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12 July 2011

Insight: Bohemian Deconstruction

Drew Crawford Image: Drew Crawford  

Drew Crawford writes about his mini-opera Bohemian Deconstruction, and the mixed bag of emotions and ideas evoked by the recent Polyopera project. This article is the latest instalment in our 'Insight' series, in which the AMC's represented artists take a close look at some aspect of their own work. Read also: Erik Griswold and Vanessa Tomlinson's 'Insight' article about Clocked Out's collaborative project Wake Up! and Gordon Kerry's article about his Symphony.

Bohemian Deconstruction was composed as part of a much wider project: Polyopera, a collaboration between Polyartistry, a collective of multidisciplinary artists from around the country, and Opera Australia, our national opera company. The concept was 'opera where you least expect it', the two companies joining forces to create three mini-operas produced and filmed in venues across wider Sydney throughout June 2011. Taking as its starting point three classic opera masterpieces in OA's 2011 program, Polyopera sought to transform La Bohème, Don Giovanni and Lakmé into 'high-speed slices of 21st century life', through the work of the respective companies' resident and guest artists and the public through contributions on Twitter and other digital platforms.

The project was initiated and driven by Nicole Canham - clarinettist, curator, and founding member of Polyartisty - and it's clearly part of her broader ambition to expand the audience for classical music in Australia, whilst exploring the understanding and interpretation of music and the place the arts hold in people's lives. The brief she gave me was to remix, or deconstruct, Mimi's aria from La Bohème within the following parameters: it had to contain an arrangement of Mimi's aria in full, be around 8-10 minutes in duration, use only a soprano and string quartet, and work with a libretto that was going to be shaped by Polyartistry member David Finnigan from lines and ideas submitted to the project via Twitter. (For a video of the result, see the end of this article.)

In the early stages of our discussions, David and Nicole wanted to find out who were the contemporary bohemians, and explore whether or not it was still possible in 21st century Australia to live a 'bohemian lifestyle'. The idea of the bohemian emerged in the larger European cities that were being transformed by the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century, and the word itself can be traced to when artists and writers began moving into low-rent gypsy neighbourhoods in Paris (because gypsies were thought to have come from Bohemia, in what we now call the Czech Republic). It's an essentially counter-cultural idea, involving voluntary poverty, more-or-less communal living, and a fairly free attitude to sexual relations and personal hygiene in the pursuit of a kind of artistic enlightenment - and initially 'bohemian' wouldn't have been a particularly complimentary term. In fact, Puccini's opera is part of a long-term trend to legitimise and romanticise the lifestyle, and this romanticisation still persists today.

I found this problematic, though, as I realised that I have no desire to romanticise bohemianism - at least not in the contemporary period. It's too easy for any kind of counter-cultural movement to turn into a strict orthodoxy, or for it to be co-opted and commodified by our rapacious, consumer-driven society: being a bohemian is just about joining a different club. And I also don't believe that poverty, filth or promiscuity are necessary for cultivating creativity and insight.

I like Bohemian Like You, the 2000 song and video clip by the Dandy Warhols, which tells the story of young creative types in the band's home town of Portland, Oregon in the US. The hallmarks of the lifestyle are all there: artistic ambitions, poverty, sleeping around, etc. But its gently ironic depiction of these 'outsiders' all identifying themselves as a group (of bohemians) and the kind of self-deception that might come into play in pursuing that dream does a beautiful job of showing how bohemianism can become its own kind of trap. [Note: the following video contains some nudity.]

The other example I like is Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway (1994), featuring a young writer David Shayne (played by John Cusack) struggling to get his plays on Broadway in 1928 Manhattan, surrounded by a bohemian coterie who argue in typical Allen fashion about their self-conciously bohemian lifestyles throughout the movie. (This scene - link to Youtube - late in the piece is typical of their exchanges.) In the film, the aging lothario playwright Sheldon Flender brags 'I have never had a play produced. That's right. And I've written one play a year for the past twenty years'. Our hero responds, 'Yes, but that's because you're a genius. And the proof is that both common people and intellectuals find your work completely incoherent'.

This idea that art has to be ignored, uncommercial and baffling to be worth anything artistically is hilarious in a Woody Allen film (and itself ironic, given that we're watching a commercially successful film that was nominated for numerous Academy Awards), but is frankly dangerous and delusional in the real world.

Polyopera had chosen Mimi's aria Mi chiamano Mimi for me to work with, and in the opera she's a central character but a seamstress - a fairly lowly skilled manual labourer who makes silk flowers for pleasure on the side, without the artistic ambitions and lofty bluster of the poet, musician, painter and philosospher (all male) that make up the other bohemians of the cast. There's a humility and spirituality about her that comes across in the aria that I found appealing (and that Rodolfo no doubt finds appealing): she's following her own path, makes no grand claims for her work, and takes pleasure in the first sun of spring, the perfume of a flower, the rooftops she sees from her room. She instantly feels the most genuine of all the characters, but also the least stereotypically 'bohemian', and I felt I needed to engage with that in some way.

So it's with a quite complex set of baggages around the ideas we were working with that I came to the project, though I was still excited by the possibilities: I do actually enjoy having these kinds of challenges to deal with.

Another challenge would prove to be the schedule: due to my other commitments and the timing of the Polyopera website launch, Nicole needed me to compose the music for the opera before the libretto was created. This is a most unusual situation in opera: there are many stories about composers tearing their hair out over a poor libretto, even doing it themselves in desperation, but in virtually all cases the words come first. It required some flexibility from all involved and a fair degree of trust, but it also made preparation difficult: how do you compose the music for a deconstruction when you don't know what the text is going to be? The relationship between the words and music in any multimedia work is delicate and often unpredictable, and it's this relationship that would normally form the basis of the deconstruction.

In the past I have done plenty of music theatre works, from my first cabaret-opera Why Are Our Porn Stars Killing Themselves? (1997) to the epic Eugene & Roie: Disgrace (2004), and more intimate hybrid works like The Devil Finds Work For Idle Hands To Do (2006). I have also done many scores for theatre, dance and film where I've been collaborating on someone else's creative vision (the director, producer, choreographer, etc). But aside from my history of working with theatre/multimedia, I imagine I was also approached to work on Bohemian Deconstruction because of the work I've also done that 'remixes' works from the past. Most recently, this was in In that corner, in that very room: a piano suite after the Preludes of Chopin (2010) which is based on transformations of one or more of Chopin's 24 Preludes Op. 28. It is the latest in a long line of works that take other music as it's starting point, from my String Quartet no. 2 (In Memory of Jeff Buckley) (1997) up to my piano suite The Nun's Picnic: Variations on a theme sung by Tammy Wynette (2005/2010).

My piece Black Orpheus was also the winner of the Orpheus Remix Award from ABC Classic FM (2007), a competition celebrating the 400th anniversary of the creation of the world's first recognised opera, Monteverdi's Orfeo. Entrants had to make a mini-opera (less than four minutes long) using at least one of five samples from a supplied recording of Orfeo, and my entry (done with librettist Anatoly Frusin) conflated elements of the Orpheus myth with the story of Little Richard's visit to Australia in 1957. This last example is closest to what we mean when we think of a remix - it was created in the studio using almost exclusively the samples provided. But all of these pieces are influenced by my work with electronics (using samples, MIDI sequencing, digital processing, etc) as much as my classical composition training. However, for Bohemian Deconstruction, I was not working with studio techniques, but a live string quartet and soprano.

Originally intended as a tool for analysis, 'deconstruction' works entirely within a text to expose and undermine the frame of reference, assumptions, and ideological underpinnings of that text, but it has increasingly been used over the past 30 years as an approach to the creative process. However, this was going to be difficult without the libretto. So I started my musical preparation by doing an arrangement of the Puccini aria, a completely satisfying exercise in craft and the best way of coming to grips with the ideas in the aria itself. It also gave me a decent space to start developing ideas for my 'deconstruction' subconsciously as I worked. I began to notice small, ornamental figures that I wanted to work with, as well as harmonic traits that recurred (extended pedal notes, inverted chords) and began to formulate ways to work with those as well.

My piece had to include the original aria, but this begged the question, where do I situate it in relation to my music? Do I put it before, after, or in the middle? I decided that I didn't want to try to integrate the two - they would stand next to each other, clearly juxtaposed, each commenting (musically) on the other. I imagined it like a diptych in painting: two panels, prepared separately but making up a whole work. If I put the Puccini aria at the end, I risked being dogged by the feeling that I was building towards it, that the expectation of it would be hanging over the whole piece, or that it was the 'point' of the piece, so I decided to get it out of the way by putting it first.

Stylistically, too, from my music I wanted something unrelated and modern, something that would stand in contrast to the Puccini aria and its lush, rubato romanticism (think of I. M. Pei's Pyramid du Louvre in Paris) but have its own sensual, emotional, and intellectual attractions.

I then realised, after I decided on this diptych structure, that my 'panel' would also consist of two halves, representing the ecstasy and the agony of creation - I may have qualms about the stylised affectation of bohemian life, or the way it formalises and tries to mediate that suffering and that ecstasy, but the fact of it is inescapable. And I realised that that is what the work was ultimately about: any creative life demands sacrifice, the joys and fulfillments are always counterbalanced by struggles and pain.

The whole first, fast section is based on a small, ornamental figure, a kind of musical hyphen, that occurs twice in the orchestral part of the Puccini (midway through, and at the end) that I expand harmonically and rhythmically in a 5/4 metre. The second, slow section is in 7/4 and combines a version of a rhythmic figure that features in the accompaniment throughout, voiced in rotating, closely voiced, inverted chords (influenced by Puccini's use of inversions and the strange progression in the main 'mi chiamano Mimi' theme). These two halves are seamed by a unison-note texture that is also derived from a similar textural feature of Puccini's aria.

The melodies themselves were constructed so that they would be in the same vocal range as the Puccini, and contained many repeated and held notes in order to provide enough flexibility to be able to accommodate any rhythmic changes that might be required by the libretto when it was done. And this was just as well, as when the text first came in, adapted by David from the Twitter feed, there were a number of issues with scansion that needed to be addressed, and we had to cut down the libretto for the second section from around 20 lines to 6. There were terrific images and ideas, but the arrangement of the words needed a good massage before they began to fit the music more comfortably - which they eventually did, just moments before soprano Taryn Fiebig (Musetta in the OA's 2011 production of La Boheme, but our Mimi here) was due to start rehearsing the role at Surry Hills' Opera Centre.

As I mentioned earlier, in the past I have done plenty of collaborative, large-scale works and in many of those instances I have had to be the executive producer as well as the composer - these are self-driven projects, using my own team of collaborators, running the production on the smell of an oily rag, and there's no budget to pay someone to oversee the whole production. But Bohemian Deconstruction was a very different experience - not that we were drowning in resources, but I wasn't required to hire or rehearse the musicians, organise the rehearsal and recording schedules, negotiate with ABC Classic FM about the recording, produce the recording session, edit the audio, liaise with the director or supervise the film shoot or edit, attend the final sound mix, coordinate the marketing or liaise with publicists...

On the one hand, it's a relief not being in charge - the demands on your time are much less. On the other hand, it means I'm not in charge! I have to let go of control of all of those other elements I am often responsible for (and far be it for me to suggest that composers can be control freaks). But ultimately it's been a very satisfying experience working on a production that has such a broad creative remit, that is engaged in taking opera and classical music to new audiences and environments, and has involved the willing collaboration of so many creative people in its realisation across two very different organisations.

For a major arts organisation like Opera Australia to be partnering with a young collective like Polyartistry says a great deal about the seriousness of their commitment to expanding the audience for opera in Australia, and I think it's been a brave, worthwhile and fruitful experiment - the start of a conversation that I hope continues into the future with new collaborations and forays into different ways live and digital versions of opera can be accessed by the public.

Further links:

Drew Crawford - AMC Profile
Polyopera website: (http://polyopera.com/)
Polyopera (Facebook) (http://www.facebook.com/polyopera)
Drew Crawford: Chopin Project (2010) (http://drewcrawford.wordpress.com)
'Orpheus Remix Awards' - news article on Resonate (12 december 2007)
Black Orpheus/ Little Richard in The Underworld by Drew Crawford & Anatoly Frusin - MP3 download (ABC Classic FM website)
The Music of MA (Facebook) - singer Victoria White & composer Drew Crawford

Subjects discussed by this article:

Drew Crawford is a Sydney-based composer, producer and educator, currently working on his second solo piano recording with Zubin Kanga (as part of his Chopin Project), and his second pop album Dance Until My Heart Breaks as MA.


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