As a journalist-turned-classical composer, San Simeon resident Mark Abel knows how to set the scene.
“I’m just trying to give people something to think about. I’m trying to place them somewhere temporarily,” Abel said.
In his 2012 album “The Dream Gallery: Seven California Portraits,” Abel explored the psychological landscape of his home state. His new album, released by Delos Productions in February, charts even more intimate territory — “Terrain of the Heart.”
Years of travel
Born in Hartford, Conn., Abel spent his early years traveling across the United States, Europe and Asia with his father, Peabody Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Elie Abel.
Mark Abel was 11 when his family moved back to the U.S. in late 1959, settling in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. After graduating from prep school in 1966, he spent two years at Stanford University — but dropped out at age 20 without ever declaring a major.
Music called Abel to New York City, where he worked as a guitarist, bassist and songwriter in the 1970s and early ’80s.
In addition to leading two rock groups — City Lights and Architecture — he worked as a producer for The Feelies and The Bongos and served as a live sound engineer for Television and Talking Heads.
Eventually, Abel said, “I felt … that I was just batting myself against a brick wall because of the prison of short rock songs.”
“Once you get to a certain level of competence, where you can turn out a three-minute song that’s well crafted, there’s no place to go after that, he explained. “You wind up repeating yourself artistically a lot.”
Rather than risk creative stagnation, Abel moved back to the Bay Area in 1983.
“I managed to talk my way into journalism,” he said, eventually landing a job at the now-defunct Peninsula Times Tribune in Palo Alto. Two and a half years later, he was hired by the San Francisco Chronicle.
Abel spent more than 17 years at the newspaper, at one point overseeing 30 freelance correspondents stationed across the globe. He stepped down as foreign editor in 2004, frustrated by the direction the Chronicle had taken after its purchase by Hearst Corp.
“This whole time I had been in journalism, I had been continuing to work on my music very doggedly by myself at home,” Abel said, despite his lack of formal training.
During that time, he saw major advances in MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) technology.
“For the first time I was able to start writing more complex music and actually hear it in the room … being played by synthesizers and samplers,” he said. Even so, he added, he waited until 2002 to record his compositions “because I didn’t feel I had brought an originality and power to what I was trying to do.”
After releasing two self- produced albums — 2006’s “Songs of Life, Love and Death” and 2008’s “Journey Long, Journey Far” — Abel teamed up with Delos three years ago.
“Being a complete freelancer without academic connections ... I was having to not only write the music but record it, produce it, find good-quality singers to record it with me,” explained Abel, who uses what he calls “the cold-calling approach” to recruit talent.
He’ll walk up to singers after concerts and say, ‘Hey I’m Mark Abel. I’m a composer. I want to record this piece. Listen to it,’ ” he said. “I’ve had very good luck with that.”
Abel’s first Delos release, 2012’s “The Dream Gallery: Seven California Portraits,” features seven singers backed by the La Brea Sinfonietta conducted by Sharon Lavery.
A series of song portraits, “The Dream Gallery” profiles seven fictional characters living in cities around the state — such as Helen, a Los Angeles divorcee, and Luz, a Soledad farmworker.
The track “Todd,” for instance, finds the title narrator “driving around Taft in his pickup truck amid the tumbleweeds and oil wells, reflecting on how the mineral wealth has been taken out of the area,” Abel said.
In “Terrain of the Heart,” which features collaborations with Los Angeles-based sopranos Jamie Chamberlain and Ariel Pisturino and pianist Victoria Kirsch, the composer plumbs his personal life for inspiration.
The album opens with “The Dark-Eyed Chameleon,” a poignant song cycle that charts a romantic relationship from heady start to tragic end.
“That’s about as revelatory as I think I’m ever going to get in my music,” Abel said, acknowledging that “The Dark-Eyed Chameleon” was inspired by his own traumatic breakup. “I could have not dealt with it. I could have sublimated it and never turned it into a piece of art. But it needed to come out.”
Also featured on “Terrain of the Heart” are “Five Poems of Rainer Marie Rilke,” which Abel originally wrote in 2004, and “Rainbow Songs,” four songs about romance and redemption that “share dreamy qualities and bursts of kinetic energy,” Abel writes in the album’s liner notes.
Abel currently has two projects in the works: an opera set primarily in Morro Bay, and a series of songs setting the poetry of Los Angeles poet, publisher and librettist Kate Gale to music. The latter project will be Abel’s first break from writing his own lyrics since 2005.
“There’s a lot of visceral power in the stuff she writes,” Abel said of Gale. “I’m letting my imagination be fired with whatever is coming from her.”
His opera, a coming-of-age saga written for chamber orchestra, follows twin sisters who have just graduated from high school. One of the bright yet inexperienced siblings moves to New York and becomes a successful artist while the other attends Cal Poly before being “siphoned off into marketing and the real estate scams of Orange County,” he said.
Asked why he chose the Central Coast as a setting, Abel said, “I perceive SLO as one of America’s last best places.
“This place is not materialistic and aggressive and gung-ho like San Diego … It’s not as totally tech-dominated as the Bay Area now is,” said Abel, who moved to San Simeon 15 months ago from San Diego. “I see people here as being somewhat more centered in a traditional kind of way.”
Although he hopes “Terrain of the Heart” will attract local listeners — “Rainbow Songs” will be performed Aug. 17 in Glendale — Abel said he doesn’t expect fame or fortune.
“I’m doing it for my own self-realization and not to make money,” the composer said. “If I get some respect along the way ... and also acceptance from some well-known classical musicians, that’s enough for me.”
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.