Tony Asaro Works With Jeff Parola, Such A Beautiful Thing

by Andrew Cook-Feltz

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Composer/lyricist/singer/musical übermensch Tony Asaro has collaborated with Choral Chameleon’s composer-in-residence, Jeff Parola, in an extensive oratorio that will be unveiled at the concert on April 18th:  Hymns For The Amusement of Children.

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It’s not always easy for me to find blog topics to write about.  Hoping he’d jump at this opportunity, when I approached Tony about doing an interview for the Chameleon blog, he reacted with just as much humility as could be expected.

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“Talk about myself? Gosh, I wouldn’t know where to begin… Hang on, let me get out my prepared note cards.

Of course! Sounds fun!!!”

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How did you become involved in this composition with Jeff Parola?

Vince [Peterson, artistic director of Choral Chameleon] approached me about the commission in an email.  The email’s subject was “A Favor…”, as if it was somehow an imposition!  The idea was to adapt the Brothers Grimm fable The Traveling Musicians into a full length narrative work for choir.  I read the story, and I jumped at the chance to be involved.  The chance to write something of this scope with a composer like Jeff, and performed by the Chameleon?!  Hardly a favor!

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Did you know Jeff Parola prior to Vince Peterson and the CC connection?

I didn’t know Jeff until Vince introduced us.

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What do you think of Jeff Parola as a composer? Any favorite compositions you’ve heard?

I love Jeff’s music.  I listened to a bunch of his things online after we’d been introduced.  His In Pace and De Profundis are gorgeous.  He has a way of building sound and volume that isn’t like anything I’ve ever heard before.

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Where did the inspiration for the libretto of Such Beautiful Things come from? Are any of the characters based on real-life situations, people, events?

The Brothers Grimm fable tells the story of four animals ejected from their respective farms who all band together to become a music ensemble.  Together, they defeat a band of robbers and settle into a house together.  After reading the story, Vince, Jeff and I discussed the themes of the piece, discussed the romanticism (individual vs. corrupt society) of it, and we began to flesh out that metaphor.  We also drew parallels to how the story relates to the current state of choral music.  The characters in Such Beautiful Things are archetypes that represent current trends in the choral world.

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So, who are these characters exactly?

The four characters are ass, dog, cat, and cock.
  1. The ass represents the choristers whose choral experience is underfunded, underattended or even disbanded due to lack of support.
  2. The dog represents the choristers who sing for dictator choir directors using their position punitively towards their choir.  Choristers that sing because they are afraid, not because they love it.
  3. The cat represents choristers stuck in the “choral factory” choirs–the predictable programming: holiday carol concerts with unvarying rep, the Brahms requiem once a year… The choirs that don’t ever take risks, and don’t ever create, don’t ever challenge themselves nor their audience.
  4. The cock represents energetic choristers (specifically new choral composers) with so much to say, but suffering from a lack of opportunity–no real way to break in to the established scene.choral chameleon choral chameleon choral chameleon choral chameleon choral chameleon

What was the process like? Were you submitting materials back and forth electronically?

We opted for a traditional “opera-style” collaboration in which the libretto is completed before the composer starts writing.  We started with initial meetings (largely done on iChat) to talk about how the adaptation would work.  Then I began writing.  Over the course of about a month, I wrote a 23 page libretto.  I sent that off to Jeff to peruse.  (Vince also took a look as well, though he was very intent on not influencing our writing process.)  The piece was far too long which I knew, and then Jeff and I discussed how to whittle it down.  In the end, I was able to bring the libretto down to sixteen pages.  Then, Jeff began the composition process.

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Do you think this piece is most suitable for kids?

Actually, no.  The simplicity of the source material suggested simplicity to me for the libretto.  I wanted the choral piece to be as much an allegory as the original fable, and allegories are simple.  Metaphorically, however, the piece is no children’s story.  In an allegory, abstract ideas and principles are represented by simple characters.

Also, though the themes in our piece are complex, overly complicated text does not lend itself to being set to music.  One thing that is important to remember when you’re writing words that are intended to be musicalized is that you need to leave room for the composer to do his/her job.  Once musicalized, the words take on greater weight.  I wager that the finished product will not come across as intended for children.

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About how much time was spent on this project? Was the majority of the work done in a small chunk of time, or was it spread out?

The work was spread out.  I have emails about the piece dating back to February of last year.  Most of my contribution was done last spring and summer.  Jeff is still writing! [as of late January, 2010]

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What is the difference, for you, to work on a dramatic piece for a choir rather than a staged production?

This is something I had to think a lot about.  “Why tell this story with a choir?”  For one thing, the direct parallel to the world of choral music mandated a choral response.  But more concretely, I tried to construct the piece in a way that used the choral ensemble as the main story telling conceit.  Instead of having the four characters moving on a set with costumes and lighting etc, the choir provides the setting, and the environment.  Even the main adversary of the protagonists is represented by the ensemble!  Lastly, the choir becomes a Brechtian narrator who delivers the message to the audience.

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What are you most proud of in your  compositional history?

Oh, my favorite is Our Country.  It’s the piece I’m most proud of currently.  (The most recent production of the show starred Chameleon Jeremy Pasha!)

What else is going on in your compositional/directorial/musician life? What are you currently excited about musically?

I’m very excited about my new musical in development, Going Nowhere—a present day adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native set in a fictional suburb of San Francisco.  On this project, I’m writing music and lyrics and am collaborating with playwright Dan Moyer.  I just premiered three songs from the show two weeks ago, and they went over very well.  (One was sung by Chameleon Katie Zaffrann, and Vince Peterson accompanied!)

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Alright, you fans of choral music, you.  You might want to do yourself a solid and come hear the world premiere of “Such Beautiful Things”, music by Jeff Parola, words by Tony Asaro, on April 18th, 2010.

But before you do, I sense a second interview with the composer himself in the making!

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Responses written by Tony Asaro himself, with mild editing done by Andrew Cook-Feltz.  All editing was done tastefully and with highest care.

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