Composer Revels in Blurring Boundaries

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 30, 2006

For Bob Massey, a grandfather's gift turned out to be a seed of inspiration that has so far produced a multimedia opera, an album and, this week, a concert performance. All go by the name "The Nitrate Hymnal" and explore the fragile nature of memory, the unreliability of technology in shaping memories and the inexorable erosion of love.

As Massey explains it, after his grandmother died in 1999, his grandfather gave him all the 8mm home movies he had shot during their marriage. "I made him project them on the wall and videotape himself explaining what was going on in all these films," says Massey, who had seen some of the footage over and over as he was growing up "but none of my grandparents as young people."

The home movies covered four decades of marriage, starting with his grandparents' honeymoon in 1941 just before Pearl Harbor, and the changes startled Massey, a key figure in Washington's DIY post-punk music scene since the '80s. He hosted the local composers salon Punk Not Rock, played in the post-punk-chamber ensemble Telegraph Melts and still leads the late-night-music-leaning Gena Rowlands Band. Massey also writes for several music journals and worked as a news aide at The Washington Post for a number of years.

Massey says that what moved him was the fact that "there's your mortality in front of you. You're looking at two different grandfathers -- the one who is a young guy who doesn't have kids yet and has no idea what's coming down the pike, and then you're looking at the old guy who's been through a war and a train wreck of a family. That dissonance between them is so intense that you almost couldn't miss it."

What to do with that impression was another matter, and Massey spent a couple of years trying to figure it out, eventually leaning toward creating a song cycle and simply projecting the films. Massey says he thought that would be it. "When I started talking to [filmmaker] David Wilson, whom I knew from other projects, we found a grant for 'experimental opera.' We thought, 'Well, we technically fit the bill,' and it sort of became a self-fulfilling prophecy."

The key word would be experimental: "The Nitrate Hymnal: A Dying Dream in Four Acts" is not a rock opera. It involves rock musicians, but they were drawn from Washington's underground community and teamed with the New York avant-chamber ensemble Anti-Social Music for the opera. For its world premier at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial Auditorium in Alexandria in January 2003, the work was scored for two electric guitars and electronic keyboards, a string section of three violins, viola, two cellos and bass, acoustic percussion, pre-recorded sounds and four singers.

The team gathered to record the album last year and will unite again for Saturday's rare concert performance at the Warehouse Theater. Hai-Ting Chinn, who sang in the original production, will join Daisy Press (Bang on a Can All-Stars) and Massey on vocals, supported by a 12-piece orchestra.

The opera imagines an aspiring filmmaker visiting his grandmother on her deathbed and ends up exploring truths and consequences captured in the family's home movies juxtaposed against imagined interludes. Massey has always made it clear that the opera's story -- involving geriatric decline, a son's suicide and a troubled marriage -- has no real connection to his grandparents' actual lives; he used their images only as counterpoint to invented scenarios. Massey's grandfather, now 90, has not seen or heard "The Nitrate Hymnal," but he gave Massey free rein to use the films, which won't be included in the Warehouse concert.

"This is a punk rock production and has been from the very beginning," Massey says of the adjustments, adding, "I'd love to say we have the resources to do everything, but we don't."

The initial organizational grant came from the Creative Capital Foundation; by the time "The Nitrate Hymnal" had its world premiere in Alexandria, it was as a commission of the Washington Performing Arts Society. The performance was produced by Anti-Social Music, with Massey writing the music and libretto and Wilson handling film and video; they collaborated on the story.

Massey recalls a number of starts and stops on the way to Alexandria. An initial score, he says, "needed to be tightened up in form because I was not playing to my strength. I was doing something a little more ambitious than I had chops for, and I had to go back and actually write hooks, which is actually what I can do. Hooks in pop songs and arias in operas are kind of the same thing, but I hadn't written any arias, and it was flat sounding, slow and not that dramatic. I had a month of all-nighters to start from scratch."

One benefit: "I know a lot more about Mozart, Verdi and all these dudes than I would ever have had reason to," says Massey, who once described "The Nitrate Hymnal" as "opera for people who hate opera."

"The Nitrate Hymnal" may have been Massey's first foray into opera, but he has long experimented with merged musical forms, something the Post review of the Alexandria performances noted: "Despite Massey's pedigree as a post-punk guitarist, much of 'Hymnal' hearkens back to 17th-century opera, with lithe, chantlike vocal lines written as nearly continuous recitative, and a chamber orchestra (acoustic strings, electric guitars, keyboards and drums) playing a gently supportive role. . . . That's not to say Massey . . . doesn't raid a few genres -- post-punk rubs shoulders with post-Sondheim; progressive jazz melds with fusion; and brief visits are paid by Shostakovich, Piazzolla and Glenn Branca -- but the musical stew is very much his own."

All four performances in Alexandria sold out, but the show, which featured a battery of projectors and complex audiovisual technology, was too big and expensive to mount on the road, the market for experimental opera not being a huge one to begin with. (Even now, Meet the Composer's Creative Connections is funding the Warehouse concert.) Fortunately, there would be after-life permanence on CD, absent the visuals. And recording "The Nitrate Hymnal" allowed for reconsiderations in a work that may always be in progress.

"The original music was a 70-minute through-composed score with no breaks," Massey says. "We decided it made more sense to reformulate the music in song structure because we were aiming at an underground rock community more than a new music or classical music community. So we decided: Let's cut the best moments up and make songs out of them, and I think that's worked out pretty well so far. They're not quite songs, and it's not quite an opera."

Anti-Social Music re-orchestrated the songs and went into the studio with the Gena Rowlands Band, whose other key members are viola/violinist Jean Cook and keyboardist David Durst. With ASM, "it's like having a small orchestra," Massey says. Keeping the Post connection alive, singer-songwriter Andy Zipf, himself a Post copy aide until recently, performed vocals on two of the album's 10 tracks.

The record, funded by the Aaron Copland Fund for Music Recording Program, reflects changes necessitated in moving from one medium to another. "It's more like an improvement on the themes, fleshed out better, made more concise, given more dynamic life," Massey says. "The songs are more upbeat. We sort of reworked the tempos and, I think, made it stronger because we had time to think about it instead of throwing it on stage and running with it."

"The Nitrate Hymnal" has produced other ventures as well: ASM started a commissioning program called ASM Sleeps Around, pairing the group with non-classical artists from various genres; one commission is with experimental composer/producer Warn Defever (His Name Is Alive), who mixed "The Nitrate Hymnal" album.

As for Massey, now recording a Gena Rowlands Band album, he had a 2003 residency at Florida's Atlantic Center for the Arts with New York City Opera composer-in-residence Mark Adamo (a former Post classical critic) and was a 2004 fellow at the Bang on a Can summer institute in Massachusetts. And last year, Massey composed the music for "A Memory Lasts Forever," a video operetta performed in Berkeley, Calif., with visual artist Althea Thauberger, in which a drowned dog in a backyard pool becomes a catalyst for bikini-clad teenage girls to come to terms with their mortality.

Massey laughs at the suggestion that all of this makes him a "serious composer."

"The lines between what used to be called 'serious' music and what used to be called 'popular' music are increasingly blurred in this age of iPods and a million cable channels. Those days are more or less gone."

On Sunday, there will be a "Composers Brunch" at a private home in Adams Morgan. Massey and orchestrators David Durst, Andrea La Rose and Pat Muchmore will talk about arranging the original opera into stand-alone songs for "The Nitrate Hymnal" album, followed by an informal discussion and performances of pieces by La Rose, Muchmore and Massey. For more information, e-mailjean@nitratehymnal.net.

Anti-Social Music and the Gena Rowlands Band play pieces from "The Nitrate Hymnal" Appearing Saturday at the Warehouse Theater. Sounds like a post-punk opera should.

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