I have had three principal composition teachers: Ingolf Dahl, during my undergraduate studies at the University of Southern California, Paul Glass with whom I studied privately after I graduated and Roger Sessions who taught me at the Juilliard School where I earned my doctorate. Each one gave me a unique perspective and set of skills and these have formed my compositional technique.
I learned both traditional harmony, counterpoint and form as well as the twelve-tone technique, and all are integral components of my language. My harmonic palette is primarily tonal, as it affords me the maximum contrast between consonance and dissonance, but I have retained the contrapuntal aspect of the twelve-tone technique, as it taught me how to apply Baroque principals to the contemporary aesthetic.
Opera fascinated me early on, and I made up stories accompanied by music as a child. My father sang with the New York City Opera and I was in their children’s chorus, singing in productions of Carmen, La Boheme and even such rarities as Carl Orff’s The Moon. Although my first instrument was the piano, I later studied singing and sang in numerous opera productions at school, including Harry Partch’s iconoclastic Delusion of the Fury which was recorded by Columbia Masterworks. I wrote many vocal works for myself to sing, and several short operatic scenes, before embarking on my first opera, Travels. Based on a contemporary re-telling of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, this was produced by Opera Roanoke in 1995.
My second opera, Mrs. President, received a concert reading of four scenes by the New York City Opera in 2001. In writing this opera, I was able to utilize both tonal and twelve-tone techniques, the former in the overall melodic lyricism of the arias, and the latter in the layered counterpoint of the ensembles. I wanted to have maximum contrast between the abstract rituals of theater which formed the framework, and the emotional realism of the characters who inhabit a personal space, overlapping with others and developing during the course of the action. They each have a signature melodic, harmonic and rhythmic profile, and like an instrumental theme, these undergo a process of development. As characters interact, their themes likewise interact and “bleed” into one another, modifying and transforming each other.
Thus in the final scene in Act I between Victoria Woodhull and Henry Ward Beecher, the two characters begin at opposite ends of the spectrum, their individual themes being unlike each other in every way. Her theme is cool, ironic and self-assured. Her tempo is relaxed and her harmonies consonant, with a pulsing rhythmic figure, calmly waiting and watching him. His initial tempo is fast and irregular, his harmonies dissonant and his melodic line jagged and disjunct, with short outbursts of fury and venom. She does not react to his musical onslaught, remaining unmoved. However, as she begins to influence him, both through implied threats and seductive charm, his music reacts to her. At first he is violent, but then, realizing the impotence of his bluster, he begins to absorb her musical motives, until at the end of the duet, their individual strands are fused into one single line.
This technique applies to the Quartet in Act II between the four principal characters: Woodhull and her husband, Colonel Blood and Beecher and his sister Isabella. It begins as a double duet. Blood, tenderly cradling the defeated Victoria in his arms, sings a folk-like song of longing for a simpler life with her in their country home. But Victoria, not listening to him and still caught up in her ambitious dream, softly mumbles phrases from her theme, formerly full of opulent harmonies and vigorous rhythms, but now subdued and sparse, drained of its life.
Beecher, having regained his bluster, now directs it towards his younger sister who he is still able to control. His music recapitulates the angry bully of Act I, and his character, not having learned anything from his experiences, is reflected in his music, which has also not developed, but which reiterates its old formula. His sister, Isabella, on the other hand, has thoroughly absorbed the music and philosophy of Victoria Woodhull. In Act I, her youthful, malleable character was shaped by the adoration she felt for her older brother, and thus her theme was a variation of his. But during the course of Act II, she realizes his flaws, and despising him, she turns her affection and her music to Victoria. In the Quartet, when she confronts her brother, her frustration motive is based on a moment in Act I when she suddenly realizes his duplicitous nature.
These four distinct characters are unified by one thread, which gradually draws their music from the outer limits of contrast, closer and closer together. Each one questions whether or not the other loves him, and the quartet ends with this unifying theme, set as a question, both verbally and musically, as the cadence does not resolve.
I hope by this brief analysis of two significant scenes from Mrs. President, to make clear that my musical decisions were based on the interaction and the development of each character. The choice of key, harmonic progression, rhythmic motives and formal outline were all shaped by the drama created by this interplay. After setting the story in motion, there was an inevitability to each musical decision, though finding this often took much trial and error. I did not want to be bound by an external system which would impose an artificial unity, but rather to discover, through the unfolding events, what each character and situation demanded.
December 16, 2005