When poet, essayist, and Queen’s Ferry Press fiction author Heather Fowler met composer Jon Forshee, creative sparks flew. His enjoyment of the story “Blood, Hunger, Child” from Fowler’s Queen’s Ferry Press’s collection Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness compelled her to agree to write a libretto in verse for a chamber opera that he would compose and the project of creating an opera based on a short story began.
Forshee, a specialist in contemporary acoustic, computer, and electro-acoustic music, discusses the project here with Heather Fowler. She has finished writing the libretto and he now works to compose the music for the last act.
Together, in this interview, they explore the process of making literary art combinatory with music.
QFP: For Heather, “Blood, Hunger, Child” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize this year and is a challenging story about two lovers who starve during the French Revolution. Did you ever imagine it being more than a story? The libretto is written in English but using old French poetic forms—did you struggle with any aspect of changing a static narrative to a dramatized format?
HF: In three words: Yes. At first.
I never initially imagined “Blood, Hunger, Child” would leave short-story-land, but when Jon selected it, noticed its dramatic potential, I began to percolate the idea of altering the text to fit a larger agenda—with more players. It’s like taking a monologue and converting it into a story where all POVs have more space to tell.
In a sense, a conversion from one form to another can be likened to translation—not everything survives in its original manifestation or intent. The story became a general framework for the opera’s narrative, but while writing the poems for this piece, scenes or arias, I realized that I began to write the story anew vis a vis alternate motivations so that the fabric of the narrative could be more inclusive of multiple perspectives. The original short story is first person, so an I narrator holds all power. The libretto has four voices—and each now has his/her own developed backstory and action plan.
There were really several challenges in creating operatic work for the stage from work for the page, all of which I enjoyed. The first was that, as a poet, I wanted to write it in verse, in old French poetic forms—but I also wanted to write it in English.
So many operas are written in French, Italian, or German—I loved the idea of letting an English speaking audience feel the transport of both hearing the beautiful voices of opera singers and contemplating the words and phrases they could understand. As a lucky turn of events, while writing the libretto I chanced to meet the author of The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle, and he gave me generous advice about writing an opera, which he had done, that also helped. The jist was this: When writing stories, the emotional fabric of the piece tends to be below the lines, subtextual. He advised me to bring the emotion right up to the top, to let it flow, for the songs to be more moving.
Opera is not a place for small emotions.
Another challenge in terms of the writing of the libretto was that I knew from talks with Jon that we strove for an intimate opera, with a small cast, stemming from a story with a very tight focus, so I had to work around the possibly desired use of a chorus (which I craved) or writing the larger ensemble scenes that bigger operas include, like, say, Turandot, which I watched in the Arena in Verona last summer.
Without the bigger scenes, the author loses some of the palate cleansing of a big number and also loses the stage foil of letting other characters than the main characters cause the conflict to advance–so I had to think tight, modern, and small.
QFP: Jon, who are your influences and mentors—both musical and otherwise–and why?
JF: What a deep question! Deep because, there’s no single thread of influence in my musical thinking, except for very general ones. I grew up on Mozart and Bach, both in listening and as a performer. But when I think of why my music is the way it is, and of how I think about it and why, it feels more natural to acknowledge a gathering, or collective, of others’ voices that inform my working, though each to varying degrees at differing times, of course.
The music of the Renaissance has had, for several reasons, a deep impact on my musical thinking for a long time. And so too has the Classical music of China. There are others…
“Influence” is a really layered idea, because for some the notion consists of ‘emulation’ or something…’inspiration’ is another way of putting it, and for me ‘motivation’ fits well…when I listen to something, anything, that really turns me on, it makes me want to write, or I just start thinking about music; it’s as though hearing a Mozart, or a Cecil Taylor, engage so brilliantly with their musical imagination impels me to engage more and more with mine. I’m not sure if that still falls under “influences.”
HF: Can I just chime in to say that Jon has this amazing ability to be so fluid in his style or musicality. He also has the ability to write scores, with many instruments at play, in complete external silence. The symphony is in his mind. This is one reason I was really excited to work with him.
That’s the sort of genius I admire.
QFP: Jon, do you really hear your musical compositions before your write them? Are there certain go to instruments you prefer to write for first, before adding a complement of others?
JF: Yes, there are lots of things I hear before I begin writing – it depends a lot on the kind of piece I’m writing. With some kinds of pieces, I might actually hum or whistle the piece for days before I start writing it down – with other pieces, I may not even be able to whistle or hum it at ‘all’ even after it’s been performed several times… The piano is the traditional go to instrument for composers, and for the most part it has been for me too. Except that now, with other, newer instruments available to musicians, the piano has become less and less mission-critical to many composers, I think. And I understand that.
QFP: Heather, for the conversion, what was your incubation and pre-writing process like?
HF: Researching poetic forms, of course. I also read quite a few operas and really explored the motivations of the characters in “Blood, Hunger, Child.” One example of how this impacted the resulting libretto was the evolution of the male lead Natan. Through the course of the writing, he went from being a disfigured, somewhat embittered man, as he is in the story, to a man with both physical deformity and a stutter. He went from being characterized as darkly obsessive and somewhat solipsistic by the first person story narrator to becoming like a benevolent fool in the operatic tarot deck, where his whole life is devoted to trying to provide for his pregnant girlfriend Cherie.
For dramatic reasons, if nothing more, Natan became a lover, so he could sing his way into the audience’s heart.
The effect this achieved for me, dramatically, is that his plight was all the more tragic—and the audience could really feel those collective gasps of terror when they watched how his every action became about preserving goodness, making a righteous life, and yet nothing he did would allay his trauma to come.
Too, I think I did more pre-writing for every act, more thinking about a cumulative arc, where I couldn’t simply dump in exposition but really had to make each scene turn the emotional screws in new ways the short story did not explore as fully—though regardless of whether in the opera or the fiction, this story is all about turning the screws. It was bold to write a story about starvation so intensive that a stillborn baby can become cannibalistic fodder for the revolutionary spit. As in many of my stories from the darker side, just when you think things are bad, they are actually about to get irreparably worse.
JF: I don’t really have a pre-writing, or pre-composition, process…as soon as I’ve started thinking about a piece, I’m composing…I don’t find anything anterior to that…
QFP: Jon, how does collaboration with text influence your style of composition?
JF: There are probably ways in which collaborating with text influences how my music sounds with which I’m not aware – but from the inside-out I find that my musical ideas adapt the text to my own ear, while at the same time my ear improvises and follows the rhythm, lilt and sway of the text, hopefully in an authentically reflexive way…
The degree to which the text and music maintain a “literal” relationship, however, is a concern which occupies my writing every time I work with a text. For example, one commonplace we find in much Western vocal music is when a text reads, say “a single leaf falls”, the melody of the setting will descend in pitch, as if to illustrate the “fall” of the leaf. This is not a “bad” way to set text, but it’s only one way to do it, and one which we hear a lot.
QFP: Heather, does writing text for a musical score create differences in the text as you create?
HF: Oh, yes. I had to stay mindful while drafting the libretto that any non-essential exchange must be cut. After all, a single word in opera can take quite a bit of time to sing—so every word matters. I also added more poetic devices like internal rhyme, assonance, and alliteration. I chose poetic forms with refrains that might echo the chorus of a song—or provide a pleasant line for the listener to hear more than once, with differing interpretations based on what line came before or after.
Sometimes as I moved from poetic form to poetic form, since this piece has many poetic forms, I would try to use short forms where I felt the exchange would be more terse.
In this way, it was really a conversion from a story into poetry—for the stage.
But I literally imagined the stage as I wrote each part of this libretto, imagined it being performed—since I’m a former thespian. And my goals were twofold—to write a text I was proud of and to write a story where I would covet the female roles as a performer.
I wanted to write arias and scenes that would move people—where the voice/s of the singer/s and the story could bring a viewer to tears.
QFP: Jon, do you ever laugh while you compose music? Cry?
JF: No – too busy keeping track of all the moving parts to emote much of anything! Ha ha… But really, the contemplative modality that I find I engage when composing isn’t one which seems to have much room for the kinds of strong emotions that provoke crying or laughing. But for sure, I will smile at a well-written line…
QFP: Heather, can you imagine writing a longer opera?
HF: Oh, yes! Perhaps this piece will be the start of a longer relationship with composers. I respect what they do and am very open to more collaboration.
QFP: Heather, as an American author who frequently researches and generates work that takes place in different countries and historical eras, and Jon, as someone who has lived and produced music internationally, do you think that your international exposure to other cultures contributes to creating your artistic aesthetic?
HF: Definitely. I’ve had a love affair with France since I was 11 years old. Of course, I took French in junior high, high school, and college to a point of partial fluency—and then I went to France, which led to me writing some work with France as the location. I’m also interested in Italy, which appears in a number of my stories. Since I’m spending a month in Ireland this summer, I am hoping Ireland will also appear in my work to come, as I plan to do some kind of Irish project while I’m there this year.
JF: Yes – I’m from a small town in Oklahoma, and I’m certain that had I not lived abroad in China, where I started learning the erhu, or abroad in Paris, where I worked on computer music, I would see and hear the world, the musical world, much differently.
Concerning just “travel,” Rousseu’s take that it’s a “necessary evil” (since you have to go away to realize you never had to leave, etc); but “travel” as a side-effect of a “searching,” or a “seeking out,” is crucial… Many far out and interesting pieces have been conceived on planes, or on trains, or in carriages…
HF: Right. Home gets clearer and more distinctive each time a new landscape competes and contrasts with the known.
QFP: The combination of modern music and video with archaic French poetry you two agreed upon is interesting—it seems both you and Heather thrive on challenges with rich texture. Is being a renaissance kind of artist and allowing for multiple and sometimes disparate influences something that creates more interesting art in your view? Heather’s work in the book Elegantly Naked was recently referenced as full of what Einstein would refer to as “combinatory play” and she mentioned she feels this sort of depth and cross-reference of aesthetics or concepts always empowers the powerful literature—do you feel this is echoed in terms of musical composers?
JF: I do. I feel that it is incumbent upon anyone who wants create something interesting to be able to imagine as many ways as possible in which someone other, the “other,” may cognize or receive the work, vision, narrative, whatever. Music, especially Modern Music, requires a particular kind of attention – a peculiar one, even – since, when I listen to music, I observe how textured my experience is, and how my ear often makes connections with things not “musical” – connections to a painting, to a poem, to a memory, to all of these at once, and so on.
Some of these are Modern or contemporary works, but some connections are made with themes or memories which are truly ancient – and I think that it takes an in-depth engagement with a broad diversity of art forms to begin to pick up on some of these.
QFP: The story for the upcoming opera “Blood, Hunger, Child” from Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness is set in the French Revolution. What drew you to this piece? What commentary do you work to create via the construction of the opera–and will it be political?
JF: I’ve been thinking about this dimension of the work for BHC a lot lately – and I’m obsessively ambivalent about it. At this point in the composing, all I can really consider is how the musical forces work together, and how those are going to interact with the video, the staging, choreography, computer processing, and so forth. I believe that as all the dimensions of BHC continue to come together a spectrum of exegetical possibilities will surface on its own – I have some hunches about this spectrum, but am too absorbed with stuff ‘under the hood’ to care very much about it.
One crucial aspect of my own composing process is the ability to listen to the work as it comes along; this is most often achieved by using notation programs which can ‘play back’ the notation, or by arranging the work for piano. In some instances mockups by small ensembles are possible which, though not finished musical works, can give detailed glimpses of what the final version might be like.
I have a mockup like this which I’d like to share at soundcloud.com (see link below); this is the opening of Blood Hunger Child arranged for flute, saxophone, and piano. Some of the abrupt changes in mood and dramatic instrumental gestures in this arrangement provide the kernels for many of the musical ideas in the work. Thank you for listening!
HF: I will be very excited to hear the work sung. For now, though, we leave you with this teaser. And, of course: More to come.