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Brave new world

I get the question about process quite a bit, and though I’ve fine-tuned my answer over the years, I’m never really satisfied with it. But I am pretty consistent in explaining the beginnings of a project as usually meaning a few (or, more likely, far too many) weeks of “research”. What research means is up to you. It can range from score study and listening, to strolling through MoMA, to reading novels and watching movies. Yeah, I know. But it really does all count toward The Greater Good. My accountant says so.

Some months ago, while attempting to wrap my brain around what in the name of Kwisatz Haderach I was going to do for this short piece I was writing for the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, I hit a wall. So, to the scores! In the past this meant a trip to the Performing Arts Library (even in grad school I went there – the score shelves were actually far deeper than Juilliard’s), as well as visits to some old favorites on my bookshelf. But this time I needed to get some fresh John Adams in front of my eyes. (Who doesn’t?) The Adams scores on my shelf are already pretty much memorized, and I remembered being floored by one scene in Doctor Atomic when I saw it last year. At the End of Act I, Oppenheimer sings this stunning solo aria that I just had to hear again. You’d think, before a commercial recording came out (truth be told there is a DVD you can get, and some of it is on YouTube, but these little truthy factoids defeat my point so just please keep bearing with me) this would be impossible, or at least, near-impossible, as long as you have an In at Boosey. But it’s not. I just logged into our (well, Better Half’s–it was her Christmas present last year) Metropolitan Opera “Met Player” subscription, and fired up the HD broadcast of Doctor Atomic. There, at #21, is the aria, “Batter My Heart”. Which incidentally is absolutely one of the more important opera arias written in the last quarter-century. Gorgeous, and heartbreaking, and perfect.

Then I had a thought. Boosey & Hawkes recently started an online perusal score library (with a VERY slick interface, I must say), probably in response to the (also very cool, just not as Adobe Flash-y) online perusal scores Schirmer put up, what, about a year or two ago. And there it was. The entire opera score. I flipped through to the end of Act I in one tab, clicked play on the MetPlayer in another tab, and then, just like that, I was listening and following score to a (basically) unrecorded opera written only a few years ago. For those of us who remember rifling through card catalogs to find anything written after 1975, this is an amazing, amazing thing.

As far as this new orchestra piece was going, the ocean of source material was of course spreading far wider than Mr. Adams. I was also listening to quite a lot of funk (again), and lots of the wuub-wuub-wuub bass-heavy “dubstep” all you kids look like you’re Doing The Robot to. In the past, this would have meant spending a fortune on CDs, or, more recently, spending a smaller fortune on iTunes. Or if you’re feeling poor, suffering through far too much crappola on TheYouTube. But then I started playing around with a Spotify subscription. Which turns out, is basically like having a massive library in your lap. So then that Tower of Power track you’d really rather just hear once thank you very much and no thanks I don’t need to own it forever and ever is right there, ready to stream. Of course, this kind of thing has been around for a while. But now the database is stunningly large, the quality is consistent, and it’s legal.

This works for that so-called classical music, too. Try what I did. Download the William Schuman Symphony scores from the Schirmer site, stream Gerard Schwartz’s new Naxos recordings of them, or hell, Bernstein’s old live recordings from the 60′s on Spotify, and take yourself to Bill Schuman School. I’ve totally gone there there myself. Got the framed diploma.

I do so love the Aeron Chairs at the Performing Arts Library, but, it’s awfully nice not to have to bother with the 1 train. True, you really can’t replicate the experience of turning the pages of a hefty 12×18 5lb mamma-jamma of a score in an empty hall at the dress rehearsal, but in a pinch, the combination of these fancy space-age resources packs a considerable wallop. When this “research” coalesced into Blow It Up, Start Again (premiering next month in Chicago), the pile of scores and CDs used was almost entirely virtual.

It’s a bonanza out there. I ask you: when Google is showing you Vermeers in high def, and I can follow score while listening to Birtwistle’s Night’s Black Bird, all while my kid is asleep in the next room, can the Kwisatz Haderach really be far behind?

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