The Carrot Machine

A few weeks ago, while giving a presentation at the University of Connecticut, I was asked which composers have influenced my writing.  This is an excellent, thoughtful, and revealing question—precisely the kind I try to avoid answering at all costs.

Bob Dylan once wrote,

Open up yer eyes and yer ears an’ you’re influenced,
An’ there’s nothing you can do about it.

It’s the second line of that quotation that’s the real kicker.

Because no matter what we like or don’t like, there is no escape from the effects of what we actually hear.  And if you’ve ever woken up on a Friday morning with Rebecca Black stuck in your head—or worse, you can remember some of the lyrics to “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah”—you know what I mean.

I would love to be able to say that my most significant musical influences have been the great opera composers through the ages (you know, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Wagner, Britten…those guys), along with the great American theater composers (Kern, Berlin, Arlen, Rodgers, Loesser, Gershwin, etc.).  But the truth is that probably nothing has affected me more than the albums I listened to over and over again when I was a kid: the soundtrack to Clash of the Titans and the hot pink LP of Free to Be…You and Me.  (Future graduate students in musicology take note.)

Also when I was a kid, one of my favorite books was a Little Golden Book called Bugs Bunny’s Carrot Machine.  Bugs builds himself a machine that will convert absolutely anything to carrots.  He and Elmer Fudd throw in some junk, and they do indeed produce the desired vegetables—but they’re green, square, and nothing that you’d really want to eat.  Over the course of the book they experiment unsuccessfully with adding different things in an attempt to create the perfect, orange carrot.

In a way, I think all artists are carrot machines.  Toss in a childhood, a few dozen trips to the library, a box of old records, and you end up with some sort of something.  You can try to tinker with the ingredients (a little more Janáček, a little less Petula Clark?), but you don’t really know what you’re going to get until the carrot flies out of the chute on opening night and you show the world what it’s actually made of.  An’ there’s nothing you can do about it.

Incidentally, just when Bugs thinks he’s figured out how to make a carrot that tastes like the real thing, the machine explodes.  I’m not sure how far I want to pursue that metaphor.


Declaration of Principles

Declaration of Principles (or, my very first blog post)

Somewhere, at the bottom of a box that is at the bottom of a pile of other boxes, there is a notebook from my opera Works of Mercy.  The first page is dated sometime in the summer of 2000, and probably includes the name of the small upstate New York town in whose Pizza Hut I scribbled this initial entry.  I described finding a used copy of Pirandello’s play Vestire gli ignudi at the Book Ark in Manhattan and why I thought it would be strong material for an opera libretto, then finished up with a brief synopsis of the plot, and a breakdown of the characters and their voice types.

The rest of the notebook is blank.

Although I do neurotically save every scrap of paper that has a note, a lyric, or anything at all to do with my music, I have never been particularly good at keeping any sort of record of the actual process of writing and producing one of my operas.  (For the record, by “producing” I mean “talking a large number of talented and otherwise intelligent people into agreeing to put on one of these things.”)

And so, this blog.   I hope it will serve as a journal for “Freedom Ride” as the opera is completed, workshopped, orchestrated, and premiered in New Orleans during the 2013-2014 season by the Jefferson Performing Arts Society.  Knowing that this has been posted online for all the world to see just might make me feel accountable enough to update it regularly.  Although we are already a year into the project, there is still a long way to go, and undoubtedly there will be some great stories to tell.

I hope as well that it will be a way to talk with all of you freely and honestly about the opera.  I often get asked very good questions—How did you come up with the story for Freedom Ride?  What comes first: the music or the lyrics?  Why do you think anyone wants to hear a new opera?—but of course I never have particularly good answers.  Maybe if I’m forced to think about them for a little while, I’ll be able to come up with something worthwhile.  MAYBE.  But no promises…

So please, take a minute to share, comment, ask questions, make suggestions, and explore the photographs, sketches, ideas, and videos that will be making their way to the site over the next few months.  And in return, I’ll try to make sure that all of these things—including actual blog posts—do indeed make their way onto the website for you!

Thanks, and best wishes,