Strange Fellowe: Act I Follow-up, Part 1

posted by Hitomi Oba, composer

photo by Ashley-Nicole Grosse

photo by Ashley-Nicole Grosse

The staging of Act 1 of “Strange Fellowe” has come and gone, and a follow-up blog entry seems long overdue – but this past month has given us a healthy amount of time to reflect individually, amongst ourselves, and with the people with whom we shared the as we take our next steps forward with this work.

Nick and I have repeatedly agreed that the week of workshopping was one of the BEST WEEKS EVER!!!  Having the opportunity to completely dive into this long-developed work for a full week was at once gratifying and deliciously challenging.  Not only did we watch it come alive, but we also came face to face with a variety of questions in the work, many of which we were discovering for the first time.

And being able to work for a short but uninterrupted period of time with a team of extremely imaginative, enthusiastic, and professional artists in different fields was precisely the kind of stimulating, positive, and substantial interactions that we in the creative professions crave.  The interpretations, discussions, and actions we shared with the other artists were eye-opening.

As much as I would have liked to have sat in the audience and experienced the piece unfold in front of me, I was nonetheless able come away with an equally as immersive, however different, experience of being able to work as a performer in the production.

photo by Andrew Russell

Jazz artists most often adopt stage presences centered on the performance of music alone; they always look as though they are about to, in the middle of, or have just finished playing their instruments.  In this production, however, the musicians were a part of the scene, features of the landscape of this world we created upon the stage, and thus were expected to adapt to this environment – even blend in.

My impression is that in the beginning, the musicians (myself included), were a bit unsure of how to conduct ourselves, particularly when we were not playing our instruments.  But as we ran through the act over and over, we became familiar with the world, the pace, and our roles, and we slowly melted into this imagined world.

photo by Ashley-Nicole Grosse

photo by Ashley-Nicole Grosse

This engrossing “world” contributed to other concepts that set the piece apart from a typical jazz performance.  In my jazz performances, I strive to create a world and perhaps a certain sense of flowing time through the music.  But I recall being much more conscious of this effect within “Strange Fellowe.”  Instead of the audience focusing on the sounds we made, they experienced the larger world that we were a part of – a world created collaboratively by all involved, including the director, librettist, actors, lighting designer, video designer, and set/costume designers.

Strange Fellowe - Kristolyn, the Bellowes, and Band

photo by Andrew Russell

Interestingly, when I was composing the music, I was very conscious of the vibes and effects that the music would evoke, as that was arguably one of its most important functions in a work like this.  However, the experience of releasing and projecting that music into the world as a performer allowed me to be an active part of that profound moment.

I could go on and on about the great things we discovered and created, the wonderful people we had the fortune to work with, and the next steps we’re taking on this “Strange” path, but I would like to leave room for insights from Nick and Jerome…

I wish that I could enjoy weeks like this every week of every month.  Except, of course, with some minor improvements such as remembering to eat and sleep.  Of course, the more exciting a project is, the worse those two functions usually suffer.  And at this point, I’m most definitely more excited than ever as we move forward with “Strange Fellowe!”

Strange Fellowe: Music Sneak Peek

posted by Hitomi Oba, composer

Although Strange Fellowe has never been staged before and this upcoming ‘workshop’ of “Act I: At Ease” will be the first time Jerome, Nick, and I will get to see our collaborative efforts realized, some of the songs have made their ways out into the world in concert performances over the years.

Here, we’d like to share some audio clips from such concerts as a ‘sneek peek’ into the musical world of “Strange Fellowe”.

Song of Shadows

“Song of Shadows” was one of the first songs ever composed for “Strange Fellowe”.  It is unlike any of the others, in that the tempo is fluid (rubato), and the length very short.  While many of the other early songs have undergone multiple and drastic revisions, this one has remained mostly intact..

I had been wanting to share this song for a while, and found the opportunity to do so in a string of performances this summer with my own jazz group.  The rubato nature of this song calls upon the musicians to be acutely aware of each other in order to create the ebb and flow as a single unit; this is one of the things that make it so much fun to play!  For concert versions of this song, I usually add a saxophone segment up front before the sung melody comes in.

The Dark Chateau

Back in 2009, while this project was still in its early stages, Nick and I were undertaking another project, putting together original music to be performed by our jazz orchestra (a.k.a. big band), Jazz Nexus.

While in the San Francisco Bay Area for the holidays, we were able to snag an all-star, dream cast of musicians for a hastily rehearsed, enthusiastically received, and memorable one-night, sold-out performance at the renowned Yoshi’s Jazz Club in Oakland.

The instrumentation for this version of “Dark Chateau” is obviously a bit more extensive than the concise band that we’ll have at the October staging.  And the song itself is actually  supposed to be sung by the male lead, but I think that this recording conveys a certain vibe and energy that makes it come to life in the true sense of the phrase, “live performance.”

Strange Fellowe: The Band

posted by Nick DePinna, composer

Though 75% of the music in the first act of “Strange Fellowe” was composed within the past twelve months, early versions of the remaining 25% date back as far as four years ago.  It was therefore a long awaited and truly inspiring experience to see the music come to life in its first rehearsals with real musicians (alive!) this week.  “Act I: At Ease” clocks in at twenty-eight minutes of almost completely through-composed music, therefore one can imagine the challenges of balancing explicitly notated material on the page with elements of freedom and improvisation.  Yes, the parts that we very specifically write out will be performed exactly as we intended, however incorporating portions in which we merely give “slashes” and chord symbols (relatively typical in jazz music) often have a higher ceiling of musical quality.

This particular issue, of course, is only at stake when dealing with creative and brilliant musicians.  I’m trying not to gush too much about the individuals involved here, but it is hard to veil my enthusiasm for these unique and superb artists.

Pianist Ross Garren and I have been close friends for over seven years, and since my first experience making music with him, his sensitivity and carefully lush harmonic sensibilities have burrowed their way into my imagination as the epitome of beautiful piano playing – he is a cool and refreshing dip in crystal clear water.  Ross is also coincidentally an incredible harmonicist, though he will not be performing on harmonica in the opera.  It is always astounding to me how when he picks up a different instrument, he takes on a completely different, wrenching, and fiery personality.  In addition to his valuable assets as a performer, Ross is also an incredible composer, one of my favorite, in fact.

Though it was initially hard to get my mind around the formidable breadth of his musical personality, it all begins to make sense when I remember that it was he who strong-armed me into turning the corner on visionary musicians such as Aaron Neville, Michael McDonald, and Steve Winwood.  Yes, you laugh…but spend a day with Ross and you might do the same.

The youngest musician in the band is bassist Owen Clapp, currently a UCLA student in the Department of Ethnomusicology at UCLA.  Owen immediately turned heads when he entered UCLA as a freshman; it was obvious that his musical maturity was beyond his years, but it wasn’t until Hitomi and I heard him perform a solo feature recently with the UCLA Mingus Ensemble that I realized what a unique and valuable musical asset he was, for multiple reasons.  First, his improvisation and underlying feel is inherently melodic, a trait all too rare in bassists.  The instrument and the register is the foundation on which the remainder of the music stands, so for that key element to feel alive and undulating is most extraordinary.  Secondly, his sound is superb – deep, warm, and enveloping, yet not boomy or overbearing – another quality all to rare.

Aside from being a first-rate acoustic bassist, Owen is also a seriously excellent electric player, on which he has an equally seriously excellent sound.  He was recently on a national tour with hip-hop artist Dumbfoundead and the Breezy Lovejoy Band.

While each element in the core of any band is equally important, the drums, more so than the rest, have the responsibility of holding everyone else together.  In many cases this is less true and in some others significantly less of a challenge, however the music of Strange Fellowe is in almost constantly shifting meters; it is therefore most essential for the drums to be consistent, informed, and bulletproof – let alone flowing, musical, lyrical, and sonically juicy.

Drummer and percussionist Michael Lindsay is all of these things.  I only met Mike a few years ago, and because I heard him performing with a groove-based jam band, I made the unfair and unfortunate assumption that he was simply an excellent groove drummer.  I couldn’t have been more wrong – Mike is one of the most versatile and sensitive drummers I have ever heard.  The music flowing from him is, yes, grooving, but also lively and lyrical – he evokes the stretching and compressing of time, causes inadvertent breath-holding, even fluctuates heart rates.  On top of that, he reads, interprets, and projects quite difficult written music with ease, style, and grace. And if that weren’t enough, he is also breaking some ground experimenting with midi-triggers and designing equipment to facilitate tackling such challenges.  I do believe that he’ll be using some of these resources in the opera.

I am so fond of these guys. All three of them were our first-choice musicians, and we are so fortunate to have them working on this project with us.

To round out the core of the band, I’ll be playing synthesizers…nothing flashy (we hope!)…just enough to warm up the ambience of the room and add some orchestration options.  And in addition to this core, three other musicians, referred to as “The Bellowes” (both saxophonists and vocalists…all three of them!) will perform simultaneously as a part of the band, and onstage as part of the drama.  More to follow on those excellent people in a later post.

Strange Fellowe: Beginnings

posted by Jerome Parker, playwright and librettist

Four years ago seems like yesterday because that’s how time flies.  But it was about that amount of time ago when we met in one of UCLA’s courtyards to talk about jazz and opera.  This was our second official meeting.

Our first encounter happened as I ventured outside of the theater department’s buildings and landed in the music department to learn about scoring for films.  Truth be told, I had no business being there and was the only theater student.  I went there because I was looking for a collaborator.  I knew that my future in theater and in media included a future in the musical world as well so I wanted to meet other like-minded artists who were open to theater.

Hitomi and I locked eyes.  I told her about my interest in writing a musical about Billy Strayhorn.  To my surprise, she knew who he was.  She told me about a class on Duke Ellington, taught by Kenny Burrell, and about an opera – a jazz opera – she was co-composing.

Opera?!  Of course, opera!

Hitomi quickly introduced me to Nick.   Over the next weeks we grew to know one another’s work.  They came to my readings and shows – and I was introduced to their music.  Four years later, here we are – and still collaborating – and proud to present the first public workshop of the first act of Strange Fellow: a jazz opera.

Though back to that second official meeting –

In the Los Angeles sun, at the table, they handed me a sketched treatment of Talas and his journey.  On the back of that treatment was this poem, by Walter de la Mare:

“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grass
Of the forest’s ferny floor;
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
“Is there anybody there?” he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:–
“Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,” he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone. 

It was my first time with the poem and it left a great impression.  Though the most lasting impression, one that stays with me until this day, was the piece of music that they shared with me, composed by Hitomi:

Suddenly Talas began to take shape for me as a writer – thanks to the great music by Nick and Hitomi – and his worlds started to come into focus.

We knew he was special, but we didn’t find out that Talas was a ghost until we dove into the poetry of Walter de la Mare.

De la Mare was an English poet who wrote during World War I.  Subsequently his work is a mix of the darkness that comes with war as well as the innocence that we want to preserve during desperate times.   The characters in our opera are all found in his massive collection of poetry that haunts and gives hope.   And most of the songs are composed from his poetry.

The biggest challenge, so far, in writing this strange, mysterious and beautiful book to the opera is balancing the heightened language of Walter de la Mare with my duty as storyteller for our modern audiences.  By having the characters drop perfect rhyming during the few dialogue scenes – I hope to give the audience a place to rest aurally and a chance to invest and get wrapped up in the love story between our hero and heroine.

Another challenge has been the process of collaboration itself.  Recently we added a director to our mix, and already the conversations have deepened – the music has grown and come together  – and the story and characters are tighter.   Because we all want the best for SF – we will be fine-tuning Act One all the way to the minute we debut in October in front of an audience, and subsequently fine-tuning the Acts that follow.  And it only took us four short years 😉 to begin to share our jazz opera with you.

We look forward to giving our audiences a new experience in jazz – a new experience in opera – a new experience in theater… all born from a couple of meetings where creative and like minds and hearts sat around a table to discuss the possibilities of bringing more jazz to opera’s form.

JP

Strange Fellowe: A New Jazz Opera

posted by Nick DePinna, composer

On behalf of Hitomi Oba, Jerome Parker, and other yet-to-be named collaborators, I am excited to announce a staging of the first act (and portions of subsequent acts) of our Jazz Opera, Strange Fellowe, taking place on October 26th and 27th, 2012 at the Fais Do-Do in Los Angeles!

Strange Fellowe‘s development began in 2008, when Hitomi and I, both graduate students in the UCLA Department of Music, approached Jerome Parker, a graduate student in the UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television MFA Playwright Program, with a vague idea for a musical.  Jerome took the premise that Hitomi and I had in mind and took off, to our extreme delight and amazement, in a completely new direction than what we had originally imagined.  Over the course of three to four years, the characters came into being, the story developed, and the instrumentation, mood, setting, and style evolved.

At its heart, Strange Fellowe is a simple project…a piece of musical drama woven from the fabric of poet Walter de la Mare’s body of work.  The piece, while not completely explicit about its actual setting (at least at this point in its development), takes place in a world not dissimilar to the period in which de la Mare lived, including the looming darkness of some pivotal historical events he bore witness to.

Today, Monday July 30th, we signed paperwork and put down a deposit for the October production. This was our first official step towards bringing this project into reality!  Hitomi and I visited the venue not only to take care of these logistics, but also to take some photos to send to the rest of the creative team.

The Fais Do-Do is a brilliant space.  With a 200+ audience capacity, a large stage, and cavernous atmosphere, the creative options are staggering.  The decor is simple, with aging wooden rafters atop moody and bold red brick walls