I’ve recently started reviewing concerts in my newly-adopted city of Vienna for the blog I Care If You Listen.
An excerpt from my first review:
I have sometimes found performances and recordings of Elliot Carter’s music to be physically trying, requiring me to gird myself against the onslaught of hard edges, dissonance, and overwhelming complexity, leaving me to enjoy them only in very intellectual terms. But in this performance of American composers at the Wien Modern festival, Brad Lubman’s clarity of interpretation, as well as the truly astonishing acoustics of the Musikverein allowed all of the pieces on this program to reach listeners with absolute clarity, hard edges removed and full of interesting and beautiful sounds. The program was well-selected, with a coherent progression of ideas that mostly displayed the strengths of the Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich (Lower Austrian Tonkünstler Orchestra).
I’ve posted video online from a recent workshop performance of two scenes from “When This War Ends,” an opera that I’m writing about the Canadian experience of the recently-concluded war in Afghanistan.
For more info on this project, you can read John Terauds’ excellent preview of this concert on his very excellent blog.
I’m heading into another series of late nights with my printer. I feel as though about 45% of my career as a composer so far has been spent like this: printing scores and parts, re-printing them when I discover that I’ve done the page turns wrong, taping or hole punching, repeating the whole thing when I do my last proof-read and discover mistakes. This time I’m starting miraculously early- four days before rehearsal!- and have learned from many past papery mishaps. I’m also printing for a much smaller pile of parts for this concert- 10 musicians instead of my usual 21. But still. I know myself. I’m sure to make a mess.
I feel quite loyal to the giant, antique printing machine that lovely Jennifer Ryan donated to the Alligator Cause awhile back. This old scanner-printer-faxer (fax! remember that?) has a very comforting purr that, as 2 am turns into 3 am, often begins to sound more and more like a decent substitute for sleep. Despite my best attempts to control the chaos, the floor of my studio inevitably ends up covered in hole-punch confetti, bits of tape, mangled parts that got caught in the feeder, and abandoned socks (the more tired I am, the less I chose to wear socks).
I complain now. But I can see myself in thirty years, shaking my head at a bunch of glossy young musicians with sleek touch-screen e-music readers, flicking page turns effortlessly and snickering as I squint to read the score off some sort of magic holographic conducting desk. I will shake my head at them, and reminisce about the the good old honest days, when the nights were long and the printers creaked, back when we used real trees to make real music.
I just spent the most amazing 8 weeks in a cabin in the woods at the MacDowell Artist Colony, writing an opera about terrible things. During this residency, I wrote and orchestrated the music for three of the eight scenes in my libretto, which is about the Canadian experience of the recent war in Afghanistan. The text in “When This War Ends (Or, Some Important Questions You May Have About Our Recently-Concluded Engagement in the Graveyard of Empires)” is adapted from several sources, including reporting by my brother, Globe and Mail journalist Graeme Smith, as well as the parliamentary committee testimony given by former Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin.
Why write an opera about old news?
The war in Afghanistan is an event that I did not experience. It is strange that I did not experience this event. It moved, changed or ended the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. But I am writing an opera about not experiencing a war; about how it prickled the edges of my life, but changed nothing; about how strange it is that this massive cataclysm did not affect me. This was not our grandfathers’ war.
This is an inherently selfish point of view for an opera about a war; I am taking it nonetheless in an attempt to force myself into an awareness of my own naïveté. I also wanted to notice the inadequacies of some of the sources that brought me into contact with this war, and with the shortcomings my own consumption of other sources. Official information provided to Canadians about this “mission” was completely veiled and useless (when it was not detrimental). When I did bother to read the news about this war, I would briefly wonder about it, and then become distracted before I made it to the end of an article, or before I could follow up on my own questions. In doing so, I was violating my most basic duty as a citizen in a democracy: I was not wondering; I was not trying to understand. So, by writing this opera, I begin to question.
What does it sound like?
Because I’ve had so much time at MacDowell, I have tried a lot of things in these three scenes that I otherwise would not have had the time, technique or courage to write. Some of these new (at least, new to me!) sounds will be successful; some will undoubtedly not be. I have tried to take advantage of the luxury of having four opera singers, a string quartet, a percussionist and three jazz musicians (guitar, bass, saxophone) by writing interesting melodic and harmonic material that occasionally leaves space for improvisatory exploration.
When can we hear it?
Three scenes from “When This War Ends” will be performed in concert on Thursday, May 31st, 2012 by Spectrum Music. The concert will feature a pre-show chat, where I will interview Globe and Mail journalist Graeme Smith and former Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin. I will ask them how they feel about my turning them into an opera, and what will happen, now that this war has ended. The chat begins at 7:30 pm. This will take place at the Al Green Theatre, Bloor and Spadina, Toronto. Tickets at http://www.spectrummusic.ca/
People like shiny things. Human beings seem to have an inherent dislike for well-worn normalcy. From a young age, we can’t wait: we can’t wait for Christmas, for the cookies to come out of the oven, for school to be over.
Most people learn, at some point, that shiny things are not necessarily real. Being a grown-up means appreciating the space between the shiny things in life, understanding the value of realness.
I am dismayed when I hear that the Ford Brothers want to turn my city into what is essentially a cruise ship filled with shopping malls. This is not a plan for a real city. This is a plan for a place where people who wish to feel rich arrive, drop some money in one single area, and never go anywhere else. This plan will not enrich our city. It will enrich a few developers, and a few American companies like “Bloomingdales and Macy’s.”
Building a good city, a real city, is like building a career. It takes time. You have to get to know your work, learn to understand your own strength, and be nice to people. You have to take time to understand who people are. You have to make your best, most sincere and concerted contribution to the world without worrying about it taking too long.
The Ford Brothers’ proposal does none of this. Instead, it whines that the currently-planned development is going to take years, that it is not going to be shiny enough. It wants to cover our city in plastic. It screams “please like us!” without providing the substance that would be a reason for anyone to do so. This plan wants the corner office before it has learned how to work the photocopier.
What dismays me even more is the timing. Jack Layton, rest his soul, taught us how to build real things. His determination and focus on Parliament Hill showed that he understood the time and effort required to build a substantive country. His work in Toronto showed that he knew how to meet people, listen to them, and understand who they are. He knew how to make a place for people to live, not just a place for them to shop.
By cynically trying to play politics with the provincial Liberal government ahead of the upcoming provincial election, the Fords will simply turn more people away with their insincerity and greed.
At Jack’s funeral on Saturday, our city shifted. The streets were filled with people who had admired his work towards building a country with substance. This momentum now needs to be directed squarely at Toronto City Hall. We know what a real politician feels like. What we have in office right now is just plastic.