Recently, the literary blog HTMLGiant posted an article titled “Which Problem Is the More Vexing Problem?” This post suggests that the reader wants to create a major work of art and posits eight methods that the reader utilizes to procrastinate instead of getting to work. For me, this article came at a perfect moment.
As regular readers of this column know by now, I’m hard at work on a piece for the group Rhymes With Opera. I had originally proposed a project for Spring 2012, but when they accepted my proposal it was instead for June 2011. After swallowing nervously, I agreed.
I’ve been planning a theater piece for over 15 years now. At first, I wanted to write a modern re-telling of the Biblical story of Judith. Over the years, the premise kept shifting. Each time that I began to actually sketch ideas, I realized that I was farther away from realizing the project than I had thought. The more I worked at capturing this vision, the more elusive it became. Four years ago, the current project began to take shape. I began thinking about various contemporary criminal acts and how they might translate into musical staging. Simultaneously, I started to move away from text setting, towards freer vocal writing utilizing the infinite possibilities found in the International Phonetic Alphabet. This new-found ability to create a dramatic work without text—where the physical action would be completely controlled by the musical through line—supplied the missing link that allowed me to ideate more clearly. Finally, the music became clearer the more I contemplated the theatrical ideas.
The next problem for me was that of genre. For me, the whole point of utilizing I.P.A. was to free myself of the need for specific dramatic actions and language. I didn’t want to write a traditional opera with a linear narrative. Instead, I wanted to create images related to and derived from the subject at hand. In essence, I found myself drawing from Brecht’s ideas of an Epic Theater based on universal archetypes while simultaneously looking to Artaud’s concepts of the Theater of Cruelty in order to create a work that could have immediate visceral impact. As this theatrical direction became clearer, I realized that I didn’t want to write a work with traditional staging. Instead of creating a dramatic work, I began working towards creating a musical work with dramatic underpinnings. There would be no text, no sets, no staging, and yet the piece began as an operatic idea. I started calling it a “chamber cantata” but that didn’t feel right either, so I eventually settled on the idea of a “non-opera.”
I had become so used to the idea that this work would exist at some distant point on the horizon of the future that actually buckling down and getting to composing proved to be a daunting task. Even though I finally have the tools necessary to create a piece matching my initial vision, with the goal of the final double bar so far out of reach I found myself needing to re-train my compositional muscles in order to plow through all the difficulties that I’ve encountered. Nothing seems to stop me from composing quite as much as infinite possibilities.
The article on avoiding work on the “big idea” therefore came at a perfect time. I recognized all the various methods for procrastinating. I needed yet another push at this time, as I enter the home stretch, as the deadline looms ever larger. At this point, I have enough music behind me that there’s no turning back. And the music that remains to be put into final format is somewhat clear in my mind. It appears to be time to put away all excuses and to bring the non-opera to life.