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Sunday, March 06, 2016

The Hannah Callowhill Stage: Eyes on the Prize

Eyes on the prize, Melissa. Eyes on the goddamn prize.

What's the prize? The Hannah Callowhill Stage, with two apartments on top, one to live in and one to rent out, making this whole crazy theater venture financially viable.

What's in the way? A sum of money that doesn't seem all that astronomical if you live in Sydney or San Francisco, or if you earn maybe twice as much as we do, or if you're not in the arts. But to us, it's staggering. And it's money on top of what we paid for the property already.

Most of our "progress" in the eight months since my last significant Hannah update has involved talking to contractors. The general pattern in our interactions with contractors seems to be:
  1. We meet a contractor. They seem nice enough.
  2. The contractor decides if they are interested in or able to do the project. Most contractors are either too big (too busy, or our project will not net them enough profit) or too small (cannot handle structural steel and/or foundation underpinning that the plans require).
  3. If they are interested, the contractor will informally say that they think they can complete this project within our budget, because it really does seem reasonable, but they will need to look into pricing in more detail before giving a thorough estimate that we can use for financing purposes.
  4. The contractor spends a few weeks going over the plans and itemizing their costs, and eventually realizes that this project is going to cost way more than we all thought at first glance.
  5. Matt and I get very disheartened, and I probably cry a little in private.
The first estimate we got was so mind-boggling, Matt and I straight-up shut down for a month. I couldn't talk about it. I couldn't even negotiate with it, because it seems like such a waste of breath to tell a contractor, "Ssssssso, yeah, this estimate? Can you do it for, say, half as much? Because, ummmmmmm HOLY SHIT LOLOLOLLLLL *weeping*"

After months of this dance, however, we may have made a breakthrough this week. I don't want to jinx anything, but we believe we have found a contractor that is a fit for this project. He's competent and knowledgeable (having seen some of the cheap hackwork already in the building, I have no desire to go down that route, especially given the structural elements), and unlike a few of the contractors I've met, he looks me in the eyes when talking to me (as opposed to speaking exclusively to Matt, HEY MEN, DON'T DO THIS—WE NOTICE), and is willing to work with me as someone who can DIY some of the work, especially when it comes to finishing. Many contractors, understandably, are loath to let commissioning clients perform work or have too much input on their own project. It's the same in a lot of industries. You've seen variations on this, right?

But in this situation, (a) I swear, I am pretty good and pretty game at this construction stuff, and (b) we don't have a lot of choice because of financial constraints. I know, those are probably the same justifications and excuses every client uses in this situation. But this contractor believes me, and I think we're going to get on. (As an aside, I am thinking of taking the ICC National General Building Contractor exam—just for shits, since it's not necessary for any certification in Pennsylvania or Philadelphia. I have a copy of the latest International Building Code, which I know my way around reasonably well, taking the exam forces me to bone up, and the knowledge might afford me at least a small amount of cred when working and talking with people in the industry.)

So onto the next hurdle, and it's a big one. Acquiring the money.

In the throng of the Weblinc Christmas party last year, one of Matt's bosses introduced me to a man and told me to explain the Hannah to him. I had no idea who this under-dressed stranger was or what he did (I assumed he was in construction), but I drunkenly did as I was told. The next week, he gave me a call; as it turns out, he's a banker, and he has contacts in the financing industry who can help us get a construction loan in what might be the worst possible time so far this century for non-ultra-rich people like us to qualify for a construction loan. (He also connected us to our contractor, so top marks for this guy.) I filled out a stack of forms in January, marking the third time we have filled out a financing application related to this property. I have become depressingly accustomed to this grind.

There's an uncomfortable chicken-and-egg conundrum when it comes to construction loans. Contractors want to know how much money you can borrow so they can tailor their budget accordingly. Banks want to know what the contractors have budgeted so they can tailor their loan and draw amounts accordingly. It's a stressful dance to figure out how to get everyone on the same page at the same time without having a nervous breakdown looking at the number of zeroes in the rapidly skyrocketing totals. At some point, we hit a ceiling where we realized that the amount we qualify to borrow will be significantly less than the amount of the construction.

And so, we had to make a decision. Do we go all-in?

All-in means that there is a good chance that following this through to completion will zero us out. We'd be betting everything we have on red. We'd be putting all our eggs and chickens in the same handbasket and hoping it's not going to hell. No savings, no investments, no retirement—everything into the Hannah. And more than that, we'd be going into debt, because we still need the construction loan (assuming and hoping like hell we are approved for the amount we asked for this week).

  • When this property is complete, there is a good chance it's going to be valued in the $1 million range, based on current property prices in the area. That's far more than the total cost of the purchase + construction, so if everything goes well, it's an excellent investment. (Also, we'll qualify for the 10-year property tax abatement, so at least we'll have a decade to figure out how to turn a profit before taxes on a million-dollar property kick in.)
  • We're in our mid-30's. We are extraordinarily blessed (#blessed) to have investments and retirement funds and cash. To be honest, many of our friends are not in this position. Even if our bet fails, we still have time to start from scratch and be OK by retirement. Also, we don't have children, which gives us some leeway in taking a risk like this.
  • We're following an entrepreneurial dream, which I believe is a far more worthwhile pursuit than playing it safe by amassing cash. What is the point of hoarding cash if you aren't doing what you want to do when you're still young enough to do it?
  • This goes against every piece of advice I've ever been given about money and risk in my entire goddamn life. 
  • What if President Trump invades Russia and tanks the world economy, and global warming becomes so pronounced that the tidal Delaware River bursts its banks and completely floods out the neighborhood? I mean, we'll all be fucked in that scenario, but I feel like I will be extra bitter about it if I threw every drop of my liquid assets into building a beautiful theater home on a riverbank.
After much keening and hand-wringing, I have made peace with the idea that we're going to go all-in. And surprisingly, after I came to terms with it, I felt a huge sense of relief. There was so much energy and agony going into making the decision to jump, the sickening free-fall doesn't seem so bad by comparison. I just hope my parachute opens.

Please open. Please.

Meanwhile, I'll just keep my eyes on the prize. And work on my opera. I'll be way better at this hands-on construction business if that's out of the way.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Lola Ridge songs, in one convenient blog post

Three generations of women composers at the Volti Choral Institute: me (duh), high school senior Morgan Orsolini, whose choral work Awaken Again was among those performed, and the incomparable composer/pianist/conductor Sue Bohlin

A few weeks ago, I returned to frigid Philadelphia from California and immediately came down with a nasty case of the flu. My bad for procrastinating getting a flu shot this year until I forgot about it, but I'm also feeling some animosity toward the lady who open-mouth-coughed on me at the Saint Louis Airport on the trip home. I'm sure it was her. 

Then my cat Tripoli passed away last week. She was about 14 and it was her time to go, but both Matt and I are still a bit choked-up over it.

It's time to get back on the horse, though, especially since I am in happy possession of the results of my California trip: live recordings of all of my Lola Ridge songs. To recap: back in 2014, I composed a treble choral setting of an excerpt from Sun-Up by Lola Ridge, a poet whose path from growing up in New Zealand to attending college in Sydney to immigrating to New York mirrors my own journey from Brisbane to Sydney to Philadelphia. She didn't begin writing poetry until she reached America in her thirties, which recalls my own "late" start as a composer in my mid-twenties, a sacrilege in the youth-obsessed world of classical music. And in another parallel with my career, the subject matter of her work was more often than not political and focused on social justice. I wrote about my connection to her and the composition of that first song, It's Strange About Stars in a blog entry at the time.

Bob Geary, the Artistic Director of San-Francisco-based choir Volti (I was their Choral Arts Laboratory composer-in-residence a couple of years ago and wrote The Oath of Allegiance for them) picked up what I was putting down, and approached me about commissioning a couple more songs to complete the set. I wrote Shadows over a cradle... a few months later for a young women's choir he directs, Ancora, then completed Different kinds of shadows last fall for the Volti Choral Institute.

The Choral Institute is a weekend-long gathering for high school choir groups; there's an SATB camp in the fall and an SSAA camp in the winter. Several high school choirs of an exceptionally high standard gather north of San Francisco (near Bohemian Grove!) and spend a weekend learning new music, rehearsing, and participating in workshops. It was wonderful, in all senses of the word. As someone who grew up at a girls' school singing in girl choirs, I felt so completely at home watching these talented and enthusiastic young women sing. And I was so overwhelmed and proud to be their composer—and a woman composer among young women. I tried to inspired them to compose their own works one day (see photo above—one student has already written her own remarkable choir piece, which her choir performed while there!), but more than that, I wanted them to see that the world is theirs if they aren't afraid to express themselves and look beyond whatever boxes society wants to build for them. In part, the proximity to Bohemian Grove made me want to rant: LOOK! OVER THERE! The most powerful men in the world are TERRIFIED of you! The patriarchy has spent thousands of years LITERALLY BURNING TO DEATH women who dare to express themselves and work together and fulfill their potential. They are so scared of you, they have banned you from their ritual costume parties; why else would they do so if you weren't full of such power and potential? They don't want you to rock the boat. ROCK. THE. BOAT. ROCK IT.

I tried to say some of this in a speech toward the end of the weekend, but I got emotional and I'm not sure it came out right.

Nevertheless, here are the videos from the final performance of the Lola Ridge songs, after only a few hours total of rehearsal. The titles above link to the pages on this website where you can download the score (for free!).

Shadows over a cradle...


It's strange about stars...

Different kinds of shadows

*     *     *

Coincidentally, just after I got home, my pre-ordered copy of a new (and the first ever) Lola Ridge biography arrived in the mail: Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, written by Terese Svoboda. It is meticulously researched (over 150 pages of footnotes and bibliography!), and so far a fascinating exploration of a feminist leftist revolutionary whose voice was so ahead of her time—and most importantly, it's a great read. Pick it up:

Saturday, January 30, 2016

My chickenshit Bohemian Grove adventure

I am writing from the Volti Choral Institute, where about 60 absolutely lovely and lovely-voiced Californian teenaged women are singing my three Lola Ridge pieces (they've already made me tear up in rehearsal). I'll post some video from the camp in due course, hopefully, but I have to document something very important first.

Shortly after I arrived, I was discussing with Barbara, the Executive Director of Volti, what I might do to occupy my time this afternoon, when the girls were taking workshops and classes unrelated to my compositions. "I guess I'll just explore the area."
"Have you heard of the Bohemian Club?"
"Is that ... you mean like Bohemian Grove?"
"Yes, Bohemian Grove is right here."


Sure enough, I looked at a map.

Oh my GOD. OH MY GOD. I have made jokes about going to Bohemian Grove for over a decade, probably ever since I read Jon Ronson's Them. And now I was sitting less than ten miles away from the actual site, and I had no idea. I didn't even twig when I saw that the address of the CYO Retreat was on "Bohemian Highway." I am on the same street as Bohemian Grove.

So just a few hours ago, after lunch, I jumped in my bright red Mazda rental car and set off down the road.

After a few miles, I turned right onto Bohemian Avenue. Toward the end of Bohemian Avenue, I suddenly saw the low barbed wire fence that I had read in Alex Jones's (I know) account of infiltrating Bohemian Grove back in 2003. I had to pull over, I was so excited. There were No Trespassing signs every few feet, and just past the fence was the moat I had also read about.

I got back into my car and drove a little further. Through the trees on my right, I could see kind of a clearing, the sort of place where people or employees might park their cars for a Midsummer Encampment, perhaps.

And then ... OMG OMG OMG the entrance! The gate was open! But ... there were signs on either side about prosecuting trespassers.

As I stood in the middle of the small road taking a picture of the open pathway to Moloch, a white truck pulled over about 100 feet behind me on the road. I looked back and nonchalantly got back in my car. They didn't move. I had no idea if they were suspicious residents, security of some kind, or perhaps even just a curiosity seeker like myself. Nevertheless, I turned the corner and drove away while I thought about my options.

I was totally unprepared for this endeavor. In my head, a serious venture into Bohemian Grove requires preparation. For a start, I don't look like I belong there because I do not in any way, shape, or form resemble a moneyed old white man. I guess I could maybe pretend to be a deferential female food service employee, but not at this time of year, probably.

Moreover, it was the middle of the day, a very sunny day, and my rental car is bright red. I mean, Barbara actually commented when she saw it a couple of days ago that it was the brightest red car she has ever seen. It's not exactly built for stealth or blending. And it's a Mazda 2, not exactly the car of someone who belongs at Bohemian Grove (although, again, perhaps an acceptable food service drudgeon vehicle).

Thirdly, let's say I was arrested. There were about 60 young women back at the camp who are apparently quite interested in my insights—some of them were even full-blown excited to talk to me about composing. It wouldn't be very nice of me to get myself arrested and leave them in the lurch.

And what then? I don't have a criminal defense attorney. I could be injured or even killed by an over-zealous police or security force. I'd have to ask Matt to bail me out of a small town jail. I mean, it would be messy, and possibly even dangerous.

I thought about all this as I drove around the block and found myself with my car parked once again at the gates of Bohemian Grove, this time with no mysterious white truck behind me. I got out of the car again, and stood with my toe right at the border of the property.

I took this picture.

And I got back in my car, and decided, today is not the day I see the Moloch statue in the flesh, so to speak. Another day, but not today.

Instead I drove back to Occidental, and explored the overpriced craft stores there. I was sorely tempted to buy this tchotchke, but I resisted.

Next time, Moloch, next time.

P.S. If you have no idea what I am talking about with all this, here, watch this, if you can stomach it:

Friday, January 29, 2016

Just me, the rental car, and Big Basin Redwoods State Park

This break in your regularly scheduled updates about the Hannah and my career was brought to you by a schedule snafu which gave me a few extra days to spend in the Bay Area by myself while Matt flew back to snowy Philadelphia to attend to work matters. Although I had a few very kind offers of couches to crash on, I was surprised to find myself craving solitude, and uninterrupted greenness, and frugality. "I just want to drive into a forest," I told Matt. He raised his eyebrows and laughed. "I can't believe how much you hate people."

I mean, pretty much.

So after dropping Matt off at the airport, I picked up two days' worth of supplies at Target (sourdough bread, cream cheese, snap peas, canned coffee, bananas, beef jerky, a lighter, and a $4 pillow), and like some kind of hippy, I pointed my rented red Mazda 2 hatchback at the hills west of San Jose, without even bothering to make a reservation. Basically, a mini solo replay of our nationwide 2012 Roadtrop but without any planning or equipment or a Dodge Magnum.

The first state park I reached, Henry Cowell Redwoods, looked beautiful and green and sunny, but I was turned away by the ranger at the entrance because their campsites had closed for the "winter." LOL IT IS 65 DEGREES. "Yeah, it is nice up here," agreed the ranger, but closed is closed. All I could think of was poor Matt struggling through two feet of snow in our backyard back home, and also that time we camped at Sequoia National Park when it was 18 degrees Fahrenheit and actively snowing. Instead, the ranger directed me to a park with year-round camping less than 20 miles away: Big Basin Redwoods.

I passed through the ludicrously quaint Boulder Creek, which appears to be a frontier-themed town run by granola hippies but still littered with sad alcoholics left over from the Gold Rush. Also Jonathan Franzen apparently lives there, eww. About five miles up the hill, once the road passes the Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Buddhist Monastery, cellphone reception cuts out. And then the old redwoods start appearing.

The closest thing I've ever had to a religious experience was seeing the redwood trees in Sequoia National Park back in 2012, so I was very happy to be in their presence again. If there is such a thing as a soul, I could be convinced by redwood trees that plants have them too (and I would question the hierarchical organization of souls proposed by Jainism as an artificial way to make our human conscience comfortable with the fact that life necessarily feeds on life). I won't say that all my stress and tension disappeared, but I was grinning when I pulled up to the headquarters.

Camping was $35 per night, which is a lot cheaper than any hotel around here, although if you think about it, that's over $1000 per month, or nearly as much rent as our tenant was paying to live in our two-bedroom house in Downingtown. Or twice as much rent as we were paying for a one-bedroom apartment in Harrisburg ten years ago. For sleeping in a tent (or car).

Nice yard, though.

Wrinkle: despite the giant quantities of wood lying around, gathering of any firewood is prohibited at the park because they want to preserve forest floor litter. Bundles of firewood were available at park HQ for the grossly inflated price of $10.50, but I didn't feel like driving 10 miles back to Boulder Creek right away, so I paid out. Second wrinkle: the bundle of firewood I purchased turned out to be slightly damp (I guess it was the rains last weekend) and wouldn't catch easily, and kindling counts as firewood and is covered by the ban. So I ended up having to drive back to Boulder Creek anyway that afternoon to buy fire starters. I also grabbed a few handwarmers because as it turned out, Big Basin was higher up and therefore significantly colder than Henry Cowell, the park that didn't allow winter camping. Camping is always a little more expensive than you expect.

When I returned to my campsite, another car with a trio of campers had pulled into the site next to mine. We did that thing that campers at government parks do, where we ignore each other and pretend that we're each here in complete solitude, and try not to get too annoyed that there are visible people nearby.

Pretty soon, it got so dark under the towering redwoods, it was pretty easy to imagine I was completely alone with my fire and my cheese-and-bread dinner.

Around 6PM, this dark peaceful silence was interrupted very suddenly by terrifying shouts and running sounds coming from my neighbors that scared the everloving shit out of me. My suppositions were, in order:
  1. My neighbors are some kind of thrill-killers, and they are charging at my camp to slice me up with a machete, rape me, and leave me in a shallow grave in the park somewhere.
  2. Blair Witch.
  3. A mountain lion or bear is eating my neighbors, and I am next on the menu.
  4. Raccoons are stealing their food.

Surprise! Number 4 was correct. This did not really help my heart, which was thumping so hard I could hear it in my ears, but at least I wasn't about to die. The raccoons soon appeared in my campsite, and although I lunged at them, they were highly disdainful of my efforts to keep them away. Luckily my dinner was finished and my food all locked up in the bear safe, so they soon went on their way. I tried to take some video of them, but it was SO dark, all you can see is the suggestion of their eyes gleaming in my headlamp.

My neighbors told me they got away with a whole bag of chips. But at least they weren't mountain lions.

I crawled into the back seat of the Mazda not long afterward because I had a serious case of the willies after all the yelling - not an ideal solo campfire demeanor. I had no reading materials on my phone and no reception, so I spent about an hour reorganizing my data (SIX GIGS OF APP CACHE!? No wonder my phone is full. Fixed!) before dropping into a fitful, slightly cold and cramped sleep.

Dawn broke. Hike time! I had picked out the Sequoia Trail from the park map, and after breakfast of snap peas and banana and cream cheese bread rolls, I threw some jerky in my pocket, grabbed some water, and set off. Not far along, the sound of water rushing led me to the Sempervirens Falls:

I continued past Slippery Rock, where rounded holes in the stone were used as mortars by women of the Ohlone tribe, and steam rose constantly wherever the sunlight touched. At some point deep in the woods, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn't seen another human being on the entire hike, and without cellphone reception, I was pretty fucked if I accidentally antagonized a rattlesnake or mountain lion, or fell and broke my ankle. But I survived.

The trail took me past the park headquarters, where I took a detour to walk the short Redwood Loop, where you can see many of the oldest trees in the park, like the 2000-year-old Father of the Forest, and Chimney Tree, a redwood that is completely hollow from bottom to top. The living parts of redwoods are in a ring around the dead heartwood, so their insides can completely disintegrate from fire and rot and the tree can continue standing and growing.

After my hike, I drove into Boulder Creek for the last time, to grab some cheaper, better firewood, and a couple of sausages to roast. The campsite next to me was empty, and I finally felt like I was hitting my woman-of-the-woods stride. I stayed up late just staring at the crackling fire, and listening to nighthawks and whip-poor-wills. The sausages were goddamn delicious.

Sadly, the next day I had to return to civilization to wash the stench of campfire and jerky off before the Volti Choral Institute. Still I felt a lot better for my solo forest trip. In another life, I think I would have made a pretty happy park ranger.

I didn't think about my opera or the theater at all.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Six month catch-up

It's funny how the mind works in relation to reality. I've been avoiding writing a blog entry because I honestly thought I wouldn't have anything to report. But as I sat down today and forced myself to start looking back through my calendar and photos from the last six months, the evidence suggested otherwise.

I'll talk about what's happened in non-Hannah-related life first, and then write a separate entry explaining where we're at with the theater tomorrow. Spoiler: despite some effort, there has been little material progress, which is one disappointing reason it feels like I've done nothing at all. Also, I haven't finished my opera. And it's the middle of winter. And I'm processing some childhood emotional garbage and familial grief which I'm not going to go into, but which is seriously harshing any buzz I might have the energy left to muster.

But enough whining. In the last six months, I:

Moved back to Downingtown (and built a backyard)

In August, we threw most of what we own into storage and set up temporary digs in the first house we bought and renovated. After a couple of weeks, our dreary backyard started to get on my nerves. We were so wrapped up in fixing everything inside the house nearly ten (!) years ago, we never had time to pay any attention to the yard. It's about 60 by 20 feet, which is large by my urban standards, and that's pretty much all it had going for it. Some overgrown and unplanned trees blocked the southern sunlight, and our proximity to the Brandywine Creek, along with very unremarkable clayey soil, meant nothing much grew but sickly waterlogged weeds.

I also noticed that the kid in the house behind us is no longer prepubescent, and is clearly dealing weed from out of his basement bedroom window. I don't give a shit about the weed (hell, I'd rather they do that than drink), but I did care about the constant stream of customers who would take a shortcut through our yard despite repeated requests not to trespass, and toss their goddamn litter all over my property. GET OFF MY SICKLY WATERLOGGED WEED-LAWN, YOU GODDAMN WEED-BUYING KIDS.

So we started the process of creating a backyard that wasn't a muddy shortcut to the neighborhood weed dealer by paying a couple of burly guys to cut down two of the three trees. Side note: only a few weeks later, one of the burly guys was killed. He was cutting down trees on someone else's property, and a tree fell on him. He died instantly, without knowing what hit him; because he was working a stump grinder, he couldn't hear his colleagues shouting for him to get out of the way. I never really talked to him because I was out of town in Connecticut while the bulk of the tree-cutting on our property was going on (see below), but it's still shocking and sad.

One of the unchecked feral trees, in the 50 years it had been alive (I counted the rings), had completely enveloped a metal fence that used to grace the rear of our property, so I had to cut down the last three feet of trunk myself with a Sawzall, since metal and chainsaws don't mix. It took about a day, and my arms and back hurt for about a week afterward.

Before/after my Sawzall effort
Then I built a goddamn fence to keep the goddamn kids out of my goddamn yard. I built it pretty much single-handedly because I was pissed off at the world and needed something to keep my mind off childhood emotional garbage. I dug all the 30-inch post holes myself, filled them with cement, leveled the posts, added the tension wire and top rail, stretched the chain link, constructed and hung the gates. I know everything there is to know about erecting a five-foot chain-link fence around a yard to keep out weed-buying kids. It cost about $800 in materials, which is a whole lot less than the quotes for $3,000+ I was getting from fencing contractors. This is good, because we need to save all the money we can for our real home in Philadelphia, more on that tomorrow.

Then I created a garden with a patio and a firepit, and bought a few plants because it was the warmest November/December on record. It looks like a dead winter wasteland right now, but that will hopefully change in the spring, assuming the deciduous native plants I picked out (elderberry, ninebark, witchhazel, pussywillow, dogwood) survive:

The firewood and the mulch all comes from the two trees we cut down, and there's plenty more stacked up out of sight to chip and burn in the next few months.

Performed at the National Puppetry Festival

Every June, I get to hang out at the O'Neill National Puppetry Conference (applications for composers and puppeteers open Monday) as their music director, but this year for the first time, I was invited to perform at the National Puppetry Festival, which takes place at the University of Connecticut in August. While Matt was supervising the cutting of our trees, I was on stage playing my carbon fiber viola with Maria from Sesame Street:


Does that seem weird to you? It seems weird to me. My life is pretty weird. And pretty wonderful, at times, I guess.

Made my Opera Philadelphia debut

Curiouser and curiouser. With the aid of a pick-up, I played solo amplified viola in a five-piece band in the Opera Philadelphia x Bearded Ladies production of Andy: A Popera, performing the music of Heath Allen and Dan Visconti. It was a helluva lot of fun, and not the way I ever expected to get my first paycheck from our city's premier opera company. Opera News even claimed I led the band (I most assuredly did not! Heath was the leader, I was just acting). Here's a tiny bit of it:

A video posted by Susan Crawshaw (@susancrawshaw) on

Wrote some hilarious folk-rock music for Love's Labour's Lost

Also part of the 2015 Fringe Festival was Revolution Shakespeare's Americana-themed production of Love's Labour's Lost, for which I wrote a whole bunch of folky rootsy rock songs. Not my usual compositional fare, but if there's one thing I love, it's when someone offers me a bizarre word-setting challenge, and turning various passages of Shakespeare into music influenced by Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, and Johnny Cash sounds like a good time to me. Crazy enough to work, even. The cast was super game and talented (and included Doug Durlacher, who played Oberon in the 2004 Harrisburg Shakespeare Festival production of Midsummer that marked the beginning of my composition career!), and I've been adapting a couple of the songs I wrote into Up Your Cherry numbers.

I don't think there's any video publicly available, which is a shame, but here's a picture of me performing one of the songs with some members of the cast at Fringe Scratch Night:

Went to Saint Louis, where my new choir piece Alpha and Omega was premiered

I don't think I've mentioned on this blog yet that I'm the Composer-in-Residence for the Saint Louis Chamber Chorus for the next couple of years. N.B. "Residence" in this context doesn't actually mean I have to live in St. Louis, but I get to travel there at least once a year to hear them premiere a piece I've written for them. Again, I was given a fabulous word-setting challenge from their director Philip Barnes: mash up excerpts from the Book of Revelation and The Pilgrim's Progress to create a piece that reflects modern hopes for the city of St. Louis. I threw in a quote from a traditional spiritual "Oh, What a Beautiful City" which itself is a setting of the same section of Revelation, and although as I recall the labor wasn't easy, I managed to deliver a piece that I think works quite well: Alpha and Omega. At least one audience member was in tears! Rule number one for artists: measure your success in audience tears.

You can listen to me blather on about it a bit on the local NPR station, but there isn't a publicly available recording (yet) - for that, we'll have to see if Philip is generous enough to take it into the studio. The SLCC does fabulous recordings, such as their CD American Declarations which includes What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach? and is the reason my name has been mentioned favorably in Gramophone Magazine, which is SO WEIRD YOU GUYS I USED TO BUY THAT MAG WHEN I WAS 15 BECAUSE OF WHAT A NERD I WAS.

The Saint Louis Chamber Chorus rehearses "Alpha and Omega"

Wrote a piece for Choral Arts Philadelphia, O Oriens

Another double bar line I reached was for a project by Choral Arts Philadelphia, who commissioned seven Philadelphia composers to set the O Antiphons. I picked the one that ... well, here, why don't I just explain it to you on camera:

O Oriens got a very nice review, and it turns out I quite like it. Here's a bit of it I recorded at rehearsal, and hopefully there will be a full recording soon. It's already had a second performance by a different choir in St. Louis, and yet another choir in Baltimore might be performing it in April, stay tuned.

SNEAKY PEEKY! Concert details here
Posted by Melissa Dunphy on Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Finished my third Lola Ridge choir piece, Different kinds of shadows

I can hardly believe I saw a *third* double bar line in this period of time in which my brain is convinced I did nothing. But no, looking at my notes, I did in fact finish another piece. 18 months ago, regular readers might recall I wrote a great vomit of a blog entry about the early 20th Century poet Lola Ridge, and a piece I composed that came very suddenly in the middle of a creative drought. Bob Geary, the conductor of Volti and also Ancora, an excellent young women's choir, dug my piece and my blog entry enough that he commissioned a couple more. Now I have three Lola Ridge SSA choir pieces under my belt: It's strange about stars..., Shadows over a cradle..., and this latest one which is so new I haven't even put it on my website yet, Different kinds of shadows. The first two have already been premiered by Ancora, but all three will be workshopped and performed this weekend at the Volti Choral Institute, and tomorrow I'll be flying out to Occidental, California, to be Resident Composer at the camp.

I enjoy that these pieces are for girl choir, because I grew up singing in girl choirs, and I sang in the women's chorus at West Chester, and writing for SSA feels very, very right to me. Also, though, I enjoy that these pieces are goth as hell. For real, I looked them all over again yesterday, and I am delighted by how dark they are. I might not dress completely in black anymore, but I guess the black is still in there, in my black, black soul.

Here's some footage of the girls singing my first Lola Ridge piece at last year's Choral Institute, with omg hilarious message-to-the-composer ending:

For Melissa Dunphy from Choral Institute! The whole thing!
Posted by Bruce Lengacher on Sunday, February 1, 2015

Incidentally, I dedicated that piece "to all the survivors," and after that performance one of the girls from the camp e-mailed me to ask why. I wrote her a very long and intense reply which went into great detail about my experience of reading Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence--from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, and my experience of reading the entire cycle of Lola Ridge's poems, and in retrospect I probably scared the heck out of her? Oops. There's one for the late-night social anxiety regret list.

Performed as the Last Remaining Scientist's Girlfriend with Zeb West

This blog entry is started to get really fucking long. Last major thing, I promise. At this year's National Puppetry Conference, I teamed up with Zeb West to contribute to his one-man puppet show, set in a post-apocalyptic future in which radioactive people-eating babies have devastated the earth. It was kind of a hit at the conference, so I was pretty happy when Zeb ordered up a couple of repeat performances in Brooklyn, first at Standard Toykraft for the Puppet Pandemic slam, then at the Bushwick Starr as part of the Puppets & Poets festival. We even added a new song.

In the show, I play the melodica, and I look like this:

Also I eat a can of Spam.
I'm trying to track down some pictures of the two of us performing, which I'll add if I get them. We'll prooooobably be doing the show again in Atlanta later this year, so if you want to see it live, which you do, stay tuned, again.

So ... I guess that's a fair amount of stuff. But as I said earlier, none of these things is finishing the theater or the opera. So the guilt-ridden parts of my brain translate all of this to: nothing has happened, nothing at all.