Behind the Music: The Bang on a Can People’s Commissioning Fund

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Cynthia Hopkins is a creator and performer of musical theater. She formed the band Gloria Deluxe in 1999, and has since produced five full-length albums and performed numerous concerts in New York City and elsewhere. The band is featured in her operetta, Accidental Nostalgia, which has been performed at the Whitney at Altria, MASS MoCA, St. Ann’s Warehouse, On the Boards, and the Walker Art Center. She is currently at work on a new performance/music piece called Must Don’t Whip Um. In addition to her own work, Hopkins has composed and performed for many theater and film projects, including Big Dance Theater’s Antigone, Shunkin, and Another Telepathic Thing (2001 Bessie Award for composition, 2000 Obie Award for performance) and Ridge Theater’s production of Mac Wellman’s at jennie richee (2001 Obie Award as part of the collaborative team).

Molly Sheridan: You mentioned feeling out of place. Let’s just start there. I asked the other commissioned composers, J.G. Thurwell and Carla Kihlstedt, about performing at Merkin Concert Hall vs. the other clubs and theaters they do shows in, and they didn’t seem fazed, but it sounds like you had a different experience.

Cynthia Hopkins: Well, it seemed to me that they both had more experience with having their music played in those types of settings. I’m used to playing either in clubs or in theater works. Even when it’s a similar-type house—and it’s usually not—it’s a very different atmosphere. That type of venue is very serious and there just seems to be an air of prestige. It seems very upper class to me, and I’m not saying I dislike that, I’m just saying it’s definitely different from what I’m used to. Theater environments can be upper class, too, but you know, I actually don’t like that part of town for that reason; it seems snobby to me [laughs] I hope I’m not being entirely negative and you’ll have to cut everything out of my interview, but that’s how I feel.

MS: Do you think that adds or subtracts from your work in any way?

CH: Well, I think it affected how I wrote the piece, honestly. I was sitting in the audience next to a woman who started talking to me at intermission and she had asked me the same question. She was a composer in that realm, and I said, “I think that the atmosphere has a lot to do with the way you hear music.” And she said, “Oh, really? I never thought of it like that.” But I really think it does.

I was trying to do some things that I can’t really do in my realm. Like a sing-along. For that you sort of need a big hall. I also thought it would be funny to have a sing-along in that environment because it’s serious and almost the opposite of folk, you know what I mean? It’s not music by the people, for the people. It’s music by virtuosos for people who appreciate virtuosos; people who can afford to go to these kinds of things. So I thought it would just be kind of funny and maybe a little bit disjunctive to have a folk song moment in that atmosphere.

MS: Was this sort of opportunity anything you had ever looked for then?

CH: No, I had never pursued this type of opportunity. I did not study to be a composer. I studied piano and I studied voice, accordion, and guitar. I’ve taken some music theory and jazz and blues music, so I’ve learned about music in a very eclectic way, but I never set out to be a composer. When I first found out about the commission it was very exciting to me. I thought, “Oh, this is something new. This is kind of a thrill.” So it wasn’t unwelcome, but I was very surprised by it. Basically, I’m on this path of trying to make my own work for myself to perform and then when other people ask me to do things sometimes it’s interesting and exciting, but it’s not something I seek.

MS: I did feel like there were some parallels directly with your show Accidental Nostalgia. Mark Stewart in fact says the word “nostalgia” early on in the piece. Did you mean for there to be any connection?

CH: Oh, no, no, no. I wanted it to be its own thing and I wanted it to be its own little event. It’s probably related to other things that I’ve done just because I’m making them, and the things I’m interested in are going to be reflected in whatever I do. Nostalgia is something I’m interested in, but it’s a very different type of nostalgia than is approached in my other piece that you mention.

I’m always reading and researching what I’m interested in, and then when I set out to make something, like for this commission, let’s say, I took whatever I was thinking and inspired by most at that time and wrote a lot of ideas down, notes and notes and notes, pages and pages and pages. Then that got distilled and whittled down over time. Initially I thought of making a requiem for my parents, actually, because although my father is still alive, my mother is not and my father is very ill, and they both inspired me a lot in music. They were both amateur musicians. My father is actually a classical music fan, so I grew up with that in my head, and then my mother was very much into folk music, we sang in the church choir together and stuff, so I wanted it to be sort of a thank you to them.

At the same time I was reading this book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, which is a fantastic book, and that’s what I was spending most of my time thinking about when I started writing the piece. It put me in the mind frame of all of human history because it goes back and talks about the very beginnings of human civilization. [A few years earlier,] I had been commissioned to write this other thing which was a piece that was going to be an imagined opera that Stravinsky and Dylan Thomas would have made together if Dylan Thomas hadn’t died, and I wrote a bunch of music but that piece never got made. Originally I thought I should do something with that music, so that plot line was in my head as well, and all of these things merged together to become the piece.

MS: I loved when Evan said at the rehearsal that sometimes the commissions make them do things that they haven’t done before and maybe shouldn’t, so I’m curious about getting them to sing.

CH: It seems to me that Bang on a Can was formed to explore new territory musically and really have an experimental spirit. When they commissioned me, they told me that part of the reason they did is that they’d be interested in having a piece where they would sing because that’s not something that they’ve done before. Also, I wouldn’t actually call myself a composer; I’d call myself a songwriter. I would have also been happy to have the challenge of writing something without words, but because I was told that was part of the reason I was commissioned I thought, OK, I’ll write some singing parts and maybe I can write multiple parts that my band would never sing so it could still be something like I’d never done before. I asked them all if they’d be willing to sing and Robert Black said, “No.” [laughs] All the rest of them said yes. This was by email.

Now, I think this is an indicator of the problem with email! It’s almost worse than the phone, because on the phone at least people listen and respond whereas with email I think people glance at things, and they don’t really think about it because it’s such a fast form of communication. That’s why meeting people in person is a better idea. The reason I say that is because I found out later, after I turned the score in, I got the feeling people were upset because there was so much singing. I was baffled because they’d said, “Sure, we’ll sing.” And then, when I came into the rehearsal, they seemed very angry at me. I’m not sure any of them would have commissioned me is what I ended up feeling like, which is fine. The other side of that is I ended up thinking that the quality of their singing actually made the piece very moving and beautiful because they felt vulnerable. These are not people accustomed to feeling vulnerable in a performance situation because they really are virtuosos.

I work mostly in theater and the quality of performance is something that’s very interesting to me. It’s not just what the people are playing or the music they’re playing when you see something live, it’s also the energy that’s going on on stage, what they’re wearing, what their facial expressions are, it’s all a part of it for me. Now, if it was a recording you were just going to listen to that would be one thing, but this is a live performance. And also, I’m used to working on something for a long time. I come from experimental theater so I’m used to saying, “Oh, let’s try this,” and “Oh, that doesn’t work so try this.” And that seemed upsetting to them somehow. And I think it’s because they can learn things immediately because they’re so talented and skilled. To me, it’s a performance and I think to them it wasn’t. It was like this is a piece of music. There was this little bit of rift between the way I think about it and the way they think about it. I think that’s them respecting the music and saying, “You wrote it this way, I need to sing it this way,” but, like I say, I think it ended up just by virtue of the structure having a moving and interesting quality to the performance almost because of this problematic energy.

MS: Well it definitely added to my experience just knowing some of the players and then seeing them sing.

CH: I have to say, I think there’s this thing about singing. I write for musical theater so I end up writing a lot for people who don’t consider themselves singers. Many people say, “Oh, I can’t sing, I can’t sing.” And then you give them a song to sing and they sing it and it’s beautiful to hear. I wish more people who think they can’t sing would sing in public because, for me, a lot of times I cannot stand the way supposedly virtuosic singers sound. I would much prefer to hear [BoaC pianist] Lisa [Moore] sing very quietly, a little bit hesitant. I know it’s hard for people who don’t feel confident about it to do it. But ultimately I was really happy with it the way it was.

At the rehearsal the day before there was a part where Evan would have been playing but other people were reviewing something, so [cellist] Wendy [Sutter] whistled his melody and I was like, “That’s so beautiful. She’s smiling, she looks like she’s having a good time but also she looks like she kind of knows something you don’t know.” So the next day at the sound check I said any time during the piece you can whistle the melody that’s being played if you feel like it. Of course that didn’t happen, and I don’t know if it’s because they thought I was kidding or they were afraid to try it or they thought I wanted it but they didn’t think it was a good idea. [laughs]

MS: I wonder too, we’ve been talking about theater where you get multiple rehearsals and then multiple nights to do it in front of an audience, and you only get one shot with this.

CH: I know, it’s tricky. In theater and even in rock clubs there’s not this thing of “This is the premiere!” and I think that puts a lot of pressure on it. I’ve never, ever written a piece in my life that has been presented in that way. So for me I’m like, “Wow, no wonder it’s hard to have a sense of humor in that situation.” And I respect virtuosity, but virtuosity isn’t the only thing that’s interesting to see. And actually the opposite of virtuosity is sometimes more interesting to watch.

MS: Speaking of watching, was it weird to sit in the hall and not be a part of the show?

CH: It is definitely more stressful because it’s a lack of control. I suffer from stage fright. I think it’s part of the reason that I like to perform—it’s scary so it makes me feel really alive and energized—but at least I’m going to be out there doing the thing. Another reason I like performing is that everything else falls away; it’s a very meditative state to be in and so no matter how scared I am, once I’m in it it’s actually the most ecstatic experience that I know. Whereas with somebody else performing it, I’m nervous and I have the stage fright, but there’s nothing to do and I’m definitely not going into a meditative state; I’m in a state of panic.

So would I do it again? I’d be interested in doing it again because it was a challenge and because, no matter whether you’re an artist or not, to continue experimenting I think really makes life worth living. This was definitely something new and I want to continue to have experiences that I’ve never had before. So for that reason I would want to do it again. Yeah.

MS: Did you get anything out of this process that will inform your own work going forward?

CH: I would say more from watching other people’s pieces being performed. A lot of times when I hear something that’s very different from what I do and I like it, I think I want to try and do something that has that quality to it. It’s inspiring. Jim’s piece made use of those instruments that Mark builds and Carla had that weird string thing [in the piano] which was really fascinating. Also I had made this thing that had sort of a story and a structure because that’s what I have confidence with and I was happy with that. But then when I was watching theirs, I thought I should really try to get outside of that box in my head at some point and try to make something in a different structure than the one I automatically tend toward.

MS: Because so much of your piece felt like it was in the words, was the music secondary to you? You said you wouldn’t consider yourself a composer but a songwriter, so how does that fit together?

CH: Well, when ideas are percolating, at the same time musical ideas are percolating. I had been going to these film-editing sessions and the director had reversed a piece of my music. I kept hearing that over and over again and I really loved it. I could also hear other parts over the top of it that weren’t there. I wanted to recreate that and I tried all these different ways. I tried to actually reverse the notation of the piece, and it didn’t sound like I was hearing it. So finally I was like, I’m just going to try and make something that sounds like what I like about that. The “all the beautiful things in the world” song that’s sort of the main song of the thing was just like any song. I was just walking along humming a tune and I sang it into my little tape recorder and then I worked on it later. I don’t know how other composers compose. I’m the opposite of a theoretical composer or something like that.

MS: You’re all intuition?

CH: Yeah, but you know, I have a feeling that Beethoven was more like “da-da-da-dah.” Melodies come from the air which is probably already stuff that’s in your brain from listening to it before, or they come from when you’re playing around on an instrument, or I hear something and a few minutes later I think of something that’s similar but that’s based on that. Like I was listening to CDs of the Bang on a Can people and all this Stravinsky, so I guess maybe all that filtered in somehow, but not specifically taking a phrase. I think that’d be an interesting experiment too, but it’s not what I did with this.

MS: I thought the sing-along was very funny. It completely changed the energy in the hall.

CH: I couldn’t believe people sang! I was amazed. I was really happy about that.

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