The Darkling opera CD is available here from Albany Records. Read on for an introduction from the opera’s composer, Stefan Weisman.
I remember the first time I composed music. I was a freshman at Bard College, where I intended to be a film major. However, that also seemed to be the plan for a sizeable percentage of the incoming class and I couldn’t get into the courses I wanted. I’d been a violinist since grade school, and had a love of classical music, so it felt natural for me to seek out a music course to fill out my schedule. Bard had no orchestras then, but it did have a composition course that sounded interesting. I noticed that the course required the “permission of the instructor,” so I picked up the phone and called Joan Tower, not knowing yet that she was a world-class composer. Joan said that I could take her course if I would write a piece for clarinet before the next semester began. She explained that she did not want me to try to write a piece that I would play myself—I had to have the experience of hearing someone else perform the music that I wrote. I readily agreed, and spent the break between semesters hard at work on what would become a sixty-second etude for solo clarinet. Hanging up the phone, I was glad that I’d found a course to fill my schedule, but I certainly did not realize that my future path had just shifted dramatically.
The semester began with clarinetist Laura Flax giving me lesson one: a wind player has to breathe. I had put exactly one rest into my piece, a quarter note that was written backward so that it looked more like a lightening bolt. After having spent laborious hours working on my etude, I was thrilled beyond words to hear a professional musician perform the piece. Joan had even set up microphones to record the rehearsal so that I could listen again later. (Which I did obsessively, and I’m sure I still have that tape saved somewhere.) I did not look back, and only officially ended my formal education this year by getting my Ph.D. as a composer at Princeton University, where my dissertation composition was an evening-length chamber opera - Darkling, which was released today, November 1st, 2011, on CD by Albany Records.
Things have come full circle. I recently began a job teaching at Bard High School Early College (BHSEC)—an experimental school for ambitious high school-aged students who graduate with both a high school diploma and an Associate’s Degree—and I’ve designed my own composition course. Since BHSEC is affiliated with the American Symphony Orchestra, whose conductor Leon Botstein is also the President of Bard College, I have arranged for professional players from the orchestra to come play my student’s works. I will even be able to have Laura Flax come in for a workshop reading of student pieces! Obviously my student’s first efforts are short and rudimentary, but as I observe their process, I admire their excitement about hearing their musical ideas come to life, and their freedom from self-doubt. Over the years, I have spent more and more time working on the initial seeds of my compositions, and it can sometimes take weeks for me to even begin a new piece. It’s refreshing to see my students throw caution to the wind and work with what comes to them, without second-guessing. As I work with these young composers, I have been very gratified to discover that my students have something to teach me.
Thanks for reading. I invite you to join me and the Darkling opera librettist, Anna Rabinowitz, at our Darkling CD release celebration at DROM NYC on the 22nd of this month.