Posts tagged #composition

Introducing... Austin & Min Write A Musical, The Podcast

Artwork by Melissa Nigro

Artwork by Melissa Nigro

I'm proud to announce my latest collaboration! But I don't know yet what it is!

Fellow playwright/composer Austin Zumbro and I are embarking on a new musical theatre project, and we thought it would be fun to capture our creative conversations in a podcast!

So, we hope you enjoy literally listening to two dudes with mics throwing out ideas for an as-yet-unborn musical. We also hope it actually leads to a musical!

Austin & Min Write A Musical, The Podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and here!

The Story of Furusato

A friend recently asked me where the idea for "Furusato" came from. This Four Immigrants song appears in the so-called "11 o'clock Number" slot - late in Act II, just before the show ends. My friend wondered if the concept of furusato was addressed in Kiyama's book (it is not), and whether it was based on an existing folk melody (it is not or at least only incidentally). The story of this song is actually something magical, and one that makes me wonder if the Muses are indeed a real thing.

One day, while getting frustrated with a section in Act I, I decided to fiddle around with some pentatonic melodies and tonalities. I knew I wanted a song or two that would reflect Japanese culture at some point in the show. In my exploration, I stumbled upon a four-note phrase with an underlying harmony that struck me emotionally. My eyes started tearing up as I played this phrase over and over again. "Why am I crying?" I thought to myself. I jotted down the notes, then headed out to grab lunch. As I was walking, though, I remember thinking "I don't know why or how, but this song is in the show..."

I wondered what the song could be about. As more and more of the script was completed, and as I got to the harrowing Turlock scene during which Frank is forced out of town, it was clear to me that this mystery song must arise from that pain. The idea of "home" seemed a fitting theme for it. For the immigrants at this point in the play, there is a big question as to whether America has become or will ever truly be home. I looked up the Japanese word for home, and among the many options, I found furusato. A word with four syllables that perfectly fit the four-note phrase I had discovered. What is particularly poignant about the word is that while you can use the words "home" or "hometown," there is a unique, nostalgic quality to the word in Japanese. There is also a bit of a rural connotation that seems to fit the story of these four men who travel to the urban center of San Francisco.

In my research, I did discover an existing Japanese children's song called Furusato. Interestingly, it seems to be based in Western harmonies (take a listen), and I made an artistic choice that I wanted the folk song in my show to harken back to a time before Western harmony had entered Japanese music. It makes for a complicated discussion about where "authenticity" comes from when writing culturally-specific work -- a discussion that deserves its own full article.

Fascinatingly, though, when Akiko Kiyama - Henry Kiyama's granddaughter - came to see the show, she said that my "Furusato" reminded her of a song she knew. And of course, it was the children's song.

"Furusato" is reprised at the end of the show with a wish for the entire audience: "May you find furusato." At a party at translator of The Four Immigrants Manga Frederik L. Schodt's house, Akiko commented that it was apt to end the show that way, because her childhood "furusato" was one that you might sing with others at the end of a gathering, as a sort of benediction. She and her husband Ken'ichi graciously sang the song for us as our gathering drew to a close. A magical coda and further confirmation that indeed, "Furusato" was meant for The Four Immigrants.

A photo with Akiko (to my left) and her husband Ken'ichi (to my right) at translator Frederik L. Schodt's house (far left).

A photo with Akiko (to my left) and her husband Ken'ichi (to my right) at translator Frederik L. Schodt's house (far left).

Posted on August 22, 2017 and filed under Composition, Creative, Musical Theater, Research, Writing.

A Turn-of-the-20th-Century Kind of Guy

Portrait of Igor Stravinsky by Robert Delaunay

Portrait of Igor Stravinsky by Robert Delaunay

I've written before about how I'm trying to listen to music that I actually enjoy. I've been noticing a trend when it comes to listening to classical music. My heart seems to respond the most to pieces that were written around the transition into the 1900s. And these can be by composers who range from the tail end of the classical period, to the thick of the romantic period, to the first half of 20th century music: Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Stravinsky, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Gershwin, Copland, and even Joplin's ragtime music leading us into early jazz, and the likes of Kurt Weill and Cole Porter in musical theatre.

I'm trying to put my finger on what exactly stirs me up about these works. I think it's because from the Romantic period onward, deep emotion and self-expression became strongly appreciated in composition. Composers began to break from the conventions of the classical era, all the while utilizing all the "tricks of the trade" to create works that were at times epic and sweeping, at others solemn and introspective. Programmatic music became really popular at this time as well, with composers painting scenes or telling stories through their music - Beethoven's 6th and Stravinsky's Firebird come to mind. This emphasis on emotion carried on into the 20th century world of Expressionism, though I often feel a bit emotionally alienated by the exploration of atonality by Schoenberg and others. And while I appreciate a lot of the deconstructive work of late 20th century composers, I often find that I don't necessarily want to sit and listen to their work.

Not sure if Fantasia 2000 ruined or revitalized Respighi's Pines of Rome for me...

Not sure if Fantasia 2000 ruined or revitalized Respighi's Pines of Rome for me...

Now, I'm NOT a musicologist. There are probably all sorts of exceptions to everything I wrote above. And, of course, emotion and self-expression have continued to be a compositional value to this day (just listen to film scores!). But there's this turn-of-the-twentieth sweet spot for me; I really identify with what the major composers were trying to accomplish. They were using the existing musical sensibilities and conventions of their day to capture listener's hearts. What could be more musical theatre than that?

The Joy of Listening

Because I was a Music Major, I put a lot of pressure on myself to "be on top of" music. I have lists of music (ranging from classical to jazz to musical theatre to pop to film score) I SHOULD listen to -- and not just listen to, but analyze and form intelligent thoughts about. "Maybe I'll rent a score from Cal's Music Library and map out a symphony's harmonic structure! For fun," I tell myself. But the inevitable result is that I feel defeated and then don't want to listen to anything.

Recently, I listened to Michael Ian Black's podcast "How To Be Amazing" and someone was talking about the best way to experience an art museum. Instead of trying to see everything in a museum, a more enjoyable experience is to realize the amount of time you have and focus on a few select exhibits appropriate to that amount of time. Of course, a moment of discovery might occur that takes you off your path, but going into the museum with the goal of seeing everything is a fool's errand. Sure, you may see everything by the end, but will you actually have enjoyed the experience? I've found that by around the two-hour mark in a museum, my mind is completely shot -- and I haven't even seen half of what's on display! Why not select the things that I think I might actually be interested in?

So, I'm trying to approach listening to music this way. Try to listen to things I might actually enjoy. And if I don't enjoy it, that's OK. Move on. And of course, stay open to surprise discoveries. This is a far cry from feeling like I need to put myself through self-inflicted grad school. I believed the lie that I had to academically analyze every piece of music I listened to. And by doing so, I sucked the joy out of listening to music entirely.

Last week, I started listening to Stravinsky, because I remember that I enjoyed his work in college. And I've found, I indeed enjoy his work today! This guy is dope and a little cray! I don't have his scores in front of me, and I'm not going to write an essay about what makes his music so great (other than to say he's dope and a little cray). I just ENJOY it, and I'm trusting that somehow I'm unconsciously picking up on why. Maybe one day I'll dig deeper, but again, the motivation should be because I actually enjoy doing so - not because I feel like I have to please the Asian academic gods in my head.

Starting is the hardest part

I was feeling some stress in anticipation of my primary work task this week: revise the piano score for Four Immigrants. The show is getting a developmental reading next week, and I also need to hand off all of the music to my orchestrator. Just before the weekend, I made sure to plan out my week as best as I could so that I had plenty of time to focus on this task. I was gearing up as if this were going to be a challenging and grueling undertaking.

Hello again, Old Friend...

Hello again, Old Friend...

Since starting on Monday, though, I have found that jumping back into the score, while definitely challenging, isn't all that grueling. It's actually fun. For the past two days, I found myself in a focused flow that's engaging and enjoyable. This is often the case. My stress rises before I have to begin a task, but once the task has begun, the work is surprisingly not stressful.

I think planning my schedule ahead of time is a big part of this. The fact that I gave myself the time to focus on the task meant that flow could happen. But there’s something to be said for how I can make a mountain out of a molehill. Sure the molehill is work, and can be difficult. But the molehill is also something I get to create as a writer. The molehill is my craft, my art. It enlivens me.

Posted on April 12, 2017 and filed under Composition, Creative, Musical Theater, Writing.