Thursday, November 21, 2013

Edward Snowden The Musical

No, I'm not really writing a musical about Edward Snowden, the former CIA cybersecurity worker who is now exiled in Russia for the year, awaiting who knows what kind of a decision about his future. One of my professors thinks the topic of the NSA and government surveillance would even make a great opera. (What kind of arias would I write for it? Or would it be more like Einstein on the Beach?) Actually, much to my own surprise, I'm working on a new short-ish chamber music composition about the NSA, and more specifically people's feelings about government surveillance and our potential loss of a feeling of privacy over our lives. I think it's going to be written for strings and electronics. I thus find it totally appropriate that the government could pick up on the words in this post and potentially raise an eyebrow to my artistic output.

One of my main challenges in wrestling with this topic is it sheer size. The size of the debate of course doesn't just begin with Snowden, but includes Julian Assange, spy scandals in Britian, and goes all the way back to the "good ole' days" where all you could do to spy is wiretap someone's phone line, take pictures of men cheating on their wives, and intercept their postmail. Thankfully the Guardian has put out a fabulous website that helps clarify a lot of the fundamental issues (from all sides) in the Edward Snowden/NSA saga. The website is mostly in normal-people language, thank goodness, but also includes a lot of the de-classified/leaked documents of which are in question.

It's not so much the facts of the matter that interest me but the emotional content. I've never been much of a political person. I hate political debates and would rather see a list of facts of what candidates support and don't support, and I'll weigh my voting options from there. I also don't like feeling conflicted about issues, but that's mostly all I do, being a 110% Libran. I just see a million sides of things. I think, well, I wouldn't want to be spied upon. I would not like companies giving away my personal information (even in its bytes and codes and metadata) without my knowing. I don't even like to talk on the phone on public transport (or maybe that's just courtesy). On the other hand, if there's a chance that crazy people could be prevented from bombing public sites, or attacking innocent bystanders, then I don't know if I'd mind giving up some information. It's not the information people have that's bad, it's what people do with information. I do feel sad that many Americans are often quick to place blame on a single individual for such large-scale complex issues. Those people become scapegoats who usually never end up as vilified as time passes. Many times I feel ashamed that more Americans wouldn't feel like this was even an issue that could affect their lives, or that they even had some small part in the matter.

I've never personally been caught in the middle of a battle over sensitive or secure information. I can hardly keep a secret about what I might be giving you for Christmas. I don't know what I would do if my life could be in jeopardy over things I know. I would feel wrought with Libran conflict! Thus, my work had its germinal idea: a lament.

I'd like the piece to feature wafting voices, transformed into bits of coded data. Maybe there are secret messages embedded in the electronics, sent out into the audience. And the strings would play this lament, likely Medieval inspired, trying to cut through the here and now to something more timeless and universal. Fingers crossed.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Music Review: Emilíana Torrini's 'Tookah'

I recently got a music review published in the Reykjavík Grapevine (the English language newspaper in Iceland), and I thought I'd share the text here for those of you who might not be able to access their weird PDF.

“Tookah”: Made for the Moment

Emilíana Torrini’s new album “Tookah” is brimming with her signature sound: quiet vocals, smooth orchestrations, subtle beats, guitar pickings, and romanticized lyrics. But it also goes in new directions that keep the album feeling current.

Fans of Emilíana will be comforted by the familiar softness of songs like “Caterpillar” and “Autumn Sun”. But that familiarity seems bland when compared to a stand out track like “When Fever Breaks”. At seven and a half minutes, it’s an epic half-structured half–improv song, slowing building pressure over time. Being at the brink of emotions, Torrini intones “desire is rage/ rage is desire” and “I want to kill you with my fire”. The track, although intense, could be pushed even further. Would this fever break in a live performance?

The most successful tracks on “Tookah” are the ones with the catchy hooks and dance beats, such as “Speed of Dark” and “Blood Red”. Torrini recently experimented with synthesizers, and it shows. “Speed” could be a club hit; a remix would easily entice partygoers to dance. Her simple and unadorned voice is a great contrast to the processed drums and synths, resulting in Kate Bush-meets-Depeche Mode.  There is a catchiness recalling Torrini’s earlier “Jungle Drum” without the twee cuteness.

In “Speed of Dark”, there is a line: “life is just a flicker in the universe”. And that, in its essence, is the album. “Tookah” is a collection of cool and sensual songs made for the moment. Enjoy them now, because in the grand scheme of the universe, these songs are a flickering star.

Nathan Hall is a composer and artist, and a Fulbright Fellow to Iceland.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Comprehensives Passed

I passed my written and oral comprehensive exams, and I am now officially a doctoral candidate, on track to graduate in May. I'm elated! This time it feels like a major relief. I waited outside the room my committee was debating in (after answering questions and talking for two hours) and they all came out and shook my hand and gave me hugs.
Now, on to THE FUTURE. Though it seems intimidating right now, I'm trying to make a plan that will break down THE FUTURE into tiny manageable chunks that turn it into THE PRESENT, which is much easier to conceptualize. I'm currently working on a couple small music projects, and looking for other work in various fields. I hope to do some commercial work at some point soon, and also up the ante on my jewelry line. Then I'll look for some teaching jobs of various sorts, and possibly some other cultural activities (residencies, perhaps?). We'll cross our fingers that it's a fun transition from the last days of my life as a student into other opportunities!