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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Byrds: Goin Back

July 20, 2012

A rare video of the Byrds during the Notorious Byrd Brother period. Note: no David Crosby. McGuinn is there, minus granny glasses, and Gene Clark, faking his way through the song. Chris Hillman is looking confident and sings out. Who are the dudes to the left? Is Mike Clarke over there somewhere?

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I am a notorious space case when it comes to driving. It started when I was in my first car accident when I was 17. I was driving through the suburbs of Green Bay, singing my heart out when BAM, I was broadsided by a car and I spun onto a neighbor’s lawn: no injuries, just a big car repair bill.

I was riding my bicycle home from Harvard in 1980, singing my heart out when the right side of my handle bars caught the fence post along the Charles River and BAM I went flying down, smashed my knee and head. I walked back to Boston with blood all over my face, looking like I just stepped out of Carrie.

I should have known the problem returned a few weeks ago I was in my car, moving from side to side, nodding my head, dancing in my seat, when I looked out the window and saw a rather droll looking woman glaring at me. She evidently thought I was nuts as I was dancing to music in my head.

Last week after a long several days of composing I drove to pick up a friend at the airport. I nearly had two accidents. The first one didn’t happen as I looked in front of me and saw only printed music. I was composing music and the windshield turned into staff paper. I slapped myself realizing that this was not real.

Then I started imagining the finale of Act 1 of my opera; I saw the stage, I heard the music, it was overwhelming. I started crying and my heart started racing. When this kind of thing happens when you drive, it’s called “velocitization” and manifests itself as you driving faster and faster as you are involved with something in your mind. The poor woman ahead of me pulled over to the right as I had clearly glommed on to her and was on automatic pilot.

These stories may be amusing, but I realized that I must not try to compose while driving as it is just a dangerous as drunk driving, if not more. The solution I think I’ll try is to turn on the radio. That kills almost any kind of creativity that happens in my head.

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Time away

July 4, 2012

With an enormous deadline looming [finishing my opera this fall], I like to think that I would just as soon work all the time. Then I realized that I need to eat, so I will always take a 1 hour lunch, and usually don’t work at night if we have guests. My dogs ensure that I take a break away from the computer every 30-40 minutes. But sometimes things come up that take you away from your work: like this fabulous wedding I went to this weekend.

I wanted to just send Daniel and stay home and work, but I wanted to spend time with him, and after all it was in Napa Valley, so hey, go for it. I took along my sketchbook but didn’t crack it open the entire four days. We saw beautiful wineries and tasted some wonderful food and wine while there.

The wedding was largely a group of Israeli friends and family, seemingly from all over the world, all having a great time, looking happy and healthy. I loved the wedding ceremony and what they brought to their own Jewish tradition. The feast and dance seemed to happen simultaneously. The joy and participation by all in the hora was thrilling. The band had everyone out on the floor [concrete: oy] dancing for hours. I watched all the old guys singing along: 81 going on 15. Everyone was so happy. The food was family style––so much better than serving everyone a steak that few finish and many don’t even touch. There was no wedding cake, and I didn’t miss it. Refined flour and sugar are not my friends these days. And for the last two days, the love, the energy and spirit from that wedding is still spinning inside me. And helping create the finale of Act 1.

During the whole time I was horny to get back to work, but taking in the whole Napa/wedding weekend, not realizing that IT was recharging my batteries.

When we returned, my knee was extremely swollen from far too much dancing. I decided to take the night off and watch two of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. That experience also turned out to be fuel for my creative libido. So that when I finally got back to work, yesterday, POW! In one afternoon I wrote two minutes of music for full orchestra, chorus and soloists——a rare occasion. It just flew out of me, I was so horny to get back to work.

So rather than worrying about an occasional period away from work, I have to remind myself that all work makes Roger a dull boy. Time away is a good thing.

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Diary entry June 2012

June 26, 2012

What a funny day! To wake up and read that CEO Larry Ellison is in the process of buying Lanai (an island in the Hawaiian Islands), and that Madonna has a DNA sweeper who follows her everywhere making sure that no future Madanna clones can be had. Wow. Brave new world indeed.

Mitchell Morris [librettist] just left after spending three days with me working on and discussing our opera. He finished the libretto for Act 2; I had hoped to finish the music for Act 1 but didn’t quite make it. We had many useful discussions as well as listened to the 75 minutes of music we already have for the show three times. That’s a LOT of music listening, especially when it’s yours.

It’s an amazing feeling being in the middle of an opera with so much music behind you and so much more to go. It feels like a creative Hawaii: a little piece of paradise in the middle of nowhere.

We decided that the title should not be Angela Peralta, as the story has really morphed into something different now than the original thrust. The title we like the most today is: THE DOVE AND THE NIGHTINGALE. And those are the two characters that now are on equal footing. Angela is an historic figure; Rosa was completely our invention, but a necessary one for our drama.

I keep telling Mitchell that I feel as though I’m working on my own personal Sgt Pepper –– music that the whole world will love [well, ok, most] and will be a real direction changer in the world of opera. Or else I’m completely delusional, which is entirely possible. After all, I do have this endless line of composers waiting to channel my next melody; anyone who claims that must be nuts. But seriously, the opera is going really well, and every number is amazing. There isn’t any deadwood and it’s all memorable AND singable. Why not bring back a tradition where opera gives us new melodies to sing, rather than just psychological theatrical “experiences.” We’ll see.

Daniel is in the Philippines so I am home with dogs and parrots in a virtual artist retreat in our new home. I hope to finish Act 1 this week and take advantage of the solo time.

I am looking forward to my final year at UCLA; I will only be teaching composers for my final year––a perfect ending.

Back to work.

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Not to make any comment about John Corigliano‘s “Mr Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan” but I read a comment by John somewhere and he confessed he didn’t know the Dylan originals. That’s when I realized that I come from a very different world than John. I am from a generation of classical composers who are proud of their pop music heritage and although I don’t make any conscious effort to incorporate it in my music, it’s always there for those who have ears.

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Still alive and rockin

June 15, 2012

Forgive me: I am rushing to finish Act 1 before Mitchell arrives for a visit next week. He promises to have Act 2 (libretto) finished, and I, Act 1 music. Seems fair.

Even more exciting is that the acclaimed poet, Francisco X. Alarcón, has agreed to write the Spanish version of the opera for its Mexican premiere. Francisco will also be here next week for a meeting with Mitchell and me. I will play all the music I have to date for them both, we will talk and plan and laugh and eat.

The opera is going really well. It just seems like one hit after another as we go along. But I guess I’m prejudiced. But really, it rocks!

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Being a smart musician

May 18, 2012

There is something to be said for a well-trained musician who shows up on time, shuts up, and performs their part perfectly. But when life gets challenging, working with a smart musician can make all the difference. One such “smart” musician saved my ass several times over the past week, and everyone involved in the recording session appreciated it.

I have just returned from 10 days in Rockport, Massachusetts overseeing a new recording of my songs to be released by Parma Recordings this fall. I had the pleasure and honor to work with friend, colleague and soprano, Juliana Gondek, and pianist, conductor and opera coach, William Lumpkin. The producer, Andy Happel, was invaluable and brilliant, and I know Juliana loved working with him. During those 10 days, I came to realize the value of being a smart musician — no, I’m not about to brag about myself, rather, Juliana Gondek — a truly smart and gifted musician.

I wish that I could define “smart” as someone who gets A’s in all their college studies, and sometimes that can be true (I have no idea what JG’s grades were: I assume all A’s). But “smart” for me implies a life-long passion for learning, a certain amount of street-smarts, as well as a well-rounded education. Let me give some examples.

Juliana’s knowledge of various languages continued to be invaluable during our two weeks of recording. One song had some awkward Spanish setting on my part; she was able to adjust words, and provide alternatives that stayed true to the poem and stayed true to my melodies. She would stop rehearsal to Google ambiguous accents in certain words if she didn’t know them, which was rare. Her knowledge of a wide range of singing styles, in English, was astonishing. I realized that my songs gave her a wonderfully broad canvas to show off her range of interpretive skills and we were all continually amazed during the session. I continued to think of Cathy Berbarian — not that she is a knock-off of Cathy, rather a woman of wide ranging and significant vocal abilities.

Juliana is my Angela Peralta in our upcoming opera — I am writing the part for her. Professor Gondek is never afraid to send long emails to our librettist, Mitchell Morris, with lots of fabulous ideas regarding plots, motives and characters.

As we walked in and out of galleries in Rockport, Mass, she continually amazed me with her knowledge of gemstones, art, art history, European history, and the wide range of musics in the world. Like Angela, she has done so many things in her life, and was never “just” a soprano.

One night over dinner, we brainstormed ideas for reinvigorating our curriculum in an area in our department that is presently under evaluation [we are both Professors of Music at UCLA]. She is informed and passionate about the educational process and is articulate in making contributions.

We had to negotiate fees and payment of her work on the CD, and she was business-like and firm. She had learned in early episodes in her life to stand up for her worth as an artist, and that clarity and confidence in negotiations are essential in a smart musician.

She has had to balance challenging life crises while living a life as an opera singer or as a university professor — part of life of course, but singers use their bodies to make their art and their bodies are sensitive variable and not always reliable instruments, in the way that, say, a piano is. Slight changes in health, mood, and other cyclical realities all have to be able to be combined into the sound of a singer’s voice. Developing this kind of solid technique allows a performer to transcend life’s distractions and “be professional.”

So to my young musicians, considering a life in music, I encourage you to embrace your sister arts; love to learn for your whole life; never avoid an opportunity to learn something new, or consider an alternate point of view; be yourself and be passionate: it’s contagious!

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Verdi pops in

May 4, 2012

I’m hard at work in the middle of my opera, ANGELA PERALTA. We are half way across the Sea of Cortez in the middle of the night, and the sailors are restless and wild. When Angela shows up, they flirt with her and she loves it. Their antics come and go in Act 1 and are always cast in 10/8 (3+3+2+2) — great fun.

“YOU KNOW LENNY WOULD LOVE THIS PART”

I smelled old-man-smell with cigar breath wafting onto me from behind. I turned around and there was Giuseppe Verdi standing, listening with his left hand tucked inside his vest.

Verdi: It never occurred to me to have such fun with rhythm in my day, but at least I didn’t have to be embarrassed about writing melodies!

RB: Welcome, Giuseppe!

Verdi: You may call me Joe

RB: Joe. Right. Joe. I think you’ve shown up like the ghost of Christmas past, present and future rolled into one. You are going to give me a pep talk about melody?

Verdi: Something like that. It seems that much of the opera since I left has turned into grand theater; yes, there is always music, music everywhere, but what do you give the people to take home? An experience, they tell you. Feh! I say give them a melody they’ll never forget. And although there have been some great modern operas in the past century, how many of them have tunes sung by the people?

RB: Uh, Gershwin? Bernstein, or is that a musical? Lots of Puccini…

Verdi: STOP. If you want to be honest, musicals have really carried on that tradition. Opera has become far too serious to dole out tunes.

RB: But that’s sure as hell what I’m doing in the opera I’m writing.

Verdi: Yes m’boy, and I’m proud of you for doing it. Don’t stop and don’t question yourself.

RB: Even though I know Mark Swed will slaughter me?

Verdi: Don’t worry about such voices. Trust yourself and sing. Sing, blast you!

And he disappeared.

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I have never, and am still not, a scholar or expert in opera. I am fortunate to have as my librettist, one who is, and one who teaches me what I need to know when it seems I haven’t learned it.

One of my, and apparently many others’, least favorite parts of opera are the recitatives, where we keep the melody pedestrian, chord progressions and orchestration often limited [harpsichord] focusing on, instead, getting through a certain amount of information that the creators haven’t deemed worthy of an aria or dramatic scene. Recits are especially dry, for me, especially in early Baroque opera.

But recently I had a revelation. In our opera, I was starting to turn our recitatives into ariosos, because I just couldn’t help myself. But I began to realize that in an extended dramatic work, it is important to have confined stretches of plainness, where the drama profile is low — this in order to accentuate, or “pump” the following aria or scene. We are told that the old opera audiences would stand and chatter through recitatives, or leave to visit in the lobby, but racing back to their seats the moment the aria starts.

I have realized that I may need to go back and “plain-ize” some of my little ariosos that should really be recits. We’ll see.

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