NewMusicBox.org has published a piece I wrote on my secret life working in the trades. It’s not unusual to swing a hammer to pay the bills, but it IS unusual to do so and then carefully arrange dots on staff paper for recreation.
I’m quite pleased to announce that my collaborative project with The Vandelé Quartet and Kale Beaudry will be screened at 2pm on October 28th at the Director’s Cut International Film Festival. Go Team!
“A vile and corrupt banquet spills out like a drift of soggy pigs, threatening the etiquette and decorum of a luncheon that was almost nice enough for you to be invited to. As dinner guests Percy and Penny VonKrapp make mayhem into the table cloth, those on the sidelines can no longer stand idly by and are called to act.
Patrick Stewart Bakes A Cake tells the tale of good and evil colliding in a surreal skirmish around the dinner table — the armies warring with cutlery instead of swords, and over fine linen instead of land.
At stake? Dinner as we know it”.
Thanks to the quartet – I love that you guys are game for anything. And I love that you made my music sound so good.
Thanks to Creative BC for your funding help – we couldn’t have done it without you.
Thanks to Pyatt Hall, the Wise Hall, and The Western Front – Vancouver need a more venues like you.
Thanks Kale Beaudry – you are a warrior and your camera chops are your sword.
Thanks Don Harder and Marco Del Rio for your help on the recording – and extra thanks to your ears.
Thanks to Chelsea for your gorgeous cakes – one day we will eat some together instead of destroying them.
Thanks Kia and Josh for allowing yourselves to be pelted with cake and milk for two hours.
Thanks to everyone in Vancouver that I’ve collaborated with over the past decade. It’s been a privilege to work with so many great people.
AND THANKS MOM!
There isn’t a person alive whose opinion on music has any weight beyond however much an opinion weighs (I patiently await science’s answer to that one) and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is about to try and sell you something. That being said, we all know it when we hear it: our pulse quickens, our toes tap, and our hips yaw wildly on the dance floor. We can even resort to measuring the dopamine levels in your body to prove that you really do like listening to what you’d never admit to. .
Somehow, despite the measurable effects of good music, the weight of someone’s personal preference will always outweigh anything you can stack against it. If it’s my opinion that Brahms wrote the greatest Symphonic literature of the nineteenth century, then your opinion that listening to Brahms is like taking a giant shit without the satisfaction of having accomplished anything is equally valid. Historically, parties in conflict over whose music was good have manifested this conflict in everything from their politics to physical violence. Conviction in good music once drove Pierre Boulez to interrupt concerts by banging a hammer on the wall and for the Chicago White Sox to host a “Disco Demolition Night” where sport was made of blowing up a crate of disco records. Passionate rhetoric and action has always existed in favour of and against good music but ease of access has made a nuisance of using it divisively.
I’d like to take a step back for a moment and imagine a world where opportunities to discover new music are as limited as our access to pornography (A red herring – they’ve always been perfectly correlated!). In this fantastical place, various gatekeepers control the mass consumption of music and the only way to discover new music is to first know that it exists and get a physical copy of it into your hands. It may surprise you to learn that this mythical place was, for a period of time, unerringly real and occupied a little known nook of history that began sometime in the 90s end extended back to the birth of humanity.
In the 90s and possibly a little bit before as well as after, the Internet happened. But it didn’t just appear suddenly, like a bad smell. It oozed in slowly, like a slightly better smell. It insinuated itself into our existence so discretely that we now have trouble remembering life without it. This ubiquity has had enormous power in smoothing out what were once sharp divides in music appreciation. It used to be that if you listened to rock and roll, you definitely didn’t listen to disco; if you listened to Nirvana, you definitely didn’t listen to Green Day; and if you listened to Berg you definitely didn’t listen to Vivaldi. Your listening habits were a part of how you would identify yourself and “listening wrong” or being accused of “listening wrong” could be construed as offensive and get you socially shanked. Thanks to the internet, modern listeners know little of these divides. Making music available online has somehow neutered the social pressure to listen a certain way. People who appreciate music now have listening habits as diverse as they are. This diversity makes it almost impossible to segregate a group based on their listening habits. To do so would be an impossible exercise.
I am nostalgic for a time when the only way to get access to music was through the record store and live concerts. A part of me believes that making it easier doesn’t necessarily make it better and that people will ascribe more value to something if they have to work for it. Will I cherish the recording, available on Youtube, of Richter’s Moscow performance of Ravel’s Miroirs as much as the concert patrons who braved a Russian winter for the same experience? I’m doubtful. But as a composer, my goal is to share my music with as many people as possible so how can I criticize a society that’s made the task easier than ever? It’s not really something I’m able to answer and tying myself into knots about it is akin to a fish trying to disprove the existence of water. Instead, it might be more productive to be thankful that your classical music loving peers don’t ostracize you for listening to early AFI and your punk rock friends don’t spontaneously bleed from their foreheads when they discover a stack of Purcell records in your home.
I am slightly obsessed with the score for Benji Britten’s Peter Grimes. It does a great many of the things that I wish all opera could do but stubbornly refuses to or can’t. Luckily for all of us, we have an upcoming opportunity to experience a concert performance by The Vancouver Symphony.
I must confess, I don’t actually consider myself an opera fan. It’s a genre that fills me with conflict. When it’s good, it’s the most amazing thing in the world. When it’s bad, it’s melodramatic and painful to sit through. Or worse. It’s also a possibility that my love and hate vacillations put me firmly on the opera fan spectrum. Most of them are similarly tortured by how good it can be and how difficult it is to get there.
Peter Grimes is a score that captures me so easily that I am rarely even tempted to escape its clutches. As far as opera goes, I consider it to be quite accessible. If you’re new to opera, you should be prepared to have your boundaries challenged as the music and subject matter are quite heavy. But there’s also a lot about it that makes it accessible to opera neophytes. A warning to readers: some plot spoilers follow.
The music is a very hooky.
Opera always strives for melody but it doesn’t always care about hooks. I assure you that, as confident as I am about the fact that I mostly wear pants, I am equally confident that melodies and hooks are very different. A melody is a sequence of musical notes that has some kind of internal logic to it that satisfies in some way. A hook can also be that, but it can also be a subsection of a melody or barely even a melody at all.
The chorus of Ke$ha’s, “tik tok” is a hook – but is it a melody? Barely. If it weren’t for the auto-tune you probably wouldn’t even realize she was mostly only singing one note.
Rivers Cuomo of Weezer has arguably one of the great melodic gifts in rock music – and a great gift for hooks as well. It’s very much on display in the iconic, “Buddy Holly”.
Samuel Barber wrote a behemoth hook delivery when he wrote the Adagio of his string quartet. But his music is peppered with hooks. A famous passage about two and a half minutes in to his violin concerto (Played here by Isaac Stern) is a pile driver to the nucleus of our listening apparatus.
Peter Grimes is full of hooks: the four interludes that interpolate the whole work; the a-cappella duet after the opening court scene; Peter’s “Now The Great Bear” aria; the recitative patter in the pub scene; the mob scene; Mrs. Sedley’s chromatic aspersions; and who could forget “Old Joe Has Gone Fishing”?
The story and characters are plausible.
Early opera is almost obliquely about gods and goddesses god-ing and goddess-ing. So much so that when Mozart burst forth with operas about the servant class snarkily making their masters look like fools it caused a bit of a scandal. However an element of the fantastical persisted with Mozart’s operas. People didn’t really behave like you would expect people to behave and situations that arose didn’t really run their course in a believable way.
This break with reality works on the opera stage because the whole medium is a bit fantastical. However, it’s a little jarring to modern listeners who have been raised on film. This modern audience can be quite critical of the believability of their fiction and when they bring that savvy to the concert hall it can make a connection to the music more challenging. I can certainly sympathize. I mean, how many times have you confused a close family member with a complete stranger because they wore a different hat? Many of Mozart’s operas rely on the audience’s ability to accept a complete lack of realism at the drop of a hat in order to move the story forward.
This just isn’t so with Peter Grimes. The story stands on it’s own as far as believability and depth (#NoSpoilers)
It takes full advantage of opera’s unique story telling powers
Instead of providing a tableau of songs for us to absorb, the opera takes advantage of the medium itself to help tell the story in ways other mediums couldn’t easily duplicate. Or if they did, they would look silly; like a goose wearing a neck tie, or a trombonist without a case of beer in their hand.
In the first act, when we’re fresh off hearing Britten’s instrumental storm interlude, we’re treated to the residents of the Burrough taking shelter from the storm in a local tavern. Every time a character comes in the door, we hear the storm music from the interlude rage until the door slams shut. If this were film, we would have a CGI hurricane bellowing through the door but as this opera – the orchestra BECOMES the storm.
Also in the tavern scene is Peter’s “Now The Great Bear” aria in-which we get a glimpse of Peter’s internal turmoil. The music is one of the most moving passages in the whole opera. It’s a very unique piece of music that features an Eflat pedal tone that hovers in the air for what feels like just long enough before dropping. When the piece is over, the other patrons of the tavern admonish him for being drunk and Auntie’s Nieces sing that his song is “sour” on the same pedal tone featured in the aria. We, the audience, hear Peter’s torture but the townsfolk are hearing a man ranting and raving like a lunatic.
Later, when the residents of the Burrough form a posse to hunt down Peter, the curtain comes down on the them calling his name in one of the loudest fortissimo’s in all of opera. When we eventually meet up again with Peter on the beach, he’s gone completely mad. The sounds of the posse can be heard off stage but the harmony is altered and the dynamic much more subdued. The posse could be far away, or it could be a reflection of Peter losing his grip with his reality.
If you’re reading this, it’s in a language you understand.
This is actually a bigger deal than you think, but if the vast majority of opera is in a language other than your native tongue than it’s no wonder you wouldn’t connect with it. There’s something about the connection of meaning to sound as it leaves someone’s mouth that makes it more special to us. And if it weren’t special, why would we bother with singing at all? To their credit, performance organizations try to overcome this hurdle with the addition of a live textual translation, but it’s not the same.
The simple act of looking away from the stage to figure out what’s going on jars you back into reality – putting you back in a concert hall instead of the music on stage. They’re helping us understand what going on but they’re not always helping us connect to the voice of that person in that moment. The only way around the problem is to know the language and be there in the moment. And we really ARE talking about a moment here, in the span of time it takes you to look up and comprehend a translation, you’re gone. It’s a frustrating problem that doesn’t really have a simple solution.
The Vancouver Symphony performs a the music from Peter Grimes on Saturday, June 9th and 11th at 8pm at the Orpheum Theatre. I’ll be in the second row.
Our video shoot is now two weeks old and I feel like it was a lifetime ago. In case your scroll button is stuck in a reclined position, I should let you know that I recently embarked on an epic effort to produce a music video for my string quartet, Patrick Stewart Bakes A Cake.
The Vandelé Quartet is Louise Lee & Zoë Robertson, violins; Genevieve MacKay, viola; and Bryan Deans, cello. It seems like only yesteryear they read through the piece for the first time in my living room. As it usually happens, if you let enthusiasm run rampant (And mix it with a pinch of ambition and discipline) things tend to escalate before your very eyes.
Effacing what might have been a pretty straightforward and conventional day of shooting are Percival and Penny VonKrapp. When Percy and Penny come to dinner it’s not so much a question of if there is enough food to eat but rather how quickly the host can evacuate the rest of their guests.
I counted myself lucky to have the talented cinematographer, Kale Beaudry working with me on this project. I have lots of ideas for how things should look and how they can happen but what I needed most was a guiding hand to show me what works and what is pure lunacy but also works.
We were mostly after the latter.
But really, the piece is about a culinary confection. What happens to our penultimate pastry? A delicious denouement? Mayhem? Expanding waistbands?
Follow this space to find out!
Supported by Creative BC and the Province of British Columbia
I’m inhabiting a space between a sublime panic and a frantic serenity. For the past few months I’ve been helping with preparations for a film shoot for my string quartet, Patrick Stewart Bakes A Cake. The first film date is tomorrow.
Did I remember everything?
Did I forget anything?
Will all of this amount to something?
These are the questions that both excited, delight, and keep me awake all night.
My first experience recording with the pros – the Vandelé Quartet playing; Don Harder, engineering; and “The Don” Marco Del Rio producing.