On Composing Rosarium
Emails to Conductors
Date: Tue, 25 May 1999
Rosarium, a drama for chorus, scored for soprano, tenor, bass, chorus, and orchestra will receive its premiere on June 5, 1999 at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus at 8pm. Donald Neuen will conduct the Angeles Chorale, the UCLA Chorale, and the UCLA Sinfonia with soloists Juliana Gondek, Gary Bachlund, Peter Atherton, and Michael Piontek.The work is in 2 acts with music composed by Roger Bourland and a libretto written by William MacDuff. Tickets are available from the Angeles Chorale (818) 888-6293, and the UCLA central ticket office.
Notes on Rosarium (part 1):
Dear Friends on ChoraList,
Several years ago, I approached conductor Donald Neuen about composing a large-scale work for chorus, soloists, and orchestra. As a composer on the faculty of UCLA, it seemed like a good idea to write a piece for as many students in our department as possible. Who would that be? The chorus, the orchestra, the opera workshop, and faculty vocalists. (The wind ensemble, and percussion ensemble had to sit this one out.)
With the approaching millenium, I wanted to compose a work on a large scale that would, with any luck, find its way into the repertoire, as well as a work that might find its way into the hearts of the normal listener and singer (as opposed to a work which only composers, theorists, and those with Ph.D.s in music could understand or perform.) The work is completely tonal, accessible, and will make you want to laugh, think, dance, pray, cry, and sing.
When I studied with Randall Thompson, he stressed the importance of finding a powerful text. I found a brilliant librettist in William MacDuff ("Mac") who also teaches at UCLA in Theater Arts. Mac has a knowledge of opera, broadway musicals, and theatre from the beginning of civilization. He writes like a poet, and his words sing.
I have been fortunate to have had many years of commissions: where someone pays you to do what they want you to do. I decided I wanted to take a break from that rhythm and write something I wanted to do. We started with a working title "Angels" and abandoned it as too trendy or Hallmark Cards-ish. We then switched to "Messengers" with the notion that we would find a messenger from various religious traditions - Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Native American, African etc - but decided that something so spiritually diverse might not find anyone who would ultimately own it.
So we decided on a piece in the Christian tradition, albeit a post-biblical tradition. Rosarium means "rose garden" and the image is, of course, symbolically rich with the divinely-feminine, as well as the dichotomy of the beauty of the rose itself, and its thorns. Although neither Mac or I are Catholics, we decided on a piece about two apparitions of the Virgin Mary: one historical, and one present-day. We were attracted to the feminine manifestation of divinity which Mary represents, as well as the beauty of the stories. We also were excited about dealing with the issue of revelation in the present secular era of science and materialism. We address both faith and doubt, as well as "The Courage to Be" (Paul Tillich).
We wanted to deal with spiritual topics in a secular setting, as opposed to writing a liturgical work. The first act revisits the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Juan Diego, an elderly native of what is now known as Mexico, wanders through the desert and is greeted by Mary (red skinned and speaking to him in his native tongue) hovering in the air. She instructs him to tell the local bishop to build a church at this spot. JD visits the Bishop's palace, is greeted by Friars who try to dismiss him, but JD convinces them "I have witnessed something wonderful, and I must tell the bishop." Ultimately the Bishop dismisses him telling him he must have been mistaken. This happens several times and only until JD hurls the miraculous Castilian roses at the feet of the bishop, and the assembled group sees the miraculous imageof Guadalupe imprinted on JD's cloak, does the bishop realize that a miracle has truly occurred. (FYI: the Catholic Church has acknowledged this story as a genuine miracle.) The act ends with Mary, JD, the bishop and the chorus singing a heart rending chorus celebrating the miracle.
(Our timing seems to be good in that Juan Diego has just been canonized by the Pope.) Although we are offering the premiere as a "stand and sing" performance, oratorio-style, the piece is dying to be staged, and everyone who has heard it always asks "Will it be staged?" The piece will work just fine unstaged, but Rosa awaits her staged premiere.
* TO BE CONTINUED *
[To avoid an overly long posting, I will chop this essay into several parts. Part 2 and 3 will be about Act 2, tell about our trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina (the former Yugoslavia) to witness the alleged apparitions, and to experience Medjugorje first-hand. Part 4 deals with looking back at the creative and collaborative process. Part 5 will include a letter from Donald Neuen telling you about his experience of putting the piece together with recommendations to conductors who might consider performing the work.]
Date: Wed, 26 May 1999
Notes on Rosarium (part 2):
Having decided on telling the tale of Our Lady of Guadalupe for Act 1, Mac and I were still undecided as to what Act 2 should be about. At the same time, a close family friend, Josephine Shiplacoff, told me about Medjugorje. Med-ju-GOR-yuh is located in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country which was formerly part of Yugoslavia.
In June 25, 1981, two girls were out sneaking a cigarette on a local hill, when all of a sudden they looked up and saw a beautiful woman hovering in the air. She didn't say anything, but she was crying. Terrified and thrilled, the girls ran back home to tell their friends. When they returned with their friends (6 of them; 2 boys, 4 girls ranging in age from 10 to 17) the floating lady once again appeared. She beckoned them to come near and smiled, their eyes dilated like a Krazy Kat cartoon and they hightailed it down the hill, half frightened and half delirious with excitement. The word spread, and as the week went on, thousands of people began to join the young visionaries. A partial account of the week's events I draw from a Medjugorje website:
"Suddenly, while the children were still on their way a light flashed three times. To them and to those following them, it was a sign indicating Our Lady's whereabouts. On that third day Our Lady appeared even higher up than on the previous days. All at once Our Lady disappeared. But when the children began to pray, she reappeared. She was cheerful and smiling serenely and once again her beauty was overwhelming.
"As they left their houses some older women advised them to carry holy water with them to make sure that it was not of satan. When they were with Our Lady, Vicka [one of the visionaries] took the water and splashed it in the direction of the vision saying, "If you are Our Blessed Mother, please stay, and if you are not, go away from us". Our Lady smiled at this and remained with the children. Then Mirjana asked her name and she replied, 'I am the Blessed Virgin Mary.'
"On the same day, coming down Podbrdo, Our Lady appeared one more time, this time however only to Maria saying, "Peace, peace, peace and only peace." Behind her, Maria could see a cross. After which Our Lady repeated, in tears, the following words, 'Peace must reign between man and God, and between all people!'"
And so the miracle of Medjugorje is born. Pilgrims flood the small town in droves to witness the daily apparitions. Mary's messages are quite consistent and ecumenical: Pray, pray, pray; pray for peace, find God, fast, convert*, forgive, you are all God's children, love one another, and so on. [If you'd like to read more about this, Wayne Weible's "Medjugorje The Message" published by Paraclete Press, is a personal, biographical book, and for those interested in a more scholarly treatment, read Mary Craig's "Spark from Heaven" (Ave Maria Press).]
Still undecided about Act 2, Mac and I read as many books on Medjugore as we could. We wondered whether two stories about Mary might be too much for non-Catholics, but one day Mac called and suggested that we go ahead with the Medjugorje story. I agreed, and the overall form of the piece was in place.
As professors at UCLA, a research institution, we have access to grants to help subsidize our research. As a composer, my research is composing music. Like many, I waited until the due date to turn in my grant application. 'What shall I ask for? I've got it: I'll ask for a round trip to Bosnia, and go see what's going on first-hand.' I filled out the form. Later I remembered that the person who oversees the arts applications is Jewish. I blushed imagining her think: "Bourland want's to go to Bosnia to see the Virgin Mary appear to six children. Yeah, right! In your dreams."
But this was not to be. I ended up getting the largest grant given in the Arts that year. Realizing that it was Mac who would be writing the story, I asked whether he would join me, to which he immediately said yes. Then we needed to make arrangements to travel there. I suggested that we go together and check into a local hotel as dispassionate observers. When our friend Josephine Shiplacoff heard this, she mandated: "NO! You must go with a pilgrimage. Only then will you really have access to the whole picture. And besides, it's cheaper." I was terrified: To be trapped in a plane, bus, and lodging with Marian fanatics just sounded like purgatory! My paranoia was unfounded. Upon our arrival to the airport, we discovered our fellow pilgrims (we were after all NOT tourists) were some of the most wonderful people I've ever known. Their devotion, friendliness, and acceptance (that is of us non-Catholics) was touching, disarming, and contagious.
TO BE CONTINUED
* When Mary uses the word "convert," which she does quite a bit, she never says "convert to Catholicism," which may be why Rome has not officially sanctioned these apparitions. She is aware that she is speaking to a predominantly Catholic community, but a region of the world where Muslims and Christians have been fighting for centuries. To interpret 'convert' as 'convert to Catholicism', would, in my opinion, build a higher wall between the two faiths than the one that is already there. I believe that by "conversion" she means to be changed or transformed by knowing God. It is exactly this ecumenical message which attracted us to the story in the first place.
Date: Sat, 29 May 1999
Rosarium (part 3) THE TRIP:
After much last minute helter skelter making sure that everything which I participate in could do without me for nine days, I was taken to the airport where I was met by Grace Millard (of Paul and Grace who run Morningstar Ministries, the leaders of the pilgrimage), who seemed quite sweet, gentle and in control. Over the next 20 minutes, the entire 17 other pilgrims assembled one by one like the beginning of an Agatha Christie story. On the flight, Mac and I were able to spend some time talking about the piece, and getting to know ane another.
We flew directly to London, then to Zagreb, and then to Dubrovnic. We arrived in the rain, and then were scooted onto a bus where we drove in the dark for the next 3 hours along a jagged Adriatic coastline and then into the mountains. We should have all been terrified, but somehow we weren't. Sylvia, our local host, grabbed the microphone and gave us a history of the region on and off over the next three hours. We were all exhausted.
When we arrived in Medjugorje, at around 10:00 p.m., we first went to the plaza in front of St James Parish to the statue of Mary and said a prayer of thanksgiving. Back on the bus we were taken to our newly built lodging place owned by Dara and her son Jozo, and fed a wonderful country meal, accompanied by their home-made wine.
The city and the pilgrimage.
Medjugorje has grown quite a bit since 1981, largely to accomodate the thousands of pilgims that visit year-round. The spiritual center of the town is St James parish, which is run by a brotherhood of Franciscan monks. Clergy from all over the world participate in the many daily masses. Surrounding the church are what I called the Marian tchatchke-shops where the pilgrims can buy rosaries and other religious artifacts. Mac found a store filled with crucifixes: "...the Walmart of crucifixes!"
Surrounding the city are gorgeous rolling hills, and on the horizon are numerous breath-taking mountain ranges; the clouds, sky and sun are always spectacular. There are two significant "mountains in the area which figure into the story. The first is Cross Mountain. and the other is Apparition Hill.
In 1933, Croatians decided to build a huge cement cross at the top of Cross Mountain in remembrance of the crucifixion which occurred 1900 years before. Every year especially on the anniversary, thousands of the faithful return to Medjugorje to climb this mountain. Many do it barefoot as a sign of penitence (I used my shoes.) Our first day in Medjugorje was this anniversary. I normally hate huge crowds, so I did not climb the mountain with the 30,000 others, but Mac did, actually as the throng was coming DOWN, the mountain, Mac decided to go UP. Add to this the fact that it was pouring rain, the rocks are jagged and very slippery when wet. Mac found spiritual lessons all the way up, helping falling people, trying to understand the myriad of languages, and on top he found only an old Croatian woman who, after cleaning the cross base with her silk scarf, in the rain, sang unforgettable songs to God. After she left, Mac had the top of the mountain to himself. The view was stunning, as was the rain, the thunder, and the wind. The spiritual power of the moment sent tears running down his face only to be washed away by the wind and rain.
We met every morning at 7:45 before breakfast and said a rosary. Having never said one, I got some good practice. Breakfast was always hearty and convivial. The daily agenda would be spelled out, lot's of laughs and chat, and the day would begin.
One rainy morning we went to Vicka's house (one of the visionaries) where she greets, prays with, and talks to the pilgrims. We didn't see her having an apparition, but she spoke to us of the Blessed Mother's wishes. and her smile radiates a joyous soul. None of the visionaries have capitalized on their notoriety, in fact they are quite poor. People have tried to slip them money with handwritten petitions only to have it burned along with the petitions after they are offered up to Mary.
One evening we learned that Ivan was going to have a public apparition at the Blue Cross at 10:30. All of the pilgrims (who were still awake) were all there at the foot of apparition hill awaiting the event. It was pitch black except for the flickering of a few candles near where Ivan was. It was than very quiet. Although I couldn't see him, I assumed Ivan was having his apparition. A few minutes later someone was announcing Mary's message, which was something like "...pray for my [Mary's] intentions, meaning I assume, the list I made above.
On the second night we were there, we learned that the youngest visionary, Jakov, had just received his 10th secret and that he would now only have a visit from Mary on Christmas day. We learned that Jakov cried and was quite sad. [Jakov was 10 years old when the apparitions first started to occur. He is now the 3rd to have received all 10 secrets from Mary. Like Jakov, theother two who rec'd the 10 secrets only have a visitation once a year.These 10 "secrets" are admonitions, I guess, about the horrible things which will happen if we don't change our ways and find God. The 6th one was thwarted thanks to praying. Miryana urges that we not obsess about the secrets, rather concentrate on Mary's messages. I like this advice...]
We learned that the visionaries receive their apparitions in their own homes now instead of all together at the church. There have been many tests done on this willing sextet. At the beginning of the apparitions, all of them fall to their knees, whether they are together or separated. Scientists have flashed bright lights in their eyes, pushed pins into their skin, administered EKG tests on them, and can detect no funny business.
On one day, we were coralled into a room and heard a brief talk by a woman who claims to be a "locutionist" or someone who 'hears' rather that sees Mary. Mac was very impressed with her, I had a hard time not nodding off in the hot room with her monotonous tone.
Every day there were masses offered in a whole variety of languages. I attended several of the English masses and one of the Croatian masses. The church was invariably packed. Speakers have been installed outside the church so that those who could not get in could hear the mass outside. This is part of the 'sound' of Medjugorje. Everynight at 5:00 is a Rosary service, and it is during this that the apparitionsoccur. The rosary will stop, and the village becomes silent in honorof the apparitions. One day Mac and I sat at a local cafe during theservice downing our capuccinos. At the time of the apparition, the cloudysky seemed to part right over the church for 5 minutes, and then sealright back up. We looked at each other and grinned.
We were able to take a bustrip to a local city to hear Father Jozo speak. Jozo was the spiritualadvisor to the visionaries in the beginning, and spent 2 years in prisonbecause he refused to state that the apparitions were a hoax. He isa very holy and wonderful man. I will never forget him. At the end ofthe 3 hour service [sic], a man who had been making strange sounds throughout the service, flew into a kind of epileptic fit making hideous sounds.He was evidently posessed. He was immediately restrained by some 7 priestsfrom all over the world. And thank God that the one from Ireland wasexpert in exorcisms. After a 5 minute session, he claimed that theywere gone (the spirits I presumed) and walked away.
We were also able to interviewFather Slavko, the current spiritual advisor to the visionaries. Wetold him about our project and asked him for any input. He gave us ano-holds-barred account of the atrocities of the region. He recountedthat Mary first appeared in June 1981 asking that we pray for peaceand 10 years later to the day, the first bomb fell in Sarajevo. He stressedthat people must not wait for a divine revelation from heaven to changethe world, but rather we must start with ourselves.
Climbing the mountains
On the third day we climbedApparition Hill before breakfast. The normal thing people do is do saythe rosary, stopping at 5 spots along the way to meditate on the 'mysteries'[glorious, joyful, or glorious]. (This is always appreciated by theelderly and out of shape pilgrims.) I must confess that this climb forme was quite cathartic and moving in terms of meditating and prayingabout things in my life. I had, by the way, my own little miracle thatmorning. I had awoken that morning with my right eye swollen completelyshut, apparently from a sty. After my trip up and down the mountain,it was completely gone. Miracle? Who knows?
The next day we climbed CrossMountain. The stopping places up the mountain were synchronized withthe stations of the cross, so again our out of shape pilgrims were ableto catch their breath and pray. I concerned myself more with helpingour older pilgrims make their way up the rather treacherous terrain,than with my own spiritual enlightenment. This was appreciated by manyin our group. Once on top, we had a glorious view of the surroundingareas: a truly breathtaking view, and inspiring physically as well asspiritually.
As I mentioned before, my biggest fear of the whole trip was that I'd besurrounded by Catholic fanatics and weirdos. I'd have to say that ourgroup was indeed made up of ardent Catholics, but by the end we werelike a wonderful family. I was able to spend quality time with eachperson in the group. I was a big brother, a little brother, a counselor,a father confessor, and sometimes just a willing ear. Most of the grouphad personal issues to resolve in the pilgrimage, which our many conversationshelped to process. By the end of the week, we all became quite close.Mac and I finally disclosed being gay at the end of the week (afterseveral women kept asking about whether we were married or had children).No one turned against us, for that matter, everyone opened themselvesto us as the only two non-Catholics. We, of course, did not participatein the Eucharist, but were able to participate in everything else.
There have been many miraculoushealings which have occurred in Medjugorje. A number of the women inour group showed me silver rosaries which turned to gold after praying,or mass, or someother intensely devotional experience. A lot of pilgrimscome to stare at the sun, watching it dance in the sky. This drivesme crazy in that I feel this is very dangerous; one woman from our groupdid this and apparently damaged her retinas in the process. Others liketo look at the amazing clouds in the sky, saying 'o look, there's Mary,and there's Jesus, and there's my dog and a washing machine and ...[just kidding]..."
So did I see the Virgin Maryappear? No, but then I knew that I wouldn't. But I did see the immensespiritual power of pilgrims from all over the world worshipping andpraying. Would I consider becoming a Catholic? Maybe. It seems to methat every human institution has flaws and policies which I don't agreewith. But the tradition of Post-Christian revelation and communicationas seen in the long line of saints and miracles, is an exciting onefor me. My purpose in composing Rosarium is not to convert the worldto Catholicism, but to reexamine our own spirituality, whatever it maybe, and for that matter, offer up a piece which looks at the feminineside of divinity.
To paraphrase Mac, if youthink we are crazy chasing alleged apparitions in a war torn country,then we are crazy for peace, and crazy for love, and crazy for hope.
* TO BE CONTINUED *
Date: Fri, 04 Jun 1999
"Don't it always seem to go That you don't know what you got till it's gone..."
The return to Los Angeles from Medjugorje was a real culture shock.Our haloes and freshly scrubbed auras were dimmed by the helter skelterof the big city. We promised ourselves that we would try to keep thepeace which we experienced there - a difficult task indeed.
Rosarium was composed directly into Finale(music notation software) which has the ability to play itself backvia a rack of synthesizers which emulate an orchestra. Throughout thecomposition of Rosarium, I sang it to people in progress to get theirfeedback. I've sung the piece to professors (non-music), my composercolleagues, students, families, people who may or may not know anythingabout classical music, as well as, agnostics, atheists and people ofmany faiths. But the hardest sell was to a party thrown by a Germanart historian which was attended by mostly Chinese Buddhists.
How did y'all do it?
I always start with the words. The words give rise to the melody which gives rise to the bass, which implies the harmony and texture. I play and sing the music for Mac (librettist William MacDuff) in chunks. He is helpful in pointing out problems in melodies which don't pump the rhyme scheme or stress important words. I have done some major rewrites because Mac didn't think the music captured the right feeling of the text. Likewise, he has changed words after hearing the tune so that they speak better in a particular tessitura or rhythmic pattern.
I strongly advise those of you who commission new music to consider commissioning a librettist/lyricist as well. Yes it's cheaper to set something in public domain, but the relevance a living poet to a modern audience is thrilling. Especially in longer and dramatic works, the story can make or break the piece. The collaboration of composer and poet/lyricist is a mutually inspirational one. One draws ideas out of the other that otherwise might not have been tapped. Likewise, the relation between the composer and lyricist and the CONDUCTOR is an important one.
I am on my tip toes on the soapbox with a magic wand in my hand:
I now empower shy conductors everywhere to have the courage to tell a composer or aranger if something is not working. The music almost always benefits and the collaborative energy increases. Donald Neuen has suggested quite a few edits and changes most of which I have taken. In places that seem a bit thin, we thickened the voicing on the spot. We also simplified the rhythm of the words in places where they were in danger of not being heard.
Orchestration and text perception
Something we discovered along the way is that music which contains words or lyrics that the audience already knows can handle heavy and masking orchestration. Thompson's "Alleluia," by only using one word, makes a chorus essentially an instrumental ensemble.The aesthetic message is contained in the form, melodies, counterpoint,and harmony, and less so in the text. In a mass or other liturgical work, we all know the words and may or may not be concerned about what is being said. In pieces that are in foreign languages (to the audience) with no translation available in the program, we experience again basically instrumental music; we don't know what's being said, so we draw our appreciation of the work from the music and quality of performance. For that matter, pieces in one's own language which contain poetry with obscure meanings can ultimately be equally as incomprehensible. In a new work where *something is being communicated* and the words are essential for the complete understanding of the work, it is a good idea to not heavily double the chorus and soloists to avoid masking the text. However, there needs to be a healthy communication between authors and the conductor. Neither should hold back opinions on how to make the work better. Stripping all of the vocal doubling can take away color and melodic emphasis.
One of the reasons there has been so much unpopular music written in the 20th century, is that commissioners and conductors have been afraid to say "no." In the movie industry, every great composer (John Williams, Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith et al) does rewrites. The standard line from the directors when they want a rewrite is: "y'know, the music is great, but it just doesn't fit this scene. Do it over." And they do. My advice to commissioners, is to be involved with the commission from the beginning. Put in the contract that the conductor wants to periodically hear the work in progress. You can also put phrases like "...must be completed to the satisfaction of the artistic director" into your contracts. Composers don't like it, but you can save yourself a lot of grief if you end up paying for a 30 minute $5000.00 turkey which no one wants to perform.
I have never been involved with a work that has drawn to it so much concern. Through no effort of the writers, we have had prayer groups praying for the success of the work. We received a letter from the Vatican congratulating us on the project and sending all involved blessings from the Pope. Some have told us that our work is "part of Mary's plan." (It is interesting that the peace negotiations in Kosovo have come into alignment with the premiere of Rosarium.) Mac's libretto was disseminated to some interested folk in the Catholic community. We received some rather angry calls and emails about one aspect of our treatment of Mary. Although our work is more theater than dogma or sacred liturgy, we did not take on this project with the intention of offending people of any faith. Not wanting to become the Salmon Rushdie of the nineties, some minor adjustments were made to the libretto which, in our view, did not compromise the message, but succeded in placating our offended friends.
The experience of composing and premiering Rosarium has been a life changer. For a composer, it's a thrill to see a chorus and orchestra having so much fun with a piece. And to have the conductor give every ounce of creative energy they have to present a successful premiere, is a true honor. I'll close with a story about finishing the last movement of the piece.
Mac called me warning me that the last movement had to be "your Hallleluia chorus" and something they'll play when we pick up our grammy awards. "Besides that, I don't have any expectations." I finished it in a few days and called Mac to come over and hear it. He arrived, seemingly in a grouchy mood with a pulled muscle in his back. He stretched out on the carpet and waited. I played, danced and sang the piece. By the end, he was dancing around the living room with a huge smile on his face shouting "you did it! you did it!" The next day I met Neuen in his UCLA office to play him the finale. His sciatica was bothering him, and he also seemed a bit grouchy. He sat down in his chair, pushed up his glasses and glared at the music. Undaunted, I pressed the start button and started singing. By the end, this 65 year old conductor was dancing and singing around his office like an 18 year old!
Thank you for allowing me to indulge my enthusiasm about this new work. If you have the forces to perform the piece, I guarantee it will be rewarding. The music is available through Yelton Rhodes Music (email@example.com). You can purchase "What Happened on the Hill" which is Act 2 of Rosarium through this website. If you are a conductor and are considering performing the entire work, contact YRM for a private release of Act 1, "Song and Flower."