Introductory lunch with Tobias Picker

Mikael Karlsson, Guest Blogger
Composers & the Voice composer, 2011-12


We had decided to have lunch at P.J. Clarke’s near Lincoln Center. I had, after being so instructed by Tobias, printed a few copies of a synopsis to an opera that I’m writing with my friend David Flodén. The name of the opera is Decoration.

I had already started my first aria assignment for AOP, but Tobias insisted on a synopsis in order to be able to assess the aria’s potential as part of an opera.

The days leading up to the lunch, David and I worked a lot on our strange story. It will most likely take another couple of years before the synopsis is complete and the libretto in the can, but the key elements are coming together now. We have already taken a few years to get to where we are, and there are plenty of holes to patch, cosmic phenomena to research, mythologies to build and nurse outfits to fashion before the first high C floats off the Decoration stage.

That said, the first Decoration aria – Internal – is already in the hands of Rebecca Ringle (mezzo soprano) and Kelly Horsted (pianist and AOP co-music director) for workshopping in November. VERY excited.

The sum of all this is that I had to present a rather unfinished version of a rather abstract story (it has a concrete storyline but that storyline takes a few good turns into the fantastical) to Tobias Picker, Steven Osgood and [AOP Managing Director] Bob Lee for feedback.

Tobias Picker

Now, what am I doing using an introductory lunch with Tobias Picker for feedback on a synopsis? I don’t even know the guy…

Or do I? (evil stare)

Yes, I do. I have been Tobias’ assistant since the production of An American Tragedy at The Met in 2005.

How did that happen then? A tech savvy and good friend of mine was unable to do some midi tech work for Tobias back in 2005 while he (my friend) was traveling, so I stepped in and went to Tobias’ apartment in Manhattan to meet him. He was very friendly and funny and asked me what I do. I told him that I was just about to get my master degree in composition. He then said that he’d like to hear some of what I’ve written, so when I got back home I sent some pieces to him to listen to (I was lucky to already have some great recordings of early stuff, recorded by some astonishing musician friends).

Upon my second visit to his apartment for follow-up work, he told me that he had listened to what I had sent, and laid on me some very lovely things about my music. He then asked me whether I would want to be his assistant, since he needed one now that his workload had become so great that he had better focus on only the composing as much as possible. Needless to say, I said yes yes yes.

It’s been a great six years so far. I have learned a lot from him, I have grown familiar with more of his wonderful, rich, complex and very honest (this is so key to my taste) music and how he thinks about the compositional process. I have seen a huge opera come to life (two more coming up shortly) and I have seen a praised and very famous composer deal with what it means to truly be in music. I have seen the vast amount of legwork and office task stuff involved in commissions and production work. I have had a steady job (granting me the crucial O1 Visa that allowed me to stay after I graduated) and a dear friend from it. He has been very generous with his time when I’ve asked for feedback. It’s a privilege to get to bounce ideas off someone trustworthy, open-minded and experienced.

That’s why saying our hellos didn’t make much sense in 2011.

Back to the lunch then…

I sit down with Bob and Steven and a minute later Tobias shows up. I hand out the synopsis to see if anyone has any feedback to give, and I am asked by Tobias to tell the core story in “25 words or less”.

A few thousand words later, the tangled, mangled and twisted version of the story I had managed to convey was being discussed with a lot of energy and sincerity. Why this? What about that? How do you make that fit with this? I’ve never seen this kind of detail work without this way of presenting it and so on.

It was a lot to process, but I got some really good ideas to bring back to David to address the questions the lunch participants had had and see how we feel about them.

The best advice is usually that which can be generally applied. That way the advice is not changing the intended destination of what you’re trying to do but rather giving you the map of getting there faster. I received a good handful or two of really important things to keep in mind that David and I had not addressed.

Halfway through the lunch, J. D. McClatchy dropped by (to meet with Tobias) so Tobias, in his typically playful manner, dropped the challenge of explaining the story to McClatchy (who has written countless libretti, including that for Tobias Picker’s hugely successful opera Emmeline) on me once more. I think I shaved a few hundred words off the “25 words or less” presentation, but strings still spaghetti-ed untied all around us when I finished. McClatchy listened intently and introduced the matter of abstract concepts in narrative storytelling to our discourse, and recommended the last and unfinished story of Nabokov, which deals with a man who erases himself, for some pointers on how to and how not to go about such a venture.

As the lunch drew to an end, I thanked all for taking time out of their ridiculously cluttered schedules to do this. It’s so very New York to me to be in situations like this, where accomplished, and unusual persons who certainly do not have to be helpful still choose to be because it’s in their nature.

In 2000, when I first moved here from Sweden to study composition at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, I was assigned a mentor by the college to make sure that I felt welcome and at home. Her name is Maxine Fisher, and she did this mentoring for no pay. She introduced me to a lot of fun music and to Passover with her family! She was a stranger to me, but she made me feel so incredibly welcome.

I once asked her why it is that New Yorkers, who are rumored to be so rude and cold, keep being so friendly and helpful all the time. She explained it this way: In New York, if someone does you a favor, they don’t expect a favor back from you. They expect you to do someone else a favor.

I truly believe that without that pay-it-forward attitude in its inhabitants, the New York new music scene would consist of one rich lady in a room with a string quartet playing Philip Glass music around the clock for her only. There is so much art that needs nursing to expand our communal experience of music. The amazing roster of Composer Chairs for this year’s Composers & the Voice is testament to that that attitude isn’t going away anytime soon.

After goodbyes were said, my tummy, the poor Waldorf Salad inside it, and myself walked happily down 8th Ave in the Indian summer sun.

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