75e24bcac54bfb82ef88e7b963598109As the end of the summer of 2017 looms on the horizon, so does the balance of work on my first full scale, publicly produced theatrical orchestration. What an incredible experience it’s been, easily the most challenging and delightful project I’ve undertaken in my still nascent orchestration career, calling on skills I haven’t utilized to this extent, or at all. The circumstances of both its advent and the results are worth recounting.

A week after this past presidential election, which left me in a severely traumatized state wondering how I and the majority of America were going to find our way through the horror that loomed, providence came to rescue my sanity in the form of the Edmonton Opera in Alberta, Canada. They needed help making some minor orchestration adjustments to one of their upcoming pieces. I was so relieved to have the distraction from the increasingly appalling news cycle that I nearly offered to pay them for the job, rather than the opposite.

As that project neared completion, they broached another with me.  Gilbert and Sullivan’s beloved 1878 operetta HMS Pinafore was slated for their upcoming season, but they wanted to give it a fresh spin by recasting it in a 1920’s jazz idiom. The setting would be transferred to a glamorous cruise ship of the period, and the story line tailored accordingly. Would I be interested in giving Sullivan’s score a new, swinging, full orchestration?

Just to put the project in context, let’s review my situation when it was offered to me:

  • I’ve had minimal jazz arranging experience, and none with this particular genre.
  • My acquaintance with G&S is equally minimal. Outside of Mikado, I know almost none of the canon, and only vestigially the more famous numbers from Pinafore.
  • I’ve never yet undertaken a more than one-act show.
  • I’ve never single-handedly undertaken a theatrical orchestration for a newly created work involving more than 8 players. (My reductions of existing works don’t fall in this category).
  • I’m still working a full time corporate day job five days a week. Meaning I would be undertaking this score at night and on weekends.

So of course my response was, absolutely! Because you never know whether you can do something till you try.

7570e5_ac2d4e33ad6b4244b177a04d9a7b23fb_mv2This is not the first attempt at jazzing a G&S work. The Hot Mikado remains very well known, and Pinafore itself has had a few refittings. In 1943 the legendary Broadway orchestrator Don Walker attempted a version titled Memphis Bound with himself as both composer and orchestrator. It incorporates elements from a few other G&S shows and starred the equally legendary Bill “Bojangles” Robinson leading an all African-American cast. It died a quick death and almost none of the music survives, that I can find.

In 1955, Perry Como had a half hour big band version created for his television show, viewable on youtube. The aesthetic behind this is the late swing, big band era. I have yet to watch the whole thing, as I didn’t want to unintentionally find myself influenced by it.

So as far as I can tell, this is the first Pinafore to use a 1920’s jazz aesthetic.

The first step was to make sure everyone at the opera understood the scope of the project from a musical perspective. Giving a jazz flavor to such a Victorian score wasn’t simply a matter of adding a few saxes and a drum kit to the pit. Aside from the extensive new instrumental dressing, parts of the score would have to be reharmonized, and almost the entire rhythmic structure, including the vocal lines, rewritten. At any rate, a substantial undertaking.

I’m now going to bring up the traditionally unspoken issue of fees, solely to point out the eventual happy result. With the realization that they faced the unanticipated cost of producing almost entirely new vocal scores and orchestral parts, the amount Edmonton could ultimately afford for an orchestration fee would only permit me to do somewhere between one half to two thirds of the existing score, not taking into account expansions that might (and did) arise.

Rather than view this as a hindrance, I embraced this limitation and proposed doing the show deliberately as a hybrid: one half traditional, one half jazzed. This might provide an interesting dramaturgical highlight of the piece’s commentary on class and elitism: the older, gentrified characters retaining their traditional music, and the music of the younger, “lower” characters recolored in jazz, with the whole cast migrating entirely to jazz for a rousing finale.

This proposal was enthusiastically received by the rest of the creative team. A salutary reminder that what can seem like a limitation may actually result in something better! Also to not underestimate the dramaturgical abilities of an orchestrator.

9f1dfd73951b17df01026ddb5e410950--old-dogs-life-coverThe one unforeseen challenge for me of this hybrid proposal was one of the more unique orchestral complements I’ve worked with so far.  To accommodate the jazz side, a rhythm section would be needed: drums, piano, banjo, as well as saxes for period color.  The traditional side of the score would require the retention of a full string body, and a trio of upper woodwinds that won’t be doubling. The brass would bridge the two worlds. Ultimately an orchestra of 30 players was defined: considerably larger and richer than the standard dectet that constituted a jazz ensemble of the period. The result is essentially a Golden Era Broadway orchestra and sound, and that is largely how I’ve treated it.

Another fascinating aspect to this project has been its Carrollian work flow. When creating a new musical — which is effectively what’s happening with this project — the typical process would be having the lyricist and composer and book writer come up with the base material, which is then routined and expanded in terms of staging, often to the extent of full workshops with actors and instrumentalists. In the case of major projects, particularly Broadway-bound, those workshops can be multiples across many years. While the orchestrator may be kept abreast or involved in the ongoing process, he or she doesn’t begin proper work until relatively late in the game, at a point when the music and general staging have largely been finalized. This allows the orchestrator to base his or her coloristic and gestural choices off of these elements.

In contrast, this Pinafore necessitated a reversal of that process. Needing sufficient time to extract orchestral material and create the new vocal scores to allow the performers to learn them, the request was for me to fully orchestrate and do vocal arrangements for the designated portions of the score as the very first step, using my own judgement and imagination to make any additions, expansions, condensings, coloristic and gestural choices, with the understanding that the direction and revised libretto would be based off my work. In effect, to stage these numbers in my head on my own, so that my score could reflect the action I imagined. This situation was both empowering and intimidating. Most orchestrators, myself included, prefer to have some kind of staging or character definition to inspire their choices, since orchestration should ultimately reflect the character or stage action. Being given almost carte blanche brought me occasionally to a halt, a situation happily resolved as director Rob Herriott began to share his thoughts for this or that number and we bounced ideas off each other.

So that’s been my summer of 2017, spent largely as a shut in. Accomplishing this hefty undertaking while keeping up my full time corporate day job has meant sacrificing almost any social life for the last three months, a situation I’m very much looking forward to making up for once while I’m on my annual summer trip to Nantucket. As well as devoting my energies again to my own concert works.

File_001 (2)But what a trip! Immersing myself in the musical vernacular of the period, living with the period’s great recording artists – Fletcher Henderson, King Oliver, Satch, Irving Aranson, Paul Whiteman, Jean Goldkette, and even better the living keepers of the flame, principally Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks. Sitting in this summer on their weekly gigs at the Cafe Iguana in New York’s theater district has been the most amazing, intoxicating and invaluable learning experience and has made all the difference to this score, while Vince himself has been unfailingly generous with his advice. If you’re in New York and are at loose ends on a Monday or Tuesday, I can’t recommend this superb group enough.

EO PinaforeAt the risk of immodesty or jinxing the ultimate production, I’m fairly pleased with what I’ve turned out, and the costume and stage designs I’ve seen promise a corker of a show. I’ll be posting any audio and visual media I can, but if you’re in the area, come check it out live.

LOVE IN: Reflections on my first New Music Gathering

425421825I’ve just returned from attending my first New Music Gathering, which in only its third year has become arguably the premier annual congress of the American new music community. Based on my experience there, that doesn’t surprise me: this was one of the most fantastic events I’ve participated in. Such an amazing assemblage of warm, enthusiastic people from around the country: composers, performers, administrators, multiple-hat-wearers, spending three days getting to know one another, exchanging ideas, savoring contemporary concert music in a spirit of support, conviviality, camaraderie and inclusion that I haven’t experienced since I was at conservatory.

After an inception year in San Francisco, and last year in Baltimore, the Gathering was invited to occur at Bowling Green University in Ohio, which put a wealth of resources and personnel behind the event. In hindsight, I’m glad this slightly remote location was my first. Word is that attendance was a little lower this year compared to last, which helped one feel not overwhelmed. Plus it was good to get out of my East Coast bubble and meet so many people I might not have otherwise.

Some thoughts in no particular order:

  1. Go. If your budget and schedule and logistics permit it, make this event a priority.
  2. Take lots of business cards. If you don’t have any, get some, they’re easily and economically acquired: moo.com or vista.com are both very reasonable. And on this subject, check out the invaluable Portfolio Composer’s very sound guidelines on this subject.
  3. I arrived with a bit of an “acquisition” mindset: commissions, performances, financial or portfolio expansion. I quickly lost that and am really glad. Attend for the camaraderie, the sharing and experiencing of new ideas, the sheer joy of being immersed in an event and community devoted to the creation, support and promulgation of new music of all varieties.
  4. Don’t worry about whether your style fits into what you think or have heard is the primary aesthetic at NMG. All styles, genres, and levels are embraced.
  5. I wish I’d reached out a little more to people on the sidelines. For some people, events like these can be intimidating: who will I talk to, eat with, rely on. Many of us were probably at some time that person clinging to the wall in the corner, struggling to interact. Reach out to those people, who knows where it may lead.
  6. On this theme: have at least one meal a day with a person or group you don’t know, either well or at all. Take advantage of this unique opportunity to expand your horizons and circles. I inadvertently found myself with the same group much of the time, and while I reveled in their company and wouldn’t have missed that for anything, still I wish I’d had just a little wider interaction. Ask to join a group for a meal who you don’t know. If you’re the group being asked, say yes.
  7. If you’re a performer or composer, participate in Speed Dating (see below). Don’t just watch or audit: plunge in. It’s a little nerve wracking but so empowering and satisfying.
  8. Attend things you might be skeptical of. The concert offerings are almost overwhelming in their wealth, many of which I didn’t get to and wish I had. Best example of this: A performance of Variations 3 by John Cage, a composer whose theories I’ve admired more than enjoyed the actual experience. This performance blew my mind and left me on a heart-stopping, teary high I won’t soon forget: mesmerizing, ethereal, breathtaking, goose bumping, a reaction I suspect was universally shared by all those in attendance. All hail Tim Feeney, Lou Bunk and the army of participants they gathered for making this happen: it was magical.
  9. Don’t be afraid to take a break, even if it means missing something you want or feel you ought to catch. Each day is an intense slate of back to back, conflicting temptations and it’s easy to get burned out. By day 3 I  was glad that I’d taken the time to recharge for a bit in the afternoon or evening – even if it meant missing something – and finding myself in better shape for the later activities.
  10. Last, but most important: GO.

I’m fairly confident I speak for all those who attended in not being able to adequately express thanks to BGSU, Kurt Doles and his amazing team, the indefatigable Larry and Arlene Dunn who put everyone else to shame with their energy and enthusiasm, and most importantly the Gathering’s tireless, generous founders: Lainie Fefferman, Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Matt Marks and Jascha Narveson. I can’t wait for the next one.

speedddateSo what is Speed Dating?

NMG Speed Dating was founded by Brooks Frederickson, who gives a soignee precis of the idea. But if, as I was, you’re  looking for more detail prior to this undertaking:

  • Speed Dating connects performers and composers for short bursts across a one hour span to  learn about each other and see if there is potential for collaboration.
  • Two circles of chairs are set up, one set facing the other. Composers sit in the outer circle, performers on their inner circle.
  • Every four minutes, an alarm is sounded and the performers all move one chair to their left, the composers remaining stationary. Meaning that theoretically across a  60 minute span you should meet 15 different people. In reality I met 10, which is 10 more than I’d ordinarily meet in a 60 hour period, much less 60 minutes.
  • Both sides are encouraged to have brief audio samples of their work available. The onus is on the composers, but I was delighted so many of the performers brought theirs: I’m still catching up on those.
  • Materials: Some sort of portable audio playing device with headphones and your selections easily accessible, and optionally a method of displaying your scores. On the headphones: I recommend proper large scale headphones rather than earbuds, which depending on the brand can take some figuring out, and time is precious. Some people brought physical scores, most of us used devices (laptops, tablets, etc) to display our scores digitally. I don’t think having scores was a major issue: I’d say half of the performers concentrated on listening to the samples and didn’t worry about the scores. Still, it doesn’t hurt. If you’re not on issuu.com, this is a fantastic free resource used by many composers, and increasingly the major publishers, for displaying perusal scores.
  • Have your business cards (see above) easily on hand. Make sure you have a secure, reliable receptacle (an envelope, box, pocket) to stash the ones you get.
  • Bring paper:  take notes on you who met, who they were and what if any connection there was.
  • What should your conversation be? With no background to guide me, I opted for the approach of  “Oh, you’re a [insert type of performer here], let me play you this which I think will be up your alley and which you will hopefully perform or be interested in creating something new of the same kind.” In hindsight I’m rethinking that: the sagacious Garrett Hope opted to spend those four minutes more talking with each performer to get to know them and their aesthetic and mutual sympathies, and was less interested in pushing this or that piece on them. Choose for yourself.
  • Assemble and test your sound clips ahead of time (soundcloud is great for this). Curate them carefully. Remember you’ve only got about four minutes per exchange. If you’re like me and write broad structured music where it can take a while to get into a piece and grasp its diversity, you might want to create 30-second clips to offer variety, rather than hoping to get through one minute or so of the opening of a piece which may not reflect its variety and breadth within that limit.

It might sound a little gimmicky and perhaps a little contrary to making deeper connections. But as with all things at NMG, you never know, and in those four minutes you might dazzle a new collaborator. Despite the intensity of the session and the strain that the noise level puts on the throat, I wish it had gone on at least another 30 minutes, if not an hour. At the very least you’ll walk out with no less than you came in with, and you might walk out with people wanting to follow up and work together. By all means, go for it.


IMG_1318.JPGI’ve been remiss in keeping up to date with news, but happily that’s because there’s been so much developing. Between travel, the day job which is always crazy during the first quarter of the year, and music projects, things at Nibbleheim haven’t been dull.

274.JPGI was lucky enough to attend the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer’s Institute in January, as an auditor. After the trauma of the election, which very much colored my holiday, this trip turned out to be just the tonic my psyche needed – no beach could have been better. What a gift to be able to sit in on this invaluable program and interact with this world-class ensemble who are so dedicated to and invested in fostering new music and developing composers, and with such depth: in addition to three days of seminars from industry leaders, the composers got a reading session, two full rehearsals, and a public concert that sold incredibly well and was nationally broadcast. It was so soul-restoring to be reminded that there are still large organizations and patrons dedicated  to fostering new music, including on scales such as this. Plus the treat of getting to know the wonderful folks at American Composers Forum, who co-host the Institute. I can’t encourage young composers enough to apply for this. Sure, it’s a bit of a long shot, but you’ll never know till you try and the experience alone, aside from the opportunity to work directly with this storied ensemble, is so worth it.

IMG_1254For me, the trip would have been worth it just for three straight days with Frank Oteri, arguably the greatest brain in the American new music scene, and himself a fantastic composer.

Then it was back to New York for my seventh year as co-producer and music supervisor for Broadway Belts for PFF!, the annual fundraiser I helped found in honor of my friend Michael Kuchwara to battle ideopathic pulmonary fibrosis. This event amazes me every year: despite months of ricocheting communications, uncertainty and a thinly stretched team, we never fail to turn out an extraordinary show featuring current and veteran Broadway talent. This year we lucked out on having as our headliner legendary Broadway and R&B star Stephanie Mills.  What a thrill to work with this luminous artist who gave me goose bumps as a child in the original production of The Wiz, and gave me even more during our show.

_JAA6560_editedThen it was off to Edmonton, Canada for a little gig for their wonderful opera company, and to Los Angeles to supervise a conference for my day job (the header photo of this post was taken on the travel day between both locations). A late winter week in warm, mellow Venice Beach is not a bad thing: sometimes being a 5 to 9 or dayjobbing artist has its perks.

File_000 (11)Speaking of Edmonton Opera: my biggest news (at least that’s confirmed and I can publicize) is that I’ve signed on to do vocal arrangements and orchestrations for a new “hybrid” version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore for their upcoming season. This has been a fascinating and terrific experience, working with a superb creative team. Faced with a few limitations, we’ve wound up coming up with something unique and great fun, which only goes to show you what you can create out of limitations. You can read more about it here. It’s probably immodest to say that I think some of the ideas I’ve come up with so far are the bees’ knees… but I do.

And if you’ve been keeping up with my blog about my reduction of Strauss’ Elektra, you’ll have seen that note entry on this modest little pastime is finally done and the score is in the initial stages of proofreading. As a result, orchestras in both Australia and Germany have approached me about premiering it, probably early next year.  More on that when it’s nailed down.

363.JPGComing up: New Music Gathering in Bowling Green, OH in early May. I’m really looking forward to attending this for the first time and meeting artists I’ve gotten to know through @musochat, as well as others. If you’re also attending, please introduce yourself! Then it’s home to roll up my sleeves and hibernate on the Pinafore project for the summer, with a little attention to some of my own personal work in between.