The Nitrate Hymnal

ensemble two electric guitars, cello, viola, three violins, percussion/drum set, piano/electric piano/organ/synthesizer, two sopranos, two tenors
duration ~60:00
performance history 01/23–26/2003 (original opera production) by Nate Burke, Mea Cook, Leanne Darling, Amy Domingues, me, Chris Hamley, Sarah Kendall, Vin Novara, Tunde Oyewole, Philippa Thompson, and James Wolf
date completed January 2003
era post-college


First of all, if you’ve never heard of it (and that’s quite possible), you can read all about it on its website.

It’s the kind of thing you read about: bunch of ne’er-do-wells band together to see if they can put on a Big Show. The kids are plucky, driven, crazy, and just have enough connections to pull it off.

But there’s so much more to it than that. There’s the countless (and I mean countless) nights that Bob Massey would email us demos, sketches, whatever he could come up with, and Jean Cook and I would take them and hammer them into shape (and sometimes notation, with me writing down parts and Jean writing out vocal lines) until the wee hours. And then, ridiculously late, Jean would go home and I would go to sleep for a few hours, and then get up and go to work. We did this for weeks.

And later, it got worse: I would work from 6am to 2pm and then speed to rehearsal, which would run until 6 or 8pm. Then go home and work on the music some more at night. Repeat.

The opera was in four acts, and the story—and its cast! and its musical requirements!—were changing as we went from “excerpts from a work-in-progress” in the Fall of 2002 at Art-o-matic to the final weekend of live performances in January of 2003. We basically augmented a rock band (two guitars, keyboard, bass, drums) with a small string ensemble (three violins, viola, cello). I arranged a good deal of it, printed parts, rehearsed the group, played keyboards, and conducted. We all wore white and sat on a stage above and behind the performance floor, while large-screen projections were cast above us.

Still more complicating factors: the guitarists had to learn to fade in their notes with volume-knob swells (a Bob trademark), not all of the players could read written music, and the musicians weren’t always available to rehearse in the same city. Oh, and we only had a few months to put everything together.

I notated Bob’s pre-recorded song “Dear Posterity” which was used in the opera; but I notated the recording he made, so it was much more descriptive than prescriptive. We couldn’t do that with the material as it was being written, it simply wasn’t finalized enough. Even if it were, the prospect of notating Bob’s vocal aesthetic for the whole opera would make the show tedious and extremely hard to rehearse, especially when not rehearsing the entire ensemble together. So we gave vocalists approximations of their melody lines, notating only pitches and phrasing (except for Act IV), and we marked vocal cues in the instrumental parts. Therefore, the notation of both the vocal parts and the instrumental parts are intentionally incomplete and inexact, even in the conductor’s score; they were synchronized only through collective rehearsal and memorization. (This is very much like how a band puts a song together, and not very much like how chamber music comes together.) I considered alternate notation methods but ultimately stuck with this approach; I still think it was the right decision, even though there is no complete score that could reproduce the performance. In truth (and in looking back over the score), we probably memorized more of it than we read, because even the notated parts have all sorts of mistakes and omissions that we played right past.

There were several things that I loved about working on this. Primarily, Bob writes beautiful songs, and this opera was really taking song structures and sensibilities to a larger scale. But writing large-scale works was not Bob’s thing, so he wrote in snippets and broad strokes. Taking those and filling in the details with various themes and repetitions was a lot of fun. Some of the themes are so dissected it’s hard to recognize them without being intimately familiar with the whole piece. (Full disclosure: I enjoy working with existing material probably more than any other compositional method.) Along those lines, Bob and Jean had recorded the cinematic “Dear Posterity” which was used along with a pre-made film, and to ensure that when played back in the live performance the sound wouldn’t be completely disembodied from the audio context before and after, I played along with slight and subtle things. “Slight and subtle” was the key to the entire opera, because we weren’t dealing with a huge group. The orchestration was rather sparse out of necessity, and so I focused a lot (a lot) on voicings. The coda of the live show, which did not make it to the recording, was probably one of my favorite parts; it’s a repetition of an earlier song, but accompanied only by piano, drawing in the main themes. I pored over this piece’s voicings for days and could find no note out of place when paired with the vocal line. This is a rare joy in writing.

It’s a short piece of music, so here it is in its entirety: PDF, 64KB

Three years later, we re-worked the music with Anti-Social Music, and you can learn more about that here.