Tawawa House in Modesto? A New Staging of Zenobia Perry’s Opera.


 

Modesto California is not a common destination for new music productions but I learned of an upcoming performance of Tawawa House by Zenobia Powell Perry (1908-2004).  It was written in 1984 and premiered in 1987 at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio (actually the geographic setting of this opera) where she was part of the music faculty from 1955-1982.

I only learned of this performance due to my Facebook contact with Bill Doggett, a bay area business developer and marketing consultant who focuses on music by people of color.  The production is staged by Townsend Opera at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto, CA.  It was the world première of a revised libretto and orchestration by Perry scholar Jeannie Gayle Poole.

After a mostly pleasant two-hour drive I arrived for my first visit to the central valley town.  I  located the beautiful arts complex and proceeded from a warm sunny spring day into one of several theaters housed in the same building, an arts multiplex, if you will.  The theater was about 2/3 full, a good sign.  It is a large and well-designed theater with great site lines, comfortable seats and a large fully equipped stage with a nicely nested orchestra pit.

The program book listed other productions that Townsend has done and it is an impressive list.  While they program popular standard repertory like La Boheme and Aida (no small feat) I did note that they have also done less frequently performed works such as Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors and Offenbach;s Christopher Columbus.  Under the direction of Matthew Buckman since 2008 this is their first world premiere and perhaps their most adventurous production.

The staging (Heike Hambly), costumes (Tara Roe), lighting (Erik Vose), choreography (Erikka Reenstierna) and scenic design (Jean-Francois Revon) were excellent and well suited to what is essentially a chamber opera with spoken dialogue.  The singers were simply amazing both in their vocal artistry and their acting and dancing abilities.  The cast appeared quite comfortable with each other and clearly enjoyed what they were doing.  The orchestra was most ably led by conductor Ryan Murray.  This was a loving, beautiful production with amazing singers who appeared to put their hearts and souls along with their sizable talents to this opera.

The spectacular vocal cast included baritone Lawrence Craig, tenor Anthony P. McGlaun, baritone V. Savoy McIlwain, soprano Leslie Sandefur, baritone Barry Robinson and soprano Shawnette Sulker along with supporting singers and chorus.  These artists alone justified the price of a seat for this performance.

Dramatically staged scene from the second act.

Dramatically staged scene from the second act.

Tawawa House is based on a real place which existed in Ohio and served both as a luxury hotel for white visitors with purported healing waters as well as a major stop on the underground railroad with socially progressive whites assisting in the rescue of slaves from their forced servitude even before the emancipation proclamation.  The story begins before the civil war and ends just after.  It is a story nearly lost to history and one that deserves to be told.

The joyful multiple weddings scene as one happy couple "jumps the broom" in a traditional practice of the era.

The joyful multiple weddings scene as one happy couple “jumps the broom” in a traditional practice of the era.

As an opera it is cast in a conservative musical style relying on spirituals and popular songs of the era with some quotation of both genres.  It consists of choral sections, a few arias and some ensemble singing.  Like many operas this one suffers from a weak libretto at times which nonetheless serves to support the overall structure of the musical work.  This is a gentle retelling of a tale from a sordid and shameful time in our collective history.

The orchestration ranged from a theater orchestra style to some Hollywood-like film score that one might hear in motion pictures from the 1940s.  I don’t know how this edition differed from the original 1987 performance or why the decision was made to revise it.

The cast taking their first bow to the appreciative audience.

The cast taking their first bow to the appreciative audience.

It is difficult to say where this work will take its place in musical history but it certainly deserves to be revived.  I hope that the success of this production will encourage adventurous opera companies such as Townsend to seek out other neglected works in that deserve revival and, in many cases, first performances.

Despite some minor weaknesses the performance was very professionally executed,  full of joy and clearly pleased the audience.  After all theater goers are accustomed to the sometimes silly plots common to a lot of operas and musicals but they are seeking entertainment by talented performers and that is definitely what they got.  This was a wonderful production which now puts Townsend opera on my radar.  Looking forward  to more from this company.  Congratulations on a great show!

 

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Coming Up, Other Minds 19 at the SF Jazz Center


Official Other Minds logo

Official Other Minds logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On February 28 and March 1 the SF Jazz Center will host Other Minds for the first time.  OM 19 is the latest incarnation of this annual festival which presents an amazing range of new music.

The Other Minds Festival, brainchild of filmmaker/producer Jim Newman and musician, composer and broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian, was first heard in 1993 and, except for the years 1994, 1998 and  2007, has been an annual event in San Francisco  gathering mostly new but  always innovative composers to share their inspirations and innovations with each other and with bay area audiences.  Being curious about those apparent gaps in this festival I sent a query to the Other Minds office and received a prompt reply from none other than Charles Amirkhanian.  He stated as follows:

Executive Director Charles Amirkhanian in his ...

Executive Director Charles Amirkhanian in his office with ASCAP award in background (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Hi Allan,
Here’s the story:
After our first festival in November 1993, we needed time to raise more funds to produce OM 2 and get back on the Yerba Buena Center’s schedule. So we postponed until March 1995, the next available spot in the Djerassi schedule. Our timing for the festival is determined by when we have access to empty rooms at DRAP, so we need to be there either in Feb/March or November.
In 1997, once again, we needed time to raise more funds and simply postponed to the next available Djerassi time. Same for OM 13.
In each case, the delay was about eight months (for a November event) or four months (for a March event), giving us a festival in succeeding concert seasons, but not “annual” events. (A concert season is Fall ’07 through Spring ’08, for example.)
Thus the mysterious gaps.
Charles”

This internationally known festival is not just a series of concerts.  The diverse selection of composers gathers first for an artistic residency at the Djerassi Resident Artist Program (DRAP in Mr. Amirkhanian’s note), a pastoral setting nestled between the Pacific coastline and the hills west of Palo Alto, where the invited composers live, work and share ideas for a week prior to the public concerts. The Djerassi Foundation for the Arts was founded by biochemist Carl Djerassi whose daughter, an artist, committed suicide in 1978.  The area is a sculpture park and the facility operates all year round with residencies for artists of all media.  Charles Amirkhanian is one of the former directors of this venerable artist colony and is now the executive and artistic director of Other Minds. The selection process for OM artists is based on the incredible range of interests of the Other Minds Operating Board and in consultation with their advisory board which are very open to suggestions from the general public.  Just e-mail them.  They actually read all their e-mails and respond. This along with New Music America, the ONCE festival, the Telluride Festival (also one of Amirkhanian’s efforts) are among the important music festivals which have yet to receive adequate treatment and exposition of their histories. This year’s OM 19 (which also looks forward with eager anticipation to a very promising gala OM 20) includes Mark Applebaum, John Bischoff, Donald Buchla, Joseph Byrd, Charles Celeste Hutchins, Myra Melford, Roscoe Mitchell, Wendy Reid and John Schott.  For the first time in the history of the festival all the composers will be from northern California.  The dates for the festival, which moves this year to the new SF Jazz Center, are Friday February 28 and Saturday March 1. One might think that limiting the selection of composers would be limiting in the variety of artistic efforts to be had but one would be quite wrong.  In fact it would not be difficult to argue that music by musicians from northern California have been unjustly neglected in favor of the more dominant musical cultures of New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles.  A quick look at the roster for OM 19 reveals a great deal of variety:

Mark Applebaum at TEDx Stanford

Mark Applebaum at TEDx Stanford (Photo credit: Tamer Shabani Photography)

The Chicago born Mark Applebaum is currently associate professor of composition and theory at Stanford University.  He counts Brian Ferneyhough, Joji Yuasa, Rand Steiger, Roger Reynolds and Philip Rhodes among his teachers.  He also performs as a jazz pianist. He appears to be the first composer at these concerts to have given a TED talk.  In this talk he speaks of being “bored with music”, at least with traditional music and how he used that boredom to break through to another level of creativity creating new instruments and elaborate scores.  He is an engaging speaker and his presentation will no doubt be fascinating.

John Bischoff (1949- )

John Bischoff (1949- )

John Bischoff studied at the California Institute of the Arts and Mills College.  His teachers include Robert Moran, James Tenney and Robert Ashley.  He is currently visiting professor and composer at Mills College. He is one of the pioneers of live computer performance and he is a frequent performer at the Garden of Memory concerts held annually on the summer solstice at Oakland’s beautiful Chapel of the Chimes. Mills College with its Center for Contemporary Music can be said to be the primary life blood of northern California composers.  Bischoff is part of a long line of composers who  have guided musical pedagogy in the Bay Area and have included Chris Brown, Luciano Berio, Darius Milhaud, Lou Harrison, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, Ramon Sender, John Cage, Chris Brown, Maryann Amacher, Maggie Payne, Larry Polansky, Robert Ashley, and many others. Bischoff has released 16 albums and numerous publications.  He founded the League of Automatic Composers, the first computer network band and continues to be a driving force in the computer music scene. Don_Buchla_and_200e

Donald Buchla is one of the elder statesmen of new music in California.  His collaboration with Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick produced one of the first modular synthesizers in 1963.  He continues to develop synthesizers with his Buchla and Associates corporation (founded in Berkeley in 1962) . He studied physics, physiology and music.  His importance in the field of electronic music and music synthesis cannot be underestimated.  His electronics have driven many classical, rock and jazz music.  He and his corporation continue to make new electronic instruments such as the marimba lumina and the piano bar and has made available again some of the classic analog electronics which first made his name familiar to musicians worldwide. I was able to find very little about his musical compositions but it is worth noting that his electronics will power the performances of several of the artists in this concert series in addition to his own.

Joe Byrd in 1968

Joe Byrd in 1968

Kentucky born Joseph Byrd is an electronic musician, composer and producer.  His album, “The American Metaphysical Circus” (1969) is legendary and considered a cult album which has been reissued on CD and can also be heard on You Tube.  His band, Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies never performed live but this work of 60s psychedelia has established itself as a landmark recording and a cult classic.  He also did an album of synthesized Christmas Carols in 1975. Byrd has also been a producer with estimable credits such as producer and arranger of Ry Cooder’s amazing ‘Jazz’ album from 1978.

I can’t imagine how his latest work sounds but I am looking forward to it.

Charles Céleste Hutchins at SOUNDkitchen

Charles Céleste Hutchins at SOUNDkitchen (Photo credit: hellocatfood)

Charles Celeste Hutchins is, as far as I can tell, the first instance in which an Other Minds operating board member has been featured as a composer in this series.  The advisory board consists largely of composers who have already been featured on OM concerts.  Until this booking I was not aware of this man’s work.

Hutchins worked in the dot com business for a time and is now working on his musical interests.  His work involves the digital music program called Supercollider which he uses to manipulate sounds.  Discogs lists an MP3 compilation of some of his work in this area.

Melford in Helsinki, 1993

Melford in Helsinki, 1993

Myra Melford is an internationally known jazz pianist and composer with some 17 albums and some 20 years of playing.  Melford is originally from Illinois.

She has played with AACM musicians like Leroy Jenkins, Joseph Jarman and other musicians including Marty Ehrlich, Henry Threadgill, Mark Dresser, OM alumni Han Benink and Tyshawn Sorey.  Currently she teaches at the University of California Berkeley.

saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell at the Pomigliano ...

saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell at the Pomigliano Jazz Festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Roscoe Mitchell is one of the founding members of the venerable AACM (American Association of Creative Musicians) which redefined both jazz and contemporary classical music from its founding in 1965 to the present.  Other notable members include Anthony Braxton, Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, George Lewis and Lester Bowie among others.  Mitchell is currently professor of music at Mills College where he holds the Darius Milhaud chair.  He has collaborated with Frederic Rzewski, George Lewis, Anthony Braxton, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors, Muhal Richard Abrams, Albert Ayler, Henry Threadgill, Thomas Buckner and many others.

Mitchell is one of the acknowledged living masters of American music and he plays and teaches widely.  In 2012 her performed at the “All Tomorrow’s Parties” festival in Minehead, England.  Any performance by this musician is an event.

Wendy Reid is a new name for me.  She is a composer who works with nature sounds.  I did buy her CD entitled “Tree Music” which features 5 of her Tree Pieces with various combinations of violin, percussion, piano, mandolin, oboe and Don Buchla on “thunder” interacting with nature sounds.  For her OM performance she will be sharing the stage with a parrot.  Yes, it does sound like a Monty Python sketch, but this promises to be interesting if not revelatory.  Her work is clearly concerned with the sounds of nature and is at least distantly related to the work of Pauline Oliveros whose album ‘Troglodyte’s Delight’ involves musicians responding to the sounds of water in a limestone cave.

John Schott is another name with which I am not familiar.  But lack of familiarity spells adventure in this series of concerts.  A quick internet search reveals that he is a Berkeley based composer, guitar player and banjo player.  His web site is a blog which reveals his interest in a wide range of musical styles and literary interests.  He lists 8 CDs which feature his work.  He also lists his “compositions in the classical grain”.  It’s anyone’s guess as to what he will present at Other Minds but if the preceding artists are any indication it will be unique and interesting.

All in all this promises to be a very exciting event with the ‘revelatory’ music which Other Minds uses as a tag line in their publicity materials. I won’t miss it and neither should you.

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Can Videos Promote New and Difficult Music?


Español: Logo Vectorial de YouTube

I write music as a hobby, to learn about music and to express some ideas. I have recently discovered  You Tube to be a useful forum to find new and interesting music. I decided to post two pieces (among others) on to share and to get reactions. In the ensuing two years I have had and listens (respectively), a few favoritings and a few comments. I am fine with this.
soundcloud
I also subscribe to a few channels which feature the sort of new music of which I am a fan. These channels offer videos (of varying, frequently mediocre images or even just one still image for the entire length of the piece) with a soundtrack of a wide variety of contemporary music, much of it not generally or easily available. In most cases I have found the images superfluous or even unrelated to the music at hand but, no matter, I just wanted to hear the music.

Then, in a little “aha” moment, I wondered if I could get more “hits”, more people listening to some of my music by posting videos. So I took a little time to figure out the video making program on my computer and put together two videos using a series of still images gathered on the Internet. I did try to choose images with some relevance to the music (but the videos are admittedly mediocre) and I posted these brief videos on my newly created YouTube channel one year ago.

Well, guess what, in the space of one month I got more hits than I received in a year on Soundcloud. Now this is not to denigrate Soundcloud or to promote YouTube. This is quite simply a limited experiment, maybe a pilot study if you will.

One year later the gap closed on with the first piece having more listenings on Soundcloud than You Tube and the other widening the gap with more views on You Tube .

I’m not sure how to interpret the results but I offer here a few speculations for discussion:

First, YouTube is clearly a more popular medium. It has been around longer and gets a lot of traffic. It is also set up with topics by which you can reference your music (piano music, classical music, etc.). This gives the search engine ways to index your video by things in addition to title and author which, as far as I can determine, is not the case with Soundcloud. Soundcloud allows you to tag your sounds but I am not as certain that their search engine handles them in the same way.

Second I have to wonder if the medium of the Internet either lends itself or has been developed in such a way that users are more easily drawn to the audiovisual rather than just the audio. Even unrelated or pedantic images stir more interest than watching the progress bar on Soundcloud for certain. But one could also say that the images distract from the music.

Third, I wonder if people are now actually being socialized to expect the audiovisual experience and to have a shorter or no attention span for audio alone. I wonder if this could be a factor in the attraction of audiences to concerts which don’t have as strong a visual component.
Certainly heavily produced rock and pop concerts have set expectations for their audiences. But even the experience of listening to jazz or blues in smaller venues has visual components in seeing the stage presence of the musicians and the reaction of the audience. And stage lighting generally seems to have a different character than that of a formal concert hall or chamber venue.

Of course I am talking here specifically about music which already seems to have a limited audience and one which has rightly come to expect some serious challenges in the listening experience (think Xenakis, Nancarrow, Reich, Rihm, Boulez, etc). I have many times seen the puzzled faces of musicians and composers to whom I have spoken when I share my familiarity with their work and my ongoing interest in it. They seem almost to be asking themselves what must be wrong with this essentially non-musician that drives him to subject himself to concert experiences that would bore and/or frighten and confuse many audience members. It is safely assumed by performers of new classical and free jazz that their audience will likely have limited familiarity and have difficulty grasping their compositional ideas. And in my experience many concert goers are curious (or brave) but have very little knowledge to support their understanding and appreciation of what they hear. Some purists might say that one should simply give in to the experience but I think that is naïve.

Now this is not to say I feel any hostility or condescension. Quite the opposite. Once the composers and performers figure out that I am simply a curious and interested consumer they are invariably extremely appreciative. (The most frequent question I get is something like, “How do you know this?”). I think it is a safe assumption that the average audience member is not steeped in the esoteric or obscure realms in which these musicians usually work and that finding such information requires more than average effort. I am appreciated as an outlier and that’s fine with me. The problem I have is that, at some level I can’t imagine why someone would not be fascinated by the likes of Cecil Taylor, Milton Babbitt, Steve Reich, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, etc. I just find new music compelling and find myself driven to learn about it and experience it.

But I digress. My main point has to do with the level of interest gained by audiovisual vs. audio alone in presenting music on the Internet. And I can draw no definitive conclusions from such meager data but I did find a difference. I think that pretty much anything that gets people listening is probably a good thing. I am a star on neither Soundcloud nor YouTube but I
now suspect that I can find a larger audience with videos than with audio alone. Perhaps if I had some silly animal videos to which I could append my music I could achieve the digital dream of “going viral”. Or maybe not. But at least you will have listened once.

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