Composer Douglas Cuomo discusses “Arjuna’s Dilemma”

Composer Douglas Cuomo
Composer Douglas Cuomo

If you’ve watched Sex and the City or Homicide: Life On The Streets, you have heard the music of composer Doug Cuomo. Over the past twenty years, Doug has written some of the most distinctive music heard on television, and his career is now moving into a new and exciting phase.

I recently had the chance to talk with Doug for an hour or so on an unseasonably warm November morning in New York. We talked about his work in TV and film, his recent move into more extended concert works, including his one-act opera Arjuna’s Dilemma, and how Sibelius helps his workflow. More after the jump.

A well-received opera

Arjuna’s Dilemma is a chamber opera, scored for string quartet plus double bass, piano, two woodwinds, two percussionists, a tabla player, an Indian vocalist, an operatic tenor, plus a chorus of four women.

“It was a project that I began for myself, based on an idea that I had had for a long time,” says Doug, “and I wrote about the first ten minutes and made a demo recording, which I took to a producing organisation, who then commissioned the rest of the work.”

The opera received its premiere at SUNY Purchase in August 2008 and then received further performances in November 2008 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the New Waves festival. I asked Doug to explain the significance of the story.

“The opera tells the main story of the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Indian text full of Hindu wisdom,” he tells me. “Set in a mythological time of civil war, when India was split in half between two factions of brothers, it tells how on the eve of the war’s climactic battle the military leader of the righteous side, Prince Arjuna, took his chariot and his charioteer out onto the battlefields to look across at the enemy. He saw on the other side all of the forces of the opposing side, and saw among them relatives of his, loved ones, teachers. Although he was a mighty and fierce warrior, he had a crisis of confidence at that moment, and felt unsure that fighting and trying to kill them was the right thing to do.

“He turned to his charioteer, Krishna, for advice. Now, he knew Krishna to be a powerful personage, a demi-god, but wasn’t aware of his true position in the Indian pantheon, which is that he is in fact the god of everything.”

The rest of the story tells how Krishna convinces Arjuna that the right thing to do is to fight and fulfil his duty. Krishna uses story, allegory and reason to try to explain the true nature of reality to Arjuna, but Arjuna is unable to grasp it through words and eventually asks Krishna to show him. Finally Krishna relents, and grants Arjuna a vision in which Krishna transforms himself into the true nature of reality. At first, Arjuna sees things which are more beautiful than he could possibly imagine, but they soon turn, and become things that are more horrifying than he could possibly imagine. Before long Arjuna is begging Krishna to return himself to his normal form. At this point, Arjuna says to Krishna that he will do his bidding, and he will go into battle.

“It’s a very multi-layered story in terms of its philosophical meanings,” continues Doug. “There have been literally thousands of volumes of commentary written about it, and it’s difficult for westerners to understand why Krishna, who is somehow both the god of everything and indeed is everything, should be telling Arjuna to slay his family, his teachers, his loved ones, but the way to look at this is that it’s allegorical: Krishna isn’t really telling Arjuna to rise up and slay his family, but he is saying that the goal of this philosophy is that you should see things clearly and to see things as they really are. To do this, you must be free of the conditionings and associations of society, which come to you from your parents, your family, your teachers, and so on. You must put these aside, to see the true nature of reality. Slaying them really means being able to look beyond their influence on you.”

Setting the Bhagavad Gita posed some interesting challenges. “Some was in English and some was in Sanskrit, and I set the original Sanskrit,” he says. “It’s an interesting language to set — particularly because I didn’t have any background in Sanskrit — in that what I did was have a Sanskrit speaker read the lines that I needed to set, essentially at two different tempos, at a conversational tempo and then slightly slower. I could then refer to the recordings of this as I was setting the text so that I could understand where the emphasis was on particular words and phrases, and what the vowels sounded like, and so on. The chorus parts were all in English, and the tenor is all in Sanskrit, so he had to wrestle with that. But you’ll hear that he did a fantastic job.”

Opening new doors

The success of Arjuna’s Dilemma has opened new doors for Doug to work on further dramatic projects in the future. “Fortunately it was extremely well received and played to sold-out theatres,” he says, “so as a result of that I have been able to find other projects of a similar size to work on.”

The next big operatic project that Doug will be taking on is an adaptation of John Patrick Shanley’s play, Doubt, for which the playwright himself will be writing the libretto.

“This project is still at the early stages. The next step is to find a few opera companies to co-commission the work. Because of the relatively long timeframe that opera companies work to, I’m hoping it will premiere in around five years’ time. Not all of that time is spent writing, of course: you find an opera company to commission it, you write it, you workshop it, and from that there may be some changes, and it has to fit the schedule of the company, and so on.”

He is also working on a joint commission from the Orchestra of the Swan and the American Composers Orchestra for 2011.

How Sibelius fits in

Doug says that Sibelius has become an integral part of his workflow. “I remember when I first heard about Sibelius,” he says. “At the time, I was using Finale, but I wasn’t using it regularly enough to really get a handle on it, and particularly back then it was really non-intuitive. There seemed to be a huge difference between Sibelius and Finale in terms of ease of use, so as soon as Sibelius was available in the US I started to use it. Just recently I was cleaning out some old things in my study and found an old Sibelius 1.0 disc!”

Doug described to me his composing process when working on music for acoustic instruments. “I will typically compose at the piano, and not at the computer,” he says. “I’d create a first pass with pencil and paper, then enter that into Sibelius. I tend to work in drafts, so I’ll print out a copy, mark it up, then go back to the computer, enter the changes and so on. This is one of the ways in which Sibelius has become an integral part of my working process: as I’m working on a piece, I’m constantly revising it, and I might have easily five or six iterations of the piece, each one a more distilled version of the previous one.”

Doug describes dynamic parts as a huge time-saver. “Being able to change something in the score and have it change in the corresponding place in the part has been wonderful,” he says.

I asked him whether he found Sibelius’s playback features useful. “Historically I’ve not used Sibelius’s playback features for any more than aural proof-reading, because I have sometimes found the playback very discouraging, and mistakenly find myself responding negatively to the quality of the sounds rather than the quality of the musical idea,” he says. “However, with this new orchestral piece I’m working on now, I suspect I will spend a bit more time producing a mock-up along with the score.”

Balancing act

I asked Doug whether his recent focus on concert music means that he won’t be doing so much work for film and TV in the future. “In the last couple of years I haven’t done any work for film or TV at all, because I was working on getting the production of Arjuna’s Dilemma up and running, but I hope in the coming year to be able to balance film and TV projects with the concert music projects.”

Does he find working on concert music more rewarding than working on film and TV projects? “They’re rewarding in a different way, and they’re a chore in a different way,” he says. “Clearly one of the things that’s most attractive to me about working on concert music is that the music is in the forefront, rather than working on somebody else’s vision that has largely been realised by the time the composer comes on board: it has been written, cast and shot, and sometimes even edited, before the composer gets involved. As a composer you’re not responsible for the vision of the entire piece.”

“The schedule can be gruelling, but there can be something liberating about it, because there’s a time limit and you have to be done. Especially in a weekly TV show, where you might need to write 12-15 minutes of music for each episode. For a show like Homicide, which was all synthesized, I would simply compose at the synthesizer, and I’d never bother notating the music, unless we were adding an acoustic instrument as an overdub for a particular cue.”

Checking in

At the conclusion of our conversation, Doug and I agreed that it might be interesting to check in with him again in the coming months to track his progress on his orchestral commission for the Orchestra of the Swan and the American Composers Orchestra, so you can look forward to hearing more about Doug’s work in the future.

For now, check out the CD of Arjuna’s Dilemma, which is available on Innova records, as both a physical CD or an MP3 album.

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