Invitation to Noon at Dusk, a chamber opera

Come see the chamber opera that I wrote with Yi Hong Sim, premiering at the University of California, San Diego this May 11th, 13th, and 14th, all at 7 PM! Noon at Dusk was our first collaboration, and we look forward to many more. Yi Hong wrote a wonderfully expressive and poetic libretto that channels emotions of great power through her words. It was the perfect libretto for our first project together!

For a taste of the music, please check out the Prelude to Noon at Dusk here:


And read our program notes for the opera here:

Note on Steve and Yi Hong’s collaboration:

The idea for the libretto of Noon at Dusk came about when we disagreed on the significance of Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. In the novel, a man’s brain has been technologically bifurcated to allow him to function as a secure human computer, processing large quantities of data in one part of his brain while keeping the data contents hidden from his consciousness. However, the technology is gradually killing him, and the novel takes extended trips into the man’s tormented mind. There, in a strangely mythical setting, a faceless human shadow embodies the man’s consciousness and willpower while the body to whom the shadow belongs retains only the man’s physical solidity in torpid, unthinking form.

Steve was intrigued by this bifurcation of a person into active shadow and inert body, and envisioned an abstract operatic plot built around interactions between shadows and bodies. Yi Hong, on the other hand, had recently been swept away by the poeticism of Karl Marx’s “Estranged Labor,” and could not help but read the shadow/body storyline as a tragic commentary on the man’s alienation of a vital humanity within himself when he sacrificed part of his mind to an employment opportunity. The libretto plot that we conceived together combines elements of both our readings. In Noon at Dusk, Annelise and Eliot are confronted by a seductive alien power that both stems from their own participation in the working world and also has a much larger life of its own. This power manifests differently through each of the characters in the opera, as well as through the abstraction of the shadow. The not-quite-parallelism of Annelise and Eliot’s decisions and their respective relationships with Daniela and Lisha is inspired by the mirrored plotlines of Hard-Boiled Wonderland’s shadow/body world and its protagonist’s actual life, where both the shadow and the man were, to the last, hopeful of gaining a soulmate.

Steve’s program note:

Noon at Dusk combines two historical strands of opera that are often thought to be at odds—bel canto opera, which above all else makes the singers’ voices the main event; and Wagnerian music dramas, which set aside formal conventions in opera in favor of an organic musical development that is, ideally, more psychologically realistic than earlier operas (including bel canto). From my 21st-century perspective, it makes the most sense to embrace both of these operatic ideals. My opera does focus on the voices, first and foremost, but it also allows its musical structure to develop naturally with the narrative of the libretto. I am hardly the first composer to have realized these two approaches can be mutually beneficial—Pelléas et Mélisandre and Wozzeck, among many other 20th-century operas, do this (in their own fashion).

By featuring the voices of the singers as the most important element, I also helped myself overcome another major hurdle: how would I make my modern atonal musical language express the full range of emotions required, from contented happiness and positive sensuality to quirky dread to mounting anxiety to heightened sadness? The exact manner in which the voices sing the libretto’s moving words was key. I often found myself experiencing the very feelings the characters were as I imagined the best pitches, the best rhythms for them to sing. In support of the vocal lines, I allowed myself a very free hand in writing accompanying harmonies and textures—there was no system that locked me into a specific, narrow range of choices. And yet the music of the opera feels unified, nothing intruding from another, alien universe. All along I asked myself only what the opera needed at each point, and how to improve what was there. It took the complete range of my imagination and technique to do so, and yet the process felt invigorating rather than draining. Despite its tragic nature, I hope Noon at Dusk leaves you with a similar feeling as well.

Yi Hong’s program note:

My crafting of the libretto was informed by my experiences singing and composing music for both prose and poetry. Vaughan Williams’ “Valiant-for-Truth,” a setting of Bunyan’s allegorical novel The Pilgrim’s Progress, inspired much of the prose dialogue in the libretto. Eliot’s final aria, also the final scene of the opera, takes the form of a Spenserian sonnet. Most importantly, I cast three poems by nineteenth-century English poet, Christina Rossetti, as the emotional centerpieces of three different scenes in the opera. A book of Rossetti’s poems was the muse I used to get myself writing each day. In the end, I found some of her poems so pitch-perfect, so lovely and touching in their simplicity and lyricism, that I decided to build particular scenes around them. That Rossetti’s poetry at times explored love for women made her work especially appealing to me for scenes between Annelise and Daniela. Her verse had the uncanny quality of sounding both modern and antique at once, which suited the nature of the social and personal dilemmas facing the two couples in our opera.

Who narrates in music?

Is it the job of the composer to decide that one’s music is narrative, non-narrative, or subverts narrative? Or is that entirely out of the composer’s control? Is it in fact the job of the listener to hear narrative, not hear narrative, or hear a subversion of narrative? If it is both, are there any aspects that are always controlled by the composer? Or can willful listening remove any authority from the composer?

Concertato, part one

Concertato was, for a long time, my flagship work. Composed in 2004-5, I nevertheless still trotted it out as the best example of my abilities until very recently.

In Concertato, I began working for the first time with musical elements and devices that I continue to use today. These include: Continue reading

jarred, part two

Today I want to pick up where I left off yesterday. I began my reflection/analysis of jarred from the beginning of the piece, working my way through bar 48. This was the first large section ofjarred.

What follows after the fermata in bar 48 is really a development section. At the time, I believed that I was writing many short phrases in a row, but there is too much continuity between them for true independence. Continue reading

jarred, part one

jarred, first measurejarred was the first piece I composed in my masters degree program at UCSD. It was written during the first-year composition seminar 203A, with Roger Reynolds as the primary instructor (Rand Steiger came in for the last class that quarter, but the piece was mostly done by that point). Continue reading

Self-analysis project

In January next year I will be taking my qualifying exams for the PhD in composition. This involves five faculty members, three from music and two from elsewhere, who will give me three questions to write responses to. After two weeks of writing, I will have an oral defense of my answers with the committee.

One of my topics is a self-analysis of my work as a composer. This is a rather daunting task, as I have many works that I would still consider to be important to me. Continue reading

New website!

Here’s my website, finally. This is for my work as a composer and a pianist, as well as freelancing gigs. I hope to occasionally update my blog here as well with thoughts, reflections, reviews, reactions, ideas good and bad. Enjoy!

Schoenberg’s 1st Chamber Symphony

I am, admittedly, a complexity junkie. While I can find enjoyment in simplicity, especially in visual arts, I typically like complicated plots, inconsistent (or, in my take, realistic) characters, profound or difficult ideas, and chaotic jumbles. While I enjoy stand-up comics, I love Arrested Development or a movie like M.A.S.H., in which you can finish watching it and feel like you have only grazed the surface of the work. My previous composition teacher, Roger Reynolds, would describe this as something like the “palpability of multiple dimensionalities.” I would tend to use a simpler word: depth. Continue reading

Call to Action

Last week I became the owner of something that I’m sure many people desperately wanted after the premiere of Predator: Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s autograph. Sadly, though, mine was an ink stamp on my diploma from the University of California. Not much in the way of resale value.

And will it be worth much else? I now have my Master of Arts in Music. When does the money start rolling in? (Right after I find a pot of gold, if some BA in English folks don’t find it first.) Continue reading