On Dealing With Time (Writing an Opera)

“Short Cut” of Part III, Scene I from Hunger, Darmstadt Contemporary Opera Workshop

I recently completed the second scene of Part III from Hunger and am now beginning work on the electronics, but before doing so I wanted to take a few days to reflect a bit and process some of my thoughts on the whole operation. I was asked to write a blog post for The Industry‘s upcoming premiere of Part III in Los Angeles, and although this article wound up being a bit less conversational than what we’ll eventually be publishing there, nonetheless I thought it might be worth putting out into the void…

On Dealing With Time (Writing an Opera)
In setting out to write a Multimedia Opera, one of the earliest decisions made was that the subject material would explore psychological fragility and deterioration in a way that permeates each element of the work. As one could argue that all opera utilizes multimedia, I felt it was essential that all aspects — including musical material, electronic processing, video, text, and physicality of performance — should be considered equal and structurally integrated with one another. I sought a source for the libretto that would lend itself to fragmentation, in regard to both narrative and the text itself, and soon found Knut Hamsun’s Sult (Hunger), published in 1890. One of the first examples of modern psychologically driven literature and a precursor to stream of consciousness techniques, this demanded a librettist able to balance flow and disjunction, abstraction and rich imagery. I found this collaborator in poet Darcie Dennigan, whose work speaks on a highly visceral level, and at first reading I was struck by the tactility of her words.

Rather than a faithful adaptation of Hamsun’s novel, Darcie and I chose to create a new work that would retain the essence of Sult. One of the challenges would be realizing the tremendously intimate, claustrophobic quality of Hamsun’s writing on the operatic stage. Henning Carlsen’s 1966 film adaptation captures actor Per Oscarsson’s incredible subtlety of expression and the intensity of his erratic behavior in a way that the medium of film so elegantly lends itself to. That subtlety is something that can too easily be lost in opera, with a physical distance separating the performers from the audience, and a traditional focus on ‘beautiful’ singing rather than a true embodiment of the psychological state and consequent behavior of its characters that a work may attempt to convey. Hamsun himself felt that the intricacies of the mind should serve as the main object of modern literature, and my goal then became to find means to capture this ‘internal’, claustrophobic quality with a comparably filmic subtlety of expression. Darcie and I set out with the intent to develop a work that would not be driven by dialogue or actions, but rather psychological and emotional states exploring the edges of comprehensibility.

Hunger is designed in such a way that the protagonist is realized as a composite between the soprano and baritone, representing division of self, intellectual deterioration, and volatility of the psyche. In pursuit of meaningful, structural integration of multimedia elements, this fragmentation became an underlying theme in all elements of the work, eschewing dramaturgical coherence in favor of exploring a multiplicity of potential narrative threads that are alluded to but never explicitly confirmed. One example is the way in which Ylajali, a third persona, appears in several manifestations throughout the work. Our protagonist’s state of mind is imposed upon a (potentially) living, breathing person with whom he comes into contact; we observe both her physical existence and a distortion – reality and a simultaneous projection of his needs and desires in both the physical and digital realms performing discrete, contrasting actions. It is never clear whether Ylajali is simply an imagined psychological construction and extension of self, or if the actions performed are indeed her own. This multiplicity is paralleled in all elements of the work – whether doubles of the characters or performers themselves; the live-capture and processing of video and electronics or fixed, pre-recorded media; or ambiguity of text and dramaturgical situations that are purposefully ambiguous or contradictory.

An important consideration has been the issue of what might be referred to as “operatic time”, a construction that has become the norm through an enduring tradition of arias that serve to suspend the unfolding of dramatic events and allow the exposition of a character’s emotional or psychological reaction in a neat and tidy 2-4 minute presentation of one idea before moving to the next. This sectionalization and temporal expansion is a convenient dramaturgical strategy that has continued to pervade contemporary opera, typically utilized by composers or directors who subscribe dogmatically to the idea of a linear narrative that must be communicated as clearly as possible, working under the assumption that the audience needs time to understand what is taking place, and using direct, 1:1 representation to gently guide them from point A to point B.


I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in the disorientation that happens between the initial exposure to one cell of semantic content and comprehension of what has taken place, causing the participants to continually re-evaluate any preliminary assumptions they have made – in setting up a situation or state of being where the relationship between these cells can be explored. The incorporation of multimedia opens the door to what one could refer to as “cinematic time”: providing the opportunity to present simultaneous or rapidly fluctuating streams of information. Consequently, there is potential for alternative temporal strategies such as compression or acceleration, jump cuts between seemingly unrelated cells, or juxtaposition of contradictory materials.

Through purposefully utilizing fragmentation and obfuscation of text, sound, and visual elements to heighten incomprehensibility, the participant (audience) needn’t be comfortably spoon-fed a clear linear narrative, but rather immersed in this environment and compelled to engage with the work through more imaginative means. With each piece of information they are presented with, the context of the original cell is transformed, perpetually suggesting a number of equally viable scenarios or interpretations; it is a puzzle without all the pieces, and you are left to imagine the implications of each and every possible outcome.

There are a number of ways in which these ideas are realized musically aside from treatment of text and narrative, but perhaps most salient is the way in which temporal events are governed using checkpoints (senza tempo) instead of regular metric divisions. The resulting musical situation produces malleable simultaneities rather than precise synchronizations. The conductor, singers, and ensemble members must react spontaneously and organically to one another, effectively a means to ‘bend time’ around the singers – who are thus enabled to perform with raw immediacy. These ideas transfer to harmony and musical materials in the diffusion or neutralization of pitch content through the use of extended techniques and indefinite pitch sounds, resulting in hazy and ambiguous sonorities, analogous to the dramaturgical and temporal ambiguities employed.

Ligeti once said of his work Aventures that “something happens, but I do not know what it is, and you do not know what it is”. Similarly, Aperghis stated in 2010: “My aim is that one never really knows what it is that they are doing. You can come a bit closer but if you knew, you would stop listening to the music. If you say: ‘Ok, this is that’, it’s all over. People pull in their antennae and that’s it.” Where Ligeti and Aperghis both have approached select works by building some semblance of
narrative from small fragments, such as individual phonemes, I might say that in Hunger I’ve used the same guiding principles from an inverse point through my collaborative work with Darcie. It isn’t that the work is without narrative, but that the narrative oscillates with explicit purpose between intelligibility and unintelligibility.

I’ve chosen to discuss Hunger from a technical standpoint to flesh out some of the ideas that I’ve been subconsciously considering throughout the compositional process, but also precisely for the reasons stated above – anything more that I could say in regard to its content, my own interpretation, or feelings towards the events that unfold, would only restrict the potential depth and scope of the participant’s experience and imagination.

– Jason Thorpe Buchanan

oggetti I by Jason Thorpe Buchanan

oggetti I (Omaggio a Sciarrino) was written June 2-5, 2014 in New York, NY for Chamber Music Campania as composer-in-residence, and premiered by the Fiati 5 wind quintet in Lucera, Italy on June 25, 2014. This is the first movement of a larger cycle of works for wind quintet exploring concise musical objects, gestures, and formal structures. While composing this work, I was concurrently finishing antistasis for Ensemble Nikel and composing very rapidly to complete both commissions. Many concepts and compositional devices are shared between the two works, although there is no explicitly shared material. The Ancient Greek word ἀντίστασις (antístasis), meaning opposition, is defined as a rhetorical term for the repetition of a word or phrase in a different or contrary sense. In the work for Nikel, this concept is translated into sound through the repetition of a small number of musical gestures, or objects, that are continually recurring and recontextualized so as to contribute to the composite in a different way. oggetti I functions in a similar manner, drawing upon extremely limited materials that are reconfigured in various ways, something like a musical jigsaw puzzle.

3 new works, Artist-in-Residence Bergen, Norway

I’m here in New York for a few more days before shipping off to Europe for the summer, and I’m very glad to have finished three brand new works in the last 90 days since completing my Double Concerto that will all be premiered at festivals this summer in Italy, Israel, and Germany.

Quintet PNGs_Page_1Quintet PNGs_Page_3 First up is the premiere of oggetti I (omaggio a sciarrino), at Chamber Music Campania as composer-in-residence with the Fiati 5 wind quintet, featuring Alice Jones, flute, Lauren Blackerby, oboe, Benjamin Haeuser, clarinet, Christina Dioguardi, bassoon, and Mike Walker, horn. The work is the first in a series of miniatures for wind quintet.

Nikel Trio 06.11.2014 SCORE FINAL_Page_09Nikel Trio 06.11.2014 SCORE FINAL_Page_03
Second will be antistasis with Ensemble Nikel at the Tzlil Meudcan International Contemporary Music Festival in Tel Aviv with Patrick Stadler, Brian Archinal, and Antoine Francoise on July 7th, alongside works of Mark Andre, Brian Ferneyhough, Alex Mincek, and Abel Paul. The work is broken into two parts by a strong formal division, with material from the first half gradually penetrating the gaps in violent, stark, and unrelenting gestural ostinati. This contrasting material eventually deteriorates completely, overtaken by the opening gestures.

And last but perhaps most exciting will be the preliminary sketch of the first completed scene for Sult (Hunger) at the Darmstadt Contemporary Opera Workshop in August, a multimedia opera in collaboration with poet and librettist Darcie Dennigan that I will be working on over the course of about 18 months. The initial sketch for Darmstadt is for three singers and instrumental sextet (Ensemble Interface), though it will be expanded to include several more roles for singers/actors, additional instruments, electronics, and video projection. SULT 06.01.14 FULL TRANSPOSED SCORE FINAL for IMD _Page_27 SULT 06.01.14 FULL TRANSPOSED SCORE FINAL for IMD _Page_23

I’m extremely happy to have just confirmed my acceptance as Artist in Residence at USF Verftet in Bergen, Norway for a three month period in Fall of 2015 for the final stages of the project, where I will complete the full score and electronics while working with a cinematographer to film the primary visual elements for projection. It is very exciting to be taking the next major steps with this project, and I’ll be thrilled to see what Darcie invents for the rest of the libretto! More updates soon from Europe as these projects develop, I’ve never written so much music in such a short span of time, and it will be exciting to hear them all come together very rapidly in the coming months!

DISCLAIMER: THIS IS NOT MUSIC – Double Concerto for Two Horns and Chamber Orchestra (2014)

I’m very pleased to share the premiere performance of my “Double Concerto for Two Horns and Chamber Orchestra”. Many, many, many, MANY thanks to the musicians of the Eastman Musica Nova Ensemble, and especially Jeff Nelsen, Michael Walker, and Brad Lubman for an amazing performance!!

Now, very little contemporary music/art of any quality goes without ruffling some feathers. I don’t ordinarily entertain this sort of unfounded criticism, but I thought that this particular comment contained something that should be addressed.


As an artist/composer, my only goal as far as audience reception is to provide an experience that a participant may then engage with as they see fit (or perhaps feel). As I alluded to in my response to this criticism, I actually find the boiler factory/foundry associations that he made quite insightful (or at least serendipitous). I personally think these types of sounds are very attractive and compelling compositionally, and even beautiful if one is able to come around to that perspective (which takes more time in some cases than in others). However, this is a completely subjective assessment and I acknowledge that! It is how I FEEL as opposed to something that can be measured objectively.

What troubles me is not that this individual had a negative reaction; any reaction is perfectly valid and in fact I find an intense negative reaction to art more desirable than indifference, at least they are experiencing something! However, the comment “IMHO this is not music” is the bit that really gets my knickers in a twist.

If there is one process, ONE, that is absolutely critical to the development of all art forms, now and throughout the history of artistic endeavors, it is to QUESTION EVERYTHING. WHY is this art? WHY is this not art? WHY is it done this way? WHY can it not be done another way? WHAT is music? WHAT is not music? WHY is this good? WHY is this not good? WHAT is it to be “good”? WHAT is it to be “beautiful”? WHAT is it to be “ugly”? (http://videolectures.net/cd07_eco_thu/)

A visceral negative response is valid because it is a state of being that is subject to an individual’s personal experience, upbringing, tastes, etc. However, a statement like the above is not subjective, and therefore must be supported by some sort of rubric with which to make an assessment. If there is, in fact, a rubric of this sort in existence, I ask that Mr. Ilomaki kindly bring it to my attention. Who am I (we) to say that something is NOT a work of art, or not a piece of music? If the object in question came into being through the intention of an artist to produce art, there is without a doubt no means with which to argue otherwise. We may have different names for things, different definitions, different grammar, and that is what makes human beings (and contemporary art) so incredibly interesting; the unique, irreproducible experience!  Yet at the end of the day, statements or generalizations such as these have absolutely no merit whatsoever, as there can be no tangible unit of measurement for ‘art-ness’ nor ‘music-ness’.

**ADDENDUM (11:37pm): Because everyone loves happy endings. And Zappa!




Score: http://www.jasonthorpebuchanan.com/music.php

World Premiere, March 21, 2014
Eastman School of Music, Kilbourn Hall

Double Concerto (2014) for Two Horns and Chamber Orchestra was written between November 2013 and March 2014, premiered by Jeff Nelsen, Michael Walker, and the Eastman Musica Nova Ensemble with conductor Brad Lubman on March 21, 2014.

In 2008, I had written Mike Walker a work for horn and electronics that I now consider a turning point in my creative output, and throughout my undergraduate studies he remained one my closest friends and colleagues. The seed was planted for a horn concerto as far back as March 2011 through correspondence with Mike, and by June we had confirmed our plans to collaborate. The following year Mike suggested that I write a double concerto for himself and Jeff Nelsen, an exciting prospect and opportunity to explore the musical relationship between two hornists. We discussed the use of a “fluid” early valve horn technique that would utilize the natural partials available on each of the instruments, following in the footsteps of Ligeti’s Horn Trio (1982) and Hamburg Concerto (1998-99; 2003), one of his last works. Ligeti writes about his own work on the Hamburg Concerto: “In this piece I experimented with very unusual non-harmonic sound spectra. In the small orchestra there are four natural horns, each of which can produce the 2nd to the 16th overtone. By providing each horn or group of horns with different fundamentals I was able to construct novel sound spectra from the resulting overtones. These harmonies, which had never been used before, sound “weird” in relation to harmonic spectra. I developed both “weird” consonant and dissonant harmonies, with complex beats.”

My own Double Concerto utilizes four valved horns, the two soloists accompanied by two obbligato horns in the ensemble, each freely alternating between valved and natural horn technique. In this work I sought to explore my (complex) relationship as a composer to classical repertoire, and in the same way that Ligeti draws from Brahms, I in turn take a page or two from Ligeti’s book, among others. Throughout my creative life, perhaps no other composer has had such a strong an influence on me; he was the first living composer I became aware of, and I was immediately fascinated by his music. While living in Hamburg from 2010-11 I had the opportunity to study with a number of his former students and close colleagues, including Manfred Stahnke who helped me begin to raise many important questions in regard to my own creative process. I like to think of this work as a return of sorts after several years questioning the relevancy of pitch as a larger artistic dilemma; what is it about pitch that we as composers, performers, and listeners gravitate towards, perhaps above all else? We acknowledge music as organized sound, and thus all intentionally organized sound may be considered music. Yet, I find that the majority of composers, even today, remain fixated on this musical parameter more than any other. In the last three years I have quite intentionally been working to neutralize definite pitch and harmony in my works, favoring the exploration of nearly all other musical parameters and inharmonic spectra. For me, the horn is an instrument that is simultaneously very powerful and yet somehow still extremely fragile and organic in character. In being confronted with a musical situation featuring two horn soloists, I was faced to deal head-on with the issue of pitch within the context of my own musical language.

Many thanks both to Brad Lubman and Jeff Nelsen, without whom this undertaking would not have been possible. This commission was funded in part by the Meir Rimon Commissioning Assistance Program of the International Horn Society.


Howard Hanson Orchestral Prize awarded by the Eastman School of Music

I’m happy to announce that my work Asymptotic Flux: Second Study in Entropy (Static Foxy Lump: [II] Second Nudist Tyre Pony) was awarded the Howard Hanson Orchestral Prize by the Eastman School of Music, following just a few short weeks after the ASCAP Morton Gould Award for the same work, which was written last Spring for Alarm Will Sound and premiered at the Mizzou International Composers Festival this past summer.

April Updates: Double Concerto, ASCAP Morton Gould Award, Darcie Dennigan, NYCEMF

March 21st was the very successful premiere of my Double Concerto, with horn soloists Jeff Nelsen, Michael Walker, and the Eastman Musica Nova Ensemble, led by conductor Brad Lubman. The score and program notes can be found here. Many, many, many thanks to Brad, Jeff, Mike, and the ensemble members, who played spectacularly. Audio and video will become available as soon as I have a few spare hours to finish editing!

Now well into April, I’m absolutely thrilled to announce a collaboration between myself and critically acclaimed writer Darcie Dennigan, poet-in-residence at the University of Connecticut and author of “Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse” (2008) and “Madame X” (2012). I received a first draft of her libretto a few weeks ago for the first scene we are working on, and it is going to be fantastic. I’m now 15 or so pages into sketching fragments from the draft, and looking forward to receiving more of the libretto from her in the coming weeks!! A preliminary segment of our multimedia opera based on Knut Hamsun’s “Sult” will be workshopped at the Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt in August 2014 with Ensemble Interface. Some of Darcie’s incredible poetry can be found here.

I’m also extremely honored to announce that I was selected for an ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award (2014), for my work Asymptotic Flux: Second Study in Entropy written for and performed expertly by the amazing musicians of Alarm Will Sound last summer. A video of the performance is here, and the press release for the award can be found here, as well as a NewMusicBox article.

I’m additionally very happy that my work Asymptotic Flux: First Study in Entropy was selected for the New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival June 2-8, and we’ll be bringing the [Switch~ Ensemble] out to NYC where I will conduct performances of both my quartet and Chris Chandler‘s sextet Smoke and Mirrors on the festival’s opening concert June 2nd.

For now, it is back to work on the multimedia opera, as well as my trio for Ensemble Nikel and quintet for the Fiati 5 for upcoming premieres in Italy and Israel.

More soon!

– J