The Summer of using other people’s stuff

I’ve been working on 3 composing/arranging projects since this May – all of them have some “outside” source material in their backgrounds, two of them very obviously, and one more covert. While using this kind of material isn’t so unusual for me, it’s not often that there’s a sequence of these kinds of pieces written back to back. Plus, the materials all had a kind of folk music flavor to them, so the summer work has taken on a different tone because of it.

The first piece will get its premiere performance in just a couple of weeks, as part of the Opera From Scratch festival in Halifax. Works for the festival had to have a Nova Scotian aspect, so I was researching various stories about the province before starting the piece. Eventually, I found (at UMaine of all places, in the Maine Folklife collection_) an interesting folk song that seemed promising. When checking with the festival administrators, it turned out that they themselves owned a copy of a set of folk-songs of Nova Scotia, with a version of the song in that antique volume. So, the song was officially Nova Scotian enough.


I had an idea that I could update the text so that the featured singer would be a more contemporary young woman, but keep some of the 6/8 meter of the original tune. After all was said and done, there were no complete versions of any one verse, either musically or lyrically, in the final product, but allusions to the original were everywhere. We’ll see how it turns out when the soprano has to negotiate both a piano accompaniment and some electronic background sounds in the actual performance.

Libretto: Charlotte is looking at herself in a mirror, wearing a better-than-average prom dress and primping. There’s a fancy scarf draped over the mirror, for use later.
The opening of the work is addressed to the audience. At different times in the piece, she sings the original folk song as a contrast with her own modern-day situation. Lighting may be used to define these sections of the work as being in a different environment from the opening section.
Coquettishly: Look at my dress, isn’t it great? Meant for the spring. Got it on sale.. ..You can’t wear this kind of thing.. Very refined, very lightweight. I can’t help it if it suits me! Dad hasn’t seen it. Or Mom. Have to wear sandals, Mustn’t wear boots, Should be fine with the right transportation. New Year’s party! Charles drives us down, All fifteen miles. Maybe in a limo!

The next piece is something that I will perform myself a few times next year – a new work for clarinet, vocoder and prerecorded sound. I was fooling around with a favorite tune by Gabriel Kahane, from one of the songs on The Ambassador:

The tune also has a folk-song quality in some sections, so the tune itself isn’t wildly different in tone from the Young Charlotte melody, though it is less regular in its phrasing.  Eventually, I just asked for permission to use the melody, and the composer wrote back to give that permission, saying that he is a “big believer in intertextuality.”

Now I have one full stanza of the tune in the new piece, with other contrasting material around it. Note – I also used a sample of a new grill-cleaning robot:

I had seen a commercial for this thing on TV while watching the news in June, and when I expressed some amazement at the gadget, Davy murmured “I already ordered one.”

So, there’s a variety of source material for this piece, all told – I suppose not all of it is folk-like.

The last part of the summer, before capitulating to school preparation, I devoted to arranging sections of Borodin’s Polovetsian Dances for clarinetist Jonathan Aubrey and his partner in the Aubarra Duo, Michael Rex Bacarra. I’d put off completing the arrangements from earlier in the year because of the sight in the original score of all the cascading arpeggios and scales in the dances, even in the slower section. (The fact that the slower section is actually called “The girls’ lively dance” speaks to this, even though the same tune is used as a ballad in “Stranger in Paradise” in Kismet. The same tune gets used as a march in the finale of Borodin’s orchestral piece, which makes its still livelier there..)

But now that the arrangement is done, I think seeing/hearing the clarinetists play all these fun and fancy figures will be really entertaining, and I look forward to having Jonathan and Michael play it. And of course, this source material had its own folk music sources in its melodies, part of the backbone of the original Borodin ballet.

With the school year almost here, I’ll go back to revising the chamber opera Until the War is Over, as both the librettist and I have ideas for strengthening the show. That will be the big project for the year, but it was good to have these past couple of months on small projects. With the humidity on the rise, it’s nice to have these efforts complete.





Author: beth wiemann

Beth teaches composition and clarinet at the University of Maine in Orono, ME. She also spends time in Massachusetts with her husband, David Rakowski, and in her Subaru going back and forth on Routes 95 and 93.

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