Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Letter from LA

Letter from LA

Some things I have discovered since the last time I posted:

In the same period that I began reading Kevin Starr’s series of Californian histories and continued my usual round of musical and other activities, I also finally visited Yosemite and the gold country and other Californian sights. 

Late afternoon from the meadow
As Kate and I, and our Australian friend, Julia,  travelled down the coast from San Francisco, a theme of the sea emerged. In Monterey, where John Steinbeck wrote Cannery Row, I discovered that California’s first constitution was drafted here, at Colton Hall, in Spanish as well as English. Congress’s ratification of that constitution in 1850 made California a state. So, California’s bilingualism is foundational, not just a curious feature of PA announcements on public transit.

Curving down California’s magnificent coastline sent me back to a CD of The Dharma at Big Sur, the John Adams piece that opened Walt Disney Hall in 1998. I read with recognition Adams’ program notes which describes ‘the edge of the [US’s] continental land mass.’

                On the Atlantic coast, the air seems to announce [the continental edge] with its salty taste and briney scents. Coming upon the California coast is a different experience altogether. Rather than gently yielding ground to the water the Western shelf drops off violently, often from dizzying heights, as it does at Big Sur, the stretch of coastal precipice midway between Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara. Here the current pounds and smashes the littoral in a slow, lazy rhythm of terrifying power.

This time, unlike on previous occasions I’ve listened to the piece, I hunted down one of Adams’ sources: Jack Kerouac (as Californian a writer as you’ll ever find) and read his ode to the Californian sea, that ‘billion yeared rock knocker’. Big Sur came to mind again as I sat in Walt Disney Hall In November, listening to the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s first performance of last year’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, Become Ocean by another Adams - John Luther Adams.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s programs are among those I approach with genuine excitement. There always seems to be such a judicious balance between the familiar and novel. And perhaps this appreciation is shared by much of the rest of the audience. One phenomenon I’ve noted while living in LA is that audiences tend to stay for the new work after interval.

This program paired Become Ocean with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. The concert was a study in grandeur. Granted, Beethoven’s grandeur is achieved with spacious melodic exploration of a vast tonal layout; Adams’s with expertly crafted swells of orchestration. Adams’ work is certainly a listening experience, but perhaps more: a potentially life-changing experience. The title comes from a line of verse composed by John Cage in honour of the music of his friend (John Luther Adams’ mentor), composer Lou Harrison: ‘Listening to it, we become ocean.’

There are three big climaxes in this piece as the sections of two orchestras merge. 
At first, listening superficially, I thought of the piece as big washes, but that didn’t 
explain the monumental power of it. There was so much life teeming beneath the surface. 
These surges are made up of complex sequences of repeating patterns. 
‘It’s Minimalism!’ you think, but Minimalism raised to an elemental level.
Alex Ross describes the piece better in his review of the Seattle world premiere in an edition of The New Yorker in 2012, but I’d share with him the sensation of ‘coming away reeling’.

Californians can’t claim this Adams exclusively for themselves, though. Yes, he studied at CalArts out at Santa Clarita, in one of Los Angeles’ northern valleys, but he established his career while, famously, a citizen of Alaska. And Become Ocean was written at his new home in Mexico’s Sonoran Desert.

Adams describes his music as an exploration of environment. I read that he is writing a ‘desert’ piece next. It’s a tantalising thought for me, a one-time denizen of the driest continent on earth, ‘that great America on the other side of the sphere’ (in Hermann Melville’s designation for Australia in chapter 26 of his greatest novel).

‘Nantucket, New Bedford…Long Island’ - the geographical references in Moby Dick belong to the US’s other coast, the one that the Northern Californian Adams describes above as full of ‘salty taste and briney scents’.

Nevertheless the LA Opera’s production of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s adaptation of Melville’s novel, which we saw at the end of November, continues my months’-long circling of the sea. Funnily enough, I thought of Moby Dick when we stopped by the beach at Piedras Blancas on our  way down the Californian coast and saw the hundreds of elephant seals that have returned to these beaches now that the days of sealing (and whaling) are largely over.

This story of Captain Ahab’s obsession with hunting down the great white whale that tore off his leg years before the tale starts, is a perfect subject for opera, when you consider that opera is best served when dealing with broad emotions. ‘At last,’ I thought while watching this, ‘a successful, contemporary traditional opera’, by which I meant one that was singable and aptly paced, with Heggie’s rhythmic and tempo decisions worthy of Verdi, and a libretto (by Scheer) that deserves to be sung.

It did occur to me, however, that a Broadway producer (that is a producer from New York’s Broadway) might be able to trim 30-40 minutes from this piece. Not every supporting character needs so many moments to shine. In the end what’s important is Ahab and how his obsession leads to destruction of his ship and the traumatising of Ishmael who escapes to tell the tale.

Like the Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Opera has a wide range of programming ideas. I caught up with the Opera’s new Public Relations director, Fran Rizzi, for a coffee during the month of November and talked about LA Opera’s full range of activities.

Like so many other classical music companies in the world these days, Los Angeles Opera is heavily committed to outreach. There are educational programs in the LA Unified School District; a whole zarzuela program ‘that goes out into the community on a monthly basis’ (acknowledging Los Angeles’ Spanish-speaking population). And there are experimental productions at Redcat. I’m sorry that I missed Halloween’s screening of the 1931 film Dracula with accompaniment played live by Philip Glass and his ensemble at the Ace Theater downtown (in what was once Chaplin, Griffith, Pickford and Fairbanks’ United Artists’ building).

But LA Opera has particular challenges. First off, there’s traffic: You might have to take opera to the public before they’ll feel encouraged to drive hours to Downtown. That’s why the company simulcast the season opener of the Woody Allen/Franco Zefirelli double bill of Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci to the pier at Santa Monica; for all those people on the Westside who are reluctant to go east of the 405 after 4pm. There’s the Downtown itself. The city has certainly become safer at night. But Grand Avenue, where the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is located, is not yet a charming pedestrian precinct. The Broad, the new contemporary art museum housing the personal collection of Eli and Edythe Broad (endowers also of Plácido Domingo’s Chair at the opera) and down the road from Disney Hall and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, might change that. It ‘has been a game-changer for this sort of concentration of culture, an anchor,’ says Rizzi. ‘You see, at any time of day, a line that wraps around the block at the Broad. And those people, those hipster young people, are the people who need to be here to see opera and see the Phil and see all of the pieces and parts of what has really become a cultural center.’

Rizzi has been at the Opera six months. ‘My job,’ she says, ‘is to tell our story. We are looking at all those education programs and how to bring them all together in a way that is organised around: “what can you do with LA Opera? Can you perform? Can you bring it into your school? Can you just learn more about it?”’ The Santa Monica event was free, but ‘it was ticketed’. That way the Opera can tell if people migrate from the coast to the city. Rizzi also supervises the Opera’s social media enterprises. ‘We can see people reading our blog, joining us on social. Our blog readers may not be easy to match with sales because they may not yet have bought a ticket. But we can see the waves of interest.’

The LA Opera may in most respects - and at its principal home, the Dorothy Chandler - be a traditional opera company. But it is concerned with bringing in the community, ‘those folk from the beach’ in Rizzi’s words. It still does big traditional works like Bellini’s Norma which I saw in a production by Anne Bogart at the beginning of December and followed up next day with YouTube searching for its excellent singers, including Angela Meade and Morris Robinson. But it is also branching out into other sorts of productions and wondering how to bring those back to port.

But what of The Industry, LA’s experimental opera company? Over the years they’ve staged operas in light industrial areas (Crescent City, in which the sets were really giant art installations in an old Atwater factory) and at the iconic Union Station (the audience for Invisible Cities moved among peak-hour commuters listening to the opera on Sennheiser headphones). This year’s offering, in November, paid tribute to the idea that Angelenos spend a lot of time in their cars. It attracted a lot of attention on social media throughout the world and I even sent the trailer to a lot of people outside this country:

Hopscotch was billed as a ‘car-opera’. Could you have anything more quintessentially Los Angeles? The action took place in 24 cars on three routes. Paying audience-members would get in at one of the eight stops along their chosen route that encapsulated another chapter/or outtake in the over-arching story of Luccha, Jameson and Orlando. The scenario, devised by The Industry’s Artistic Director, Yuval Sharon, was basically one of changing relationships but we weren’t necessarily meant to follow the developments sequentially or get a complete picture. Audience-members travelling with the numerous singers who ‘doubled’ the principal parts and their accompanying musicians could get to know the tale much in the same way as we become acquainted with a new city, piece by piece until forming some sort of overall impression.

Being that rarity - a Los Angeles pedestrian - I watched the opera down at the Arts District, the bohemian area sprouting up in the midst of one of the traditionally seedy parts of the city, in the Hub built by faculty members of SCI-Arc (the Southern California Institute of Architecture). The live action taking place in the stretch limos which served for performance spaces was beamed to 24 monitors arranged in a circle around the Hub’s pavilion. It was a mistake to ‘channel-surf’ the first time I saw the piece. I couldn’t get any bearing. I actually got most out of the opera on a second viewing by surrendering to the idea that I would not find a tale that spoke to me in traditional terms of mounting conflict, but by actually following a route (and doing some prior research) and locating the next section’s monitor with the aid of coloured string (mine was red) stretching across the roof of the pavilion.

That said, I enjoyed Hopscotch without paying as much attention to the plot, words or music as you’d expect. Yes, I noticed musical highlights - Omar Torrez’s guitar playing, the duets in Marc Lowenstein’s chapter ‘The First Kiss’, and the beautiful finale by Andrew Norman when the pavilion becomes a drive-thru and the whole cast and musicians and their drivers converge dreamlike (is that the point?). And certainly the fact that sections of the production were in Spanish lent the whole a certain ‘encantamiento’. But mostly what made the opera enchanting for me was the tribute to Los Angeles, particularly at this convergence, as the Hub’s monitors froze on city landmarks and the setting sun etched purple lines in the crevices of the Verdugo Mountains visible from the Arts District. It’s interesting that my favourite review of the opera was that of the Los Angeles Times’ architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, who rightly described the co-ordination of 126 singers, actors and instrumentalists, 24 cars and their drivers, and numerous technical crew, as ‘logistically miraculous’. I actually love Sharon’s productions as multi-dimensional (and multi-media: you can still see elements of Hopscotch on the Web) portraits of LA, with music a more-than-usually-prominent element.

So much for the past few months which also saw meetings with Mark Cleary, the Sydney-based founder of Short+Sweet  who is introducing this ‘biggest little play festival in the world’ to Hollywood, and was followed by a trip down to San Diego, where Kevin Starr tells me, Spanish navigator Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo dropped anchor on 28 September 1542. There we heard former Victorian College of the Arts department head, Donna Coleman, and a trio comprising Roger Wilkie (John Williams’ sometime concertmaster) and Australian-born cellist Antony Cooke play music by Connecticut’s Charles Ives, his Yale teacher Horatio Parker, and Brahms from Hamburg, on another sea.

Such has been the whirling swirl of the past few months. As Californian governor Arnold Schwarzenegger once said, when he was an actor: ‘Hasta la vista, baby’.

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2015

This article first appeared in December 2015 edition of The Podium, the newsletter of Symphony Services International

Monday, September 28, 2015

Suppe - Light Cavalry Overture

Continuing my series of program notes:

Franz von Suppé (1819-1895)

Light Cavalry: Overture

Possibly the first piece of classical music I heard was this overture in a Combined Brass Bands concert in the Melbourne Town Hall in the 1960s. At the time, the music of Suppé was popularly thought of as ‘classical’. But was he too lightweight? It is still fairly safe to say that Suppé’s music is rarely found in major Subscriptions programs, as it is tonight.

But maybe Suppé is worthy of more serious consideration. He was one of those brilliant  musicians often to be found in theatres in the German-speaking world in the 19th century. Born to a Czech mother and father of Belgian extraction in Split on the Dalmatian coast, Suppé was raised as an Italian. He studied law at Padua University but after his father’s death, went with his family to Vienna, where he studied music with, among others, Seyfried, a former pupil of Mozart. Suppé was an all-rounder. Even after his first conducting appointment (at the Josephstadt Theater in Vienna in 1841), he sang in The Elixir of Love in Ödenburg in 1842. (The Elixir’s composer, Donizetti, was a distant relative.) And as a conductor, Suppé was famous in Vienna for a gimmick in which he took snuff before conducting each of his famous overtures so they’d begin with a big sneeze! But it is as a composer that he is best remembered...

And as a composer of superb, attention-getting overtures. The introduction to Light Cavalry, an operetta composed in 1866, is a case in point. It is a marvellous example of the sort of overture often classified as pot-pourri, a collection of distinct themes bridged by short connecting passages. The different ideas occur one after the other. Here: a sequence of stirring fanfares in military band orchestration; a dramatic whirling dance-like segment, then the overture’s most famous ‘quote’ - the cantering theme announced by trumpets. This ‘canter’ is developed slightly and leads to a brief clarinet cadenza, after which is heard a more doleful segment, like the slow section of a Hungarian dance (Hungary would have been on the minds of many Viennese just prior to the advent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Then the canter returns and finally the fanfares, with thrilling drum roll accompaniment. This is real ‘sit up and take notice’ music, fulfilling perfectly the function of an overture.

But ‘overtures to what?’ asks Richard Traubner in his book, Operetta: A Theatrical History. Should Suppé’s operettas be better known? Perhaps Traubner is right. Suppé’s Die schöne Galathee (a setting of the Pygmalion story) still has some currency on the German-language stage and Fatinitza and Boccacio have entries in Gänzl’s Book of the Musical Theatre. Suppé was more than a musical lightweight or, rather, no less important for being entertaining. As one of the composers who achieved a successful Viennese response to the operettas of Offenbach and ended up composing operettas that often rivalled those of Johann Strauss II, Suppé could rightly be called, as he is by Traubner, ‘the father of Viennese operetta’.  

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2015

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Animals of the Bush orchestra

Found this again the other day - a proposal I made to some orchestras back in 2010. I was told that kids wouldn’t find it interesting. I don’t know. I’ll park it here for the moment.

The Animals of the Bush Orchestra - Proposal

The story


Returning from a country tour, the orchestra is stopped by a flooded river, a mile wide at its narrowest point. The only way across is for the musicians to leave their instruments and get in a few flimsy boats.

At night the creatures of the forest come out and find the instruments. Not knowing what they are, they discover that they make sounds and start improvising on them. Over several nights they work at this, until they come up with some very strange music - reeds played on trumpet bores, mallets across euphonium bells...
A local entrepreneur hears the bush creatures’ orchestra and decides to present them to the world. The animals feel that it may be advantageous to be given a ‘human’ voice.

Next day, the members of the orchestra turn up to retrieve their instruments. They’ve had to travel far and stay the night, but that night they hear the strange music. They befriend the creatures, but tell them that’s not the way you play their instruments. They show them ‘how it’s done
’ – instrument by instrument and then as an ensemble. But good as it is, that’s not the music the creatures like, and they slink away crestfallen.

The musicians go back to their jobs. The entrepreneur comes back to the bush, but can’t find the animals. The concert is off. The musicians feel bad.

They return to the bush with the entrepreneur and replacement instruments in tow. Together with the animals*, they devise a concerto for bush band and orchestra and put on a concert the like of which has never been heard before. Further afield, animals are inspired to make their own instruments with the woods, gourds and leaves around them.

*including members of the audience

GKW, 2010

Pluses of this story
This story provides an environmental context for a story which will expose audience members not only to the standard orchestral instruments, but alternative sound sources and sound-production techniques. It provides a sense of drama and magic and has a happy ending.

At 40 minutes, the work will be suitable as a stand-alone touring product, but could also serve as one half of a family-style concert. It has a double educational value in drawing upon bush ecology to ask audience members to think about their unique species.

While having an Australian flavor, it is expected that the work can also attract overseas audiences. The work will be an Australian ‘Peter and the Wolf’ that travels as far around the world as the Russian model.  An additional option for overseas users of the story could be to substitute native animals from their own ecology – for instance, skunks for possums and alligators for crocodiles in a US context.  Both options would be available to orchestras interested in purchasing the product.

The project will provide a challenging exercise for a composer who must come up not only with new instrumental techniques, but different configurations of a standard orchestra to match the differing performance venues of the various orchestras.

Forces/resources/other creative dimensions
The work will require a narrator, but no additional performing personnel beyond that. 

Though in the story the orchestra demonstrates how to play their instruments by playing a piece of standard repertoire for maximum contrast with the bush music, it is expected that the composer will provide this standard piece in two complements (large and small). Thus the work can be performed by small chamber ensemble as well as double woodwind/double brass. It will be necessary to have at least one of each woodwind and brass however to demonstrate orchestral colour. It is expected that the ‘bush instruments’ will be played by the orchestral musicians experimenting with their own instruments, though, as an additional educational attraction for school groups or families, audience members can make their own bush instruments as preparation for attendance at the show.   They could be invited to play these instruments at an appropriate time in the performance.

Further creative dimensions include the possible use of back-projection, whether illustrations or photography.  

Audience participation
The work will be designed to incorporate audience involvement. Audience members may be invited to make the ‘night sounds’ of the outdoors, vocal effects (eg. the ‘orchestras’ touring song’), or even the accompanying instruments made from ‘the woods, gourds and leaves around them’. This is an area to be developed in consultation with the composer and would be optional for the orchestra to choose to utilise or not.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Vasks' Distant Light (Violin Concerto)

Continuing my series of program notes:

Pēteris Vasks (born 1946)
Distant Light (Violin Concerto, 1996-97)

For  35 years now, the orchestral repertoire has been replenished by Eastern European and  Baltic composers. Latvian Pēteris Vasks became known in the West in the 1980s, and the prestigious German publisher Schott contracted him in 1990, the year before Latvian independence from the Soviet Union. Vasks was born on 16 April 1946. He studied double bass in Latvia and Lithuania and performed with important Latvian ensembles before turning to composition.

US radio presenter Daniel Stephen Johnson has said, ‘the rough outlines of Pēteris Vasks’ work and career might have a familiar ring to them: born in Soviet Latvia, Vasks endured government repression not only for his aesthetics but for his Christian faith, and emerged in the late 1970s with a pared-down compositional style heavily influenced by sacred themes.’ Endurance of the human spirit against the brutality of a monolithic oppressor might describe the Symphony No.1; later works sometimes put us in mind of the sacred music of Estonian Arvo Pärt, but the influence of earlier models, the Poles Lutosławski and Penderecki endures, particularly in moments of ‘indeterminacy’. Vasks’ later works are concerned with broader questions of the soul (he is the son of a clergyman). Some works are offered almost as artefacts of faith that we can escape the self-annihilation inherent in our hostile relationship with nature.

‘Distant Light’ was first performed by Gidon Kremer (its dedicatee) and the Kremerata Baltica at the 1997 Salzburg Festival. On a more prosaic level, this most ‘ethereal’ of violin concertos was inspired by reading Kremer’s autobiography, Childhood fragments. Vasks realised that he and Kremer had, unknowingly, gone to the same school. ‘“Distant Light” is nostalgia with a touch of tragedy. Childhood memories, but also the glittering stars millions of light-years away.’

The work has its own unique single-movement structure. Beginning with atmospheric sounds (the soloist, for example, is asked to play an arpeggio of unspecified, ‘bird-like’, harmonics), the work soon introduces a broad, lyrical melody. The passion rises (and it is possible to talk of passion in Vasks’ music), and then the soloist launches into the first of three cadenzas that will define the structure. Out of glacially-moving lower strings, a new lyrical section emerges and builds toward a folk-like dance (with glints of waltz) leading to the second cadenza. After more dance-like music, silence - and then slow music resumes. The aspiring lyricism of this work is won against genuine intrusion of drama; there are what sound like apprehensions of alarm and then the most intense of the cadenzas takes place, before the brief, lumbering return of dance music. Recollection of the opening melodic material suggests that we may have been listening all this time to a highly-interesting arch structure; the return of atmospheric sounds supports this.

‘Nostalgia with a touch of tragedy’ partly explains the emotional appeal of this work. But it could also be explained by the prevailing singing style ‘through which I express my ideals’. Overall, Vasks asks listeners to hold out against the darkness and focus on the ‘distant light’.

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2015

This note first appeared on 29 May 2015 in a concert program of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, one of orchestras associated with Symphony Services International ( contact me if you would like to reprint this note in a program booklet. If you would like to read more of my notes on this blog please see:

James MacMillan's Viola Concerto, published 4 May 2015
Andrew Schultz's August Offensive, published 28 March 2015
Tan Dun's Nu Shu, published 15 March 2015
Edward Elgar's Froissart, published 2 July 2013
Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, published 3 July 2013
Franz Waxman's Carmen-fantaisie, published 6 July 2013
Jan Sibelius's Oceanides, published 8 July 2013
Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod, published 12 July 2013
Aaron Copland's Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson, published 18 July 2013
John Williams' Escapades, published 22 July 2013
Thomas Adès's Violin Concerto Concentric Paths, published 26 July 2013
J.S. Bach's Cantata: "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott", BWV.80, published 28 July 2013
Beethoven's 5th and 6th Symphonies, published 29 July 2013
Wagner's Götterdämmerung (Immolation Scene), published 31 July 2013
Liszt's Tasso, published 2 August 2013
Stravinsky's Les Noces orchestrated by Steven Stucky, published 8 August 2013
Liszt's Hamlet, published 15 August 2013
Scriabin's Piano Concerto, published 18 August 2013
Christopher Rouse's Der gerettete Alberich, published 27 August 2013
Richard Strauss Der Rosenkavalier selections, published
Beethoven's Eighth Symphony, published 30 August 2013
'Traditional terms' - an interview with John Adams, published 5 Sep 2013
Berlioz' Waverley Overture, published 9 Sep 2013
Tchaikovsky's Fatum, published 17 Sep 2013
Wagner, arr. Henk de Vlieger A Ring Adventure, published 29 Sep 2013
Richard Strauss, Salome: Last scene, 11 Sep 2013
Shostakovich Ninth Symphony, published 13 Oct 2013
Wagner's Flying Dutchman Overture, published 21 Oct 2013
Shchedrin's Carmen Ballet. published 25 Oct 2013

Thursday, May 21, 2015

'Think like Thalberg': lessons from Hollywood for classical music

When I moved to Sydney in 1987 I got to know the city by memorizing its coves and bays. In Los Angeles since 2013, I’ve memorized where the studios are located. After all, locals often think of Los Angeles and Hollywood synonymously. Paramount is only a $10 cab fare away; Warner Bros is in the Valley. But in another sense I’ve learned a different geography. What I would call ‘classical music’s verities’ stand out more vividly now.

'Where the studios are located'. Fox and Paramount lie in this direction; Warner Bros and Universal are over the first hill. 
I had at first considered writing an article entitled ‘What Classical Music can learn from Hollywood; what Hollywood can learn from Classical Music’. I was going to include such ‘pearls’ as: ‘You’re never finished’. Film scripts, for example, are multi-coloured documents inserting rewrites way beyond the first day of shooting; how does that compare with classical music’s sketch, short score, orchestration..?

‘It Takes a Village’ (apologies to Hillary Clinton) occurred to me while sitting in our local cinema, the Vista, at the junction of Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards (where D.W. Griffith filmed the silent epic Intolerance in 1915 before the roads were paved) and realizing that the audience was sitting through 15 minutes of end-credits. Such appreciation for everyone’s work! Classical music may have gotten over the idea of the lone genius starving in the garret. But in Hollywood you find the ‘sort of collaboration that once yielded cathedrals’, says Billy Mernit, a story-analyst whose classes on dialogue I’ve taken.

The distance I’ve travelled through this landscape also makes me sensitive to arguments about ‘New Music’. I’m reminded of a former piano teacher who said that when he came back to the piano after a long spell at the harpsichord all he could hear were the piano’s hammers. These days I notice the ‘shoulds’ in the programming debates. Companies should program New Music; people should listen to it.

Maybe it’s a worry that our classical music scene doesn’t seem to have a big-enough audience for the most future-bound music of our tradition but I wonder if there is another way of looking at this. Los Angeles suggests to me there is. ‘Should’ just isn’t in the vocabulary of anyone in the Green Room of ten million people that is Los Angeles County.

I guess people have been worrying about the decline in audience-appreciation for our modern repertoire since Henry Pleasants bemoaned the loss of singable themes in The Agony of Modern Music. Oliver Rudland wrote in a recent edition of Standpoint that composers stopped writing tunes because they lost their Christian faith. I don’t even think they have to write tunes (!).

But my favourite analysis is that of Richard Taruskin who, in a 2004 edition of The Musical Times, focussed on the idea (fallacious in his mind) that all that matters in a piece of music is the artist’s making of it (their ‘poiesis’), regardless of the audience’s capacity to hear. Taruskin traced what he called ‘the poietic fallacy’ back to 19th century critics like Alexander Serov or Franz Brendel (remember them?), but in Schoenberg’s atonality and 12-tone music he felt that the audience had really been abandoned.

I know Schoenberg tried to help audiences comprehend his new music by emulating classical forms. But the classical forms couldn’t serve their previous clarifying purpose once a composer’s means of punctuating them (Tonality) was lost. That’s not a catastrophe, except that at some point after 1910 you could often detect an idea that composers didn’t have to worry themselves if the audience was left behind. The composer’s principal, if not sole, job was to extend the musical language; it was the audience’s problem if they were bewildered.

‘Most of the cuts were in the First Act’ says screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, of the Clint Eastwood film J. Edgar, ‘because we didn’t want the audience to get ahead of it.’ [italics added] ‘Subtext helps your audience to participate. It’s fantastic if your audience knows a bit more than your characters,’ [italics again] says Billy Mernit. What do these seemingly contradictory statements suggest? A filmmaker is constantly shifting their audience’s understanding, and the audience is granted enough of the basics to play along? I decided to collar Mernit, since I know him, and put some questions to him.

Billy Mernit is a former songwriter who has had his songs covered by people like Judy Collins and Carly Simon. These days he’s a story analyst for Universal Pictures, and is best known for his textbook, Writing the Romantic Comedy. Mernit gets to see and comment on each of the seemingly interminable drafts a screenplay goes through before the cameras roll. How important is consideration of audience to the film work?

‘The general rule of thumb is that with most writers, first draft is for you. Second draft is where you start to take into consideration who it’s for and who might respond to it,’ he says, when I catch up with him in the sculpture garden at UCLA, where he does some teaching. ‘In the Hollywood studio system it is almost scientific. One of the first questions any executive asks of a project is “what’s the demographic?” “who’s the intended audience?” “how do we expect to sell this thing?” because it’s in the studio system that you’re dealing with major money.

‘And by the way, back in the Silent Era, in the early days of Hollywood, a lot of the stuff that is now sort of codified, in its nascent form was responding to audience. In some of the earliest Silent Movies, like Chaplin two-reelers, audiences were going “give us more of that. We love that.” And only when the audience created the demand for things, did Hollywood say, “Hmm, if we put a woman in the picture with that comedian we’ll expand our audience” - things like that.’

So, could I take another Clintonian expression and turn it into one of my ‘lessons’ - ‘It’s the Audience, Stupid’?

‘Well, the slight confusion in the question, the thing that’s being conflated is’s creator versus producer, meaning a creator may not be thinking of the audience; a screenplay might be a very personal endeavour. But the producers of a screenplay are thinking audience first and foremost.

‘I don’t want to be too glib about this because if you’re a story analyst who’s worth what they pay you, on a certain level there’s this naive, fundamental “does this get me excited?” You have to have a personal response to it. And that, by the way, goes with producers as well. You don’t necessarily get into producing unless you have a great love for movies, like a good story and want to be involved. So I’m responding as a human being, that’s the litmus test. If it grabs me and I’m thinking “I’ve gotta keep turning these pages”, I am the audience; with the producer’s hat on. I don’t think of things in terms of what’s commercial or not. It’s more “is there something in the story that speaks to some kind of audience beyond myself?” Everything should be personal, of course, and the most personal projects are quite often the most impassioned and unique, right? but it’s a communicative medium.’

A producer like 1930s whizkid Irving Thalberg (the model for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘last tycoon’) thought that the success of a movie was arbitrated solely by the audience, director Billy Wilder’s ‘wonderful people out there in the dark’. I wonder if the classical music fear of giving so much consideration to audience response is that we would lose out on masterpieces?

Says Mernit: ‘Well, it’s not like Mozart or Verdi or Vivaldi were writing extremely esoteric masterpieces that were being foisted on an unsuspecting public; they were using the popular vernacular. But the crucial difference is that Hollywood is not attempting to make the general public watch a Godard movie. You can have a Best Picture winner like 12 Years a Slave and it’s something that people can relate to, whereas much modern classical music - unless it’s Minimalist - is very difficult for most audience members to even hear. It’s as if you were making a movie with a strange lens on the projector.’

I find myself wondering if classical music would ever get to this level of deference to the public. After all A Composer’s Cohort, an article on the Opera America website, says, ‘...try not to worry about the reception....Whether the audience likes your piece is arbitrary but informative.’ I can’t help feeling that not only would this be a strange abdication of skill in the movie world which is premised on predicting hits (and often does), school teachers wouldn’t say, ‘I have no idea at what point I lose my students’ nor would sales personnel concede, ‘I have no idea when I’ve lost the buyer.’

And it’s not as if classical music was always in such an unknowing position. A classical composer knew that if you put an A minor chord after a G while you were in the key of C, an audience would experience interruption. Wagner knew that if he kept withholding resolution of the ‘Tristan chord’ we in the audience would lean in with yearning. And I’m convinced Tchaikovsky set his audience up so that they would burst into applause at the end of the march in the ‘Pathétique’ and feel all the more excruciatingly the wrench into the Adagio lamentoso which in fact ends the symphony.

Do classical music writers want to second-guess the audience? Do they want positive reinforcement of their vision that badly? I wonder what would happen for contemporary repertoire if the practitioners began to ‘Think like Thalberg’; if classical music had its equivalents of film producers, people in orchestras who could stand between a CEO and a Director of Artistic Planning, a CAO (Chief Artistic Officer) if you like, with the authority to say, ‘Look, the audience feels you’ve got ten minutes more music than thematic material. I saw them fidgeting at the preview we set up to test their responses.’

These are just some of the thoughts that have come to me from immersing myself in a different artistic milieu. But to come back to an earlier promise, what can Hollywood learn from classical music? I said above I was thinking of writing about each artform’s lessons for the other.

So far I only have one, but it’s big, and fairly reaffirming. Paradoxically it’s something about form. In Save the Cat, probably the most popular screenwriting text of today, the book that every second aspiring screenwriter working on WiFi in Starbucks has sitting by their elbow, the author Blake Snyder says ‘Act II begins on page 25. No, please. Don’t argue’. Yes, but I will. (By the way, since screenplays are formatted so that one page equals one minute of running time, this is even more restrictive than it sounds.)

Every second person working on a script. Actor Joey Marino studies a screenplay while working  in Bru Coffeehouse, Los Angeles
Classical music wouldn’t buy this. Classical Sonata Form, for example, is a 3-Act structure. It was a screenwriting teacher, Sydney’s Linda Aronson, who made me think about this. Classical Sonata Form contains exposition, development, and recapitulation. There are certain goals it must satisfy but look, there is a world of variation in the way Haydn, Beethoven, Mahler, Shostakovich and others even closer to our time went about it. Classical music proves you don’t have to be rigidly formulaic.

But screenwriting may not be as schematic as I think. I put this to Billy Mernit. ‘It gets moved around a lot,’ he says. ‘The A-teamers are not slaves to those kinds of restrictive formulas really.’ And then I think of Pulp Fiction - three acts functioning traditionally but out of real-life chronological order, containing enough that’s familiar for an audience to appreciate what’s fresh. Yes, even as I continue to try to learn from classical music, Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction’s screenwriter/director) proves you can create an innovative masterpiece that is also popular.

Gordon Kalton Williams
© 2015

This article first appeared in the 7 May edition of Symphony Australia’s The Podium under the title: A Different Geography: how LA has affected my musical thinking

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Little Blueprint? - thinking about Librettos

In the early 2000s, I wrote the libretto for a musical adaptation of  T.G.H. Strehlow's Journey to Horseshoe Bend. The novel is an account of a young boy and his family's attempt in 1922 to flee their home in remote, inland Australia and get to the coastal city of Adelaide where his desperately-ill father can receive medical attention. As the family travels through Australia's desert regions, the boy Theo becomes aware of his missionary father's mortality even as their Aboriginal guides awaken him to the totemic significance of the landscape. The work that Andrew Schultz and I wrote, based on Strehlow's novel, therefore blends Aboriginal lore, language and vocal-style with the European orchestra and European choral tradition.   

As I have again been thinking about the nature of libretto-writing lately, I thought I’d reprint this article which first appeared in 2007 in the Manchester University Press/Open University publication: Music, words and voice: A reader.

The Little Blueprint? – an amplification of the meaning of ‘libretto’ 

A lyricist once couldn’t help himself when he heard someone whistling a Tom Jones hit. ‘I wrote the words,’ he skited. Annoyed at being interrupted, the whistler said, through clenched teeth, ‘I wasn’t…whistling…the words.’  Does this sum up the problem for lyricists, and by extension librettists? Should we expect people to pay more attention to the words?

Actually, you’ll get a much better sense of what makes a libretto if you see it as more than merely ‘the words’, or the ‘words on the page’. In its largest sense a libretto is a suggestion to the composer of what s/he should achieve dramatically. That’s not to say that a libretto can’t possibly have its own reading pleasures. Many of the examples below are drawn from the libretto for Andrew Schultz’s and my Journey to Horseshoe Bend which to a greater-than-usual extent betrays its origins in a book, the book of the same name by T.G.H. Strehlow[1]. Of course Journey to Horseshoe Bend (JHB) is not an opera either, and it could be instructive to wonder why not. But a libretto, whether to an opera, oratorio or cantata, should only really be fully assessed alongside the music that it leads to.

When colleagues of mine derided the libretto of La traviata as ‘terrible writing’ I suspect they had mistakenly judged it as armchair reading or playscript. But were they reading it for the aurals and visuals suggested by the text, that is, testing to see if it contained what Verdi called ‘scenic’ words? Were they reading it to see what musical product Verdi could make of it?

I sense that much of the underestimation of libretti relates to an overestimation of the importance of words in theatre. Being able to write good dialogue does not necessarily make a good playwright. This is to miss the other essential dimensions that make good theatre. It’s probably best not to think of words as the basic unit in a libretto either. What’s more important is something bigger – a physical action, a use of the space, a psychological beat – albeit all with musical resonance. You can of course suggest action and shape with any number of words. To produce something as refined as 20 pages of libretto requires precision and control as well as powers of suggestion.

Is Piave’s libretto to La traviata really so poor? It sets up strongly contrasting characters in strong situations reflected in different settings. It provides good opportunities for contrasting music, but guaranteeing a forward flow. This text may be sparse – and when you read it aloud you get through its transitions quicker than spoken dramatic development should let you - but the point is it is text waiting to be sung, action waiting to be set to music. When performed it is complete. Librettist and composer have contributed. They were both creators; they were each other’s first audience.

It should be said that Journey to Horseshoe Bend was the result of a true collaboration. While Andrew and I didn’t do each other’s jobs, we discussed the work for a good two years, shared ideas, felt comfortable making suggestions about either libretto or score and mostly found ways to incorporate each other’s suggestions, even if there were initial doubts. There was a vigorous to-and-fro.

Opera reformers have often started with the words. Wagner’s theoretical text, Oper und Drama promoted a relationship between words and music. Wagner is thought to have backed down when he came to write Tristan und Isolde, under the influence of the philosopher Schopenhauer, who had put music on a pedestal. We have in Tristan and Act III of Siegfried moments of pure sound, melismas on single syllables even, which the younger Wagner had derided. The music clearly comes first – or does it? After Oper und Drama, as Jack M Stein pointed out years ago in Richard Wagner and the Synthesis of the Arts, Wagner wrote an essay called Beethoven, in which he lit on another opposite partner to music, what he called ‘pantomime’.[2] It was music and action that he paired in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the other work (besides Tristan) that he took time out to write before returning to the Ring and the dramatic high pressure of Götterdämmerung.

We have here a clue to what else the libretto is besides a ‘little book’. It’s a little springboard for musical action. The libretto is, in addition to words and perhaps more importantly, the larger plot movements, sequence, scenes, mise-en-scène, characters, numbers, a suggestion of duration, proportion and pace. It might even hint at a compositional scheme. J.D. McClatchy (1984, An American Tragedy) tells of how he first presented a libretto A Question of Taste, to William Schuman, who said ‘they [the words] don’t do anything for me.’[3] McClatchy tried to point out that ‘the image in line 3 links up in line 6,’ but Schuman cut him off: ‘I told you it [the libretto] didn’t do anything for me.’ McClatchy went back and introduced a new character to add a tenor voice, formulated more solos, duets and choruses, and thought less ‘of the dramatic unfolding and more of the musical progression.’

Early on in the creation of JHB (at libretto stage) I developed a sense of musical numbers that Strehlow’s work could be broken into. This partly determined the means of making the adaptation from T.G.H. Strehlow’s 220-page novel. Bringing the chorale Wachet auf in as soon possible meant fast-forwarding through the first 22 pages of Strehlow’s text. Indeed the first pages of Strehlow’s book were rethought to provide musical opportunities – sunrise, chorale, travelling music. Andrew and I discussed the idea of the three significant stopping places in the novel (Henbury, Idracowra and Horseshoe Bend) being ‘camps’ or points of rest, defining three Acts, or the parts of a broadly ternary form. Notwithstanding the fact that Andrew agreed early on that the work would be through-composed (and this accounts greatly for the inexorability of the work’s progress to Pastor Carl’s death), I am convinced that thinking the libretto in terms of set numbers also helped crystallise the moments.

The first draft of the libretto for JHB is very like prose, a cut and paste from the novel to work out what more to cut. The cantata was initially conceived as a work for narrator, chorus and orchestra. To study the various drafts is to follow the course of a piece of writing towards the status of a libretto. Of course our JHB doesn’t become a fully-staged opera, but subsequent drafts took on more musico-dramatic aspects. At first there was no boy soprano Theo, and passages such as the third scene’s night journey through the desert oaks were conveyed more prosaically:

Journey to Horseshoe Bend, scene 3 - 1st draft[4]

Friday, 25 October.

‘It was half past two next morning when Theo was wakened by the sudden blazing of the restoked campfire and the talking of Njitiaka and Lornie, who were rolling up their blankets (87).’
They broke camp ‘and the van moved away from the cheery blaze of the campfire into -’

 - ‘the moonlit sandhill silence (87).’

Processional (Brittania Sandhills) music: the ‘sighing of casuarinas’. Sandhill music.

‘The resinous scent emanating from the bulging tufts of spinifex…was not as overwhelming in the cool night air as it had been in the heat of the previous evening; but it nevertheless pervaded the whole atmosphere with the unmistakable menace of its aroma. For here as elsewhere in the Centre this resinous fragrance drew attention to the deep loneliness and the dangerous waterlessness of the huge inland sandhill regions (87).’
‘[The] continual sighing of the magnificent desert oaks in the soft night breeze indicated the extraordinary length to which their jointed needle-like leaves had grown (88).’
Theo thought of the iliaka njemba, the emu-like phantom that terrified Aranda children.
‘The black forests of desert oaks, whose moon-silvered crests were shimmering so brightly, kept on exciting Theo’s intense admiration (90);’ ‘Talpa, not taia,’ said Njitiaka, correcting Theo’s western Aranda word for ‘moon’….He pointed out some of the prominent sites.

Nakua potta kuka [   ], raka kngara [  ]

‘Gradually the dark eastern horizon became tinged with grey. The blurred and shapeless tree forms began to reveal their limbs with increasing clarity. The eastern sky became overspread by a reddish-yellow tinge, and finally the spinifex tips on the crests of the sand-dunes began to glow in the first rays of the rising sun….the sudden burst of warmth that accompanied its full revelation foretold that the day…would be, in local terms, a “real scorcher” (90).’

(O Sacred Head sore wounded) [1st verse]
Aka tjantjurrantjurrai, Ilkaartapartangai....[6]

‘About midday they reached the end of the Brittania Sandhills (97).’

‘Njitiaka pointed out a dune which overtopped all other sandhill crests by scores of feet –

And suddenly the sense of climax is interrupted, and we are still travelling…

It was only later that much of that information was transformed into a duet between Njitiaka and Theo, raising the dramatic, and at the same time, musical profile of the work. As the frequency of Theo and Njitiaka’s exchanges increased so action took over from narrative:

Journey to Horseshoe Bend, scene 3 - final version

It was half past two next morning when I was wakened by the sudden blazing up of the restoked campfire. Njitiaka rolled up the swags and untethered the donkeys.

Keme-irreye tangkey ngkerne lhetyenele![7]

And we moved away from the cheery blaze of the campfire into the moonlit sandhill silence.

Unte irnterneme urnpe lhanhe? Lhanhe yurte-ipne urnpe. Unte irterleretyeke kwatye kweke ware nemenhe nhanerle.

Spinifex tufts -
Kicked up by donkeys -
Have such an odour,
a certain smell?

Strange, lonely, dry;
Moonlight, sandhills, silence

Werlethenaye werinerle irrkepe ngketyeke ingkwarle mpareme. Ilpele thwerte-nirre ngkeleme.

Desert oaks,
Their long needles swishing,
Sighing, crying, calling…

(pointing it out) Pmere ngkweke lanhe, Kwatye pmere. Karte ngkwekeneke pmere.



Ya, pmere ngkweke

Your home?

Leyeke pmere.


Taye parrtyeme

The moon is shining -




Terlpe parrtyeme!

Terlpe parrtyeme?
Showing our way

Unte arrtye irrtne ilmeletyeke? Lanhe renye ‘terlpe’ itye ‘taye’. (Dismissively) Western Aranda!

Terlpe larnnga-larnnga…


Shadows, moonlight, sandhills
Terlpe imerneme nwerneke.

You’ll notice that in the first draft there was the suggestion of another chorale to be used in the musical texture. The repertoire of chorales was reduced as work proceeded. Andrew rightly sensed that too many chorales would create an excess of material to shape while having to stick to our brief for the duration of the work. But it is important to note that these decisions came out of discussions at the libretto-writing stage.

It has been said that music has a degree of persuasiveness that words can only aspire to. The completion of the chorale at the end of JHB is more moving than a mere spoken rendering would be. Music can even, handily sometimes, lead us up the wrong emotional path. So what do we miss if we don’t know the words?

At the end of Das Rheingold, there is a shimmering and swelling in the music which finally blazes forth in a proud, even harsh, assertion of triumphal power. The Gods are finally crossing the rainbow bridge into their citadel Valhalla.

This is the most wonderful example of pure, unalloyed ‘rubbing-the-loser’s-nose-in-it’ victory. An audience may even hate themselves for feeling excited, associating Wagner’s music with Nuremberg Rallies and sheer unconscionable arrogance!

But the thing is: the ‘Entry of the Gods into Valhalla’ can only have this meaning when you’ve paid no attention to the storyline; when you’ve ignored the dramatic context. Because when you finally hear this passage in the theatre, or at least as part of the music drama, to use Wagner’s term, you realise that the gods are entering a kingdom that has been doomed; that Wotan and the other gods are blind, as Loge says, ‘to the end towards which they are heading’. He says it, but we even see them step over the dead body of Fasolt or freeze momentarily at the sound of the Rhinemaidens keening below. It is the most spectacular example of irony in the history of… well, what is it? Music or Drama? But one thing’s for sure. You need the drama to ‘get’ this irony. The combination of both elements together creates an emotional nuance that libretto and music wouldn’t be able to achieve on their own. And it’s not just Loge’s words that fulfil the whole condition of undermining. We have just watched two hours of Wotan tieing himself in knots, back-pedalling and swindling. You can twig, even without selecting the subtitle option on your DVD.[8]

True, we can be mightily swayed by music, but even misinterpreting depends on knowing what is conveyed by the sounds. Never having read the surtitles at the beginning of Madama Butterfly, we may overlook Pinkerton’s bastardry (the fact that he is calculating the length of the marriage contract) because the opening of this opera is what romantic music sounds like to us; we know from a thousand contexts. Do we know enough about Inuit music to know what is moving in it? The opening bars of Tristan – what do they mean? Without the context – in this case 100 years of tonality – do we know that a minor 6th in 19th century Romantic music denotes yearning?

Context is all important. In JHB I was able to convey the outcome of the story of the crow of Mbalka; how he was drowned by the rain women of Erea, in few enough words to allow the music to continue unimpeded, because the story had been previously established. Super-structure. Context. And sequence!

Thinking any of this has much to do with the beauty of the words is a bit of a furphy. The words in fact should probably be as simple as possible. The score can pinpoint the exact shade of emotion; the libretto has an anchoring, orientating primacy.  Be careful of being too flash.

I find John Adams and Alice Goodman’s Nixon in China exceptionally, even movingly clear, so it may seem churlish to pounce on this next example. But I remember being impressed by certain lines in Act I, the chorus singing:

The people are the heroes now

The heroes pull the peasants’ plow

I thought ‘what a nice Shakespearian duality’, and one that you could deduce easily sitting in the theatre. It was only when I read the libretto that I discovered that it was ‘Behemoth’ who was pulling the peasant’s plough. It’s nice poetry, but I couldn’t help but feeling sorry for the poor audience-member sitting in the theatre trying to decipher ‘behemoth’ as the word being defined by that particular combination of vowels?

And on top of that in opera you’ve got the particular challenges to clarity posed by polyphony, melisma, and sopranos. Best to make sure the story’s clear from your large structure, and set up strong, dramatic, character-driven situations that convey a larger message. You’ve got to make sure that the conflicts and crises of the plot have safely been established and resolved.

Of course, a successful libretto should provide the composer with musical opportunities that enhance the dramatic flow. It is an absolute masterstroke in the libretto of Verdi/Boito’s Otello to begin with Shakespeare’s second act and therefore give the composer and the drama a storm to start with.

Journey to Horseshoe Bend fast forwards through the preparations and background to the journey to light on a chorale which arises, as if spontaneously from the voices of the Ntaria women. The first pages draw from the novel to create a couple of musical situations – sunrise and chorale. It was a libretto-stage decision to leave out T.G.H. Strehlow’s impressive ten page description of the massacre history of Irbmangkara, even though it may be the most virtuosic piece of writing in the book. We had to get moving.

A libretto is a blueprint for musical action. If the job has been considered well enough, the composer can sit down and see the musical form inherent in the material. The libretto is good insofar that you can judge by the intelligence of its suggestion of actable music: momentum, weight, musical numbers (who sings what), purely musical segments, and, at the level of detail, what I call its ‘play with specificity’.

JHB is a cantata. It is meant to be a concert work. This was the result of a number of decisions taken at the libretto stage. If JHB had been fully sung it would of course have been twice as long, but speech allowed us filmic pacing, a directness and spontaneity; to move quickly through concepts that don’t normally make it into opera. We were aiming for a certain richness and at the same time intelligibility. We rejected the idea of the narration being sung in recitative (although recognising that the narrator fulfilled some of the function of an Evangelist in a Bach passion), partly to broaden the work’s appeal, but also because we needed another speaking role to pair with Njitiaka. Nevertheless, it is worth testing this theory of libretto writing by examining the proximity of each cantata scene to completely dramatised opera.

Scenes 3 and 4 are arguably the most fully-dramatised. Strehlow’s descriptions of conversations between Theo and Njitiaka as they travel at night through the sand-dune country are turned into duet. In scene 4 Carl’s struggles with his faith, described in third person by T.G.H. Strehlow in his novel, are turned into an aria with responding chorus. This aria is juxtaposed with a cinematic cutaway to Theo’s ditty-like listing of sights around Idracowra station. I particularly love the melody that Andrew came up with when he arrived at what I considered the heart of the scene, and perhaps of the philosophy of the work:

But God cannot be known
Nor made to answer men.
No use in us demanding
The meaning of our pain.

Action and music?  In Journey the ongoing movement of the music was complemented by verbal pointers to direction: ‘…25 miles to the north west rugged Rutjubma…’; ‘…already moving through the…saltbush flat which spread south…’; ‘…turned in a more easterly direction...’[9] Njitiaka gives many of the directions. But these examples are taken from TGH, the narrator.

Journey to Horseshoe Bend stayed a cantata in some ways to preserve the flavour of Strehlow’s original novel. But that meant particular problems. One of the big hazards for libretto writing is leaving too much ‘on the page’. I say that having written a wordy libretto, and having early on tried to force Andrew into setting TGH’s denser and slower-moving sentences. This example is from the third draft. The party have arrived at Horseshoe Bend.

Journey to Horseshoe Bend, scene 6 – 3rd draft

CHORUS (continuing under)
Horseshoe Bend is the eye of a flame
Horseshoe Bend is the eye of  a fire

Horseshoe Bend had been remarkable for its cruel heatwaves for as long as human memory went back.

Atua Rubuntjaka janha ntoaka. Pota urbula arei. Itne uralalanga.

(Translating) Everywhere the Rubuntja men vomited they left black pebbles whose heat essence is evoked to this day in freezing weather.

CHORUS (continuing under)
Horseshoe Bend is a fiery place
A land of burning cliffs

Nana pmara uraka. Nakua ngapa nama. Era ura taka, altjiraka.

CHORUS (continuing under)
Horseshoe Bend is a fiery place
A land of burning cliffs

Nana pmara uraka. Nakua ngapa nama. Era ura taka, altjiraka.

Of searing plains

(As if translating for Njitiaka) ‘The main totemic sites in the region were all associated in some way with fire or with the scorching heat of the summer sun. Worst was Mbalka, the home of a malicious crow who had flitted over the landscape at the dawn of time, lighting fires.

Exploding spinifex
Shrieking over sandhills
Shooting from branches screaming
Writhing from mulga, like pillars of
Crackling torches of flame
Erea tara rana rranthaka, rana lakarlalaka…

(Translating) At last, two rain ancestresses from Erea surprised the crow and drowned him. The lake of fire became a sea of water. Clouds of steam hissed up from sizzling tree stumps and charred stumps.

Listen to the music as it is now and you can hear that TGH’s and Njitiaka’s words would have impeded the flow. As a solution Andrew went ahead and composed music for this scene using only bits of the text. Only after the music had been freed in this way did I go back to make sure that the characters told the same story in telegraphic form.

Journey to Horseshoe Bend, scene 6 - final version

NTARIA LADIES CHOIR (very quietly)
Kaartai, nurna-nha wurlathanai (Father, hear our prayer)

Horseshoe Bend is the eye of a flame
Horseshoe Bend is the eye of  a fire


Urte Rubuntja ntwe-irrke nhakeke.

The Rubuntja men vomited over there.


Perte urrpwerle raye…

Yes, the black stones.


Itne metyepenhe…

They’re from fire?

Exploding spinifex
Shrieking over sandhills
Shooting from branches screaming
Writhing from mulga, like pillars of
Crackling torches of flame

Horseshoe Bend is a fiery place
A land of burning cliffs

Nhanhe metyeke pmere.

This is fire country.


Ngkape nhakele…

That crow over there…

metye itekele,...

He set all this country alight…

itekele ntgkerrnhe.

in the beginning.

Horseshoe Bend, etc…

A libretto needs to be able to turn on a dime. While composing, the composer may ring up and say, ‘I need eight syllables in the following rhythm’. The librettist knows s/he has to tie up three or four plot points in that space as well. There is so much more to appreciate if the libretto is examined hand in hand with the music.

I mentioned before the play with specifity. The relationship between text and music is far more fascinating than a side by side comparison would suggest.

Andrew often says that the music is the poetic element, and that’s true. But well-placed words can enhance a poetic moment. ‘The smell of rain-soaked earth fills the air…’, sings Theo, as his final notes ring out.

I have myself tried to explain the relationship between music and text in terms of the text being the noun and the music the verb, but sometimes the text, acting as context, can be adverb. And sometimes the music is the noun. Andrew’s chorale harmonies and counterpoint give reality to JHB’s Lutheran setting. Is the libretto here the adjective? Can the music be the subtext revealing the text’s true concerns?…[10]

Journey to Horseshoe Bend ends with a storm. Music does storm beautifully. It can convey a storm without a word in sight. Think Beethoven, Rossini, Britten. Think Otello. But it’s important for the audience in JHB to know that that storm confirms Theo’s decision to make his future in Central Australia by corroborating for him the reality of a storm that took place in the mythological era at the beginning of time. That’s the reason for the verbal exchanges between Njitiaka and TGH at the beginning of the third part (the arrival at Horseshoe Bend), and for this exchange towards the end:

NJITIAKA: Kwatye ngkarle arpenhe petyeme
TGH: More clouds?
NJITIAKA: Itne renhe nyenhe inetyeke.
TGH: Those rain-women get that crow always.
NJITIAKA: Ngampakala. Finish him.

Which brought all the elements to a point, after the score was completed - after Andrew had been set free to follow the course of the dramatically-generated music.[11]


A libretto may mask a great many decisions. It needs to be thin. But one decision taken at the libretto stage can say heaps. Strehlow spends many paragraphs describing Pastor Carl’s character.[12] We needed an authoritative voice. As a bass-baritone Carl had for me associations with a Wotan or a Boris Godunov and in that one decision was all that we needed to say about that ‘rockplate’ clergyman who threw the murderous Constable Wurmbrand off the mission property and who stood in the path of a party of Kukatja avengers. I remember being fascinated by the changed significance that could be achieved merely by assigning words to different characters. Imagine the quite different cast of meaning if you assign the chorus’s words: ‘But God cannot be known…’ to one of the other parts.

All this information can be encompassed by the libretto. And some of a libretto’s achievement may literally be invisible, left to the composer or left out. It may only be realised on stage (another’s job). But let’s go back to the libretto as words, since that is the level on which the debate is usually waged.

The libretto is important. The words are significant. The librettist J.D. McClatchy’s name was left off the CD cover for Emmeline (composer: Tobias Picker). I would have been peeved. And librettos and programs and texts can push composers in directions they might not have explored if left to their own devices. I think of the soundtrack to Bullitt and compare it with Lalo Schifrin’s more recent recording with the West German Radio Big Band[13]. To me the version made to showcase the music lacks the rhetorical pointedness of the soundtrack. It seems to lack the gestural definiteness, seems less urgent.[14] Could it be that ‘text’ (the action) forestalls a converging on purely musical elements, a narrowing of meaning? And yet so often we read in annotations: ‘The composer sensed rightly that the music was coherent in its own terms, and did not need the added literary explanation,’ or ‘We may disregard the program. For the work stands as music.’

Charles Rosen speaks of music’s ‘emancipation from the word’ in a recent New York Review of Books article on Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Music; and of how that emancipation enabled sophisticated absolute structures.[15] True, but are they better or worse than texted musical works; there is a pleasure to be had from the way the words and music mesh and collide in Pitjantjatjara chant, for example. Perhaps annotators should accord the libretto and its relationship to the music the same subtlety of understanding that they plead for in relation to absolute music.

But to come back to the words, because I dispute (even discounting larger plot movements, sequence, scenes, mise-en-scène, characters, numbers, a suggestion of duration, proportion and pace) that the words are inferior or weaker carriers of meaning.

A colleague once cited Some Enchanted Evening to me as an example of the primacy of music: it’s the music that we carry away from the performance. Now I guess we don’t go out whistling the words, but even if you only know the first lines of hundreds of songs, the general sense and situation reinforces the message to be taken from the melody, harmony, pace and orchestration, and I doubt if music would be as meaningful if judged, as Stravinsky may have wished, ‘powerless to express anything other than itself’. After all, what is Some Enchanted Evening in musical terms: tonic chord with a melodic turn on the fifth followed by a downward drop, the sharpened fourth in the turn undermining stability; that turn repeated followed by an upward lift to the leading note, but this time with the harmony shifting underneath to the dominant; the turn again, this time followed by a lift to the tonic, but with a sharpened fifth underneath preparing the way to a supertonic 6/5 harmony... Certainly the harmony creates an urging forward and there is a poignancy often found in Richard Rodgers’ chordal progressions one step beyond the harmonically obvious, but does that fully explain the emotional resonance?  I suppose my words prove the lack of music’s poetry. But I still think you at least need to know that the song is about an enchanted evening where you may meet a stranger across a crowded room; what any of us would bring to that love at first sight; words and sentiments that preclude being set to a ‘rumpty-tumpty’ melody.

But don’t take my word for it. Get an audience of Americans to stand with hands over their hearts and sing:

To Anacreon in heav’n, where he sat in full glee,
A few sons of Harmony sent a petition,
That He their Inspirer and Patron would be;
When this answer arrived from the Jolly Old Grecian:
‘Voice, Fiddle, and Flute,
no longer be mute,
I’ll lend you my Name and inspire you to boot,
And besides, I’ll instruct you, like me, to entwine
The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.’

and I bet not a single one of them would shed a tear, no matter how good the tune, at the original words of the drinking song that became - The Star-Spangled Banner.

Gordon Kalton Williams
Open University, ©2006

This article first appeared in Music, words and voice: A reader, edited by Martin Clayton and published by Manchester University Press, ISBN: 978-0-7190-7787-6 
Reproduced by kind permission. 
Andrew Schultz
The Strehlow Research Centre
Katherine D. Stewart
Natalie Shea
Siobhan Lenihan
James Koehne

[1]  Strehlow, T.G.H. Journey to Horseshoe Bend, Angus & Robertson, Melbourne, 1969. Quotes by permission of the Strehlow Research Centre, Alice Springs Australia 
[2] Stein, Jack M Richard Wagner and the Synthesis of the Arts, Westport, Conn. 1973
[3] See Alenier, K ‘A Poet’s Distraction: Interview with J.D. McClatchy’, Scene4 Magazine, Sep 2005,
[4] Figures in parentheses after statements refer to page numbers in the novel, which were only removed late in the writing of the cantata.
[5]  In inverted commas because we had still not settled on having a separate character
[6]Aka tjantjurrantjurrai’ (O Sacred Head now Wounded) No.75, p.169, Arrarnta Lyilhintja Lutheran Worlamparinyaka (Arrarnta Lutheran Hymnal), Finke River Mission Board, Alice Springs, 1997
[7] Now with Doug Abbott’s Southern Arrernte corrections
[8]  If Loge had said, ‘They are not heading to their doom,’ you would not have believed him. Any playwright knows that words cannot overpower accumulated action. Or as psychologist Steven Covey would say: ‘You cannot talk yourself out of what you have behaved yourself into.’
[9] Consider also Andrew’s orchestral layout.
[10] To choose an example from popular musical theatre, My Fair Lady. Prof. Higgins convinces himself he couldn’t care less about such an ungrateful wretch as Eliza Doolittle who would run away and ‘marry Freddy. Ha!’ and then the music wells up, and says, ‘Who is he/are you kidding?’ At this moment music brings the emotion (subtext) to the surface. The idea may have been Frederick Loewe the composer’s, but the music is suddenly text, doing the job of the narrative. The welling up is satisfying as music and as an aspect of the story that has developed to that point.
[11] Sometimes music benefits from the nailing specificity of words. The best-received performance I have heard of Schoenberg’s Pelléas et Mélisande was Will Humburg’s with the Sydney Symphony in 2005. He asked for surtitles giving the movement descriptions, eg “He finds Mélisande weeping in the forest”. They cut through what I’ve often felt was a lack of clarifying repose.
[12] T.G.H. Strehlow provides a huge amount of information about his father on pp7-8 and 20 of the Angus & Robertson edition of his novel. 
[13] Schifrin, Lalo: Bullitt, ALEPH Records 018, 2000
[14] And yet, I saw John Williams conduct a workshop on film music at Tanglewood in 1998. He showed the students that when they re-did the scene ‘and this time, with horns in tune’, the whole scene lifted dramatically. The drama and score are truly twinned.
[15] Rosen, Charles ‘From the Troubadors to Frank Sinatra’: review of Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music, The New York Review of Books, 23 February 2006

If you enjoyed this, I have written elsewhere on the Strehlows in:

Journey to Horseshoe Bend - ten years on, 28 May 2013

Victory over death and despair in a bygone age, 5 November 2012 and

Ah, Nathanael!, 29 November 2012