Adventures in NOVA-land, Part Six

On Friday morning, Horti Hall was being gussied up for everyone’s run-through:

Later, it was even spiffier, in time for an audience that included several dozen impeccably behaved senior schoolkids.

Here’s how Sandy France and Helen Nourse’s Playing With Fire looked on Saturday, for an audience member with few photographic skills.  Chris Dench (composer of WE) is on the left, chin on hand, and the silver-maned Music Director of the Victorian opera, Richard Gill, is on the right.

Eamonn Kelly has already written in The Australian on NOVA, and Australia’s history of spreading seeds of opera upon fertile ground, which is not an illustrious one.  He was also kind enough to say kind things about most of the five NOVA efforts.  In fact, thanks to him and the slippery nature of publicity blurbs, I can now legitimately say this:

The Devil Builds a Chapel
“dripping with neo-gothic, psycho-sexual delight”
                                                            The Australian


“humour, catchy Broadway elements and 1960s popular music flourishes”

The first of those isn’t strictly true; Kelly may have been referring to the delights of supernatural fantasies themselves, rather than to my and David Stanhope’s work in particular.  But I choose not to be fussy.

Here’s the fun thing that happened as we all heard the excerpts over and over again.  At first, mine, The Un-Dead and Playing with Fire were clearly the most immediately accessible pieces (by this, I mean largely tonal, with discrete arias/duets).  I even began to find parts of mine a little banal by the fifth or sixth time I heard them.  Meanwhile, Jane Montgomery Griffiths and Kevin March’s Razing Hypatia, which everyone agreed was a real challenge, and difficult to pull off in only a week, just grew and grew on me.  The finale, in which the heroine spends several pages repeating “it takes a long time to die”, while everything falls apart around her, is just terrific.

Dustine Barnes and Chris Dench’s WE was ten minutes of free atonality, scored in proportional notation (which gave the musicians a nice workout).  Dench explained that he had an animated work in mind, an opera written for the screen.  His music makes me think of a late-night SBS stark visual style, heavy on the black outlines, and I think it would work a treat.  Writing directly for the screen is a wonderful idea, and we should all do more of it; it is getting, as Dench pointed out, cheaper and easier than the stage.

David Stanhope’s The Un-Dead is finished, David said, in a score for full orchestra and an adaptation for chamber ensemble.  So why hasn’t it been seen yet?  It has Dracula, good parts of Stoker’s original dialogue, and a line I can already sing along with (“The children of the night”).  Oh, and three hot vampire chicks who visit you in bed and sing progressively higher ninth chords!  What’s not to like?

Sandy France expressed concern in rehearsal about a rhythmically complicated part of Playing with Fire (two men are arguing about abandoning their houses in the face of a bushfire), and I watched two singers work very hard to master it.  By Saturday, I could have sung along with them, and as I write this (a week later), I can’t get the tune out of my head.  “If we stay-ay, hold our ground …”

All of which underlines the importance of repetition when we’re hearing a new piece.  Obviously, I’m a trained muso, and the circumstances made me listen really, really hard, but there’s a good argument in last week’s experience for the 19th century model of new opera: write it, prepare the orchestral suite from its music, get singers to plant bits in their recitals, and have hotel orchestras play medleys prior to opening night.

The 21st century equivalents of these would be free video and audio on the website, rehearsals on YouTube, music excerpts available before the opening (especially for critics), and interstitials on TV and radio.

In fact, just imagine if you could get your forbidding new music planted in a video game.  There’s some repetition.

Adventures in NOVA-land, Part Five

Here’s what conversations sounded like on Tuesday and Wednesday:

“David, that last beat of bar 79, I have it marked mp.”

“Yes, but still you should die away on the end of the note, so as not to cover the voice.”

“How far do you want me to die away?  To pp?”

“What do you think, Peter?”

“I’m not sure until I hear it with the voice, but let’s try pp for now.”

We were all very arty on Tuesday and Wednesday, very much thinking about nuance and subtlety and finesse.

Here’s what conversations sounded like yesterday morning:

“How long is yours, Peter?”

“Should be seventeen minutes.”

“You sure?”

“It might have stretched out a bit, but definitely less than twenty.”

“Good.  We need a maximum of twenty.”

Yes, practicality reigned by Friday.  And later still …

“What are you planning to wear?”

“I dunno.  A notch up from this, probably.”

“There’s wine afterwards, right?”

“There better be.”

The performances themselves?  I’ll post about the two of them together.

Adventures in NOVA-land, Part Four

So it turns out I can orchestrate a bit.  No need for a ticker-tape parade just yet, but I can orchestrate a bit.

Not that the point of all this is to make me feel good about myself.  The point of this is for me to learn the sort of minute detail that makes the difference between a terrific orchestra call and a painful one.

To wit, the French Horn player (relax, she was just lovely to me), who asked:

“Would you like da da-da?  That is, should I re-articulate the second note, to match the singer?”

“Yes,” I say.  “Is that what I’ve written?”

“No, this is more da-ah-ah …”

“Oh, well, no, the first, to match the singer would be better.”


And there it could have rested, but curiosity got the better of me.

“For future reference,” I said, coming over, “how should I notate that so it’s clearer?  How would I write it so that you automatically re-articulate the second note?”

“Like this.  Remove this, and add this.”

Here’s a visual.  We’re talking about the difference between this:

And this:

See?  One has the phrase mark over all the notes, and the other just between the first two.  If French Horns weren’t so damn great when they’re well-orchestrated and well-played, you might be tempted not to care, but French Horns are damn great when they’re well-orchestrated and well-played.

Incidentally, it has taken me twenty years to learn this about orchestration:

Instruments sound best playing what those instruments should play.

That’s it.  Don’t give an oboe a line that rightly belongs to a trumpet.  Get a trumpet.  Or write an oboe line.  Also, don’t take instruments out of their best range so that triads remain triads.  Put the instruments in their best registers, and you’ll get the same impact as the original triads, even if it’s now spaced over more than an octave.

I will learn this again and again before I really learn it, though.

Adventures in NOVA-land, Part Three

Sandy France is the composer of Playing With Fire, also receiving a workshop this week.  We know each other a little from Canberra, where we both teach and rail against the wilful ignorance of youth.

We immediately extended a mutual open invitation, to attend rehearsals, give feedback etc.  We’ve been hovering a bit around the other composers when we see them (OK, just me doing the hovering), hoping they’ll invite us along too, but perhaps they’re equally nervous and self-deprecating.

The music calls are happening in an intimate room with an upright piano, and in the main hall, which looks like this:


With these essential operatic supplies laid out:


Much of Sandy’s session, like mine yesterday, was concerned with learning, and re-learning new material.  Sometimes, for example, singers know their parts in a duet individually, but once they have to sing with each other, they feel as if they never learned it at all.  This frustrates them, because note-bashing is dull, and they don’t want to be doing it at the expense of higher musical values, like actually running the thing.  It frustrates composers too, because note-bashing is dull, and they want to know if the piece works as a whole.  

Composers should either grow a thick skin or stay away from note-bashing sessions.  You need a thick skin, because …

What the Singer Says Is

“It’s hard because of the length of the phrase.”

And What the Singer Means Is

“It’s hard because of the length of the phrase.”

But What the Composer Hears Is

“You can’t write for voices.  You have no idea.  Go home.”

Afterwards, Sandy and I went for Tom Kha nearby, discussed the above matters, our sneaking fondness for tunes and basic triads, and my fanboy love of the Flower Duet from Lakmé.

Highlight From Day Two

Opera singers, it turns out, are as human as the rest of us.  I say this because I thought they could sing anything.  You know, with all those scary bang-on-a-can, throw-the-plates-at-the-audience, sing-into-a-dead-goose, modern operas floating around, that today’s singers had seen and done everything, and nothing could faze them any more.

Then, in my afternoon session, we spent half an hour note-bashing a couple of bars of waltz time I wrote back in 2009.  It is pretty tricky, that part, and although the three female voices all land on the same A by the end, it’s a little hairy until they get there.

I have a pretty thick skin, as per my own recommendation, but this is what my head does to me when singers find something difficult.  The singers, by the way, are saying things like “It’s hard because of the length of the phrase.” 

Stage OneWell, that’s not what I wrote yet.  I’ll wait until it’s what I wrote.

Stage TwoThat’s closer.  Maybe what I wrote isn’t good …

Stage ThreeWow, this is really hard.  Why did I write it to be so hard?  What was I thinking?  I must have had a reason; I don’t write hard just for the sake of it, do I? 

Stage FourMaybe they could all sing the same part?  Would that be worse?

Stage FiveOK, in five minutes I’m gonna suggest we cut it.

Stage SixWait, that was nearly it!  Now I remember: it’s to contrast with the next part!  The next part is a great relief after all this tension – that’s what I was thinking!

Stage Seven Yeah, that’s it!  There’s that A!  Hell, yeah!  And you all sound great!  And I AM A GOD.  On your knees, all of you.

What Pride Goeth Before

Tomorrow’s call makes me nervous.  Tomorrow’s call is the first orchestra call, and I think I know my way around a voice and a piano, and I can handle a big band just fine, and I can orchestrate for a Broadway-style pit orchestra without too much stress.  But this is a little chamber ensemble, seven instruments, and I just know I will have made some very, very amateurish mistakes.  I just know that the French Horn player will politely call me over, point to a bar, and say, “See this note?  You can’t really play this note at that dynamic.  It’s not the right register for the instrument.  You can’t write for horns.  You have no idea.  Go home.”

I may not get beyond Stage Five tomorrow.

Adventures in NOVA-land, Part Two

I thought Horti Hall, the home of the Victorian Opera, was an amusing pun (Horti, get it?), but it turns out to be short for “Horticultural”.  The place was originally a meeting hall for the Horticultural Society.  Here it is, from the front:

Nice facade, that.  Around the back, the building’s roots, as it were, are more clearly seen:

At the end of the first day’s music call, what I love most about opera singers (yes, I have a glass of wine in front of me, and I am full of bonhomie for you all) is their unstinting efforts to be true to what you’ve written.  Even if what you’ve written ain’t that good, their first instinct is to have a red-hot go at it, and to raise concerns only after they’ve done so.  This has two effects, one good and one not-so.  The first – good – is that you try to do better by them, knowing that they will really try to realise what you throw at them.  The second – not-so – is that you’ll exercise less old-fashioned craft, knowing that they will really try to realise what you throw at them.

Highlights from Day One:

At one point, David McSkimming, who is conducting my excerpt (and a fine, self-deprecating man he is), turned to me and said, “I like this one.”

I had my ear cocked to a door leading outside, through which could be heard the upper notes of Sandy France’s Playing With Fire, having a piano rehearsal across the way.  It sounded most impressive, so I replied, “Yes.  Me too.”

I realised then that David was referring to the piece of music on the stand in front of him – something I’d written.  So I now sounded, instead of generous, cocky.

“Oh,” I said, trying my best to recover.  “Um … oh, right.  I thought you meant – out there – thank you.  Thanks very much.”

Exactly, I like to think, how George Clooney would have handled it.

Opera is Sexy

Sex was very much on everyone’s minds this afternoon, because I was careful, with the singers, to point out the moments when characters were being seductive, if it wasn’t apparent without context.  I like singers to have a good time.

“He knows exactly which buttons to push,” I said of Renard, my lascivious priest, to Julian, the man playing him.  “See how he says ‘Tonight, as you lie in bed’ to the girl?  That’s outrageous!  He seems to mean prayer, but we know what he really means.”

“Ah,” said David McSkimming, a little later.  “So, at ‘inside of you‘ we’ll just let the music pause for a little bit, and leave that to sink in for the audience …”

These opera people.  Filthy, if you let them be.

How to Get Ahead With Composers

We didn’t get to Joan’s aria today, Joan being the high-strung headmistress of the girls’ school in the piece.  The scene is where Joan recounts a very erotic dream she’s been having to her brother.  So I said to Maxine, who’s playing Joan, “With your aria, I’m sure you’ve noticed for yourself – ”

“Look, not to piss in your pocket or anything,” says Maxine, “but that is probably the hottest, sexiest aria I have ever had to sing.”

“Ah.  So you understand it then.”

“Yes, and if this ever gets – you know – goes ahead, I would kill to play Joan.”

Singers take note:  I will now write anything for this woman.  Anything.  You think other composers aren’t as shallow?  Then find me one, just one, who doesn’t want to hear the words “hottest, sexiest aria”.  


Adventures in NOVA-land, Part One

NOVA (New Opera Ventures Australia) was launched last year, and I heard about it through Caroline Stacey, the Artistic Director at the Street Theatre. She suggested I submit my work thus far on my not-yet-finished chamber opera, The Devil Builds a Chapel.

“Wouldn’t I need a little more opera background?” I asked.

“Oh no,” she said.  “I’m on the assessment panel, and there’ll be works coming in from all sorts of places.”

“You’ll need to recuse yourself if you’re on the panel, won’t you?”

“Darling,” she laughed.  “We’ll all have to recuse ourselves at some point.”

And so, apparently, those panellists did.  There were forty-three works submitted to the Venture, administered by Chamber Made Opera and Victorian Opera, and the five of us who got through are being workshopped this week, with two presentations for audiences this coming Friday and Saturday.

So I’m in Melbourne, where I’ve been awake since 4:30 this morning, like a kid at Christmas.  Plus I feel asleep before 9 last night.  

I’m staying here:

It is, even by the standards of one-bedroom apartments, very basic, and this is probably good; last night I watched a DVD of John Doyle’s 2008 production of Peter Grimes at the Met instead of whatever election campaign stuff was on telly.  I nodded off just after the Great Bear and Pleiades did their thing, but I’m sure it did me good.

On Listening to Emily Howell, Non-Human Composer

Emily Howell’s debut album as a composer was released in February of this year.

I first read about Howell, David Cope’s astonishing feat of programming, here. Other articles here, here and here. You’ll notice the recurring reactions (fear and denial), not to Howell’s work, but to her existence. These are helpful for Cope and Howell’s notoriety, but neither makes sense. Howell, and her imminent offspring, are not going anywhere.

Fans of Howell say her critics are too harsh because they know she’s not human. If you didn’t know she was software code, their argument goes, you’d be more inclined to like her music. If there were a Turing test for music, Howell fans argue, Howell has passed it.

Excluding the false parallel with Turing’s test for language (notes and words are not the same), I think this is missing the point. Knowing that Howell is not human is no different to knowing that Elena Kats-Chernin is female, that Shostakovich was Russian, or that Beethoven went deaf. How’s the music? Any good?

I’m going to listen as I would to any other composer’s work. Open mind, hoping to love it.

The album is titled From Darkness, Light, and already Howell resembles many young composers trying to make a splash: her album title is just awful, and its cover (as you can see above) is even worse.

From Darkness, Light I: Prelude – This, as with the other five parts of this work, is for two pianos. Arpeggios running up the keyboard, firmly tonal, minor key. Harmonic rhythm kind of dull.

From Darkness, Light II: Fugue – If you’ve never written a fugue, it might seem that software is ideal for a form with such rigorous rules of structure and harmony. But for me, the rules are the least impressive part with great fugues. It’s the ability to extract surprise and freshness while remaining economical that I admire. This one has a skinny first subject, but its counter-subject has promise. The treatment is a bit relentless. Excerpts from these first two movements here.

From Darkness, Light III: Prelude – pretty, and with a more satisfying harmonic rhythm than the first prelude. It develops a little predictably, seems as if it’s really going somewhere, and then it stops. Hear most of it here.

From Darkness, Light IV: Fugue – a much better subject, and it develops nicely, culminates well, dies away as it should. You can lose yourself in this one, if that’s how you like to listen to fugues. A keeper.

From Darkness, Light V: Prelude – Howell has an odd way of not knowing when she’s on to something good. And I say this without meaning that she’s non-human, and can’t judge individual sections of music in their relation to the whole. I am sure she can, but for some reason she often chooses not to. This piece plays on the contrast between its two sections, and fairly obviously at that. Some subtlety in the tansitions would help.

From Darkness, Light VI: Fugue – Good subject, perfunctorily treated.

Land of Stone – Ms Howell, you will have noticed, has no gift for titles. Scored for chamber orchestra, this is probably what people are expecting from a non-human composer. It begins with single notes, drawn out by passing them among the instruments, Webern-style. There are small outbursts of dissonance before the single notes resume, and the piece builds to a longer end-section, with individual instruments given their own lines. The texture becomes more dense as the bass drum pumps away underneath. In terms of orchestration, Howell is comfortable with the strings, has yet to master the woodwinds, and is uninspired in the percussion and brass departments.

Shadow Worlds I – Performance credited to Howell herself, on three Disklaviers. This is a perpetuum mobile affair, with short flurries of notes in different registers, over a grinding bass run. The implied harmonies vary, as do the dynamics, and the bass gives way to high-register trills. Then it all collapses to the left, with the dampers off, and I am not sorry to see it go.

Shadow Worlds II – Brian Eno turns up. Single notes, arranged around the three different keyboards, struck and allowed to hang in the air. Some shorter clusters, usually up high, all of it pleasantly atonal. Is it a twelve tone row? Don’t think so. Nice enough, but extraordinarily similar to an extraordinary number of other pieces.

Shadow Worlds III Howell has yet to demonstrate any love for rhythmic games, but here a single chord stabs out on different keyboards and, as the rhythms begin to intersect, a funky kind of pattern builds. The single chord begins to thin out into its component parts, until individual dots speak out from each keyboard, and the combined rhythm disappears bit by bit. I like it. I like it a lot, and if I’d heard it without knowing its human composer’s name, I would have immediately sought him/her out to find out what else he/she had written.

Shadow Worlds IV – Grand opening, modal motif, repeatedly coming back to its tonic, bang bang bang. The three keyboards stick to one register each: low, middle, high. It sounds like the Siege of Leningrad would sound if we didn’t already have a tune for that.

Based on this album I think Howell’s future, at first, is in film. Her predecessor, EMI, was incredibly prolific and fast, but Howell has been more taciturn so far. If she is capable of composing quickly, she’s already proven herself to be very reliable, and sometimes good. From a purely mercenary point of view, I’d sign her tomorrow for a film score, and if I were an overworked film composer, I’d use her as an assistant, probably uncredited. If she (or any others like her, and they will come) can learn orchestration, she can own the generic film music market, the corporate video market, the porn music market, the techno market …

From an artistic point of view, I’d like to see Howell let off the chain, and break more rules. Could Cope insert a line or two of maverick-code? Howell’s greatest compositional deficiency, I think, is her lack of skill in development. When she masters that, she’ll get the emotional response from audiences that isn’t quite there yet. She also has no sense of humour, but that won’t hurt her career.

Could Howell learn to improvise? Could she learn the principles of inventing a great jazz solo, and whip one out in real time? I’d love to hear that.

In fact, if I were the Artistic Director of a Festival, looking to make a splash, I’d be trying to commission a piece entirely by non-human creators. Visual art with a Howell score. A dance piece with choreography and music by non-humans. The hard part would be getting the creators to work with each other, but that’s already the case with humans.

The Oscars, in 2020.

It’s ten years since we shook things up by nominating ten films for Best Picture!  And didn’t that start things rolling! 

So, let’s have a look at this year’s winners in all the Music categories:

The Peter Weir Award For Manipulative Use Of Classical Music

Awarded to the director who shuns the film’s composer and plumps for some pre-written music at a crucial juncture.  Ideal pieces include any Bach cello suite, Gorecki’s 3rd, or something by Shostakovich.  This year the Peter Weir award goes, for the eighth time, to Peter Weir.

The Hall & Oates Comeback Award

For use of an almost forgotten pop song, during a montage sequence.  The judges had great difficulty choosing between Meredith Brooks’s “Bitch“, in The Devil Still Wears Prada, and Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida“, in fourteen different films.  But the outright winner is Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face“, in Tom Cruise’s stunning directorial debut, Straight For Pay.

The Charlie Kaufman Having-it-Both-Ways Statue

A perpetual trophy given to the film maker who has the characters sing to one another at the film’s emotional climax.  Can be interpreted ironically, or enjoyed as pure schmaltz.  The judges are proud this year to acknowledge Dakota Fanning’s spectacular portrayal of Courtney Love, in Sofia Coppola’s Kurt Cobain biopic Rape Me.  The statue is awarded to both actor and director.

Awards retired this year

Best Original Score, Best Original Song

January 18, 2003.

It was an odd sort of joy, on the seventh anniversary of Canberra’s 2003 bushfires, to listen for the first time to a recording of a song I wrote about that event, back in 2008. 

The singer is Louise Page, the clarinettist Nicole Canham, and the pianist Susanne Powell.  All of them are wildly overqualified for the music I gave them to play, and I am more than a little honoured to have my song open a new CD entitled ‘Beautiful – Art Song Canberra Favourites’.

The entire CD, featuring other little-known composers such as Brahms, Barber and Fauré can be bought for $25 plus $3 p&h.  Email (remove that nospam bit, naturally)

I expect to see the magpie
and the mynah,
but the falcons, the two brown falcons
wheeling in the sky
and their distant cry –
so strange
and so beautiful.

The Black Cockatoo,
the streak of yellow tail,
and there, on the head,
the Gang-Gang’s shock of red –
so unexpected –
and so beautiful.

I hear the Lyre Birds are gone,
but the tiny sparrows,
red-capped, flame-chested, scarlet-bibbed,
flirting with disaster as they dive,
how on earth did they survive?
How on earth did they survive?
So beautiful …

And to think, that awful day
has brought a strange, sad beauty:
the Nankeen Kestrel,
the bright King Parrot.

If only Alison, Peter, Douglas and Dorothy …
Alison, Peter, Douglas and Dorothy
were here to see them.