A Conversation with Composer Andy Vores about his Setting of “Chrononhotonthologos.”

Andy Vores at Guerilla Opera’s 10th Anniversary Celebration l Photo by Tim Gurczak (2017)

Andy Vores is a Boston Treasure. Prolific, madly imaginative, deep and endlessly curious, he is a serious thinker who is also wickedly funny. Andy learned about Chrononhotonthologos the 1734 play, in school, and always had it in his mind to track it down. Then, “along came the Internet,” he found the text and decided that he had to set this delightful, topsy-turvy send-up of opera and Shakespeare to music. And so he has.

SL: So, how did you come up with the sound world for your setting of this play?
AV: The instrumentation—which is odd to start with whenever anyone is writing for Guerilla Opera—has been deliberately slanted toward the squeaky and clangy end of the spectrum.

Chrononhotonthologos is a rush through a plot that keeps heading off nowhere, peopled with cartoonish characters playing out a narrative of inconsequential childishness—rather like a politer British precursor to Jarry’s Père Ubu. I wanted the sound world to match the feel of the libretto, and I also wanted to ensure that the music could not be delivered gracefully and delicately; it has to lurch and buckle.

Percussionist and Artistic Director Mike Williams behind his set-up playing toy piano in rehearsal. l Photo by Clive Grainger (2017)

Besides the electronic soundtrack, which is full of intrusive sounds—booms, crashes, raspberries from a pocket didgeridoo—I also asked for the violinist and clarinetist to double on bass harmonicas (notoriously out of tune and from which not easy to produce a consistent sound); I asked for the saxophonist to play sopranino saxophone (unnecessarily small for most purposes and with a range that doesn’t extend much beyond that of the soprano saxophone, but pleasingly ‘wrong’ for much of this piece); and for the percussionist to add a range of sad instruments to his battery: toy piano, bones, flexatone, trash cymbal (a small cheap cymbal that has been cruelly flattened), micro snare drum, etc.—not a ‘noble’ set-up, but it’s not a noble story.

Bass Harmonica l Photo by Clive Grainger (2017)

SL: I understand you have made some adjustments to the score at the ensemble’s request.
AV: I love to be able to work with people on a new piece, not least because there are always recalibrations and rethinkings that come out of a maiden voyage that invariably improve the score in small but significant ways.

A couple of examples from this past week: Amy (clarinets) and Philipp (saxes) are stunningly good performers with tons of new music experience and great performance endurance, so when they let me know that the extended closing music (40 pages of score with no break for the woodwinds, and that after having already played for 80 minutes) was pretty much impossible—I believed them. There are issues around possible injury to lips and tongue, and also the fact that saliva builds up when playing reed instruments and the players need time to pause to swallow, rest a little bit, and then continue.

Philipp Stäudlin playing sopranino saxophone l Photo by Clive Grainger (2017)

The fix was an easy one; in this long section there are a number of little interruptions of fast music, each around 8 measures long. I paused the woodwinds here and added new electronic samples to imitate what they had been playing. In the library of recordings that I’d made to construct this soundtrack I had no clarinet or saxophone sounds but I did have a number of harmonica samples that I’d made. I used these now, and this harking back to earlier bass harmonicas passages is exactly right—much better than what I originally had, and all thanks to having to address a mechanical performance difficulty!

The second example was a case of “director-proofing” my score. There’s a place toward the end where a singer changes roles. I was concerned that if an audience didn’t clearly know this had happened, the ensuing 10 minutes would make absolutely no sense, so I added a line in which the singer says, in essence, “that role is done, I’ll go offstage now and be back soon as this other character”. I also had to add enough music to allow for a possible costume change.

When I met to talk over the score with Nick O’Leary, the director of Chrononhotonthologos, one of the things he questioned was exactly this spot: he felt this change could be far more effectively conveyed without any explanation and without leaving the stage for a costume change. I’d never really wanted that text or that music anyway, it was there for reasons of caution only, so how splendid to find it was completely unnecessary—Nick immediately ‘got’ the need for this shift to be clearly understood by the audience. Two excellent improvements that came out of a collaborative rehearsal process…great!

SL: It’s so awesome to have the composer extant! Live Long and Prosper! Do you want to prepare for the talkback after the Saturday show?
AV: I don’t have anything in particular to say, let’s see what people say and respond. I’ll have something to say in response to the performance, I’m sure, and if not I can start with questions to the audience.

SL: OK audience, come prepared to question and be questioned

Susan Larson is president of Guerilla Opera’s Board of Directors, performing artist and former music critic for The Boston Globe.

This entry was posted in Productions and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>