Arts interview

Professor Tod Machover talks Schoenberg, composing for opera, and the power of words

Setting the world of ‘Schoenberg in Hollywood’ to music

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Tod Machover, Muriel R. Cooper Professor of Music and Media at the MIT Media Lab, composed 'Schoenberg in Hollywood.'
Courtesy of Andrew Ryan

Last week, The Tech reviewed the opera Schoenberg in Hollywood, a passion project for Tod Machover, the Muriel R. Cooper Professor of Music and Media at the MIT Media Lab. Schoenberg in Hollywood premiered at the Emerson Paramount Center on Nov. 14, portraying the life of Arnold Schoenberg (Omar Ebrahim) after he escapes from Nazi Europe and arrives in Hollywood. The opera opens with his meeting with film director Irving Thalberg, but it breaks into a series of glimpses into Schoenberg’s life story through the language of film, cycling through different film genres, sung and acted by Schoenberg’s two music students (played by Sarah Womble and Jesse Darden).

In an interview with The Tech, Machover talks about Schoenberg’s legacy and the challenges of adapting his life into an opera. He also recalls director Braham Murray, who passed away during the opera’s production, and the work they accomplished together in the time they had.

The Tech: On the creative side, there’s a lot of freedom to pick what you want to do and many ways of interpreting something. Was there a challenge of picking which parts of Schoenberg’s life to include?

Machover: The first step, when I first thought of the project, was the scene with Thalberg and the idea of Schoenberg as the uncompromising, ornery, unpopular, and really important composer coming to Hollywood from Vienna where it snowed all the time and everybody frowns. He gets kicked out, and he ends up in a place where it’s sunny, and everybody’s in the movies and happy. You could make an entire opera completely about what happened in Hollywood. That was my original idea but then, the more I thought about [it], the more that seemed conventional.

It was interesting — there were these interesting characters; he was friends with Charlie Chaplin, played tennis with George Gershwin, lived across the street from Shirley Temple. The whole crux of it is: is he going to make this movie? Is he going to find a way to reconcile his uncompromising vision with popularity? And instead of asking that question over and over again, we decided to have him view his life through the language of the movies and, by definition, the contrast of what he lived through and what he felt. Imagining it in this context would show this contrast all the time. Part of the reason it’s funny is most of these contrasts are impossible, but at the same time they kind of work. That’s the point, there’s no simple answer, but these forces are reconcilable. It’ll be through glimpses and movie genres and sometimes there will be a real scene on stage.

That was around the time we brought in Simon Robson. I remember Braham [Murray] and I said to Simon, “Here’s the structure — which looks pretty much like the structure we have now — and we’d like to have these scenes from Schoenberg’s life; here are several biographies.” Essentially, here is our wishlist, and could you come back with a possible outline? I knew that choosing the scenes was critical — it would determine the shape, the length — and what I was hoping for was that he’d come back with a complete outline. But Simon came back with several of the scenes, and said, “You know, my intuition as a writer is that if we accept this basic structure and you accept that these are the kinds of scenes I’ll use — and I have your list of a whole bunch of scenes — I’d like to jump in and start writing.” We said okay, and then he made a draft pretty quickly, which wasn’t perfect, but it was remarkable. The full draft pretty much has the same shape as it does now, maybe missing some detail. We spent a lot of time fine-tuning the text in different ways, but that’s when we figured out which scenes to have and which to not have.

The Tech: What do you think was the most challenging scene to translate into music?

Machover: In general, the most challenging thing was to represent something about Schoenberg as a musical character. I can introduce some of his music here and there, and I could introduce the feel and sound of his music without being literal, but [the challenge was] to do all of that in a context that is my music, not because I want to promote my music, but because that’s where the continuity comes from and it’s the musical story I want to tell.

So overall, that was the most challenging thing, and that has something to do with setting individual scenes. Musically, it’s a very diverse opera. Each scene has quite a different feel and the opera is framed by the students and the meeting with Thalberg and the challenge to write music for movies, and then Schoenberg reflects on his own life through these movies. So both visually and musically, the opera goes through music history and then through Schoenberg’s music history. He was born in 1874 and grew up during the late Romantic period when Wagner was the force that everyone had to deal with, the kind of full harmonic potential of Western music and the power that comes through traditional chords. Schoenberg and his whole generation thought that this language that started 100 years before Bach had been pushed as far as it could be pushed, and [the opera] picks up as he’s grappling with that.

I tried to find a way so that even though he was going through these styles, the actual melodies or something about the way the notes related to each other was continuous, that there was something holding it together. At a deeper level, I was really interested in not saying it explicitly but projecting it, that these underlying melodies and sounds are similar on some level.

What’s important is what Schoenberg said, and what I also believe: that it’s not the surface sound but what’s being conveyed. I think it ties into the idea that what’s shared between human beings is more powerful than what’s different.

The Tech: It seems like the hardest part of being a composer is not the individual scenes but connecting all those scenes.

Machover: Right, and even though I didn’t grow up particularly liking opera and I don’t necessarily go to a lot of operas, I love words and I love text and I love the way words can focus your attention and your mind and your subconscious even when you’re listening to music. And I really get inspired by words. It’s incredibly hard work to write an opera but once we make the libretto, the libretto already has the individual scenes and the continuity and the shape. I work really hard to get the music just right, but the music comes to me pretty easily once I have the text.

Actually, there was a scene that was the hardest. That was the scene that’s now called, “Schoenberg Follies: A Bad Revue.”  In the original version of the libretto, there were these bad reviews read by his wife, some of these testimonials made by his students. They were very prosey and a very different character than the rest of the libretto, so I couldn’t think of melodies for those. So I thought, okay, bad reviews, you just have to read them. The first version I made had a collage of Schoenberg’s most famous pieces, including Pierrot Lunaire, the piece that premiered 1912. There was a riot and people beat each other up and so I used that as a collage in the background and people spoke these words over it. That didn’t feel right. And then I did another version and I just couldn’t figure out a way to make it work.

It was really late, like in July, and the orchestra was calling, so I set a week aside to figure out how to make this section work. Then Simon Robson, the librettist, sent me an email: “I know it’s late, and I know you’re under a lot of pressure, but I have a really different idea about that scene, and I just want to tell you that I think it should be a musical; what if it was like Singing in the Rain and you had a dance number at the same time?”

I wrote him back and said, “I don’t have time, but you’re right. This would really be fantastic, it’s right in the middle of the opera.” And he said, “I bet in a couple of days, I can write a totally new section.”

He wrote a draft really quickly, and I immediately saw it was the right thing and got the basic musical idea. It was a case where it took a while to get the final form, but once we did, I wrote it really fast.

The Tech: Watching the opera felt like a meta-experience. We’re watching people watching themselves on the film projected at the back while the actors are playing these roles on stage and seeing these multiple layers. How did you organize it so that it wasn’t confusing, but it still had those layers?

Machover: In the very first version, there was a lot more going between live action and film, where you were watching only film. I looked at that version and I really wanted the focus to be on the live characters and whatever role the film plays — sometimes it’s a background, sometimes you’re watching, sometimes you’re playing it — but I’m hoping that people are really following the characters on stage.

That took a lot of time. Even when the libretto was done, I think the question was what was exactly on stage. [This was] one of the reasons we started thinking about this particular form rather than a kaleidoscope of Schoenberg in Hollywood at Chaplin’s dinner party. Braham [Murray] said the way for this opera to be really focused and successful was you’ve really got to care about Schoenberg as the central character and be with him all the time. If he’s just a spectator and things are happening around him, or if he’s just like a symbol, it won’t hit and it won’t mean anything. That was the guiding principle and after Simon started writing the first ten lines for Schoenberg, I could see that it was vivid and personal, and making sure Schoenberg was never just a spectator was one of the tricks.

The Tech: To an audience member, everything flows so naturally that you take it for granted. There are so many human elements. It’s not like a movie; you have to control things live.

Machover: Yeah, that works by having a combination of things prepared ahead of time, things broken up into little bits, and things that go between sections so that they can actually morph. So something that can take whatever just happened and continue that for a second until the next thing is ready, so there’s no break. All those little tricks you don’t notice.

The musical electronics work like that too. There are two keyboard players, one person who has a pretty difficult but traditional piano part. He plays on an acoustic piano and a synthesizer. Now the second player, just like Peter [Torpey, who cues up film projections], has cues and is setting off electronics that either we’ve prepared ahead of time or are designed to adapt to whatever the instruments are playing at that moment, to connect between two things.

The Tech: And last question. I love ironies and in the beginning of the opera, you show “The End” and in the end, you show “The Beginning.” Who came up with this idea?

Machover: That was the librettist, Simon. I think it was in that very first draft. He had this idea of every film, especially from the 30s and the 40s, having “The End,” which you don’t do anymore. And I don’t know how he came up with that, but he thought of that convention at the end, and thought about this whole process of Schoenberg reliving his life and confronting this big challenge, and really thinks about what he does next. He ends up somewhere, ready to do something else, and he says, “Action!” as the last word. For me, the “Action!” means how to use his life and his music to change something in the world, not just to write his piece, but to use his life and music for something more than that. Which is ironic, because he ended up in L.A., far away from Europe where he was trying to stop the war and save the Jewish people but no one was listening to him or his music. But the fact that he realized that he needed to make something real happen and not quit is worth knowing about and following.

The interview has been edited and cut for clarity and length.