In previous posts about operas for babies and our OTOYOTOY, I have been trying to reflect on some of the discoveries we've made in creating and performing with the very youngest children. Consideration #1 is a simple one: fun.
There are vital ingredients for fun: you need people in the room who are playful; you need imaginative ideas and situations, and you need that little extra something that creates a surprise. When I am looking for fun, one of the most reliable sources is the music of Saskia Sunshine Lane. She wrote THE OOVATOOLA SONG (click to listen) that opens our show, and you will find all the ingredients and more. Our performers: Saskia, along with Onome Djere (pictured above), Nick Demeris and Sasha Bogdanowitsch are expert, playful vocal improvisers. When we first created the show, we were joined by three other amazing singers: Jascha Hoffman, Emily Eagen, and Sofia Ribeiro. The song itself is sung in an invented language, courtesy of our librettist Zoe Palmer:
Ee yay O (I am)
Osay iyo (sunrise)
Moonkulunkulo (moon go)
Cheep cheep cheep!
Aton atonton (sun)
Ee yay O
Saskia sets the words with a strong Afro-Latin groove (the bass line is a fragment of a clave rhythm) and a lilting tune in B major. She uses a slightly irregular phrase structure to keep you guessing, and yet it seems the most natural music in the world. In the middle of one of those irregular phrases comes the bird-mimicking: "Cheep-cheep-cheep!" not sung on pitches at all, and I have yet to meet the audience that does not chuckle at that little surprise moment. Amidst all the invented language, the familiar "cheep" is something we recognize, but it's not really language either! These are the ingredients of delight, all mixed together in a delicious cross-Atlantic collaboration.
(Above, the ball collecting moment from OTOYOTOY; photo credit: Deborah Cabaniss)
More findings, continued from Part I:
Include a mix of fixed and improvised musical structures. To allow for children's vocal contributions, you need moments when there is "space" or silence. You also need structures that will allow the performers to improvise based on what is happening in the room. In a recent performance, a young girl came into the circle with a series of non-verbal yelps and riffs, and Nick Demeris, who plays OTOYOTOY, entered into a call and response game with her. He had a musical and dramatic continuity he was trying to fulfill, but he was able to let it go and allow her to take center stage. I loved that moment. At the same time, we want moments where the music can take over and entrance. Here is FIREFLY from the end of the show. Give and take musical "room" in equal portions, keeping it relational all the time.
Let the sensory experience be your guide. Last year I was lucky enough to work on an opera for babies in Norway. The piece is called LULLA and is created and produced by dybwikdans, based in Stavanger. When I first arrived there in June of 2017, I was astonished to find that the set was complete. There was no libretto, no score, not even a sense of how the piece would unfold. But there was a very beautiful transparent tent and various tactile and sonic objects. There was already lighting and elements of the sound design. Siri Dybwik and Nils Fossdaal invested in the environment for the children first and trusted that the story and the music would follow. They were right, and you can see the fruits of their labors here.
Cool it with the jazz hands and find your zen. As entertainers and performers, we are used to investing in a role and using our considerable energies to engage our audiences. I attended a play (for adults) this week, and afterwards an actor talked about how hard he was trying to connect with an audience member who was clearly bored or sleepy. When performing with (not for) babies, it is the opposite. To create room for them, to achieve a platonic incompleteness, we have found we need to create an intentional mix of performance stances. Sometimes you can be eye to eye with a child, but too much is inhibiting. Children need their own space, too, so as performers we acknowledge it is not about how much they are paying attention to what we are doing. It is how much they are paying attention to what they are doing. That is a bigger shift than it might appear - much easier to say than to pull off.
As artists, we are generally trained to create "whole grain, organic" works that stand alone and fulfill an audience's expectations. In creating operas for babies, we aspire to the beauty of incompleteness.
At the beginning of OTOYOTOY, an opera for babies which premiered at Carnegie Hall in 2017, children and their parents enter an empty space, outlined by a circular pool of light on the floor. The children automatically enter the space and play in it. There are a couple of props and bits of fabric on the floor, which immediately become their toys. The event has begun, because the babies have arrived.
One of the challenges of creating a work for the youngest children is making space for them in the work itself. You cannot predict whether any given group of babies will be vocal or quiet, active or sleepy, jazzed or unfazed by what they encounter. It is different every time. If you create traditional singalong moments, you cannot rely on babies to join in the way older kids would. In short, you cannot predict what interactions might look like. So how do you prepare? How do you design a piece that creates the space for children to contribute but does not rely on them for specific outcomes?
Here are some things we have found. Pay attention to the arc of theatrical experience. Story and linear thinking can be part of what you do, but it is not necessary in creating a piece for this age group. But even if you deemphasize story, pay attention to the shape of the experience. It needs to be strong and clear. Does it follow the shape of day from sunup to sundown? Does it follow the shape of a journey from one place to another? Does it follow the experience of a dream? (In OTOYOTOY we do have a kind of a story about a group of imaginary birds who encounter a human who is the spirit of play. But it's a very loosely told tale, more emphasis on the encounter than on traditional dramatic conflict.)
Create opportunities for the audience to do things. In OTOYOTOY, at the climax of the event, our title character opens a bag and scatters hundreds of ping pong balls on the floor. It's a simple but powerful moment which makes an impressive sound and presents the audience with a question: what now? First, we take a moment to register the drama of what has just happened. Then we wait to see what the babies might do. Do they pick up a ball? Do they throw one? Do they watch to see what their mother does? Do they just watch the balls roll away? Then we pick up some empty cloth sacks and open them. And we wait. Invariably, the babies know exactly what to do. They begin to put the balls back into the sack. We do not tell them to; we do not make an announcement that we need help picking up the balls. In fact, as this is going on we do what you always do in an opera - we sing. Sometimes it happens right away and sometimes it takes longer, but it always happens. Along the way, the performers get to negotiate the ball clearing process with the children, and they can bring their characters into contact with the babies in unplanned, improvisational ways. Our imaginary bird characters are determined to clean up the space, and the spirit of play just wants to - you guessed it - play!
Design the experience with play styles in mind. Our librettist, Zoe Palmer, draws on the work of Colwyn Trevarthen (watch him here), a child psychologist, to design the arc of the event experience according to play schema. Some children love to throw things (trajectory), others love to wrap themselves in cloth (envelopment), others - as I do - love to spin (rotation). Zoe creates an architecture of play schema to ensure that children with different orientations to play will see themselves in the piece. They might enter into the piece by playing a game of catch with a ping pong ball or lie down under a swath of fabric. Or they might just watch. But the invitations are part of the design.
More findings in the next post.
Look at any cultural institution and you will most likely find that the age range for which their programs are appropriate begins at about 5 or 6 years old. It was true of the NY Philharmonic when I was education director there (it has since expanded to include 3 and 4 year olds), and it is true of most opera and theater and dance companies in the U.S. today. Children who are younger are generally considered "unready" for the sophistication of the work and the attention span required to sit still and comprehend. As one parent said recently, "If you bring very small children, you just get shushed the whole time." Even in children's theater there is a certain expectation of quiet and focus. The theater companies may be OK with a toddler's interjections, but more often than not, the other parents are not. "They are too young - they should be at home," read the other parents' thought bubbles. (I am not proud to admit that these are phrases I have both thought and said as the parent of older children.)
This is a problem. Neuroscience teaches us that children's brains are developing from the very beginning. Our own experiences teach us that singing to children and playing with them is crucial to their growth and well-being. Mothers and fathers and caregivers of all types need support in these early years - opportunities to immerse themselves in reading and playing and singing. But cultural institutions just play the part of the exasperated father who says to his wife, as the children run rings around them: "You raise them until they are smart enough to have an intelligent conversation with me, and I'll take it from there."
I'd like to suggest there is another way. Create works of art that are custom made for audiences of babies and their caregivers. Flip all the equations. Create works that are rich in sensory experience but do not require absolute stillness or quiet. Create works that allow for improvisation and unpredictability, and cast them with performers who care first and foremost about children. Create works of art that are beautiful and imaginative and willing to play a secondary role in the overall experience. You read that right - the work of art itself cedes its place as the primary focus of attention. Create works that are incomplete without the children's actions and responses.
Along with many colleagues, we have been working on these kinds of projects in the U.K. and in Scandinavia and at Carnegie Hall - operas for babies - and it is a particular and challenging kind of artistic creation. And it only happens when cultural institutions are willing to make room for the youngest children. We are particularly lucky that Carnegie Hall has opened a space for them.
For the last three years, I have been learning about a whole new genre: operas for babies. Here's how it happened. I was trying to deepen my understanding of maternal health, since we had been so involved in the Lullaby Project at Carnegie Hall. I was looking for colleagues and partners with whom I could compare notes. Emily Eagen, my erstwhile lullaby partner here in New York, suggested I listen to a BBC radio documentary piece about lullaby singing at London Hospital. In it, I learned about a teaching artist there named Zoe Palmer. I wrote an email to Spitalfields Music, where I first learned about their music theater pieces for the very youngest. And perhaps even more importantly, they put me in touch with Zoe. Our first Skype call was one of those breathless tumbles that happens when you realize that regardless of the miles in between, you are both doing all the same things in fascinatingly different ways. We could hardly stop talking. I sent Zoe the lullabies we'd been making in NYC, and she sent me videos of the music theater pieces they'd been creating in London. I told Zoe about Moving Star, the improvisatory vocal lab that we run at Carnegie Hall, and she offered to send us some poetry that we might sing. We sent her the recordings of our improvisations, and we realized we might just have the seeds for a Cross-Atlantic collaboration. We set up a Dropbox folder (that still has that name), and began scheming. That eventually led to the creation of OTOYOTOY, pictured above. As we approach the October 2018 revival, I'll be writing more about the journey, which took me to London, to Norway and back again. More soon!
At the end of the rainbow, last night was memorable. Michael and Jessica and the orchestra played beautifully. Andrew Sewell was a terrific shepherd on the podium, and I felt like I really got to hear the piece, in a way for the first time, along with the audience.
Like many orchestra commissions, there was a lot of work and preparation for the premiere of DOUBLE RAINBOW. If the premiere had been with a larger institution in a larger market, there might have been multiple performances of the work, perhaps 2-4 over the span of a week. If it had been a consortium commission, other orchestras might have already programmed it, ensuring a series of performances. All of these things can really help a new work mature and find its voice. But as it is we only had one night for this premiere.
So what now? Michael and Jessica are inventing ways to develop the project, which we all feel is just at its beginning. First, we will present a chamber version of DOUBLE RAINBOW at PianoSonoma (Michael & Jessica’s festival in Santa Rosa, CA) on Thursday, August 3rd. That will take some rearranging, but we are excited to keep the double rainbows in the air!
Next, based on the good feeling in the concert hall last night, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra is toying with the idea of bringing the piece back and recording it. Nothing definite yet, but an exciting prospect. We have an idea of creating a recording that would also contain TINY BITS OF OUTRAGEOUS LOVE – stay tuned!
Once we have the recording of last night’s concert in hand, we’ll pitch the piece to other orchestras, places where we have connections or friends or where we think a good match might be made.
So the premiere is not the end of the rainbow, it is the beginning. I am closing out this little microburst of blogging, and I will go quiet now for a while. Time to grade papers and evaluate final projects at Juilliard, time to rehearse our new Link Up show at Carnegie Hall and produce a Lullaby Project concert, time to work on the new chamber version of DOUBLE RAINBOW. If you caught any of these posts this week, thanks for reading. I’ll be posting again this summer in sync with a trip to Norway to work on lullabies!
There are three movements to my new double piano concerto, DOUBLE RAINBOW, premiering in Madison, WI tonight:
If the first two movements are distinguished by their characteristic intervals or pitches, then the final movement is all about rhythm.
Much of the music I write uses signature rhythm patterns drawn from the Sea Islands of South Carolina. These are rhythmic practices from Africa and the Caribbean, fused into a particular vocabulary used primarily in religious singing. One of the most common forms is called the “shout,” and for years I have been listening to the recordings and live performances of singers from places like Johns Island, Daufuskie, Beaufort, and Charleston, South Carolina.
One such signature rhythm is the “double-clap” – a series of eighth notes with particular accents that create a 3+3+2 pattern. It is related to, but different from the clave rhythm (3+2 or 2+3, depending). A Sea Island double clap uses it slight asymmetry to build power, eventually exploding and falling apart in what is various known as a Pentecostal or Apostolic clap, code for inspired improvisation.
The opening rhythm of Revelation in DOUBLE RAINBOW is -- guess what? – a doubled version of a double clap! 3+3+3+3+2+2. It happens over two bar phrases of 4/4 time. First the orchestra plays the rhythm while the pianos hammer away at some repeated notes – a speedy version of the repeated notes from the opening of the piece.
Then the pianists play the doubled double-clap, and the orchestra hammers away.
This playful contest of rhythm trading continues throughout the movement, reaching its crazy climax in a tune played in a bluesy C major. (And oh, if you were wondering why there was a modulation to G in the second movement, there is a very straight forward tonal reason – the last movement is in C. That makes the tonal plan of the whole piece I. C-F; II. F#-G; III. C.)
It sounds as if the piece is going to end with grandeur, but at the last moment, I pull the plug on the fireworks to reveal some very subtle stars that reintroduce B-flat, giving the ending the flavor of C7 rather than simply C.
I hope you will have the opportunity to listen to the piece soon – for me it is in five hours!
Friday April 28
There are three movements to my new double piano concerto, DOUBLE RAINBOW, premiering in Madison, WI tomorrow night:
In a previous post, I talked about the first movement and its depiction of the formation of water from tiny, atomized particles. In the second movement, I wanted to explore what storms are, since double rainbows most often appear as a result of atmospheric disturbances. I also wanted to start with the orchestra, since the pianos had begun and basically dominated the first movement.
The main technical difference in Disturbances is that instead of focusing on the major second/minor seventh interval, things take a less stable turn with a greater emphasis on the minor second (and its inversion, the major seventh). Even in describing it, you can see my attraction to the little flip that occurs – kind of like a double rainbow, which inverts the order of the colors!
The movement opens with a low, growling D-flat in the bass trombone and bassoons, ascending and blossoming into a chord that is made up of lots of fifths and minor seconds. It is spaced more like a jazz chord (a couple of the musicians here in Madison asked me if I am a jazz composer. I could not have been more flattered!)
The bassoon then has a solo that inverts the intervals into a statement that speaks to the sadness that disturbances cause (and of course I am always interested in the emotional valences as well as the meteorological ones):
The repetition is a simple sequence, with one tiny deviation in the second phrase. The dip down at the end of the triplet is a fourth in the first version, but on the repeat it is a tritone or an augmented fourth. A little half-step intensification. Metaphorically, the whole movement is about what happens when a half-step invades your thinking, your life, your weather.
The first movement rotates around the tonal centers of C and F, and it ends on an F7 chord. The second movement has a huge storm in the middle that is definitely and resolutely in F-sharp minor, another level of half-step relationships. At the very end of the movement, the opening material returns and makes a slow, sliding modulation up to G major, one half-step up from the F-sharp minor storm.
Why G major? Well, for the answer to that, you’ll have to read next about the final movement: Revelation!
There are three movements to my new double piano concerto, DOUBLE RAINBOW, premiering in Madison, WI tomorrow night:
What happens when you see a double rainbow? It is the result of a lot of things. A ray of sunlight passes through a raindrop, reflecting off the back of the drop at varying angles. Along with this reflection is the refraction of light that causes us to see a spectrum of colors -- red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Certain angles and "bending" reflect light better for refraction to occur. The amount of light refraction corresponds to wavelength and color. For example, blue light is always refracted at a deeper angle than red light. This is the reason blue is found at the inside of the bow and red on the very outside.
Nature's natural color spectrum always elicits the same pattern (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) when light is refracted. While a primary rainbow is visible when light is reflected once off the back of a raindrop, a secondary and usually dimmer rainbow is spotted when light is reflected twice in a more complicated pattern. The colors of the second rainbow are inverted, with blue on the outside and red moved to the inside. The second bow appears dimmer or cloudier because much more light is released from two reflections, and both bows cover a larger portion of the sky.
In the first movement (Surfaces), I wanted to go back to that first drop of water. That one single drop. I read about how waterdrops form, from tiny molecules, some of which attract others and some which fall away. That image was inspiring, and I immediately sat down at the piano to improvise textures that began with a single note. In the first movement the two pianos each begin with a single note. The second piano is a slightly fainter reflection of the first, played in syncopation that splits the time in half. For me this was the key to a structure that would embody “doubleness” at every level.
I also got interested in the idea of how the surfaces of the ocean and of water generally capture and reflect light. The rest of the movement is an attempt to keep a musical pulse going for about 8 minutes while accumulating new bits of musical ideas and also reiterating a tune that becomes a kind of key for all three movements in the concerto:
It’s a really simple idea, and like the drops of water, it is just about a particular interval: the major second (or in its inverted form, a minor seventh). While I could have created all kinds of variations of the tune, I decided to keep it stubbornly intact in almost all of its recurrences, because I was interested in the way that a rainbow maintains its form in the sky. It’s one of the things we love about them. For that brief time, the rainbow is itself, bending but unchanging.
Next, more about the second movement (Disturbances).