Throughout this interview series I drew your attention to a group of friends and colleagues, Rhymes With Opera (RWO.) Their project, Criminal Intent: a crime opera double bill, has been using the innovative fundraising platform Kickstarter to garner awareness from a wider group of music supporters across the world (literally, they have supporters in Amsterdam. How cool is that?) To finish up the series, I bring you composer, David Smooke, or “Le Smooke” as he is known in the Sybaritic Singer circle. Ruby Fulton, Co-Artistic Director of RWO and composer, sent out a Top 5 Reasons I Belive in RWO Commissionee David Smooke list and I have added it here to give an ample introduction.
5. His toy piano domination.
4. He’s got a list of anagrams of his name on his website. Add movies, ok?
3. Father of Aero, best dog ever.
2. From the Washington Post, “Smooke has some of the most uninhibited braincells around.”
1. Experimental Post-Punk Goth is in his bio.
So without further ado, let’s get to the question and answer portion…
Criminal Element is about “a rogue trader in France who nearly brought down the entire European financial system in 2008.” We’re talking about Jérôme Kerviel, right?
Yes, Jérôme Kerviel was the immediate inspiration for this project. He remains very much in the news, having been sentenced in October, and his sentence is currently under appeal. Like Nick Leeson, who brought down Barings Bank in London in the mid 1990s, Kerviel was an outsider in the European banking industry. Traditionally, these positions had been held by children of upper-class parents, both Kerviel and Leeson came from working-class backgrounds. Indeed, Kerviel’s parents were a hairdresser and a blacksmith!
Both began their criminal activities in attempts to please their supervisors. Initial mistakes spun out of control, and as they attempted to cover up their moves and make amends while continuing to provide profits for their companies, they dug themselves into deeper and deeper holes. Neither of them were aware of the true nature of their activities, and both were extremely valued employees up until the moment their fraud was revealed. Both were awaiting nice bonuses at the time of their downfalls.
It’s this very human element to their stories—that of creating chaos while aiming to please—that interests me.
Has your proximity to Baltimore crime-chronicler, David Simon, influenced your work in this area?
Well, I do live a few blocks from David Simon’s home and I believe that the Wire was the best show ever broadcast on television. And, yes, being in Baltimore was part of what sparked my interest in operatic tellings of recent criminal events. My neighborhood (officially it’s part of Locust Point, but real estate agents call it South Federal Hill and locals call it Riverside) is one of the safest urban neighborhoods in the country, but Baltimore has a reputation as one of the most crime-ridden cities in the country. I am fascinated by how these neighborhood divisions are block-by-block with shockingly little boundary crossing.
What brought you to this subject initially?
Once I settled on the concept of true-crime operas (there are two other ideas that I have germinating), I started playing around mentally with how I might treat each of the subjects. The several years in my 20s when I worked desk jobs, I used to have recurring dreams about being chased by monsters through office hallways and so I kept returning to these images of cubicle workspaces as places of horror. When I combined that with the class issues from these situations, the idea started to take root. And musically, I liked the thought of accounting arias.
As I began working on the project, I was only thinking about Kerviel’s case, but the parallels with Leeson’s were so clear that my thinking about the project began to shift. Instead of telling a specific story, it became more about the idea of trying to impress those from a different economic stratum and failing.
How did you source material to use for a libretto?
Well, I’m writing a very untraditional piece that fits the concept of Rhymes With Opera perfectly, because my work only rhymes with the idea of opera and isn’t a true opera in the traditional sense of the term. I’m actually calling my piece a “Chamber Cantata” in my own materials. In short, there is no libretto. I’m writing the voice parts in International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Sometimes the text resembles an invented language and sometimes it’s purely musical. Instead of telling a specific story, I’m creating archetypal scenes that suggest aspects of Kerviel’s life. Which is a good thing, because if I tried to write an opera about a derivatives trader who was the son of a hairdresser and blacksmith, it would seem over the top and unbelievable.
So, there’s no libretto, and there will be only very limited staging. I’m working on some video accompaniment that will help to set the scene and provide some context for the production. This might seem outlandishly experimental, but it’s not too different from previous pieces by Ligeti and early Glass operas.
Wow, that does seem experimental when placed in the same context as Puccini or Verdi. But you’re right, there are plenty of other composers that have explored similar techniques to great effect. It will be exciting to see those elements come together in performance.
Finally, how does the contemporary nature of the subject inform your compositional style?
I think that it’s more the opposite: my compositional style drew me to this subject. I’ve been thinking about several different stories for dramatic works over the years, and invariably I’ve found that the closer I get to actually working on them the farther I am from having a clear vision for the music. For this story, the music just made sense to me. The various scenes of office work and of lonely thought at the seashore (Kerviel is originally from Brittany) provided a clear match with my musical obsessions.
It seems like you share similar musical passions with Rhymes With Opera. What is it like to be commissioned by the group?
I am thrilled to be working with Rhymes With Opera on this project. I’ve been going to their productions for three years now and I believe that they are one of the most exciting presenters around. I am a fan of everything about the organization, starting with the name (which gets better the more I think about it). Musically, they’ve been incredibly open to trying new things and to exploring all sorts of experimental territory. As an organization, they’re very exciting because they are able to appeal to a very different audience than the typical new music presenters, a younger audience that’s very excited to hear something out of the ordinary.
David, this has been such a pleasure. It has certainly helped me gain more insight into your collaboration with Rhymes With Opera. I can’t wait to see the performances in Baltimore.
Being New Year’s Eve, that means Rhymes With Opera only has 4 days left to reach their goal of raising $2,000! They are already 57% of the way there. Please take a moment to click over to their project page and pledge your support for Criminal Intent: a crime opera double bill. In fact, one of the cool incentives for pledging $50 or more is a composition lesson with “Le Smooke” himself! I encourage you to be a part of their homegrown opera campaign. I already made my pledge.
If you would like to find out more about David Smooke, please check out his website as well as The League of the Unsound Sound (LotUS). You can also read more about him over at Living Composer of the Month.
Thank you for visiting The Sybaritic Singer in 2010. Make sure you sign up as one of the Sybaritic Faithful. I have a feeling 2011 will be a very musical year. You won’t want to miss out!
- The Anthropology of Jerome Kerviel (paul.kedrosky.com)
- Rogue Trader Nick Leeson To Ireland: Ignore The IMF And Default Already (businessinsider.com)
[…] narrative structure, the work does transcend its references. Written in 2010, Rhymes With Opera originally performed “Criminal Element” in 2011. Now, in its fully staged version, they added a depth of […]