Thursday, September 10, 2015

"April"




Sun and moon, sun and moon, time goes.

Today is the premiere of our music theatre piece, and I'm sitting shirtless in my parents' house, arguing with the humidity, staring at my email inbox, to the backdrop of construction workers outside who are gracefully destroying and rebuilding the sidewalk.



video


They are efficient, I've been watching them work for weeks now. There's a childish instinct in me that keeps looking at that red Inbox button and mentally imposing that (1) from my immigration agent, as if it will make a difference that I'm looking at it; I'm surely making the Inbox button self-conscious. Could I achieve some sort of misappropriated and misunderstood Western nirvana if I stared long enough? I wonder what the tone will be, and what language they'll use. My fantasy goes somewhat like this:

Inbox (1)

From: The U.S. Government
Subject: OMG! Get yer ass down here!

"Dearest François Joseph Marc-André Rousseau, it is my extreme pleasure to inform you that the visa consulate in Vermont is so enthusiastic about the premiere of your 'chamber opera' that they've decided to award you citizenship for life!!! A helicopter will shortly be escorting you from Dieu Du Ciel in Montreal's Plateau, (have a beer on us, you deserve it!!!) and will drop you off in New York City's East Village for a quick bite at Caracas with all of your friends!!! Don't worry, all of the money you've been paying for health insurance but have been unable to use due to your inability to enter the country has been donated to charity, and we've spoken to your landlord; he's totally cool with the fact that you were gone for so long!!!"


I'll make a witty joke about their overuse of exclamation points (something about American excess), high-five my little brother as we laugh and laugh about my joke, grab my satchel and guitar, and strut away with my earned American bravado (to the overture of Meistersinger on loop), waving to all of the beautiful people lining the streets, bidding me safe journey ("Cheerio, Frank! Cheerio!").

This is funny for a second, until I look at that empty inbox, beneath Gmail's "Compose" button (which always feels like a scolding prompt, highlighting the fact that, no, Gmail, I haven't composed any music today). Still nothing. I then wonder who was assigned to my case, over at that giant processing center in liberal Vermont. I surmise it's a man named Paul, in his late 50s, with a wife named Sally.  Sally and Paul love hiking with their two golden retrievers, a glass of Chardonnay 2 or 3 times a week (especially when Sally makes her shrimp scampi linguine), their two children - Jake and Ken, who are both in college now - and reruns of M*A*S*H. I envision Paul opening up my application for the O1 "Extraordinary Ability" Visa, taking a sip of his coffee ("Good morning, Joan" he says, in the lower end of his lyric baritone, to the administrative assistant that's just walked in [Joan, that is]), and the first thing he sees is {"April" - a multi-media music theatre piece}.

"We've got another clunker here, Joan"
"Another Canadian writing silly ol' chamber operas?"
"Classic 26-B rejection letter, coming right up"

All of my attempts to ridicule the bureaucratic process in which my future lies do not help the situation. I think that realistically, it's probably a checklist sort of thing, where the agents spend a few minutes looking over the application and see if enough of the objective criteria can be met. Standard yay or nay sorta thing. As I sit wallowing in impotence, I try to convince myself that the apparent apathy towards my ability to see the premiere of a work I've spent nearly 4 years writing is all in my head. Just another day at the office for Paul, just another day waiting in Canada for Frank. It's now too late to get word and catch a flight to NY to see it.

...

I've been away from New York City for four and a half months, after having been told that I would have to wait for a response on my new application before entering, even as a visitor. This summer was not kind to visa applicants; a glitch in the processing system provoked tens of thousands of workers from entering, and the government is still trying to play catch-up.  I spent part of that time living in Toronto, where I organized a "large band" show, my first in Canada in over 2 years. I also traveled to London to visit my sister, and played gigs and recorded with my hero Arthur Hnatek


The biggest Hnatek smile of all time, captured on camera!

and the indelible Vincent Ruiz:

video
 
in Switzerland. 


The rest of the summer was largely spent indoors in Montreal, working tirelessly to finish "April".



Recording of flute and clarinet in MMR

As I've written about before, "April" is a  l o n g   t i m e   c o m i n g. The idea for it came from a discussion I had with my collaborator Dominic Mekky in 2012, and has largely been realized with certain key components from that initial conversation still intact, others abandoned. It tells the story of a singer (April) who finds out that she is slowly going deaf, amid two crises in her relationships: one to her lover, who is also her manager, and one to her childhood friend. The piece functions somewhere between musical theater and opera, though neither word quite conjures up the right description (the questions "How is the musical going?" or "How is the opera going?" have always made me cringe). One of the initial ideas that has remained true to the original vision is the use of vernacular North-American English as the basis of the text, mostly eschewing rhyme or lyric. Normally, that would be taken to be an operatic setting of text, though the singing style we've prescribed to our versatile singers is closer to that of contemporary song. The natural projection of the voice itself is minimal, as they are mic'd. We decided to make the entire experience as intimate as possible - only three singers, limit how many people could be in a theater to hear it, keep the singers close to the audience, keep the experience under an hour, and keep the whole piece fluid and transitory. Not all of this was decided from the beginning, though all of the decisions showed themselves to be necessary as the piece defined itself.

The story was written by our close friend Samuel Bronowski. Sami’s idea was inspired by (but not based on) Douglas Sirk’s “Magnificent Obsession” from 1954 (a film adaption of the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, written in 1929), in which a woman loses her sight after being involved in a car crash. (What a strange trailer, and let's be honest, that score is a ripoff of Ode To Joy). Aside from having the loss of a sense shape the telling of the story, Sami's creation of "April" bears no resemblance to "Magnificent Obsession" (in fact, the ending of our piece is essentially the opposite of the film's). As the piece began to develop, there was an amicable parting of ways from Sami's version of the story in the autumn of 2013 (with Sami's consent), as the emotional arc and palette of the music began to drift away from the form that Sami had supplied. The scenes in our libretto as it now stands are almost all original scenes from Sami's version, though we've altered words and intentions freely. It is now so utterly different than what it was in autumn of 2013 that Sami's version of the story can stand on its own, separate from the music drama piece that we've turned it into.


The experience of putting it together, bit by bit, has been the largest undertaking of my life, and could not have been realized without the indefatigable genius of Dom Mekky. Though Dom and I have our own compositional and musical tendencies, we have been symbiotically linked in forging our musical identities since we met at The New School in 2009. "April" is no more and no less mine as it is Dom's, which we know is strange. There are moments in the music that are exclusively Dom's, some that are exclusively mine, all of it approved, edited, scrutinized, and appropriated by the other. One of the scenes was constructed using an idea of Dom's, which I ran with, and subsequently turned over to him to orchestrate, which was later cut in half, and turned into "sound design" by Dom, which then turns up again in a scene mostly all by Dom, in a new key, with new altered orchestration, again by Dom. Confusing, right? In contrast to that, there are moments in the piece that were composed by the both of us staring at the computer screen, in conversation:

"No, C# there, half note, going to a D, then the flute takes it..."
"How about E to C# then D, with the flute joining in on the C#?"
"Ok, and then we can go to G/B over the that word..."
"We should grab some beers"
"Ok"
"Is anyone ever going to hear this?"
"What kind of beer should we get?"

I could not ask for a more dependable, dynamic, discerning, and diligent, Dom.

...



Show poster by Eva Neves


Sun and moon, sun and moon, time went.

Of the principal ideas that remained, the most significant was to have the music prerecorded, in an effort to control the sonic world of the piece down to the minutest detail. The ensemble was chosen very early on; the only difference in our orchestration from the first iteration of the work is that we had wanted one trumpet and one horn, which later became two horns. The piece is for 1 soprano, two baritones, flute (doubling on piccolo), clarinet, 2 horns, violin, viola, cello, double bass, piano, and sound design, all of which are layered at will (we did this mostly to the upper strings, as overdubs). The intended effect was to democratize the acoustic realities of these instruments and be able to blend them unrealistically. I can proudly say that this approach was effective and remains our proudest achievement of the piece; the process through which we achieved this was tedious and incredibly time-consuming. It was made possible by Brian Chan, whose talent and vision enabled us to develop a unique sound that is as much a part of the composition as the actual notes. Brian engineered, produced, mixed, and mastered the music, save for little additions made in the end stages of the process. Asking this much of any one person is borderline psychotic, and it's a true testament to his craftsmanship that he was able to plot out such a huge project and make it come to life. Brian has huge ears (metaphorically; literally, they are average), and a sharp musical mind. I sat down with him in September of 2013 while he was in NYC  for an audio engineering conference, and explained what I thought would be needed for our piece, and he agreed to take it on, knowing that the scope of the project would extend past his access to McGill University's facilities, as he was finishing his degree. "April" was partially Brian's Master's Thesis, having been pitched as a work in progress, which was kindly accepted by his adviser. We had access to McGill's multi-media room (MMR), for five full day sessions, and McGill's Studio A for two. This was an incredible privilege; MMR is as good as it gets.

ProTools session in early editing. We ran out of tracks over and over again...
Aside from the music, we knew we wanted an extra visual component, for which we enlisted Pier-Louis Dagenais-Savard. I had worked with PL on a contemporary dance piece in 2013 and have wanted to work with him on everything I've gotten involved in since then. Of all the setbacks we've experienced in writing the piece, PL's was the most frightening: on a drive down to NY from Montreal in August of 2014 for our first full-team meeting, an 18-wheeler's spare tire became dislodged and bounced violently into PL's car, effectively scrapping it. Luckily neither he nor his girlfriend were injured. As I write this, I've seen short excerpts of his work for our piece, but I'll have to wait until the Montréal premiere to see the whole thing. That being said, I know it will exceed my expectations - everything he's done has entranced me. 

The question of who would be able to play April plagued us for years. We knew we would be in trouble if we went with someone who was too operatic or too musical theater-y. I ran into Emma Frank at a Montreal Jazz Fest show, and she suggested we grab a coffee to talk music, during which she handed me her latest record. Being wrapped up in "April" work, I put the record aside until I could find a moment to listen to it in its entirety. Three weeks later, I found myself heading out on a long drive, and listened to the whole thing and loved it. I kept the CD in the car and kept looping it in the subsequent week, when, during a passage that jumped from the top of Emma's range, down to near the bottom, I realized how clear and egalitarian her treatment of pitches across her range was. I remembered right then that she'd mentioned that she had a background in musical theatre, and the idea clicked. I called Dom and asked him to listen to her, and he said "YOU HAVE TO ASK IF SHE'LL DO IT!". We were worried that we would be asking too much, as Emma has a busy and ascending career, but she enthusiastically agreed and plunged right into learning the music. Emma possesses a rare kind of intelligence, one of constant and quick analysis and reappraisal of thoughts and feelings; she constantly has them swirling in a kind of vortex that informs and affects what she's doing. Emma's biggest concern in taking on the role was wondering if she was willing to submit herself to being April, meaning that she would have to embody someone befalling a personal tragedy, which would affect her own mood. Rehearsals proved this to be true.  There were moments when she would have to stop singing to regain composure. Tea time.

The role of Aaron was immediately agreed to when we reached out to Dan Ellis-Ferris.  I've worked with Dan many times on my own music, for years now. This was an easy decision for us to make.  Dan understands, loves, and can sing in all of the styles we drew from in putting the piece together.  All we had to ask of Dan was to mix the right blend of his capabilities for the role, and we knew we were covered.  The only concern was whether or not he would be busy, being one of the founders of the miraculous and ever-astonishing LoftOpera. The role of Michael is to be played by Sean Jernigan, who was recommended to us by another friend from the LoftOpera team - Dean Buck. Due to my visa snafu, I have not heard Sean sing, but everyone involved has said great things. Being that the work took so long to put together, the cities we collectively inhabited while writing it are: Brooklyn, Montréal, Vancouver, York (PA), Dubai, and Toronto.

The piece concentrates on moments through time that relate to April's degradation, physically and emotionally, as well as her changing relationships to Aaron and Michael. It is told in memories, imaginings, second-hand information; it is a collection of fragments that window in to different perspectives of loss. As for my unasked-for preparation and understanding of the materials, I underwent two major losses during the writing of the piece: the death of a close friend, and the end of a long-term personal relationship. "April" always felt relatable and personal to me, and though I would have preferred not to have gone through those losses, working on "April" gave me something to feed the energy back into. Having had the chance to work so closely with Dom, Brian, Pier-Louis, and Sami has been a great joy of my life, and helped me to understand loss and how I deal with it. I owe them everything.

...

There were more than 30 people involved in the creation of "April". Below are the credits:


"April" - a multi-media musical theatre piece


Music and words by Dominic Mekky & Franky Rousseau
Based on the stage play by Samuel Bronowski
Produced by Brian Chan
Engineered, Mixed, and Mastered by Brian Chan
Video by Pier-Louis Dagenais-Savard
Sound Design by Dominic Mekky
Lighting Design by Hugo Dalphon


Cast:
April - Emma Frank
Michael - Sean Jernigan
Aaron - Daniel Ellis-Ferris

The character “Lillian” was recorded by Alena Spanger


"Radio Host" was recorded by Arlen Aguayo Stewart


Recorded in the Multimedia Room & Studio A, Schulich School of Music, McGill University, Montreal, QC (from January to March of 2014)
Edited in Guy House, NYC & May Place, Vancouver BC
Mixed & Mastered at May Place, Vancouver, BC


Musicians:
Clarinet - Bradley Powell
Horns - Lyse Santamaria and Flo Rousseau
Violins - Amanda Lo
Cellos - Jane Chan and Brian Chan
Basses - Alec Hiller and Steph Diamant
Piano - Dominic Mekky
Guitar - Franky Rousseau


Chorus of Voices:
Ali Levy
Franky Rousseau
Maerin Hunting
Jon Kaspy
Dustin Connery-Grigg
Roxy Rousseau


Additional Engineering:
Julian Cubillos - 77 Linden, Brooklyn NY
Jon Kaspy - Studio B, McGill University


Assistant Engineers:
Jack Kelly
Alan Han
Gintas Norvilla


Session Photography:
Richard Rousseau


Media & Website:


Graphic Design for Posters & Programme:
Eva Neves


Premiere Performance: September 10th, 2015 at The Tank in New York City

...

We'll be performing it at the MainLine Theatre in Montréal on the 19th and 20th of September. Until then, I'll be looking at that Inbox button for a thumbs up from Paul. 

-F