American Composer Forum’s Tim Hansen talks with Greg Brosofske – about composing for theater and dance – his ongoing obsession with poet John Berryman – and his upcoming opera : Strange Is the Heart
TH: Could you describe your arts practice?
GB: For me the creative process is like fishing, or maybe more like bird watching! I try to start off with no expectations of what I’ll find – just an openness and a desire. In fact expectation usually ruins the process. I explore material through experimentation and improvisation. Eventually something takes hold – a texture or a phrase that seems to me kind of glowing (maybe numinous is a better word) and then you let that guide you.
TH: What drew you to music composition?
GB: I don’t think that I consciously wanted to be a composer at an early age. I was really more of a science kid. I wanted to be a biologist at first and I was always interested in the natural world. But I was also interested in philosophy and eastern religions. When I was about twelve my best friend’s mom took us to a ‘metaphysical’ book store in Chicago (there was no such thing as ‘new-age’ yet) and I bought a copy of the I Ching. I was so excited because I remembered that Barnabas Collins, the vampire in ‘Dark Shadows’ used it to travel through time. I soon learned that wasn’t possible, and was really disappointed at first. . . but I became really enthralled with the hexagrams, the text, all the symmetries and diagrams in the book, the idea of divination. Somewhere along the line I heard of John Cage and that lead to an interest in experimental and electronic music. My mother was a music teacher, and we had a baby grand in the house. She let me prepare our piano with tape, paper, pencil erasers etc. “as long as you don’t break anything.” She was pretty tolerant. I started recording and making tape loops with an old reel-to-reel we had and bumping tracks down to a cassette. I also inherited my father’s shortwave radio from the 1950’s (he died when I was pretty young). I was fascinated with the sounds I heard, and recorded those too. I’d stay up at night and listen to foreign broadcasts, high-speed code, turning the dials and drifting through layers of sound. The experience was very spacial: voices music and random sound wafting in and out, different kinds of phasing and distortion as I turned the dial. So I think of my two big early influences as my mother’s piano and my father’s shortwave radio. Later when I went to college I took all the electronic music classes they offered.
TH: How did you end up composing for theatre and dance?
GB: I started out wanting to be a writer, poetry specifically, so I was an English major. I also met a lot of theater majors who were taking some of the same classes, but who were a lot more fun. They were actually doing something with literature, not just writing papers – they were putting on plays! After college I moved to Chicago which had a huge theater scene. Some of my friends from school moved there too and were doing experimental theater and performance art, performing in galleries and storefront theaters, so I started doing sound design and music for them. Some acting too but I was a horrible actor. I was also trying to develop myself as a writer. I had a few things published that I was happy with, but the life of a writer is so lonesome and isolated. I was miserable, so I came back to music and theater which (at least for me) was all about performance, collaboration and other people.
TH: Is there a difference between composing for the two?
GB: Theater music is “incidental” in the sense that it most often adheres to some kind of narrative, an incident, and there’s a degree of practicality in that: the music needs to work with the story to support the dramatic moment. Sometimes you find yourself supporting the drama with underscore, which is harder than it sounds. It means creating textures that are interesting and evolving but won’t overpower the moment with detail. Other times you’re supporting scene changes – lifting the moment up to whisk the audience off to the next time and place. There’s also the practical consideration of supporting the ‘common good’ so as an artist, so you (hopefully) learn to be generous. You also find yourself challenged with all kinds of musical styles that you’d never think of trying on your own, so it’s a great learning experience. I often found myself writing not only to a sense of character and dramatic moment, but also to a sense of place as well. I think the biggest and most important thing is that it requires you to put yourself in a character’s shoes, another place and time, and it trains you to embody something other than yourself. The way an actor uses body, movement and voice to bring a character to life, you have much the same relationship to sound when composing for theater. It’s strangely personal and impersonal in the same moment.
On the other hand, for dance I’m creating a kind of a sonic topography for the piece. Most my dance experience has been with choreographer Carl Flink, and we often like to think of the score is ‘soundscape’ when we’re communicating. I like that in the sense that it goes beyond the idea of a composition that is time based and you learn to think of the sounds spatially, as being in spacial relationship to one another. Dance is an artform that very much relies upon the space it exists in. I think I came to that realization while watching the dancers in rehearsal, especially useful in watching large ensemble pieces. I found myself using peripheral vision pretty often while watching – trying to take the whole in at once so that you are not looking at any once specific dancer but the shape and activity of the whole organism. Also the way Carl and I work is that the creation of the music develops as the movement develops, one doesn’t come before the other. I’m continually handing him sketches that he uses in rehearsal, and I also attend rehearsals or look at the latest video footage, so the movement is continually informing the music and the music, the movement. Also in dance I’m able to get loud and aggressive and so it’s not always an exercise in nuance that theater often is.
TH: Tell me about your current project. I understand it’s a chamber opera. Did you write your own libretto?
GB: It’s a chamber opera about the poet John Berryman and his third wife Kate Donahue. I was drawn to him initially though his collection of poems ‘The Dream Songs’ which as “songs” with their wild syntax and mix of voices, lyricism and humor I thought would lend themselves to music, but the more I dug into his life I became fascinated with Berryman as a character. (I think more of this was discussed in the first thing I sent you) So it eventually occurred to me that he’d be a great subject for a piece of musical theater. I am writing my own libretto, which feels like I’ve come full circle. Like I said, at one point I was developing myself as a writer. So now I’m writing a musical dramatic piece about a poet. It feels like all those divergent lines are finally intersecting now.
TH: You mentioned to me before that you live quite close to the bridge where Berryman killed himself. What does it look like at the time of year that Berryman died?
GB: Yes, I live about a mile from where Berryman lived. And I see that bridge almost every day. I also see what you might call “hints of place” in his many of his poems. I definitely feel like he is “our poet.” Reading his letters, I know he loved it here. Minneapolis is a very green city, and always has been. The Mississippi and the forested river bluffs are a main feature in the landscape, as well as a major archetype in the American psyche. The river has its origins are here. It divides the “Twin Cities” (Mpls/St Paul) and is absolutely unavoidable. So I feel like Berryman’s death from a bridge over the river was not arbitrary. It was January 7th, 1972. The Mississippi was frozen white. It was Monday morning about 9AM and students were walking to classes. The bridge is a double bridge – cars below and pedestrians above. There is a wonderful view of the whole campus from up there. He was 57 yrs old, but old and frail for that age. They say he climbed out over the railing, made a little motion like a wave, leaned out, and let go.
TH: You said earlier that you interviewed his wife, Kate Berryman? What was that like?
GB: She uses her maiden name, Kate Donahue. She was very frank and honest. She struck me as pragmatic, a soft spoken but a strong, grounded woman. I believe Kate Donahue was the single reason he was around for the last ten years of his life. Berryman was plagued with alcohol abuse, something he really struggled with. He was constantly hospitalized. Towards the end he made extreme efforts: joined AA, was as at work on a novel ‘Recovery’, underwent a religious conversion. He really tried to understand his addiction. He also suffered from the trauma of his father committing suicide when John was only 12 yrs old. He was on a trajectory – a nosedive to self-destruct. Kate Donahue’s presence in his life allowed him to finish his great work ‘The Dream Songs’. So I think she is the unsung hero of the Berryman story and much of my piece deals with her.
TH: How did these interviews translate into the composition process?
GB: There are two main characters in my piece: John Berryman and Kate Donahue. There was obviously a lot written about Berryman, two biographies, critical writing, and of course, the poems. So I needed to flesh out her character. I asked for an interview and she was gracious enough to agree. There were also students of Berryman’s who in turn were teachers of mine when I went to school at the U of M. Berryman’s archivist Richard Kelly, poet Michael Dennis Browne and filmmaker Al Milgrom have been very helpful with sharing their memories and reflections. And this has added to my fleshing out the characters and the period.
TH: Who did you work with to present the opera? (or will work with?) and can you tell me a bit about how it came together?
GB: I’ve reached out to theater artists I’ve worked with in the past, and I think I’ve been very lucky to pull together a real dream-team! Joel Sass will be directing the show; he’s a wonderfully inventive Director and Stage Designer. He’s known for his ability to pull off avant-garde productions that still connect with an audience. Also Bradley Greenwald, will be playing Berryman He is a fantastic baritone who is regarded as one of the best actor/vocalists in the Twin Cities. They’re both really gifted artists. I’ve worked with Bradley and Joel on a number of projects, particularly Joel who I’ve written a lot of music for. We have a long working relationship. Tara Loeper, a wonderful soprano will be playing Kate Donahue (Berryman). Joe Strachan will be the music director who’ll be playing keys too. The ensemble will consist of piano, electronic sound, cello, violin and perhaps a woodwind and brass player. We’ll be performing early October at the Open Eye Figure Theater which is a beautiful intimate space, perfect for the idea of “chamber opera”.
TH: Has the experience of working on this opera changed either your practice as an artist or your worldview in general?
GB: The first thing that comes to mind is that this is a piece that combines visual, dramatic elements, textual elements as well as the music. Since I’m doing the libretto myself, and it’s my first foray into this kind of thing, I didn’t know how to begin. Simply, do I write the music first? the text? So the answer was to try to simulate a collaborative relationship within myself. Kind of schizophrenic but liberating too – so if the music isn’t coming today, work on the text. Also not everything is ‘sung’ per se – so I think of it in terms of a vocal performance. Once I ditched the idea that this is a bunch of songs wired to a dramatic frame. Particularly for Berryman’s world which is about dream/nightmare, day-dream and hallucination, vs. Kate’s world which is initially grounded, pragmatic, but she is slowly pushed into her own dream labyrinth. The text is cobbled together from a number of sources: poems, biography, interview and also my own writing. I know there will be changes once I get into rehearsal. I’ve spent a lot of time on the text because I think much of the success of this kind of project lies in the story, and the portrayal of the characters. Their troubles need to matter to the audience. So I’m spending a lot of energy on the narrative itself. The story is the skeleton: music and performance are the flesh and blood!