Jeff Parola Writes about “Such Beautiful Things”

Last year, in the spring of ’09, Vince played with a few thematic ideas for the upcoming April 18 concert. By then, he had chosen Conrad’s Susa’s Hymns for the Amusement of Children, and used that piece as the concert’s thematic impetus. For my composition, we considered using other texts by Christopher Smart, until Vince found the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, The Traveling Musicians. He thought the fairy tale element would fit in well with the “children” component of the concert, and might be feasibly turned into an extended choral work. The idea immediately grabbed me, but I thought the text was too narration-heavy to set to music, and I suggested that it be transformed into a libretto. Vince called librettist Tony Asaro, and the rest is history.

What I love most about the Brothers Grimm tale is the universality of its central message: the imperative to value, accept, and appreciate citizens who are wrongly viewed as useless, lesser, irrelevant, which is a timeless theme when relating to social issues. It was especially meaningful for me to work on the piece during the current economic crisis, since art institutions and programs were among the first to feel the pain of budget cuts, which strongly suggests that the general view of the role of the arts in our culture is that they are secondary. I thought about this issue frequently as I wrote the music. I knew back in the spring of ’09 that we were onto something, but the process of composing the work showed me that people will walk away from the experience of this piece with their own personal understanding of the message.

Tony Asaro’s poetic and dramatic libretto, Such Beautiful Things, paints each animal character as undignified cogs in the industrial machine of the farm. Dejected and downtrodden, they longingly dream of an idyllic land called the “Open Country,” a place where they will be valued for their individual gifts. The farm and the Open Country are conceptually opposite states-of-being (oppression vs. liberty). Tony built the structure of his libretto around this dichotomy by demonstrating what life is like on the farm in three farm scenes, and conversely by revealing the hopes and dreams of the characters in the traveling sequences.

In the three farm scenes, the music is rough and serious, and it moves like a factory machine, much like a conveyor-belt on an assembly line. All members of the farm are fully committed to the work at hand, even though it seems meaningless to their individual existence. In these movements, the audience sees why the farm is a place from which the main characters want to escape.

The traveling sequences are, in essence, daydreams in the minds of the characters, which accompany and motivate their journey northward. They fantasize of what life might be like in the utopic Open Country. The music is filled with longing and tenderness, and is strikingly different in comparison to the music of other movements. The mere idea of the Open Country is enough to make them forget the harsh reality of their life on the farm, and the music helps the audience accomplish that, too.

The chorus plays the largest role in Such Beautiful Things. They represent the relentless activity of the farm, they serve as narrators, sometimes they act as actual characters (farmer, robbers, the farm crowd), they embody the action of the journey within the traveling sequences, etc. The music for the chorus is technically demanding, and requires the excellent musicianship of a group like Choral Chameleon. It also demands theatrical flexibility since the chorus plays many roles as characters, places, and psychological states-of-being.

When writing for the soloists, I was most concerned with communicating the essence of each character. The Ass (baritone) is wise and old, and even though he is unhappy on the farm, he approaches his emancipation with a sense of peace and calm. The Dog (tenor), on the other hand, is angst-ridden and highly emotional, and focuses intensely on his personal suffering. The Cat (mezzo-soprano chanteuse) is a whimsical, fun character who is gutsy, restless, and far more casual than the others. The Cock (soprano) is virtuosic, loud, and showy, often singing in the stratosphere to ensure he captures everyone’s attention.

The piece as a whole is diverse in terms of style and genre, blending elements of opera, contemporary concert music, minimalism, musical theater, and popular music. Sometimes it feels like a musical theater piece, other times a classic oratorio. And as it develops, it even feels like an opera. I chose to do this for two reasons: 1. Choral Chameleon prides itself on its ability to transcend barriers of style and genre, and 2. Tony Asaro’s libretto offers many opportunities to be all of these things; consequently, the piece also begged to be all of these things. It also seems fitting for a tale about musicians seeking freedom to be artists.

It has been a great joy to work on Such Beautiful Things, and I would like to thank Vince Peterson for his inspiring vision to make this happen. He is the reason all of this came to be. I must thank Tony Asaro for his incredible libretto, which was so easy to set because it is, in and of itself, a brilliant piece of music. Further, I would like to thank Choral Chameleon for their rare enthusiasm for new music, and their good will to composers like me. It is a rare privilege to work with a group that is fully motivated by their supreme love of music.

– Jeffrey Parola


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