Pt. 1