In Three Stages, artists explore one work of art through three stages in its development.
Composer and musician Lainey Schooltree has undergone a years-long journey to create her rock opera Heterotopia. Heterotopia will have a concert performance and book release for its illustrated libretto on Friday, September 29, 2017, at OBERON in Cambridge.
Here, she traces its surprising path.
“This isn’t working, none of it works. I’ve written myself into a corner,” I lament. It’s a clear fall night sometime in early 2014. I’ve driven through the neighborhoods of Medford to Watertown, blasting recent demos on my car stereo, to a playwright friend and advisor’s house. Tonight she’s helping me refine a draft of a rock opera I’ve been working on for a little over a year, for a workshop performance that’s happening in six weeks. I have over a hundred pages of writing, and all of it is crap.
I’ll admit I can be dramatic about the trials of creating. I take it all very seriously. Maybe too seriously, in some odd combination of New England forbearance and art martyr angst. I tell myself the pathos propels the work to artistic glory, and only occasional injury. This is how I wound up spending every dollar I had (and a whole bunch I didn’t), neglected relationships hanging uneasily in the balance, with semi-permanent muscle damage in both arms — spending four years on a project universally designated “ambitious,” for better or worse.
The rock opera we’re working on is for Schooltree, a band I started in 2011 with a rotating lineup of wonderful musicians dedicated to a challenging project. We’d released our first studio album Rise to some acclaim, and with its theatrical sound, orchestral dynamics, and heavy guitar riffs, people resoundingly advised me to make it into a rock opera. “Hell,” I thought, “this album is out, it’s over, I’ll just write one from scratch.” Yep. Easy.
My aesthetic approach was a kind of crude gesamtkunstwerk – Wagner’s “music drama” in which all musical, poetic, and dramatic elements are fused in a synthesis of the arts – striving for mastery and integration of craft in all aspects of creation. Hoooo. In short, I wanted to do everything TO THE MAX. Create a world, a relatable protagonist, a quest, a kickass story with a feel of modern mythology, an urban folktale. Write music with classical complexity and pop accessibility with dense, symphonic arrangements. Produce it with massive walls of sound and finely tuned detail. Go.
My friend Barry Crimmins advised me over the years to play to the ages, not to the age. I took this reminder to heart. I felt there was an increasing tyranny of mediocrity in popular music driven by the bottom line: a product of late-capitalist commodification and profit-driven algorithms. Unsure whether I could pull off something of this magnitude but ready to die trying (cue gothic anguish), I determinedly set out to do the Greatest Thing Ever in the Greatest Way Ever in these Dark Times For Art, Man.
Now, in my friend’s living room, workshop looming, it seems as though I have nothing in the way of a story.
The music was easy. It always has been. It’s generally agreed I was born unreasonably opinionated about how music should sound. My mother still recounts tales of me in the backseat, a toddler, weeping and begging her to change the radio station to a different song. As a teenager I was glibly assigned the family nickname the “Music Nazi” (and yeah, half our family is Jewish).
Having no experience whatsoever with writing a story, my initial phase was research, including the classics (Dante’s Inferno, 1984, Lord of the Rings), Michel Foucault, Plato, Carl Jung, and David Harvey, studying comparative mythology and the story structure of the three-act screenplay.
In the early days of idly mulling premises, one idea persisted: a girl who loses her body. Initially I went with it, but somehow, I came to hate this idea. It was too personal and not political enough. And in a way, too much about me. This needed to be an epic sociopolitical manifesto exposing the most salient challenges of our times! I came across the mysterious word, “heterotopia.” The sound was evocative – sometimes people assume it has to do with sexual orientation – and I liked that. But did I understand it? Not so much. I read Foucault’s famous lecture to architects. Nope. The Wikipedia page offers little to grasp it meaningfully. Sites like heterotopiastudies.com and a few university lectures helped. Gradually I wrapped my head around the idea in the context of utopia and dystopia – worlds within worlds reflecting, distorting, and shaping that which is outside. I wondered if Jung’s collective unconscious could be considered a heterotopia, one of these spaces of otherness, outside the hegemony of our world. I decided that was my hypothesis / starting point for what became Otherspace.
I began to see Otherspace on walks down the slanted sidewalks of Somerville, this parallel world of the collective unconscious existing alongside us, shaping our conscious life. I populated it with Jungian principles, personified as colorful characters. Otherspace gave definition and clarity to the layers of meaning already in the everyday – the state of the culture around me and a subjective experience of a shared dream running like a current beneath us. And what if that dream became a nightmare?
The world was coming together, but in the narrative, ideas competed for inclusion, I indulged them and they clashed. A thoughtful configuration is all I need to make them play nice, I insisted. Weeks turned into months as I puzzled together a wild story like I was uncovering an elaborate conspiracy. Inevitably came the what-are-you-working-on conversations. “I’m writing a rock opera!” Reasonably, people would ask “What’s it about?” and I’d be like, “Okay here we go. I’ll need about an hour to explain it. You know how we’re all being existentially dislocated by the commodification of our very humanity? So there’s this place we can’t see… hey where are you going? Heyyyyy….”
Faced with the impossibility of a logline – the one sentence summary of my story – I rationalized my elaboration until I couldn’t rationalize or elaborate anymore. The pieces were there. But the story, like a song, needed a hook.
My friend delicately agrees. “Your first idea was solid,” she says.
“Yeah, but it’s dumb.”
“It’s strong and it works.”
I think about this quietly for a while. It’s at the very least a neat solution to the mess of my current draft. Some part of me feels like I’m turning to face myself, I feel a boredom that I begin to suspect is covering some kind of fear.
“I guess I should throw everything out and go with that,” I say miserably.
I sit in my car, the moon casting shadows of leaves waving on the street. With a sigh I turn the ignition, the stereo fires up again, mid-demo. I begin envisioning a new narrative. It doesn’t feel good, but it feels right.
Across the writing of Heterotopia I cultivated the willingness to mercilessly cut anything that did not meet the standard or serve the whole. It was brutal. I killed my babies. But those babies had to go.
The limiting framework of a simple premise ended up being exactly what the project needed. It allowed for the development I was looking for. I decided that Suzi would lose her body and thereby end up trapped in Otherspace as a ghost, having to undergo trials in her quest to get it back. The nature of the story, something so personal as one’s contentious relationship with one’s body, was one I could tell honestly and in which I could find the social relevance I was looking for. As the workshop approached the first full draft came together quickly, songs were shifted, lyrics adjusted. By the time we performed it, there was a rough through line, and I felt clear about what I had to do to finish it to record the album the following spring.
Little did I know what I was getting myself into making that album, not unlike Suzi falling down the manhole. But that’s a story for later.
Maybe you’re thinking “Hey Lainey, four years later, did Heterotopia end up actually the Greatest Thing Ever?” Who knows. So far some people love it and some people really don’t. Finding ways to deal with that is part of the journey. I’m doing everything I can to get the album into more ears. What would I change if I could go back? Nothing. Maybe everything. I guess I don’t need to decide until there are time machines. Until then, dissatisfaction fuels my for-better-or-worse ambition. Heterotopia was in part my play for redemption for the flaws I saw in our previous album. And Heterotopia‘s flaws are driving me now as I begin the next project.
Watch a performance of the song DAY OF THE ROGUE from the premiere of HETEROTOPIA
Heterotopia is a rock opera and double album from Schooltree, available now on Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, and elsewhere. It will be performed in full at the American Repertory Theater’s OBERON on September 29, 2017 to celebrate the release of the illustrated book companion to the album. More at schooltreemusic.com.
Images and Media: Lainey Schooltree performing HETEROTOPIA, photo by Philip Doyle; SCHOOLTREE, image by Amanda Watkins; Kristin Santangelo performing in HETEROTOPIA, photo by Philip Doyle; video of DAY OF THE ROGUE from the premiere of HETEROTOPIA.