composer • educator

Tin Toy Tintinnabulation and Other Shenanigans to the Left of Academia

Added on by Carolyn O'Brien.

Well, for those one or two of you who are following at home, I flew off the blog radar again. The 2016-17 U.S. political climate has done my work and mental health no favors, but I think what I needed even more was to sleep off my adrenaline depletion after the many years I spent in grad school. I haven't stopped working, though. I am taking some time to think about where my voice truly belongs. Big things are afoot– fun things, childlike things, things that lead me more towards equal collaborations in other performative and multi-disciplinary settings. 

I am currently working on a show that reveals these new ideas, place and date TBD soon, hopefully in late May/early June 2018. I will post about the progress my comrades and I are making. This show builds on the non-stop show concept I used for my doctoral recital, and leans towards something a bit experimental and a more cohesive and abstract narrative. The genre of experimental theater calls to me, however I remain flexible on what this genre will be. I am more than happy to defy labels. I do have brilliant models in mind, though, which I am molding into an amalgam all my own. I'll name a few today, and will always give appreciative nods to everyone who inspires me. Currently, I am in love with the theatrical works of Aperghis and Kagel, as well as the sculptures, costumes and theatrical works of Oskar Schlemmer. My work leans to more childlike pursuits too, such as building instruments that are probably more inspired by Dr. Seuss or Willy Wonka than European examples. I am definitely entering inventor territory, and studying the work of Harry Partch, namely in the way he mixed music with storytelling and sound-sculpture, is very inspiring. I am intrigued by kinetic art, especially the playful works of Calder. I am slowly teaching myself rudimentary mechanics, how to build unusual instruments, and automata. Then there is my ultimate obsession: Victorian era mechanical musical instruments. I will compose for those in the near future, but more on that later. First, I must teach myself to repair a few of the vintage musical toys in my arsenal.

I think it's fair to say that while I will never abandon academic rigor (because of course I am rabidly reading books about experimental theater,) I am also learning to be a bit scrappy, thanks to my brother. These days, being hands-on scrappy is a better teacher for me than any book. I need to get this into my hands, my bones, my spleen. It feels good to use a tactile approach, and as always, I find that I retain these lessons longer when I'm building physical objects. Future shows will always include several sound-sculptures built by and with my brother (a few seen in earlier posts and some more to come.) I have also asked several old and new friends to collaborate with me in the coming years, including musicians, dancers, a juggler, acrobats, visual artists and others. I am finding that some of this experimental stuff is leading me back to more traditional musical forms. For instance, I am filling in some huge holes in my more academic skill-sets, such as learning recording software to aid in composing in sketchbook form, and composing for voice. While most compose for voice earlier into their education, this year will be my first time writing for voice and employing text.

I'll go ahead and say it. While I love art song and the human voice, I have found that even approaching the act of composing art song to be very intimidating, and that intimidation for me is all about the text. Getting text, getting the right text and, for that matter getting the legal rights to text is a huge pain in the ass. I have tried five times to be granted permission from the estates of dead poets (but not enough long dead) whose works are not in the public domain, only to be rejected by their estates. I completely respect and understand why this happens. Who wants their words butchered? I respect the setting of text for the voice so much so that I have completely avoided it! However, very recently I have made some wonderful new singer friends who have all offered to help me. With that kind of support, it's time to finally punch my fear in the gut. After years of searching for text both in and out of the public domain, I fell in love with the work of a living poet, wrote to her, and she responded with kindness. She is open to working with me, and I cannot wait to reveal her name later in the year when we have worked out all the details. Her stuff is wonderful, witty, sometimes mythological and fantastical, pithy and concise, and perfect for me. I can't wait to share it with all 2.5 of you who are reading this.

I will leave you now, but not without one more little hint for the impending show. I have a working title which I think will likely be the final title: Spin. In this show, many of the noise-making objects have cranks, are spun in order to make noises, are circular shaped, or the act of playing them uses a circular motion. Yes, a singer will be involved! All of the text is related to this spinning notion. The form of the full show and the individual but interlinked pieces have a circular and often kaleidoscopic narrative. There will be vintage toy instruments all over the place. I leave you with an example of this via video of tin toy tintinnabulation seen below. For now, my composing studio is a noisy place in a Ligeti-esque, micropolyphonic way. However, in academic fashion, I have taken dictation and notated every single note made by these toys to aid in the composing-out of this silly mechanical magic. The final playground will be great fun for all, but one does need a hint of logical organization, doesn't one?

Using my recording software to record an assortment of tin toys for an upcoming show. Decided to learn this software to create in sketchbook form. It's fun. This recording is a rough first draft in a quasi-Ligeti micropolyphonic stage. I could listen to this ridiculousness all day long.