The Edge of Forever is Lewis Pesacov and Elizabeth Cline’s opera for the end of the most recent cycle of the Mayan Long Count, though to hear them tell it the piece may have already existed for a few thousand years before they showed up. Performed by wild Up on the evening of December 21, 2012, the recording is finally making its way to the public via The Industry Records this week, with a release party on Friday, June 24, at 365 Mission. Better yet, you can hear the finale right here, in this post, today! We’ll let Lewis and Elizabeth explain. The track, and info on the show, are at the end.
The Edge of Forever is, as I understand it, only the third act of this opera, the first two acts of which happened in 830 CE. Being that time is cyclical, will those first two acts be taking place again in roughly 2,280 years?
Elizabeth: That would be interesting! I believe that the cyclical nature of time means that when one cycle ends another begins, not that it repeats itself. For the Maya, the most fundamental aspect of their belief structure is that time is without end or beginning; the end of one cycle simply allows for the dawn of the next. And this is exactly what happened on December 21, 2012.
I was under the impression the performance could only happen once, on that date. Are you considering this recording almost as a document of what happened that night, more than a piece of art on its own? Or have your views of the work changed since then?
Elizabeth: We wrote an opera for an exact moment in time and it was our intention that the opera would be performed in that exact moment – December 21, 2012 from 8:30-9:15pm PST. The scenes before that moment exist and the scenes after that moment exist, unwritten, and the story itself stretches infinitely far into the past and future. It was a conscious effort to be of and in the moment. The recording documents that moment but also serves as an archive for a work that will never be realized as a whole again. However, we will be performing the final aria from the opera live at our record release show on June 24th, an exception to the rule because this aria has been modified specifically for this concert event.
Lewis: The three middle scenes of the five on the album are live recordings from the one-time only performance. I would certainly consider these as the documentation of the original event. A few unfortunate technical difficulties made for the first and final scene unusable for an album so I decided to make studio recordings to complete the documentation. Although the studio recordings were not captured at that specific moment in time, they are still very much artifacts of the event. Moreover, this unintended outcome led to the opportunity to record the first scene in the studio, a creative turn on the original music in the decision to use just one voice, the luminous Abby Fischer, to play the role of all of the 4 scribes. This allowed us to represent the many in the one, which in turn helped us go deeper into the message of Non-duality already embedded in the story. So in a way, through accidents, we arrived at an even tighter version of the work.
What attracted you both to this material? Was the interest in these Mayan culture already there, or was it spurred by the wide interest in their calendar leading up to 12/21/12? I know you are both interested in meditation, and it seems like some of the philosophy of TM and oneness made it into the work as well.
Elizabeth: As December 2012 drew near there was a huge upswell in interest in the Mayan calendar and the false “doomsday” prophesy that when the calendar ends so does the world. Even before this widespread public obsession we were fascinated by Mayan cosmology, having visited ancient Mayan temples in the Yucatan Peninsula, and started a deep dive into the ancient texts like the Popol Vuh and Chilam Balam. But really, what is more operatic than “the end” having been foretold in stone engravings since the 9th century? It is both historic and mythic which is very fertile ground for opera!
Our meditation practice and inquiry into the nature of self and consciousness is the biggest influence on our work together. Through studying and practicing meditation, I’m naturally drawn to thinking about time and perception verses presence and states of being, which like love are spaces outside of time where we connect to the infinite. This idea of connection and oneness is where this opera ends and where our next opera (in progress), Out There, begins.
It seems like, by taking native traditions and beliefs (and even instruments) and putting them into the western context of opera, you might be skirting on some questions of appropriation. I don’t mean that in at all an accusatory way, because obviously there’s such a richness of material here, but is that something that concerned you when approaching this project? How did you deal with those issues?
Elizabeth: This is such an important question to be writing and thinking about as it relates to who is telling what story in what context. In opera there is a long history of dominate cultures perpetuating their values and practices through operas that represent other cultures or intercultural exchange, we consciously tried to avoid that. The story and characters are completely unique but inspired by Mayan texts, folklore and engravings. However, New Age Philosophy, Indian philosophy, Transcendentalism, the multiverse, epic love stories, and our own experiences with meditation equally influenced the story.
Lewis: My decision to write for the primordial end-blown conch shell trumpet in the context of a more traditional Western opera ensemble stemmed from its ancient origins and deep elemental connection to the water and earth. Conch shell trumpets have been used as instruments since Neolithic times and are not only found in Mesoamerican cultures. They are found in almost every part of the world from Central Europe to India, Tibet, Korea, Japan, the Caribbean, Melanesian, and Polynesian cultures; The mythological Greek god Triton also blew a conch shell to calm the seas. The conch shell trumpet produces a beautifully pure tone, very close to a sine wave.
To balance this historic instrument the ensemble also consisted of 8 sine tone oscillators, each of which produces a single sine wave. Sinusoidal sound waves consist of a smooth, repeating oscillation of a single frequency. Unlike other sound waves, sine waves are self-identical at any moment in time, without fluctuating harmonic content, or an initial transient/final decay. In this way, sine waves seem to exist outside of time itself and are to me, a sonic representation of the infinite.
Lewis, in the liner notes you talk a bit about exploring ancient music and constructing an imagined future music, and of the ratio 13:20 informing a lot of your process. The vocal writing in the opening reminds me a lot of the Notre Dame School composers and music from the Ars Antiqua, who also had an obsession with ratios. Is that something you were actively seeking to channel?
Lewis: In contemplating the cyclical nature of time I kept coming back to this idea of the resultant blurring of the lines of the ancient and the future. I wasn’t interested in exploring ancient music per se, but more specifically, imagining my own creative interpretation of an ancient/future music. The music of the opening scene invokes a sacred song and is certainly influenced by the Western tradition of polyphonic vocal writing. The rhythmic structure uses an isorhythm with it’s talea and color based on the ratio of 13:20, respectively. Each of the 4 voices sing rounds of the isorhythm in some form of augmentation or diminution. Good ear Nick! But I do believe the isorhythm was an invention of the Ars Nova school, just after the Ars Antiqua… [Ed: Lewis is correct about this] That said, I did not intend to blatantly allude to Medieval music as much as to unfold out from their rarefied formal practices.
What was the back and forth like while working on the libretto and music? As a couple, do you try to draw a line between the project and your home life, or does working on it get into everything you do together?
Elizabeth: Creating opera with my husband is the ultimate expression of love – it is merging together to create something bigger than our two egos. I feel really lucky that our relationship has found this expression so naturally. We wrote the piece together and produced the live performance ourselves, so there were no boundaries, everything was The Edge of Forever all the time leading up to December 2012. Having a creative practice that is naturally woven into everyday life is something that artists do and certainly something Lewis does, so I followed his lead while writing with him. I wrote all the text, he started composing and wanted to cut half of my words, I fiercely guarded those words until I realized he was right, let go word by word, and he helped me shape a libretto that was so much more abstract, poetic and fit our deepest intentions for the piece.
We have an exclusive stream of the Finale. What can you tell us about it?
Elizabeth: In the final aria the scribes announce to our ancient astronomer that the time for realizing his destiny has arrived. In this scene he moves darkness to light – from a space of desire to a space of illumination where he can see the his true nature and that of the world. By the end of the aria he is released from his cave, a metaphor for his mind and thoughts, and in doing so he has attained freedom from the illusion of the self. He can now embrace the One.
Lewis: From a musical perspective, there’s a shift in the tonal content of the piece at the Finale. The music in the prior scenes consists of non-tempered microtonal inflections that create beating between the pitches, furthering an unresolved feeling of tension. However, in the finale, inspired by the image of the turning of the great cosmic clock, the ensemble locks into 5-limit just intonation. I intended the harmonies (consisting of pure, non-beating primary harmonics of the overtone series) to act as a metaphor for the moment in which the ancient astronomer merges with it all.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Lewis: Time is shaped by our own perceptions so it is deeply personal, but it is also something universal that defines us as humans. My hope is that The Edge of Forever creates conditions for the audience to reflect on the nature of time. That perhaps the past and the future are not the truth or even reality, but instead one can find the entirety of human experience in each moment.
For more information about The Edge of Forever record release party & concert on June 24, visit 356mission.tumblr.com/post/145921957755/the-edge-of-forever-a-chamber-opera-in-five-scenes
To purchase The Edge of Forever from The Industry Records, visit records.theindustryla.org/album/the-edge-of-forever