Pooch (the musical)

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Thursday, May 7th, 2009 2:13 PM EDT


"Thanks to an NEA grant, I started work on the opera by spending six weeks in Salem, Massachusetts, where the actual House of Seven Gables stands. It's now a museum. I learned that the house contains a bedroom (off-limits to museum-goers), which on rare occasions is made available to scholars for overnight use. Thanks to the site's administrator, I was allowed to sleep over at the House of the Seven Gables. Alone. (I think.) So, on an appropriately blustery evening, I arrived at the House with my toothbrush and pajamas. I wandered freely for one hour, after which time the alarms were turned on, leaving me confined to the bedroom and grounds.
And what happened? I'd love to say I saw a ghost. More helpfully, perhaps, I caught a glimpse of Hawthorne's world. A few excerpts from my notebook that night:
"shadows stream from their sources like manes of hair in the wind, like flames streaming from a burning log..."

"creaks - (some very loud) snap crackle pop at odd times, like a stray fire-cracker going off in the distance..."

"the beautiful parlor, red and gold, warm... also, the whiff of too-fragrant, slightly rotted sickly sweet flowers..."

"dead moth in the window in Clifford's room..."

A terrifying experience did occur the next morning. As I sat on the bed tying my shoes, I heard heavy footsteps coming up the stairs. Slowly but purposefully they drew to my door. A hand grasped the knob, turned it, and... The security guard yelped when he saw me. He hadn't been told I was there.
In Hawthorne's story, the house itself is almost a character. Gazing at its walls, I felt a sense of falling... of dust settling, of time passing. Attempting to capture this, I composed the progression of seven chords which opens Act One (slow, descending whole notes). This progression, often varied, underpins key moments in the opera. The fact that there are seven chords is deliberate. I liked the idea of 'sevenness' as a structural element. By no means does every motive comprise seven notes, but several important ones do, for example the curse hurled on the Pyncheon family: 'GOD WILL GIVE YOU BLOOD TO DRINK!' Here I must thank Nathaniel Hawthorne for providing seven syllables.
One more memory from the 'sleepover': Below my room was an office, which like the bedroom was off-limits to the museum tour. It's where the site staff worked, so modern office equipment lay incongruously among 17th century furniture. Early in the morning, an office phone rang. 'Bizarre,' I thought; 'who would call the House of Seven Gables at 3 a.m.?' Later I told a friend. He thought a moment and said, 'You should have answered. It might have been Nate.'"