LA Opera presented the West Coast premiere of David Lang’s 2016 work the the loser in its Off Grand series last weekend. A spartanly staged one-man show, the production fit comfortably in the intimate space of the Theatre at the Ace Hotel. Indeed the theater’s cozy atmosphere promoted a personal relationship between audience—located entirely in the balcony—and the one and only singer, baritone Rod Gilfry, perched high above the stage in a booth. Head on, the audience faced Gilfry, himself ensconced in a shroud of darkness moderated by a shifting spotlight.
The work, more a soliloquy in song than an opera, was performed by the musicians who premiered it at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s New Wave Festival, including Gilfry and the Bang on a Can All Stars, of which Lang is a founding member.
Gilfry plays three parts: all pianists, all neurotic. A richly detailed narrative reveals the disillusionment and self-inflicted failure of two pianists in competition with Glenn Gould, “the most important pianist in the world.”
Gould dubs the narrating character, otherwise nameless, “the Philosopher,” because the word was “in his mouth at all times,” and their friend Wertheimer, “the loser,” who is “always busy losing.” Eventually, “the Philospher” gives up his piano, proclaiming he is “…no artist, absolutely no artist.” Later, Wertheimer commits suicide, partly to spite the sister who abandoned him to marry a chemical plant owner.
Obsessively, the narrator repeats superfluous clarifications with the relentless regularity of a litany, reciting “I thought,” or “he said” following most statements.
In addition to composing the music, Lang constructed the libretto out of excerpts from Jack Dawson’s English translation of Thomas Bernhard’s 1983 novel of the same name. The story is only superficially linked to Gould, Horowitz, and the subject of music, and deals primarily with existential questions of purpose, meaning, and moral worth.
The three figures met, we are told, in a (purely fictitious) masterclass with Horowitz in Austria. There it is clear that “Glenn is the best.”
Gilfry intoned such revelations with a haunting baritone resonance that at once thrilled, calmed, and convinced. Even mundane remarks seemed significant in Gilfry’s brilliant, penetrating tone. And Gilfry’s skillful acting, by turns joyful, reverent, and tearful, made the narrative come alive with sparkling clarity.
Rather than drawing attention to itself, Lang’s music served the role accompaniment to the vocal part. Delicate pizzicatos in the small string section, playing disjunct intervals dominated by minor seconds and tritones, spiced the otherwise lecture-like initial minutes of the narrative.
Like a slow-moving kaleidoscope, marimba and other instruments joined the strings, gradually marking the flow of time with progressive textural enrichments. Emotional moments found support in lyrical bowed melodies and long-lines in the winds. The “loser” motive, a distinctive three note figure in Sprechstimme, was echoed in the piano on the stage.
Pianist Conrad Tao, performing Lang’s minimalist-inspired figurative passage-work, seemed to conduct himself with his left hand, as Glenn Gould was famously known to do. But Lang’s piano writing bore only minimal resemblance to anything Gould ever played. The loser motive, an ascending perfect fifth resolved downwards by step, avoids any suggestion of major or minor. Rather, rippling arpeggios of quintal harmonies resounded unabated until the concluding moments, when some resolution finally presented as a major triad.
Attendees expecting a story about pianists might have been disappointed by the loser: “The story is not at all about Gould, Horowitz, or Classical Music,” wrote Lang. But the work achieves its aim of revealing the conflict and fear suffered by artists, hopelessly destined to live in comparison to one another. In that way, the loser occupies a unique position in contemporary operatic repertoire, to edify as much as to entertain.
On Friday, the LA Opera’s Off Grand initiative hosted a concert version of Matthew Aucoin’s 2015 opera, Crossing. The performance took place at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, with the composer at the podium in front of members of the LA Opera Orchestra, a men’s chorus, and the work’s principal cast. “In-Concert” performances of opera rely to some extent on enlisting the audience’s imagination to fulfill the drama, and this presented some difficulties for a work more contemplative than physical. Among a few misses, however, were dazzling moments brought to life by talented leads.
Looking around the audience during the opening moments of the opera, you might have been surprised to learn that Off Grand’s stated mission is to encourage diversity in music and audience. Any effort to “embody the diversity, pioneering spirit and artistic sensibility unique to Los Angeles through the art of opera” was lost on me—especially when compared with the success of The Industry and the LA Phil to exactly this end (War of the Worlds, in particular, comes to mind). Of course, performing any major new work is an accomplishment in itself, and the audience response suggests that it was an undertaking worth the effort.
Aucoin’s language in Crossing reflects a love for the sprinkled voyeurism of operatic form; from lush swells to anxious minimalist passages, the music oscillates between atmosphere and introspection. There was a fair coherence and smoothness in the progression of material, suspending the audience in a death-stenched tranquility, reflecting the opera’s inspiration from Walt Whitman’s volunteer work with battle-worn soldiers during the Civil War. The emotional palette occasionally felt somewhat two-dimensional, missing the orchestral characters that usually distort, lead, and reflect tacit internal drama in romantic opera. In a full staging, such emotional communication might have been assisted through attention on the choreography, lighting, or stage design, but in this particular performance the messiness of the orchestra obscured the musical and dramatic intention at times.
The principal cast were excellent, with Rod Gilfry (Walt Whitman) and Brenton Ryan (John Wormley) maintaining the storyline with strong performances throughout. Most striking was Davóne Tines’ extraordinary performance as Freddie Stowers—a role he created for the opera’s 2015 premiere. Tines was deeply engaging, with a rich bass-baritone voice, and a sense of musicality both singular and personal. The Messenger comprised the sole female role of the opera, performed by the talented Liv Redpath with soaring soprano lines that aptly marked the concluding sections. A strong chorus of a dozen men complemented the soloists, and together they brought to life Aucoin’s vision of human intimacy and tenderness amid the inhumanity of war.
Coinciding with a period of cooler, shorter days, and political change (even upheaval), the LA Opera staged a generous month-long run of Akhnaten, by Philip Glass, chronicling the subversive pharaoh who incited a religious revolution in ancient Egypt.
Third in a series of “portrait operas,” (the operatic equivalent of the biopic), Akhnaten, followed in the footsteps of Einstein and Gandhi, though three millennia their senior.
“So far I had covered science and politics. After that I was looking for a figure who influenced the religious side of society,” Glass told LA Opera.
Glass’s first opera, Einstein on the Beach (1976)—a collaboration with director Robert Wilson—was shocking in its originality, great length, and anti-narrative concept, but equally shocking in its success, effectively launching Glass’s career.
An experimental work, LA Opera revived it in 2013 for a terse single weekend run.
Akhnaten, by comparison, markets well: commanding yet vulnerable, approachable yet profound. The work hypnotizes in it visual impact, restrained musicality, spirituality, and the ring of historic authenticity.
Varieties of Minimialist Experience
Glass is counted among the foremost exponents of minimalism in music, and has been for some decades. What is surprising in Akhnaten is that an expansive genre like opera fits so spaciously in minimalist terrain, and integrates minimalist techniques continuously and convincingly.
Akhnaten exemplifies minimalism in all its many forms—some often overlooked. Beyond the now trademark arpeggios and tremolos pervasive throughout the Glass output, an economy of means—musical, theatrical, and dramaturgical—guides the opera.
Vocal lines are simple and direct, with narrow tessituras, seeming to avoid any superfluous virtuosity. Texts (when comprehensible) are pithy, repetitive, and set syllabically, fostering clarity and understanding.
Scenes are few in number, and drawn out, but imbued only minimally with story-forwarding action. Atmosphere drives Akhnaten above all else. Drama is restricted by the judicious hand of a minimalist composer: Almost an anti-plot, the opera unfolds in a series of immersive vignettes that paint a portrait of the title figure and his legacy.
Perhaps the clearest example of Akhnaten’s minimalism is its relentlessly slow, measured pace of physicality on stage. The cast moves with a ceremonious, unhurried composure, as if the characters of ancient Egyptian tomb paintings had come alive.
That stately concept of movement, traceable perhaps to Glass-collaborator Robert Wilson’s use of slow motion, distinguishes this production—by Phelim McDermott and the English National Opera—from the original, faster version of the Stuttgart State Opera.
The deliberate pace, which never fails to enchant, induces that present-moment awareness associated with the best of minimalist music. Intermittent juggling episodes course throughout the opera, accenting the palpably inert ambience with gravity-speed bursts of activity.
Commissioned by Stuttgart State Opera during a period of renovation, Glass was required to reduce the orchestral forces to accommodate a smaller pit. He adapted by omitting the violin section entirely, setting the highest string writing for the darkly shimmering violas, lending a fitting melancholy character to the orchestral tuttis.
Though stopping short of that classic operatic organizing principle—the leitmotif, recurring motives do provide a thread of comprehension, unifying the lengthy opera through the power of musical memory.
An exposed A natural minor scale, played as a bassoon solo, courses sedately upwards and downwards, sparsely accompanied by thin string writing and gentle woodwind chords, perhaps symbolizing the rise and fall of Akhnaten, his new capital city, and the monotheistic religion he founded centered on the Aten—the disk of the sun.
At the heart of the opera, rounding out Act II, Akhnaten sings a radiant hymn to the sun, in the warmly contrasting key of A major. The one and only aria in English, it is set syllabically to a simple melody of repeated notes and occasional, sparkling leaps.
A Dead Language Comes Alive
Librettist Sholom Goldman calls Akhnaten a form of “vocal archeology,” in the way texts were borrowed from original sources, including the Egyptian Book of the Dead, tomb inscriptions, and Akhnaten’s own poetry.
Most of the opera is sung in the Ancient Egyptian language, its resolute cadence imparting a distinguishing power that elevates text itself to a standing beyond the norm for opera. The first stanza of the choral setting which opens the opera immediately calls attention:
Ankh ankh, en mitak
Yewk er heh en heh
Aha en heh
Live life, thou shalt not die
Thou shalt exist for millions
of millions of years
For millions of millions of years
The sole drawback to the textual treatment might be the use of anachronistic King’s James English translations in the “Hymn to the Sun” and the text of the Scribe (the narrator and tour guide of the whole opera), which in its distanced formality seems at odds with the otherwise contemporary, highly personal character of the opera.
A Transcendent Pharaoh
The strongest connector of audience to opera was Akhnaten himself, portrayed by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who at once seemed exempt from the boundaries of mortality and sexuality, yet closely related to his listeners.
Akhnaten first appears descending from an elevated platform in a lengthy procession scene, fully frontally nude. His leisurely, aimless gait, and bare, shaved body and scalp impart a newborn, androgynous, angelic quality to the character that endures continuously.
Costumes by Kevin Pollard also served to reduce clarity of gender: ornate, baroquely bejeweled ceremonial regalia enveloped Akhnaten like a newborn swathed in loincloth. His ceremonial robe was imprinted with a female breast insignia, fostering a dual-gender persona.
Akhnaten’s gender is negated further—and foremost—by the use of the countertenor vocal quality, a form of falsetto vocalizing, although more resonant and capable of vibrato.
“When you write an opera, you have a very limited time to tell a complicated story,” Glass said. “Any shortcut becomes important.”
Akhnaten is silent onstage for 40 minutes, and when he finally does sing, “they are all astonished by the sound that comes out of his mouth. It is a clever way of emphasizing him as different,” elaborated Glass.
Tom Pye’s set design was always visually stunning and often surreal, featuring a brilliant, blinding sun, a moon of shifting hues—by turns white, pink, and blue—and later several giant levitating luminous orbs, all pointing to a dream realm more than any actual past.
The Welcome Akhnaten
In the end, what is most striking about Akhnaten is its relevance: That an Egyptian pharaoh separated by three millennia of history could come alive to speak to contemporary audiences so intimately, in a dead language left largely untranslated, in a rare, almost artificial vocal type—that listeners should feel a sense of welcome and belonging—is the genius of this opera and production.
Despite courtyard protests that the original Akhnaten was black but Anthony Roth Costanzo is white, there was a mood of excitement and the sense of something important happening at LA Opera. And while some of the Italian opera regulars were conspicuously absent—replaced by new faces this round—at six performances, Akhnaten is firmly established in the mainstream operatic repertoire.
Glass has made a similar observation: “I always felt there was a public that would like this music, and over time, the audiences, so small in the beginning, have only gotten larger.”
On Thursday night I went to the LA Opera/Beth Morrison Projects production of Ted Hearne’s The Source at REDCAT. This is an incredibly important work, and one that needs to be experienced with Daniel Fish’s staging if possible. The text is drawn from documents from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars released by Chelsea Manning via wikileaks, and ways material, both textual and musical, are crosscut, are an amazing reflection not only of the subject but of the way we view subjects today – fragmented, fast, and mediated by technology in occasionally problematic (this is a good thing, in this case) ways. The show continues tonight at tomorrow, and tickets are available at laopera.org/season/16-17-season/The-Source/.
I was able to talk to composer Ted Hearne ahead of the show, so some of the questions below reflect the fact that I hadn’t seen it yet, but deal with subjects that come up again and again in Ted’s work. He’s incredibly thoughtful and transparent in his approaches, and though this is a long read, what he considers and begs all of us to consider is absolutely worth your attention.
Though The Source is an LA Opera project, you call the work an oratorio. What can listeners expect?
There are four singers who sing the piece entirely while embedded in the audience, and four giant screens surrounding the space playing video throughout (designed by Jim Findlay and Daniel Fish). None of the singers are traditional opera singers, and about half of the songs use live a type of live electronic vocal processing akin to auto-tune. The libretto is entirely primary-source material, drawn mostly from the 400,000+ Dept of Defense cables released by WikiLeaks and their media partners in 2010 (now known as the Iraq War Logs and Afghan War Diary) and from the “Chat Logs” between Adrian Lamo and Chelsea Manning, the US Army Private responsible for releasing those documents to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. There are no characters, no stage and the singers don’t move. (If any of those things disqualify the piece as being called an ‘opera’ than I guess it’s not an opera, but I like the idea that LA Opera is unfazed.)
I read in the LA Times that you began with a plot or narrative of sorts, and moved toward the oratorio/more open ended nature of the work as the libretto progressed. Could you talk about that a bit? Do you feel anything was lost in the process? What did the work gain by going in that direction?
We didn’t start with a plot or traditional narrative per se, just a completely different focus. I started working on the piece in early 2010 — back then I was interested in finding ways to explore the differences between (often sensationalized) media narratives surrounding the leaks. After working with Daniel Fish (director) and Mark Doten (librettist), the focus really shifted toward self-reflection, and asking questions about how we engage with the content of the leaks themselves.
I’m still interested in the idea of music that represents or confronts our current media culture, but in this context it felt like portraying the media hysteria wasn’t saying anything meaningful about it, but merely adding to the noise. We did end up keeping one media-centric piece in The Source, a movement called “Julian in a Nutshell” which sets a list of questions asked to Julian Assange by journalists in December 2010 (but none of his answers). Anne Lanzilotti wrote of this movement on her blog the other day, getting into ways genre/style signifiers are used to musically depict a narrative about the media.
About “plot” — David Shields writes this in his literary manifesto Reality Hunger (Actually this passage is an appropriation of writing by E.M. Cioran. Like all passages in Reality Hunger, Shields appropriated it from outside sources and weaved it into his book.):
There’s only one thing worse than boredom—the fear of boredom—and it’s this fear I experience every time I open a novel. I have no use for the hero’s life, don’t attend to it, don’t even believe in it. The genre, having squandered its substance, no longer has an object. The character is dying out; the plot, too. It’s no accident that the only novels deserving of interest today are those in which, once the universe is disbanded, nothing happens…
I tend to feel the same way about musical forms, especially opera. A traditional narrative/plot structure tends to keep me at a distance from the material instead of ushering me into it.
The REDCAT staging is, with audience members facing each other and unable to see all of the screens, supposed to reflect the fragmented nature of the The Source. Is this to highlight, for listeners, that their own judgements of the material are unique? Or is there a particular view of the topic that you hope to encourage?
It’s true that The Source is a patchwork of fragments, made up of shards of text (sometimes very small little pieces, sometimes larger passages that have been filtered through one arbitrary lens or another) and various sundry types of musical material. That comes in many ways from a desire to reflect the way we receive information now, or the structure of the information itself, and I also wanted to create unexpected overlays and juxtapositions and adjacencies that could help loosen text from our relationship to its original context.
Daniel Fish’s staging does reflect the fragmented and sometimes ambiguous nature of the text-setting in that there is a 4-channel video installation surrounding the audience, and of course nobody can see 360 degrees around them at one time, so some information will always be missed. However, I find the way he organizes and presents his visual material to be super different (spare at times, almost minimalist, economical and focused) than way I was thinking about organizing the music. And I love the way Daniel set up the audience in the space, sitting there manages to feel incredibly solitary and incredibly communal at the same time.
This certainly isn’t the first time you’ve engaged with sociopolitical issues, particularly systemic injustice, in your work. What you’re doing is absolutely admirable, and important, and clearly done with care and sensitivity. But it does beg a tricky question, one that I’ve also dealt with (perhaps unsuccessfully) as a composer. In some sense, what qualifies you to speak on behalf of the experiences of others? I don’t mean this in at all an accusatory way, but just this morning I was reading Ta Nehisi Coates’ account of growing up in Baltimore and realizing that, as much of an ally as I can be, I have absolutely no experience to relate to that kind of hardship. I’m thinking more of your Katrina Songs here – and don’t know exactly where in Chicago you are from – but do you ever worry about appropriation in your music? Or that you may misrepresent a group? Or is it more about drawing attention to issues?
You’re right, the question is both huge and tricky. And yes, I think about the ins and outs of appropriation all the time. (It would be irresponsible not to, since I use it so often as a creative strategy.) Responsible, attributed appropriation — be it from Chelsea Manning’s chat logs or the oral arguments to Citizens United or Kanye West’s diatribe on the NBC Katrina relief telethon — can be an incredibly honest vehicle for expression, pointing not only at how we process and reflect someone else’s words, but also at the impact of our current media landscape, which is one of decontextualization, fragmentation and sampling.
Katrina Ballads, a piece I wrote nine years ago, is a collection of songs, about an hour long, that sets primary-source texts from the week following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, all of which were heard on national media, the words of public figures (Barbara Bush, Anderson Cooper, Kanye West) as well as, in two cases, residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast who were interviewed about their experience. (One of them, Hardy Jackson, was interviewed the morning after the storm and had just lost his wife. Another, Ashley Nelson, was trapped in the Lafitte Projects in Treme, New Orleans for several days and spoke about her experience a few days later to an NPR reporter.)
One implication of your question, it seems, is that setting someone else’s words to music is the same thing as attempting to “speak on behalf” of them. That’s not always the case, and was never my intention in writing Katrina Ballads. Rather, the intention was to honor all the circumstances surrounding the origination of the text by never pretending to embody or characterize the speakers themselves, always respecting (and pointing to) that distance. When we put together productions of the piece in 2008 and 2010 we made sure to preserve and respect the identities of the singers too: I wanted to make it clear we were presenting a collection of songs where musicians who lived in Chicago, New York City and Charleston, SC were repeating and aestheticizing words spoken by other Americans in completely different circumstances. The tension between those two perspectives is integral to the piece.
That being said, there is one movement of Katrina Ballads that gnaws at me, which is the one that sets Hardy Jackson’s words. I know I would set those words differently now — actually I would probably choose not to set them — not necessarily because his circumstances are so much different from mine (they are) but because those words were spoken just as he had undergone a terrible life tragedy and he didn’t even really choose to sit for an interview (there just happened to be a roving reporter there). In some contexts – for instance, when the piece is being presented at a music school – the aestheticizing of his trauma seems immoral. Does this movement really bring that assembled audience closer to an understanding of the power and destruction of the storm that couldn’t be achieved with less invasive appropriation? Probably not. If I had been a more mature composer then, if I had been disciplined enough to ask myself some harder questions while writing the piece, I probably would have made different choices.
On the other hand, I have been present at forums where people really hadn’t grasped the impact of Katrina on actual humans, or the need for assistance that never came. There were performances for almost entirely affluent white audiences in Houston, and also for schoolchildren of all backgrounds, and for both of those groups I think the Hardy Jackson movement especially did actually provide a mix of decontextualization and documentation that served an educational function. (And of course for the most part today’s schoolchildren really know nothing about Katrina and its aftermath). And the ensuing conversations (even this one) are also in a way part of the point — who am I to appropriate that man’s words? How sick is it that we’re sitting here receiving this bourgie art piece that steals the words of people living such vastly different lives? Does the music highlight or gloss over those differences?
The implication you took from my question there about setting other people’s words – I’d like to talk a little more about that. This is something I’ve struggled with as a composer. I’ve always had trouble setting other peoples’ texts, because – without their explicit collaboration – I often feel that I’m adding something to the text that the author or speaker might not have intended. I’ve always had an interest in socially conscious music, and certainly love the written word, but this often stops me writing pieces that I might otherwise like to. Unless, of course, I can do something with the text so far from the original that there’s no way a listener might mistake it for the speaker’s intention. Perhaps this is too dogmatic of a question, are there any guiding principles you follow in your use of text? How do you make it clear that you’re not writing on behalf of the original speaker?
Well, if text is attributed, there shouldn’t be any confusion that it originated from another person, right? And it should be obvious that the composer is setting the text, not speaking it. So for me the question about using text is the really same as using any other musical material: are you as a composer using them in a particularly evocative way?
One question I’m interested in asking now: Can you get closer to understanding the difference between yourself and someone else by repeating their words in your own voice?
Last year I wrote a piece for Roomful of Teeth that was related to that idea. I set (among other things) two small chunks of text from Zora Neale Hurston’s classic essay How it feels to be colored me. The idea was not to pretend to any authoritative take on her perspective, but rather to a) understand it better by speaking it and b) understand my own perspective — my own relationship to whiteness and the construct of race in America — by studying and reinterpreting the words that describe hers.
One of the chunks was:
[The position of my white neighbor is much more difficult.]
No brown specter pulls up a chair beside me when I sit down to eat.
No dark ghost thrusts its leg against mine in bed.
[The game of keeping what one has is never so exciting as the game of getting.]
I only set the middle two sentences but include the outer ones in program notes for context. I realized that if it were me writing/speaking these words, their meaning might be completely the opposite to Hurston’s; it would be a denial of my white privilege, perhaps a defensive one. I tried to set the words so the specter existed in the music even as the words denied their existence.
I also set the words of another section, in which Hurston tells the story of sitting next to a white person while hearing a performance by jazz musicians in an otherwise all-black club. After describing an ecstatic experience with the music itself, she says:
I creep back slowly to the veneer we call civilization with the last tone and find the white friend sitting motionless in his seat, smoking calmly.
“Good music they have here,” he remarks, drumming the table with his fingertips.
Music. The great blobs of purple and red emotion have not touched him. He has only heard what I felt. He is far away and I see him but dimly across the ocean and the continent that have fallen between us. He is so pale with his whiteness then and I am so colored.
For whatever reason, the gulf of understanding Hurston described made me think of my relationship with my father, in the distance that grew between us and which continues to grow, provoked by conversations surrounding racism and politics and art. I started to see my experience alongside the one she was describing, totally different but also totally real. I called the piece “Letter to My Father,” and reformatted the text so the words would stay in the same sequence but each line would begin and end with a pronoun:
He has only heard what I
I felt. He
He is far away but I
I see him.
Him but dimly across the ocean and the continent that have fallen between us.
He is so pale with his whiteness then and I
I am so colored.
Music. The great blobs of purple and red emotion have not touched him.
He is so pale with his whiteness then and I am so colored.
I don’t know what it means exactly, and the more specific I try to get with an explanation the less sense it makes, but setting this text in this way did help me connect with it strongly. And I don’t think it disrespects the text or the author at all to apply changes as long as the identity and context of the original is clear.
Also I just wanna say: I think it’s OK, even preferable, for art to be problematic. We live in a problematic world. Artists should own that. It’s the loose ends and unanswered questions, and even the misfires and unintended consequences, that provoke the best questions about what art is doing in the first place.
Yes! This is actually something that bothers me quite a bit about certain traditional classical concerts: it seems like there is very little risk. When a performer has studied a piece for their whole life, rehearsed it to “perfection,” and will be playing it in a hall with great sound, I often ask myself why I’d drive and pay money to hear that when awesome recordings are available, though I’m lucky to have a great set of speakers and a comfy couch. With other genres, or even other sociomusical situations, sometimes things go wrong. With new music, you might not know how it’s going to go, and that, to me, makes the live experience so much more thrilling. Is there a way, that you as a composer (and now fellow concert series producer), can encourage artistic question-asking like this?
Well I don’t have any problem with musicians rehearsing a lot if they think it’ll make their performance better!
Personally, I start asking a lot of questions when similar musical gestures or ideas are used in super different musical contexts, or when very different musics exist on top of each other or next to each other in the same framework. Basically, looking to difference as much as possible. Endlessly inspired by this Audre Lorde quote: “Difference must not be merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which creativity can spark like a dialectic.”
How does that make it into your musical material? I once heard you use the phrase “genre counterpoint” in passing, and always wanted to hear more about it.
I don’t remember using that phrase but I like it and am going to steal it from you starting now.
I’m pretty sure it’s yours, so certainly feel free! It’s a kind of rad term. I’d heard rumors you were shaking things up at USC and trying to reduce the amount of traditional counterpoint composers had to take. I think – and this was after a show and beer was involved – I asked something like “isn’t that actually kind of important?” and you said something like “yes, but maybe we should use those semesters to teach other approaches to counterpoint, what might genre counterpoint be…”
I wrote a little essay about my feelings re: genre and “craft” which I put on my website a few months ago. I don’t know if ‘genre counterpoint’ makes any sense but I do think that when musical signifiers are used outside of their expected context a sometimes-interesting counterpoint of ideas and expectations occurs. There are some people for whom it seems that the inclusion of nonclassical stylistic elements (e.g. a drumset player hitting the snare drum a certain way, or a singer accessing an R&B vocal tradition) in a classical/concert-music context automatically constitutes an impurity, or pandering, or an example of inauthentic cultural appropriation. This type of thinking is pretty weak because it avoids dealing with lots of potential complexities, and it tends to keep the field pretty segregated.
Ted’s work certainly helps to fight segregation in our field. Hear it for yourself at REDCAT tonight and tomorrow, of via bandcamp at https://tedhearne.bandcamp.com/album/The-Source.
Like many operas, David Lang’s anatomy theater (with a libretto by Lang and Mark Dion) – presented by the LA Opera and Beth Morrison Projects – ends with a woman dead on stage. Unlike many operas, said woman is dead when the curtain goes up, and her status has little impact on her ability to sing. Set ambiguously around the start of the 18th Century in England, the premise of the work is that the audience is the audience for a medical dissection. At the time, the only bodies available for dissection were those of executed convicts, and anatomists believed that the organs of a law-breaker were marked by their crimes, turning public dissections into moral spectacles where law-abiding citizens could see purported marks of evil in a criminal’s corpse. (Needless to say, there was also an element of inflicting further punishment on the convict even after death.)
And so we have our criminal: Sarah Osborne (played masterfully by Peabody Southwell) who, in an aria on the gallows before her execution in the lobby before the show proper begins, confesses to murdering her children and abusive husband, defiantly expresses her expectation that God will forgive her and receive her soul into Heaven — or, failing that, “if [her] Lord and Savior will be so cruel to [her] as men and women have been, [she] had rather burn in the flames of Hell.” The executioner is Joshua Crouch (Marc Kudisch), who also happens to be the impresario for the dissection that is to follow. “Don’t you feel safer?” he bellows at the gathered crowd, gesturing at the limp corpse of the hanged Osborne. The crowd — treated to complementary sausages and beer to better recreate the atmosphere of a public execution — laughed nervously, the first of many deliberate disconnects between the attitudes of the 21st–Century Americans we actually were and the 18th–Century Englishmen (and men were the only people allowed at “public” dissections) the characters treated us as. In the theater itself, Crouch is joined by Baron Peel (Robert Osborne) and his assistant Ambrose Strang (Timur). Strang does the work of cutting up the body and extracting its organs, while Peel pontificates about the nature of evil, the balances of the Four Humors, and other such sundries.
Not surprisingly, this is a gristly affair. Most of us would likely find a human dissection unpleasant to watch under the best of circumstances, but here the air is soured still further by the undercurrent of female objectification taken to its most literal extreme; Sarah Osborne’s body is a literal object for men to toy with, cut to pieces, and condemn. And yet, much to Peel’s chagrin, Strang finds each organ removed immaculate, describing Osborne’s stomach, spleen, heart, and uterus in hagiographic terms and utterly thwarting Peel’s quest to find the mark of Satan’s handiwork. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, it is only Strang who seems to hear Osborne when she shudders back to a ghostly simulacrum of life towards the opera’s final third.) After Peel concedes failure and departs, Crouch offers to continue the dissection informally “around the back” — for a fee, of course.
Gristly as these proceedings are, the score is a far cry from a relentless stream of horrors. There are certainly moments of strident dissonance, but there are others of transcendent radiance — much of the dissection itself falls somewhere uneasily in between, torn between the marvelous inner workings of the human body and the raging misogyny and hypocrisy that surround this particular exploration of them. The bulk of the music flits lightly between twitchy recitative and more languorous arioso passages, with hints of minimalism and art pop lurking just out of sight, but there are a few moments towards the beginning that seem to veer closer to pastiche: One, Baron Peel’s first introduction, borrowing the caustic updating of early English operetta found in Brecht/Weill’s Threepenny Opera and the other, a long and bizarre ensemble number announcing the pending description of the anatomist’s tools, poking gentle fun at certain excesses of Philip Glass.
Directed by Bob McGrath and Music Director Christopher Rountree (the Artistic Director of wild Up, which served as the pit orchestra for the show), the four singers brought their roles to powerful life. Southwell’s Osborne was by turns defiant, distraught, and desperate, displaying the full range of the human heart and showing with countless subtleties the overpowering forces that might make someone conclude that murder was their best and only means of escape from an unconscionable situation. Crouch, as played by Kudisch, is a lecherous scoundrel, driven by nothing more than the desire to line his own pockets. Timur brought an air of dazed reverence to the role of Strang, a young man, clearly out of his depth, but standing firmly by what he knows to be true in pronouncing each organ unblemished even in the face of Peel’s considerable displeasure. And Robert Osborne, in turn, was a thunderously self-righteous Peel, genuinely convinced of the justness of his cause and unbending in the face of any possible contradictory evidence. In his final aria, he sends the audience away with a dire warning to be on the lookout for omnipresent evil. “Where is evil?” he snarls, “There it is! There it is! There it is!”, jabbing his finger every which way. He points everywhere except himself.
I can imagine no better way to be introduced to the LA Opera than by this show. I had no idea what to expect, only hope that it might be a nice way to spend a Friday evening. Of all the shows in LA, I figured I might as well check out something brand new. I was in for a treat.
Isabelle Eberhardt, played by the incredibly talented Abigail Fischer, had several distinct lives and deaths, recollected through cobbled diary pages. Missy Mazzoli wanted to give her a proper homage through equally cobbled yet bleakly beautiful music. Using distorted guitars, stuttering electronic sounds, pure voices, and a wailing cello and flute tell Isabelle’s tragic stories. Videos on transparent scrims add further layers of emotion to the story, complementing the music. The chorus sometimes acted as a reflection of Isabelle, and other times sang duets with her. The musicians and their instruments were as much characters in the story as Isabelle. The cello cried, the flute sang, and clarinet drank coffee and the piano just drank.
One of my favorite moments was when Isabelle moved off her pillow in an opium den and sat with the pianist on his bench. He abandoned her there, and she carried on the tune the best she could. A melody usually implements small intervals for easy singing, but the song in the opium den had enormous intervals, which I imagined represented the highs and lows of drug use. My favorite song overall was “One Hundred Names for God,” when she goes through her religious phase near the beginning. The choreography was stunning, and the many different names dripped like glittering water from Isabelle’s mouth while the instruments lilted along deferentially.
Other songs featured amplified flute signaling a period of exploration, and guitar performing a heartbeat emulating blood rushing to one’s ears in a moment of high tension and fear. At the very end, when Isabelle dies in a flash flood, the guitar swells and grows like a physical presence, and cuts short the instant her life does. This perhaps sounds cliché, and rereading this review sheds light on what made the music so subtly effective in the moment. It’s a silken beauty like seeing the ocean in the moonlight that makes one wax poetic and at the same time fail to find the words. Through such a short but intense opera, the audience falls in love with Isabelle Eberhardt and our hearts break when the music ends her life.
In short, I cannot rave about this opera enough, especially the musicians. It only ran for the one weekend, but there will be many more performances by the LA Opera and from the Beth Morrison Projects this season. Buy your tickets early!