Counter-Anthem: Interchangeability

The major project I’m working is an opera called Counter-Anthem. It’s the first in a trilogy called Handbook for the Revolution. Possibly more important than the subject matter is the way it’s written.

If you’ve asked me about what I’ve been writing these last couple of years, I’ve undoubtedly rambled on about “this interchangeable parts technique I’ve been working out”. The whole concept grew from the frustration of not being able to produce much of my work. The economics of an opera/musical are different from a regular play, and certainly different from a chamber or orchestra production.

For a while I thought I had writer’s block, but what I had was a logistics block. Well, I did also have writer’s block, but it was adjacent problem which I’ve since resolved. Every time I’d sit down to start working on the project that was the kernel of Counter-Anthem, I’d get very hung up in the instrumentation and the production elements.

Inevitably, I’d come to the question, “If this is never going to be produced, what is the point in starting?” This is probably the same sort of question keeping many people from creating a lot of great work. More on that later, in other posts.

So I developed this way of orchestrating that would make the parts more flexible, basically by truncating ranges, more instruments can play more parts. For example, if I’m unable to find a bassoonist, the part played by a cellist or violist.

More info on this is, including diagrams and audio samples, visit my other site here:

There’s still some clef and transposition issues to work out, but it’s made for a good start. If I weren’t a lone voice in this, I’d set out to lobby against transposition. Why we’re still transposing instruments in the 21st century? There’s no need for it.

The implications of the interchangeability were more than I expected. Not only is it alleviating some of the anxiety of the logistics of preparing a new work, (“What if I can’t find a good oboist for the crucial solo?!”), but it’s also helping me to address some of the real financial burden of self-producing.

Back to the kernel of the story for a moment. I thought the entire opera was going to be about the writing of the Star-Spangled Banner. It’s an interesting story, both with and without the sanitation that time affords and inflicts upon historical events. As I was sketching and researching, I found myself toying with the idea that not only the parts were interchangeable, but also the settings, time periods, characters, and more.

Ultimately, I came to find that the interchangeability parallels the stories we tell ourselves that fashion our history. It can make a simultaneously harsh and benevolent editor. It changed my artistic trajectory.

While I was working on this project about the writing of the national anthem, Occupy Oakland was happening right outside of my door. It was hard for me to ignore the parallels. I already had a sense that the opera was going to be about more than just the writing of the poem the Star-Spangled Banner, and when I went to research the song Anacreon in Heaven, I found the third piece: Marathon.

As it stands now, the opera is in three parts (Athens-Baltimore-Oakland), with six sections in each:

  1. The Times
  2. The People Speak for the People
  3. The State Speaks for the State
  4. Rhetoric
  5. Phalanx
  6. Counter-Anthem

Each section repeats in each part. You can think of it as if there are three verses in each section, though each part can be sung by multiple performers. The same goes for the orchestration; the accompaniment is flexible and scalable. I plan on presenting it as if it were three mini operas, each running about a half an hour in length.

My current target is to finish writing the entire opera by the end of 2014, with production plans in early 2015, funding permitting.