Relative Value


The Manhattan Skyline

The nature of a blog is, more or less, to offer an outlet for (or a centerpiece for the formation of) opinion. As such, the value of one’s opinion is necessarily variable, dependent upon the predilections of the beholder. Personally, I try to eschew overgeneralized opinion in writing (e.g., “cake batter ice cream is the BEST”) in favor of revealing a thought process that can serve to inform (and, perhaps, inspire, or incite) a reader (e.g., “the richness and smooth texture of the dessert served to emulate the nature of a cake batter, offering a delectable experience to the pallet so inclined”).

Overgeneralized or revelatory, opinion frequently serves to influence the lives and careers of artists of any strain. Painters, writers, composers, performers, actors, dancers, directors–all are subject to both a (likely, ever-changing) set of internal opinions that may serve to make up their own “voice” or “style,” as well as the (welcome or not) judgments of the outside world. Intersections of internal and external opinions can serve as revelatory artistic experiences when one is awake enough to be aware of them.

“Winning,” “Losing,” and In-Between

Recently, the 2013 BMI  Student Composer Awards were announced, honoring a number of rising stars in the compositional community. The youngest winner of the competition was Michael D. Parsons, who also received the Charlotte V. Bergen Scholarship from the ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composer Awards (the award for the highest-scoring composition from an entrant aged 18 or younger). From the excerpts I’ve heard, the work that placed him in both competitions–Trio, for flute, bass, and clarinet–displays a creative grit that balances gestural force with flexible metric approach, creating the sensation of at once feeling that one has lost one’s sense of direction, yet is sure where one’s next goal should be.

I found myself lost between those two feelings–sure of a goal, yet feeling lost regarding direction–as I anticipated the announcement of the ASCAP awards earlier this year. I had submitted a large-scale piano cycle entitled Colonnades which I had presented on a concert tour three years ago and had finally gotten around to revising this past fall. Social media, which moves faster than the speed of a press release, let me know before I received any other notification that the piece had not garnered an award. Having been sure of the personal import of the piece, I was dismayed that it had not found favor among the judges of the competition. However, a few days following, I received a welcome phone call from the ASCAP foundation informing me that I had been selected as an honorable mention recipient. Though I had originally wished for the (perhaps more formalized) recognition of a “win,” I was elated to have the piece–which had resulted in much sleep deprivation to write, learn, and perform–recognized at all. Had I not found out earlier that I had not “won,” though, the honorable mention might have (read: in all likelihood would have) been experienced as a blow to my ego, and not the professional validation that it was. (Though, it’s interesting to note here that the recipient of this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Composition, Caroline Shaw, never received recognition from either ASCAP or BMI.)

(Speaking of relative value, perhaps one of the most personally highly prized moments  from the ASCAP awards was this: a chance to share bunny-ears with the intent musicologist behind P.D.Q. Bach, Peter Schikele.)


The Call (for Scores) of the Wild

While we can recognize intellectually that awards, prizes, and competitions present a value that is inherently relative (based, as it is, upon opinion, expert as that opinion might be), the emotional impact is often very real. In one sense, these events provide validation for creative endeavors. As committed as one might be to the personal value of the creative act (Beethoven put it less subtly: “What do I care about your damned fiddle when the spirit moves me?”), it can still sting when someone (particularly someone one trusts or admires) does not approve of your work, and it can feel particularly meaningful when someone else finds meaning in your art. But another, more insidious issue, is endemic to a large-scale, partially commercialized, artistic culture: status.


Toque Macaques

Status, of course, is present in all social species. The trope of “alpha” has influenced “Western” society from kingships to corporations. Frequently, though, the “alpha” figure in a group is not necessarily a leader for the pack, though these roles can go hand-in-hand. For macaque monkeys, the alpha is a social role that determines which male has dominion over mating rights. David Attenborough documents that this can lead to “sneaky” behavior in non-alpha individuals in order to mate, the upshot of which is that the macaques not only have knowledge of social roles, but also figure out how to behave in relation to the knowledge of an other’s mind. Though this is revelatory in and of itself regarding humanity’s place in the natural world, it can also inform us as to what status is all about. It’s not about importance in the social order; it’s about agency. The higher the status of an individual, the more freely they may act within the societal world.

The Last Five Years

This is certainly true for the arts. It is not so much that status means that one is any better or worse an artist, though it can certainly translate into having greater agency to collaborate with others, to bear witness to certain experiences, or even to garner a specific paycheck. For instance, my last five years have been focused upon the work for my doctoral degree in composition. A friend with whom I will be hooded in the commencement ceremony later today described the degree as an essential “calling card” for the 21st-century composer. Though this statement has an obvious and intentional reductionism to it, it’s not far off the mark: the degree of Doctor of Musical Arts in Composition is, in one way or another, a mark of intellectual and/or creative status by which one may be judged for certain positions or collaborations.

I did some quick calculations regarding my musical activities during the past years that I was engaged in doctoral work, working out how much music I learned as a church music director, how many hours I had led rehearsals, how many classroom sessions I had taught as a professor, and how much music I had written or arranged. The actual numbers were not important for this exercise, as ultimately it was meant more to self-affirm, to demonstrate to myself a personal benchmark. The act of self-affirmation could certainly be dismissed as pop psychiatry, but I believe it to be essential–albeit sometimes difficult–in competitive artistic climes (e.g., New York City, pictured above). The reason self-affirmation can become wishy-washy is that it can simply be used to “feel good,” rather than being balanced alongside self-awareness. Though I can look at the benchmark numbers I calculated and feel a certain sense of pride in accomplishment, I am at once aware that there were only a fraction which represented moments that exceeded my own expectations in creating a musical experience that I truly, whole-heartedly, and unabashedly loved.


El Greco, “View of Toledo”

One frequently cited (though arguable) statistic is the 10,000 hours  needed to achieve mastery. Though this may certainly be true of technical skills (scales, pedalboard work, counterpoint, pedagogical theory) artistic pursuits have a subjective element–opinion–that is not so easily quantified. In truth, it would not do to calculate the number of minutes that one is inspired by a friend, brought to tears by Mahler, brought to laughter by Haydn, or enraptured by El Greco. Mastery is ultimately relative, as its status is dependent upon the relative mastery of others. However, devotion to one’s craft is absolute, not because there is one ideal “devotional standard” that exists in some a priori realm, but in that only oneself can judge whether one has met his or her own standards of devotion. In this sense, devotion allows an escape from status, and an entrance to agency. One does not need awards or other forms of status to engage in creative acts, though one may seek teachers, training, or experiences to guide the development of one’s devotion. Status may, for better or worse, influence the societal agency, but one’s creative agency is internal: utterly incomprehensible at times, but ultimately emergent, personal, and wondrous.

Camelot Requiem performed by the Figaro Project


Growing up outside of Dallas, Texas, one of the traditional middle-school field trips was rather chilling: a visit to the book depository where those fateful shots were fired nigh on fifty years ago, on November 22, 1963. Part of the exhibit included a visit to the very window were Oswald was situated, looking out upon Dealey Plaza. My father, a minister at First Presbyterian Church in Dallas (whose parishioners included the newscaster who first announced the assassination) frequently drives that same route to visit parishioners. The most chilling aspect of the field trip, in retrospect, was its matter-of-fact nature: terrible events can happen anywhere, as we are all too frequently reminded. In the exhibition, the video of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, captured in black and white, repeats ceaselessly, Jackie Onassis reaching back across the car, over, and over, and over. And, between repetitions of the stark black-and-white reality film, lingers the grey, where art, or poetry, or music, can seep in to take hold of our memory.

Caitlin Vincent

Caitlin Vincent
Photo Credit: Samantha Nandez

This is where the ambitious Camelot Requiem–composed by Joshua Bornfield, with libretto by Caitlin Vincent,  direction by William Schaller, and presented by the Figaro Project–begins: at the grey crossroads between Presidencies, between life and death, art and history, stage performance and religious ritual. Vincent has created an ambitious standard for her troupe in commissioning new music. I had the great honor of collaborating with them in 2011 as part of their Contemporary Opera Trio, when they premiered Bornfield’s Strong Like Bull,  Peabody Academic Dean Paul Mathews’ Piecing it Apart, as well as my chamber opera Lux et Tenebrae. Vincent’s productions epitomize both the flexible spirit of guerilla new music, as well as the high standard of artistry and professionalism that is the driving force of so many East Coast musicians (particularly, in this case, the Peabody alumns of the Requiem cast). The conceit of the operatorio (as Vincent describes it) is the combination of the Requiem mass for the dead and an operatic meditation upon the twenty-four hours following the assassination. The presence of religion, specifically Kennedy’s Catholicism, is clearly demonstrated from the opening sonorities of Bornfield’s score, the repeated bell-like (or are they sirens? or failing heartbeats?) dissonances heralding the procession of the Rev. Oscar L. Huber (Stephen Campbell), who introduces the mass text (and other troped texts) in a supple, lyrical chant. From this emerges an opening turba, a crowd scene that builds to chaos. Performed at historic First and Franklin Presbyterian Church’s Spire Series, the high ceilings of the spire’s inverse sometimes swallowed even careful diction. In these crowd scenes, however, the acoustical crush of words seemed to heighten the sensation of disbelief that threatens to carry away the individuals. The liturgical setting served to further blur the lines between ritual, reality, and performance.

The chaos breaks with Jackie Kennedy’s “I Keep Waiting,” sung by Vincent, the troupe’s able and ever-creative impressaria. In this opening number, Bornfield displays his impeccable ability to work with text, sculpting lines that are at once natural and expressive, without mannerism or forced feeling. Vincent also gave a stunning rendition of Bornfield’s unsettling and heart-rendingly beautiful setting of “So many roses coming out of the hole in his head,” undergirded by hollow sounds from the ensemble that ultimately dripped away.


Blair Skinner

This is one of Bornfield’s gifts: he has a way of extending vocal lines into the instrumentalists that creates the sensation of a unified continuum, allowing the orchestra to function as true musico-dramatic subtext (and not just accompaniment) for the singers. The orchestra was passionately led by Blair Skinner, who seems to be diving into challenging contemporary scores on a weekly basis, having just conducted a portion of Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre last Friday with the Sonar New Music Ensemble. The ensemble included violinist Lauren Rausch and cellist Peter Kibbe (who could evoke on command a viol-consort-like-tone that underscored the ancient text of the mass), clarinetist Jennifer Hughson and flutist Melissa Wertheimer (whose florid interactions and blend were each balanced and expressive), and percussionist Terry Sweeney (who just appeared on the Evolution Contemporary Music Series concert with John Luther Adams, below) and pianist Michael Sheppard (pianist extraordinaire).

Joshua Bornfield

Joshua Bornfield
Photo Credit: Britt Olsen-Ecker

Bornfield and Vincent not only bring to life the major players, such as Bobby and Jackie Kennedy and Lady Bird and Lyndon B. Johnson, but also characters who do not often have the historical spotlight shone upon them, nurse Patricia Hutton (Kate Jackman), for instance. Hutton, who is portrayed as one of the Christian faithful, emphasizes that thie assassination must all be “part of God’s plan,” with the word “plan” striking a notable dissonance with the orchestra. Jackman’s truthful and diligent performance of Hutton’s unwavering faith is chilling in light of the tragedy that surrounds it; indeed, Hutton’s presence can not be sustained for too long in the emotional space, as she finally recesses from the scene, bearing a flickering candle, and introducing the Requiem’s “Kyrie” fragment. The trio of secretaries Evelyn Lincoln (Leslie Proctor), Nancy Tuckerman (Melissa Wimbish) and Pamela Turnure (Jessica Hanel Satava) were resplendent in their Act II scenes, effecting the two devastating trios that record, first through telegrams and then through recollection, the memory of John F. Kennedy. (The audience members were each given replicated telegrams as well, so that we, too, could hold memories of the President in our own hands.) These sections also displayed some of the most inventive orchestration of the opera, with high tangled woodwind lines continually collapsing into lower, breathy registers underscored by marimba. Jeremy Hirsch, playing Dr. George Burkley, gave a performance that was truly genuine, a characteristic that seemed to embody the whole production: there seemed to be an unwavering dedication to the vision of librettist, composer, and director.

William Schaller

William Schaller

Here, a shout-out must be given to director William Schaller, who had the distinct challenge of realizing a story line with no available set changes, minimal lighting, and a stage made up of a church chancel. His deft staging clearly delineated between the realms of history and ritual (the sometimes-symmetricality of the players’ placement serving to announce the recitation of the Requiem), and his direction of the cast clearly helped to create a feeling of ensemble that no doubt was a significant part of the genuine nature of the  whole endeavor.

Bornfield necessarily has a similar chameleonic ability, not only moving between history and ritual, but between different styles as well. Take the Southern ballad sung by Lady Bird Johnson’s (radiantly realized by Lisa Perry, who is readily making her mark on the Mid-Atlantic new music scene, and performs with Great Noise Ensemble next week), “They want him,” with bluesy riffs against a dial-tone-like texture in the orchestra reminiscent of the opening chimes. This is shortly followed by Lyndon B. Johnson’s (performed with solid resonance and resilience in the face of tragedy by Alex Rosen) swearing-in, in “I do solemnly swear” and “Members of the House,” emphasized dramatically by the full ensemble. Though these numbers are strikingly different, one of Bornfield’s many talents is his ability to create the sensation that these disparate styles are necessary parts of a single dramatic fabric.

The Cast of Camelot Requiem

The Cast of Camelot Requiem

Indeed, this particular dramatic fabric could be problematic in the hands of a different creative team. Here, action conglomerates at the edges, peaking at the beginning and end of Act I. Camelot Requiem is not, however, an opera of action (despite the alternation between expository pseudo-recitatives and meditative or focused arias/numbers), but rather one of reaction and recollection. This work is not driven by plot, but by mythology. When we hear Jackie’s rose-lament, describing her reach back across the back of the car to grasp the very fragments of her husband, we are drawn to reach back to our own memories, whether we lived through the 60’s, or were inculcated in the mythos through videos and exhibitions. We are invited into the experience of memory by the secretaries, as we too grasp our own telegrams; their recorded thoughts offer their own fragments of Kennedy. Our memories are challenged by Nurse Hutton, whose uncompromising belief in a divine plan opposes reactions of outrage and injustice at such remembrance. The final recessional of the entire cast (sans Jackie), led by Bobby Kennedy (played by the potent Tanglewood fellow baritone Nathan Wyatt) strides into the future, but out of the frame of the opera; for, in memory,  future has no meaning. Within this space, we are rapt, trapped, alongside Jackie in the aftermath of the shooting, the bells (sirens? heart-beats?) sounding again and again throughout the work. The final moments of the opera focus upon an emergent cello solo followed by Jackie’s “And when he dies, take him,” ultimately leading to a closing “Lux Aeterna,” which caps the many beautiful settings of the Requiem text by Bornfield. Even here, we are in a time-out-of-time: Kennedy is yet living (“when he dies”), yet just passed recently, and yet dead to us for fifty years. Within the space of the Camelot Requiem, time stands inescapably still, as it did on that day in 1963.