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.

No comments: