I’m middle aged.
That means, among other things, that my eyes are not what they once were. Mind you, my eyes were never what they once were; I got my first pair of glasses at the age of eight, and have since taken them off only for sleep, hygiene, sex and eye exams. But three years ago, in a rite of passage, it became inescapably evident that I needed near-field as well as distance vision, and after trying progressive lens (which made me seasick when I tried to play the piano) and alternating two pairs of glasses (which was a royal pain in the butt), I settled on executive-style bifocals with an extra-high dividing line, so I could see a whole page of sheet music through the bottom lens.
This last month, though, I got myself a pair of Superfocus glasses. These are high-tech glasses with an adjustable focus—you move a little slider on the bridge of the glasses and it actually changes the focal length. Slide to the right, and your computer monitor comes into focus. Further to the right, and you can read the tiny print at the end of the contract. To the left, and it’s long-distance vision—you can read the sign in the window of the store across the street. More importantly for me, at the right position on the slider I can see a whole page of sheet music on the music rack of a grand piano without having to crane my neck to get the bottom part of the bifocals in the right position. It sounds miraculous. And it is. …but.
As it turns out, there are some significant drawbacks. Chief among these is the fact that I, at least, switch my focus from near to far or vice versa far, far more than I had any idea I did. Sit at the computer, get up to walk across the room (slide slider), go to look in the fridge (slide slider), look at the clock across the room (slide slider), read the newspaper while you’re eating your snack (slide slider)… and on and on. Every time I look at my smartphone it requires an adjustment of the slider if I’ve been looking at something else. Every time I get up from a near focus task and walk across the room to do another near focus task, I have to adjust my vision twice. With bifocals, that’s automatic.
Besides that, there are several situations I’ve found myself in where these glasses simply do not work at all. In rehearsal: I need to shift rapidly between my sheet music and actors across the theatre. In the classroom: I need to shift rapidly between my notes or a score and the teacher. On the couch: I need to shift rapidly between the remote and the TV screen.
I have four days left on the thirty-day money-back guarantee on these. I’ve been waffling pretty badly; on the one hand, inconveniences listed above; on the other, all the inconveniences of bifocals that led me to try the Superfocus glasses in the first place (the line in the middle of your visual field, the conversations with people who stand too close to you to look out of the bottom lenses but too far away to see using the top lenses, the need to move reading material to the exact right distance from the lens). Nothing’s perfect. I can keep both of them (and probably will), but then I’ll have all the inconveniences of having to switch between two pairs of glasses!
In the last couple of weeks I’ve also finished mixing my upcoming CD (Seventeen Windows for solo piano and Sonata for Cello and Piano, performed by Jenny Lin and Laura Bontrager), and played for the film version of my short operaMaya’s Ark. Each of these processes has involved similar decisions between imperfect solutions. For the CD, the take with the best rhythm has the pitch a little off. For the film, the take with the best visual has a big honking wrong entrance by one of the singers (or a big honking missed note by yours truly on piano, to be fair). On the CD, those decisions are done, for better or for worse; for the film, they’re still to come. For the CD, I was making them myself; for the film, I’ll be sharing the decisions with two directors. It makes me wonder whether every CD, every movie, has compromises in it that only its author is aware of.
Perhaps my projects would be perfect too, if only I had a bigger budget and more time. More likely, they’re like my aging eyes: the best they can be given the resources I have.
This week I began coachings for the world premiere of my 10-minute opera, Maya’s Ark, which Ardea Arts is presenting to the kids at Children’s Village on March 5th (and then in a Salon in their Soho studio on the 6th), featuring Michael Lofton and Guadalupe Peraza and directed by Grethe Holby.
Maya’s Ark was inspired by the story of Kea Tawana, who built an ark with salvaged materials in the parking lot of a church in downtown Newark in the mind 1980s; it was hailed as a major and inspirational piece of folk art, but she was eventually forced to tear it down because of zoning regulations. I’ve been wanting to write a musical about this for years—tried twice, only to run aground on the fact that the villain of the piece is the (yawn) zoning board—but, when I was looking for a subject for a ten-minute opera, one scene of the story jumped up waving its little hand and saying, “Me, me!” It’s the (totally imagined) moment when the pastor of the church asks Kea, “What’s all that scrap lumber doing in the parking lot?” If you’d like to know more about either the actual story of Kea’s ark, or about Maya’s Ark, please check out the impressive page that the Ardea Arts staff has put together about the piece (scroll down until you see the link for Maya’s Ark on the lower right, I can’t link directly to that page.
Why would anyone write a 10-minute opera? How could such a thing be performed? There’s a company that presents an evening of 10-minute operas every year, which I will not name here for reasons which will become clear shortly. I am friendly with the directors of the company, and they had told me that if I wrote a piece for them, they would include it—they couldn’t promise what year, but they’d do it eventually. So last spring I wrote Maya’s Ark and sent it off to them. They didn’t respond, but hey, they’re busy people.
Meanwhile, Grethe Holby, to whom I’d shown the libretto, offered to do an informal reading at the Ardea Arts space in Soho in July. We did that—sung by Lars Woodul and Judith Skinner—and it was most encouraging. Grethe got the idea that it might be something we could market and license to churches, and then handed me the most thorough, detailed and dead-on critique I’ve ever had of something I’ve written. (Truly: the marked-up score, with its annotations in different-colored pencils was a thing of beauty in its own right.) It took me several months to get the time to rework it, but finally that was done (it’s this version which we’re doing in March) and I also sent the revised score off to the UnNamed 10-Minute Opera Company.
A few days later, I got an email saying that they didn’t think the piece was appropriate for their audience. That rocked me back on my heels: the story takes place in a church; there’s no sex, violence, profanity or partisan politics; as the Ardea Arts website puts it, it’s “an investigation into the nature of faith with something to say to almost any audience.” The plot involves the rekindling of the pastor’s faith inspired by Maya’s quixotic ark-building project. I asked what on earth they could possibly be talking about. The reply to that was, “Maybe it’s just us—we don’t get it. And if you’d like to talk to us about it, we can talk—in April.”
Oooookay. Now I guess I know what it feels like to be a misunderstood artist. I’m still mystified as to what could possibly be troubling them about this, but it doesn’t matter now—I have three performances of the piece coming up, and a company that’s going to try to get more.
Is there a moral to this story? Maybe not yet. While I’m waiting for the punch line, though, I’m writing another 10-minute opera on a faith-related subject: the Rapture. Last April, when dozens of people were striding through New York City street fairs carrying signs informing us that the Rapture was coming at 6 pm on May 21st (and the world would end five months later), I thought, “Oh, to be a fly on the wall when six o’clock comes and goes.” That’s the inspiration for this new piece, which I’m calling (surprise) Rapture.
I’d been thinking it could be a sister piece to Maya’s Ark, maybe something else that could be marketed to churches. But Grethe’s response after reading this libretto was that it was not at all suitable—whereas Maya’s Ark is uplifting and inspirational, Rapture is, well, a bit of a downer, and shows faith in a bad light. (The Rapture never actually happens, you see.) So perhaps the moral of the story is a post-modern one: that one never knows how one’s creations will be viewed. I suppose they’re a bit like children in that regard…
I spent much of last week as the accompanist for the Acting Your Song classes at Making It On Broadway‘s intensive summer workshop, taught by the very wonderful Jose Llana. Jose admonished the students, repeatedly, to tell a story when they sang a song.
Jose’s emphasis when he coaches is a little different than mine; he’s an actor, I’m a writer (of music, but still a writer). But what struck me is that dramatic writing is exactly what actors are doing when they prepare a song; the playwright’s building blocks of Event, Desire, Obstacle, and Action—the ingredients of narrative—are the same kit that Jose was trying to get his young students to learn (although he didn’t use those terms). In an audition song, of course, the specifics of the actor’s story may have very little to do with the words of the song, which probably don’t even tell a story, at least not in the 32-bar audition cut. The drama, the story—what the auditors get out of a good auditioner’s performance—is a story without words, the story behind the words—a story made of yearnings, frustrations, joys and disappointments.
We humans seem to have a hardwired need for stories. The idea of narratives has become a huge part of politics in recent decades; a recent New York Times editorial laid out the case that it’s Obama’s failure to lay out a compelling narrative that is to blame for our recent governmental, ahem, difficulties. Parables—stories—have always been a staple of religious teaching. Stories are the mainstay of most forms of entertainment and art. And, of course, we all tell ourselves stories about ourselves to make sense of our lives. And then there’s music.
Can music, by itself, without words, tell a story? It can as much as an auditioning actor can, telling his real story behind the words he’s singing. It was my piano teacher, the late James Tannenbaum, who introduced me to the idea that there needed to be an impulse of some kind behind every note you played. Now, he was talking about Beethoven (when I brought in a piece by Roger Sessions to my lesson a couple weeks in a row, and accidentally left it behind one day, I’m pretty sure he threw it out so I’d have to work on something different next week), but the same thing applies elsewhere. Humans find stories everywhere, the same as we do other patterns, so if a performer is generating a story behind the notes, a listener will get a story as well. I’d venture to say that in music that doesn’t ask the performer to put themselves and their impulses into it—John Cage’s music, say—it’s the listeners who supply their own stories that enjoy it, and those who don’t that do not. (Remember, I’m not talking about a literal, plotted narrative here—it’s the ability to endow sounds with meaning that can come from either performer or listener, or both.)
Music only tells stories in the hands of a good performer, though. As a composer, if I want to tell a story, I’m going to use words: I’m going to write a libretto. I wrote a 10-minute opera this spring inspired by the story of Kea Tawana, who built an ark in the parking lot of a church in Newark in the 1980s. I’ve tried a couple of times to make a full-length musical out of it over the decades since, but the villain in the real-life story is the zoning board, which just doesn’t lend itself… The moment I used for the opera was the pastor of the church confronting Kea (Maya in my version) and saying, “What is all this lumber doing in my parking lot?”
Grethe Holby’s company Ardea Arts presented an informal reading of the piece (Maya’s Ark) last month, and we’re talking about ways to get it performed somewhere this fall, maybe as part of National Opera Week. I’ll keep you posted!