2012Bourland9210_C8x10@72 (1)I rarely ask forgiveness of my readers, but forgive me for being a spotty blogger for the past few years. I’ve been busy, have been processing the transition from being a tenured university professor to an opera composer, moving to a new city, composing an opera, suffering from some medical issues, and taking a break from telling you things that have been on my mind.

I figure if I live to be 90, my first thirty were about learning, the next thirty were about teaching, and my final thirty will be about composing my best music––and in my dream, opera. Having composed five large-scale choral and orchestral works, a short opera, a grand opera, a musical, four feature films, choral music, songs, and hours and hours of chamber music, I am ready to synthesize what I’ve learned as a composer and do what I think I do best as a composer: write good tunes. I don’t particularly want to compose chamber music: too few performances. I have no track record nor interest of composing and amassing lots of orchestral works, hence my invisibility in the orchestral world. But I do know how to orchestrate and orchestrate beautifully. I prefer large scale works at this point in my life over three to fifteen minute pieces of chamber music. So opera seems the right way for me to go.

My old classmate and bandmate, Robert Aldridge, got a Grammy for best new work a few years back for the opera he’s been working on for years [Elmer Gantry]. My student, colleague and friend who performed in two of my large scale works, Jake Heggie is going great guns in the opera world; and my heart was broken when we lost Daniel Catán, who appeared to be a brilliant new star on the opera scene.

Aldridge and I were original Composers in Red Sneakers and played in a rock/blues band together with composer Robert Rowe. Our music shares a vitality, and if I were to die and had a piece unfinished, I would commission Bob to finish it. That being said, his opera, Elmer Gantry, is not like mine. And I was amazed that the Grammy voters chose IT over the others, it being completely tonal––as tonal as Bernstein.

Jake Heggie studied with me at UCLA, orchestration as an undergrad and I “guided” his MA in composition. I use quotes because Jake didn’t need guiding at that point. He was already Jake Heggie. His musical language is his own and a powerful one it is. He always had his own voice and his own way of writing for the voice. His piano accompaniments were always much more interesting than my early songs: he is a marvelous pianist––as a pianist, I get by. If Jake learned anything from me, it was through performing in my HIDDEN LEGACIES and FLASHPOINT/STONEWALL (both pieces with lyrics by John Hall). On second thought, I’ll let him tell you whether and what he learned from me, if he so chooses. ;-)

Daniel Catán was a California composer/university professor who worked really hard outside of being a teacher. The LAOpera premieres of his operas were wonderful, and I was delighted that the audience, buzz and press was so positive. Although our musics are not that similar, I can imagine future critics lumping us together in terms of harmonic language, but we are both tonal composers.

Of the four of us, Jake’s musical language is probably the gnarliest, followed by me, then Catán, and then Aldridge. I love the word “gnarly.” I stole it from Tison Street‘s partner Ray––who was not a musician and used it to describe what we musicians might otherwise call atonal (a term Schoenberg [the ur-Gnarly] despised). Of the four of us, as of 2013, Jake is probably the most popular and performed with Catan hot on his heels; Aldridge made a big splash––finally––and I am just beginning.

So who am I to even imagine putting myself in their league?

After the two workshop performances that we just had of my new opera, THE DOVE AND THE NIGHTINGALE, the audience was thrilled, as were we. My librettist, Mitchell Morris kept saying: “Roger, there is nothing like it.” And I don’t think he meant it as an evasive way of saying the piece is terrible: he meant it. The opera is filled with memorable tunes. Filled. Peter Kazaras, who directed the UCLA Opera workshops, insisted throughout the opera that I make EVERYTHING melodically interesting: “Go listen to Puccini: it’s all continuous and memorable melody.”

And as I step forward taking this risk, I have Angel Kazaras on one shoulder whispering MELODY, MELODY into my ear, and Angel Swed on the other telling me I need to compose like Helmut Lachenmann. I had to knock Swed off my shoulder in order to be me. I learned in 1978 that I had no interest in being the next Elliott Carter or Karlheinz Stockhausen, even though I went through years of trying to be. My SEVEN POLLOCK PAINTINGS (1978) won the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood and was my first publication and second record. The piece ENDS on a major chord––something rather naughty at the time. That final cadence helped me come out as a tonal composer.

I am gambling that the opera world just might go nuts over a new opera filled with memorable tunes. By composing music like this, I run the risk of being called a composer of musical theater. So be it. My inspirers these days are Bizet’s CARMEN, Bernstein’s WEST SIDE STORY, and Sondheim’s SWEENEY TODD. In my opinion, these are all operas that are crossed with music theater. Someone will come up with a term for what this new genre is but I find the terms incomplete nowadays. Whatever that is, that is the road I’m interested in taking. And if it doesn’t work, and the people are not interested, then I’ll move on.

Writing songs is something I will continue to do for the rest of my life. And it’s so much easier than composing an opera! I’ve never worked as hard as I did in composing DOVE. And then I laugh when I read the interview with Donizetti who when told Rossini composed WILLIAM TELL in two weeks, he replied: “I always knew he was a lazy composer.”

#rogerbourland #opera #jakeheggie #danielcatán #robertaldridge #composers

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Post image for Ghost of Stravinsky Arrested in Russia

The ghost of composer Igor Stravinsky was arrested in Boston, Russia today for “acting queer.” Allegedly a life-long bisexual, Stravinsky kissed the policeman firmly on the mouth, grabbed his cheeks and shouted “Ah, c’mon, you liked that didn’t you?” UCLA’s Professor Tamara Levitz denied that the event took place saying “There is no proof it ever happened. It was only the daydream of that silly man Prof Roger Bourland.” Bourland was not available for comment.

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WHERE is Roger?

March 2, 2013

Bellini: I don’t mean to panic, but WHERE is Roger? He is such a sweet boy and I so enjoyed his posts on his blog. Especially when he let’s us come back and say a few words.
Berlioz: I always thought that I would know, if any dead composer would know, where Roger is but alas he has not kept in touch with me.
Ives: I’m not normally a sentimental old fool but I was wondering the same.
McGarrigle: And where is that book on Rufus? I’m not really interested, but I am curious.
Bernstein: I know. I’ve watched him for the past year and a half.
Bizet: As have I brother Lenny.
[they embrace and kiss each others' cheeks]
Berlioz: Well WHERE is he? And why is he not posting?
Bizet: He tells his close friends that he has just written his “Carmen.”
Bernstein: [laughs, coughs, inhales cigarette] He also said this was his “West Side Story.” And I have to hand it to him, it’s a hot opera.
Bizet: I agree. He has pop tunes in it as hot as mine.
Schoenberg: “Pop tunes”–you mean BLATANT pop tunes?
Wagner: An amateur.
Zemlinsky: I know what you mean, but Richard, we must keep our minds open to different interpretations of the meaning of opera.
Wagner: Think what you will.
Puccini: I’ve only heard the “pop tune” in his opera. I happened to be on a brief return to earth, Mazatlan to be specific, and I heard this wonderful tune. I went to it and found Bourland in his underwear, looking out at the sea, in tears writing this wonderful melody to words just handed him by his colleague, Mitchell Morris who was staying in the next room, sound asleep. If the rest of the opera is as good as that, my friends, we have a new hit on our hands!
Mozart: Did someone say opera? [giggles]
Schoenberg: I look forward to hearing it.
Bernstein: I don’t know that it will be your cup of tea. but…
Thompson: He IS a member of Aaron’s boy’s club.
Thomson: I guess that means I would be a member as well.
Thompson: Well, if the shoe fits, wear it.
Bernstein: I certainly am.
Bellini: I think I would be.
Schoenberg: Most definitely not.
Wagner: Boy’s club?
Mozart: [giggles]
Copland: Oh honestly, how insulting.
Bernstein: Well, you KNOW what they mean.
Verdi: [humming to himself; oblivious]
Bellini: I applaud his return to MEMORABLE melodies. Music lovers love melody no matter what they say. They are able to take the music they just heard by remembering them: by singing, humming or remembering the tune in their mind.
Schubert: I have heard the new CD of Bourland’s complete songs due out this fall and I must say, I am a Bourland fan, or muse volunteer.
Bernstein: As am I!
Bizet: Et moi!
Griffes: You silly dead composers, he’s sleeping. His guardian angel is old friends with mine, and…
Bernstein: Charlie, TMI
Thomson: The music is rather, rather, awfully poppy, I must agree.
Thompson: I don’t mind poppy, as long as it’s not mawkish.
Puccini: Mawkish? How does that translate into Italian? I fear it may be my middle name.
Bizet: Oh hush all you silly dead composers. Roger is alive and well and living in Silicon Valley. His opera is now receiving a workshop performance at UCLA and after that several performances are on the horizon.
Bernstein: I am proud of him and think his opera a great piece of work.
Thompson: You’re a piece of work.
Bizet: Gentlemen, behave. I will encourage Roger to not neglect his little antenna, his blog. Until then, be patient. He is phasing out of his career and life as a university professor and pursuing a new dream as a opera composer. I for one applaud his courage.

[Much clattering and groaning]

Bourland: ohhhhh, what is going on? I feel as though I’m in a twisted episode of Mystery Science 3000 for composers. Oy! Is this a dream or… OMG you are all here. How embarrassing. I didn’t mean to express any disrespect…
Weill: Oh get over yourself. We like what you are doing, we are concerned that you seem to have disappeared.
Bourland: Disappeared? Uh, I live in Silicon Valley, and am teaching my final year at UCLA.
Sibelius: Tell him Rojelio.
Bourland: Yeah, my knee has been giving me real problems. I went to a fabulous wedding where we did the hora on a concrete flora and that along with a history of knee problems turned me into a disabled person. I am actually learning to walk again, and the walking I do, I do with a cane. Learning to walk again is like a dance. Constantly telling myself: lift your leg, toss it forward OUCH! and keep trying to do it.
Griffes: Oh darling, my final days were hideous.
Bourland: Final days?? Give me a break. I have a bad knee. And someday it will get better. These are NOT my final days.
Sibelius: … and?
Bourland: And, and, well, I’m adjusting to a new post-UCLA reality, and am really doing quite well, but you still have to go through the separation process.
Berlioz: So that is why you have not been blogging?
Bourland: Well, I’m am am obsessive person, and I can’t be distracted by anything, and with the opera, I had a very real deadlne: when I have a deadline…
Debussy: As I always said: Music is a jealous mistress.

Bourland: Exactly. But really, who are you all? [Various composers begin to disappear: popping away] Oh dear, I didn’t mean to make you go away [pop, pop, pop: the rest vanish]. Oh my: am I dreaming? Uh… Hello? Anyone there?…

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Back from a lot of work!

November 30, 2012

After not posting since August, I need to let my faithful readers know that I finished my opera and am putting the finishing touches on the piano vocal score. I had to cut out every time consuming hobby and habit I had in order to finish. This weekend I will begin decompressing, trying to slow down the train–the energy I accumulated in finishing the opera.

Mitchell and I feel we have a hit on our hands. It’s my Carmen; my West Side Story. Stay tuned.

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In a Facebook conversation, some of my nerd composer friends posted a picture of a mysterious [to me] stringed instrument. Another identified it as a zither, an instrument of which I had no knowledge and wonder how many do. As I searched for information about this odd instrument I stumbled onto another: the contra-guitar. Whoa! Where can I find one of those? And it’s odd that it never made it past the Elvis guitar boon.

Here is a fine resource for those curious about the zither, its history and tuning variations. And here is a video of one in action. I originally got tired of playing the guitar because I wanted more notes. Gee, too bad I didn’t discover the zither.

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My father in law sent me this touching moment from the responsory at evening prayer during mass in Taizé.

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Bellini pays a visit

August 21, 2012

I normally start each day with a hot bath at 6:30 am with coffee and a tablet (Nexus 7 right now). Last week I was peacefully soaking and reading when I looked through the steamy glass that separated my bath tub from the toilet, and there was a man sitting there, not anyone I knew. He was naked, a funny shaped body with a 19th century hair style. My heart started pounding in fear, when I realized that I could see through him, I calmed down.

RB: Excuse me, I don’t take visitations in the bathtub: phone, fine, but no visitations. And who the hell are you anyway?
VB: LOL Vincenzo Bellini
RB: Wha? Dude, I’ve been studying your music lately, sorry I’m so slow in catching on…
VB: I know, I know, that’s why I’m here. Well, I’ve been “here” for a while. I’ve been sitting in the chair next to you from time to time.
RB: That is very odd you say that, as I was writing an aria the other day and looked at the texture thinking that it was very much old Italian style of some kind. I then looked at your NORMA and realized that it was very similar to the texture in many of your arias.
VB: [chuckling] We are fairly good at imparting our metabolism into you, what you call “channeling”—what Rosemary Brown made famous a hundred years ago—but not very good at telling you what NOTES to write. So, I’m glad to see you tuned into my channel.
RB: Cosmic, man. Listen, I’d love to chat, but I need to get out and get to work.
VB: Don’t let me stop you.
RB: Well, um, I need you to leave, or disappear or float away or whatever you do.
VB: Ah, cmon, let me take a look.
RB: Vincenzo!
VB: It’s been a long time.
RB: OUT!

[he vanishes]

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Sometimes I’m a bit slow. Two great musicians have been pushed in front of me lately and I don’t know why I never knew them before. Silly me.

Peter Kazaras has encouraged me to investigate Bellini in terms of the way he handles dialog vs. arias. On the way I fell in love with a new composer. I relate to him a great deal and will relay a recent event in a subsequent post. Vincenzo Bellini’s effortless gift of melodic writing is thrilling. Here is one of his ‘greatest hits’ from the opera NORMA, “Casta Diva” with Maria Callas. This aria will knock you out, even if you’ve never heard it or think you don’t like opera. Try it.

I reward myself once or twice a week and allow myself to watch a movie or a documentary. This week it was about the banjo: a recent documentary with Steve Martin as narrator exposes us to the amazing and colorful history of the banjo. Along the way, I discovered Béla Fleck, an amazing musician who happens to play the banjo. Last night I found a movie that Fleck had put together about his trip to four places in Africa to play with musicians, and bring an African instrument back to Africa. OMG I have not experiences such joy in a half hour block in a long time. I had to stop the movie to make it last. To see the faces of a tribe listening to Béla play bluegrass and to see them watch Bela play his banjo along with their music was sheer joy. There is a scene where the whole village gathers around this giant tuned wooden marimba that is played by many people. Everyone plays, everyone moves, everyone smiles and plays along in their own way. Youtube happens to have an excerpt of some of my favorite music from the opening of the film. [Wait till 1:00]

Many remember composer Steve Reich’s famous trip to Africa. It resulted in a two LP set called DRUMMING. Steve brought back African timing, texture, harmony and synchrony; Béla brought that back, but also brought back great joy. You see it in the film and hear it on the albums he released: “Throw Down Your Heart.” Bravo Béla!

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Turning into a beatle

August 2, 2012

On a trip to Hawaii a few years back, Mitchell accused me of “becoming a beatle.” I was somewhat offended, but I think he was right. Over the past few years, I have embraced my long-ignored past of knowing thousands of folk and pop songs on the guitar—an instrument I had neglected for thirty years. I am now playing bass, 6-string acoustic, 12-string acoustic and electric and ukelele on a regular basis. It is the perfect “palate cleanser” when working on my opera.

Over the past few months, people will ask me to bring my guitar and play Beatles songs. And when I do, everyone loves it: young and old. I ran into a couple who came over for dinner: the guy was from South Africa where the Beatles had little impact, according to him, and his wife from Sweden said she was unfamiliar with any Beatles music. So I played three songs: Yesterday, Norwegian Wood and Blackbird, and they realized that they knew them all.

I feel blessed to be able to give these little Beatle flashbacks to my friends. They sing along, leave their meal feeling even more satisfied.

Being the scholar that I am, I have been doing more Beatle research and will undoubtedly add “the background of this song” to my performances. That is after I retire from UCLA…

I have learned a great deal about the Beatles phenomenon already, which I will post over the years on this blog.

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The AIDS quilt is now online. Be ready to spend some time with this stunning display. Here is a piece of music that John Hall and I composed that was used for a documentary about the AIDS quilt that was issued in 1994 and is now no longer in print. The music is from a CD recorded by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, no longer in print. (I hope to revisit the orchestration of this piece someday as none of the synthesizers heard here exist any longer.)

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