The Operating System

3rd ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 12 :: ROYCE VAVREK on KATHLEEN EDWARDS

Editor’s note: I am so pleased to have this particular crossover in this year’s series – for it was largely via early attention to Vavrek’s incredible and prolific output as a librettist for the new music community (see earlier entries on Song from the Uproar with Missy Mazzoli, and Dog Days with David T. Little) that The OS’s focus shifted to include the host of new music performers and creators that is now so central to our mission. I continue to find in Royce, and in this community in general a commitment to creative crossover, vital collaboration and disciplinary non-adherence which very much includes and draws on poetics – and from which poets and other creative practitioners could learn a great deal.

My own relationship to the question “what is poetry” is always evolving, recently in ways that have shifted my practice enormously. If we let loose our fears surrounding recognition and earning, (really more about poetry as an industry than a practice) and allow our idea of poetics, of our practice, to include other modes, and allow other practitioners work to be considered poetry, we might find we are all better off, in ways financial and otherwise. ONWARD! in word and song. – Lynne DeSilva-Johnson

Kathleen-Edwards---Steve-Gerrard1

Lyrics are a very particular poetry – they are words that necessitate music; the skeleton and matrix of song. Many of the most ubiquitous poems were created with the intent to be sung (think “Happy Birthday,” Christmas carols, folk songs, etc.) and they very much affect our lives, worming their way into our subconscious as we go about our day-to-day routines.

Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to create work that was directly inspired and informed by the poetry of others, whether it be repetitive phrases of Gertrude Stein that color the language of my opera 27 created with composer Ricky Ian Gordon, or the early 20th century poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” by Alan Seeger, a favorite of John F. Kennedy, that features prominently in my new opera JFK with composer David T. Little, or the ghost of Walt Whitman that haunts the concert Brooklyn Village I created with Alan Pierson for the Brooklyn Philharmonic and Brooklyn Youth Chorus. But to reveal perhaps the greatest influence on my work is to talk of the poetry (in this case lyrics) of Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards. Her language often speaks directly to my formative experiences, and remains one of the greatest discoveries of my young adulthood. But it is not in the content alone that Edwards has been influential, but in the lyrical forms she chooses, and her judicious use (ie. sometimes non-reliance) of rhyme, a major tool in the musical theater, of which I was trained.

Sure as Shit
by Kathleen Edwards

Choosing my words carefully
Has never been my strength
I’ve been known to be vague
And often pointless
But you sure as shit know me
Better than anybody else
And for that in my heart I am hopeful

So I helped you pack your bags
And I folded up your snap shirts
When you come back
It will already be the winter
If you look at other girls
Working out in the nighttime
I don’t mind but I don’t want to know it

And these years that I have known you
It’s gone and blurred my sense of time
Now I can hardly even recall
What came before this
Letters left on pillows
Messages left on phones
Postcards in the mail
When we sent them
Cobwebs all collected
Paintings on the walls
Lounging around all day
In a hot pink chenille housecoat
And the secrets that I whispered
In your ear while you were sleeping
You can call to mind when you’re
Out in the world without me

Oh the Denim King
I sure as shit do love you
And I cuss because I mean it
And for that in my heart I am hopeful
And these words that I chose
I was so careful

In “Sure as Shit,” from her album “Asking for Flowers,” Edwards plays with the AABA form to craft a song about the longing of a woman who is sending her man (the “Denim King”) off to work. I’ve always grafted my own experiences onto the narrative, imagining this to be the song of a woman who is sending her lover off to work the rigs, a common livelihood for able-bodied men in oil-rich Alberta, where I was raised. Every word of this lyric feels truthful, with an honesty of voice that I attribute to the delicacy of the phrases (both musical and text) and the lack of rhyme, an element that often feels emotionally contrived.

Even when Edwards does rhyme, as in her lyric “Scared at Night,” she often uses imperfect rhyming (a pop music staple) to hit the listener’s ear, but to not draw more attention to a particular moment than what is valuable and sincere.

fromScared at Night
By Kathleen Edwards

As a young man you were shooting rats
By accident you hit the farmyard cat
He ran for the fields and
Came back the next day
You had blown out his eye
And you could see his brain
Your dad said “Boy, there are some things in life
You don’t want to do but you know is right
So take him out back and finish him off”
You got your gun off the shelf
It only took one shot

To be certain, that verse encapsulates many a farmboy’s experience. I had the recent opportunity to embark on a new collaboration, with composer Jude Vaclavik, which yielded the song “Brother” for a concert presented by The Coterie. In this lyric I was able to wrestle with episodes from my childhood both real and imagined, creating my own idea of what it means to be, in this case, sixteen years old.

Brother” by Royce Vavrek (composer, Jude Vaclavik; soprano, Mimi Watkins)


When I was sixteen,
You got caught stealing
Video game consoles
From Costco.
And you had girlfriends.
Loser girlfriends.

When I was sixteen
You drove your pick-up
Into a reservoir.
With a girlfriend.
A loser girlfriend.

When I was sixteen,
You broke your wrist
Punching D.J. Wallace
Who stole your girlfriend.
But she came back.
The very next day.
A Loser.

When I was sixteen,
You didn’t like me much.
I almost killed you
Five too many times.
And you had girlfriends.
Loser girlfriends.
You liked more.

Royce Vavrek is an Alberta-born, Brooklyn-based librettist and lyricist known for his standing as “a favorite collaborator of the postclassical set” (Time Out New York) and as “an exemplary creator of operatic prose” (The New York Times). His work has been called “sharp, crisp, witty” (See magazine), “taut” (The New Yorker), “meticulous” (Operavore,WQXR Radio), “full-throated” (Culture POP), “dramatically wild” and “exhilarating” (The New York Times). Collaborations with David T. Little include Am I Born for the Brooklyn Philharmonic and Brooklyn Youth Chorus; Vinkensport, or The Finch Opera for Bard Conservatory; Last Nightfall for the 21c Liederabend, Op. 2; and archaeology, commissioned and recorded for the OPERA America Songbook. They are currently commissioned by Fort Worth Opera and American Lyric Theater to create an opera exploring John F. Kennedy’s final hours, to be premiered in 2016.

His collaboration with composer Missy Mazzoli yielded the opera Song from the Uproar [follow link for The OS’s piece on SFTU] which was presented at The Kitchen in 2012, in a production about which The New York Times said, “you felt the joy, risk and limitless potential of free spirits unbound.” They are currently developing an opera based on Lars von Trier’s film Breaking the Waves, having premiered the first aria at the 21c Liederabend, Op. 3 as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival. Recent and upcoming projects include 27 with Ricky Ian Gordon for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Angel’s Bone with Du Yun for the PROTOTYPE Festival, Midwestern Gothic with Josh Schmidt for Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, and The Wild Beast of the Bungalow with Rachel Peters to be developed through the Center for Contemporary Opera. He is co-artistic director of The Coterie, an opera-theater company founded with soprano Lauren Worsham. He holds a B.F.A. in filmmaking and creative writing from Concordia University in Montreal and an M.F.A. in musical theater writing from NYU. He is an alumus of American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program.

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