On an Opera for an Unusual Venue
by John W. Lambert
Critics' lives can be fraught with challenges, quite beyond the usual "were we at the same concert?" sort of thing – and never mind the fact that few people bother to write except to complain about some slight or oversight.... One of the major issues with which all of us in "the guild" must wrestle is the not-inconsiderable problem of describing one art form – music – by means of the "tools" (words) of another – literature. And then there's the matter of new works, which seem to be anathema not only to many concert attendees but also to some members of the brotherhood (why are so many of us men?), and which pose sometimes herculean dilemmas. I've been pondering these things since the evening of April 6, when composer James Dashow, who is based in Rome, ended his visit to UNC with a presentation of scenes from his magnum-opus-in-progress, a work titled Archimedes, which he calls a "multimedia planetarium opera."
We've dealt with the question of just what opera is on previous occasions. In Italian, the word means "work," so perhaps anything goes, despite the baggage and trappings of tradition – so much loved and so dearly embraced by fans of opera as we have come to know it. Are works involving just one singer operas? Poulenc and many others clearly think (or have thought) so. And what about whatever accompaniment goes along with the singers, if there are singers; and what about the plot or story?
It was a quiet night in Chapel Hill. The campus seemed deserted, on the evening after the night before, when the Heels' big victory was celebrated. Turnout for this program was not wonderful, and some people left during the presentation. That's a shame because Dashow is one of the big heavies in the highly specialized field of – well, what to call it? Computer or electronic music will probably do. It's not synthesized music, such as one hears all the time now – often without realizing it – in commercials and movies and on TV and, from time to time, in the pits once occupied by living, breathing musicians for musicals and dance and opera (if the accompaniments aren't simply canned...). He's been working on Archimedes for years, and there's no indication of when it will be done. That it will lend itself nicely to presentation in planetaria was clear enough on April 6, and it was in fact given "in" the celebrated Morehead Planetarium, but not in the main room – alas, the projections would have worked therein, but there's no surround-sound system. As a result, the show was presented in a small auditorium where it was projected on a conventional flat screen. There was quasi-surround sound, but it made considerably less impact than it should have, since it lacked the stark directionality we've heard often at ArtsNow events at NCSU, where another computer music specialist – Rodney Waschka II – hangs his hat. The folks in attendance had to imagine what the results will be when it is seen in a proper venue.
The program began with a three-part piece called "Media Survival Kit," described as "a lyric satire... for electrified voices and instruments, and electronic sounds." The next day, at an afternoon lecture/demo at NCSU, the composer explained that it was written for radio (RAI), so of course there was no video at its premiere. It's been translated into five languages, and it was shown in Chapel Hill with English titles, which were as dramatic and engaging as the music. One hardly knew whether to laugh or take it seriously – this listener was bemused, for it resembled, here and there, the sort of off-the-wall commercials put out by, say, Geico's agency – commercials that only indirectly relate to whatever product they are touting. The idea of "Media Survival Kit" is that the web's gonna get us, and in the end, in this piece, it does. Along the way there's some wonderful music that doesn't resemble much of what we've come to expect computer-generated or electronic music will sound like. In fact, one section sounded a lot like Berio's Sinfonia, a cult piece from the late 60s. That's a bit of a problem, generally, with electronic or computer-generated music – there's an overtone of "happenings" as in bygone days that can make some examples of the new genre sound old-fashioned, despite the new vocabularies they employ – or the technology that's used to make them.
The reason that Dashow's music sounds so comfortingly familiar stems from his quite remarkable use of computers and sampling and sound generation within the time-honored (and some would say tradition-bound) conventional approach to music-making. As he demonstrated during that aforementioned NCSU session, his work is complex, but it's rooted in mathematics as opposed to "gizmos." There were excellent program notes for Archimedes (but none for "MSK"), and there's much, much more info, including downloadable software, at his website. In brief, he's created a whole new method for making music – new intervals that can be infinitely manipulated, a whole new harmonic and textural language, a whole new world, really... – but the "method" fits nicely into the continuum of what we call "Western art music.". The accomplishment suggests the "creation" of atonalism by the New Viennese School, but I think Dashow has gone far beyond what the New Viennese adherents managed – and the results are, at first hearing, far more user-friendly, whether or not one considers the science and high-tech that goes into the "product." One reason for this is that Dashow uses live vocalists in some of his works – and will do so in Archimedes – so he feels constrained to make his music "singable," and to do so he has based all (or perhaps most of) his "new music" developments on the chromatic scale that has been the basis for "classical" music as we know it for hundreds of years. It works – and people who don't like "new music" – or who think they don't – are and will be pleasantly surprised. This stuff sounds like real music, and it conveys mood and emotion in depth and with engaging sweep in ways conventional music lovers often encounter at conventional performances.....
Archimedes was sampled in four scenes, presented out of (operatic) order for concert purposes. (This brought to mind the notion of sampling the sampler's samples, of course....) There's video with them, video that will in due course be seen over and around the audiences, in planetariums. It's surround sound and surround video for real – music video, for want of a better term, with a vengeance. A narrator, sounding somewhat Biblical, is heard in the Prologue, which begins, dramatically, with the Big Bang. The story will in time relate aspects of Archimedes' life – there's a section centering on geometric shapes, computer enhanced and ever-changing; and there's a section on his childhood. There's still more math-inspired material in the last bit shown, from Act II of the opera. The presentation lasted about 35 minutes, all told.
These are not off-the-wall videos, and the music works with the scenes shown exceptionally well. In the presentation, there were some parallels to conventional musical form. The excerpts constituted a suite of sorts, or perhaps more accurately an Archimedes Symphony, in four distinct movements, each with its own distinct musical content and themes and development. As is often the case with new works – whether they are "rediscovered" pieces by Mozart or operas unearthed from archives that receive their premieres hundreds of years later – it is helpful to permit some time for reflection and to develop some sort of perspective. That's especially important in the case of whole new vocabularies, new languages, and new approaches – such as Dashow has created. Yet he's not working in a vacuum. It was a bit of a revelation to ask a distinguished locally-based composer who attended the NCSU lecture about Dashow's work – and to learn that he, too, is using some of the same software to do somewhat similar things.
The bottom line? If this is the music of the future – to borrow a somewhat hackneyed term – it will not be such a bad deal, in part because what we heard from Dashow's pen – or perhaps from his laptop – is, whatever else one might say about it, music, first and foremost. Here's hoping he'll come back when Archimedes is done, and that when it is, the Morehead people will have upgraded their sound system!