Look at this:
That’s right. I am being paid for my art.
There is a piece of music running through my head, and I do not want to write this blog post.
In the early 80s, probably 1983, I ordered a pre-bundled set of Newbery Award winners for the media center at East Coweta High School, because the collection I had inherited in 1980 was particularly weak on fiction. One of the titles that I pulled from that box was the 1982 winner, A Visit to William Blake’s Inn, by Nancy Willard. I was a little nonplussed.
This was a picture book. Surely the Newbery committee had made a mistake. Then I opened it.
I will admit that the first thing that I loved about the book was the illustrations. They’re beautiful, muted gouache paintings with deft architectural fantasies and adorable animal portraits. (It was 2002 before I realized that Alice and Martin Provensen illustrated my favorite book as a child, The Color Kittens.)
Then I started to read it.
WHEN WE COME HOME, BLAKE CALLS FOR FIRE
Fire, you handsome creature, shine.
Let the hearth where I confine
your hissing tongues that rise and fall
be the home that warms us all.
When the wind assaults my doors
every corner’s cold but yours.
When the snow puts earth to sleep
let your bright behavior keep
all these little pilgrims warm.
They who never did you harm
raise their paws a little higher
and toast their toes, in praise of fire.
I was in love.
I began to set some of the poems to music. “When We Come Home, Blake Calls for Fire” was first. I know I did “William Blake’s Inn for Innocent and Experienced Travelers” and “The Tiger Asks Blake for a Bedtime Story” and “The Man in the Marmalade Hat Arrives” before I stopped. After all, I did not have the rights to create a song cycle from this book, and having received a firmly worded letter from Dr. Seuss’s estate when I asked permission for my one-act opera version of Green Eggs & Ham, I was not about to ask Nancy Willard. The work went into the “trunk.”
Fast forward to 2002, when I was retiring as artistic director of the Newnan Community Theatre Company. Having decided to go out in a blaze of glory, I translated The Marriage of Figaro, which was every bit as hard to pull off as you might imagine, so when my lovely first wife came home from her book club to say that Bette had a project she wanted me to work on, I snapped, “Not until November 10!”, which I repeated to Bette herself when she immediately launched into her pitch the next time we met.
The project was to audition/train/accompany a dozen young people, ages 8–13, to an international get-together in our sister city of Ayr, Scotland. Other than airfare, all expenses would be paid. Well, OK, sure, why not?
The deal was that the Scottish Opera had this little touring thing, two adult singers and as many children as you could cram onstage, based on their national poem, “Tam O’Shanter,” by Robbie Burns. They had premiered it the year before, and Ayr was inviting all its sister cities to send kids to take part in it again. We were there with students from Norway, Germany, and of course Scotland. It was huge fun.
On the plane home, the adults in the party decided that Newnan could do the same thing, invite all our new friends to the U.S. to perform in some unidentified work. I remembered William Blake’s Inn. I opened my laptop, put on my headphones, and gave it a listen.
Hm, I thought, not bad.
When we got back home, we had a meeting of the interested adults and I played for them the pieces I had. They liked it. Let’s do it.
But that meant I had to ask Nancy Willard for her permission.
This inn belongs to William Blake…
I printed out the songs I had, made a CD of the fairly shabby MIDI realizations, and wrote a letter pleading for permission—or at the very least, hope that she wouldn’t sic her lawyers on me.
A couple of weeks later, there was email. firstname.lastname@example.org. I stopped breathing. I may have cried. I opened it.
Dale, good heavens–of course you have my permission. What a wonderful
gift appeared in the mail today–all those songs!
And that’s how I became friends with Nancy Willard.
It took me another couple of years to finish setting all the poems to music, and then I had to orchestrate it, so it was not until 2007 that we felt we were ready to put it front of the public. The whole time Nancy was generous and encouraging. And then we met her!
We had gone to New York and I emailed Nancy to see if she and Eric Lindbloom, her husband, could come down from Poughkeepsie to have lunch. They did, and she was exactly in person the way she was in correspondence and in all the videos and interviews I had seen of her: funny, kind, super-smart.
We discovered many shared habits, including that of writing ABORTIVE ATTEMPTS at the top of new work (she used the term WASTED EFFORTS). Finally, as we were parting, I pulled out the two copies of William Blake’s Inn, my original paperback and the hardback I had bought to put on display whenever we performed (so that I didn’t risk losing the copy I had composed from).
Oh, she said, she’d have to take them with her. My heart sank. What if I never got them back?
But no: she needed to take them home with her because she didn’t just autograph them. She painted in them.
and make it strong and clear…
Finally, on May 3, 2007, we had a “backers audition,” where my intrepid group of volunteers sang the whole work, with what we called a “cardboard and hot glue” staging of “The Man in the Marmalade Hat Arrives” and “Two Sunflowers Move Into the Yellow Room.” The idea was to get a commitment from various individuals/organizations in the community to actually stage the work for the international thing.
Everyone loved the music. No one stepped up to take on the project.
I will be honest: perhaps I could have done what I always do, which is to just do it all myself. But I refused. For one thing, I had a son in college; I didn’t have the cash to throw at the project (like I did with Figaro just to get it done right). For another, I was tired of all these “supporters of the arts” not actually supporting any arts. I was resentful. So we just put it on the back burner, where it has stayed.
Through the years, I’ve made a few feeble efforts: a friend gave it to the Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago, who passed it on to the Chicago Children’s Theatre, who passed it on to the Chicago Symphony, where I’m sure it was discarded. I’ve offered it to UGA, to the Springer, to the Center for Puppetry Arts. But no one’s interested. It’s too short (40+ min) for a mainstage show, and too complicated for a children’s piece. It was written as a song cycle for adult singers. It can’t really be done with just a piano; the later pieces were written for orchestra without going through the piano first. There is no script, no plot; whoever did it would have to do an enormous amount of development to flesh it out—which I think is the most interesting part about it. But I know it’s not an out-of-the-box piece.
And so it languishes.
Last spring, I emailed Nancy because I was working on Lichtenbergianism: procrastination as a creative strategy, and I couldn’t remember the term she used for Abortive Attempts. I got back an email from Eric, asking me to call him. Nancy had fallen the summer before. She was mostly bedridden and in decline. I didn’t share with anyone what I knew, because it was clear they were keeping it private. As Nancy said to Eric, “It’s not like it was before, is it?”
Then a couple of months ago I got an email from a teacher in Idaho. I-DA-HO, KENNETH. Could her small charter school perform William Blake’s Inn?
I wrote Nancy to tell her. And then I wrote her again last month to remind her that although she had always demurred at discussing financial arrangements for when those huge royalty checks started pouring in, I was reminding her that I had decreed that we would make it a 60/40 split.
I got a letter, dated Feb 18, from Eric. Nancy was resting comfortably, still at home, but in hospice care.
Nancy Willard died the following day, Feb 19, 2017.
Part of my grief at losing her is that we never staged the work completely. I never staged the work completely. We never got to have her as a guest at the dazzling international premiere so that she could receive the tribute that she certainly deserved. I’m angry at the world, I’m angry at Newnan, I’m angry with myself. I failed my friend.
Now students at Moscow Charter School, in Moscow, ID, will be performing William Blake’s Inn in May. Are they capable of doing a fully staged production with orchestra? No, but here’s what I learned from Nancy Willard: if you’re given the gift, you give it again. Just as I was given the chance to create something new and beautiful from Nancy’s deeply meaningful poems, I look forward to seeing what those students come up with. I’m hoping to work with them via Skype to bring their ideas to life.
We’ll start our journey as children,/but I fear we will finish it old.
Now “Blake Leads a Walk on the Milky Way,” the great central piece of the entire work, won’t leave my head. Those opening chords, which return to such great effect in the “Epilogue,” keep up their chime, and the recapitulation at He gave silver stars to the Rabbit, with its unexpected and gorgeous major key take on the mysterious first theme—they’re on permanent loop, reminding me of the beautiful beautiful soul who gave me permission to create them. I know that if I listen too carefully, I will grieve outright. I’m okay with that.
My adventures now are ended.
I and all whom I befriended
from this holy hill must go
home to lives we left below.
Farewell cow and farewell cat,
rabbit, tiger, sullen rat.
To our children we shall say
how we walked the Milky Way.
You whose journeys now begin,
if you reach a lovely inn,
if a rabbit makes your bed,
if two dragons bake your bread,
rest a little for my sake,
and give my love to William Blake.
 My predecessor had righteously sniffed that a liberrary was for research. If the chillren wanted to read for fun, they could do that at home. The fact that most of our clientele came from homes without books seemed to be irrelevant to this woman.
 What made me think we could even do such a thing? A hugger-mugger performance of Green Eggs & Ham at a Reading several years previously—I stole the joyous ending of the piece from the Act II finale of Figaro.
 I’ll explain some other time.
 Her resistance to business dealings was extraordinary. In her original email she pointed me to the rights department at Harcourt, the publisher of A Visit to William Blake’s Inn, where they explained to me that they didn’t own the copyright—she did.
First, a clarification. These are technically not “Lichtenbergian goals.” In our official ritual/agenda, they are “Proposed Efforts.” A subtle difference, and a valid distinction: if we don’t get around to doing one of them, we haven’t missed a goal. We just didn’t get around to it.
With that in mind, here are next year’s Proposed Efforts.
I’m carrying forward my 2016 goal to finish Lichtenbergianism: procrastination as a creative strategy and find a publisher for it. It’s just sheer laziness that prevented me from achieving that this past year. As I move forward, I will continue posting chapters to this website (although see below about Lichtenbergianism.com) and about my efforts to implement the strategies outlined in The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published [EGGYBP].
I will also continue building Lichtenbergianism.com, both through the blog and the introductory material.
One of the strategies in EGGYBP is to establish yourself as a speaker/workshop leader, both of which I am extremely qualified to do. I’ve already started putting out feelers and hope to start this aspect of the project soon.
Another carryover: work with Kim Ramey at Backstreet Arts on establishing a writers’ group for her audience. Basic journaling, story posters, whole books, compilations of stories—I’ll start wherever I can and go from there.
Not really a carryover, but if I’m going to compose at all, it might as well be this piece.
Since it has not been officially announced, I won’t name the play I’m directing for the 2017-18 season at Newnan Theatre Company. Suffice it to say that with auditions in Jan 2018, I will spend most of 2017 preparing for the show.
For this production I am going to pull what we used to call a “full Dale” and which everywhere else is called “standard operating procedure,” i.e., full designs for costumes, sets, and lights, with individuals who are not me in charge of production. Production meetings; crew recruitment; maybe even classes to teach people how to do these things. Reach out to sewing fanatics via Jo-Ann perhaps; reach out to the artists at Backstreet; find people who aren’t involved and drag them into it.
I want to continue to lead 3 Old Men, of course, but now we have another goal for the year. Burning Man’s theme for 2017 (Aug 24–Sep 4) is Radical Ritual—how can we not at least attempt to plan to go? So there’s that.
I also want to continue as Placement Lead for Alchemy and Euphoria, now that I’ve had greatness thrust upon me. Especially if we move to new land again: I want the opportunity to design a burn that becomes a home for years.
This one just developed last week when I was trying to explain the music I had used in the labyrinth for the Tour of Homes, Phil Kline’s Unsilent Night. Years ago I had tried to get in touch with Mr. Kline to see if he’d allow us to do an Unsilent Night parade in Newnan, but never heard from him. When I looked the music up to show people, I was super pleased to see that Unsilent Night now has its own webpage, and that indeed they were encouraging parades all over.
I’ve already made contact and started a Facebook group to begin planning for the event next December.
I got out of a daily schedule this past summer and fall, so I want to reestablish specific periods of work each day.
Seven goals, some of which have massive subgoals themselves. We’ll see how I do.
For those of you who are just joining us, the Lichtenbergian Society is the group of men who are my soul brothers in creative procrastination. Every year we have an Annual Meeting around the fire in the labyrinth, and part of the ritual is that we propose our Efforts for the coming year, which our Recording Secretary duly engrosses in the journal.
The other part of that process, of course, is to have this year’s Efforts read back to us and to confess our success or failure. Cras melior est is the appropriate liturgical response to any failure.
Since the Annual Meeting is this Friday, it’s time to prepare my soul for the ordeal. Let’s see how I did in 2016.
Here’s the original post, if you’re interested.
I wanted to finish Lichtenbergianism: procrastination as a creative strategy this year. Somehow that did not happen. Something to do with procrastination, I think.
On the plus side, I’ve made headway in my own head towards thinking about getting the thing actually published. Part of that effort towards world domination was establishing Lichtenbergianism.com, which is not nothing.
But actually finishing the book? No.
If my goal was to expand my burner theme camp to include a 50-foot square arena for “yelling at the hippies,” well… cras melior est. We didn’t have enough campers at Euphoria in May, and for Alchemy, we didn’t have enough space.
But there in the last paragraph of last year’s post, look:
I also want to continue working with Flashpoint Artists Initiative, the nonprofit which runs Euphoria/Alchemy, as a small-time volunteer on various projects.
Ha. I was certainly accomplishing that goal, doing my usual webmaster volunteering for the art fundraiser and even going so far as to volunteer to be Co-Lead for Placement, right up until the morning that I woke up one morning to the email saying that I was THE LEAD FOR PLACEMENT, KENNETH.
So if my goal was to remain a “small-time volunteer,” I failed miserably. You can read about it here.
My goal was to work with Kim Ramey as she established a public art studio for the homeless/underserved population here in Newnan.
Cras melior est. I lent a sympathetic ear to Kim Ramey and offered what I hope was helpful advice, but mostly I was missing in action. However, she has forged ahead and this past month the studio (behind Bridging the Gap) passed its inspection and will soon be open for business. I hope I can get my act together enough to volunteer down there and create a space for writing and publishing.
This was my Undefined Universe Project, in which I decided not to work on music which had not been specifically commissioned for a performance. As I said in the post,
So my goal is to allow the Universe to send me a project which is attached to actual production.
Cras melior est, although that’s on the Universe, right? I did decide to pick back up on SUN TRUE FIRE on Retreat (here and here), but otherwise the Universe certainly gave me the finger. Oh well. It’s not as if I haven’t been busy or creative in other ways. Which is the point of TASK AVOIDANCE in the first place, right?
Onward to 2017!
Astoundingly, I have not been blogging about this year’s production of A Christmas Carol, my musical retelling of Dickens’ classic.
To be honest, it’s been a scary rehearsal process, starting with the first night of auditions. Why? Because instead of the 20 or so adults I needed to perform the roles and sing my not-very-easy songs, I got eight little girls and a handful of teens and adults, most of whom had not done theatre in a while. And on top of that, several of the adults dropped out the first week of rehearsal; I’m sure they were daunted by the prospect (as you will see). I’d hate to think they thought it was not going to work.
Usually in community theatre when one does not have the cast one needs after auditions, one gets on the phone and recruits people. But I was not in the mood, and on top of that I was up to my earballs in designing the nation’s largest regional burn at the time, if you will recall.
And so I made a fateful decision: we would use the performers we had and screw all those people who didn’t bother to come to auditions. This meant, of course, re-envisioning the entire piece.
I decided to invent a frame story—I know, I know, but hear me out—about Natalie Fairgood, a spoiled, horrible little rich girl, who was born on Christmas Day and resents it because she feels as if she never gets enough presents. That’s why, she says, she celebrates the week after. This year she’s having a sleepover with all her friends, but she’s been forced to invite her mother’s personal assistant’s daughter, Jessica.
When the show opens, Natalie’s grandfather shows Jessica into Natalie’s bedroom and chats with her a moment before leaving her to wait for the other girls, who are somewhere in the huge house. When they enter, Natalie immediately begins taunting Jessica, ending in a meltdown because Jessica is holding one of her dolls.
Grandfather intervenes, and when he offers them storytime to chill them out, Natalie demands a ghost story.
“I have just the story,” he says. “I read it every year, and I’m reading it now. I’ll read it to you.” They all sit, attentively, and he begins: “Marley was dead…”
Figures emerge from the shadows and begin to narrate as well, and soon we are back in Scrooge’s tale.
As the show progresses, the girls go from being passive listeners to Grandfather’s reading to observing the action directly. Soon they are taking part in the story, using toys and costume pieces from Natalie’s shelves as they become guests at Fezziwig’s party to shoppers on the street to Young Cratchits.
By the time we reach the Finale, they are fully empowered to join Grandfather in telling the story themselves, and that’s the point: we celebrate the power of story, how we listen to stories, become part of them, and in turn pass them on to the next listeners. Hearing a story changes us. Telling a story changes us.
And by the end, both Scrooge and Natalie have changed. And so have we.
Script now available upon request.
I’ve been working all morning, just futzing around with some sounds for the opening of SUN TRUE FIRE. Think the opening to Das Rheingold, or to Kevin Puts’ Symphony No. 2. Slow, low strings, building to some kind of crescendo…
I want to structure the entire work around the idea of a ritual: INVOCATION/CALL — AGONS (QUESTIONS, ENCOUNTERS, PROPHECIES) — REVELATION — RESOLUTION. The opening needs to introduce us to the mystical landscape we’re about to enter, and then we will have some great pillars of sound, with a solo tenor calling us: “drunk among them, lead the way a clear voice way…”
Of what I’ve written today, here’s what’s worth sharing: STF opening abortive attempt
(I think it’s nice, and I think it would come after a longer buildup before this point. It may go different paths than what I’ve indicated here.)
I’ve rewritten the Chorale from the Christmas Carol “Christmas Present Street Scene.” Its weirdo chromaticism wasn’t ever really a problem, but the ending was always dicey since the sopranos had to sing high and divisi.
This rewrite had to begin with the same melodic phrase, which reappears before “Hey, boy, what day is today?” in the Finale and which was not problematic anyway. In general, I’ve kept the first parts of the two verses the same, just monkeying with the endings so that they don’t climb too high for inexperienced singers.
So the Abortive Attempt is done. I’ll set it aside and let it annoy me again later.
Oh, you’d like to hear it? Here.
SUN TRUE FIRE. hoo boy.
Lots of scribbled notes—on paper even! Just chords, bass lines, interesting combinations. Nothing serious yet. No real text set, although I think I’m zeroing in on verse IX. Big Case as my first target.
Here’s a cute little two-part waltz. I truly am just plopping out random notes without worrying about whether they’re ever going to wind up being usable in SUN TRUE FIRE.
Lots of little bits, nothing more to share.
It’s time to hit the hot tub for a bit.
Time once again to flush the old spam filter…
(All capitalization and punctuation exactly as in the original.)
And with that, I’m out.
Not quite. I couldn’t resist taking a peek inside that last one.
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That’s poetry. But I’m already years behind on my SUN TRUE FIRE project, so I will resist the urge to turn that into something.
But you can. Be my guest.
Fellow Lichtenbergian Jeff Bishop asked me for a photo to include in his new history/compilation book on Coweta County, and I found to my chagrin that I had very few physical photos of my regime as artistic director of the Newnan Community Theatre Company (as it was then known), and the online photos I had were of low quality.
Sic transit gloria mundi, indeed.
However, I did find this photo:
Here I am, singing Count Almaviva in my own translation of Nozze di Figaro, titled Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. This was in the fall of 2002, fourteen years ago.
Mercy, what an accomplishment! I had decided two years before that I would leave the position of artistic director at the end of the 2002 season,1 and I wanted to go out with a bang. Figaro had been on my bucket list for years, but actually producing it was always sort of out of the question.
But it was clearly a case of now or never—when else would I have the chance? Who would ever give me a shot like this? Me, that’s who.
So over the course of 18 months, I worked and worked on translating the thing. It was actually fun, working out the punchlines — this opera has punchlines — and the rhyme schemes.
Then we had auditions, and wouldn’t you know it, no one suitable auditioned for the Count. I was forced, forced I tell you, to take the role myself.
I found a reduced orchestration, from the National Opera of Wales, and hired a tiny orchestra. Dave Dorrell designed a gorgeous set of fabric drops that made the set changes easy,2 the usual gang of angels and elves made the costumes (especially the Act IV masquerade, in which the four principals found themselves dressed in their 18th century parallels). We pulled together the missing chorus members and got to work.
And how did this ultimate vanity project, an 18th-century opera buffa masterpiece, fare with the audiences of Newnan? Sold out, start to finish, standing room only, thunderous applause. It was exhilarating.
In order to identify some of the performers in some of the photos I pulled up, I dug out the program and was struck by my Director’s Comments. I will leave them here:
I always thought that someday I should like to direct opera. Perhaps one day I shall, but in the meantime, what we’ve done with Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro will serve.
What have we done? We have taken the world’s most perfect comic musical work and approached it as if it were a brand new script intended for our audiences. When I translated da Ponte’s libretto, I kept an ear out for natural sounding English and made sure that that the humor was ratcheted up to the level where it would be funny to a modern audience, not just quaintly amusing. Likewise in our staging, we’ve applied all our experience as musical theatre performers to the score and text, pointing up the jokes and playing out the sheer humanness of the characters.
For they are human, splendidly and foolishly so, as the title of Beaumarchais’s original play suggests: The Follies of a Day. Everyone sings in the Act IV finale, “Day of fools and night of madness,” and by that point, they all understand exactly what that means, about the others and about themselves as well. And through them, we see ourselves.
Who hasn’t had to deal with the Count, convinced that everyone and everything is out to get him when he is the author of his own problems? Who hasn’t been Cherubino, young and in love with love even as he is tormented by the sweet newness of it all? (And who hasn’t written really bad love poetry, like Cherubino’s Act II song, “Ladies, confide in me”?)
With any luck, we haven’t had to suffer like the Countess does, but if we have, she shows us how to get the courage to take charge of our own life. Figaro and Susanna show us the value of humor in a relationship, even at the moments of highest stress in their lives.
And don’t we all hope that forgiveness and completeness are possible? Don’t we all wish that our problems would resolve themselves in a shower of fireworks and joy in a moonlit garden? There’s the ache in the brilliant comedy: despite what we think might happen after the curtain comes down and the sun comes up the next morning, for one moment there is redemption, summed up in Mozart’s perfect little world.
That’s our goal tonight, to bring you safely through all the lunacies of these wonderful characters to the final haven of the garden, and to send you out into our own night with that perfect joy now a part of your life as it is a part of ours.
Dang, I write good, don’t I?
1 We ran Jan-Dec in those days; most of us were educators and opening a season along with school would have been stupidly stressful.
2 Fun story: I had in my head that I wanted the color palette to be a muted 50s kind of style, based on my favorite childhood book, The Color Kittens. I didn’t have my original copy, so I ordered one from Amazon and was astonished to find that it was illustrated by Alice & Martin Provensen, the illustrators of William Blake’s Inn!
You know how when you upload your compositions to iTunes, but when you’re looking at the screen there’s no album cover, just the default icon?
That’s pretty sad. It’s as if Apple is laughing at you, because you’re not a real composer.
Pfffft on that, I say, and so I design my own album covers. When I finished “The Ballad of Miss Ella” last week, there was that default icon, and so I grouped “Miss Ella” with “Not Really Bad” and “Dear Diary” from my middle school theatre workshops and made a new album:
I’ll just keep adding to it as I go along.