About Plastic Flowers, a chamber opera:
“Cut to the Chase”
A guide for the listener in a rush:
A. If you have one hour of time to spare, I would be honored to have your ears for the full length of this work. By listening to the entire piece one may apprehend the use of motifs and the overall plan. Structures will make more sense as they develop over time.
B. If you have 30 minutes: please listen to scenes 1, 5, 6, 8 and 9.
C. If you can only spare 15 minutes for this, please listen to scenes 1, 8 and 9.
1. Plastic Flowers. Penelope is alone at home, a personal crisis. p. 32
2. Memories of her Dad. (children songs – death theme) p. 40
3. First Boyfriend. (jazz waltz) p. 49
4. The second man (funk). p. 58
5. Her lesbian lover. The Song of Songs. (motet) p. 68
6. Meets husband. The wedding. (Zappa style – Chopin imitation waltz) p. 80
7. Feels abandoned. (RnB ballad) p. 92
8. Losing control at the shopping mall. (Broadway – big beat) p.101
9. Considers suicide. (post-romantic adagio) p. 117
10. Plastic Flowers. Recapitulation and conclusion. p.127
I wrote Plastic Flowers as a personal graduation project from my Juilliard Evening years. In it, I tried to pursue a path of harmonic originality, while keeping a steady melodic flow.
The story takes place in suburban America, where the character experiences a nervous breakdown. It is a psychological drama: the action happens inside Penelope’s mind, her emotions shape the development of the music.
I had an urge to write a second opera. Once I decided upon the story and the format, the libretto flowed fast.
In this arrangement, I aimed at a minimum instrumentation for maximum portability. I used the opportunity to celebrate the potential of some remarkable musical tools: the laptop, the piano and the human voice.
I incorporated my experience with electronic music and sound design. The idea was to use resources of Max-MSP and techniques of concrete music. The soundscapes were produced in 5.1 surround, as in a movie, to create an experience of immersion.
A bi-tonal vocabulary matched the bi-polar emotional state of the character, providing a framework where she navigates. A gradation could be achieved from an extreme of tonal simplicity, where a single tonality is heard, to the other extreme, where tonalities may be superimposed on a distance of a tritone or a minor 2nd, for most dissonant effect.
Scene 1. Penelope alone. p. 32
Penelope’s chord starts the piece: Em(Maj7). The first vocal phrase delineates an octatonic scale, arpeggios down on two diminished triads a half step from each other. Throughout the scene, the odd chords in the vocal accompaniment are mostly bitonal with each hand playing a different key, though the keys are closely related and they share important notes of the melodic mode of the moment. Sometimes I also reinforce the “avoided note” in jazz theory, so it does sound a little like jazz, but not really. For example, I may stress the fourth of the dominant chord in the bass.
At the word “Anymore” there is a climax with a polychord formed by two superimposed triads separated by a minor third that meet in contrary motion as two triads a half step apart. The dissonance lies reinforced under the melodic note as the chord is dramatically repeated.
Scene 2. Daddy. p. 40
The little salsa theme “Pequeñita” is the only openly Latin element in the piece, but the rhythmic motif of the double eights will be heard throughout. I like the resolving interval of a min2nd to a min3rd here. Especially when the second interval can the be top 3rd of a major chord. It makes a scale cluster of four notes while keeping a definitely tonal feel. It’s like a Dominant with a split 7 where the Maj7 resolves to the fifth and the min7 resolves to the 3rd of the next chord.
| C(!7) | F |
Pitches B=>C and Bb=>A.
The death of the father episode took me some time to write. It’s Penelope’s Xm(Maj7) modulating in chromatic mediants between Cm and Em. where the 3rd of one chord spells enharmonically the Maj7th of the next.
Scene 3 – First boy. p. 49
Waltz with delicate ostinato cluster against bitonal bass, closely related keys.
Scene 4. The second love. p. 58
Make it groove. Catch the key.
Scene 5. Her lesbian lover. p. 68
Not so religious counterpoint. There is a cadence at the top and one at the end. Clear cadences are avoided through the body of the scene, to create a sense of floating modality. It oscillates between centers Db and Eb, as if these two keys were making out, taking turns on top. It is intentionally sensual as it relates to the lesbian love affair.
Scene 6. Meets husband. p. 80
The scene starts in an odd time signature (7/4) with sudden shifts. Penelope is rushing into a relationship without being totally aware of the ground where she steps.
The Wedding Waltz middle section is an instance of strict tonal harmony with efficient voice leading. The Wedding Dress descending third motif gets picked up here, with a right to a Neapolitan Six and a German/French Six, with a cross voice-exchange in the notes that should mark the nationality of the chord.
The section resolves on the FminMaj7, the Penelope Chord. Then it consolidates in the fast 7/4, with fragmented clusters on the RH. I think of it as the crazy uncle playing piano as the party fades.
Scene 7. Abandoned. p. 92
It’s an RnB progression with the 9th and the 3rd in closed voicing and the block chord on the right hand moving in contrary motion to the bass line. The modulations express her mood swings, as Penelope begins to realize her situation.
Scene 8. Losing control. p. 101
This is the climax of the narrative. The first and last sections share a Broadway pastiche melody, in 12/8 meter that becomes an intense Scherzo at the recap. In the middle section I used two ostinato phrases in the bass, juxtaposed in different levels of intensity. The right hand pays accompanying parts of various amounts of complexity. There are also middle voices that emerge out of the rhythmic figures, I imagine them as voices inside of Penelope’s head.
Scene 9. Suicide. p. 117
I opted for minor triads as much as possible, navigating a chromatic mediant territory, exploring the difference between root movements a minor3rd and a Major3rd apart, connecting chords of the same quality. The piece develops to a despair that reaches a climax with a free section in glissandi for the singer, accompanied by rarefied rhythmic clusters, a phrase that is transformed to pick up the leading vocal melody. The double eights motif takes different inflections here, coming back at the end as the child’s theme of hope and innocence.
Scene 10. Recapitulation and conclusion. p. 127
A reduced version of the first theme, transposed a min2nd up, which implies some emotional change, yet in the same melodic space. There is a last section tending to major; then a coda in fast 7/8 meter over extended Dominant section leading to cadence in EMajor (add6).
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