Classical Music Buzz > why compose when you can blog?
why compose when you can blog?
Jennifer Jolley
a blog about my attempts at composing (or not composing…)
145 Entries

Hat tip to Owen Davis, meme extraordinaire.

(I'm going to cling to this like you would not believe…)
2 years ago | |
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The lovely Katherine Krueger
I want to take the time to thank everyone who has been supportive over the past few months—from those reading my blog to attending my performances (or watching them online)—and to those posting and reposting that feature in the CCM blog about my feature in Opera News. This, especially the latest posts, has been quite amazing and surreal, and I am thankful to all of you who have been quite wonderful and encouraging for all this time. You all rock.

On that note, I feel I should explain how the Opera News article came into being; this is both a short and a long tale because it depends how deep into the backstory you dig. The short version is that Kyle MacMillan was writing a preview piece on a concert that never happened. So, as any emerging composer would react, I was thrilled that I was having a premiere in Chicago, even more delighted that there was going to be a preview piece in the Chicago-Sun Times, and terribly bummed when the premiere of my yet-to-be-performed piece was cancelled two days before my road trip.

So at that moment I probably thought I wasted my compositional energy on this ensemble, and in all likelihood, overstuffed my face with some gargantuan serving of glorified fattiness and moved on with my life. A couple months later, I was having coffee with my friend Liz and received an email from Kyle stating that Opera News wanted to do a short piece on NANOWorks.

Holy sh*t! My opera company was going to get featured in Opera News! My cancelled gig in Chicago wasn't a complete waste! This was flipping amazing.

And that is the short story.

Go back in time a little further, probably around December 2011, when I was asked along with a handful of other student composers composers to create proposals for Washington National Opera's inaugural American Opera Initiative. They were looking for student composer/librettist teams with an interest to tell an American story through a short twenty-minute opera. Those selected would receive guidance from an established composer and librettist in workshops leading up to a performance at the Terrace Theatre at the Kennedy Center. Supposedly they were looking for an original and contemporary American story.

Oh man. I had to jump on this opportunity. I have been wanting something like this for a very long time. True, I had great opera resources at my school—lots of great enthusiastic singers and musicians—but my institution had never premiered or officially workshopped any operas by student composers. They still have yet to do so.

My librettist almost instantaneously invented a synopsis. "We should write an opera about the housing bubble! It is our great American story of the early twenty-first century!"

The housing bubble?! Normally when I think of "great American stories," I don't immediately equate that to "great romanticized disasters."

It gets better.

"And…the story should be about a college student who is able to buy a house with her student loans."

Oh man.

Thankfully I warmed up to the idea after a couple days because it's a great one, and so I started to pull my share of the creative weight.

"I think The Ditz shouldn't be an actress. I think she should be a dancer."

"We should totally make those four male characters (The Dean/Mortgage Broker, The Banker, The Landlord/Realtor, The Financier) come together at the end like they're in a barbershop quartet. Let's make it schmaltzy and patriotic at the end."

"OH. We should totally write dirty catch canons where the characters sing one thing and The Ditz hears how much they're screwing her."

This was going to be the best proposal ever. We eagerly submitted it. We had this.

And then we were served a slice of humble pie.

In late April of last year, I learned that my friend Doug Pew won the opportunity to work with the WNO. And you know what, he (and his librettist Dara Weinberg) totally deserved it. If I were on a committee, I'd totally pick Doug and Dara too. Doug's a good composer. And, even though I'm not familiar with Dara's dramatic works, she's sharp and can write a good libretto.

That all being said, this has probably been the most crushing composer FAIL I've ever experienced. And this defeat was further compounded because my in-house librettist was taken down with me.

So, what did we do? We ate at Izzy's.

There is nothing a delightfully-fattening reuben and a perfect potato pancake can't cure, and the sandwich did help soften the blow, but I think the pairing of good food with good conversation is ultimately what helped us.
"We should produce this opera ourselves."

"I know, right? No one else is going to perform this. I am SO tired of receiving rejection letters and waiting for other people to produce my work."

"We should form our own opera company."

"And pull a Joan Tower? Yeah. Yeah…totally…"

So there you have it, folks. We became new opera vigilantes. We arrived at the 2012 Opera America Conference, picked up our name tags, and inscribed "NANOWorks" as best we could, mimicking the font on the badge. When opera administrators asked us what is NANOWorks, we said as best we could, "We are North American New Opera Workshop, we're a new opera company in Cincinnati, and our first production will be about the unofficial life and death of Paula Deen." Done and done.

Am I thankful for this rejection? Yes, finally, because now I can say, "We're in Opera News, monkeys!"
2 years ago | |
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I never thought I would see street art in Salerno that encapsulates my home life so well. I mean, look, the dude is obviously frustrated about something he just wrote (yes that does happen a little too much), and there is a "helpful" kitty nearby. Story of my life, I say.
Just in case you thought, oh yeah, she is on a roll, she doesn't receive composer FAILs anymore, I present you this.

You're welcome.
2 years ago | |
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I wouldn't say this synthesized performance of “Ticket Punch” from Speilzeug Straußenbahn is much of a revolution (since I've noticed choreographers have been using live or pre-recorded electronic music for some time now), but if the opportunity arises to translate your yet-to-be-performed piece into basic triangle and pulse waves and you have someone who wants to dance to it, by all means, do it.

Here's a performance of Kari Olsen performing at the Performance and Time Arts series April 19 and 20, 2013.

2 years ago | |
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I decided at the last minute to enter another comp comp where I crampose a piece of music in five hours based on an assigned instrumentation and a secret musical ingredient. It seems like fun, right? A fun challenge. A challenge where I wear robot boots and write something mega-cool and receive a mega-awesome performance and they basically just put me in space and let me fly around in cool poses.

Am I asking for a challenge?!1

I should ask myself why I keep entering these competitions, since it seems like I only produce my best work (or any work, for that matter) when I have a ridiculously short amount of time to complete a project. And then my insecure composer self wonders if I'd write better music if I actually took the time to think through my material.

Oh well. I've been selected as a finalist to participate in this year's Iron Composer contest to be held at Baldwin-Wallace College on September 6. The concert (which will be held that evening at 8 p.m. EST) will be broadcast locally on WCLV 104.9 FM.

Also: Cleveland.2

1. Challenge and fighting and
Fighting the challenge tonight.
Everybody's fighting for the
Challenge of the fighting and the
Challenge and fighting and
Fighting the challenge tonight.

2. “We'd All Like to Flee to the Cleve.”
2 years ago | |
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I am STILL buzzing with excitement about Homer Bailey's no-hitter against the Giants on Tuesday night. It actually happened! Nothing jinxed it! Like, during the game, you never want to call a no-hitter because you feel you may curse it, and you always worry about silly things ruining said potential no-hitter (like the replay of Marty Brennaman's calling Homer Bailey's other no-hitter from last year against the Pirates during the freaking seventh inning) until you're witnessing the top of the ninth inning and you realize that OH MY GOODNESS THE NO-HITTER MAY HAPPEN.

And then it does and it's so flipping incredible because statistically you're never going to see one live again. And then you hang out with your friends afterward and keep gushing about that incredible sports moment and you're still wearing that same Reds t-shirt for the next few days because of that game.

Well, okay, you're not wearing all the time, I mean, I'm totally going to wash it sometime this week. Really. It's going to happen.

So, anyway, Italy.

I was in Campania (outside of Salerno) in mid-June as one of the composers-in-residence at a new chamber music festival founded by my friends Regina Compton and Melanie Lahti. Chamber Music Campania is a cross-disciplinary summer music festival in southern Italy. A resident wind quintet lived there during the whole three-week festival curating concerts, rehearsing, and performing in different unconventional venues, which I thought was pretty cool. As the resident composer, a subset of the wind quintet played a wind trio of mine the week I was there. Here's a scrapbook.

This is the bed and breakfast the resident quintet and I stayed in.
Seriously, this was the back of the property.

The door to C'era Una Volta (the place of residence)
This is a volcano pizza (that's what we were told). We actually visited this pizzeria twice.
We went to the main part of Campania. Pretty.
Here's a poster advertising the concert on Friday in Campania. Posters written in Italian make the concerts that much more exciting. It's true.
Oh yeah, and the quintet performed there too.
What I most liked about the festival were the planned (and sometimes spontaneous) conversations we had about current musical performances and the contemporary issues the modern musician faces. Like, how do we attract more audiences to come to concerts? How do we make them fell more at ease? A list of their discussions can be found here (and I'm sad I missed the discussion about current collegiate music curriculum).
Anyway, I hope to post video soon of the performances.

2 years ago | |
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Hello! I am back from Chamber Music Campania (which is still going on, so I am way jealous of my wind quintet peers) where I was composer-in-residence for one week livin' up the fantastic glutenous glamorous life of southern Italian sun, relaxation, and gargantuan plates of food. Did you know southern Italians put red pepper chili flakes in their olive oil? Amaze-balls. Did you know their regional pasta sauces made from peas or chickpeas are divine? They are. And because of this, my pants and lap belt and seat belt made my pleasantly plump self slightly uncomfortable.

Well, that's not the only thing that has made me uncomfortable.

Just two days after I return, I am greeted with this news. (“The…the N-word? Uh, which one did she use 'cause I know it wasn't ‘non-fat.' BOOM!" —John Oliver)
Many of my friends have asked me what I think of this comedic land mine, and even what will happen to the future my Paula Deen opera and if a potential opera franchise/ring cycle will come of it.

Well, I'll be honest—I initially wasn't thinking about my nano Zeitoper's future. I was thinking of the women who brilliantly created the role of Paula Deen. Have you met Christine Danielle Lyons? That girl can sing. And she's a sweetheart. And here she is backstage at a NANOWorks show in Lexington Kentucky (as part of LexArts) about to reprise her role.

I know what you're thinking. Here she looks SO happy and excited in this photo. And I was too. My co-founder and I knew that we had to fly her in for this performance because her portrayal of Paula Deen was so spot-on at the Atlanta Opera 24-Hour Opera Project premiere (and memorized in twelve hours nonetheless!). How was Christine given the opportunity to play Paula? My guess (since my librettist Vynnie Meli and I were excluded from the casting process) was that she was the best person for the role. She had the right voice type, acting chops, and Southern-diction (since Christine also hails from Georgia).

Of course, everything is fun and games when writing an opera about Paula, until you realize your larger-than-life main character is probably racist toward the woman who created that role. Interestingly enough, three out of the four women who have performed this role are women of color.1

Does this matter? A few months ago I believed anyone can play Paula: her character transcends race. Now I wonder—can anyone play Paula now?

The future of Krispy Kremes and Butter Queens is unknown. I had already planned to stop production of the opera after the Fringe Festival run since it had been performed in Cincinnati quite a number of times. If others want to produce the opera (in other cities), I am certainly not opposed to additional performances, although I wonder who would want to see the show at this moment.
I also don't know if I will write a sequel to this saga. (Look at all the fodder Paula has given to The Daily Show. There is so much…material…) Maybe you think my operas are ripped from the headlines, but they're not: I deem them as works of historical fiction (or pure fiction). The last time I checked, Paula Deen never choked and died from a Krispy Kreme, and I don't know of any college freshman who was able to buy a house with student loans and no money down.

Anyway, if any of you guys can figure out how to make racism funny in operatic form, let me know. Right now I don't think it is.
1. On a side note, holy cow, I never thought that four women would perform this role. Talk about being highly fortunate and blessed.
2 years ago | |
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Greetings from outside-of-Salerno, Italy, where I'm taking a much needed working vacation1 after NANOWorks' run of THE BUBBLE and Other Displays of Moral Turpitude at the Cincinnati Fringe Festival.


Normally I'd be all a-glow gushing about the world premiere of my opera about the housing bubble, but I'm just so freaking happy that my partner/co-founder/librettist/all-around-fantastic-person and I produced four nano-productions and had them performed five times. And it all came together. And we survived it. And the house is still standing.

Let me tell you—producing your own opera series (at a Fringe festival) is an experience in which the learning curve is rather steep. I have learned quite a bit from this experience,2 and I've also learned how to deal with reviews from critics who have no musical background.

I have to admit, I was a little bit naïve about the process: I thought that the local music critics would attend my show (I mean, I did email them about it and they should have been aware of the performances), but they never came. Instead, all of the (freelance) theatre critics appeared since they were assigned to attend all of the Cincinnati Fringe shows. Is that why the music critics never attended? Did they assume their theatre colleagues would have the same background as them and understand the opera genre?

I'm not sure. What I did learn was that the theatre crowd can be hostile to opera, mainly because most believe that it's long, foreign, and mainly sung in Italian. And I also got the impression that some did not want to be there, which was quite sad and disappointing to me. In this review, for example, I was slightly confused about the line "Once into the flow, however, I saw fewer yawns in the audience." The opening night audience was the best we've had as a company.3

In this other review/blog post, I appreciate that this writer admitted that he had only seen a handful of operas. And, I learned through his review that theatre-goers probably want to feel emotionally connected to their characters onstage. Since the operas I produced were about really really really really really bad people, I didn't think the audience would have connected to the characters.4

The last review was probably the most balanced in that the critic actually researched our fledgling company. He had good things to say about our production, he pointed out that our stage direction was lacking (which, considering that we're not really stage directors, makes sense, although I wish he mentioned how we could fix it), but he mentioned that one of my singers had poor diction (which is NOT true!). I wish I could talk to all these theatre critics and explain that female operatic voices are harder to understand. (I mean, sung text is harder to understand than spoken text.)

Anyway, I did learn quite a bit from this production, and I now know who my Fringe audience is. I can now attune my productions to sustain their attention and interest. I believe opera can learn a bit from the theatre kids, and in turn, we can show them that opera is fun and exciting.


So, I'm the composer-in-residence this week at Chamber Music Campania! My woodwind trio Ma fin est mon commencement, est mon commencement5 will be performed in Varano this weekend. The musicians are stellar, and I can't wait to hear my piece (in rehearsal) this afternoon.

1. More on that later.
2. As in, how to do it better next time.
3. I mean, they were a highly lubricated audience, ergo they were not yawning.
4. Like I totally related to buying a house with my student loans. Ever.
5. Let it be known that I have now abandoned extensive titles. You're welcome.
2 years ago | |
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The NANOWorks crew
"Newcomers are mistaken if they think grand opera is the only true opera." I agree with Alex Ross, and he proceeds to point out that quite a few chamber opera companies have sprung up in New York City. There have also been a couple other chamber opera companies that have been popping up throughout the country, and I am quite encouraged by these small upstarts. I think there comes a point when creative people (whether they be composers, writers, performers, et cetera) realize that they need to take performance opportunities into their own hands and create them. For me personally, this is always what I try to do because (1) Joan Tower told me and my fellow composers over a decade ago to do just this and (2) I realized my performance opportunities weren't going to necessarily happen via winning composition competitions.
On this note, I want to mention New Fangled Opera again because they are doing more or less what I am doing: starting their own opera company because they want to create performance opportunities for composers and singers and whomever else is involved in creating Gesamtkunstwerk. They have their first 2013 Festival on June 7th and 8th in New Orleans, and they're trying to raise money for the show. Please contribute if you can: they are not only performing my infamous opera about Paula Deen and the afterlife, but they're also performing Timothy Brown's An Accidental Affair (which was literally written the same time I was writing Krispy Kremes and Butter Queens in the room next to mine), and Charles Halka's Layover, an opera that NANOWorks has produced and will perform one more time at the 2013 Cincinnati Fringe Festival.

And speaking of the Fringe had better come if you can make it! I promise it will be a good show. I'm not saying this because, yes, this is probably the last time you will see and hear Paula choke on a doughnut and die onstage in Cincinnati, but also because the performers are working their butts off. I want to thank Tyler Catlin and Liz Remizowski, our musical director and piano maven for conducing rehearsals *for every show* and the tireless singers and performers who have come along for the ride.

The showtimes are:
Wednesday, May 29 at 8:45 p.m.Friday, May 31 at 7:00 p.m.Sunday, June 2 at 7:30 p.m.Tuesday, June 4 at 8:15 p.m.Thursday, June 6 at 7:00 p.m.

2 years ago | |
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On a personal note, I accomplished something I wanted to do since I was twelve years old: earn a doctorate in something.
Did I want to be a scholar? Yes, but I don't think I completely grasped what that meant. Did I think I could teach everyone at that level? Oh yes. Did I think I would know everything by that point? Most certainly. And did my young Republican self want to earn a doctorate because I would make way more money than the average high school graduate? You betcha.1
Anyway, I finally earned my degree last year in August, and now I have the ceremony to go with it.

Now back to grading.———1. Yes, times have changed.
2 years ago | |
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