This is part [part not set] of 12 in the series 26 Songs

This is a post where I discuss the story behind the number Revolver from the show I’m currently working on. You can skip the reflection and go straight to where I talk about the show, the background on this number, watch a video of me talking about the piece, or jump straight to the audio recording, score or program notes.

Change is hard. Reinvention is harder.

You might ask, “aren’t change and reinvention basically the same thing?” Once I would have nodded and said, “yep, to-may-to, to-MA-to, it’s all the same thing.” But now that I’ve been working on this show for just over a year now, I think there’s a very important distinction.

Change is merely an alteration of the status quo. It can come from anywhere but most often, it’s external.

Reinvention involves a brutally honest self assessment of the status quo against your purpose and a redefining your identity as a result. It comes from within.

And when I talk about reinvention, I don’t just mean the annual round of New Year resolutions which are swiftly made and even more swiftly broken, a Hollywood style makeover or changing your mind (that’s just indecision). I’m talking about those moments when you examine your soul and acknowledge in the very core of your being the truth that who you have been is not who you want to be and you irrevocably commit to become a different person.

One of my guilty pleasures in high school (who am I kidding, I still like to re-read these once in a while when I don’t want to think too much) was reading the Ancient Future trilogy by Traci Harding. The series is based on all those lovely new age feel good karmic notions of willing things into the ether of the cosmos and creating your own reality through the sheer power of imagination. Of course at the time when I first read it, I had to lean heavily upon my ability to suspend disbelief because of my natural inclination to deride it all as hippie claptrap. Now that I’m older, I see things differently.

Reinvention generally requires all sorts of upheaval – and loss – of things that you’ve become accustomed to. Thanks to our natural human tendency towards loss avoidance, it’s easier to construct barriers in your mind to avoid that loss and walk away from the need for reinvention. Or, put another way, it’s easier to think of reinvention as the taking away of things you already have and therefore can easily envision, in exchange for the promise of other things that you don’t yet have and can only envision (if at all). When you can’t imagine something, you can’t believe in it; and when you can’t believe in something, there is no reason to pursue it.

[Side note: what we’re discussing here is the ability to picture alternatives, not the ability to engage in self delusion. Delusion helps no one. Just because you say something is true or want something to be true, doesn’t make it so, even if you persist in saying it very loudly over and over again.]

Of course, belief on its own doesn’t result in reinvention. That requires action. There are plenty of pithy quotes which discuss how knowledge without action (or idea without execution, et al) is useless. But I will argue that having belief, or at least the beginnings of belief, in the first place makes taking action possible. And then, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and all that jazz. However, it’s better if you make that first step all about a keystone habit.

It has taken me a long time to work through all my fears and denials, but five years ago, I made the decision to reinvent myself as a Broadway composer. It was hard and I felt like a fraud. I did small and unimportant things to try and take my mind off that feeling, like getting distracted and printing shiny business cards that would say “Deborah Lau, pianist/vocalist/composer” on them all the while feeling too ashamed to talk about this in public. Whenever I met someone new and got the inevitable “so, what do you do?” question, I would open my mouth and fall back upon the old standby: “I’m an auditor at a Big 4 accounting firm.

These days, that reluctance is gone. Unless I am at my day job, I have no hesitation in introducing myself to people as a composer. Even at my day job, I finally feel secure enough to be upfront about the fact that I am a composer, and why yes, I do need to leave early this week or be out of town on Friday because I have a reading/performance, and to not feel like I’ve just confessed to the cardinal sin of having a life outside of work that will forever limit my ability to climb further up the promotion ladder.

When I reflect on how far I have come on this journey, I notice that the keystone habit at the root of my reinvention is my decision to join the Composers Collective. Even more than the acceptance to Juilliard, the group gave me acceptance into a community with other composers, appointed me to the executive committee, forced me to actually sit down and write things to be performed instead of having them languish in the limbo of my drawer and brought me recognition as a composer from real audiences.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I’ve stopped working at said Big 4 accounting firm, or that my main source of income is from composing. I’ve just finally been able to unchain my identity and sense of self from my job. My parents brought me up with the belief that everyone was born with a talent; and your purpose in life is to make the best use of that talent, lest it go to waste. My talent is composition and I am a composer. I am, in fact, quite proud to be listed as a Featured Composer in the 2015 Composers Now Festival, right underneath Dalit Warshaw, one of the guest speakers from our Fall 2014 season!


Featured Composers of the Composers Now 2015 Festival.

Here is the video:

— Me, speaking on the inspiration behind Revolver

And to wrap up all my introspection, here is a great TED Talk on how personal identity changes over time:

So onto the show. It might interest you to know that the number I was originally going to write for the Winter Showcase was not this piece, but instead a song originally titled Mr and Mr which is a duet for Marco and Alex. Mr and Mr has gone through about a dozen revisions, from an pensive lonely solo for Marco, to a romantic love ballad between Marco and Alex with a lazy Sunday morning feel to its current incarnation as a lovers’ argument between Marco and Alex. Right now, there are TWO versions of music for this song and I like to call it I Have Waited (And Waited) but Sarah is going for These Last Five Years which is too close to Jason Robert Brown‘s The Last Five Years. And despite our best attempts, we couldn’t get the song ready. I actually tried to score it multiple times but it never felt quite right. In the end, a couple of days before Christmas, I threw in the towel and decided to write a pure instrumental piece, better suited to two violas, but which in the show would be performed by our cellist, Mina.

Although she sings at the start of the show about her dreams of playing at Carnegie Hall, throughout all of Act I, Mina is not really seen doing much in terms of her career apart from one short moment where she’s seen busking on the street. This is mainly because there’s nothing dramatically compelling about seeing a character go for audition after audition and fail repeatedly and then have to listen to them sing about how miserable it is.

I have forgotten who said this or where I read it (I have a sneaking suspicion it was Lehman Engel since that has been the most recent thing I’ve read), but audiences do not like characters who wallow self-pity unless it’s meant to be comic (author then goes on to cite the examples of Fantine’s On My Own versus Adelaide with Adelaide’s Lament and Annie’s Tomorrow).

At any rate, Act II (from our first version of the storyboard) was supposed to open with all four protagonists doing said wallowing and making snide remarks about how their own misery is worse than the others, in an a cappella round that is meant to parallel the opening of the show. After pondering the thoughtful analyses by those older and wiser than us last August, we decided to cut the song. While I am rather attached to elements of that scene (specifically what each character’s drink is: Kim – scotch on the rocks; Mina – cosmopolitan; Marco – Malbec red wine; Neel – Coke, because he’s too young to legally drink) I find that I do agree that drowning your sorrows is only fun when you are the one doing the drowning; when you’re the one watching the drowning, the scene degenerates pretty quickly from mildly humorous to ridiculous.

Instead, we decided to open Act II with some sort of public performance by Mina. When we were writing Moment, we had already known that for Mina to be a credible character, at some point, the audience would have to see her play (boy, I am not looking forward to casting…we’re going to need an actress who can at least convincingly mime cello playing correct…even if we have a pit double). The end of Act II was far too late for this but it would be a great way to open Act II.

As with everything in musicals, this by itself wasn’t a good enough reason. We needed to have a dramatic reason to show Mina performing onstage. A large part of her character arc is struggling with what day to day existence is like for an artist who hasn’t yet “made it”; from dealing with people who constantly ask her things like “when are you going to get a real job?” and having to scrap by by whatever means she can, like busking on the streets, teaching and living in her parents’ basement.

Cue Revolver.

Something that has stuck in my mind for a long time, is the story of 2Cellos and how these two super talented classically trained cellists have carved out a brilliant career in making pop/rock covers. The music video for their cover of Thunderstruck was really stunning in particular:

— 2Cellos perform their cover of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck

They are not alone; many artists are revolving in order to survive in the new economy. From the classical crossover quartet, Bond:

Bond performs Explosive

To the pop/classical mashups of The Piano Guys:

The Piano Guys perform a mashup of David Guetta’s Titanium and Faure’s Pavane

You get the picture. With the changing landscape of the future of classical music (I don’t want to jinx it by calling it a decline) and the general economic challenges being faced by the performing arts, it’s change and survive or die.

The name of the piece is inspired in part by a very courageous artist, Revolva, who wrote a very courageous open letter to Oprah regarding the common practice of asking performers work for “free exposure”, which went viral. I also love the multiple definitions of “revolver” and its close sound to “evolve”.

[Side note: there are some very scary numbers floating around out there about how much it costs to produce a Broadway musical. Just reading through Lehman Engel’s thoughts in Chapter 12 of his book on how much musicals cost kind of freaked me out to the point where last weekend Sarah and I discussed various contingency plans on how we could get our show produced. Not to mention the fact that I’ve been eagerly awaiting the sales of tickets to Bombshell ever since Playbill announced it, and then saw even for something like that with such a fan base that it’s significantly surpassed its Kickstarter goal didn’t even go straight to a theatre…yeah that really makes me worried.]

As I mentioned in my video, one of the main themes is taken from the cello solo in Moment. The scene for this piece is not fully written, but how I pictured it in my head as I was writing this piece was Mina, dressed in black leather and lace, is seated on a platform with her electric cello in the middle of a bare stage which is painted all black. Behind her, wrapping around the sides of the stage, is a large projection screen. The performance is Mina playing (live) a duet with herself (in video) and on looper. This vision was inspired by The Liaisons Project, where Anthony de Mare performed live with himself (in video) Steve Reich’s two piano arrangement of Finishing the Hat.

— Highlights reel from the performances from The Liaisons Project at Symphony Space in 2012, which I attended and actually sat ONE ROW AND SIX SEATS AWAY FROM STEPHEN SONDHEIM and totally fangirled the whole time

My piece was performed by the brilliant Nick Revel and Nora Krohn of Folie à Deux who made my piece sound so good, that I had people walk up to me during intermission and say things like: “Hey, you’re the composer who wrote Revolver, right? That piece is badass!”

That is honestly one of the most enthusiastic compliments I have ever had the pleasure of receiving in person on my music and I will treasure it for the rest of my life. On those days when I despair that I’ll never write anything a tenth as good as Sondheim or any of my other role models, I will remember this and take heart.

For those who want to follow along, here is the score.

Download (PDF, 92KB)

Program Notes

Revolver is the opening number, for electric cello and video, of the second act in a new musical exploring identity, family, and love in this modern age. After years of struggling in obscurity, having been passed over at countless auditions, Mina — a cellist with Carnegie Hall-sized ambitions — decides to make her own career. Her neo-classical pop/rock videos go viral, launching her from her makeshift studio in her parents’ basement to the public stage. Written as variations on two themes, Revolver explores the push/pull dynamics of duo playing.

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