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29 December 2010

Boojum! in America

<em>Boojum!</em> in America

Reading composer Aristea Mellos's blog, I came across the following: 'While Australia has a thriving musical culture and a rich history, during my undergraduate studies [at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music] I often sensed that my music did not fit the preferred aesthetic which dominated the contemporary music scene. For some reason I just don't feel this in the US.'

Interesting comment. I had the same feeling when I was at the Sydney Con - and I was a lecturer there. I never discovered what the justification was for imposing a particular aesthetic. In fact, officially, no aesthetic was imposed. But most students quickly worked out that the way to academic success, and to success as a composer, was to adopt the aesthetic that appeared to be dominant in their lecturers' own music and in concerts, broadcasts etc. My belief was - still is - that students should be encouraged to study, and try their hand at, as many different styles, idioms, techniques, sound resources etc. as possible on their way to discovering their own voice. These include instrumental, electronic, vocal, choral, orchestral, computer, free-form improvisation, 'sound art', tonal, atonal, serial, minimalist, complexist, the styles and idioms of popular music, even country and western - and so on. Experience with a variety of these improves students' facility with sounds, which is what I believe compositional technique to be fundamentally about.

One of the first times I stepped out of the dominant aesthetic was in 1979, when I composed an a cappella choral piece, Who Killed Cock Robin?. Later that year, on a trip to the USA, I went to see Sondheim's Sweeney Todd on Broadway, and discovered that Sondheim had been a student of Milton Babbitt's. I suspected then that had he been living in Australia he might not have felt free enough - would not have been given permission, in effect - to move out of so-called 'serious art-music' into musical theatre. But it was now the late 70s, and the exuberance of that decade had not yet succumbed to the button-down 80s. I decided, somewhat naively, to follow Sondheim's example and start work on an opera/musical/music theatre sort of thing.

Seven years later, the piece - Boojum!, based on Lewis Carroll's epic nonsense poem 'The Hunting of the Snark', with lyrics by my brother Peter Wesley-Smith - was produced by State Opera of South Australia at the 1986 Adelaide Festival of Arts. Although the piece was successful at the box office, and received some positive reviews, for me the whole experience was a nightmare, for the piece was chopped and changed with no regard for our intentions and without our permission. When I objected, I was sent to Coventry by the cast and most other people associated with the production. I am still being pilloried by some, including Anthony Steel, the Director of the Adelaide Festival back then, in a recent book. My crime? Objecting publicly to our piece being rewritten. Big no-no. As a result, the Australian theatre door was slammed shut.

Some people in the so-called 'serious art-music' scene concluded that my writing a 'musical' was further evidence - post-Cock Robin - that I was not to be taken seriously as a composer. This included electronic music colleagues - yet none of them had heard the work or seen the score. To be a composer in Australia back then was to be put into a box from which one was not allowed to escape. No straddling of multiple boxes allowed.

After Adelaide we put the show back to what it was, made a few minor changes, and had it performed a couple of times in concert. For a forthcoming recording - by the Sydney Philharmonia Motet Choir, conducted by John Grundy - I did a new score, arriving at the definitive version. Three more concert performances later, one in Newcastle, two in America, Boojum! found itself on the shelf - alongside many other Australian music theatre pieces - unloved, forgotten, for years ... until:

In early 2009 I received a letter from American composer and director Eric Reda. It turns out that many years before, as he was starting university, he was working in a newly-opened CD store in Phoenix, Arizona. He came across the CD of Boojum! (on the Vox Australis label) and immediately fell in love with it. 'I recently founded an alternative opera company dedicated to creating new works ...', he wrote. 'I am looking back at my beloved recording of Boojum! and think that it might be the perfect addition to our season'. Fast-forward to 18 November 2010, and the show, a co-production by Chicago Opera Vanguard and Caffeine Theater, opened at the Storefront Theater, Chicago. It finished, 22 performances later, having enjoyed general audience acclaim and a dozen or so positive reviews.

The director, Jimmy McDermott, asked us about a cut he wanted to make, to which we readily agreed (it was exactly the same as one we'd made ourselves in a concert performance years before). Apparently there was no need to toss out our material and put in scenes written - words and music - by others. Our piece was treated with great respect by a production team determined to make it work brilliantly. And they did, as various crtics commented. 'Boojum! makes Carroll's unimaginable nonsense unimaginably human', wrote Chris Vire in Time Out Chicago. Gaper's Block wrote: 'Nonsense and confusion aren't usually the aim of an opera, but Boojum!'s Gilbert-and-Sullivan-meet-David-Lynch vibe is pulled off admirably by the small cast. Confusion, silliness, and vagary may be the best possible way to explore the life and work of such an unusual and surprising man as Lewis Carroll (and his moral counterpart). When executed with beauty and imagination, as it is here, the overall effect is much like the general delight one feels when reading one of Carroll's famous stories.' Hedy Weiss, Theater Critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, selected our work as one of 2010's 'Best Moments in Theater' in the category 'The bold and the quirky'.

Boojum! is not an opera. But it's not a musical comedy either. It's somewhere in between. But there was no box for it, so sometimes it was put into the opera box ('the composer is always responsible for supplying the orchestral score and parts'), at other times into the musical comedy box ('musicals get rewritten all the time') - whatever suited the Adelaide production team. But Chicago Opera Vanguard and Caffeine Theater took no notice of that. They simply got on with producing the work in front of them, whatever it was, with great integrity as well as skill. I was struck by their generosity: not only did they produce an unknown work by unknown Australians, but they flew us there, provided accommodation, and invited us to critique their production.

Of course, one can't generalise about an arts scene as huge and diverse as America's, but all my experiences there have supported Aristea's implication that American generosity transcends any notion of preferred aesthetic. In comparison, our scene here is tiny. In a small pond it's very easy for a few big fish to dominate, whether they intend to or not. In my view, we need to make sure that aesthetic diversity is not only tolerated but encouraged.

Further links

Martin Wesley-Smith - AMC profile
Boojum! music resource kit for secondary schools (AMC)
'Martin Wesley-Smith's Who Klled Cock Robin? - a reflection by the composer' - an article on Resonate
Martin Wesley-Smith - homepage and Boojum! web page
Time Out Chicago review
Chicago Tribune review
SunTimes review
Gapers Block review
Caffeine Theatre
Chicago Opera Vanguard

Subjects discussed by this article:

Adelaide-born composer Martin Wesley-Smith established the Electronic Music Studio at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, teaching there for 26 years till he resigned in 2000. He now lives in Kangaroo Valley, New South Wales, where he composes, puts on fund-raising concerts, grows vegetables and keeps chooks.


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