Tragedy. “A drama typically involving a person destined to experience downfall or destruction, as through a character flaw, or conflict with some overpowering force such as fate or an unyielding society.”
Hubris. “An extreme and unreasonable feeling of self-confidence.”
Posthumous. “Published after the death of the author.”
In May of 2001 I began work on the most ambitous composition project of my career. I had long been enamored of the poetry of American author Conrad Aiken, and previously, in 1998, already had made a setting of one of his poems for soprano, piano, vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel and crotales – a piece titled Never in Word. Soon thereafter I began selecting and editing text from Aiken’s monumental serial poem Time in the Rock, written between 1932 and 1936. A grand series of 96 poems, the work at first was titled, and then subsequently subtitled, Preludes to Definition. It directly followed an earlier (1927-1931) series of poems originally titled Preludes to Attitude, subsequently retitled Preludes to Memnon. As Aiken first intended, both series were later published together as one book in 1966 by Oxford University Press with the simple title Preludes. The text I selected for the musical work was drawn from nine individual poems: numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 24, 26, 31, 33 and 57, which I edited and ordered in my own way to suit the structure of the music I was planning.
Aiken’s formal poetic architecture, as well as his language, is often musically structured – in his words, “mathematically lyrical” (the series and the spiral being the most significant mathematical influences). Both the mathematical and the lyrical aspects of these structures connected directly to the means and techniques with which I had been working in my music for at least fifteen years (see “About the Music” for a description). Aiken’s poetry confronts, among other themes, individual and global human transformation – a spiritual, philosophical and ethical dilemma which has fascinated me for many years. Aiken’s perspective was that of a person living and writing in the late 1920s/early 1930s. The prevailing question was, as he expressed it: “…where was one to go, or what stand upon, now that Freud, on the one hand, and Einstein on the other, with the shadows of Darwin and Nietzsche behind them, had suddenly turned our neat little religious or philosophic systems into something that looked rather alarmingly like pure mathematics?” Similar concerns had been voiced and addressed before, of course – for example, in the aftermath of the discoveries of Descartes, Newton and Leibniz in the 17th century. At the beginning of the 21st century we again face a transformation to a new paradigm, this time in the wake of developments in physics, cosmology, biology and genetics. For the first time, however, humanity now seems to be in a position to control, change and expand not only the environment it inhabits, but also its very own physical, intellectual and emotional make-up. Direct neural connection to artificial forms of intelligence and data storage, bioengineered and genetically transformed physical bodies, and chemically enhanced and controlled emotional states are all in various stages of development. It is the first possibility (and, in my opinion, more a probability if not a certainty) of self-directed non-Darwinian evolution for a species on this planet. What course humankind should choose for this transformation is an enormously thorny problem for the coming century, but there was no question, in my mind at least, that a new form of human being eventually will appear to compete with, and ultimately replace, the present form. Aiken’s prescient words continue to address these issues in ways that resonate with an uncanny currency. Aiken considered Time in the Rock to be simultaneously abstract and analytic in “…its discussion…of the relationship between being and speaking: of the world and the word.” With that in mind, and from a musical perspective, I considered my piece to be a discussion of the relationship between being and listening: of the world and the song.
For the new work I chose an ensemble of string quartet, piano, vibraphone, marimba and four female vocalists – high and low soprano, and high and low alto. The piece would consist of four movements for voices and instruments, alternating with four rather extensive texts spoken by an actor/narrator. The narrated poetry is generally different in character from the texts used in the musical settings. The poem Time in the Rock moves freely between symmetrical verses in classic iambic pentameter and verse in a somewhat freer and more irregular style. I felt the classical metric verses demanded the use of a specific, yet ambiguous rhythmic meter, and I chose to use the odd meter of 7/4 throughout the entire piece. The much denser and discursive free verses, which are nevertheless critical to the central thoughts of the work, contain a great many words that need to be articulated and heard clearly – too many to be presented in a musical setting of less than Wagnerian proportion. For this I envisioned a professional male actor, who would speak the texts in dramatic monologues. The narrated sections would then present questions and introduce ideas, which would be subsequently elaborated and developed in the musical movements. In this way I considered the piece to be a kind of oratorio. The duration of the finished work came to approximately 50 minutes. The complete text for all eight sections of the piece can be viewed in the attachment HERE.
My decision to create a piece like this was the result of previous work with Aiken’s poetry as well as the desire to continue developing my own compositional ideas. I was not asked or commissioned to write a large theatrical work, and did not, at first, consider any of the practical issues that would surround mounting a public performance of such a thing. I approach composition from a developmental perspective, in that each new piece is informed by the materials, structure and orchestration of the previous ones, and often is influenced directly by the most recent work. I won’t accept a commission if the proposed piece can’t conform to the direction in which my work is going. In this case payment of any kind was a moot consideration. Time in the Rock was something I had to write at that stage of my composition work, and at that time in my life. I finished the piece in March of 2004.
After completing the score, I engaged a recording engineer and studio to create the best MIDI realization possible. At that time sample libraries were not as evolved as they are currently, but good ones featuring players from some major symphony orchestras were already available. The biggest obstacle to producing a quality MIDI recording was the problem of voices singing text. The only available option was to use the sound of “oohs” and “ahs” as a substitute. Nevertheless, I was able to make a demo CD of the complete work, excluding the narrated texts, which I assumed could be read along with the missing lyrics by anyone interested in the piece. I considered the MIDI demo to be a first step toward organizing and financing a premiere.
The intent was for the work to be staged with austere lighting, a blue/violet psychlorama, matching silver-gray gowns for the singers (positioned on a riser behind the instruments and conductor), a contrasting outfit for the actor/narrator (positioned stage right with a separate spotlight), and individual amplification for each instrument and voice. Besides the actor, musicians and a conductor, the production would also require a sound tech, a lighting designer, and possibly a professional costumer. Obviously the venue would need to have the capabilities to accommodate such a staging. I had a few preliminary meetings with producers in Toronto where local venues like Roy Thomson Hall and Massey Hall were discussed.
As I was beginning to consider these practicalities, I wanted to confirm that the instrumental and vocal parts were correctly notated, and without any surprise problems for execution. I had learned the value of a preliminary review like this while working with the composer Steve Reich, who routinely previewed his orchestrations with individual performers before beginning rehearsals with a professional ensemble. I sent the score for Time in the Rock to two respected sopranos for review, one of them, Micaela Haslam, the director of the British vocal group Synergy, which I had in mind to provide the four female singers for my piece. Synergy’s director returned my score with no corrections, and with the agreement to take part in a future premiere. I knew Synergy from numerous past tours, and I was well-acquainted with their superb ability to learn and memorize new music, arriving at a first rehearsal completely prepared to perform as an ensemble. My next step was to hire a local string quartet, pianist, marimbist and vibraphonist to read through the entire piece. I was able to schedule the university recital hall for this, and to make a reference recording for myself at the same time. Following the reading session I made some minor revisions to the string parts, and then felt confident the music was ready for performance.
At this point, the end of 2004 was approaching – more than three years after I began work on Time in the Rock. I was actively pursuing all of the performance options I could think of for the piece. I concentrated on the new music presenters in Toronto, but I also made proposals to a number of European contacts, as well as several festival venues in Canada and the US. The idea of workshopping the piece at the Banff Centre in Alberta was suggested, and was appealing for a number of reasons. Project funding could be requested from the Canada Council for the Arts, and the facilities at Banff include excellent audio/visual recording studios, as well as a pool of fine student musicians and theatre artists. A quasi-professional production could be prepared, presented and recorded there in a fully-equipped theatre. I felt that a high-quality DVD demo of a full-scale production – even an amateur one – would be the best way to market the piece to a major venue and/or concert series. Unfortunately, multiple proposals to Banff were unsuccessful, as were all of my attempts to interest presenters in Canada and abroad.
In the spring of 2005 I began to consider the option of self-presenting Time in the Rock at a commercial venue in Toronto. I felt the piece, at 50 minutes, would make a strong second half of a concert program. The first half could be made up of several of my earlier compositions – Prisoners of the Image Factory, Cryin’ Time, and Never in Word. The latter two pieces feature a soprano soloist, who could be one of the Synergy singers, while all three require instrumentalists already involved in Time in the Rock. I was certain at the time, and still am, that this repertoire could be a persuasive musical experience for any audience.
I began the daunting job of preparing a budget for the event. It became clear very quickly that presenting in a small or even moderate-size hall would not be viable, because ticket sales could never come close to matching expenses. A large commercial venue like Roy Thomson Hall, where the Toronto Symphony Orchestra performs, is very expensive to rent, but at least would assist with box office sales and some of my technical needs. If enough tickets could be sold at standard classical concert rates, a hall that seats 2,600 could make my project financially feasible. The big “if” concerned selling that many tickets for a concert of music by an unknown composer.
My spreadsheet continued with fees for the singers and musicians. I could count on local percussionists, strings, and pianist, and so could calculate musician’s union scale fees easily. The four singers from the Synergy vocal group would need round-trip air fares from England, lodging in Toronto for the duration of rehearsals and performance(s), as well as their still-to-be-negotiated fee. In addition the piece would require an accomplished conductor, preferably one with experience working with vocalists. I considered the possibility of hiring a local professional actor to be the narrator, but was advised that a “name” actor, probably of Hollywood calibre, would be my best chance at drawing the large audience needed to fill the hall.
An actor who came to mind right away was Leonard Nimoy, famous for his role as Mr. Spock on the Star Trek TV series. While researching Conrad Aiken I had discovered that Nimoy, himself a poet, was interested in Aiken’s work, and had included his poetry in readings at the Symphony Space Thalia in New York City (a small theatre later renamed the Leonard Nimoy Thalia). He seemed like a perfect fit for my piece, and I felt sure his presence could guarantee a full house, regardless of what else was happening on the concert. I contacted Actor’s Equity in Los Angeles and was given a phone number for Nimoy’s agent, whom I called in May of 2005. We had a brief conversation during which I outlined my project, and then faxed (!) a more complete proposal to him, including the full text for the narration. A few days later the agent called back to say Mr. Nimoy had read my proposal and felt it “had real merit”, but he was not available for any engagements during the next two years. I was both disappointed and encouraged by this response, and I continued to think about people who might be convincing for the role and attractive to the public. Besides real actors, people like Sting and David Bowie came to mind. It was exciting to imagine the particular slant a given actor’s presence would bring to the narration, and consequently to the entire mood and import of the piece.
The next actor I considered was Christopher Plummer. Before trying to contact his agent, I attended a fabulous performance he gave in King Lear at the Stratford Festival in Ontario. I was familiar with Plummer from numerous film roles, and I knew he was originally Canadian – a fact I hoped might encourage him to consider my project with some sympathy. Unfortunately, Plummer’s agent dismissed my proposal out of hand without even passing it on to him for consideration.
Finally I thought of Michael Ironside, also a Canadian. I enjoyed Michael’s film work, which was usually edgy and often rather dark, and I liked his name. Even though he might not be as recognizable as Nimoy or Plummer, I thought his style and the narration in Time in the Rock could connect in ways that would result in something really intense. I contacted Ironside’s agent at Innovative Artists in L.A., and received a more enthusiastic response. The agent told me Michael had expressed very positive interest in the role and the project, and that led to the next stage – negotiating a fee and terms. As a professional musician I had often negotiated fees for myself and others, and occasionally for Nexus; however, I was completely unprepared to deal with a Hollywood film agent. In speaking with the agent, I quickly understood there exists some kind of code used when discussing actors’ fees. It was straightforward to understand the terms for travel and accommodation: first class, and first class. I could have Michael in Toronto for three days, during which time he would be ready for all rehearsals, and also available for any and all press interviews and media appearances organized to promote the show. Determining a fee, however, turned into an arcane dance around unspecified figures based on questions like “What’s your budget?” and “How much do we have to work with?” The honest answer to those questions would have been the current total in my personal savings account, added to the maximum line of credit I could get from my bank. The final amount that I could discern was a vague “something in the high five figures” (US dollars) – not an actual number, but enough for me to go on. Adding all expenses, musicians’ fees, hall rental, tech fees, and an estimate for advertising and promotion gave a figure that, when divided by the 2,600 seats in Thomson Hall, meant if the hall sold out completely, each ticket would need to cost around $80.00 to break even.
I gave serious thought to taking the financial risk involved. I felt confident in all of the music proposed for the concert, as well as in the collective ability of the artists to deliver a powerful experience to an audience, but I was completely insecure about my own capacity to manage and promote such a large and complex undertaking. Several weeks after our intial discussion Ironside’s agent phoned me asking about the status of the event. He said Michael was eager to undertake the role, and could we finalize the terms for a contract and discuss specific dates for the concert. My original proposal had suggested the 2007/08 season for the event, but that was already feeling like a deadline that would be impossible to meet. Sadly, I had to tell Ironside’s agent that the project was on hold, and would not be possible to produce in the immediate future. During the year following these negotiations I came to the conclusion that, even if an unknown local actor did the narration, the budget for realizing my conception was simply overwhelming, and I abandoned my efforts.
In 2009, following all the frustrations surrounding Time in the Rock, I received an invitation from Steven Schick to take part in the inaugural Roots & Rhizomes percussion residency at the Banff Centre. I was happy to agree to take part in what turned out to be an invigorating gathering of fine young percussionists, inspiring teachers and brilliant composers. Two years later I was invited to return to Banff for the second R&R residency, and this time I was offered a commission to compose a new piece to be premiered during the event. Knowing the resources at Banff during the summer session would include a string quartet residency and piano program, I began to plan a new piece combining percussion, piano and strings. At one point, I considered proposing Time in the Rock in place of a new piece – I would have been happy to forego the commission fee in order to hear a real performance; however, the piece requires only two percussionists (marimba and vibraphone), and finding four singers able to handle the very challenging vocal parts would be problematic. My solution was to rescore completely, and to some extent rewrite, the second, third, and part of the fourth movements. I eliminated the vocalists and changed the orchestration to include – besides string quartet and piano – marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel and timpani, making the new orchestration purely instrumental. There was no text of course, but the new work still reflected the lyrical nature of the original piece. The structures of the poems, as well as the rhythm and meaning of their words, remained implicit in the music. The result was a 20 minute piece in two movements: 1. Praise the Voice and 2. Escape the Pattern. I named the new piece Preludes, after the title of Aiken’s book, and the original subtitle of Time in the Rock. Preludes received an excellent premiere performance in August 2011, with Steven Schick conducting.
Following the Banff residency, one of the percussion fellows, Katie Rife, proposed that the Vancouver new music ensemble Ethos Collective present a full concert of my music, to include Prisoners of the Image Factory, Never in Word, Unseen Child, and Preludes. I was delighted to agree to this, and was able to attend the rehearsals and concert in Vancouver during September 2012.
In 2013, I met with Philadelphia Orchestra timpanist Don Liuzzi to discuss a possible concert of my music to feature Preludes as well as a new composition, Water Lilies. Both pieces have very challenging timpani parts, which I hoped he would be interested to play. Don already was thinking about organizing an event to honour the legendary percussionist Alan Abel for his 85th birthday, and he hoped to invite everyone in Nexus to take part. Instead of Water Lilies, my piece Mudra was chosen for the program so that Alan himself could play the virtuoso bass drum part on the concert, which would be presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. On November 16, 2014, the Alan Abel 85th birthday celebration concert took place at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, PA. I felt extremely fortunate because the ensemble for Preludes included the entire Philadelphia Orchestra percussion section: Don Liuzzi, timpani; Anthony Orlando, glockenspiel; Angela Zator Nelson, vibraphone; and Chris Deviney, marimba. The strings were all first-desk players from the orchestra: Hirono Oka and Lisa-Beth Lambert, violins; Che-Hung Chen, viola; and Yumi Kendall, cello. Pianist Natalie Zhu completed the ensemble, with Phillip O’Banion doing an outstanding job conducting.
Audio links to an archival recording of the Philadelphia performance of Preludes are below. Both movements involve extremes of dynamics, so headphones are recommended.
1. Praise the Voice
2. Escape the Pattern
I am gratified to have heard several wonderful performances of Preludes by now. Time in the Rock, however, has yet to be premiered in any form, and I sometimes wonder about the hubris of my initial decision to create something on such a large scale. At the time, I sensed a certain tragic imperative in the turn my composition work had taken, yet I felt unable to move on to anything else without finishing it first. Over the years I’ve given away numerous complimentary scores, but at this point my presumption is future performances, if any, will be posthumous. If for no other reason, that at least puts me in the company of some famous composers from the past.
Bob Becker, 2020