In Defense of The Musical

Hedwig Illustration by Alex Kittle
"It is nonsense to say what a musical should or should not be. It should be anything it wants to be, and if you don't like it you don't have to go to it. There is only one absolutely indispensable element that a musical must have. It must have music. And there is only one thing that it has to be – it has to be good." 
- Oscar Hammerstein II* 
Musicals are based on this simple idea: telling a story on stage with dialogue, action and song. The problem is that in the very short history of the American "book musical" (which started with Showboat in 1927) the public understanding of the musical has been largely confined by a more rigid set of parameters. This article outlines a few distinctions that will hopefully reframe the musical for a more flexible contemporary conversation and seek to provide ideas about how to revive what is a truly fascinating, vibrant, and uniquely American form. If you are a musical theater skeptic I hope I can convince you to take a second look at the form, and if you are an artist I hope I can convince you to consider the musical as an interesting place to work. I am a composer who, not so many years ago, claimed to hate musicals, and now they are at the center of my artistic life.

1. The Musical is a FORM not a GENRE.

This distinction is at the heart of the popular misunderstanding of the musical. To illustrate this idea I'll use an analogy. To say, "I don't like mystery novels" is a completely different statement than to say, "I don't like novels." Mystery is a genre and the novel is a form.  I hear people all the time say "I hate musicals." This statement is based typically on a few bad experiences and a small misunderstanding. A musical could contain any kind of music and be about anything. The conceit of hating musicals is usually based on the fact that many overplayed "classic" musicals all share a type of music (show tunes), a specific type of singing, sentimentality, and/or campiness. It is very possible to dislike those qualities but they definitely do not encompass all of musical theater.

Many people that claim to dislike musicals loved the movies Annie, Labyrinth, Aladdin, or Dancer in the Dark. They often don't consider that these films are full-fledged musicals. The fact that they didn't like their high school production of Guys and Dolls, or they saw Les Miserables on Broadway and thought it was cheesy, shouldn't mean that all musicals are bad. This would be similar to watching an episode of "Leave it to Beaver" and then declaring, "I don't like sitcoms."

It is of course possible to dislike the form of the musical, however most people misunderstand that the type of music (orchestrally scored show tunes) and the type of singing (semi-operatic with heavy vibrato) that they associate with the form is not actually a requirement. Unfortunately there are not a lot of famous musicals that truly disobey these norms. Even many "rock" musicals pepper electric guitars and drum set into what is essentially a conventional musical. Powerful examples of a musicals which present an authentic rock n' roll approach are Hedwig and the Angry Inch or Rocky Horror Show. On film I'd say 8 Mile and Dancer in the Dark are great examples of movie musicals which use the form but in a total departure from a "Musical Theater" stereotype. There is nothing wrong with any of the above stated norms of musical theater, however it is important to state that they are not a prerequisite for something to be a musical.

2. Is it cheesy?

What most detractors claim to dislike about musical theater is the moment when characters "burst into song." There is a rupture in the narrative flow whenever a someone stops talking and starts singing. This moment is intrinsic to the form but not always as cringe-inducing as people think it has to be. I think Glee has done a really interesting job around this question. Because the show is about singers the songs almost always are cleverly diegetic (or emerging directly from the action). The use of diegetic music is just one way around the awkwardness of song interrupting dialogue. Musical theater writers have been creatively dealing with these moments for almost 100 years. And the truth is that musicals require an acceptance of stylization. To quote Scott Miller, "Musical theatre is at its purest and most honest when it admits its obvious artifice." In a way, the artifice of musicals is something that is easily gotten used to, sort of like quick edits in music videos. At first it seems jarring but eventually you don't even notice.

3. The Production Value Problem

One of the most damaging trends to the musical theater world has been the skyrocketing ticket and production prices on Broadway. This phenomenon in addition to the advent of the "Spectacle" musical in the 80s has made Broadway mostly a destination for tourists and large corporations rather than a vibrant center of cultural experimentation and discourse. My suggestion is that composers and librettists stop aiming for Broadway, just as musicians have stopped aiming for major record labels. If you look at a major label roster and imitate what those artists are doing in order  to achieve musical success you are headed down a very treacherous and unhappy path. Imagine where we'd be if major labels alone were curating the music that gets widely distributed. We'd be back in the 50's. As composers and theater makers we need to re-imagine how we can make musicals, how much it will cost and who will come. This isn't to say that there is anything wrong with having a show on Broadway. By all means that is an opportunity of a lifetime. But let's let Broadway come to us.

Musicals are also hurt by their long gestation period. Most musicals will easily take 5-7 years from first reading to commercial production. With a DIY mentality you can put your musical in front of an audience quicker, develop it quicker, and in the long run get more shows off the ground.

Scene from Sweeney Todd - Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
4. What is the point?

The musical is one of the few examples of an artistic form that was originated in the United States.  The value of the musical is that it is a form of expression which tells the diverse and multi-faceted story of american culture especially well. The form itself was born out of a collaboration (though often fraught) between immigrant songwriters and producers, and black, white, Asian and Latino entertainers.

The fact of group singing, the doubling of characters through song and dialogue, harmony, counterpoint, the use of visuals, choreography, and the emotional intensity of music allow the musical to tell certain kinds of stories exceptionally well. Here are some examples of themes and musicals that address them.

Community (In The Heights,  Chorus Line, Oklahoma!)
Societal Upheaval (Hair!)
Insanity/Revenge (Sweeney Todd)
Comedy (Avenue Q)
Tragedy (West Side Story)
Injustice/Oppression (Scottsboro Boys)
Loss of Tradition (Fiddler on the Roof)

5. How do we change the conversation?
I have a few ideas.


I'd like to propose that January become National Musical Writing Month. (NaMuWriMo) 

All kinds of musicians and writers should experiment with the form of Musical Theater. The more people that write musicals the more lively the form will become. Perhaps more people will start going to see experimental and oddball musicals. Perhaps larger non-profit theaters will be more willing to produce musicals that might not have a commercial future. Perhaps the "indie musical" scene will take off in the way that the "indie film" and "indie music" scenes have. Perhaps Broadway producers would take notice and start reaching beyond spectacle shows, star-fueled film adaptations and revivals. Perhaps in the coming month a few people can commit to writing a musical in January. If you'd like to commit please email me (cesar at cesaralvarez dot net) and we can start setting up a network of support. I will put up another post in a few days with some basic guidelines. And if you need a librettist or composer maybe we can match people up.


People should start self-producing musicals. Gather musicians and performers and book a night at a venue, a bar, or a gallery. Put on your musical. It doesn't cost much, and you might be shocked at the reception. When my band first self-produced our musical at the Zipper Factory in New York in 2009, almost 500 people came to our 2 shows. Which was more people than had ever come to any one show in our previous 4 years as a band! There is a hunger in the world for stories that are being told through music. The musical is a powerful cultural tool that should not be neglected or pigeonholed. And you might be surprised at who might show up for a musical.


Talk about it online. The critical discussion about Musical Theater online is tiny compared to comparable fields. Here's a hashtag that you can use when discussing musicals, song on stage, the musical as drama, the musical theater industry, contemporary, new, experimental, or oddball musicals: #newmusical (some people have already been using it). In addition here's a hashtag for National Musical Writing Month #NaMuWriMo Tweet me here @musicisfreenow


Read up. The Musical as Drama by Scott McMillin and Strike Up the Band! by Scott Miller are two very insightful books which deal with the critical theory (former) and cultural impact/value (latter) of the musical. These books both completely transformed my understanding of what is possible in a musical and the extent to which the musical theater has participated in and contributed to the cultural output of our society. Scott Miller's blog also has some fiery analysis of contemporary musical theater.

6. Conclusion

From working in musical theater for only the last few years I've started to notice that many (maybe most) Americans actually have a hidden affinity for at least one or two musicals. In many cases it is secret, denied or misunderstood. I'm interested in creating a conversation that can de-stigmatize and uproot those affections in order to reclaim a powerful and exciting art form. Folks, musicals aren't lame. They rock.

Long live the musical!
Thanks for reading.

César Alvarez

* as quoted by Stanley Green in The World of Musical Comedy (New York: Ziff Davis Publishing, 1960), p. 7. via John Kenrick


27 Cast Albums, Six Words Each

I listened to all of these cast albums in about a month. Here's a 6-word observation about each one.

1. Sweeney Todd - (Angela Lansbury, Len Cariou) - This musical is a masterpiece. Period.

2. Sweeney Todd - (Michael Cerveris, Patti LuPone) - Stripping it down is often best.

3. Urinetown - Songs should approach narrative more obliquely.

4. Avenue Q - The most obvious things are hilarious.

5. Showboat - I'm glad musicals aren't operatic still. (or) I'm glad Showboat invented the musical.

6. Oklahoma - Local colloquialisms in song depict place.

7. You're a Good Man Charlie Brown - Lack of vibrato represents innocence/youth.

8. Rocky Horror Picture Show - Don't be so wussy about campiness.

9. West Side Story - Melodic movement and rhythm encode emotion.

10. Follies - Musical is perfect form for nostalgia.

11. On a Clear Day You Can See Forever - I love songs about past lives.

12. Guys and Dolls - American slang is a gold mine.

13. Crazy for You - Gershwin songs shine in any context.

14. Rent - Distended vowels can ruin rock songs.

15. Company - Sondheim loves sixteenths. I do too.

16. Hair - The tape distortion is just shocking!

17. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum - Worth it for the first song.

18. Into the Woods - Every melody has its own meaning.

19. The Fantasticks - Piano centered score's not my favorite.

20. Annie - Little girls sound amazing singing loud.

21. In the Heights - Salsa's built-in momentum suits the form.

22. Carousel - In heaven there will be reverb.

23. Fiddler on the Roof - Aspiration's the best inspiration for song

24. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying - Highlighting the worst in us all.

25. A Chorus Line - Musical theater about musical theater works.

26. Cabaret (Alan Cumming) - Brilliant formal construct. Diegetic is best.

27. Godspell - Just can't get into Jesus musicals.

I listened to the Original Broadway (or definitive) Cast Recording except where noted.


This Machine Creates Peace

FUTURITY at HERE by Sam Hough

Dear Friends, Family, and Readers,

Since 2007 I've been working on a musical called FUTURITY. Some of you have seen it and many of you have heard me yammering on about it. In a few months it will World Premiere and run for 5 weeks at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA. This is a HUMUNGOUS deal for me, my band, and everyone that's been working on the project all these years.

The musical is about a soldier in the Civil War who tries to invent a steam-powered mechanical brain, which, through its great intelligence, can solve all of humanities problems. The most pressing of these problems, from his perspective, is war itself. In the musical he proposes to invent a "Machine that creates peace." The central question of the piece is whether or not our imaginations can ultimately devise a more humane and peaceful society. It calls into question the role that we all have in designing the future we will inhabit. I think, and hope, that all of our imaginations working together could create a better and more peaceful world than we have now. And I hope that this musical helps to enliven that conversation.

We are currently in the process of recording all of the music I've written for the show (17 songs) into an album that will be pressed to Vinyl and CD. If you are interested in the the piece and would like to support us you can pre-order the album HERE. It is HUGELY helpful to pre-order because otherwise the entire bill for recording and pressing gets put on credit (boo). And just fifteen bucks gets you the album!

Follow the link to watch the Official Trailer and Pre-order: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/thelisps/futurity-the-album

Thanks so much for reading. I hope you are well and I'd love to hear from you all.
Hugs and kisses,


Ontology of vibration: economics, music and number

Photo Cred
This is a podcast by Marcus Schmickler
"Is it possible to approach developments in music by its relationships with money? Can we gain insight into societies by means of their relationship to music? Music serves as a mirror, as a prophecy for society because it reflects developments faster than anything that materializes. 
There is an obvious simultaneity between music and economical developments, between music and mathematics and between mathematical and economical relationships. How better could we navigate through these dichotomies than through number, their common foundation? Ultimately, while we look at the connections between both number and music, how does music and its matter, frequency, correspond to (an ontology of) number? This mix revises some of the more recent musical works explicitly drawing from mathematics and number."
Listen HERE


List of Sci-Fi Musicals, Operas and Plays

photo of Via Galactica by John Michael Cox
Rocky Horror Show by Richard O'Brien (1972)
Via Galactica by Christopher Gore, Judith Ross and Galt MacDermot (1972)
Time by Dave Clark, David Soames, Jeff Daniels, and David Pomeranz (1986)
Starmites by Barry Keating and Stuart Ross (1987)
Return to the Forbidden Planet by Bob Carlton (1989)
Metropolis by Joe Brooks and Dusty Hughes (1989/2002)
Superbia by Jonathan Larson (1989)
Weird Romance by Alan Menken with David Spencer and Alan Brennert (1992)
Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens by Charlotte Mann, Michael Cridler, Jonathan Croose and Robert Forrest (1995)
Escape from Pterodactyl Island by Peter Charles Morris, Michael Jeffrey and Phillip George (1999)
Area 51 by Noel Katz and Tom Carrozza (2000)
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Richard and Robert Sherman and Jeremy Sams (2002)
We Will Rock You by Ben Elton, Brian May and Roger Taylor (2002)
The Last Starfighter by Skip Kennon and Fred Landau (2004)
The Brain from Planet X by David Wechter and Bruce Kimmel (2006)
Futurity by The Lisps, César Alvarez and Molly Rice (2012)

Repo! The Genetic Opera (Original Stage Version) by Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich (2002)
Death and the Powers: A Robot Opera by Todd Machover (2010)

R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) by Karel Capek (1921)
Back to Methuselah by George Bernard Shaw (1921)
Unseen Hand by Sam Shepard (1969)
Illuminatus! Trilogy adpated by Ken Campbell (1976)
Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1977)
The Warp (22 Hour Play) by Neil Oram (1978)
Starstruck by Elaine Lee, Susan Norfleet Lee and Dale Place (1980)
Lunacy by Patricia Weaver Francisco (1984)
Henceforward... by Alan Ayckbourn (1987)
Comic Potential by Alan Ayckbourn (1988)
Darkside by Ken Jones (1988)
Dirk adapted by James Goss and Arvind Ethan David (1995)
A Number by Caryl Churchill (2004)
D is for Dog by Katie Polebaum, Sean T. Cawelti and Rogue Artists Ensemble (2004)
Coyote Trilogy by Don Elwell (2006)
Boom by Peter Sinn Nachtreib (2008)
Untitled Mars by Jay Scheib (2008)
Space//Space by Banana Bag and Bodice (2009)
Godlight Theatre Company's adaptations of 1984, Farenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange, and Slaughterhouse 5  (1994-2009)
What We Once Felt by Anne Marie Healy (2009)
Bellona: Destroyer of Cities by Jay Scheib (2010)
The North Plan by Jason Wells (2010)
Baby Universe: A Puppet Odyssey by Wakka Wakka (2010)
Futura by Jordan Harrison (2010)
The Annihilation Point by Berserker Residents (2010)
Samuel and Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War by Mad Ones (2010)
Galactic Girl by Jon Hoche (2011)
The Hallway Trilogy Part Three: Nursing by Adam Rapp (2011)
How to live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe adapted by Matt Slaybaugh and Jennifer Fawcett (2011)
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? adapted by Untitled Theater Company 61 (2011)
Frankenstein by Nick Dear (2011)
World of Wires by Jay Scheib (2012)

This is by no means a complete list, just a sample based on some basic internet research. These are works which as far as I can tell have been published, or had at least one full production/run at a regional or off-broadway theater. (there are a few that were off-off Broadway). I left off plays which are closer to the genre of horror, fantasy, or which deal primarily in the super-natural (eg Little Shop of Horrors, Spider Man, etc.) I don't have anything against horror, fantasy, or comic book genres they are just not what I'm currently investigating. If you know of other works that fit the criteria please post in the comments. I will try and update.

Here is the definition of Science Fiction I am using (from Wikipedia):
Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginary that is more or less plausible (or at least non-supernatural) content such as future settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, aliens, and paranormal abilities. Exploring the consequences of scientific innovations is one purpose of science fiction...Science fiction is largely based on writing rationally about alternative possible worlds or futures. It is similar to, but differs from fantasy in that, within the context of the story, its imaginary elements are largely possible within scientifically established or scientifically postulated laws of nature (though some elements in a story might still be pure imaginative speculation).
 tweet me @musicisfreenow


An Alternative Pedagogy for the 21st Century Musician

Student group - Fara Enclave (photo by César Alvarez)

In 2008 I was asked to teach a single course in the Music Tech division of the Creative Arts and Technology Department at Bloomfield College called "Digital Audio Engineering 1." I approached the class as a composer, producer and sound artist assuming that most of my students would be primarily interested in figuring out the studio tricks to make their tracks sound radio loud, compressed and commercial. I was right to a certain degree but what I did not expect is that they were hungry for a set of fundamentals around which to build a mature and unorthodox artistic practice. What sets the students in this program apart is that most have not been through traditional high school music programs but arrive at the practice of music making through their home computers. They are an entire crop of computer musicians that are from diverse backgrounds and musical tastes, and have little in common musically with the experimental electronic musicians that for decades have owned the title "computer musician." Home computers are enabling a whole generation of young people to make music without access to traditional musical instruments (much as the turntable did in the 1980s). Now a lot of these musicians are looking for a way to pursue that interest as part of their higher education. These musicians are the future of the music industry.

After seven semesters and 100s of classroom hours at Bloomfield I've started to identify an emergent framework for undergraduate study of "studio" music as a combination of creative and technical practice with historical and cultural study. The music industry is undergoing a cataclysmic transformation right now. and from what I can tell (looking at job postings and course offerings) many music departments at colleges and conservatories are stubbornly resisting the uncomfortable questions that this transformation raises for their curricula and pedagogy. I believe that creative and cultural workers will be highly sought after in the 21st century economy yet many of our music majors are being given a seriously dated education that ill-prepares them for this exciting yet dangerously uncertain field. Furthermore, many musicians are being excluded wholesale from the serious study of music because they lack the traditional pre-requisites (instrumental training, knowledge of jazz or classical music, ability to read music, etc) or because they are interested in popular music. My students have many careers open to them and most will wear several hats in order to collage together a respectable living as an artist. They will be performers, composers, recording artists, engineers (recording, mixing, mastering), sound designers, producers, bloggers, DJs, venue owners, bookers, teachers and live sound engineers. They will work at record labels, game design firms, post-production houses, event companies, marketing firms, radio stations, studios, internet start-ups, and even for sports teams. And their musical training will serve them in all of these roles.

Below I've begun to document some of my observations and classroom experiments in order to start a dialogue about non-conservatory non-traditional undergraduate music education, both to document them for myself and hopefully to initiate a dialogue about the future of the music industry through the lens of some its youngest participants. I've also included a resource list at the bottom of the post.

Here are some of the basic concepts and distinctions that I employ in my classes along with brief explanations:


Occupy Oakland - Eyewitness Account

From friend and mastering engineer in Oakland Myles Boisen:
"I first noticed the constant whine of helicopters at about 4 pm today. Checking the news I learned that the Occupy Oakland camp in downtown Oakland had been cleared by police in the middle of the night, and a series of afternoon protests had been called in the nearby area. With plans in place to go downtown later that night, I searched the internet with a mix of curiosity and anxiety for news of what was happening. A flurry of twitter messages at the www.occupyoakland.org site detailed a few non-violent marches snaking throughout the downtown area, all headed for the disputed encampment that had become known in recent weeks as "Oscar Grant Park". An Oakland teacher's brigade led the march (see photo.) As phrases like "unlawful assembly" "tear gas" and "bring gas masks" began popping up in OWS feeds, I knew I had to head downtown - camera in hand - to see for myself. (more photos after the jump)


Stop the Virgens - Impressions of Karen O's Opera

I am not a reviewer I am a musician. And it was as a musician that I went to see Karen O's new opera "Stop the Virgens" that debuted last night at St. Ann's Warehouse. Anyone who is taking non-mainstream popular music and putting it in a theatrical setting has my attention and I applaud the work for walking that very tricky and unfriendly territory.

The biggest critique that I anticipate hearing about StV is that it isn't in fact an opera. I happen to think that whether or not this is the case has little bearing on its value as a work of performance, but the question still looms. I looked up the word opera after coming home from the performance (which is already 1 point on the board for Karen O) and I found this:

1. a drama set to music and made up of vocal pieces with orchestral accompaniment and orchestral overtures and interludes. (source)

For the most part the piece lives up to this broad definition. For all intents and purposes StV is a staged concept album, but I'm sure no marketing department would ever agree to call it that. So in short: Who cares if it's an opera? For me the music didn't tell the story, but I didn't need it to. The bodies lights and costumes did tell a story in their own fragmented and psychedelic way. But the lack of substantial connective tissue between the narrative and the music is why it really didn't feel much like an opera. But I happen to think music does better in theater as extra-dimensional to the story. So it didn't bother me. The music seemed to draw its own emotional plot in parallel.

Here are some things I noticed while watching...

1. It felt more like a 70 minute live music video than anything else. And isn't the music video the most viable and popular dramatization of music for our time?

2. The piece was about virginity, innocence, being devoured, corrupted, commodified, abused, cannibalized. And then ultimately about drinking the kool-aid. It wasn't offering any help or advice. It was just trying to draw you in and remind you of these traumas.

3. It is no longer enough to make an album. That is too easy and commonplace. A new metric for a musician is the visual and performative language they employ.

4. There were two main characters in this opera: Karen O's voice and Karen O's costumes.

5. The outlandish costumes will be inevitably compared to Lady Gaga and even Bjork. I have nothing else to say about fashion.

6. There were about 30 chorus members (presumably the virgins). They were all young females in chalky white makeup, choppy white wigs and what looked like cut up white graduation gowns. 7 Dancer/Chorus members who writhed and cavorted for most of the piece and then two Dark Queen archetypes who lorded over the "virgens."

7. There was a suprising doo-wop feeling to much of the music which came through when the 30 chorus members were all oohing and ahhing. (there was even a 6/8 ballad)

8. I was struck by how few people I saw taking photos, texting or tweeting. That was what made it really not feel like a rock concert. (this was by decree of the theater)

9. One of the most compelling moments was when Karen O's voice cracked ever so slightly towards the end of the show. This and the curtain call were the only moments where some of her endearing vulnerability peeked out from behind her carefully crafted ice virgin/mother/queen/angel character.

10. I missed Brian Chase's drum set playing. He mostly played tambourine and snare drum.

11. Even though there were close to 50 performers on stage Karen O sang the lead vocal part on every song. This made it really feel like a Karen O concert and not an opera.

12. Karen O's voice was exquisite, the vocal arrangements in the chorus were elegant and the momentary cacophonies were pretty interesting. Most interesting was the beginning when the chorus members are all singing antiphonally. Admittedly I'm a sucker for big groups of singers using their voices as texture and singing off mic.

13. I just read in Scott Miller's history of musical theater that he thinks rock music is too repetitive and lacking in complexity to work well as a conduit for high drama. Perhaps concert music isn't repetitive, distorted and overstimulating enough to reflect the changing architecture of our brains in the information age. There was drama happening in this piece. It was just going on in relationship to its own particular form. If you looked for plot and character where you typically find them in opera or musical theater you might've left sorely disappointed. If you looked for the story in the dusty faces of the chorus members wandering through the audience or in the layered fabrics of the costumes you might find something to hang onto.

14. I'm happy that she took the chance on doing this show even though she might have to bear the slings and arrows of the skeptical. People get mad when you take a great big label like opera and bend it to your will.


Cumberland Gap

I found this song in an old Pete Seeger songbook that belonged to my Dad. I love how the shape of the melody mirrors the topography of a valley. I rewrote some of the words and added a bridge so that it would fit into my musical, which coincidentally is set right near the Cumberland Gap in and around Whythe County, VA.

IMAGE CREDIT: Hunt, S. V. D. (Samuel Valentine), engraver. “Cumberland Gap,” 1872. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-52628


3 2's or AFAR by Mac Wellman (The Devil's Butthole)

I've been collaborating on a piece with Mac Wellman and director Meghan Finn. This has been a wild ride. Part japanese tinged puppet theater, part philosophical absurdist performance art, and then I added the childlike musical theater earnestness.

Devil's Butthole (DEMO) by musicisfreenow

"His script is a meditation on Heidegger’s Dialogue on Language Between a Japanese and an Inquirer. The Japanese philosopher in the dialogue, named Kuki Shūzō, spoke and wrote about iki, the concept of coquetry which influences Japanese culture on many things from architecture to the clothing of geishas. 'It’s basically teasing, like parallel lines that never meet,' Wellman says. 'It’s not about consummating anything, it’s about always maintaining that type of tension.' "
From an article in the Brooklyn Rail about the piece.

The play opens October 6 at Dixon Place.

UPDATE: New York Times Review



Thank you to all the protesters occupying Wall St. right now.

We are a country built on shared sacrifice and civic duty. We are a nation of immigrants. We are a nation which, at our best, thinks flexibly about problems as they happen and works through them with the messy and slow process of democracy. These protests are voicing the myriad arguments for equitable economic reform and against the dismantling of corporate regulation, the dissolution of the social safety net, and the elimination of workers rights.

Our economy is careening off course in part because Wall St. was bailed out without any major rethinking of the 21st century economy and what it will actually take to reinvent our workforce and get people back to work.

We are so connected right now through technology, but seemingly helpless to sustainably reinvigorate our economy. We are not in fact helpless. We can correct the course of our economy through political reform, personal responsibility, and ingenuity. The issues raised by this emerging movement are clear:


Keep Marching. Keep fighting. Keep talking. Keep working and we will change the course of history.



Here's an improvisation I did on the very clumsy little beast that is Suzuki's Omnichord. This instrument is absurd, but a really fun to play...


Car on the Moon

Car on the Moon's self-titled debut is Extropian Records' 2nd release. I feel very lucky to have gotten the chance to mix this album and help with some of the production. COTM's music has a surreal quality to the lyrics and orchestrations that I find to be really compelling. Stream the album here. And if you like come to the release show September 3rd at Rock Shop.

Car On The Moon by Car On The Moon


Artists: What are you spending your time on?

My dad blew my mind last night with what's called a Dual-Bottom-Line Matrix. This is a table that typically helps non-profits evaluate their various activities and develop their sustainability. It works great for artists too though. Because as artists we are mostly pursuing a mission (fulfilling career) rather than a bottom line, and we do a million different things in pursuit of that mission. Here's how it works:

  • Some of the things we do earn us money and exemplify our goals as artists (Stars).
  • Some of our activities are wonderful opportunities that pay us nothing but are totally worth it (Hearts).
  • Some things we do have nothing to do with our mission but bring us cash and fund the Hearts (Money Trees).
  • And then there are the low mission low profit activities (Stop Sign). These might be favors, obligations, projects that have gone south, etc..
  • Also different activities fall all over the place in the matrix, and some activities might transform over time. For example my heart has recently turned into my star.
The goal is that everything is eventually a star or a heart but the nice thing about this matrix is that it allows for the complexity that is inherent in pursuing a mission oriented career. Weed out the stop signs, maximize the money trees and cultivate the stars and hearts. Ain't life grand? Thanks dad.

Photo Credit


John the Revelator - (Auto-Tuned)

I recently heard a radio show about Son House on NPR. This song just killed me so I went ahead and did my own updated version. Hope you like.



Try is one of the most ridiculous songs I've ever written. But it is pretty fun to perform if we can remember all the words. Here's a video from our CD Release on May 20, 2011. Lyrics below.

Thanks to Paul Snyder (edit) and Ben Chace (camera)
Buy the song Here.
Studio Recording Here

Try to tell the truth about how you feel
Try to take responsibility for your crappy life
Try to eat the seeds
Try not to peel the skin
Try to be in the place that you're already in.

Try a blind date
Try to get on TV
try a vigilante way of life
Try a poison ivy tea
try to go to mexico
make a rabbit out of wood
Try to get lost in your own neighborhood

Try to sing on the beat
try to talk to a cat
try to be authoritative
try to completely avoid trans-fat
try a robot broom
set it loose in your room
Try a passive aggressive tone with your family and friends

Try to go a week
without checking your mail
Try a business meeting on a raft
Try to fall in love with a whale
Try to bring it all home
Try a predatory loan
To to make a case for something you don't believe in

Try to start a farm
Try to take it like a man
Try to write a letter to the government
Try to live on Rasin Bran
Try to be the black sheep among the cows
Try to watch the olympics without being proud

Try to change your mind
about a person you hate
try to go to taco bell
on a very first date
Try to make a mistake
try a misery cake
Try Puerto rico as the 51st state


Instruments - LP

Instruments is a series of 20 instrumental cut-ups which explore the finest grains of sound from a variety of sources. (Full Free download HERE)

Instruments by musicisfreenow

Laura Goldhamer – Banjo
Lily Gottlieb-McHale – Cello
Jeremy Hoevenaar – Electric Bass
Jessica Feldman – Flute
Marylea Madiman - Horn
Marina Rosenfeld - Piano

All other instruments played by César Alvarez
The set "Instruments" by musicisfreenow is licensed under a Creative Commons License.


The Fancy

The Fancy opened for The Lisps last week at Rock Shop. They have killer basson and viola arrangements. Video below:


Micro Essays on The Lisps’ sophomore LP Are We at the Movies?

I wrote a short essays about every track on "Are We at the Movies?" for InDigest Magazine. Read the full text at Indigest...

“Wear and Tear”
I wrote this song while watching a video on Facebook of a friend of a friend, someone who I had never met. In the video these kids were all picking up their friend from the airport. It was spring break or some kind of special trip. They are all in the car driving and they are so pumped to be right at the beginning of a vacation. I recently read that time seems to go faster as you get older because you have less new experiences. The video reminded me of that. I’ve since met the girl whose video it was. She is very nice. Her name is Ruth.

“Are We at the Movies?”
I was at a “self-help” seminar of sorts, with my wife (girlfriend at the time). We were feeling very weirded out. So many people are looking for help. And we were those people in that moment. We felt like we were looking at ourselves from above feeling simultaneously in need, entranced, and escaping something. Emily wrote on a piece of paper “are we at the movies?” she passed it to me. I wrote, “Yes.” Then she wrote, “I can feel it.” I don’t know if I’ve ever told my band that.

Producing and mixing this album has been one of the most intense, difficult and confusing creative processes I’ve ever undergone. Part of the reason is that since I recorded The Lisps’ previous album I’ve spent six semesters teaching recording, studio production, and mixing at Bloomfield College in NJ. I’ve filled my students’ heads with so many ideas, rules, facts, options, and opinions that I was nearly paralyzed in the attempt to make my own album. I think actually that my standards and expectations have been so high for my students that I felt terrified at the possibility that I couldn’t live up to my own demands. I mixed this track at Bloomfield and when I came out of the studio several of my students were in the next room listening. They said, “that sounds great!” I was so relieved.

Ok, I’m a trans-humanist. I am a techno-optimist. I’m an extropian. And while I think Ray Kurzweil goes overboard in a lot of his assuredness and orthodoxies, I generally believe in an analysis of technology that says: Technology is a natural extension of biological evolution that is progressing and accelerating at an exponential pace. I wrote this song after reading Accelerando by Charles Stross. Finally I could really imagine an economy not based on scarcity, what it would be like to dematerialize into pure data, or how it would feel to “fork” into a second version of yourself. I wrote this song because I think that people should start thinking even more about the ethics and ramifications of the technological explosion we are currently witnessing. I think we are in for some beautiful future shock.

Read the rest at HERE...


Are We at the Movies? - The Movie

Are We at the Movies?
Release Date: May 17, 2011 (Extropian Records)


Directed by The Lisps & Pamela Romanowsky
Art Direction by Emily Orling
Edited by Nick Patten
Cameras - Pamela Romanowsky and Ben Chace
PAs - Stephanie Eiss, Conrad Kluck and Mark Rutan

The Lisps: César Alvarez, Lorenzo Wolff, Eric Farber, Sammy Tunis

Human Theremin - Lady Rizo
Burlesque - Lil' Miss Lixx
Tap Dancing - Sylvia Chen
Salsa Dancing - Contra-Tiempo
Puppeteer - Jason Rabinowitz
Hangman - Andrew Hoepfner and Leah Hayes
Couple Making Out - Dan Fishback and Santiago Venegas

Lady Rizo's gowns by Marchesa

Contra-Tiempo: Ana Maria Alvarez, Bianca Blanco, Jasmine Burgos, Mike Butler, Cesar Garfiaz, Marina Magalhães, Richie Marin, Omar Rodriguez-Diaz

Additional Revelers: Leola Bermanzohn, Stephanie Eiss, Radio Halfar, Paula Kadanoff, Jeri Keimig, Conrad Kluck, Dani Leventhal, Adepero Oduye, Elias Orling, Brett Price, Latasha Pugh, and Tina Vasquez


John Muther - Space Race

The Lisps played with John Muther twice in Milwaukee this year. Both times it was a joy. His songwriting is crafted so brilliantly. And he manages to talk about all the things I'm interested in just the way that seems to make sense. When I first heard is song Space Race, I was a believer.


As kids, on our hands and knees
Around the warm glow of the radio,
We wondered if the space men will wear sweaters.
Will they still eat food?
Will all food be pills?
Will they still tie their shoes?
Ray gun. Velcro.
Time moves too slow.
Rockets. Space camp.
Air locks. Mars man.
I'll take a shower of dust; I'll take a moon bath.
We need a thruster boost; we gotta go fast!
We have a duty to ourselves and our solar system
To spread our society.
We can show the other planets how to kill all the mosquitos,
And prevent each cloudy day.
Bug bomb. Smart bomb.
A bomb. H bomb.
Box top. Moon base.
Free prize. Space race.
We put our backs against the floor. We put our knees up on the couch.
We put our backs against the floor. We put our knees up on the couch.
Brushes steel. Plastic.
High sheen. High tech.
Longing for the
Wood floor. Wood stove.
Warm bed. Wool clothes.

John Muther's Website