This is a fairly impractical post.  How many people want to write the words to an opera?  Perhaps the first rule of writing libretto would be, simply,

1) Don’t. 

Nonetheless, I’ve been asked a lot recently how one goes about doing it — and so below are some guiding principles, learned from experience:

2) Stick to an 8th-grade vocabulary.  Singing shines a spotlight on words, and some words crumple under the heat.  As a rule, the rarer the word, the easier it crumples.  You’ve probably heard the old adage, “Never use a $10 word when a $1 word will do.”  When your text is put under the spotlight of singing, the embarrassing effect of a $10 word is multiplied exponentially.  

(To this day I’m not sure how this singing “spotlight” works — I only know that there are times when the choice of a word seems perfectly right sitting at my desk and reading it aloud to myself — but later, when a trained singer delivers the line in person, it makes that same word seem, for lack of a better word, goofy.  In these cases I always replace it with a simpler word.  Perhaps this phenomenon has to do with how much of the ear is occupied listening to music.  When we’re listening to music, there’s no extra bandwidth in the ear to go off and riffle through the occipital dictionary and get comfortable with a high-octane word.  When music is sounding, fancy words — even ones we know — seem flown in from farther away.)

Likewise Mark Twain’s famous advice, “If you find an adjective, kill it,” is doubly important for sung text.  This is not a matter of taste, but of simple mechanics: in sung text, the music is already supplying the adjective.  A character should almost never tell us that they’re feeling hopeful, resolute, wistful, apoplectic, etc..  The music should show those emotions directly while the character says whatever they need to say.

3) Have characters talk about offstage stuff at your own peril.  Text about offstage action is a special effect, and should be used judiciously.  

I imagine a spectrum, where verb-driven statements addressed from character-to-character (“Get out of here!” “Hand it over!” “Take me now!” ) are at one end, and description-driven statements addressed from character-to-audience (“I remember when I was a kid, I used to play with this green glass ashtray…”) are at the other:


The best librettos sit toward the left side of the spectrum.  

Obviously, there are no hard-and-fast rules here.  Having a character speak about something the audience hasn’t seen onstage can be enormously powerful, especially if you’ve starved your audience of such “offstage data” verbal tissue for a while (counterintuitively, the more specific the detail in such moments, the more poignant the effect).  

To myself, I call this poignant effect the “Grey’s Anatomy Principle.”  In nearly every episode of Grey’s Anatomy, at an emotionally climactic moment, the screenwriters do this weirdly-specific-offstage-detail trick to shoehorn our attention inside a character’s experience:

Character (out of nowhere): The green glass ashtray…

Other Character (silently, to themselves): WTF?

Character: The night before he died, I broke my father’s green glass ashtray…

And then some beautiful, crucial character stuff that’s been hidden in the slingshot for 45 minutes gets revealed.  The weirdly personal, offstage detail can actually amplify the big, universal onstage truth — but you need to have set up all your big universal onstage truths (i.e., your character motivations) with crystal clarity beforehand in order for this to work.

I would describe the use of offstage-action text in the same way I once heard the composer Joan Tower describe the use of crash cymbals: “It’s like eyeliner.  A little goes a long way.”

4) Short grammar beats long grammar.  Singing necessarily involves slowing down the rate of verbal delivery.  Given any possible English sentence, it takes longer to sing it in a natural way than it does to say it in a natural way.  This means that a short grammatical structure will carry more power than a long grammatical structure.  Faulkner’s sentences are way cooler than Hemingway’s — but when writing libretto, go for Hemingway.

I’m often amazed, whenever I’m moved by a sung line, how grammatically impoverished it is when stripped of the music.  My favorite example is the verse line in “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac:

But time makes you bolder.

Even children get older.

And I’m getting older, too.

When you write it out… there’s really nothing there.  Can you imagine how apocalyptically high you would have to be to imagine that these lines constituted a great poem?  It’s just stray, grammatically unconnected observations — and painfully obvious ones at that.  Yet add in Stevie Nicks’ perfectly tarnished voice, and the uncanny symmetry of that first-inversion chord floating in the guitar, and the way those lines gently distend the verse structure, and it’s unspeakably profound.  Those lines waste me every time —and yet to look at the text alone, I can’t figure out why.

Another great example is the beginning of “The A-Team” by Ed Sheeran:

White lips,

Pale face

Breathing in


Burnt lungs, 

Sour taste.

See how there’s no grammar connecting those images?  They’re just loose objects, and only the music holds them together.  Yet they’re far more evocative like this than they would be if the text were trying to micromanage our journey through the scene with unnecessary connecting grammar.  

Another way to think of it this is: the music is the grammar, the forward-moving connecting principle.  If the text insists too loudly its own linear grammatical trip, we’ll end up hearing a faint sense of disagreement between the words’ version of that trip and the music’s.

5) Mind the Sondheim Blinders.  I’m sure he said it more clearly, but I once heard an interview with Stephen Sondheim in which he noted that the hardest thing about writing sung text is that it can never be chewed on and reconsidered as can text in other literary genres.  An obscure line at the beginning of a poem, or a detail passed over in a novel, can be flipped-back-to and reviewed.  Indeed, the flipping-back-to-and-reviewing, the reading and ever-deepening re-reading, is one of the primary joys of these genres.  Such text can be treated like a three-dimensional object: saved, examined, turned over, reconsidered after a good night’s sleep, lived with for a while.  

Not so with sung text.  Listening to a libretto is like reading a page where an eraser is always following just behind your eye, obliterating everything that’s come before.  You’re left only with what you can remember — and you can’t even stop to think about that, because you’re still busy hearing new lines and new music.

This means that grammatical antecedents (see #4), and informational details (see #3) — and anything at all which has been sung more than 10 seconds ago — might as well not exist.  Everything you write has to be clear the first and only time it’s heard. Nothing you write can depend on anything besides itself.  You have to imagine hearing every line afresh, in an amnesiac vacuum.

To mistranslate, then agree with Derrida: There is nothing outside the text.  

Not even, in this case, the text.

6) Skin is soft, bones are hard.  Sometimes when I listen to people discuss the interaction between text and music, I notice they’re talking exclusively about how text and music interact on a local, beat-by-beat, rhythmic level — “this fits, this doesn’t.”  They are concerned only with the surface-level interaction of text & music, or what I would call the “skin” of the operatic beast.   This includes prosody, but also extends to questions of vowel path and vocal range and color.  Of course, it’s nice if words and music match at this “skin” level, but it’s not the most important thing.

Deeper, at the bone, there is a level at which the music and the text must match absolutely: character intent (text) must match large harmonic blocking (music).   This is the crucial contact point between the two.  If your character is saying something for which the motivation is X, the music — specifically, the harmonic map — had better be mirroring that character’s interior X or else productively countering it.  This contact point between text and music is the one audiences actually hear.  If this bone-level contact is occurring, you can cut a word, add a measure, change figures in the vocal part, do whatever you will on the skin-level — and the product will still work.

Which is good news.  When we secure the interaction of words and music at the bone level, it turns out we can adjust things at the skin level however we like.  The skin of the opera is malleable, simply because word choice and rhythmic declamation in the voice part should be malleable until very late in the game.  Both composer and librettist should be flexible and creative enough spin out multiple solutions at the skin level, always with the aim of showing the bone structure more clearly.

7) Your libretto shouldn’t make complete sense.  One way I know I’m off base is if I look at a drafted passage and I can see everything in the text.  Meaning: opera is most successful when the text leaves the music something to do, some part of the narrative weight to pull.  If the text conveys everything by itself, it will jam up the flow of the music like logs in a stream.  If the text says it all, why have an expensive union orchestra on hand?  Why have costumes?  Why props?  Why lighting design?  Why, for that matter, professional actors, who can convey a thousand words in a glance?

Someone once asked my wife Jennifer, a collaborative pianist: “Is great art song more about the text, or more about the music?”  Her reply was characteristic in its improbably true precision: 

“Great art song is 51% music.”

And I’d say exactly the same thing about opera.  The text has to know where those crucial moments are when the music alone gets to tell the story.  This means that, when you look at a good libretto on the page, it should have some holes in it.  That extra 1% — that moment when the text allows the music to cross the finish line by itself — is the magic of opera, and as a librettist you have to make room for it.

Writing libretto is like setting dominoes up on their ends, row after curling row, ready to be knocked over.  Writing music is like knocking them over.  Unless the dominoes are perfectly set up, you can’t knock them over and get that thrilling effect we all love.  But it’s the happening itself — the falling — that we love to watch, not the perfectly set-up dominoes standing still This is the 1% that libretto-writing has to make room for: the musical tip of the finger, the magical sense of forward action, the illusion that the dominoes are doing something all by themselves.

Often I hear about new opera projects in which part of the development process is a public reading of the finished libretto… before any music is composed.  Such a process is — to politely understate the matter — criminally insane.  Perfecting the libretto to the point that it could be publicly performed by itself will almost certainly wick material over into the libretto that should be left to the music.  

Moreover, the librettist would have to be psychic to know exactly what the musical form will need from him or her months before the musical form exists.  The librettist will unwittingly be making deep-tissue structural decisions for the composer.  Of course, there are times when the librettist should do exactly that.  But the stream of influence between text and music should at least be able to flow both ways.

Some people say opera is a dramatic form with musical accompaniment.  I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say it’s a musical form with dramatic accompaniment, but I’d definitely say: it’s 51% music.

Which leads us to the #1 all-time most reliable rule for writing a great libretto:

8) Work with a great composer.


Poet: a mystic who reflects on experience after the fact
Novelist: a poet without patience
Composer: a poet - or novelist, depending on the patience - without words
Performer: a composer without fixed ideas
Teacher: a performer without an instrument
Student: a teacher without cynicism
Cynicism: a life without poetry

PARIS: TWO EARS IN THREE CHURCHES, or, Dead Composers' Society

Looking back, there was a degree of historical complication inherent in the trip: going to hear a concert in L’Église St. Merri (a church where Saint-Saens had once played the organ, and which sits next to the Stravinsky fountain and Boulez’s brainchild IRCAM on the Centre Pompidou) involving a piece I had written on a theme by Schoenberg.  There's already enough there to work with there in the way of composers.

But finding myself with an afternoon to myself, I took a walk to another church, Sainte-Trinité, where for 61 years Olivier Messiaen was the organist - and where I suppose I subconsciously expected to find hundreds of gape-jawed Messiaenistes like me fawning over cases of relics in the organ loft.  Instead, I found no mention of Messiaen whatsoever except for one line in the hastily typed visitor's brochure. Otherwise, the not-overly-large building is simply a parish church - and was empty on that day except for a cluster of charismatic worshippers seated in the front of the nave.  Their leader was chanting into a completely unnecessary microphone: “Jésus PARDONNE! Jésus -Christ PARDONNE!and smashing his hand into the hair of a woman's bowed head.  (He was less clear on exactly what needed to be forgiven.) I was stunned by the violent juxtaposition.  The evangelical's words, the stunted seed of some lost Steve Reich piece, amplified to the point of hilarity in the presence of Messiean's organ, dead silent. Je dors, mais mon coeur veille. The preacher's improvised, careless melody and Messiaen's improvised, meticulous harmonies - cohabiting as they could only after the end of time.  Banalités/analitiés

Perhaps I was wrong even to think of it as Messiaen's organ (Boulanger had played here as well), or to think of this building as Messiaen’s church (Berlioz was buried from it).  Embarrassed by the service, I decided to try the door to the organ loft, but found it locked.  The square brass handle was well-worn.  But the passageway it hid was no more visible to me than my own inflated sense of the place’s history.

The next morning, what was locked at Sainte-Trinité was unlocked at Notre Dame.  Walking to mass, I remembered that Piazzolla had had a fatal stroke while walking to mass at Notre Dame, and reconsidered the amount of cheese and wine yet to be consumed.  Requesting to attend the mass, we skipped the tour line and somehow found our friends inside.  They had told us the service was at 11:00, but it had in fact begun at 10:00 and was running over - so we actually heard the end of one mass and the beginning of another.  Between those two granitic blocks of time and space, a perspective on the repertoire sparked - difficult to explain, but I will try:

The music for the first mass was entirely Gregorian chant.  The final chant of that mass was then taken up by the organist as an improvisational theme for the postlude.  And here was the first, really delectable contrast in the listening: first, the unadorned chant: curling in the air like incense, in a room nearly as old as the chant itself.  Then, the organist's improvisation on it: a terrifying deluge of color, blocks of harmony so dense and variegated they made Messiaen sound dead a thousand years.  (Actually - if you will pardon some technical jargon - I believe a theoretically correct description of the organist’s improvisation would be: he totally lit that bitch up.)  It was annihilating.  Whereas in the naked chant the ear sensed the space around the melody and expanded into it, in the organ improvisation the ear was crushed, thrown into a merciless vacuum, trapped and then compressed into a nothingness where resistance never gazed.  Both the 1,000-year-old chant and the seconds-old improvisation - though they were sonic opposites - were completely truthful.  They seemed like two distant sides of a single thing.

The music for the second mass was Mozart - excerpts from a small mass setting plus the famous Ave Verum.  And in the temporal and spatial context of what we had just heard, the Mozart suddenly appeared so… small, so alien, so utterly false.  In that massive context, you could feel the rhetorical blinders that common-practice music wears – its silly, self-imposed strictures.  Those structural processes (which drive such an overweening majority of music education) appeared here as a blip on the radar; a short and fitful dream.  That quite brief excursion into tonality (1700-1900, with some serious ambiguity at both ends) was here seen and heard as an arbitrary thing, indeed insignificant.  Perhaps it was just a trick of the mind, but all I can say is that this music - onto which we map so much cultural authority - seemed like a trick of the mind.  Its affected sense of itself - its persistent play-acting, of which the older and newer music was completely free - became painfully clear.  At least, that was the impression in the moment – to say more than that would be to step outside the scope of listening itself.


Last weekend, I was invited to give an introductory talk at the Guitar Foundation of America’s national conference for Clare Callahan, before she was inducted into that organization’s hall of fame. Clare was my last guitar teacher, and seeing her again was a great honor and pleasure.  But something she said in her acceptance speech has stuck with me ever since: "The reason we make music is joy.  That's it: joy.  And you can't buy joy – but you do have to pay for it."

I buy that statement. But it got me thinking: how on earth do we pay for joy? Let us assume for the moment that joy is the end goal of all our work. Either we do work simply because we enjoy it, or else we are doing work we do not enjoy to earn money – so that we can use it to do things we enjoy.  Once we short-circuit the usual economic model by imagining joy as its unavoidable goal, it brings us right to the door of teaching – for teaching also thwarts our usual desire to classify it as an economy.

Of course, it's almost a joke among musicians: why do you teach? To make money. And we have all been there at one time or another. But such external motivation, even if believed in earnest, won't fuel us for long. Eventually, you will teach for the teaching's sake, or go mad. "For the teaching's sake" here refers to an experience you can only know directly. And yet the attempt to locate or quantify that experience, i.e. to depict teaching as an economy, results in the sorts of train wrecks we see in educational administration today: the attempt to pay teachers based on hourly labor, or student test results – things which may or may not have any correspondence the real quality of the teaching going on. To pretend that teaching is a traditional economy in this way is to draw causal connections where there are none.

Attempts to quantify the quality of teaching are always frustrated because in teaching, unlike a traditional economy, there is actually nothing being transacted. The common illusion is that information or skill is being transferred from teacher to student. But anyone who has ever taught knows that this is not exactly how it works. The student always teaches himself or herself. The teacher can serve as a catalyst for that explosion, but the real event begins and ends inside the student. As to what goes on inside the student: it is not the gaining of something external, something new. It is a recognition – as in a re-cognition or a re-knowing of something latent, intuited but forgotten. Something the teacher says, perhaps without meaning to, chimes against a need in the student which the teacher doesn’t even know exists. And with that little spark, insight is etched in the student's mind for life. It is this sacerdotal quality about teaching which seems to prevent it from being made sense of as a normal economy. 

How do we know this? By examining our own direct experience, for we have all been students of something.  Take a subject in which I have no interest or ability: chemistry. Once my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Wolverton (may he rest in peace), was trying to compare his days cracking code on a hill in a Vietnam jungle under heavy fire (while wearing nothing but his American flag shorts, which the company commander allowed because Wolverton was the only person who could crack the code by ear) to working a chemical equation. He said, "If you're in a bind, write down what you know." Today, I have forgotten all the chemistry; the periodic table might as well be North Vietnamese military code.  But that rule – just write down what you know – has never failed me. It is always the way to get started, and it always delivers results.

Or I could cite the utterly lucid teaching of my conducting teacher in graduate school, Mark Gibson – whose teaching helped me realize (quite without his meaning to convey this) that it was time for me to leave school and start teaching. All the while, I thought I wanted to be a conductor, and he thought he was talking about score analysis and the quality of left-hand cues – yet something, quite apart from my listening or his speaking, was receiving it on a different level.  Though I do not make my living as a conductor today, I nonetheless owe much of my professional life to his teaching.

These are only two examples among hundreds, and I imagine that anyone reading this could offer hundreds more of their own.  Yet at the end of the day, no one can plan such silent transmissions, or even identify them as such until they are over – usually years later. (When we really see it, we see the futility of the attempt to “teach” teaching.)

Whether we can articulate it or not, there is an enormous power in the teaching relationship which is no more under the control of the teacher that it is that of the student – probably less so. It is an inconceivably forceful dynamo. Inside the teaching relationship, emotions and self-concepts are wildly magnified, for weal or woe. What would be a tiny disagreement in any other profession is amplified into a seething injury. A passing observation can become a life-altering sutra. Projections and inflations of every variety are mapped onto teachers (and sometimes students) who cannot possibly live up to them in their human frame.

There is a subtle field of psychological influence at work as soon as people consent to teach or be taught anything. The transmission of joy we can receive through teaching is a free gift. It can never be measured or paid for. The only question is whether or not we can share it. Perhaps teaching itself is the currency of joy my teacher was talking about. By that, I don't mean to imply that everyone should become a professional teacher – although anyone who has ever tried it knows that the only possible way to "repay " your own teachers is to offer your self (and by extension, everything your teachers have given you) to your students. Perhaps anything done with the openness of a teacher – the refusal to equate information or skill with any other kind of resource besides itself –  is participating in this more subtle kind of transaction I have been calling teaching. The ultimately false distinction between teaching and learning vanishes at the point where people are merely sharing that thing – sometimes delightful, sometimes excruciating, but always joy.


[An address delivered at the Senior Recognition Ceremony, Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music, May 2013]

When I was asked to give this address, I was tempted simply to stand here with you for a few minutes in silence – although an unforgivably cagy thing to do, it seems like that might be one way to taste the immensity of the transformation that you are about to undergo.  I also want to be silent because no one in their right mind would offer you advice about what, specifically, to do with the rest of your life from here.  Only you can figure that out -- because you are the only one who sees it all.  And so I want to be quiet, and give you a head start on the kind of reflection, and wisdom, that comes to us only in silence.

But now I've already talked, and screwed that up.

So I'm going to tell you about this thing I saw on Facebook instead.

Recently, a meme made the rounds on Facebook with a quote by Leonard Bernstein -- "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before." Now as a musician, I get it -- I know that on one level, those are true and good words -- and yet what do they really mean?  For on another level, those words might be poisonously bad advice. We read them, perhaps we see a photograph of that translated prophet -- Bernstein, his silver hair tousled from some climactic podium pounce, and we feel the ready-made emotion swelling in our ribs: yes, this will be our response to violence: to groove even harder on our antiquated art, to hole up and practice more, to put our head in the sand... to make ourselves feel better.

We share the post, we click the ubiquitous "like" button -- and what have we done? Is making music a good response to the obvious loss and pain around us? Or worse yet, feeling and philosophizing a certain way about music? Music mixes its dopamine cocktail in our brain.  So what?  Does it do a damn thing beyond that? Is music capable of exerting any force on the world, a world which has always been insane, and appears to be getting no better?  It is not a bad question as you graduate: have you just taken a useless degree?
I would say that, yes, it is a famously useless degree.  I would say that, rather than avoid the nagging fear of our own uselessness as musicians, we should dive headlong into it.  From the ultimate perspective, is not everything useless?  Take a supposedly practical profession like medicine or finance.  At the last, they don’t work, either – everyone dies, and no one takes anything with them.  And besides, is there not a certain panache to musicians’ uselessness?  That is the scandal of art.  We are the ones who know we're useless. Perhaps we can say with Cyrano de Bergerac, sparring with the trees at twilight, “non, c'est bien plus beau lorsque c’est inutile” – the fight is much more beautiful when it’s hopeless. 

I only want to ask you this: what if we didn’t do the hip thing, and make use of standardized test results or neuroscience or anthropology or common sentiment to try to eke out some actual benefit to music, some practical good it offers to offset the obvious bad?  What if we read the whole ledger of the world’s joy and suffering, and didn't pretend to tamper with the balance?  What if the artists were the ones who faced their own uselessness head-on?  What if art has nothing to offer except itself?

I feel almost unqualified to talk about art these days, for as many of you know I am a new dad, and I have spent at least as many hours over the last year Pampering as I have practicing.  Thomas is his given name, though he is more commonly known around the house as Meepers -- he is ten months old, and thriving, and, if you will pardon the cliché, he is the best thing that has ever happened to me. And perhaps something that my son once showed me will help explain what it is I mean to say about music.

I had not yet met him at the time – we were at our ultrasound appointment, anxiously scanning the screen for signs of life.  When the technician located him, Thomas turned his head and looked, so to speak, towards the camera.  At just that moment when he turned to face us, the nurse switched the setting on the sonogram machine to an X-ray view.  And there it was – a perfect human skull, its empty eyes staring back at me in the ghostly blue light of the monitor. I stood in silence, stunned – a backwards Hamlet, peering into the future to converse with an intimate friend.  Here is a person who could easily die in the 22nd century!  And here, amid so much talk of birth -- the memento mori.  The realization blindsided me:  Of course – the end is here, in the beginning. The two are not separate. This image of a skull was not just the usual symbol of death, reminding me: “hurry up, there’s not much time.”  It was a reminder that time simply doesn’t work the way I thought it did. It doesn’t always run in a straight line.  My replacement is already here, and even he is temporary.  Without an end, there could be no beginning, either.

I don’t mean to imply that the vision disturbed me – on the contrary, it pointed to something tremendously beautiful, something we usually overlook:  The whole experience is the whole experience.  Or, as Nisargadatta put it: everything that is is the cause of everything that is.  Usually, we try to capture pleasure and avoid pain, we try to gain and never lose.  But we all secretly know that this attempt to cut life in half drives us a little mad – for the scales are always balancing.  When we give up, we finally find the wise silence I’m talking about, and which you know in your gut, even though you have been trained to avoid it.  Only when we come into full contact with the temporary nature of every experience do we find the full joy of being alive.  Birth and death are indeed opposites – but life is that which contains them both.  And I would say that the artist is the one who has the courage to be about life – the whole thing, awake to the full knowledge of the end from the beginning.

As calendar time goes, tomorrow is an important day in your life.  It is a kind of birth, heaving you out, ready-or-not, into the world – yet it is also the death of every security you have known thus far.  You cannot have one part of that experience without the other.  Everything you have ever done has somehow added up to this, and yet what you will do after tomorrow, no one really knows -- not even you.   These days, a subtle but ceaseless question rings in your ear:  What will your art be?  Do you have the courage to jump all the way into life?  Underneath every experience of joy runs this silent stream of sorrow, the secret knowledge that it is ending. You cannot have one without the other.  What would your art look like if it were reckless enough to commit to the whole wager, to take account of the loss as well as the gain?  Neither I nor Mom nor Dad nor Leonard Bernstein can tell you in words what that art will look like.  It may or may not come out as music.  It may simply be living every minute as art – treating every last encounter of your life as real, simply because it is.
With pride as your teacher and fellow alumnus, all I can say in words is this: GO.  Do not look back, and do not look ahead.  Look to the world in front of you, which needs you right now.  Do not merely practice your art, or perform art, or sell art, or teach art.  Be art.

Of course, it is a useless endeavor.  But it is the only one there is.