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Friday, September 11, 2009

The Gonzales Cantata: YES WE CANTATA

There aren't words to describe how I've felt this past week.

I can, at least, use words to divulge the facts: my composition the Gonzales Cantata caught the attention of the press and the imagination of the public last week, culminating in national television attention and a number one spot on Google Trends for about three hours on Thursday night. Not bad for a new concert opera based on political transcripts.

The extra press contributed to a very successful run at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival this past weekend at the Rotunda.

People have asked me many times: "How did you do it? What's your secret?" I keep thinking of Slumdog Millionaire. I have a particular set of skills which prepared me for a particular moment, and in an unbelievable stroke of luck, the moment presented itself. Cue fairytale.

Here's a handy table explaining what I mean.

How did you ...
...write the music?I spent a lot of time in my youth playing and listening to Bach and Handel. I stumbled on a copy of Portrait of PDQ Bach in a secondhand CD shop in Brisbane in 1994. I once arranged Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" as an Elizabethan madrigal, complete with fa la las.
...know how to put on a show?In 1999, I directed two shows for the New South Wales University Theatrical Society (NUTS). From 2004-2006, I worked at Gamut Theatre Group both onstage and off. I've worked as an actor and musician in Philadelphia long enough to have some great contacts (like my excellent stage manager Dina Steiner, who is worth more than her weight in gold).
...know how to promote?I was the Public Relations Director at Gamut, which means I know how to distribute a press release. Maybe even more importantly, I was a "wine consultant" - a fancy word for telemarketer - at Cellarmasters Wine Club when I was 19/20, which taught me to resist as much as possible feeling defeated by the repeated (and repeated, and repeated) rejection or indifference of strangers. Ditto my "promo girl" experience - I've worked campaigns for everyone from Microsoft to Dove Soap to (God forgive me) Marlboro cigarettes.
...create a web presence?I made my first website nearly ten years ago. It was a pretty embarrassing first effort, but I've had one ever since. Nowadays, I freelance in web design and implementation. I'm married to a web developer -- we laugh about the fact that we argue about website code more than just about anything else (he's way better than me, but I argue anyway). I'm also horrendously addicted to social media and thus understand its importance. And, having worked in television and watched the rise of YouTube, I knew enough to get on top of that too.
...navigate the TCO application?I immigrated. I'm not afraid of bureaucracy. The first architect I contacted tried to charge me $1200 to navigate it for me. I found a better architect and did the red tape myself.
...find such awesome performers?While I was at West Chester University, I made it my business to find singers who (a) could perform my compositions and (b) were wonderful people. For this performance, I also placed an audition notice on YAPtracker. (I didn't actually know to do that - they contacted me.) I used to work as a legal secretary, so I know how to draft up a contract.
Any other relevant skills?TV news (understanding the importance of footage), closed captions (surtitles), conducting (first conducted a choir in Somerville House's 1996 Choral Festival), sewing (came in very handy for costuming), printing/photocopying (seriously, I am a photocopier whisperer).


Most importantly, this summer, I had some spare time and some spare change* (or, at least, a sturdy credit card). Every day, I sent out press releases, e-mailed press outlets, made phone calls and mailed CD's. I hated doing it. Full-time promotion is horrible; it gradually destroys your self esteem, motivation, energy, and possibly also your soul. I wouldn't want to do promotion this extensive for money. In fact, I would happily pay someone else to do it, if I could be assured they would work as hard.

Of course, I had invaluable help from publicity liaison Dan Williams and my husband Matt. One of Matt's publicity jobs involved posting about the Gonzales Cantata in the comments of relevant news stories. We never absolutely confirmed this to be the chance source of our break, but on Tuesday or Wednesday of last week, Matt left a comment on an article about Alberto Gonzales in the Wall Street Journal.

On Thursday, (the wonderful) Ashby Jones of the Wall Street Journal Law Blog called and interviewed me. You can see the result here.

The next day, we were on The Huffington Post, Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish on The Atlantic, Harper's Magazine, The National Review, and The Chicago Tribune. That evening, as we prepared for a preview performance, we received word that we were on FOX News.

At this point, I was already on cloud nine. I'm a news junkie. I may be a musician, but all my rock stars are journalists. If I could have anyone in the world over to my house for a dinner party, the first two invitations would be addressed to Helen Thomas and John Simpson of the BBC. When the chorus of the Gonzales Cantata angrily lists the administration's crimes, I quite deliberately make them sing "harassment of the press" twice.

After the preview performance, Matt checked his iPhone and the murmur went around: Rachel Maddow had tweeted about us. "Got nothing done today. Have spent the entire day obsessed with this (pdf)." She linked to the Gonzales Cantata libretto. Honestly, that would have been more than enough for me, even if Josh Groban totally didn't get it. But half an hour later, while I was changing in the dressing room, I got a phone call from a Maddow producer, warning me that they were about to crash our website. With this:


Most of the cast and crew, myself included, are too poor for cable, and watched the broadcast on a television at the bar next-door to the Rotunda, huddled under a single stupid overhead speaker with a painfully low volume output. There was a moment, staring at the television with my hands cupping my ears upward, when I really thought I was imagining the whole thing.

Our website crashed for about 10 minutes - Matt and I had to run back to the Rotunda, grab my laptop, leech a wifi connection from a nearby cafe, and pull the streaming mp3's (they are now hosted through Bandcamp, a rather excellent service). At home later, we discovered we were number one on Google Trends.

And that absolutely seals it, right? We did it. We won the Internet.

Since then, the Gonzales Cantata has been featured on more news outlets, numerous blogs (including this great article on Sequenza21 and this post on the Daily Show/Colbert Report blog) and received interest from several performing groups across the country. I started my Ph.D. at UPenn this week, but I can barely think about learning because I'm still coming down.

As if that weren't enough, Rachel Maddow talked about the Gonzales Cantata again tonight, comparing me to the influences I listed in our press release, John Adams and Phil Kline. Just being mentioned in the same breath as Adams or Kline is pretty fantastic in my book:


I am so damned happy. I'm also really happy and grateful for all the performers in the show, and I can't wait to give them each their percentage of the profit once I get it from the Fringe Box Office in October - payments which will be far less than they deserve (try splitting anything 33 ways, and see how far you get), but I hope they've at least enjoyed the ride too.

*It cost about $4,000, give or take, to mount this show. That's pretty cheap, but with the new skills and knowledge I've picked up, I think I can stage future performances on an even tighter budget. If you're wondering how I did it so cheaply, the trick is to be a complete control freak and do everything yourself, because then you don't have to pay anyone else.

The Gonzales Cantata: the Humble Beginnings

Clips show blog entry!

Two years ago this month, I blogged:
I've embarked on a ridiculously ambitious composition project for the semester - I'm writing a cantata based on the senate judiciary hearings of Alberto Gonzales. Come on, if you had an idea like that, you'd sacrifice sleep and sanity to follow through as well. The only question in my mind is whether to call it Gonzales! The Cantata or stick to something more straight. I spent my first semester weekend cutting an 11-page libretto out of 240 pages of transcript from two separate hearings and his resignation speech.

A few months later:
I had the overture and an aria from the Gonzales cantata played at the end-of-semester composition final, and they've been picked up for the New Music concert at West Chester University on January 31st, which is exciting. I really should devote some of my newfound and short-lived free time to finishing as much of that sucker as I can; I'm terrified that if I delay too long, Gonzales will blow over in the news, given the fickleness of the American press and public.

March 2008:
Because half the reason I'm writing it is that hardly anyone I speak to in the real world seems to know anything whatsoever about Gonzales, it's pretty unashamedly pop neo-Baroque. It's about half-finished; I guess it will be about 40-45 minutes long when it's done. I created the libretto from the actual transcripts, and for shits and giggles, I reversed the genders of all the performers, so every role (Gonzales, Specter, Leahy, etc, who also all double as the chorus) is sung by a soprano or alto, with the exception of Diane Feinstein, who is a tenor. Instrumentation is chamber strings and harpsichord.

A year later, the premiere was given at West Chester University for my senior recital, then a 20-minute excerpt was performed at one of the more public New Music Concerts.