Interview with May’s Composer of the Month: Frank Pesci

Frank Pesci

Frank Pesci (b. 1974) is a composer of “… sophisticated music with surprising harmonies” whose works have been performed across North America and Europe. His catalog includes 40 choral works, 11 song cycles, nearly 20 chamber and concert scores, and five operas, one of which – The System of Soothing – was selected for the 2017 Fort Worth OperaFRONTIERS showcase.

1.Your latest opera, The System of Soothing, was recently featured at Fort Worth Opera’s “Frontiers” New Opera Showcase. It’s based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. What drew you to this story?

After college, I laid out a ten-year plan to develop the skills I thought I needed to write opera.  Beginning with the voice, I wrote and sang choral music and art song. Next, I worked my way from solo instrumental pieces to chamber music to full orchestra, settings songs for voice and chamber instrumentation and simulating Puccini arias and duets along the way.

About six years into this project came an opportunity. Axe 2 Ice Productions was an alternative theater troupe in Boston whose mainstay was Bent Wit Cabaret, a monthly mashup of burlesque, spoken word, performance art, musical numbers, and other oddities.  The music director, a colleague of mine, asked if I would write a seven-minute opera for a “mystery” themed show.  Of course I said, “Yes!” Considering the theme, my mind immediately turned to Edgar Allan Poe, and I quickly settled on his story, “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether” with its maniacal asylum proprietor, a melodramatic sense of foreboding, a slew of fantastic side characters, and an unpredictable – yet inevitable – climax that could only have come out of the mind of Poe.

The original version came to 15 minutes with piano accompaniment.  I trimmed it down to 8 minutes for Bent Wit and scored it for their house band.  A year later, Boston Opera Collaborative presented the original 15-minute version on a program that was aptly titled “Opera Goes to Hell.”

Three years later, I expanded the work in order to realize a more complete adaptation of Poe’s story, resulting in a three-act, 90-minute piano/vocal score. Inspired by the libretto of John Adams’ Dr. Atomic, which borrows texts of Baudelaire, John Donne, and the Bhagavad Gita among others, I turned to Poe’s poetry, employing it throughout the libretto to develop characters, and provide for aria moments. Poe’s poetry allowed me to explore a narrative that expanded upon the original short story, adding richness and motivation for the principal and secondary characters alike. His poems grounded the theme of the opera – how slight shifts of perception can alter one’s understanding of seemingly obvious dichotomies, like “wakefulness” and “dreaming,” or “madness” and “sanity”.

2. While this is your first opera to be added to the E. C. Schirmer catalog, you have over thirty choral titles published with us. How would you compare your approach to composing for choirs to that for opera?

In many ways, if I write something in my operas, its roots are somewhere in the decade of choral composition and performance I experienced after college. During this time, I learned about singers, their voices, and how they thought and operated (no small feat).

My experience as a professional singer and music director influenced my choral music with practical considerations for what I call the “Any Given Sunday” choir – a typical mixture of volunteers and paid section leaders with about 20 minutes of rehearsal time dedicated to any particular piece. This shaped everything in my choral writing from structure and harmonic palette, to melodic devices and even the inclusion of optional accompaniments.  This focus on practicality has made its way into how I present my operas, particularly in terms of flexible casting and orchestration options that allow the works to be considered by companies with widely varying budgets, and reinforcement and space considerations.

The types of voices I’m dealing with in an operatic context allow me to write in a way that would not be idiomatic or appropriate in typical choral settings. However, the fundamentals of all of my vocal writing – even for opera – are based on my choral experiences. This includes the basics of range, balancing voices with accompaniments, and using lyricism and text to illuminate each other. Also, I developed my sense of vocal drama by writing for choirs. It may be strange to think about it this way, but my choral works – no matter their duration – are structured using dramatic concepts that are inherent to stage works, including three-act structure, the use of tension for dramatic effect, and the placement and resolution of climactic moments.

3.  When you need or want to write something, is there a method you use to find inspiration? What’s your process for writing music?

I used to obsess over my process in hopes that I would find the exact conditions wherein I could be most productive. What came out of all that navel-gazing, however, was an understanding of how the act of composing (or being creative in any sense), for me, had to become habitual. I have made a habit out of being creative – it’s just something I do every day, without preamble. At this point, it’s a way of life: I wake up, I brush my teeth, I feed my kid, I write opera (or whatever else is on the docket).

From a purely technical standpoint, I’ve adapted my Jazz technique to suit my writing, in that I begin by improvising – either at the piano, or vocally. I have trained my ears to sift through the garbage (of which there is plenty) for a nugget of harmony or a melodic turn of phrase which I can use as a jumping off point, and it goes from there (or sometimes it doesn’t!). If text is involved, the words become part of the improvisation, drawing out the rhythmic possibilities as well as variations in spoken inflection that can affect musical phrasing.

In all instances, however, melody and lyricism is most important.  Melody is what I’m drawn to above everything, and what impacts all other aspects of whatever I’m working on.

4. How did you get involved in music, and when did you begin composing?

I come from a musical family. All of my siblings sing, or were instrumentalists at some point. I was led to music by my father, who unwittingly instilled in me what would become the two pillars of my musical aesthetic – Jazz and opera. He was a “dance band” bass player in his New Jersey youth who later became the middle-aged man sitting in his recliner and sobbing along with Met radio broadcast of La Bohème.

Over the years, I established a diverse musical background. My performing experience spans rock, pop, Jazz, funk-fusion, liturgical music, pit bands, musical theater shows, opera, lonely coffee house singer-songwriter stints, and a smattering of orchestra gigs. Throughout all of it, however, I was writing and arranging. My composition interests mirrored my performing outlets as time went on.

I earned a Jazz studies degree from the University of Southern Mississippi, which is where I also studied so-called “serious” composition. Those studies, combined with my simultaneous entry into choral performance and conducting, started the snowball rolling down the hill.

5. Describe your compositional style. What inspires your music?

If there were one word I had to use to describe my writing, it would be “lyrical”. I have been blessed with the ability to write melodies, and I do not take it for granted; around this ability I have built my technique, and (to an extent) my reputation.

As far as my pedagogical backstory, all of my teachers – and their teachers – were active in the mid-twentieth century between Boston, New York and Philadelphia. There’s also strong Italian and French influence running through my education, but for some reason, I have a tendency to sound like a British composer (my Irish mother would be proud).

As I mentioned above, I have a broad background performing and writing in a variety of styles. All of these styles continue to inform my writing – somehow it all comes out in the wash.

And I don’t know if it’s inspiration or just good sense, but I listen to Ravel every day.

6. Describe life as a composer. Feel free to touch on challenges and/or joys of this career!

I’m glad I did the work to free myself of the quest for a “perfect process”, because real life as a composer has little to do with perfect timing and conditions, and a lot to do with getting a job done in the time allotted. Frequently, I consider being a freelance composer as just another job – I have clients, they have needs, I fill those needs. Time management is essential, as is professionalism and attention to detail. The preciousness of the “artist’s life” was beaten out of me a long time ago. This is not to say that I am not grateful for the opportunity to do what I do, but when I “went pro” in this business, I went pro in the business, and this has made all the difference in how seriously I take my calling to be a composer.

The networking, hustle, and administrative work would take up more time than the writing, if I weren’t careful. For this aspect of the work, I am grateful that I had a ten-year career as an administrator for various arts organizations. My career included community relations, social media and marketing, fundraising, and executive leadership, which puts me in a relatively stable position to manage the business side of my own compositional activities.

I should mention that I have lived in Germany for the past four years. I’m working contacts and opportunities on both sides of the Atlantic, which is necessary, but a serious juggle, and I have to constantly think in local time, as well as Eastern Standard Time (as well as in two different languages).

All that being said, I enjoy writing – it’s honest work, and a way of life and I am living it. Even better are the opportunities I get to collaborate with performers.  These experiences are the real tests of my skills, and I crave the opportunity to engage with skilled performers and interpreters of my work.

7. When you’re not writing music, how do you spend your time?

I have a two year old daughter; she takes up a bit of my time! My non-musical, non-family energies go into (not surprisingly) other creative endeavors, the majority of which are gardening and cooking. I have been refining my Butter Chicken recipe for almost ten years (I’m getting close!), and this year, my tomato plants are out of control.

8. Is there any recent or upcoming news you wish to highlight?

Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers program was an incredible experience, not only in terms of exposure for The System of Soothing, but also in that I got face time with decision makers in the field.  I got to listen to their critiques of my work and the work of my other composer colleagues, and the amount of learning that I can apply to Soothing as well as my other developing and upcoming operas is immeasurable. I’m excited to see what is in store for this opera in coming seasons.

This season, I’m looking forward to premiers at the Härnösand Opera Academy and Festival in Sweden, the Neue Musik in St. Ruprecht series in Vienna, the Nahant Music Festival in Massachusetts, and a major new work slated for Christmas 2017 in Charlotte.

Click here to learn more about Frank Pesci.

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