Nassau is a work I am very proud of because it brings together more threads of my creative, not to mention autobiographical, self in one place than anything else I have composed to date. It has many layers (references, styles, actualities, and some of my best original words and music, too). Audiences and performers alike had only basic insights with which to approach the work. As with most of my work, I tried to construct it in such a way that it can exist as a piece of listening entertainment without much knowledge of its layers and process, and for that I am also proud. Perhaps I am not supposed to explain it away. In most cases I wouldn’t, but in this case–and partially to tell myself what I have done–here goes.
The Odyssey of Homer is a tale that lasts nine years in one hero’s life. James Joyce’s Ulysses is an intense deconstruction of The Odyssey into a tale that lasts one entire day and night of an anti-hero’s life. Nassau is a light deconstruction of Ulysses that lasts the amount of time it would take me to walk, with many distractions, from my nearest subway stop (the G) to my apartment on Monitor Street along Nassau Avenue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
My libretto follows Joyce’s organization of The Odyssey into 18 episodes. As the original commissions were for 10-minute works, I composed Nassau in three stages: Vol. 1, (2005) contains episodes 1-11. These episodes are: 1) Telemachus, 2) Nestor, 3) Proteus, (these first three chapters comprise The Telemachiad in Ulysses), 4) Calypso, 5) Lotus-eaters, 6) Hades, 7) Aeolus, 8) Lestrygonians, 9) Scylla and Charibdis, 10) Wandering Rocks, and 11) Sirens. Each episode lasts anywhere from 10 seconds to two-and-a-half minutes. The reason for there being so many episodes in the first installment was because I had hoped to compress the entire work into ten minutes, and failed. Vol. II (2007) contains episodes 12-15, each lasting about two-and-a-half minutes: 12) Cyclops, 13) Nausicaa, 14) Oxen of the Sun, and 15) Circe. Vol. III, The Nostos (or, “The Return”) (2011), contains episodes 16-18: 16) Eumaeus, 17) Ithaca, and 18) Penelope (Joyce’s famous Molly Bloom soliloquy).
The first four episodes of Nassau comprise a unit that introduces the male main character (he is nameless, so I will call him “me”) as a schoolteacher on his way home to his wife. It is her birthday. They are a young couple hopeful of having children. Among the journey’s setbacks are birthday-gift-shopping, general procrastination (Pizza Prince, Driftwood Inn, and environs), Rachel’s Deli and flowers (Calypso & Lotus-eaters), a funeral at Rago’s Funeral Home (Hades), crossing the dangerously the busy McGuiness intersection (Aeolus), a thought of food (Lestrygonians), a crowded sidewalk (Scylla & Charibdis, Wandering Rocks), and, finally, a flirtatious visit to the hair salon (Sirens) which ends Volume I.
Volume II opens rondo-like with the rock beat that began Vol. I and we begin outside Baldo’s Pizza, where an aggressive proprietor bullies me (Cyclops). I flee across the street to the Grand Slam Laundromat (Nausicaa), and then emerge, in thought, on the sidewalk (Oxen of the Sun) before browsing the video store (Circe).
Volume III is the return home. A Greek diner is the hut of Eumaeus where I meet up with a neighborhood friend. As we walk together to Monitor Street where I live, my friend asks me questions (the catechism of Joyce’s Ithaca). Upon arriving home (Penelope), my wife and I take a walk through McGolrick Park down the street and she gives me a bit of news. (Spoiler alert: she is pregnant.)
Story and textual correspondences between all three works abound, in addition to musical correspondences from every which where–especially a 1994 post-rock album called Nassau by the band The Sea and Cake, which acts as an incidental soundtrack that is playing in my iPod headphones during this walk. Certain Joycean devices like stream of consciousness and hyper-realism are manifested in the way I composed the score. Here is a not-completely-thorough synopsis of my technique:
This first trilogy of chapters in the Joyce, known as The Telemachiad, is an introduction of the youthful character, Stephen, and all that portends. In my opening, references are made to kids getting out of school, my own profession as a teacher, Life as the great teacher (a Joyce quote), and so on. Beginnings are symbolized by such quotations the opening of The Sea and Cake album (Tr. 1 with the lyric “Come on into the sun…”) and the sunrise of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. Some narrative groundwork is laid: it is my wife’s birthday. We are thinking about having children. This neighborhood happens to be rich in strollers as it is. What does it mean to be a father? Will I be any good at it? How will life change? In the dreamy sunshine occurs a hint of Debussy’s Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun as surroundings are described. Stephen Daedalus’s stroll on The Strand in Chapter Three is hinted at in as I pick up photos at Kubuš Photo Shop of my recent trip to coastal Maine, and so forth. (The Nassau businesses are encountered in their actual June 9, 2004 locations along the walk home.)
In Calypso, the chapter in which Joyce introduces us to the hero proper, Leopold Bloom, himself having a thought of buying his wife a gift, I quote TSAC’s most tuneful song, “Parasol,” to which my own words are added. This aria a due morphs seamlessly into “Lotus-eaters” with its references to “lazy day,” “narcotic,” flower imagery, the tea and soap gifts for my (and Bloom’s) wife, “smoke drifting from second floor windows,” and so on. In all of my descriptions of my neighborhood, I kept it realistic and true–the places, the people, the accents, the events. Again, inspired by Ulysses, which does the same for its Dublin.
Here I will mention other levels of references in Nassau. One of my “rules” in composing Nassau was to use at least one word, if not an entire phrase or sentence, from both Ulysses and an English translation of Homer’s Odyssey. “Snotgreen” and “wine-dark” are from Joyce and Homer, respectively; Joyce used such epithets himself to reference Homer. Joyce also used a schema for each of his chapters: “Calypso,” for example, bears the color orange and the body organ of the kidney–thus we visit a butcher and make the same color reference.
Hades takes place across the street from Rago’s Funeral Home. Mozart’s Requiem is referenced. As we move along the track list of TSAC’s Nassau, the music is at times deconstructed beyond recognition in counterpoint to other music.
Aeolus, God of the Winds. In Ulysses Joyce references the print room of a local newspaper, signifying the “hot air of the press.” Likewise, I quote a newspaper’s recent review of my last performed piece in Albany: “overly busy effort.” Also quoted is the Frogger theme (crossing this busy throughway always felt like that game), and so on.
In my attempt to keep Nassau short, I have the orchestra actually eat Episode 8, Lestrygonians before it can get started, but not before honoring my necessary Joyce quote rule: “cheapest lunch in town.”
Scylla and Charibdis, the choice between two evils, a dragon or a maelstrom, is represented by the choice while walking on a Brooklyn sidewalk of stepping near muck in the street or garbage on the sidewalk. Real-life awful dance music, such as frequently heard in those days coming out of the car windows of Polish hot-rodders, is the backdrop, morphing into a lick from Mahler’s 6th Symphony.
In Wandering Rocks, true to Joyce’s memorable form, a single unifying moment (squealing tires and a loud truck horn) is heard eleven times, around which we are allowed into the worlds of ten characters sharing the same time and place. Joyce quote: “the Joy of Creation.” Musical reference “Walk on the Sunny Side” when crossing the street for the first time. [One of two accidents in my concept, as that side of the street is not particularly any more sunny than the other at that hour on that day of the year, I found later.]
In Joyce’s most musical chapter, Sirens, he writes a fugue using textual sounds and many leitmotivs, a practice I followed, even going so far as to incorporate some of the dozens of tunes he references in that chapter (69 tunes referenced in the Joyce chapter). [This, by the way, was the chapter that inspired Luciano Berio’s electronic music classic, Omaggio a Joyce.] I utilize things such as strictly-imitative sounds of a salon: trombonist’s water-bottle, banker’s bell, “cascading water” from the saxophone, etc. as well as Messiaen-ic “Siren-music” atop the temptation music from Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin, a brief moment of TSAC, and the very song which becomes the backdrop of Joyce’s chapter, a tenor in a bar singing a famous aria from the light opera, Martha. End Volume I.
Volume II begins with the Cyclops episode, taking over my personal favorite TSAC song, Tr. 7 “The Cantina.” A play is enacted based on my real life witnessing of the troubled pizza manager’s tirades. The episode ends with Homer’s own trick on the name “Nobody” that he uses to escape the Cyclops.
Joyce’s Nausicaa episode is written from two perspectives, dividing the chapter in half and entering the thoughts of two characters on a beach and their very different perceptions of one another. Bloom, horny on the beach. The attractive-but-crippled lass he spots on the beach romantic and earnest. They do not meet. Homer’s Nausicaa is a teenage princess found doing laundry with her handmaidens on a beach. From Homer I borrow the quotes “What people are these? Are they savage or hospitable to strangers?” and “Well-ordered hair.”
Joyce wrote his Oxen in the Sun chapter in a chronological style, beginning the chapter in archaic English and progressing through styles of English writing up to the present day, ending with gibberish and Creole. Likewise, I quote nine musical styles from Medieval to John Adams and text borrowed heavily from Joyce and ending in a sort of gibberish of my own.
Circe is a long, psychedelic episode in Joyce taking the form of a play. His reference is to the Walpurgisnacht of Goethe’s Faust (“will o’ wisps”), pigs (“Boar’s Head,” lard, pig movies). True to Joyce’s highly referential chapter, and the over-stimulation of the video store, many musical references of little importance flitter by. (Minute Waltz, Lebewohl sonata, etc.). The final word of the episode is Japanese for pig: “buta!” To add to the psychadelia of the text for Circe, I culled a mélange of movie titles based on pigs from the Internet Movie Database. [My second historical mistake is that I named one movie not yet released by June 9, 2004. Which one?] End Volume II.
Volume III: The Nostos begins with an unavoidable reference to “Sloop John B” and its departure from “Nassau Town.” This sets off the final Volume as a light medley of rock tunes as we work through the narrative of Odysseus’s clandestine return home via the hut of Eumaeus, the meeting of his son, and the defeat of the suitors surrounding Penelope at home. Fortuitously, an old-fashioned, un-updated Greek diner sat on Nassau Avenue in 2004 where I often bumped into a neighborhood friend. He becomes my companion and interrogator in Ithaca, which contains my most favorite lyrics set above some of TSAC’s prettiest music from their album.
The Penelope chapter of Homer requires some sort of bloodbath, so I begin with as many “violent” conversational clichés as I could think of. This proceeds into a wrap-up of the story underpinned by “Love’s Old Sweet Song,” as this is the song that underpins Molly Bloom’s soliloquy (in the Joyce, a recollection of her afternoon tryst which began as a rehearsal of this song with her vocal coach). A final telephone ringing heard within the final chord signifies a distracted life of two married professionals embarking on the new, incredible voyage of having a child. End of work.
Continuing in this blog I have provided the libretti, audio and photos of the places referenced (which I managed to take more or less by the end of 2005; in fact, right around the time of my first child’s birth). I am grateful to the Dogs of Desire for the wonderful performances heard here, and to the The Sea and Cake.