Having moved to a new home, and a new life [sabbatical for one year, practice run for post-UCLA reality/retirement spending full time composing and inventing a new life] I think I have finally got into a work rhythm. My problem is that I’m one of those types that needs to have XYandZ done before I can compose.

I start the day with what I call my barnyard chores — that would be feeding two dogs, two parrots, two humans, swiffing the floor, taking a bath, sweeping the porch and putting away dishes from the previous evening. Only THEN can I really get down to work. Truth be told, I’m already composing: thinking about what I’m going to do when I finally get done with these chores, so much that I’m insanely horny to get to work.

The last two days were interesting in terms of keeping versus throwing away. In the film industry, directors will tell composers regularly: “It’s a great piece of music, John, it just doesn’t work in the scene the way I want it to, so try it again.” My undergraduate music history teacher, L. Gushee, remarked that the problem with so much 20th C music is that you [or no one] ever said NO [or NO THAT SUCKS] to the composer. In Hollywood, and in the pop music world, saying NO is business as usual. Yesterday, I kept saying NO to myself over a passage that I’m working on. I threw out three versions, each one gorgeous, but not working for where we are in the drama. This is a place I can’t let the audience fall asleep, even though it is the middle of the night, on a boat, with a man and a woman looking at each other over a candlelight. That’s a real challenge, as you might imagine. So, I finished about 2/3rds of it before guests arrived for dinner last night, and now I’m horny to get back to work but had to put this down before I did…


God is in The Neurons

April 4, 2012

A fascinating piece.


Didn’t rip off Desplat

March 27, 2012

A composer who deserves all the fame he’s getting is Alexandre Desplat. One of his melodic habits is obsessive chromatic inflection. Then he turns around and does it harmonically, hovering between chords a half step apart. It’s as though he has reinvented the appoggiatura. So, no wonder that I should start getting nervous when my most magical and darkest moment has just arrived in our opera [Angela Peralta] and it has the feeling that it has always existed, and that I just unearthed it. Or did I rip it off from Alexandre? The basic chordal osciallation is:

But there are some juicy chromatic counterpoints in contrary motion that takes it over the top. Or am I transcribing something I’ve heard? I don’t know, I guess I’ll have to listen to all the Desplat music I have to find out. There could be a worse fate.


I wrote some music that sits on a progression that evokes an old Spanish, flamenco chord progression that clearly places the music in Spain. Guitarists know this progression well*. But the progression, in, say, film music, could harken all things Latino/a. I evoke the progression in a conversation between Angela Peralta and the Captain, but as I listened to it, it wasn’t the Spanish component I was playing with.

Who was I ripping off?

I listened to everything Coldplay recorded and that was not it. Daniel got home from work and I played him my music, saying that I think I’m copying or evoking some pop song. I played it for him. After a few moments he came up with two Radiohead songs claiming that there may be more. Then we listend to my music again. It was not copying the two songs, although it used similar chords and emphasized similar scale degrees in the melody; but the overall phrase structure was completely different.

Here is “Everything is its right place” by Radiohead. I love the flat-6 in the melody; yes, I stole that, but not his tune; yes I evoke this chord progression, but no it’s not THIS chord progression, and after all, you can’t copyright chord progressions. But it was the Radiohead feel of this chord progression that I was after, and not a moment of Spanish fervor, dancing around a fire with a flamenco guitar with hoots and hollers. And if it gets translated in the mind of some listeners as: Flamenco music = Spain = Mexico = Angela, then I guess it’s not the end of the world, but it wasn’t what I had in mind.

No, I didn’t rip off Radiohead.

*Note: the musical example is not from my music, rather a sample Phrygian flavored chord progression, spelled simply. Radiohead repeats the first three chords, sometimes over the E pedal, sometimes not.


One of the more perplexing moments for beginning music theory students are musical events that are somehow not logical. You ask: what is “logical” in music?

The progression of a V chord, also called the dominant, to a I chord, also called the tonic, is the foundation of functional tonality. Every chord in the diatonic collection has a function. We teach students what chords “tend” to do. Sometimes V goes to vi and fools us — we call that a deceptive cadence, as we deceive the listener’s expectation.

Composers and audiences alike fatigue of a single key and variety is welcomed. As harmony evolved, the movement to other keys were achieved by somehow getting to that key’s dominant, and then switching over. But sometimes, our old theory teachers tell us, composers JUST GO THERE. In other words, by not using any logical or functional pivot — the composer “goes there” for the new key’s shock value. That shock value changes over time, of course, but the vestiges of those ancient shocks should still be in performances.

I am using a different kind of modulation in the opera I’m writing now (Angela Peralta). As there are a lot of flashbacks, I need moments that feel like musical versions of crossfades, and I often will do this as one key fades, another completely dissonant one fades in, giving the impression of a veil being lifted. And, when we leave that flashback, that tonality evaporates and we find ourselves back in the key we left a few moments earlier.


Bravo to Robert Aldridge

March 22, 2012

My old pal and colleague from a WAY time back, Robert Aldridge, just won a Grammy for best new composition: his opera, ELMER GANTRY. Bravo, Bob, bravo!

I looked through some old photos hoping I’d find a few gems of our past and found these two. The first is our band as undergrads and UW Madison, CONTRABAND [photo l to r: Roger Bourland, Ranjeet Saxena, and Robert Aldridge].

The second is the COMPOSERS IN RED SNEAKERS first concert in New York, here held at Symphony Space. This is a picture of us during the dress rehearsal. [photo l to r: Thomas Oboe Lee, Christopher Stowens, Robert Aldridge, Roger Bourland, Herman Weiss, Richard Cornell and Michael Carnes]

And here is the opening bar scene from the opera:


Singing for my friends

March 22, 2012

A tradition I started in our social circle is playing compositions in progress for my friends who happen to be over for dinner. I embrace this ancient court tradition, as did Franz Schubert. After a full belly from food and wine, what better than a little music.

I put a twist on this in that rather than just entertaining my guests, I am doing market research on what kind of impression my music makes on people: not just musicians, people with a wide variety of tastes, and very often listeners who don’t know a lot of classical music. While I sing for my guests, I have to take into consideration that

  • They may forget that I will not be singing the premiere; I’m just doing a composer performance. There will be professionals who will sing these parts. Don’t judge it on my performance.
  • They may have had a hellish day, and this is the first moment they’ve had to STOP; and they fall asleep. One can’t feel insulted when this happens. It happens.
  • One person’s enthusiasm can often carry the entire room; one can’t be overly fooled by too strong of a positive response
  • With this as a background, I performed about a half hour of music for friends last night and I share my letter to my librettist, Mitchell Morris, about the experience.

    Dear Mitchell,

    Last night, M&J and R&P came over to spend some time together, but also to get a taste of the opera. This was the first time I have tried to sing it. I spent three days warming up and getting ready to sing it, and was amazed that my time at the gym is really helping connect to ab support in singing.

    I have two kinds of reactions to my singing, or three: the first is shocked that I don’t sing like an opera singer; the second finds it adorable that Roger is trying to sing all these parts and forgives any shortcomings in the performance. The third assumes that I should give as an accurate performance, complete WITH character, as possible.

    You know our part in Act 1 where Julián and the Captain are chatting — they are BOTH BARITONES, as you know — and when I sing both parts, unless I put some character differentiation in my voice, people can’t tell the difference. If they are looking at the score, they can easily see who is singing what. So last night I learned that I need to put character in my composer performances!

    In that they heard only music from Act 1, they heard music that is more “up.” I realized that Act 2 will start bright and progress to a devastating darkness. So my guests had the impression of la la everything his hunky dory in Mazatlan. R LOVED the dramatic interruption where Julian and the Captain have simultaneous asides. He felt the flow needed that moment of terror.

    M made several good comments: the Captain wouldn’t be navigating the boat, the helmsman would do that; but if here WERE navigating the boat, he shouldn’t be drinking tequila and smoking a cigar with Julian. But if he IS being naughty, we either need to reflect the Captain’s sense of guilt for doing it, or that he abstains while his guests partake.

    J loved everything and left with a big smile, saying she was very happy to hear it. She misses you.

    Just as in the creation of a film, one of the final things that happens to the visual component is that the “color timing” is adjusted. So after I finish Act 1, it seems it would make a certain amount of sense to do a similar thing to the harmonic language. Ditto, the entire opera.

    R encourages me pay attention to the fifth gate in Bluebeard’s Castle, to listen especially to its harmonic language.

    Thanks for the next stretch of text, I’m getting to work on it right now.



    And Mitchell wrote back with his blessings:


    Yes, feel free to post this. BUT I have a couple of comments:

    1) The Captain thinks of himself as in charge, since, of course he is. I don’t recall ever saying that he’s steering—yes, they say that in the opening song, but it’s a song (i.e. an onstage “folk” song), so they don’t have to be taken literally. If you like, I can put in some natter-natter about how even though he’s not actually doing the driving, he’s still in charge, and so forth.

    2) So given this, you want me add a helmsman? I suppose we could use a tenor at this point; and if we do a little scene to be inserted after Ybarra’s scena, we can make the point above more dramatically. I could find a use for him later in the act, and we could easily double him as a town person in Act II. Justice of the Peace, whom AP charms adroitly? Apothecary who finally breaks the news about the epidemic?

    3) As for Dark to Light, the Light to Dark—yes, that’s the biggest move. But there’s trouble on the horizon in Act I again: I am past the initial messing-around stage with Rosa, and beginning to get the drama and dialogue in place. It’s gonna be groovy, but emotionally a turbulent, ominous hue. If you like the helmsman idea, I could possibly find a use for him in that act.

    I’m delighted that the test run went so well! Have I mentioned how strongly those damn bird songs stick in the memory?


    To which I responded:

    1) I looked in the libretto and there was nothing about the captain navigating the boat. It was an image in my head as I wrote the music. So that was all in MY head! Several people commented last night that there was a wonderful underlying feeling of being at sea.

    2) Great ideas about the multi-role tenor part. It was clear from last night, that with all the solos and duets between two baritones — the register gets saturated and we are dying for some contrast.

    3) Ok then, full speed ahead, as it were. As I said, R really liked the violent interruption at the end of all that baritone wash. Foreshadowing the despair of Act 2 not a bad idea. I’m gonna leave it for now and move on.

    I am proceeding with the invention of a helmsman, i.e. the pilot. I think he’ll actually be American, since the steamer company was a US concern operating from San Francisco down to Panama. As for names, I’m sorting through some lightly symbolic but culturally appropriate for a ship named the Newbern (a VERY North Carolina name, as I’ve mentioned). More on that when I get it worked out in my imagination!

    The American helmsman is brilliant. Go for it.



    I never realized how much “Sunshine” seemed to be a topic of interest to songwriters in the 1960s until I started digging. Here are some of the songs I remember. [Musically, I define the 60s as 1963, assassination of JFK to 1973, resignation of Nixon].

    You are my sunshine. A sincere expression of love and devotion with a strong American old time flavor. Written and performed by member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Gov. Jimmie Davis.

    Sunshine of Your Love. A more cosmic, stellar expression of love and devotion from the 60s supertrio, Cream. Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton.

    Sunshine Superman. A mod 60s psychedelic portrait by Donovan.

    Good Day Sunshine. The Beatles’ cheery feel-good salute to the sun.

    Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows. Here is Leslie Gore singing a gosh-n-golly rock answer to “My Favorite Things”

    My Favorite Things. And sunshine is one of Mary Poppins favorite things.

    Ain’t No Sunshine. Jose Feliciano mourns the lack of sunshine.

    Sunshine on my Shoulder. We can’t forget John Denver’s ode to his Colorado sun.

    We’ll Sing in the Sunshine. What ever happened to Gale Garnett? I hope she is the author of this song, and is making royalties.

    You are the Sunshine of My Life. Stevie Wonder offers his uplifting song to a beloved, likening them to sun, not unlike Cream’s image.

    Sunshine Girl. The Parade’s “Sunshine Girl” shows a lot of different influences.

    Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In. We can’t forget 5th Dimension’s classic astrological salute to our SUN.


    From “O Brother Where Art Thou”


    Like Rachmaninov’s signature rhythm at the end of many of his pieces, Alfred Hitchcock could not resist flitting across the screen in his own films. Roy Vanderzwaan found 37 of them and assembled them into this highly entertaining 4 minute clip. I smiled the whole time — in fact, I laughed, I thought I’d die, and I DID die, and they buried me in sand, and it tickled, and I laughed, I thought I’d die, and I…