Joshua Schmidt: Creating a "work" and "a life worth living"

by Victoria Aschheim

In anticipation of his workshop at the New College Theatre on Tuesday, March 23 at 3pm, composer Joshua Schmidt answered questions about musical influences, past and future projects, and how to define - and resist defining! - his versatile, creative roles within the theater. Schmidt will also speak to Professor Carol J. Oja's class, Literature and Arts B-85: American Musicals and American Culture, on Tuesday, March 23 at noon in Harvard Hall 201. FMI: http://ofa.fas.harvard.edu/lfp/details.php?ID=40973

Variety points out that your score is the central attraction of The Adding Machine, appealing to "an intellectual audience."

Adding Machine is meant for everyone and anyone - Jason and I had no specified intention of writing it for one specific audience. Elmer Rice's play (from which it is adapted) is a text rich in complex ideas and engaging subject matter - all elements that demand much from an audience. But I believe the themes at play here in Adding Machine touch each and every one of us on some level or another.

With only two pianos and percussion, you set the tone for the whole production. What was your inspiration for such a small ensemble?

In the original 2007 production at Next Theatre in Evanston, Illinois, we had less than a 5x12 foot space in which to fit the musicians, and they needed to make enough sound to fight through a curtain and a wall with very little sound reinforcement. Piano, synth and percussion seemed to fit the bill just fine. We lived within our limitations. Practicality and expense ruled the day on that decision.

Did Kurt Weill inspire you with his advocacy of the small ensemble?

Not specifically - Stravinsky's Les Noces, writings from the Italian Futurist movement writings and music in particular, as well as a good health dose of eight years slumming around in garage bands informed this choice, at least initially. Weill is certainly a composer I know well, having performed a reduction of the score of his ballet The Seven Deadly Sins when I was in college, and I am not distancing myself from his influence. More specifically, Adding Machine reflects the sum total of almost everything I experienced in life, music and in the theater from my late teens up to when I turned 30, when the show was first finished and premiered.

Weill's Street Scene gives the historical background for Adding Machine.

To be accurate, Street Scene was originally a play written Elmer Rice in 1929 (six years after The Adding Machine), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. Whereas The Adding Machine is very clearly a cautionary tale on many fronts told through the distorted lens of expressionism; Street Scene is an unflinching portrait of living in a densely populated urban environment scene through naturalistic eyes. While Rice is clearly attempting (among other things) to capture the plight and the spirit of the disenfranchised American city dweller, the conventions used in each of these plays could not be more different.

Did you have a commentary on economics in mind? Was capitalism being critiqued in your mental picture as you composed?

I guess with this piece it is unavoidable NOT to talk about economics or politics. One can argue that Rice certainly had a beef with capitalism, and may have very well been advocating for wide-ranging social change within the body of this work. Rice wrote his play a full six years prior to the stock market collapse and the Great Depression. Socialism/Marxism had been in the air for decades, and Rice certainly expresses leftist ideals in his writing.

As this musical was being proposed the bottom had not yet dropped out of the market, but I did not see any direct reflection of that myself in my bank account. In fact, the crash of 2008 happened mere months after the show closed in New York.

What we believe is the main philosophic departure from the original to our musical lies in the culpability of Zero in his actions. If we adopt Rice's point of view, Zero has absolutely no shot at success because the system has him (and logically, everyone else) pinned down to the role of a functioning drone - a cog in the wheel. We believe that Zero is part of a system but is given (as we all are) a number of opportunities to take a risk and capitalize off these ventures, yet retreats consciously back to the security of his (albeit unpleasant) surroundings and his function within society. Whether he possesses the ability psychologically, intellectually, sexually or emotionally to assume those risks is a valid question, yet that does not mean these opportunities for advancement are not present, nor do I personally think it means the entire fabric of society as we see it should be erased because a certain percentage of the population can't hack it.

What is even a more pressing issue is what you do with this percentage, especially considering the rate at which technology advances and more and more folks become disenfranchised. In a capitalist system, these people literally become a drag on the economic engine that needs more and more fuel to output enough product to survive. Yet under a socialist model one cannot conclude things will get even better.

I believe Adding Machine to be much more a romantic comedy - a very, very dark romantic comedy to be sure - that explores one very simple question: What is a life worth living?

You have adopted the description "sound designer." How does this correlate with being a composer? Is this a new definition you prefer to the traditional term composer?

As with many composers I have a day job separate from being a composer. That day job is sound design for theater and dance (primarily). A sound designer means many things to different people in different locations, but in my case I design and implement audio systems for playback and live reinforcement in theater specific to a given production, then either procure, record or engineer sound effects and music (original or found) for that production.

As a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee I was never satisfied simply with the two or three new music concerts each semester (in addition to all the other required music performance obligations I had to fulfill). So I went out into the community and worked at theater and opera companies like Skylight Opera, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, and Bialystock and Bloom. In these and other venues I found a practical outlet for my interests in music, electronics and literature. Over time these interests have blossomed into a full-blown career. Most of my yearly income and all my health insurance benefits for my wife and me come from my freelance sound design career, which keeps me on the road quite often.

On frequent occasions I am asked to compose incidental music for a production, but the paradigm is quite different than when you write your own show. When you are a composer/sound designer everything you create must support the vision of the director and the play they are directing. When you write your own show, a director and a design team serve that in which you create. I am grateful that in my career I have been able to experience work in the theater in a subordinate position as it has informed my notions of what a good collaborator can be. This becomes critical when the shoe is on the other foot - as an author your work will always improve when you learn to listen and allow other people's comments and observation help deepen what you do.

Adding Machine is described as new music chamber opera. Will this genre emerge as your specialty?

There are those who wish to call it that. I am not a fan of genre delineation of any sort.

I hope and pray I am able to write enough stuff during my life in different mediums to actively confuse and frustrate all who wish to try and pin me down into any one active genre definition.

What do you see in opera's future?

The word "opera" is derived from a Latin word meaning "work" or "a work" or "a piece." Early Western opera (we are talking Peri here - very early) consisted of dance, music, singing, dramatic performance, spectacle, as well as fusions and hybrids of all these things in different combinations. Over the years cohesive forms have emerged only to be challenged as quickly as they became codified. Splinters have become genres of their own. Certainly geography has played a part in this. But in the end the goal is to create a "work." That can mean anything. I am comfortable with the ambiguity. I am as comfortable with my knowledge and respect of the existing forms as I am with the idea that I can choose not to follow any of them. In the end, I always find myself coming back to my conception of the pre-existing form only to hear someone else say I am doing something experimental. Since I have not yet been involved in developing an original libretto free from the designation of "adaptation," I can only conclude that if a composer makes every attempt to understand simply what the material sitting in front of them means on as many levels as possible and compose off that (the ultra-conservative approach one might say), you will probably end up writing something pretty interesting as well as something you never thought you could write before. That sounds like a good enough future to hope for, right? For all of us.

Does the darkness of Adding Machine, based on the 1923 Elmer Rice play, reflect the spirit of our contemporary times?

Someone once told me depressions and recessions are just periods of time when those who "have" get in touch with the already established routine of those who "have-not." In that case, Adding Machine is a period piece reflecting a situation that is in a sense a timeless dilemma.

What future projects you will be creating?

Upcoming: A Minister's Wife - book by Austin Pendleton, lyrics by Jan Tranen, music by Josh Schmidt. Directed by Michael Halberstam. The world premiere of this piece took place in the summer of 2009, enjoying an award winning three-month run in Glencoe, Illinois. Stay tuned for further developments.

Also, in the immediate future - Whida Peru: Resurrection Tangle - libretto by David Simpatico, music by Josh Schmidt. This is a world premiere monologue in music that will be part of a double bill event titled Inner Voices at 59E59, opening April 2, 2010. Judith Blazer will sing the role of Whida Peru, and Andy Boroson (Harvard alumnus) will play the piano.