San Luis Obispo

Mark Abel: A Contemporary Voice in Classical Music

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It takes about 45 minutes for composer Mark Abel to walk the dirt trail near his San Simeon home. Standing on the scrub-covered cliffs overlooking the sparkling Pacific Ocean, he can spot a colony of harbor seals sunning themselves on the shore, pelicans gliding above the waves or zebras grazing on the nearby hills of Hearst Ranch.

"You can never tell what you're going to see out here," explained Abel, who moved to the Central Coast from Carlsbad in January 2013. It's here, surrounded by the bucolic beauty of northern San Luis Obispo County, that the former journalist has found space to expand his artistic vision: rock-inflected classical music with a strikingly contemporary edge.

According to Delos Productions Inc. Director Carol Rosenberger, Abel's compositions demonstrate authenticity, emotional depth and a serious dedication to craft.

"I'm really excited to see something of that quality come out of California. He's really made quite a contribution already," said Rosenberger, whose Sonoma-based record label has released two of Abel's albums so far. "The Dream Gallery: Seven California Portraits" came out in 2012, and "Terrain of the Heart: Song Cycles of Mark Abel" was released in February.

Rosenberger isn't the only artistic heavyweight who thinks highly of Abel, who was honored in July by the Los Angeles chapter of the American Composers Forum. He recently collaborated with Los Angeles author, publisher and librettist Kate Gale on a song cycle based on her upcoming book.

Mark Abel, second from right, poses with the other members of Chriscraft in New York City in 1978. | Courtesy of Mark Abel

The son of Pulitzer Prize and Peabody Award-winning journalist and author Elie Abel, Mark Abel spent his early years immersed in classical music and jazz before discovering rock 'n' roll.

"I was fortunate to start listening in the early 1960s," Abel said. "If it had been some other decade where my ears were really fresh and taking in everything, I probably wouldn't have received so much quality stimuli."

Still, he added, "It wasn't until I was about 17 or 18 (that) I started saying, 'Hmmm, I love this stuff. Why don't I get a guitar and start learning how to play this?'"

After two years at Stanford University - he dropped out without declaring a major - Abel moved to New York City, where he worked as a guitarist, bassist and songwriter in the 1970s and early 1980s. In addition to serving as a live sound engineer for Television and Talking Heads and producer for The Bongos and The Feelies, he led the bands City Lights and Architecture.

Abel left his rock career behind when he returned to the Bay Area in 1983, taking a job at a Palo Alto newspaper. He joined the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle two and a half years later.
"The whole time I had been in journalism, I had been continuing to work on my music very doggedly at home," recalled Abel, who stepped down as the Chronicle's foreign editor in 2004 to focus on music full time.

He credits advances in MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) technology with giving him the tools needed to expand his skills as a composer. "I realized, 'Here's the key that's going to unlock the opening chapters of my being (able) to write more complex music,'" he said, despite his lack of formal training.

Mark Abel sings along with one of his compositions. | Chris Daly
Abel released two self-produced albums - 2006's "Songs of Life, Love and Death" and 2008's "Journey Long, Journey Far" - before signing with Delos.

Rosenberger described popping the demo for "The Dream Gallery" into her CD player for the first time. "Seventy-some minutes later, I emerged. I could not stop (listening)," the classical pianist recalled. "I just had not ever experienced anything like it."

According to Abel, the overarching narrative of "The Dream Gallery" echoes that "hoary cliché about California being a place that people come to realize their dreams."

"It's a cliché but it's also true," the composer said. "Therefore I felt it was fair game to talk about what these people were hoping to achieve (and) how they may have gotten off track."

Over the course of "The Dream Gallery," which features seven vocalists and the La Brea Sinfonietta conducted by Sharon Lavery, listeners meet characters including "Helen" the desperate Los Angeles divorcee, "Luz" the "proud yet determined" Soledad farmworker and "Adam" the aimless Arcata college grad.

Abel showcases the Bay Area as well, offering a sardonic portrait of a smug, elitist Berkeley in "Naomi" and a sympathetic view of crime-ridden, poverty-stricken Richmond in "Lonnie." "It's just people trying to tell their truths, ungarnished, whether we like them or not," he explained.

Soprano Jamie Chamberlin and pianist Victoria Kirsch perform a selection from Mark Abel's album "Terrain of the Heart." | Corina Gamma

While "The Dream Gallery" charts the psychological landscape of the Golden State, Abel's most recent album delves deeper to explore the "Terrain of the Heart."

The emotionally charged album features Los Angeles pianist Victoria Kirsch and sopranos Jamie Chamberlin and Ariel Pisturino. Chamberlin and Kirsch will perform selections from "Terrain of the Heart" on Aug. 17 at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Glendale as part of the Unsung: Songs Uncommon and New concert series.

Opening the album is the song cycle "The Dark-Eyed Chameleon," a profound and powerful narrative of love and loss inspired by Abel's own agonizing breakup. "I could have not dealt with it. I could have sublimated it and never turned it into a piece or art," the composer said. "But it needed to come out."

Romance and redemption return as themes in the reflective "Rainbow Songs," while "Five Songs of Rainier Marie Rilke" explores the enigmatic masterpieces of the German poet.

Comparing his songs to short stories, Abel said his goal as a composer is "to get the listener to latch onto the journey that's going on" by placing them "in some kind of spot where they think they're encountering a real person, even if it's somebody that I've just made up."

Matthew Snyder, Carol Rosenberger and Mark Abel work in the recording studio during the production of "Terrain of the Heart." | Corina Gamma
"La Sonnambula," part of the "Rainbow Songs" cycle, was selected as one of the winners of the American Composers Forum's 2014 Composition Competition showcasing pieces written for voice and piano. Winning works were performed July 15 at Boston Court Performing Arts Center in Pasadena.

"What the judges were looking at were scores that are going to end up being performed over and over in concert halls around the country," explained Gale, president of the American Composers Forum of Los Angeles since 2006. "In other words, the composers are working at a high level of mastery and excellence."

Abel approached Gale last fall about writing a libretto for his upcoming opera, "Home Is a Harbor." He ended up penning his own. Then the composer decided to set to music "five wonderful, very visceral poems" from Gale's book "Echo Light," which will be published by Red Mountain Press of Santa Fe, N.M., this fall.

"They come from a deep place, but they almost break the surface in terms of your being able to feel the power that's behind them," Abel said of the poems, praising Gale's fearless approach to her subject matter. "She has the gift for saying things that (other) people would like to say but often squelch."

Gale said Abel's music shares a sensibility with her own work. "I get the feeling of being on the West Coast and being on the edge of the world. And the edge of your life," she said.

"You come to L.A. to reinvent yourself," explained Gale, managing editor of Pasadena's Red Hen Press and editor of the Los Angeles Review. "At that point, that raw, edgy feeling you have is that anything is possible and that you can create anything. That's the feeling that ... flows through my poetry most consistently."

Mark Abel during a "Terrain of the Heart" recording session. | Corina Gamma

"Home Is a Harbor," which Abel plans to record with the Gale song cycle as a double album, seeks to capture a different facet of California culture.

Set in the near past, the opera follows twin sisters Lisa and Laurie as they leave their hometown of Morro Bay; one sibling moves to New York City and becomes a successful yet creatively stifled artist, while the other attends Cal Poly before being recruited by an unscrupulous reverse-mortgage company in Orange County.

Asked why he set the opera on the Central Coast, Abel said he views the area as "one of the last unspoiled places in terms of cultural pollution." "I don't get the idea that (people here) are as enthralled by mass consumerist culture," he said. "They don't feel obliged to jump every time these powers say 'jump.'"

Abel also wanted a narrative that would be accessible to modern audiences. "It wouldn't be natural for me to write some high-falutin' story about knights in shining armor," he said. "I'm just not interested in the 18th and 19th century subject matter that a lot of operas (use)."

Abel acknowledged that his stance, like his unique musical background, sets him apart from much of the classical crowd. "I'm just trying to do something that has (a) contemporary feel, that people can relate to," he said.

Classical composer Mark Abel spends time each day walking the trail near his San Simeon home. | Chris Daly

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Top Image: San Simeon composer Mark Abel finds inspiration in his scenic surroundings. Photo by Chris Daly.

About the Author

Sarah Linn covers film, television and the performing arts as the editor of Ticket, the arts-and-entertainment section of The Tribune newspaper of San Luis Obispo, Calif.
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