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Rodney Waschka [Photo by Westbrook Studios]
06 Dec 2010

Rodney Waschka — An Interview

Rodney Waschka is a professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where his multifarious activities are fundamental to the presence of contemporary music in the state.

An interview with Rodney Waschka

By Tom Moore

Above: Rodney Waschka [Photo by Westbrook Studios]


He works in the areas of computer music and opera, among others. We spoke on March 3, 2010 at Duke University.

TM: You are presently working on the third of a trilogy of connected operas. One of those is already released on CD — the Ambrose Bierce opera. The second is complete — Sappho’s Breath — very different in style, though you could say that they are both monodramas.

RW: Saint Ambrose is an opera that started out as a compromise, in the sense that Steve Duke, who is a saxophone player, asked me to write a piece for him. He asked for a piece that would help him get out of the mold of saxophone and piano. He was interested in a piece for saxophone and electronics, but what he had in mind, I think, was a piece of about ten minutes in duration, and at that moment in my life, I really wanted to write an opera. I said “Steve, I really want to write an opera for you”. He said “I wasn’t thinking about an opera”…but he himself was in the mood to do other things beside stand in the crook of the piano and play the saxophone. He said “I’ll do whatever you want except sing. I’ll act, I’ll try to learn to tap dance, whatever you need I’ll do — except sing”. I said “If you’ll go that far, then I will make an opera in which there is no singing”. That was our agreement. He is acting, but when the moment comes at which in an opera he would burst into song, he instead takes up his saxophone and plays for us. There is one big aria in the piece in which he must quickly move from playing the saxophone to speaking, and then back again — back and forth — but generally he is either speaking or playing the saxophone. He worked on the piece very diligently, went to an acting coach, took acting lessons, and memorized the piece. It turned out that the length of the piece was almost exactly the length of his commute to work. He would get in his car, start through the piece, speaking his part and practicing it, and when he arrived at work, it was more or less the end of the piece. And then he could do it again, going back home. Opera singers are used to memorizing huge stretches of music and perhaps dialogue, but it’s not that common for a saxophonist. He took it on, and I think he enjoyed it.

TM: I would wonder whether memorizing the musical portions, that is, the arias, might be more of a challenge for an instrumentalist than memorizing the text. It seems like, unless you are a concerto soloists, we learn music, but almost never to the point of memorizing it, and usually not a whole program. Was that an issue for him?

RW: It may have been — I didn’t talk with him about it. The way the opera is staged he plays Ambrose Bierce, the American writer, who to our surprise has not died yet — he disappeared in 1913-1914, at the age of 71, and no one knows what happened to him. The conceit of the opera is that he has returned now to do something that he rarely did, which was to give a lecture. He arrives, and he expects that it will be like the second coming of Elvis. Inevitably, the audience does not respond to him in that way, and in fact it turns out that most of the audience members don’t even know who he is. So he is absolutely disgusted, and there’s a moment at the beginning of the opera where he nearly walks offstage and just says forget it. He throws his prepared lecture into the air, and the papers scatter everywhere. He decides that he will have to change his entire lecture, and talk about himself, which is our excuse to hear his life story. The way it is set up, there is a lectern there for him, so when Steve would perform it he would have the music available to him, and the text as well, but he simply didn’t need it. He was freed from it. I think a big part of it was freeing him to act — once he had the text in his head, he was free to act. He didn’t hesitate to look at text or music, but for him it was about allowing him to be the character while he was on stage.

TM: You could think of this as the beginning of a genre of musico-dramatical works. I heard a piece in Brazil at the Bienal by Tim Rescala a few years ago which made quite an impression — a woman, interpreted by Maria Teresa Madeira, was playing the piano, and it became evident that she was inebriated, and quite considerably so. The acting portion of it got more and more out of control, while the musical portion was superbly in control — an interesting contradiction. I also heard another Brazilian piece for solo flute, in which the soloist [Antônio Carrasqueira] was asked to represent not one, but three different interlocutors in a conversation [Zoltan Paulinyi, Anedota].

RW: Nice ideas, I especially like the drunken piano player. Part of the reason that I got into this was the fact that I was interested in writing operas, but it was hard to get an opera company to commit to a production. It’s easier to get one performer to commit, and fortunately in theater we have a nice model, with the various successful monodramas — I think of Hal Holbrook playing Mark Twain, for example. I thought, OK, I can go with that kind of model. I have an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage is that in addition to speaking, the person that I am writing for can play an instrument, in this case, the saxophone. The potential disadvantage is that some good saxophone players won’t really be able to act, which could be a limitation on who will perform the piece, and I will just have to live with that.

I think it is an effective model — it makes for good theater. It can work, because outside of opera singers, who are trained dramatically, it would be difficult to get a stage full of instrumentalists, who don’t have any of that kind of training, to present your opera. But a single one - you can find these people. A lot of it has to do with not just training, but inclination. Robert Ashley said something to me to the effect that when you are on stage, you always have to risk appearing foolish — there is just no way around that. If you are not willing to risk that, it has no hope of working. There will be times, of course, when you will just appear foolish, but this is a chance you have to take.

I was cognizant of the theater models, and had seen some shows in which there was a single actor or actress onstage portraying a significant character from the past, and there was always some excuse for them to tell their story, so I could use that as a model.

TM: Were there lessons that you could take from performances that would influence future works? Or ways that you might revise this one?

RW: I lucked into one thing. Steve helped me with this, and I don’t always make decisions that work out so well the first time that I try something. In Saint Ambrose I consciously made the decision to write a stand-alone, big aria that could be performed separately as a concert work — that’s the “Definitions Aria” in the opera, and that has worked out really well. That’s the part of the opera that other saxophone players frequently take up — they can play it on stage, they can play it as part of their recital or concert without having to take on the whole baggage of the opera. As a stand-alone piece, the “Definitions Aria” has been performed in almost all of the fifty states in the US. It has gotten a lot of performances and been played around quite a bit, in part thanks to John Sampen, a fine saxophonist at Bowling Green State University, who toured it for a number of years.

TM: To ask a broader question about the question of repeated performances, we tend to think of works as existing in some Platonic sphere — a work is written for the Platonic saxophone, and not only that, for the Platonic saxophonist, but often enough in the history of music works were written for a particular person — a bass, for example, who may have had an extraordinary range, and so if you hand that music to your usual bass he will have a problem at one end or the other. I was just talking to Steve Mackey, who said that he is not interesting in writing for some possible future performance. He is interested in this performance right now, and not if the work is playable frequently in the future. How do you feel about that spectrum, ranging from one performance, to let’s say, the Ninth?

RW: I tend to try to make the piece as flexible as possible, so that it has a chance to get the most possible performances. Having said that, I am not expecting that it is going to get thousands of performances in my lifetime. I do understand and agree with the idea that so many pieces have been made with a specific performer or performers in mind. In the last couple of years I saw a performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, and was reminded, hearing it live, that obviously Monteverdi had a great tenor at his disposal, and not necessarily a group of other really great singers. His opera reflects that circumstance.

One of the ways, with these operas, that I try to work with these constraints is to put something in the opera that is easily excerptable and usable in another situation. It keeps the piece alive, in a certain way. If an excerpt is getting performances that means that people may think about doing the whole thing. I think that is a good way to proceed — at least it has worked out for me.

TM: Not only that, but it fits into a tradition where you might never hear the complete Paisiello opera, but the famous aria remains in the repertoire. Would you like to talk about how you approach preparing the libretto?

RW: This trilogy of one-act operas is based on the lives of artists. Ambrose Bierce was a short-story writer as well as journalist and essayist. The second one is based on the Greek poetess Sappho. One of the reasons for choosing these people to write about is that we have a lot of novels, and movies, and operas, about warriors, and politicians, and rich people and poor people — of course we do have some artists, but fewer, perhaps, so it seemed like there was something that I could do in that area. It also seems that opera is particularly good with those kinds of lives, whereas other genres, especially film, are not. In film you want to see action happening. With artists, very often most of the struggles take place inside their heads. It’s hard to convey to an audience that is not trained the sort of difficulties that a Haydn or a Beethoven went through. In both of those cases, there were events in their lives that were dramatic and fit on the screen, but with other people, maybe not so much. In the case of Sappho, we simply know so little about her that anything that one portrays is almost complete speculation. Opera, which moves more slowly, and can be more introspective because of that, can perhaps better show the struggles of an artist. This is the starting point for these libretti. Beyond that, I write them myself. I have a few conceits with respect to these libretti. The person is dead, and I have to have some plausible reason why they are back. If they are dead — in the case of Ambrose Bierce, I took the out that we have no confirmation that he is dead — yes, he would be one hundred and seventy years old, but who cares — I assume that they have gone, in their afterlife, to wherever they thought that they would go. In the case of Sappho, she is in Hades. I thought about the Orpheus myth, and thought, as a composer, since I have music as a tool, I can bring her back from Hades in a way similar to Orpheus — there can be a musical excuse for why she comes back. That’s the way the second opera works. I have cajoled her to come back by saying that I have put this music to your texts, and if you, Sappho, will sing them, it will be beautiful.

TM: Please say a little about the musical idiom in Sappho’s Breath. It is highly antique, and very effective in that regard, although quite different from other imaginings of early Greek and classic music that I have heard. Could you talk about how you developed that language?

RW: The saxophone part in Saint Ambrose and the vocal part in Sappho’s Breath were both made with genetic algorithms. In the case of Sappho’s Breath, I was after what I perceived to be a rough-hewn kind of simplicity in Sappho’s poetry. I wanted to convey that same simplicity. I made the rule, the arbitrary rule, that when Beth Griffith, who created the role, is singing, there is no electronic music. This takes away a layer, and one might think, and even I, sitting here today, would think, “that sounds kind of stupid”, because I had so few layers to work with anyway. I had just the soprano, and I ask her to play hand-held percussion as well — very simple parts, and then there is the electronic music. In the arias, I’ll do without the electronic music? Sounds crazy, but I felt like that was necessary in order to get this extreme simplicity. The style arises from the fact that she is out there by herself, just singing, with a little bit of hand-held percussion, and the melodies which she sings come from these genetic algorithms, which really help me to step back. With Greek art of that period, I have a sense of classicism, of a slight removal from the material. They are not romantically caught up with the material, but can shape it in certain ways because they are a little bit removed, and using the compositional algorithms did that for me.

TM: Abstracted it.

RW: Yes, exactly. I wanted a language that had tonal centers, but at the same time was abstracted, had a bit of coolness to it, even though sometimes the texts are quite hot. There was a certain restraint — I think that is part of Sappho’s charm. She deals poetically with love and sex and relationships, but at a certain distance. She realizes that these hormonally-driven things can lead us to all kinds of foolishness, and is observant about that foolishness.

TM: One of the things that struck me is the relative proportion of music and spoken text, perhaps more spoken text and less aria than one might be accustomed to as an opera-goer.

RW: I banned the electronic music from the arias, but as an electronic-music composer I had to get it in there somewhere, so while she is speaking there is electronic music which accompanies her recitatives, which, so to speak, are accompanied not by harpsichord continuo, but by electronic music. Because she is another character that many people don’t know much about, and some people don’t know anything about, this gives her a chance to explain herself and her life, and how we think about it today, while at the same time giving me the chance to do some things that I thought were interesting electronically.

TM: We think of melodrama as a spoken text with a musical background, something that is relatively uncommon these days in concert music, although it goes back to the eighteenth century. But if we think of television, nothing is more normal than to have spoken dialogue with music underneath which is interpreting the content of the speech. How is it that we don’t have more melodrama in the classical realm?

RW: I think it is because we have instrumentalists who are not trained to and not expected to speak, even though more and more composers are asking performers to speak. I remember hearing a Takemitsu piece where the audience was surrounded by percussionists, and the orchestra is in the front. The percussionists are asked to speak, and at this particular performance they did not do a good job with that speaking. The person who had gone to the concert with me said “It’s getting to the point where if you guys, [meaning composers] keep asking for this [meaning speaking parts], then instrumentalists are going to need to have acting classes as part of their training, or at least some class in public speaking.”

When talking about opera singers, who could do it very well, they think that the best use of their time is singing, as opposed to speaking. In this case, Beth Griffith was willing to do the speaking, which comes from her background — she works sometimes as an actress — not strictly as a singer. For her, it is all part of a continuum. And since she has a lot of experience singing contemporary music, she has been asked to do many unusual things.

TM: I am recalling that John Reed, the great patter baritone in Gilbert and Sullivan, passed away this week, and if you go to hear G&S, you don’t sit there thinking “I can’t wait for the aria” — the singing and speaking and comedic acting are all of a piece. You couldn’t possibly have the patter song without the dialogue.

RW: Exactly.

TM: Could you go on to talk about the third opera in the trilogy?

RW: The third one is tentatively called The Second. It’s confusing, which is why I will have to think about it. On paper it will appear as II. The opera is about Hiroshige II (1826-1869), the Japanese artist of Ukiyo-e. He made paintings that would become wood-block prints. The paintings are transferred to wood-blocks, and the wood-blocks are cut. A separate block is needed for each color to be printed, and at the end of the process of printing each color, the print is completed. Hiroshige II interested me because he was a student of Hiroshige, who is much more famous. Hiroshige has a number of series of prints that are well-known, and these days can fetch high prices, although they were made in multiple copies, so for any given series of prints there might have originally been thousands of copies. But many have been destroyed or disappeared, so now there are fewer.

Hiroshige II was an apprentice to Hiroshige, possibly because both families included firemen. Hiroshige had an adopted daughter, who if I recall correctly, was his niece. He allowed Hiroshige to marry his adopted daughter. Hiroshige and Hiroshige II worked together on a number of print series. After Hiroshige dies, Hiroshige II’s marriage goes bad, and it ends in divorce, something unusual in Japanese culture at the time. It turns out that one of Hiroshige’s other apprentices was a very good-looking guy (Hiroshige II was not, something for which we have testimony from people who knew them), and it seems that II’s wife took up with this other apprentice. Hiroshige II ended the marriage, and the other Hiroshige wanted to claim the title of Hiroshige II, but he ended up becoming known as Hiroshige III. After his divorce, II’s life goes horribly wrong — he lives another four or five years, but sinks into dire poverty. He remarries, but ends his life painting the labels on cartons of tea to be shipped to the West. About the time that he is dying, in 1869, the first showing of Ukiyo-e prints in Paris takes place. Some of his prints are shown there, and are thought to be fabulous, wonderful, so his greatest success in the West comes as he is dying of poverty and starvation in Japan. And that is how his story ends.

The way the libretto works is that since he was a Zen Buddhist, he believes in reincarnation, so he has come back, and has come back as the instrumentalist we see on the stage, with this additional detail — he can remember this one past life. Because he can remember this one life, he believes that the gods want him to tell this story. That’s the only reason that he can imagine for being able to remember this particular life on his journey to Enlightenment. So he feels obliged to tell us. He says that there is something in his spirit that is opposed to money, since in a previous life he was a poor artist, and now he is a poor musician.

TM: In the first opera, we have a saxophonist, in the second, a soprano. Who is the instrumentalist here?

RW: A clarinetist. Unlike the other two, I am not working with a specific performer, since I am commissioning myself — I wanted to make a trilogy. If tomorrow a shakuhachi player came to me, I would see a perfect connection there, and change things around, but for now I am working on it for a clarinetist.

TM: The western equivalent of the shakuhachi. Will you be drawing on Japanese idioms?

RW: For Sappho’s Breath, there is very little surviving Greek music, so I had to imagine it. But it’s absolutely the case that for Saint Ambrose the opera is filled with references to music that I am sure that he knew, or could easily have known. For example, the overture to that opera makes a reference to the time that Ambrose Bierce spent in England. There he would have heard lots of music of Handel, so it references the famous sarabande of Handel’s that appears in Barry Lyndon. And we hear Clementine and La Cucaracha from the Mexican Revolution — he disappeared in Mexico at the time of the Revolution — Taps — he was in the Civil War — all of these musical pieces are referenced in that opera. I expect to reference Japanese music in some way — I am not sure how that will be, how direct it will be, if it will be more like the Sappho or more like the Bierce.

TM: Do you have an anticipated premiere that you are working towards? Do you think that it will be premiered in 2011?

RW: The problem with not having a specific commission and a date is that when people come with commissions and set dates, this piece always gets pushed downwards on the list, and that’s what has been happening to the poor opera for a number of years now. I would love to finish it this summer [2010]. The libretto is written, half of the instrumentalist’s music written, and half of the electronic music written — so it is quite far along. I could finish it relatively quickly if I just had that clump of free time. [Editor’s note: Since this conversation took place, Waschka was commissioned to make a piano concerto that took up his summer, 2010 composing time. His Piano Concerto is scheduled for premiere in Russia in November, 2010.]

TM: We haven’t discussed visual aspects — staging, costume and so forth. Do you have a particular vision for those?

RW: In Saint Ambrose the performer comes out as Bierce would to give an important lecture. Of course CNN will cover it immediately — he’s 170 years old, and he’s Ambrose Bierce — it’s just not just anybody claiming to be 170 years old. The saxophonist has often performed it in a tuxedo. He’s formally dressed, and we need to have the lectern. Just as today, when any politico speaks on television, they have a scrim behind them saying “The University of….”, in the past we have hung banners identifying the university where it’s being performed, or if it’s at a concert location, a seal of the city, showing that, just like everything else today, this is a sponsored event, or something for which some institution wants to take credit.

In Sappho’s Breath, Beth has a simple gown, as “Ancient Greek” as we could imagine it, and there is a simple set with somewhere to set the handheld percussion instruments. We have a bench, somewhere she can walk to and sit down upon sometimes, to give her somewhere to go to and return from. She breaks the fourth wall — she goes into the audience, or comes from the audience to get to stage. While the overture is playing she is still coming to grips with the fact that she has a physical body again, so she likes to touch things, including audience members. Unfortunately, this can turn out badly. At the premiere, we had the advantage that her [Beth’s] husband was in the audience, so this was great — we could really play it up. She touches him, he likes it, she touches him some more, she kisses him. She’s enjoying having her physical body back, and since her husband was there, it all worked out perfectly, though the other audience members didn’t necessarily know what was going on. We did have an event at another performance where she went into the audience, and it frightened the audience that she came off the stage. She reached out to touch someone’s hand, and they freaked and fled. That wasn’t good. The lesson from that was that we need to plan that carefully.

TM: The inevitable question for an opera composer is “what’s the next project”?

RW: I have a lot of possible things in mind, but the thing about an opera composer is that since anything larger takes so many resources, what’s going to happen depends on which idea has some real possibilities of happening. Despite the fact that plenty of other people have done operas based on Gogol’s Government Inspector, I think I could do a good job. I would reset it in a banana republic, and the government inspector who is coming would be the American ambassador. Someone else shows up on the plane, and they mistake him for the ambassador, and you can see how things would go from there.

Another idea that I had, now past its moment in time, concerned the anniversary for Jane Austen — I had an idea for a Jane Austen opera that would make a matched pair with La Serva Padrona. Three characters: Jane Austen, a singing part; Reginald Bigg-Wither, the man to whom she was engaged for less than twenty-four hours in 1802, a singing part; and a friend of Austen’s, one of the Bigg-Wither’s sisters, a speaking and piano playing part. The opera would tell the story of Austen’s visit to the Bigg-Withers’ home, that engagement, and the breaking of the engagement. The opera could have two versions. One version would have the only music coming from the piano (or perhaps piano and electronics), with the piano part played on stage by the non-singing character that would be a melding of Austen’s friends, the sisters Alathea and Catherine Bigg-Wither. That character would have reason to be confidante and accompanist for both her friend and her brother. Another version would include piano and orchestra. It could be done with La Serva Padrona, and then it would provide a whole evening that makes some kind of sense.

TM: Of course you would have to use a period piano to mix in with the electronics.

RW: Maybe I could gloss over that potential complication. One thing that I should say about the three operas musically is that they are all linked by the use of genetic algorithms for the creation of either the instrumental part or the vocal part. It’s also important to say that Robert Ashley has been a big influence on me. His work deals with a lot of these same problems, usually at a much grander scale. You asked, “Why don’t we have more melodrama?” — in a sense, we do — we have Robert Ashley, though he might not agree that what he is doing is melodrama. While what he creates might have elements of melodrama, it also goes beyond that concept.

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