Let me introduce you to two composers.
One is famous within his own select set: esteemed by his peers, beloved by musicians, fiercely followed by his fans. Ricky Ian Gordon wrote the Broadway musical “My Life With Albertine.” His sophisticated art songs have been performed by Audra McDonald, Dawn Upshaw and Renee Fleming. His version of “The Grapes of Wrath,” which will be performed by Fresno Grand Opera in 2018, was described by the Chicago Tribune as having “enjoyed a degree of instant success that is rare for an American opera.”
The other composer isn’t famous. (Yet.) Nathan Nau is a senior Fresno State music composition major. So far, he’s had one work performed in public: a one-minute piece for cello that was selected as part of the Vox Novus “15 Minutes of Fame” series. That will change on Thursday, Oct. 20, when Fresno Grand Opera presents the culminating concert in its yearlong “Music and Verse” project, which pairs aspiring composers with familiar names from the Fresno poetry scene.
On a Friday a few weeks ago in Fresno State’s Concert Hall, Gordon and Nau were together in front of a small audience, with the veteran composer listening carefully to the student’s “Music and Verse” piece being performed. Set to a poem written for the project by James Tyner titled “Halves Angled Up,” the piece is sung by tenor Christian Cabral, a Fresno State student.
It will be one of seven songs performed in the concert, with poets selected by the opera company and the composers by Fresno State professors Kenneth Froelich and Benjamin Boone. (Vocal performance majors working with Anthony Radford were part of the workshop process.) At the concert, four professional singers and members of Fresno Grand Opera’s orchestra will perform.
Nau stands by, looking a little nervous. And who can blame him? It’d be like a Fresno State theater major having a monologue critiqued by Kevin Spacey.
But Gordon is not a composition drill sergeant. (“I’m very nonthreatening,” he tells me, modestly, at lunch before the tutorial.) Yes, he’s full of advice. First, though, comes the praise.
“That was very skillful writing for the piano,” he tells Nau, who smiles.
Insight and graciousness
A brief groupie break here:
While many people are fans of famous actors or singers, I’m the type to get excited about meeting a composer. (Years ago, when I met acclaimed Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown, my mind went blank from excitement as I barely managed to croak out an “Um, nice to meet you.”) When Fresno Grand Opera in February brought in Jake Heggie, who composed the opera “Dead Man Walking,” to talk to these same composition students, I was a little star-struck then, too.
At lunch, Gordon regales me and Fresno Grand Opera general director Matthew Buckman with stories. The first time he saw McDonald perform was in “Carousel” on Broadway, and he remembers walking out to the Lincoln Center Plaza afterward in tears. (She would later sing his “Lullaby” on her first and most transcendent album, “Way Back to Paradise.”) When “Grapes of Wrath” premiered in 2007 in St. Paul, Minn., he had to act happy and cheerful at a party beforehand, but he remembers thinking at the time “that by midnight, my career could be over.”
Gordon is whip-smart and gracious to those who don’t know as much about music as he does. He can be gentle and glib. Excavate his humor and you’ll find a thick intellectual vein. And he is adept at marrying words and music. Although I only interacted with him for a few hours, I got the sense of an artistic soul who is somehow able through his music to organize and emblemize the messy building blocks of existence – the flighty peaks and puddled sorrows of all our average lives – in a way that adds insight to the world.
Setting to music
Tyner’s poem is intensely personal, with allusions to Fresno’s tough streets and the poet’s mixed racial identity. It celebrates Tyner’s children:
It’s about holding each of your children in an arm.
Daughter blonde with eyes like crystal,
Son with dusky eyes and Aztec nose.
For the musical “world” in which to set the poem, Nau wanted something with the feel of a lullaby, with rolling chords on the piano and flourishes of sentimentality, but also with a sense of growth and change. There are hints of Maurice Ravel and Enrique Granados, his favorite composers. Nau was inspired by the “Mystic Chord,” also known as the “Prometheus Chord,” a six-note chord often associated with the composer Alexander Scriabin. It can impart a mystical or ethereal quality to a piece of music.
Gordon first offers some general advice. When a composer sets text to music, he or she should first memorize and recite it until it’s part of you.
“A poem is deliberate, like a jewel in a setting,” he says.
A word he uses is prosody, or the patterns of rhythm and sound used in poetry. The words being sung have to fall naturally from a singer’s lips. You have to find the musical gesture in a phrase.
Nau takes the advice to heart. In the weeks following Gordon’s critique, he makes a number of edits on the piece. For example, Gordon had an issue with part of this section:
A half breed
Is gold skin, brown folding over white.
Grilled hot dogs in a burned tortilla.
As Nau originally wrote it, the singer had to pronounce “hot dogs” over a series of too many notes, making it sound like “hot daw-ah-gs.”
“I went back and removed notes that didn’t need to be there,” he says. “I want to make it comfortable for the singer. And you can hear the words better.”
He’s more of an instrumental-only composer, he says, but this experience opened him to the beauty of words.
The “Music and Verse” project sparks something inside me. It makes me think more about the relationship between text and music. Making that relationship work is one of the most mysterious and abstract parts of the creative process.
On the day that Gordon helps out the Fresno State composers, he also performs for Fresno Grand Opera’s season opening gala. Gordon plays the piano for soprano Carrie Hennessey (“A Streetcar Named Desire”), a familiar recent name for local operagoers.
As I listen, I think of prosody. Gordon introduces a song he wrote to one of his favorite poems, Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do.” It brings to mind Gordon’s grief over the death of his lover from AIDS. That loss inspired some of his earlier music:
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,
I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do.
Each note in the piece seems to service each morsel of text, bringing the two elements together in a glorious union that is more powerful than either of them standing alone.
I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep
for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:
I am living. I remember you.
Try to get through that one without tears.
This is why I’m so in awe of composers.
Fresno Grand Opera’s Music & Verse
- 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20
- Fresno Art Museum Bonner Auditorium, 2233 N. First St.
- www.fresnograndopera.org, 559-442-5699
- $25 reserved, $10 general admission