Friday, May 15, 2009

Magical Music

I've tended to avoid assigning collaborative projects in my classes for one big reason: I always hated them as a student. In retrospect, this may reflect more on my own social anxiety than the idea of collaboration in general, although I did have some bad experiences. I particularly remember having to work with a group of total strangers to create and perform a mini-play for a truly horrible "theater lecture" class. I volunteered to write the play so as to avoid having to be on stage, but it was just a total fiasco.

However, one thing I really value about our music department is the sense of community among the students. Last year when my music history class got to early 18th century comic opera, particularly the popular and freely borrowing style of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, I got into a spontaneous discussion with the class about the possibility of replacing a paper-writing project with a group opera-writing project. We chickened out for a variety of reasons, but the idea stuck with me, and when I was planning for this year, I realized we had a class very well-suited to the task.

The group includes an ideal balance of voice majors: two sopranos, one mezzo, two tenors, one baritone. For an orchestra, we had two violins (including a piano major who happens to violin), a violist (actually a violin major, which of course is much better), one flute, two oboes, one clarinet, and another pianist to play continuo. OK, we also had a trombonist, which isn't standard fare for the Era, but she's a strong player who helped cover for the fact that I was stepping in as the cellist. (I played cello quite a bit up through college; since then, about once every 1.5 years.) With no double bass on hand, the trombone was a welcome addition to the bass line, and there's certainly a kind of authenticity in being resourceful this way.

I knew for sure that we had at least one aspiring composer in the group as well, but one thing I'm learning much too late in life is that composing isn't as specialized a talent as people tend to think. So, a significant purpose of this project was to let the students see what they could do; they've all had almost four semesters of theory now, after all. Again, The Beggar's Opera provides a good model here because the tunes are generally quite simple, four-square, and straightforwardly arranged; it's not like writing complex sixteenth-century counterpoint or grandly opulent Wagner. (In fact, I believe the specific impetus for last year's idea-hatching discussion was me saying, "I mean, even you guys could write something like this!")

However, I also hoped to use Pergolesi, Handel, A. Scarlatti et al as models for some Italian-style recitative (the English-style ballad operas just used spoken dialogue); the students had already experimented a bit with recit writing in an assignment from the previous quad. I wondered if creating recit-style vocal lines might be easier for some students than dealing in more structured harmonic contexts. (I'm not sure I'm right about this in retrospect; as it happens, the recits never made it to production, but I think I underestimated how difficult it is to master that style without having heard it for years and years. It requires a sophisticated feel for the rhythm of language.)

I knew that not every student would feel all that comfortable composing, and 15 chefs would certainly be way more than ideal anyway, so we began by having 4-5 students volunteer to create a libretto. I had originally envisioned that they would come up with some sort of contemporary college-life farce (actually, I myself would like to take a stab at writing "Facebook: The Opera," which would feature only projected text - no singers!), but to my delight, they came up with a very charming fairy-tale like story, with characters inspired very much by our own cast of singers. In fact, the libretto team put together an entire plot that would have required at least a couple of hours worth of music, so we settled on the idea of just setting the finale.

We then had another 4-5 students assigned various compositional tasks. In fact, I'm still sorting out who exactly did what (ultimately, not that important to me, to be honest) since we had a very efficient student in charge of assigning tasks, keeping communication open, scheduling meetings, etc. (I knew the biggest mistake of all would've been to put me in charge of things.) Other students ended up being involved in helping with orchestrating, producing/printing parts, directing the stage action, chronicling the process, etc. To my happy surprise, a couple of students volunteered to write an overture, which borrowed themes both from the finale that was in process and from various hits of the 17th and 18th centuries.

All this was going on over the course of several weeks (of course, much of the work happened right at the end, as it has ever been among artists), and I chose not to use much class time on the project. I figured they were getting out of doing a paper (though they did still do some writing for the class), so they needed to expect to spend a lot of time that would otherwise have been spent researching and writing. This made the final week very exciting/terrifying for me, because I didn't really know what to expect. We ended up having our big rehearsal right after Friday's final exam. The idea was that if we thought we had something, we'd debut it at Sunday's end-of-year music dept. bash.

And it turned out we (actually, they) really did have something. In the end, we had the witty and tune-stealing overture, two beautifully characterized little arias (each with continuo only), two extended scenes of scene-stealing dialogue (authentic, after all, for the The Beggar's Opera context), and a fully orchestrated final chorus. The story concerns a mischievous witch who sells fruit that makes people fall in love, inevitably with the wrong people (including a poor minister, who gets chased around by a peasant girl), with everything being magically fixed in the end - and if you don't think we ended up calling it The Magic Fruit, well...

The rehearsal was predictably chaotic, given that everyone was pretty much seeing the parts for the first time, but the music was written simply enough that we managed to put it together fairly quickly. (I was very pleased that they took seriously my direction to keep it simple and not try to use every compositional trick in the book. Last quad's recitatives were a bit more "interesting.") There was a bit more coaching on Saturday and some very clever staging that went together at the proverbial last-minute, and suddenly we were performing the thing. It was a big success, with the audience laughing at all the right times and me managing to find most of the right pitches on my dusty cello. (I'd forgotten how much I love playing in an orchestra. It was also amusing as a cellist to find that Pachelbel's Canon had become sort of a ground bass for the overture and finale. I've certainly played those 8 notes a few times.)

So, what did we learn from all this? Well, probably the most consistent feedback I've gotten from the students has to do with how much they enjoyed the collaborative process (tossing ideas back and forth, etc.) and how surprised they were at what they could achieve. As a "learning objective," I would say a real benefit here is to demystify a bit the process of composition, and to remember that much of the music that has become "classical" was thrown together in a much more popular context and in a perhaps similarly chaotic and collaborative sort of way. (I'm not saying that most operas actually had 4-5 composers, but the creative process was often driven as much by practical concerns as artistic principles. I'm also not forgetting that some music does deserve its awe-inspiring status. Notice I didn't ask for a Mozart-style finale.)

Several students also noted that it was fun to see how much fun musical borrowing can be. And speaking of fun, I make no apology for the fact that the success of our performance had a lot to do with silly stage action and inside jokes among the students and their audience of peers. Real theater doesn't apologize for what works - it just looks to make a connection with an audience. It's easy when listening to disconnected musical excerpts from a score anthology to forget that much of this music was written to entertain. There's no business like show business, but how often do we forget that music history is about show business?

In some ways, the most important aspect of this project is to remember that musicology need not just be reading/writing/research driven, although it can often seem that way. I already tend to do a lot of score analysis in my history classes, maybe more than the norm, but I often find myself resenting the idea that academic work is so often associated with writing and research. I have nothing against the development of those skills, but there are other kinds of intelligence that deserving nurturing as well; it's one thing to write about music, but perhaps just as useful to "write music" about music. Anything that encourages creativity is a good thing in my book.

Several students also commented on how gratifying it was to see how what they've been learning in theory and ear-training has paid off in being able to create something original and entertaining. That's a credit to other faculty members and to the willingness of the students to give this a chance. As I've suggested, I really didn't have much at all to do with the final product. (I do wish there had been time to workshop some of what we did, especially the recitative thing, but we did have to use class time to cover minor figures like Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Mozart.) And, of course, the students found it very satisfying to have their compositions performed for an appreciative audience. (There is some bootleg footage floating around Facebook, but for now I'm going to leave what this all sounded like to the reader's imagination. Trust me, it sounded pretty entertaining.)

So, the biggest take-away point is that I've been an idiot for shying away from collaborative projects for all these years. It is difficult to give up control in this way, and the project could very plausibly have gone much worse, but it's good to make students sink or swim. I also need to learn better how to manage all the roles that are involved. As happens in any creative situation, sometimes a creative spark takes over, a job gets done suddenly and someone else gets left out. However, as I said above, in the end it's silly to worry too much about everyone getting exactly the same thing out of a project. Hopefully, the time invested is its own reward, and I don't think any of the students will ever forget The Magic Fruit. Many thanks to Andrew, Austin, Beth, Chris, Christine, Diana, Dina, Ian, Jillian, Joe, Kassandra, Katie, Mary, Nate, & Paul.


Unknown said...

AWESOME. Congrats. I wish I'd had you as a professor in college. Did anyone record the performance?

icesk8tz said...

Michael, this is GREAT! Loved the post and sorry I missed the performance!

Kim said...

Hi Michael. This is really cool! It kind of reminds me of a show I did recently...we had about 5 rehearsals, only 2 of which the whole cast was present for, and one of those rehearsals was the day of the show. It was an audience-interactive show geared for little kids, and we were told the audience would be middle schoolers. We were freaking out....but when the show went on, all the pieces fell into place, there was such tremendous energy from the cast, and the audience ended up being mostly 7 year-olds, which was perfect. So you are right; it's amazing what can happen when talented, intelligent people get together, even when it feels chaotic and silly and last-minute and under-rehearsed. There's no business like show business...

Paulvig von Cromptoven said...

I was just reminiscing and thinking about how this whole class has graduated.

And by the way I totally could have written those recits...we just ran out of time!