Project Blog: October 18, 2009

Playing with Trains

"So much music, I'm writing a ballet!"  I was thinking that when working on
Of Lives and Leaves in 1998.  It was a beautiful evening of one-acts based on Chekhov stories, developed by John Alban Coughlan and brought to life by director Chuck Blasius and a wonderful cast.

I was asked to create incidental music to underscore the five plays in an attempt to apply an illusion of symmetry to the collection.  Personally, I was just pleased to get a chance to write something other than songs for a musical. I admittedly struggled to understand the Chekhovian themes in these stories and finally just gave in to my gut, which usually feels better after stocking up with a strong melodic inventory.

Since the action centered around a small village, the train station and those who traveled through it, I chose to write a theme and five variations. I also could not resist taking an obvious cue from the source material, so I played with bits of inspiration from several classical Russian composers. Being a former violist, I featured that digital sample, used lots of piano, frequent metallic clangs and pings of percussion, church bells and organ (for decent symbolism), and a haunting digital choir. The many musical zen motifs ended up being comfortable and suitable listening, and at times almost therapeutic. Oddly, there was no improvising; the music was written and arranged entirely as a methodical orchestral score. Quite something for an small production in the East Village.

Over the years, I often return to this score and wonder how I wrote that amount of music so quickly and, more astonishingly, was allowed to use all of it. But, in fact, the evening worked well soundscaped to that extent. The actors and lighting designer learned to time lines and movement so specifically to the music that it was hard to conceive of one without the other. I was pleased with this music without lyrics, and satisfied to work in the company of such gifted and inventive folk.

After writing Abe last year, which is rich with incidental music, I began to think about my music for Chekhov again. I believe it can stand on its own as an orchestral suite or even a dance piece. Recently, I edited the score down to 30 minutes of music from the three core plays which have very specific inter-connected musical links. There remain chunks of repetition (though hardly Glass-worthy) and even melodic monotony, but they satisfy the accompaniment necessary for the "traveling" depicted in each of the three variations.  I think my theory teachers would be proud.

Plot-wise, Points of Departure uses the original stories as a guide. In my mind's eye it suggests a musical telling of a young couple visiting an imaginary future while waiting at a train station. Whether or not this journey becomes fact or remains merely fancy is not important really. The concept keeps the original integrity of the Chekhov's stories while using the continuum and grace of the original incidental music.

In the end, maybe I was writing a ballet.

Roger Dean Anderson: Points of Departure