Come Wednesday morning, while hale Helios wends his way across dawn’s sky-road, I’ll be shanksnagging it down highway 45 to Lake Zurich, Illinois for a 9:05 rendevous with destiny.
Why, you ask? Why not, I answer? With a question, even.
Why not? When it means I’ll get to meet for the first time Lake Zurich Middle School North’s Chamber Orchestra, Intermezzo Orchestra, and Prima Musica ensemble as their Spring 2016 Composer-In-Residence (under the direction of Riley Broach, bassist for another, more Famous Orchestra)?
It’s a great chance to workshop and then perform Viper music with some young musicians who can teach me a thing or two and, maybe, even lend a little class to the organization.
Up until this point, that burden has fallen largely on Mr. Broach, who has been coaching the students in learning some existing melodies by ear — “Last Call Waltz,” “Heartbreak for Beginners,” “Hotzeplotz Calls” — then transcribing them onto paper and working out some basic orchestral arrangements.
Heartbreak for Beginners
The “learning outcome” is that these long-hairs get a taste of how most music in its vernacular form gets put together: “head arrangements” of a song learned hand-to-hand.
When I meet with them, we’ll put it all together, polish it up, and get it ready for performance on May 19, 2016. (See more info here, along with Riley Broach’s take on the whole thing.)
I’m also pretty excited to hear something new I’ve written just for these students, played for the first time by humans, rather than the midi’ed “oohs” and “aahs” of my composing software that I’m used to hearing in my waking nightmares.
That’s right, y’all: it’s the world premieres of “Let Not Life Far From These Fingers Flee / My Dog Has Fleas”: a meditation on the fleeting nature of time, the seasons, life on this mortal coil, and proper pet care. And Lake Zurich gets to hear it first!
Tomorrow, I’ll talk with the students about how this piece came together, and we’ll use it to explore the idea of how music tells a story: not the lyrics, the music itself — sometimes (as is the case here) telling a story quite different than the one the lyrics would have you believe.
Wait. YOU want to hear my little ol’ story? Well, all right. Settle in, and I’ll tell it like it happened.
What had happened was this. It all started last Summer, shortly after Riley had talked to me about a plan to have The Viper work with his Middle School ensembles. Aside from having a string player or two join us onstage now and then, I’d never “written” for an orchestra. So I was feeling a little out of my element.
That week, I happened to go an outdoor performance of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy-Queen from 1692 (a mini-opera-slash-masque-slash-who-knows-what adaptation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream). This was a really cool and interactive production put on last June in Milwaukee’s Lynden Sculpture Garden by the Danceworks Performance Company and the Milwaukee Opera Theatre, performed by an all-ages, all-sized, all-skilled cast who led us into the woods, over hill, dale, and stream, and in and around the sculptures to different “stations” where scenes would be played to an audience who could stand, sit, or lie down anywhere they wanted to watch, and who could take in the scenes and the play’s overall chronology forward or backward! It was awesome!
As is my usual process, I take my inspiration where I can find it. That is to say, I steal it, and then get it wrong: voilà! New song.
At this performance, one song opened with what I thought was a line that went “Let not life far from these fingers flee.” It didn’t, and I’ve searched in vain for the real lyrics (though my best guess is it was a song from Act IV called “Let the Fifes and Clarions”). Then the scene launched into a masque bit where performers from 7 to 77 years of age presented a song for each of life’s four seasons.
And I thought, a ha! I’ll write a nice little baroque-y song about what I thought that first line had said, stop time in its tracks by freezing it into the measured counterpoint of a potentially eternal song, and then perform it with some youths who will be amazed by its gravity and wisdom!
And then I thought, a ha! Again, a ha! What could be lamer than that! What could sound less wise to a 7th grader than some old Polonius (I know, wrong play) nattering on about the slide from cradle to grave and overcompensating for his ukulele-ness by trying to sound like a string quartet? Tempus fugit? Tempus fidgets! I’m fidgeting right now just thinking about it.
But there was one final a ha! yet to come. Taking note of the whole ukulele “fleas” and “fingers” connection (the name is Hawaiian, and “ukulele” translates roughly “as ‘jumping flea,’ perhaps because of the movement of the player’s fingers,” or so Wikipedia says), I realized we could make this a story about a story that falls apart in the telling.
So, while I’m getting all serious and playing my ukulele like a chamber instrument, the Middle School players would keep interrupting to turn their instruments to the side, strum them like ukuleles, and sing “My dog has fleas!” Yeah, we’re all going to be food for worms, and ain’t that a peach!
Over the next few days, I rode my bike to my job enough times to work out the melody and lyrics (a lot of songs get written while I’m on a bicycle, behind a vaccuum cleaner, under a shower head, mowing the lawn, or feeding pets). And then I went out and bought this “I’m So Fly” notebook you’re seeing in these images, and I more or less sketched out how the plot would work.
After that, it was on to the 99% perspiration part of the process. But THAT’S a story for another time.
The Viper leads workshops at Lake Zurich Middle School North all the livelong day on April 6 and May 4, and then joins the LZMSN Orchestra for their Spring Concert on May 19, 2016.