INSIDE Composers & the Voice – January 13th, Part II

February 14, 2014
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Composers & the Voice 2013-2014, Rachel Calloway

This week I was most struck by how perceptions about ourselves as artists – whether performing, creative, or both, led to differing reactions to music.

We began Monday’s session by hearing Deborah Lifton sing a new work by Guy Barash – and she did a fantastic job with Guy’s microtones! Having been nervous about this new challenge, it was amazing to hear how beautifully Deborah incorporated these pitches into the line, and how as listeners, we simply perceive these challenging pitches as part of the melodic line. Since I sing a fair amount of music in varying tuning systems both as a soloist and with my ensemble Ekmeles, I am constantly aware of how listeners are comfortable with, and open to, various tonalities and tuning systems… fascinating, particularly considering how hard we performers work to make this type of intonation as accurate as possible.

C&V Artistic Director Steven Osgood

C&V Artistic Director Steven Osgood

An intriguing conversation ensued about balance- particularly how composers translate what will be an orchestral or chamber piece to the piano. Some composers discussed how the balance of what we hear in the C & V sessions is not what they have in mind for the final piece, which may be scored for singer and orchestra or chamber ensemble. [C&V Artistic Director] Steve Osgood also raised the point of how we must ensure that the audience perceives big orchestral moments in which the singer is intentionally covered as purposeful, rather than an oversight in the balance. As singers it is difficult to know at times whether we’re being covered by the ensemble or riding above it, and we rely completely on the ears of others to make this distinction. Our entire sense of our voices in regard to balance is difficult to gauge.

Another interesting dialogue arose in regard to text, and our impression of both comprehension and diction.  Some in our group are foreign-born or non-native English speakers. Andreia Pinto-Correira raised a question about a particular word which she thought may be difficult to pronounce, but Dominic Armstrong clarified, saying that the word was not an issue for him. Kelly Horsted raised the point of syllabification in Jeremy Gill’s piece. A word which perhaps seemed strangely notated in the score, upon first glance, was actually more comprehensible due to Jeremy’s setting. During Matt Burn’s performance of Joseph Rubinstein’s piece, we again discussed the particular setting of a word and how it might be perceived as another word altogether.

This idea of how things seem continues to intrigue me, in new music most of all. We are constantly engrossed by our sense of self, of who we are as singers, musicians, people. When we perform, our perception of our strengths and weaknesses plays out in all kinds of curious combinations, all of which make our work what it is. And in a premiere, this self awareness contributes to what will be the very first hearing of a new piece of music. On Monday night I was yet again moved by the talents, openness and support in our C & V group. When our personal perceptions lead us to doubt our abilities and performances, this positive and warm environment helps us find our footing and create the best of which we are capable.

“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.” ―C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew

-Rachel Calloway


INSIDE Composers & the Voice – January 13th, Part I

February 5, 2014
cv-logo-500 Joe Rubinstein

Composers & the Voice 2013-2014, Joseph Rubinstein

If you ever felt like being a composer was hard, well…it isn’t easy to be an actor either. This was one of the main points demonstrated by the most recent “Composers & the Voice” workshop, in which our trusty acting coach and guide-to-the-stage Pat Diamond led us on an intense exploration of the basics of bringing a character to life. We threw beanbags, created an imaginary Central Park Lake, and talked about mermaids – in my experience, not things you do in your typical new music workshop.

Patrick Diamond

Patrick Diamond

In the previous session, Pat assigned each participant one of three short plays. I was given one of two characters in John Patrick Shanley‘s “A Lonely Impulse of Delight” – the story of a fraught male friendship set in present day New York City. Pat told me to read through it and answer a few questions about my character. The evening began with a general discussion of these questions: who our characters are, where they are, and what they are doing in the scene. From there, things got more subtle – Pat began asking us what our characters most desired, what they were most afraid of, and other personal questions that, if I were my character, I would probably find both hard to answer and even a little forward! Over the course of the evening, however, it became clear just how essential addressing these questions were in order for an actor to create a believable character on stage.

Jason Kim

Jason Kim

Pat had the insight (playful instinct? dark impulse?) to pair me with my writing partner, Jason Kim. Jason and I are old friends from college, so portraying a psychologically complex situation in which two childhood friends reach a critical place in their adult relationship felt somewhat intense. Jason and I were brought to the stage and the remainder of the session was spent on our scene. We began by reading the scene sitting in two chairs, with the stricture that we had to deliver our lines while maintaining eye contact with each other. If eye contact was broken, we had to start again. The challenge with doing this is that I felt I was reading my lines in a stilted or deliberate way. I felt I had to “bring” more to the text emotionally than I could when I had to read and look up. This, it turned out, was exactly what Pat was hoping to address. He was trying to demonstrate that you don’t “bring” emotion to a set of lines when you read them; you use them as an exchange of emotional energy while keeping the backstory of the characters in mind.  The backstory – who your character is, what their relationships are like – determines the particular inflection and type of response. Your job as an actor is to make that backstory a “real” part of how you exchange energy with another character. To further illustrate this point, Pat had us read our lines while throwing a beanbag back and forth at the moments when emotional energy would transfer from one character to another.

After throwing the beanbags, Pat had us “create” the setting in which our scene takes place. We didn’t have props or scenery so this was a mental realization. Still, like the backstory of the characters, it had to feel “real” for it to be convincing. Delineating the boundaries of a “real” Central Park Lake – complete with a swamp, sidewalk, rocky outcropping, and other landscape features – is difficult in a brightly lit, rectangular room filled with chairs and outfitted with wood paneling.  Jason and I did our best, but eventually Pat helped us out by showing us print-outs of pictures he had found online that he felt evoked the particular “look” of our scene.  After browsing through the pictures – showing Central Park at night, moonlight on water, and even pictures of the mermaid that Jason’s character is in love with in the play – the other teams were exhorted to go and find pictures to “build” their own scenes themselves. Based on what I picked up on from the other composers, there should be some pretty entertaining pictures next time we meet – I believe that one play has various Greek gods making mischief on the New York City subway.

– Joe Rubinstein


INSIDE Composers & the Voice – Session 4

October 31, 2013

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 Composers & the Voice – 2013-14 Librettist Fellows, Jason Kim

American Opera Project’s Composers & the Voice program has been well under way during what’s turning out to be a chilly New York fall.

At the fourth session, held on October 28th, the group began the evening with an improv workshop led by the fantastic Terry Greiss of the Irondale Ensemble. Terry guides us in fluid, relaxed, enjoyable improv sessions, and this one was no different. Our musical brains were immediately engaged when Terry asked us to pick a song that everybody would know and then to sing the song out loud while walking around the rehearsal space. The goal: have every single person sing the same song under three minutes’ time. After some failed attempts, including a botched rendition of America the Beautiful, we were able to settle into a lovely chorus of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

In addition to being sheer fun, the improv sessions help C&V think about performance three-dimensionally. Through improv, we are able to experience what it might feel like to be a performer and to think critically about space, tension, and interconnectedness.

The second half of the evening was dedicated to discussing a handful of topics related to our opera curriculum. For the past several weeks, we have been busy analyzing two scores: Puccini’s La Boheme and Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. By mapping out each singer’s range, we are able to gather what Puccini and Mozart had in mind both musically and thematically. Why for instance does Marcello sing syllabically when Musetta sings melismatically at a very high register? In what ways does Despina’s role change when she is in disguise?

Despina’s disguise in the opera Cosi fan tutte (at 1:15:36)

Because we are writing for six different voice types – bass/baritone, baritone, tenor, mezzo, dramatic soprano, and lyric coloratura – investigating Puccini and Mozart has been tremendously clarifying in thinking about the various needs and expectations of each voice. Speaking of voice type, Steve Osgood, Artistic Director of AOP, directed us in a fun exercise: listing an array of adjectives that come to mind when thinking of each voice. Many patterns came to surface. Composers often write heroic roles for baritones while leaving the romantic parts to tenors. Coloraturas are often coquettish, young, and flighty whereas dramatic sopranos tend to play passionate, intense, powerful roles.

During the final stretch of the evening, the composers discussed their progress with the final projects. Needless to say, we have a very exciting slate shaping up for our fall 2014 concert! Hope to see you there!

Jason Kim, librettist
October 28, 2013


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