Let’s hear it for Abumrad and Kurlwich! NYReview of Books shout-out for RadioLab!

This blog has been silent for a bit. It has to do mainly with the fact that each and every one of us has been plunged into a ton of work lately. I was diverted from writing to put on my production manager hat for the American Composer Orchestra‘s opening concert on the 15th (which rocked!). Jocelyn just had a concert last night with her partner in crime Eleanor (known as Two Sides Sounding) presenting music from a collective of composers known as the South Oxford Six. As for Kelley… god knows. Aside from the trials of socializing a kitten she rescued from the streets of Roseboom she’s fighting the good fight to ensure that the people of New York City Opera understand what the singers onstage are singing for the upcoming “A Quiet Place”. Andrew Wilkowske? He’s probably doing nothing. Lazy singer… actually I’m fairly certain he was called in last-minute to sing Dandini in Minnesota Opera‘s upcoming “La Cenerentola”. I’m currently rewriting all numbers of our opera as patter songs that run at a minimum of 144 beats-per-minute as a nod to Mr. Rossini. And to torture Andy.

All of this to say – we’ve been busy. BUT. This should not distract us from the important task pointing out that Jad Abumrad and Robert Kurlwich got a major shout-out (along with many other amazing talents in Public Radio) for their work on RadioLab in the New York Review of Books. These two are, of course, responsible for the fact that we even heard about the story of Lucy and Maurice Temerlin. Congrats to them!

Ok. Back to work.

old school take-aways

John’s coverage of our latest adventure was so thorough that there isn’t much left for me to say. But I’d like to briefly highlight a few of the elements that, from my perspective, made for an afternoon of extraordinarily productive music-making:

1. Economy. The basic musical material came down to a simple V-I pattern in c-minor and g-minor. But with variations in orchestration and meter, plus a few key solos, it stretched into a wonderfully varied, colorful narrative.

2. Good collaborators. Not only did these kids bring some serious chops, they brought a real thoughtfulness to the process — and a real empathy for Lucy. (Don’t miss the blog post from Marlise, immediately before this.) And Alexander, our guitar player, just sent me this link.

3. Toy piano. I have never seen seen a better icebreaker. No one could keep their hands off the thing. I’m glad we made the effort to transport and load it in to the venue.

thoughts from one of the old-school musicians…

One of our rockers from the workshop upstate asked me to post her thoughts about the music we created up on the blog. So here it is:

“Lucy was the spirit of our whole jam session. I can’t speak for all of us, but for me, I was thinking about how she must have felt while drinking. The song we ended up playing began as something sort of upbeat and happy, but the sax solos reminded us of the sad undertone. Lucy may have been happy but she was also treated as something that she could never be. We laughed at the stories of Lucy being brought to parties and grocery stores, but really, it’s all quite disgusting. The “drinking song” had that happy beginning (our laughter) and then bangs into a harsh and random tune, featuring organ ( which represented what I thought as I rolled the story of Lucy around in my head) but although the story is devastating in some ways, it’s easier to laugh at the funny parts than cry over something that could never change (which is why we twirl right back to the happy tune!).”

-M Schneider

keeping it real upstate… old school style…

This weekend I had the opportunity to travel upstate to the village of Cherry Valley NY to do a composition workshop with some crazy-talented musicians. The whole affair was a part of my grant from the kind folks at Meet the Composer. These musicians ranged from middle-school to high-school age and came from all kinds of different musical backgrounds. There was a fantastic classical guitarist, some cool rocker chicks, and a few mean keyboardists who seemed to have a jazz/improv streak in them.

Kelley, my partner-in-crime and word-smith-extraordinaire, has been a long-time resident up there (technically she lives in the HAMLET of Roseboom and not the VILLAGE of Cherry Valley, but these details are as unimportant as the confusion I’m caused by trying to understand the difference between hamlet and village) and had told me a bit about an arts non-profit group called the ‘Old School Cherry Valley’. The group’s name has little to do with the fact that they are keeping it for reelz on the streetz of CV (though they are, ‘aight?) and more to do with the fact that they do all sorts of different arts programs in a building on the main drag of the village which is a converted old school.

So, within this organization are two cool folks: Carl and Richard, who teach music to many of the kids in the village. We thought it might be fun to have a composer from the sadly-gentrified avenues of NYC come up and try to keep it real on the streetz of CV with a workshop on composing. With a monkey on our minds, we centered the workshop on the interaction between music and words. A week prior to the workshop, I emailed the kids a few short excerpts from the libretto and asked them to set some, all, or part of the excerpts to music. Then we’d all get together and flesh out the ideas and make some music together. We didn’t end up having any singers in the group, so everyone worked on creating instrumental numbers inspired by the text. Not surprisingly, of all the texts I sent, most of them had gravitated heavily towards the excerpt discussing Lucy’s alcoholism….

Lucy is an ideal drinking companion

Lucy is an ideal drinking companion.

She makes sounds of great delight

when offered a drink.

The only liquor I have seen her refuse

is straight crème de menthe.

She never gets obnoxious,

even when smashed

to the brink of unconsciousness.

On the day of the workshop, we started by talking a bit about Lucy and about the opera-in-progress. Then Kelley and I asked them questions about what they thought of the texts we’d sent and what kind of music they had thought would work well with it.

On to the drunk chimp….

Our keyboardists sprinted for the piano and synth to start up what they had thought perfectly created the image of a drunken chimp, a kind of bawdy ‘sea shanty’ lilting about in ¾ in c minor.

Alright. This will work… before long an acoustic guitar appeared (lovingly mic’d to compete with the rest of the ensemble) and the very-cool-rocker-chicks grabbed their basses and drums. This minor-key off-kilter waltz did paint a nice picture of Lucy’s habit, but it started to get a bit boring… going on and on and on…

In a remarkably collaborative spirit they began to craft a more interesting structure for the piece: a slow drinking waltz, then some big crashes on the drum (Lucy spills her drink?) to a weird demented up-tempo bit with an organ solo (Lucy having a bit too much fun) and then after a few more crashes, a strange silence, then drifting back into the tipsy waltz.

Very perceptive.

They figured you could probably go back to the same material again but it would sound quite different after the frenzied middle section. Drum sticks in hand, one of the musicians explained to me “It’ll seem really funny at first, and then when it comes back it won’t seem funny any more, it’ll sound kind of creepy”. The basic lesson of the power of repetition when placed in different contexts. I think there are a number of graduate-level composition seminars at various Music Institutions that could have benefited from the wisdom bestowed by these 12-16 year old musicians.

Back to work.

Orchestrational choices were made. Frenzied as the middle section was, you couldn’t hear the crucial organ solo. So the other keyboard picked a different sound sample that was punchier, and the drummer played on the rims and various meal objects that gave the right sound to stay “under” the solo. One of the two bassists abandoned her post to obtain a pair of brushes to play on the snare drum. “It sounds like little feet running around”, she explained. She was right. There was the pitter-patter of chimp feet slip-sliding on the floor put right into the music. Our guitarist added some wild and weird slides in the middle section as well, which gave the right touch of mayhem to the music. When the waltz returned, they decided to thin things out, let it fade away until only a guitar was left strumming a once-amusing but now-creepy waltz figure.


While our composition isn’t quite ready for top-40 radio airwaves, what we got was a great number that sounded a bit like a drunken memory of a circus long-gone. Also perceptive on their part. Lucy was born of circus-chimp parents, and bound for a career in show business until taken by the Temerlins to be raised in the strange scenario of a suburban home. Even if she had no memories of the circus (the Temerlins DID adopt her on day 2 of her life) one can’t avoid the circus-like quality of a tipsy chimp stumbling about a living room after one-too-many gin and tonics “smashed / to the brink of unconsciousness”…

I’m scribbling this post while headed back to the city on a train, trees to my left, Hudson River out the window on my right. As I’m recounting the sequence of events I’m a bit humbled by the talent I got to spend a few hours with Sunday afternoon. This group, from many disparate musical styles, sat down and created a solid piece of music together that vividly told the story of one episode in Lucy’s life.  And had fun doing it.

As I smile I realize I’m speeding back home to half-finished numbers in the piece and even some blank staff paper patiently waiting on my writing desk… I’ve got my work cut out for me, but I’m armed with the inspiration of a weekend spent with some pretty amazing musicians.

C is for cookie…

Yesterday I joined our fearless ensemble Redshift at the New Music Bakesale in Brooklyn. “What is a New Music Bakesale?”, you ask? Well… have a look for yourself

The spirit of the event was great. I mean let’s be serious… there were cookies, and beer, and a line-up of great performers playing new works by fellow composers. Though I’ve known for some time that you can’t throw a dead cat in NYC without hitting a composer or a newly-formed ensemble of musicians performing new work, it was a little shocking to see just how many groups there were at this event. In a good way. It really put to bed all that nonsense about how “music is dead” “no one cares about new music” and all those other nay-saying defeat-isms… someone must be listening, because there were a lot of freshly baked goods in that place…

Rose Bellini (cellist of Redshift) and her husband Jim Holt (composer and pocaster) definitely brought their A-game to the Redshift table. There were chocolate-peanut-butter-cookie bars, butterscotch bars, molasses cookies, oatmeal currant cookies (ok, those I made…), and even home-baked dog treat cookies from our friend Barbara. Perhaps most triumphant was Jim’s $1 milk shots to accompany the baked goods…

Here’s MIVOS Quartet playing Anna Clyne and Wolfgang Rhim amidst the munching…

And here’s Rose attempting her best suzy-homemaker…

ok. the cookies were great Rose, but next time maybe let’s not use your super-slippery plates when proudly displaying the merchandise…

disclaimer: no cookies were harmed in the making of this photo.

a chimp by any other name

Lucy sits in the cart as we shop at the grocery store.

Occasionally a manager will say

“No pets allowed.”

We are indignant.

“Lucy is not a pet.

She is our daughter.”

In most cases, that suffices.

Andy was in town this week for a concert with the Five Boroughs Music Festival, which gave him, John and Jocelyn some time to work and play with some segments of Our Basic Nature. Sadly, I wasn’t able to join them, but I did get to spend some time with John, Andy and another old friend from Glimmerglass on Tuesday evening.

At one point John remarked that everywhere he goes, people invariably ask, “How’s the monkey opera?” or, “You’re the one who’s writing that monkey opera, right?” We’re not sure whether to be worried about the fact that no one knows it by name.

Our friend, also named John, looked at us and said, “Well, why don’t you just call it Monkey?”

The obvious — and somewhat pedantic — answer is: because Lucy wasn’t a monkey.

But John (not the composer) always has a knack for making you reconsider conclusions that seemed unquestionable only moments before. Monkey. Clearly it’s something that’s easy for people to latch on to. And though you could say it’s just wrong (because Lucy wasn’t a monkey), you could also argue that it’s just right for a piece that is about confusing roles and relationships across species.

So far, of all the choices we’ve faced, I think the title has been the hardest. We went back and forth and round and round, and finally Our Basic Nature seemed to be the best choice. But the fact of the matter is, everything about the work is in progress.

Why don’t we just call it Monkey? Hmmm…

first rehearsal

Andy just left after our first rehearsal on the music for the project.  In its present form, the piece we looked at (the final movement from Our Basic Nature, entitled “The Power to Ask Questions”) is scored for five instruments plus voice:  Piano, toy piano, violin, cello and clarinet.  As this was a virgin reading for both of us, I played through the vocal line together with the piano part first, subsequently adding various instruments to get a sense of the big picture.  Even in small snippets, the music that began to emerge is gorgeous.

Our curiosity piqued, and seeing as how Andy and I are both Garage Band geeks, I asked him for help laying down each track so that at the end of 45 minutes, we had a composite sound at our fingertips for how the piece might sound in a first reading with REDSHIFT.  Some of the things I love best about John’s music introduced themselves even in this short reading:  an ambient sound that is at once grounded and ethereal, attention to color, texture, and tone, and effortlessness.

think small… thoughts about miniatures of all sorts…

Over the weekend I found a perfect excuse to unchain myself from my writing desk. Loyal readers may remember a post I put up a while back about toy pianos and the various merits of using then in this little opera about a man who loves Lucy. Well as luck would have it, the pianist Phyllis Chen (two of the videos from that post were her performances) had a CD release party on Sunday for her new disc ‘Mesmers’ at the bar/club Barbes in Brooklyn.

It was a really remarkable evening. She played the entirety of the CD live, all of them were miniatures written by her, played by her. Almost as interesting as the music was the assemblage of instruments she had gathered around her, toy pianos were only the beginning. She also had an old-school music box with punch cards that she’d created, a half dozen mixing bowls turned into some slick percussion instruments, and a few MIDI controllers hooked up to a trusty laptop for electronics. With all of these bite-sized instruments around her it was only logical that all of the pieces on the concert were also “miniature”. None of them seemed to last longer than a few minutes, each of them a wonderfully unique and discrete little world of sounds. Oh, did I mention that the album is only available on minidisc? Phyllis is thorough and consistent to say the least…

Aside from the obvious “field research” of being “forced” to attend a show rather than sit at home locked up writing, it got me thinking more about where things are at with our little Lucy and what it is that we’re after with this “opera”. Miniatures is the name of the game. Rather than long sweeping arias and through-composed segments lasting 15 or 20 minutes, the piece is being built out of numerous small scenes and moments from Temerlin’s memoirs. I’m trying to stick to my rule, none of these can last more than 2 or 3 minutes, and some as brief as 45 seconds… The goal is to allow these little snapshots of Temerlin and his Lucy accumulate over the course of the evening until a broader picture is able to be assembled by the audience. There seem to be a couple of advantages to this:

1. Infinite possibility for reworking in a quick and dependable way. Because this is a theater piece, I really won’t know how it works until it walks on stage. The intersection of words/music/dramatic structure have to be seen to be known. Everything beforehand is just a series of educated guesses and carefully hedged bets. Constructing the work out of these modular miniature scenes will allow us to experiment with shifting them around to find just the right sequence.

2. This way we get to trust the audience with the piece. This is an opera about a real person (and a real chimp). When we received the rights to the memoirs, we were very clear that we would be as respectful as possible with Temerlin’s words. Watching this piece, getting small glimpse after small glimpse of his life and thoughts, the audience creates his/her own picture or understanding about Temerlin and what it is he was trying to do. It isn’t that the music won’t give some feeling of emotion, but this structure seems to leave more room for the audience to enter the piece and think about it, rather than have some agenda forced onto the narrative.

3. There’s also a wonderful sense of “scientific process” and investigation when each of these scenes is presented in this way. For me it finds a nice parallel to the story and the character of Temerlin.

In the end, my flight from my apartment to hear Phyllis was more productive and less escapist than I had originally intended… but I’m ok with that.

lucy needs a drink

Lucy is an ideal drinking companion.

She makes sounds of great delight

when offered a drink.

The only liquor I have seen her refuse

is straight crème de menthe.

She never gets obnoxious,

even when smashed

to the brink of unconsciousness.

Raising a chimp meant lots of extra expenses for the Temerlin family. Not only did they have to build an addition of reinforced concrete onto their house, they spent a lot more money on booze.

Compared with raising a chimp, developing an opera is a relatively simple affair. But it still isn’t easy or cheap. When we’re not working on the next draft of the piece, we’re working on the next grant application. We’ve had some terrific support so far from organizations like Meet the Composer, American Opera Projects and Nautilus Music-Theatre. We’ve also had some good response to our efforts to raise money for expenses related the December 10 performance. Thank you to those generous individuals who have already pledged!

We’re also glad to know that more than 120 people “like” us on facebook. Thanks, we like you, too!

Now, we’re asking you to put your money where your like is. How often do you go out with people you like after work and drop 10, 20, 30 bucks?

Show Lucy how much you really like her. Visit our Kickstarter site today and do the equivalent of buying her a drink. Or two. She’ll be grateful… and so will we.

news of the day

Trouble in the Monkey House