A Christmas Carol: The Sleepover Edition

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 the daughter of her mother’s personal assistant, 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.

Retreat, Day 1

9:30 a.m.

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.

tools of the trade
tools of the trade

11:36 a.m.

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.

However, here’s a lovely little bit, almost an Easier Piece in its simplicity.  It may end up in XI. The Azure Stone (Resolution)Listen.

1:33 p.m.:

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.

3:05 p.m.:

Lots of little bits, nothing more to share.

It’s time to hit the hot tub for a bit.

Christmas Carol: Overture!

Here’s something you haven’t heard in nearly fifteen years: the Overture to Christmas Carol.

You may recall that last year, I labored for half a year to reconstitute the score for a small ensemble which never materialized.  None of the original computer/MIDI files existed any more, and so I had to work from my original handwritten piano score.  This was not a problem.  But the overture was never written down—I composed it directly in the computer using the sequencing software EZ•Vision (which no longer exists.)

I was going to have to recompose the piece from the ground up, although I had a pretty firm idea that it consisted of the Christmas Waltz, 20 Questions, and People Like Us.  Since the music I wrote last year never got used, I was gratified that I didn’t put the effort into the overture.

This year, though, I wanted my overture back.  I cobbled together the opening by copy/pasting the Christmas Waltz, then pieced together the 20 Questions sequence—and then I just laid it to the side and ignored it for months.  This week, though, since we open a week from tonight, I figured I’d better get in there and finish it.1

Today, I opened it up and began working, and by lunch I was mostly finished. Bits of “A Reason for Laughter” sneaked in, and I quite like that section—it’s definitely my recent style as opposed to my 20-something self.  The final half is a neat orchestration of the “People Like Us” canon, and while it resembles what I remember from 20 years ago it, too, is more of my recent style.

The rest of today has been Successive Approximation all the way, as I tweaked and added and subtracted—then after premiering it at tonight’s rehearsal, I heard tons more that needed fixing. Tomorrow, I’ll probably futz with it again, but for the moment, Behold! An Overture!

Christmas Carol Overture | mp3


1 The other impetus was that I discovered yesterday that I have to gear up and supervise the construction of almost all the gowns in the show.  In a week.

A thought

An interesting aspect of re-jiggering old pieces, as I have done with Christmas Carol at least twice now, is that I have left a trail of modifications and improvements over the last 30 years and I haven’t taken care to go back and update all the previous versions.

This means that even last year’s 11-piece ensemble version is not the same in minor details as the current project.  In painting, this would be called pentimento, where the artist made changes and adaptations in the course of work and which can be seen through careful examination or infrared/X-ray/or other technology.

Past novelists of course kept their drafts for the most part, and it’s a cottage business in academia to scour these for the differences in the original artistic impulse, a kind of tracking of Successive Approximation.  (Christopher Tolkien has made a career of this.)

Composers, in the past, are the same.  Leonard Bernstein famously did an entire program on how long it took Beethoven to get the opening measures of his Fifth Symphony right, based on material from Beethoven’s sketchbooks and papers.

Nowadays, of course, revisions and editing and evidence of crashing and burning evaporate with a shift of the electrons of which everything is made now.  This has been a matter of some interest/concern for scholars—and artists themselves: how will the future learn of our creative processes when we leave no trace?

That’s one reason, actually, that I start a Finale file for Abortive Attempts and then transfer things to a “clean papers” file—usually—once I’ve settled on melodies and harmonies.  There’s still a lot that evaporates in the process, but I feel as if I have left a little bit of a path to understanding how I did what I did.

That’s it; no grand essay, just a thought.

What’s going on…

I’m sitting here in my room in the Springer Opera House—yes, that’s a thing—waiting for the first rehearsal of Born Yesterday, the Garson Kanin comedy that closes out the Springer’s season, and I’m being very good, waking at 6:00 a.m. and actually working on Christmas Carol.

I questioned whether to bring my own coffee pot since there’s one in the communal kitchen here, but then I realized that if I open that door before 9:30, I’ll start being sociable with my fellow cast members and never get any work done.  So I’m glad I have my coffee set up in my bathroom; I’ve actually been productive this morning.

I’ve picked up where I left off some weeks ago, starting to get “The Cratchits’ Prayer” re-orchestrated.  As I’ve said before, none of this process is very hard since most of it is just deciding where to copy and paste the music that’s already there.  But there are issues—and always have been—with this piece, in that the harmonies twist and turn and I don’t think I’ve ever gotten them right.  I reworked them last year and I don’t think I solved the problem, so this is the time and the place where it all comes to an end.  Eventually.

This blog post is, of course, in the spirit of TASK AVOIDANCE, one of the nine precepts of Lichtenbergianism: I got to a certain point in the music and decided to stop working on it for a bit.

Today is Tuesday.  The first runthrough of this show is Sunday.  And then in another week and a half, we open.  Let that sink in: we have fourteen days of rehearsal (Mondays off) and then we open.

Let me be the first to say that, never having done this before, I have some anxiety about my ability to learn these lines in the allotted timeframe.  It helps that one of my fellow cast members, an actual professional actor, said the same thing at dinner last night.  It’s a matter of age, mostly.  Those lines just won’t stick like they used to.  In Into the Woods, I flubbed scenes in ways I never had before.  Of course, in my defense, most of my scenes began with the line “And so the Baker…,” so it’s no wonder that I couldn’t keep them straight.

Feh.  I will not only survive, I will prevail.  But I do see a lot of evenings spent chiseling those words into my brain.

Ah well, back to Dickens.

I have too been working!

So what if I haven’t composed a new note in — let’s just say “a while”?  I have been working.  Well, I’ve been working this week, anyway, on reorchestrating A Christmas Carol for its new production this coming December 10-20.

I’m a little over halfway through the show, and today I thought I would share some results: the Christmas Present Street Scene.

Street Scene in 1999 production

In this number, we have the chorus just generally being Christmas-y all over the place, with loud, jolly parts interspersed with quieter sections over which touching scenes are played.  We hear the Christmas Waltz for the first time, and we end with the Chorale, which brings the mood into a somber reflection on the Reason for the Season, segueing into the Cratchits’ home.

In last year’s production, there were issues involving the inability to repeat sections appropriately, and so the music got chopped up instead of played straight through.  If only I had known about the theatre’s use of QLab…

Oh well, things are going to be much better this year.  Those who have fond memories of long-past years will rejoice to hear the full orchestration restored.

Behold, Christmas!

Christmas Present Street Scene | vocal score (pdf) | mp3

A little work

OK, so I’ve not been very productive.  But I have accomplished some little bits.

First, you must know that I’ve been working on re-orchestrating A Christmas Carol for next December’s re-premiere.  I haven’t shared any of that because it’s not very interesting, but here’s a taste:

Past’s Arrival | mp3

This bit of underscoring takes us from the chimes of a neighboring church to the Ghost of Christmas Present’s teasing appearance, to their transportation to Scrooge’s past: the countryside, Martin and Oliver having a snowball fight, and then fading into the schoolroom.

The process of preparing sound files for December is not at all the same as simply re-orchestrating the show from an 11-piece ensemble to a full orchestra.  Because I’m not actually working on documents for live musicians, there are lots of shortcuts and omissions.  For example, if I transpose a harp sequence up a octave, I don’t bother moving it from the bass clef up to the treble clef because who cares?  No harpist is going to have to decipher what I’ve written, and the computer doesn’t care—it will play the notes exactly where I’ve put them whether they look correct or not.

Repeats are another area: many of the pieces have vamps (bits that loop until the scene moves on) or repeated verses/choruses.  For live musicians, repeats save paper and are easier to read.  But the printed repeat signs are irrelevant to a computer program that I’m going to instruct to “loop this waveform until I tell you not to,” and so I’m leaving those out. In the above sample, there is a vamp on the flute part that you won’t hear because that will be taken care of in QLab, the multimedia sequencer I’m still exploring.

I’m in the middle of pondering whether it is going to be better to try to “slice” the repeat (with varying degrees of smoothness or accuracy) in QLab or to export each section of a piece separately so that the repeated section is clear and easy to click on.  This may become critical in rehearsal, of “A Reason for Laughter,” for example, as we try to get Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig in and out of their verses, or in “Country Dance” when we’re trying to learn new sections of the dance.

I also have been taking repeat signs out of pieces like “Country Dance,” where it’s just easier to string all the jumpbacks (from A—>B—>A—>C—>A) out into one long piece rather than deal with all my quirky repeat signs.  In fact, I’ve stopped working on the music to blog here because the challenge of untangling “A Reason for Laughter” makes my eyes cross.

Anyway, as far as slicing vs. exporting multiple files for each pieces goes, I have lots of time between now and November, so I can play with all my options.  (Who am I kidding?  I’ll take the complicated way because it will make life much easier in rehearsal.)

I have gained an assistant:

She is currently trying to keep me from typing—WHAT IS THE DEAL EVEN I SHOULD BE PETTING HER ANYWAY—and did you know that pencils, pens, and erasers make great rolly toys, especially if you knock them to the floor?

She’s been with us for a couple of weeks now but has so far refused to divulge her name, and she is the only cat I have ever met that, when you pick her up, goes limp in your arms and settles in for a cuddle.  She’ll shift, turn over even to get more comfortable, but ask to be put down?  Nope.

This is not the cat I was looking for—I prefer tabbies—but she is such a sweet-tempered beast that we were afraid to tempt fate by giving her away.  I’m trying to get used to cat hair everywhere again.  The turbo-purr helps.

Rehearsals continue for Into the Woods.  You will have to believe me when I say it is not bragging to claim that my performance will be a tour de force—it would be for anyone handling the roles of Narrator, Mysterious Man, and the Wolf.  Generally, the Narrator/Mysterious Man are combined roles, but the Wolf is played by Cinderella’s Prince.  My playing all three requires some very quick changes indeed, and so the audience can not help but be dazzled by my facility, speed, and grace.  There is one moment where I—as the Narrator—facilitate Milky White’s escape from the Baker’s Wife, only reappear seconds later as the Mysterious Man; I expect it to provoke laughter.

I am quite enjoying the chance to sing “Hello, Little Girl,” however.  It’s delicious, nasty fun.

The show opens March 19 and runs for two weekends, Thu-Sun.  Details here.

Lichtenbergianism: procrastination as a creative strategy is going well, if by “well” you mean “successfully avoid writing abortive attempts for Seven Dreams of Falling while not accomplishing an awful lot.”  I sit in my writing chair—that’s an official thing—and start free-associating on one of the 9 Precepts, and before I know it I’ll have two pages in a minuscule field notebook almost filled.  It’s exhausting.

So far, I don’t have any brilliant new insights to share from my writing; I’m still in the “dumping” phase, wherein all those things I’ve said and thought about the creative process over the years are finding their way out of the recesses of my brain onto the page.  I’ve also begun collecting relevant bibliographic support, so that’s progress of a sort.

Finally, a look at the labyrinth:

—click to embiggen—

A panoramic shot from the west side looking back towards the entrance—not our usual vantage point.  The winter rye grass makes for a lovely oasis of green, although I’m sure I’d be a better hippie if I learned to appreciate Nature’s own withered brownness.

I am eagerly awaiting warmer weather!

Christmas Carol redux: getting started

Yesterday I successfully avoided composing a single note by getting started on the re-re-orchestration of A Christmas Carol.

Actually, this should not take too long and will be an excellent task avoidance option for whatever else I’m working on.  All I have to do is open a new orchestral file (modified for my Christmas Carol purposes) and copy/paste material from the small ensemble version into the orchestral version, then redistribute the parts for a fuller sound.

There are the usual caveats: Finale doesn’t copy time signature changes or repeats, so I have to plan ahead for those.  And the repeats were enough to drive me mad on a couple of pieces, if you will recall, so that’s going to take a lot of flipping back and forth between the small ensemble and full orchestral versions and digging into the control panel for each repeat sign.  There were a couple of invisible ones as well, although I think that’s just for printing purposes.  I think they’re visible on the screen.

So anyway, I got the “Opening” done—in the sense of successively approximated—and “Bah! Humbug!” blocked out.  I may or may not post them at a later date.

More adventures in 21st century technology

After yesterday’s frustrations with Ableton Live, I emailed their tech support.  I should expect to hear back from them in a couple of days, they said, but hey, you snooze you lose: after mentioning the problem to a couple of NTC folk, they pointed me to QLab.

Click on it!

Ahhhh, much better.  Completely simple interface, yet a hugely powerful program.  It can control audio, video, lighting, etc., etc.  I can do damage with this.  Multimedia Christmas Carol, anyone?

All I have to do is export the orchestral accompaniment to a sound file, then drag it over to QLab all in one piece, not in separate pieces like in Ableton Live.  Down at the bottom, you can see where I’ve marked “slices,” and if you look at the full photo, you can see that I’ve changed the number of repeats for that middle vamping slice to infinity.

If you look at the center panel, you can see there are two cues, the music cue and then the “devamp” cue, i.e., when I tell that cue to Go, it tells the slice to stop looping and go to the next slice.  JUST LIKE EZ•VISION, YOU GUYS!  Only this time, if I like, I can add lighting cues, video cues, etc.

Also of interest: over on the right, you can see that I’ve told QLab that these two cues are “Marley’s Departure.”  I can build an entire set of cue lists, one for each musical number.  Turn, turn, kick turn—yes, it will work!

The only problem, which I have no doubt I will overcome, is that adding the slice points can be dicey. (See what I did there?)  I have to play the cue and click on the Add Slice button where I want the slice to happen.  I can move it around easily, but what I really want is to find a way for Finale to add the marker for me so that the file will import with the slices already marked.

That, however, is minimal.  I am now set to completely rescore Christmas Carol for full orchestra—and to recreate the Overture!