11 June, 2021
Summer-Fall of 2020 was the third sabbatical during my tenure at Manchester University. I had no idea when I applied for that sabbatical, it would end up occurring during the Coronavirus pandemic. What a surreal experience that was. Yet, the circumstance afforded me time to embrace an unexpected creative opportunity and learning experience.
The shut-down and evacuation of our campus in mid-March of 2020 felt like an off-ramp from my spring teaching responsibilities, allowing me to merge gradually into my creative sabbatical vibe. Much of my load that semester involved directing ensembles — and suddenly, there were no ensembles to direct. So, with time on my hands sooner than expected, I got a head start on creating.
Just as I settled into “vampire-composer mode” (working from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m.), I received an Act I draft of something called “The Electric Saint,” the then-fledgling 6th opera from composer Stewart Copeland. We had just finished working together on the collegiate premiere production of his 5th opera “The Invention of Morel” in late February. He was only here in person for a few days leading up to opening night, but we discovered we had similar approaches to composition and music in general. I also revealed a secret: I was slowly mustering the courage to compose an opera of my own, and he offered to coach me on my first libretto whenever that time arrives (probably my next sabbatical!). Not long after he returned to Los Angeles, Stewart sent the in-progress score for his new opera and asked my opinion on the balance between orchestra and singers. I had been impressed with “Morel” and thoroughly enjoyed diving deep into that score; so, I was excited for the opportunity to glimpse inside the mind of this brilliant, creative new friend and watch him build an opera from the ground up.
Thus began an added layer to my sabbatical that I didn’t plan or expect. We began sending scores back and forth, forming a co-mentorship that has become a mutually inspiring, affirming, and informative ostinato. Every composer worth their salt will tell you that the best way to hone your craft is to observe another composer’s process. But, musical composition (like most creative endeavors) requires intense concentration, isolation, and the freedom to screw up royally. It is distracting and debilitating to compose under scrutiny. It stifles exploration and failure, both of which are necessary for growth. Yet, somehow Stewart and I landed very organically on this safe, trusting relationship — almost like musical siblings. He calls me a mentor, and whimsically refers to me as “Opera Doctor;” but, truly he teaches me as much as I guide him. My brother was a composer, and looked very closely at my compositions, offering detailed observations and suggestions. I have deeply missed that valuable feedback since he passed away 13 years ago. Although I am surrounded by other musicians with whom I share my work all the time, I have not been able to communicate in this much detail with a fellow composer since Gary’s untimely death. Composers wear a very particular sort of analysis hat, y’know? So, it occurred to me recently that Stewart has become, in a way, my other composer brother.
While the world was shutting down and locking us all into isolation, Stewart and I nudged into motion this wonderful revolving doorway. We’ve become the musical Litmus test for one another, I suppose. It’s not all praise and adulation. We ask questions. We own our challenges and hold the bar high for each other. If we don’t like something, we say so (diplomatically, of course). We also point out what’s unique about the other’s compositional voice: I call them “isms.” It’s not just fluff. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed keeping watch as Stewart’s brain churned out his 6th opera, 16 Police “Derangements,” and many drafts of his soon-to-be-completed 7th opera. Stewart has generously advised me as I embarked on one of my most productive years as a composer. We have also passed previously completed works back and forth — because we’re both score study nerds and learn from each other in that way, too.
Although my sabbatical ended up being more isolating than I expected, ironically that solitude made possible a vibrant new musical connection. The creative flow may slow a bit, now that he’s performing again and I’m back in professor mode; but, I hope the door keeps revolving for many years to come. Whichever way the road bends, I’m very thankful to call this musical Wunderkind my friend and mentor. Thank you, Maestro Copeland, for teaching me through every page of your scores and inspiring me to keep growing as a composer, musician, professor, and human being.
Follow this link to view a presentation/interview with Stewart on the Manchester University campus. (58 mins duration)
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