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Writing the Cannabis Cantata by jox66113


									                         Writing the Cannabis Cantata

        In this paper I will cover the influences and processes that went into

composing the Cannabis Cantata inspired, in part, by J.S. Bach’s Coffee Cantata

BWV 211. I will give a brief overview of the variety of musical styles and their

function in Cannabis Cantata and reveal musical and dramatic sources of quotation

in order to show how I borrowed, juxtaposed, combined, and melded musical styles

and ideas to project distinctions in character and to paint corresponding interactions

between characters. I will end with a discussion of my compositional goals.


        Johann Sebastian Bach composed Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht ("Be still,

stop chattering", also known as The Coffee Cantata BWV 211) between 1732 and

1734 as a collaboration with friend, colleague, and poet Christian Friedrich Picander,

who wrote most of the libretto. The piece was performed by the Collegium Musicum,

directed by Bach at the time, at their regular gig at Zimmerman’s Coffee House. It is

possible but not certain that Bach, himself a coffee drinker, wrote this satirical piece

in response to German authorities’ attitudes towards coffee houses and their patrons.

Coffee houses had suffered blows to their reputation in Germany, especially in

Leipzig. In a January 1697 meeting, the city’s council ordered council members and

local authorities to visit coffee houses; these visits resulted in the arrest and

punishment of numerous “rabble” and “coffee trollops” (“Caffee-Menscher”)1. In

1716, Leipzig authorities passed an ordinance forbidding the presence of gambling

and women in coffee houses and limiting the shops’ hours of operation. Coffee shops

made an effort to fall in line, but still their reputations were consistently maligned by

officials and moral experts. The coffee dispute was amusing from an historical

perspective and mirrors certain modern prohibitions. While students and literati

composed many odes to the bean’s graces, officials degraded and taxed coffee,

practically outlawing it by 1766.

        The Coffee Cantata opens with Schlendrian complaining about his daughter’s

coffee habits. Lieschen comes in singing of coffee’s wonders. Schlendrian tries to

curb Lieschen’s coffee intake by denying her certain privileges, but Lieschen would

gladly give these up to stay on the java. Her father gains the upper hand when he

offers to sign a marriage contract, but she outwits him in the end when she includes a

clause in the contract that her husband must allow her to drink coffee whenever she

wishes. The final trio of the Cantata includes the lyrics, written by Bach himself,

        …Women will hold to their coffee // Mother likes coffee // So does
        Grandmother // Who, in the end, would berate the daughters!

        (…Die Jungfern bleiben Coffeeschwestern. // Die Mutter liebt den
        Coffeebrauch // Die Großmama trank solchen auch // Wer will nun auf die
        Töchter lästern!)2

 Carol K Baron, University of Rochester Press, Rochester, NY 14620, USA, Bach’s Changing
World, pp 190-218 Katherine R. Goodman, From Salon to Kaffeekranz: Gender Wars and the Coffee
Cantata in Bach’s Leipzig, pp 204.
 Johann Sebastian Bach, Edited by Herausgegeben von Arnold Schering, Ernst Eulenburg Ltd, New
York, Cantata: Be silent, not a word, “Cofee Cantata”, BWV21, pp XII


       After several efforts to convince friends to write a Cannabis Cantata libretto,

I decided to write one myself. I was clear that I did not want to write a political piece

concerning the validity of marijuana laws (though politics turned out to be too

difficult to avoid entirely), but rather a comic examination of some of the experience

and attitudes around marijuana use, much like Bach’s satire of a father berating his

daughter for drinking too much coffee. In my process, I held a skewed mirror up to

Picander’s story, taking elements directly and reversing them in order to adapt the

plot to a modern context.

       I was clear early on that I wanted to assemble a more nuanced and intricate

plot than had Picander and Bach. The idea of writing a satire of a satire struck me as

a weak concept at best, and I knew that I had to create something more compelling in

order for the work to stand on its own. My mirroring of the plot of BWV211 breaks

down in the argument between Lisa and Stephen. While I intended the first two arias

to be comical reviews of each character’s stance on the subject of marijuana, I

wanted their ensuing conversation to build gradually and realistically to several

angry peaks and to introduce the eventual deal, the crux of the plot, to come logically

from the characters as they had been developed up to that point. In reflecting on the

material I had generated and looking ahead to the material to come, I concluded that

my two characters had developed deeper motivations than I could have previously

imagined: they needed to connect with one another. Their connection became the

focal point of the final scene.

           In the process of modernizing Picander and Bach’s plot, I reversed the roles

of the two main characters. Stephen, the father, plays the role of the pot addict in the

Cannabis Cantata while Lieschen, the Daughter in BWV211, plays the role of the

caffeine addict. Several of Stephen’s lines are direct quotes of Lieschen’s and several

of Lisa’s lines are direct quotes of Schlendrian. Later, I will show how I represented

this relationship musicially. Like Lieschen, Stephen is motivated by love. Lieschen

acquiesces to quitting coffee when Schlendrian agrees to sign a marriage contract so

that she can get married. Stephen is, conversely, tempted away from his agreement

with his daughter to quit pot by his love interest, Mary.

           The narrator in Bach’s Cantata joins the main characters in a trio at the end of

his piece. Curley’s first lines greatly resemble Bach’s Narrator’s first lines :

           Curley: “People, come on and lend me your ears // relax, sit back and just
           release your fears. // For Lisa will make a mighty fuss // about her Father
           Stephen then have much to discuss.”

           Bach’s Narrator: “Be quiet, stop chattering, and pay attention to what's taking
           place: here comes Herr Schlendrian with his daughter Lieschen; he's
           growling like a honey bear. Hear for yourselves, what she has done to him!”

           (“Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht Und höret, was itzund geschicht: Da kömmt
           Herr Schlendrian Mit seiner Tochter Liesgen her, Er brummt ja wie ein
           Zeidelbär; Hört selber, was sie ihm getan!”)3

    Ibid. VII

Curley’s functions as the narrator for the majority of the piece until he, in imitation

of how Picander’s narrator joins the final trio at the end of BWV211, joins in final

scene as an interactive character.

       Finishing the dialogue, along with some of the music, for the entire first

scene was a milestone for this project. I had finished my quotation of the Coffee

Cantata (the plot of which ends with the deal between Lieschen and Schlendrian)

and, with the exception of the very ending, could see clearly the remainder of my

narrativewith the exception of the very ending. The ending itself proved difficult

and, after considering at least four possible endings, I settled on one that resembles,

in part, the ending of BWV 211. Where Bach’s characters join together to sing

“Women will hold to their coffee // Mother likes coffee // So does Grandmother //

Who, in the end, would berate the daughters!”, my characters kick off the epilogue

with “Cops do it, Lawyers do it, even politicians…do it // so why can’t we do it

without breaking the law?”

                                  Musical Influences

       The idea to write an opera in the jazz idiom came separately form the idea to

write a Cannabis Cantata. My colleague Mathew Hall and I discussed the possibility

of a jazz opera with bebop recitative and arias that resembled jazz standards. The

parallel between figured bass notation and jazz chord notation helped the two ideas

to merge in my imagination.

       In writing the Cannabis Cantata, I did not limit myself to the be-bop genre.

Considering the cultural context of jazz today and the many musics that have sprung

from the jazz style, I consciously incorporated influences from multiple jazz-derived

sources, including Frank Zappa, Charles Mingus, the Beatles, Bill Evans, Dub

Reggae, Phish, and others. By juxtaposing styles and musical ideas, I hoped

maximize the expressivity and accessibility of the piece reflecting culturally broad

influences. I am a big fan of the vocalists John Hendricks, Bobby McFerrin, and Kurt

Elling and consider them to be masters of jazz vocalization. Specifically, the

vocalese performance of Hendricks and Elling are deeply inspirational to me, both

musically and poetically. Their music gave me ideas of what was possible in the

combination of words with jazz melodies and informed much of my vocal writing in

the Cannabis Cantata.

        My first instinct in writing the Cannabis Cantata was to yield a healthy

amount of musical influence from BWV 211; I sketched out motives and chord

progressions from the first two arias. After writing Lisa’s first aria and noting that I

had retained only one musical idea from the Coffee Cantata, I decided that the music

of the Cannabis Cantata should draw, instead, from the pool of jazz and jazz

derivative music that has influenced me.

        Though few specific musical phrases made it from the Coffee Cantata to the

Cannabis Cantata, the initial form of BWV211– Narrator Recitative, Aria, Duet

Recitative, Aria – informs not only the first scene of the Cannabis Cantata, but

works as a basis for the entire first act. I also retained the relationship of meters

between the two main characters: Lisa sings generally in four, like Schlendrian,

except when she wants to mock her father, when she sings a slow three (this happens

for the first time mm 43), and Stephen sings generally in three, mirroring the triple

meter of Lieschen’s first aria. I explore this metric interchange extensively

throughout the first act. During their duet, beginning in mm 408, this is expressed

with a meter change every few bars where Lisa’a music is set in four and Stephen’s

is set in three. As their conversation melds together, the band continues in quadruple

meter (mm 463), but the individual melodies overlap and influence each other; since

Stephen maintains a triple meter phrasing over the four, Lisa’s musical phrases

sometimes compensates by starting in odd places in the bar.

Figure 1, Stephen and Lisa’s Duet mm 474-483

Stephen returns to a triple meter for emphasis several times through this duet, as in

mm 532.

Figure 2, Stephen and Lisa’s Duet mm 528-540

My intention with this metric juxtaposition was to give each character a strong and

recognizable musical style and language, and to provide myself with a broader

musical palette than just melodic lines and chord progressions with which to set their


        Within Lisa’s first Aria, there are abrupt shifts in style and tempo, meant to

show her character from different perspectives. My intent with Lisa’s material, while

much less personal and tender, was not unlike Charles Mingus’ effort in his

composition Sue’s Changes to expresses the mood swings of his wife – “’That’s Sue.

It’s about how changeable her moods are’.”4

 Charles Mingus, Jazz Workshop, Suite 43-S, Manhattan Plaza, 484 West 43rd Street, New York, NY
10036, Charles Mingus: More Than a Fake Book

Figure 3, beginning of Lisa’s first Aria

Lisa’s melodies are often quick with bebop influence – she is a fast thinker and an

aggressive speaker, who worked hard in order to be good at organizing lots of ideas.

She sings in a slower three when she is really mocking her father. She accelerates as

her stress level rises and builds to a breakdown in which she sings

uncharacteristically slow about her troubles. The song for her lament in bar 1152 is a

repeat of Stephen’s lament in bar 745. This tune is a conceptual combination of the

lament bass motive, as found in Dido’s Lament from Dido and Anaeas by Purcell,

and Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”. In “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”, Mingus

presents a melody consisting mostly of notes found in the Eb ‘blues scale’ – Eb, Gb,

Ab, A, Bb, Db, D, Eb – but which correspond in unexpected ways with the intricate

harmony – the fourth note of the scale corresponds with the 13th of the second chord

in just the first bar. Similarly, I presented an intricate harmonic progression which

voices the bass line and the simple melody in non-intuitive ways. When Stephen

sings this tune, I anticipated it would come across as a little comical, but when Lisa

drops to this low point, I intended for a serious view of someone who is unhappy

despite her success.

         Stephen’s lines needed to contrast drastically with Lisa’s. I intuited His

melodies based on my experience of listening to and performing blues and minor

blues in the jazz idiom. He lays out clear melodies and blues riffs over a shifting

kaleidoscope of chord changes, afloat above the troubles of the world. His music

tends to decelerate for emphasis, as it does metrically for the first time in bar 186,

Figure 4, Stephen’s Style A.

and when he sings a more traditional 12/8, I IV V blues in bar 272.

Figure 5, Stephen’s Style B.

Since many of his lines are essentially blues-and-gospel-influenced, I decided to set

some of his more exclamatory words in a nearly straight-forward 12 bar blues. When

he starts to influence Lisa to agree to his deal, they both sing in a similar blues

setting. Setting his words mostly to triple meter also led me to base one of his songs

(bar 815), beginning “I’m up so early”, harmonically and melodically on the

composition “Very Early” by Bill Evans.

         The two minor characters, Curley and Mary, each have very distinct stylistic

settings. Curley as narrator and spreader of Rastafari, Marijuana, and generally good

vibes, sings with little exception in a dub reggae style characterized by a triplet feel

in the hi-hat, an emphasis on the 3rd beat of every measure in the drums and in the

bass de-emphasizing beat 1, the guitar provides a triplet-swung “skank” on 2 and 4 –

I owe all of my knowledge of this genre of music to my experience performing with

the band “Soul Majestic”.

         The combination, adaptation, and interpolation of distinct musical styles

produced not only what are, for me, the most interesting musical moments in the

Cannabis Cantata, but an audible representation of the interactions between

characters. The character Mary is based on several female characters from popular

music: Patricia Kennealy, the rock journalist and witch who seduced Jim Morrison

into experiencing mystical erotic love with her as depicted in the movie “The Doors”

(and presumably in real life), the unnamed “girl” from John Lennon’s Norwegian

Wood, and the “magic momma” from Frank Zappa’s Camarillo Brillo. Each of these

women seem to have a mystical power over their male counterparts who each

experience a kind of delirium. Mary’s offer of a mystical under-the-influence erotic

encounter greatly entices Stephen, and nearly convinces him to break his word to his

daughter. Stephen’s false description of his date to Curley in scene 4 contains direct

quotations of Camarillo Brillo concerning the possessions and characteristics of the

women described. The music that introduces Stephen and Mary’s date, bar 1187, is a

variation and re-harmonization of John Lennon’s Norwegian Wood. Mary, has a

seeming magical power over Stephen, needed to stand out from the rest of the

characters. When she is calm and amorous, she sings in a traditional classical style

with lieder-influenced piano accompaniment.

Figures 6-8, Mary’s Style

When she is angry, her music becomes jagged and atonal:

When she is declamatory, her melodies resemble plainchant.

Culturally, Mary is steeped in the “New Age” spiritual community. Stephen is a self-

confident ex-business owning stoner artist. I intended the dialogue and musical

interactions between her and Stephen show nuances in how they relate to one another

based on their character and cultural backgrounds. Mary’s scene with Stephen was

one of the most interesting and challenging to compose because of the problem of

combining two distinct musical worlds – one with straight eighths and one with

swing eighths. As their characters interact, their styles intermingle. When a conflict

develops, their styles become more distinct and seem to be at odds with each other.

Figure 9, Date Scene mm 1432-1446

Notice in Figure 9 how their two styles exist simultaneously connected loosely by

harmonic progression. Beginning in mm 1438, the guitar, drum kit, and brass

instruments accompany and imitate Stephen with a swing feel while the piano and

woodwinds (here, saxes double on flute and clarinet) accompany and echo Mary

with a straight eighths feel. The guitar chords are extrapolated from the piano

arpeggios but are metrically offset from the piano’s three beat phrasing. I composed

this scene before much of the material that came before it, and so my solutions to this

problem influenced my working of the duets between Lisa and Stephen. When they

share the stage, Lisa is often accompanied and doubled by the Guitar while Stephen

is often accompanied and doubled by the piano or electric organ. Since they are

familiar with each other more than Stephen and Mary are with each other, their

musical interactions are more fluid. For example, the conversation between Stephen

and Lisa beginning in bar 408 starts with them still in their distinct musical worlds,

but as they sing back and forth and as their lines begin to overlap in 459, their

musical styles adapt to each other. They start to mimic each other melodically, even

though they are talking about completely different things. When they finally begin

listening to each other in bar 504, their music becomes more closely related and

flows together as a series of related melodic lines. Figure 10 illustrates this


Figure 10, Lisa and Stephen Duet mm 490-517

        I believe I took the greatest risk in my setting of the final scene (page 80-94).

Allowing the performers and players to improvise music and words seemed risky to

me in the context of an otherwise highly specified piece. It was important to me that

this scene set itself apart from the rest of the opera both in its spontaneity and in its

aural ambience. I gave explicit instructions for improvisation to my instrumentalists

with sketches of musical ideas, specific styles and chords to work with, who or what

to respond to, and considerations for dynamics and density of sound. I gave verbose

explanations of each character’s disposition and actions as well as examples of

dialogue, guidelines for interaction with the environment and other characters on

stage, suggestions of material to prepare before a live performance, and even an

entire monologue. I knew the scene couldn’t be fully grasped by the performers until

it had been rehearsed and discussed with the cast and musicians; after several run-

throughs, I made several significant alterations to the scene, but kept the majority of

the material.

       The Cannabis Cantata was a project of significant proportion for me. It is the

simultaneous realization of many of my ongoing creative goals, not the least of

which is to portray effectively not just the culture of altered states but the experience

of them in a musical and dramatic setting. It is also a tribute to the tradition of jazz

and jazz derivative artists. That said, I do not consider a work that should be

restricted to the label of the jazz idiom. It is a challenging work that operates within a

broad musical spectrum. I hope it will be perceived as such.


Carol K Baron, University of Rochester Press, Rochester, NY 14620, USA, Bach’s
Changing World, pp 190-218 Katherine R. Goodman, From Salon to Kaffeekranz:
Gender Wars and the Coffee Cantata in Bach’s Leipzig.

Johann Sebastian Bach, Edited by Herausgegeben von Arnold Schering, Ernst
Eulenburg Ltd, New York, Cantata: Be silent, not a word, “Cofee Cantata”,

Charles Mingus, Jazz Workshop, Suite 43-S, Manhattan Plaza, 484 West 43rd Street,
New York, NY 10036, Charles Mingus: More Than a Fake Book


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