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share: The Cribbage Variations

By Anthony Garone

A sneak preview of Chris Opperman's latest orchestral work.

About Chris Opperman

I first met Chris “Oppy” Opperman when I was a teenager using AOL to find musicians who were interested in Frank Zappa. My friend Todd told me about Oppy’s music and I was hooked. We’ve known each other for probably 20 years now and have stayed in touch thanks to social media.

Chris is finishing up his doctoral degree in music composition and has written a wonderful new piece of music called The Cribbage Variations for ex-Zappa bassist, Scott Thunes. More on that in the interview below.

This is a wonderful new piece of music with tons of algorithmic composition insights that I find extremely interesting. In this interview, Chris walks us through most of the movements and even offers a performance of one of them. You’ll get a great sense of his compositional style and sense of humor through this interview.

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Interview Transcript

AG: Chris Opperman is a composer, pianist, music professor, and gentleman extraordinaire based in New Jersey. He has a long history of wonderful music including a couple solo albums, he’s worked with Mike Keneally, he played trumpet on the album Dancing  with [Mike’s band] Beer for Dolphins, and he’s here with us today to talk about a new piece that he’s written as a capstone dissertation music project for his Ph.D. All the way from New Jersey! So, Chris, thanks so much for joining us. I really appreciate it.

CO: Thanks for having me. I would like to quickly thank the Mason Gross School of the Arts  and Gregory Mueller for setting up the studio today and letting us use their space. Thank you.

AG: Yeah, that’s fantastic. It’s so easy when there’s professionals doing this. [Laughs] Cool, so Chris tell us a little bit about The Cribbage Variations.

CO: Okay. So, I was doing research for the paper portion of my dissertation, which is going to be about Frank Zappa’s piece, Dupree’s Paradise . I was trying to gain insight into how the 1988 arrangement was built. So, fortunate enough to be friends with Scott Thunes , so I emailed him and said, “Scott, how did this arrangement work out?”

He wrote back a nice email and he said that at one point he was walking around listening to Webern ’s concerto for nine instruments, opus 24 , and wishing that it was a longer work. He tried to commission the piece from one of the other guys in the band, but he didn’t want to do it because he was busy playing Cribbage  with Mike Keneally on the bus. So, I read this email and I laughed a lot because it just seems like such a crazy idea and then I was like, “Well, what if I took Webern’s tone row and tried to smash it into the rules of Cribbage? What kind of results would I get?”

As things often happen in a creative effort, the piece spiraled completely out of control and became much larger in terms of scope and ambition and length than I’d initially intended and wound up being sufficient for the musical portion of my PhD in Musical Composition. That was a pretty nice surprise and kinda cool that it spun out from the other research I was doing.

AG: Yeah, that’s super cool. And you’re premiering the piece next month, in November, right?

CO: Yep, Sunday, November 19 at Shindell Hall, upstairs here from the studio, and it’s free and the performers will be HELIX! , which is the new music ensemble here at Rutgers . They’re really doing a great job. The conductor, Kynan Johns , he conducts a lot of Mahler  and a lot of operas around the world. He’s a really world-class conductor and he’s very excited about the piece, so that makes me feel very honored.

AG: And the piece itself has some very challenging aspects. I was listening to your rough mix last night and there’s a lot of passing of short motifs between groups of instruments. How have the rehearsals gone and what are some of the challenges they’ve faced?

CO: The rehearsals have gone pretty well. Obviously it’s one of the challenges–the syncopated rhythms and everything–and there’s the sheer number of notes in certain parts. The interesting thing is the parts they’re having trouble with are actually the parts where there’s a lot of space. They have a lot of really fast [sings quickly] passages and then they have [sings slowly with gaps], that kind of motif. So, kind of coordinating where they suddenly have space has been kind of a challenge.

The other thing that’s been kind of challenging is that when I was approaching the work, musicologist Martha Hyde wrote an article  about Stravinsky ’s classical works and talked about how they kind of operate. One thing she talked about was what she called “eclectic imitation” where you would have these asynchronous or atemporaneous [The word I was looking for was “atemporal” -CO] musical ideas and they would just kind of get shoved together.

So, that kind of operates in this piece where you’ll have in one second in a kind of early 20th century paradigm and then the next second channeling more Wagner  or Liszt . So, those kind of sudden stylistic shifts in the variations, I think are kind of tough because it’s not just playing the notes, your performance practice has to suddenly change from one variation to the next one. But they’re doing a really great job, so that’s not a criticism of their hard work.

AG: No, no. It’s legitimately challenging. As I was listening through last night, I just imagined trying to perform this as an ensemble. I love the piece. It is very stylistically diverse. How many movements and can you tell us about some of the methodology you went through or some of your thoughts as you were assembling the different movements and different genres?

CO: Sure, absolutely. There are 15 movements because 15 is the “magic number” in Cribbage. I don’t know if you’ve ever played Cribbage.

AG: I love Cribbage.

CO: Oh good, good! So, 15 and 31 are the two most important numbers . The 15s happen all the time and 31s happen every once in a while. So first I built a matrix of all 144 possible combinations of the row and then I built a rhythm table for unique integers that equal 15 so that, if I wanted to pull different syncopated rhythms, I could pull them and they equal 15.

Some of my goals as I was working on the piece… The first thing is that a lot of people will dismiss 12-tone music  or 12-tone serialism as just “math music” or “not interesting” or that kind of stuff. Whenever I approach something like this, I always want it to be musical, so the most important thing to me is that it be a functioning work of music. So, I wouldn’t go to someone working in a tonal paradigm and be like, “Well, your song is just all I IV V, that’s, like, super-lame.”

I feel like the same kind of thing is operating here. A good craftsman, any tools in the hands of a good craftsman should provide a sufficient result. Hopefully it doesn’t sound too arrogant. I think I sound really arrogant right now.

AG: No, not at all. I think it’s super cool and our audience is probably the perfect audience for this. [Laughs.]

CO: Yeah. [Laughs.] For instance, there’s a couple ones that are easy to find. The first one, Of Streets and Spillikins. The streets are when you have a cribbage board, the streets are where the pegs go and the spillikins are the pegs themselves. It starts with the trombone and the trombone plays the prime zero version of the row and has exactly 15 attacks while it’s accompanied with the rest of the thing.

A lot of 12-tone works start that way where you get a statement of the first row, kind of unabashedly so that you could see that the rest of the music spins out from that. I felt that would be really helpful to the listener, so we did that. The third movement is the first one that kind of addresses directly the Zappa connection with the 1988 band. Some of the challenges you face working on a 12-tone piece is one of them is maybe you don’t want noise all the time.

Chromatic saturation was something that Webern and Schoenberg  and Berg  were trying to achieve, or Milton Babbitt , in their works. I don’t feel a need–I feel like that’s been done really well and excellently so I didn’t feel the need to be all chromatic saturation all the time. I tried to find ways to not be all chromatically saturated all the time. Does that make sense?

AG: I think so. During those sections, I never felt that unpleasantness that I’ve normally felt listening to 12-tone music. So I was really interested to hear about how you approached that because it is so musical and approachable. It’s something that I feel is much more accessible than a lot of other 12-tone music I’ve heard.

CO: And that was partially by design. I know there are some philosophies in music where the audience liking it is lame, but I kind of feel like I want the people on the journey with me to be part of the journey with me. That’s really important. One thing you can do with the 12-tone matrix is you can combine rows to create different effects. If I wanted a series of chords, then all I had to do was have 12 of them. Does that make sense?

AG: Yep.

CO: I could pick–I’ll just pick at random. I’ll play something like this. [Plays a chord on the piano.] A D Eb and G. All right? Then I would just pick the corresponding notes on the matrix that start off the row. So I could pick P8, P3, P4, and P10. Then I could make a chord progression by going through the row that way.

I was actually very strict about how the piece is constructed, so I had a series of rules. One of the rules was that all the row statements must be complete row statements because, as an analyst, it’s not fun when you’re analyzing a piece and then the composer decides, “Well, I just like this note better so I’m going to use this note.” I wanted it to be super-strict. You’ll find everything if you’re looking for it.

The other one is that I could repeat pitches in the row as long as I go back and then complete the row. So, I could have a phrase that goes [plays a phrase]. Okay? The notes are repeated there, but when I repeat it, I complete the row so you get a complete row statement. Also it made it possible to have 15 coinciding with 12 because it would be really hard to do if I wasn’t repeating any pitches whatsoever.

AG: This is fascinating. So cool.

CO: Oh, thank you so much. The fourth movement, A Mid-December Breeze–I might call it Mid-December Winds because they’re played by woodwinds. That seems really obvious. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that earlier. Messiaen  was a composer in the mid-20th century who tries to bring back some kind of renaissance or medieval techniques when it came in terms of rhythm. He wrote a book called The Technique of My Musical Language  where he literally tells you how to write like him, which is pretty cool actually.

The idea of an isometric motet , the way it works is you have these two aspects: the rhythm and the pitches in the melody that are different numerical values. You have the talia, which is the rhythm, and then you have the color number of pitches. In this case, the number of pitches obviously is 12, and the number of rhythms is 15. In the fourth movement, what I did was I made a canon out of it. The flute starts off and it goes [plays the flute part] and then the oboe player comes in with a different one [plays the oboe part].

The notes will go through 12 and the repeat every 12 times and the rhythm will repeat every 15 pitches so that they wind up having a canon. You wind up with all the possible permutations to the rhythm. Obviously I didn’t do all of them or the piece would be super long. Then the three of them go together into kind of a canon. A lot of times in composition, you’re thinking about how to make multiple lines move at the same time. In a lot of rock and pop music, we have lines that don’t move–they’ll move together. [Plays chords together.]

They’ll have harmonies that are homorhythmic with itself. I find contrapuntal writing really interesting, so this is a way I could generate contrapuntal music  in a mathematical process in a way that also was satisfying. A lot of times these things were trial and error. I would try different rows and they would either be too dissonant or they would not be interesting enough or they wouldn’t fit mathematically and then I’d have to find a different combination of stuff that would work the way I wanted it to.

AG: I have a quick question.

CO: Sure.

AG: I’ve heard the term “aleatoric composition .” Is that what you’re doing? Is it kind of like rolling a dice and then you pick notes and chords and go from there? Or is this a different kind of systematic method? Or is this based on the rules that you’re inventing?

CO: This piece is based on all the rules I’m inventing. The last piece I did for the Meraki chamber ensemble was a flute, clarinet, and cello piece. That piece was entirely aleatorically generated where I sat there with dice and rolled them. What I learned from that process–the reason why I do these things is when I’m talking in the classroom with my students, I want to have the authority of someone who has actually done the homework of actually writing in these styles. Does that make sense?

AG: Absolutely.

CO: I felt like I could learn things intrinsically from the process of doing that I could never get from a book, so that’s why I did that. What I learned from the aleatoric piece was that the composer has an awful lot of control because the composer is determining the definition of the processes. If in one movement, I’m rolling–I got these musician’s dice that are these 12-sided dice  and have all the pitches on them. Because I’m a super nerd, right? And then I have D20s because I’m also a super nerd.

So I would roll the pitch and then I would roll the D20 and I’d be, “Okay, the flute is going to play thirteen 16th notes in Ab.” But then there are different processes involved there, but the aleatoric stuff–actually, the composer has a lot more control than it sounds like at face value. The same thing here with the 12-tone matrix and that kind of stuff. The composer is determining the processes and therefore is defining what the work is going to sound like. So one of these processes–this is a really good segue.

One of these processes is an idea called the time point system  that was invented by Milton Babbitt when he was at Princeton . The way it works is you have a bar of 3/4 and you have your 12-tone row and then the position where the pitch goes is based chromatically on the 16th notes, so [plays a chromatic scale while counting the notes] 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. Right? If my row starts with a B, then on the very last 16th note, I’m going to have a B. Does that make sense?

I thought, “Gee I wonder what would happen if I ran all twelve versions of the prime row at the same time with Milton Babbitt’s time point system.” Sometimes in science or in math or in anything you’re doing, you will discover that you are dumb. The result of this process, which should have been totally predictable, and I’m sitting there like, “Yeah, this is gonna sound so cool. This is so out there.” And then I play it back and what do I hear? [Plays a chromatic scale.] Sorry, that was terrible, let me try that again. [Plays a chromatic scale better twice.]

Of course I’m hearing all 12 pitches in repeat because I’m using all 12 rows! But, it was so funny and so dumb that I kept it. I mean, the piano’s going [plays big intervals]–they’re all in different registers, but it has this effect where it sounds like a chromatic scale going up that never ends. But it was so funny and I was so dumb that I was like, “Okay, well I’m going to celebrate my stupidity by keeping this.”

Sometimes things should just be funny. I know new music is supposed to be really serious and classical music is supposed to be very serious, but sometimes I don’t want to be real serious. You know?

AG: Absolutely right. I’ve interviewed Frank Pesci, who’s a modern opera composer, and then Hyung-ki Joo from Igudesman & Joo. They both talked about the idea that we shouldn’t be so somber and serious and that music only became that way in the last 100 years or so. 120 years. So, I totally agree. I love this piece and I laughed at certain parts and it’s just such a fun thing to listen to. Very emotional. I was surprised at the emotionality, not because I don’t think you do that, but because it just was unexpected after certain parts.

Like the 12-tone stuff is usually hard to listen to, but I found myself really liking it and then it would go into some sort of really quiet, sensitive, beautiful section. Then you’d really build up from there and you were using space and dynamics. I just loved it. And it was all midi! So I’m like, “This is gonna be awesome when a real orchestra plays this.”

CO: Oh yeah, it’s insane. At rehearsal, I’m like, “Wow, this sounds really good in real life.”

AG: Yeah.

CO: And the piano. You hear the piano really well. One of the orchestration things–I’m used to working with large orchestras. So, suddenly I only have nine people, but I kept that in mind. The piano, I kept thinking was going to be quiet and then we get to rehearsal and the piano’s really loud and I’m like, “Hooray! I can hear the piano.”

AG: Ah, yeah.

CO: I really appreciate your kind words.

AG: Oh, it’s a great piece, man. I’m really excited to even have this conversation and to share it with the world. Also, to say congratulations on finishing your PhD. I think that’s incredible.

CO: Well, I have to defend and still write a paper, but this part is finished. My advisor was like, “Good job!”

AG: Yeah!

CO: So, number seven. The seventh movement is a full-on Liszt-y and romantic double string work. Know what I mean?

AG: Yeah.

CO: You come out of this kind of crazy thing and then all of a sudden, it’s like [plays slow, angular, dramatic melody]. You know, that kind of stuff. That’s good contrast. Sometimes the variations are actually variations on other works that are not the opus 24 because–I also thought about, “What is a variation?” I’m doing these variations on this row, but also variations on other pieces. Does that make sense?

AG: Yeah, definitely.

CO: Also, I wanted–at first, I wasn’t going to tell anyone what the row was from and then we had a demo performance and one of the musicology professors here, Douglas Johnson , walked right up to me and he goes, “Opus 24.” I’m like, “Wow, that’s totally insane and also correct and now that game is done because you already won the game. So, good job Dr. Johnson.”

AG: That’s cool. Two points for him.

CO: Yeah. 100 points for him. That’s insane.

AG: I guess he wins Cribbage. Yeah.

CO: Yeah, yeah. [Laughs.] One of the other challenges would be when I would have–there’s a brass trio and I wanted it to be really kind of regal and not [plays dissonant chords] “crunchy.” Know what I mean? So, you had to find rows where you could make them move at different times so that they would coordinate into things that were almost like tonal harmony.

AG: Do you have an example of that you can play?

CO: Sure, I can attempt to play. [Laughs.]

AG: Sure.

CO: [Plays intro to Mov. 9 “Level Pegging.”] So you hear how the three parts are moving at different times? It’s so that I could continue the triadic harmony within the confines of the row construct.

AG: Beautiful.

CO: Thank you. That took a long time. [Laughs.] And then there’s another movement. The next one is called Lunn and that really makes good use of the rhythm table. A lot of syncopated rhythm. [Plays the intro to Mov. 10 “Lunn.”] They’re all harmonized, obviously. This was dedicated to Doug Lunn, who was my friend and a bass player. I heard about his passing in the middle of writing this movement.

AG: Oh, I’m sorry.

CO: You can actually hear the moment when I found it because it happens at bar 283. There’s suddenly this big tutti  emotional outpouring. It was like, “Wow, my friend died. This sucks.” I wanted to–I was already at the computer and I wanted to pay tribute to him. I know he was really good friends with Keneally and he was this wonderful guy. It was kind of sad, so I wanted to celebrate him also.

AG: That’s great.

CO: The eleventh movement is the most difficult one. That one is called Muggins. So, Anthony, why don’t you explain what muggins is?

AG: Oh, jeez. [Long pause.] I don’t remember.

CO: Okay. [Laughs.]

AG: I’ve played a lot of Cribbage, but it’s infrequent. I don’t remember muggins.

CO: So, when you forget to score…

AG: That’s right! You lose points, right?

CO: You lose points and your opponent gains points and they call muggins on you. It’s like if you didn’t call Uno  or something. So, when I first–here I tried to–I had this other piece called The Fermi Paradox  that we played at LPR a couple years ago and I had this kind of technique that I was calling “alien bebop” where you would have this kind of rhythm. It was kind of like [plays alien bebop on the piano]. It was all kind of harmonized. I like the technique that I did, but it was all harmonized the same. Does that make sense?

AG: Yeah.

CO: I had five instruments on it, but they were all playing the same texture. Not texture, but the same chord voicing. So [plays homorhythmic harmonies]. I was like, “What’s a leveled up version of that? How can I take that technique and bring it up?” While I was researching Dupree’s Paradise, I came across information about what Frank Zappa used called a “chord bible.” He had a series of chords that he liked to hear in succession. They were just chord flavors.

So you had a 6-note version or 7-note versions and then in his orchestral works from the late 70s through early 80s (thanks Brett Clement for doing all this research), he could use that to generate material that was kind of logical. It sounded logical, but it wasn’t necessarily apparent where it was coming from. Does that make sense?

AG: I think so.

CO: Well, I wanted to hear a similar thing, so I thought of chord voicings that I liked and then I knew at any point I could change them as long as I had twelve. I could change the way that the voices were structured and then that happens with a lot of notes. So here I used 143 of the possible 144 combinations of the 12-tone row and I “forgot one.” [Air quotes.]

AG: Oooooh. Cliffhanger?!

CO: Cliffhanger! I’m really, like, a big nerd right now. So I “forgot one” and that’s why there’s one missing. And I’ll let all you analysts out there in the audience figure out which one is missing. This one is way too hard for me to even hack through on the piano so you’ll have to come to the concert to hear it. But! What is good is I can play the very last note. I set it up so it would all end on the same note, which is G. [Plays 4 octaves of G.] Right? Because I was also like, “Oh my God, there’s so many notes. I just want one note. Okay, the note is G. I’m going to reverse-engineer it so it lands that way.”

AG: Very cool.

CO: And then you get the solo piano variation called The 144,000. Oh! One thing I want to mention that I actually think is really important is that in most pieces like The Porpentine [from his solo album, The Lionheart] or The 22nd Overture [from his solo album, Oppy Music] or those kind of “big” works, I don’t write them in chronological order. So, I’ll be working on one section. For instance, I had this part pretty early on. [Plays a chord sequence from The Porpentine.] That was an idea I had before [plays majestic music from the beginning of The Porpentine]–that kind of stuff.

One thing I wanted to do is I wanted to write variations in chronological order based on the ideas and when I had them. So, this is the first kind of big piece of mine where you get all my ideas in order. I just felt like that would be interesting to me. I don’t know. I don’t know who cares about that shit. Oops, sorry. I don’t know who cares about that stuff. So this movement I can actually play for you because I wrote it on the piano. [Plays Mov. 12 “The 144,000.”] Winner winner, lucky dinner!

AG: Yeah, that was great!

CO: Thank you. Don’t put that comment in.

AG: Of course I’m going to put that in.

[Laughter.]

AG: The best stuff is what the artists don’t want in the interview. [Laughs.]

CO: So when I was recording The Porpentine, there was this lick I budgeted a half hour to play this lick and I got it on the first time, I was so excited I was like, “Geeeeyaaahh,” over the microphone and the engineer was like, “You know you can’t do that, right?” And I was like, “Noooooo.”

[Laughter.]

AG: That’s funny. There were some parts in The Cribbage Variations that very strongly reminded me of the band Henry Cow  and I didn’t know if you ever listened to them.

CO: No.

AG: Oh, okay.

CO: My “weird” cred is going down by the second.

AG: [Laughs.] It’s probably a lot of similar influences. You know, modern composers and whatnot. And then secondly, I wanted to know what kind of a role did improvisation play in the assembly of these variations?

CO: The piece that I just played for you, that one is the most improvisatory in that I sat at the piano and kind of felt it out from different rows, but this piece is almost entirely generated with pre-compositional methods. The other movement that has a kind of improvisational nature is the very last one, which–you know, I don’t want to spoil the surprise for people because I think it’s a pretty good trick. It’s got a surprise ending.

AG: All right! Chris, thank you so much again. For people who have never listened to your music, where can they find it and where would you prefer they buy it?

CO: Oh buying it would be awesome. I’d really prefer that a lot. You can buy everything on iTunes , but you can listen to it for free on Spotify . You know, composers in the 21st century–we’re happy if you listen to our music. It’s there to be listened to. So, really would be happy if you’re just listening.

I have some unreleased stuff on my SoundCloud . There’s a piece called Ariadne that was played by the Montclair State University Orchestra. You can hear that there and there’s a piece called Kagemusha, which was written for the Berklee Symphonic Winds. There are no studio recordings of those pieces, so that’s how you’ll have to hear that stuff. I’m real friendly. Say hi on Facebook. You can just add me and I’ll add you back. I really appreciate you guys watching this interview.

AG: Do you have a website URL to share?

CO: Yeah, it’s chrisopperman.net , but I haven’t updated it in a long time.

AG: Okay, and then remind us of the details of the performance of The Cribbage Variations.

CO: Okay, it’s going to be on Sunday, November 19, at 7PM in Shindell Choral Hall, which is on the first floor of the Mason Gross New Music Building. It’s going to be performed by HELIX!, conducted by Kynan Johns, and performed by 9 talented students at Mason.

AG: Chris, thank you so much for your time and another pre-emptive congratulations on the completion of your PhD. I think that there’s a lot more to dig into with some of your previous work, so we should probably do this again in the next couple months.

CO: I would really enjoy that. And I have a little surprise for you.

AG: Uh oh.

CO: So, Make Weird Music. What I like about the name is it’s a command.

AG: That’s right.

CO: Make weird music! So, I’m going to make you a jingle right now for your website.

AG: Oh sweet!

CO: Okay, are you ready?

AG: Yes!

CO: [Plays jingle, quite aggressively.] That is your new jingle. Congratulations.

AG: Was that pre-composed?

CO: No. [Laughs.] Greg is nodding, “Yes.”

AG: Thank you. We are going to open the interview with that and we may open other videos with that. Feel free to send as many of those over as you wish, by the way.

CO: [Laughing.] No problem.

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