Steve Duke, performer. Capstone CPS-8708 (DDD; 40:26). Capstone Records:

Back in the fall of 1999, we were privileged to attend a “special preview performance” of Saint Ambrose , by NCSU’s remarkable composer Rodney Waschka II, who manages also to produce the University’s Arts Now contemporary music series. The “Definitions Aria” from the opera was performed again in February 2001, at UNC, and a recording of the entire composition was subsequently released. We’ve revisited it from time to time and find it consistently engaging, so we offer this recap of the 1999 preview performance and the CD itself, in part to celebrate the current season of Arts Now at NCSU, featuring the NC Computer Music Festival.

It may be worth noting that this opera, like most other such works, relies to some extent on stage props – visuals, in this case – but it works well enough for straight listening, and the booklet that comes with the CD provides more than ample background and supplemental information about the subject, war correspondent and satirist Ambrose Bierce, and his magnum opus, The Devil’s Dictionary , plus fascinating details about the development of the piece. The opera is based on Bierce’s life, and its text is in large measure drawn from what the composer characterizes as his “dark, satiric writings.” Saxophone virtuoso Steve Duke, who played the opera at NCSU, is featured in the recording, which means that this is a “creator’s” document, akin to many celebrated performances involving composers and artists who have set down interpretations of their works. At the preview concert, the hall was ringed by loudspeakers on platforms, and in media res sat Waschka, whose “instrument” was a large assortment of electronic equipment – CD and DAT and ADAT (8-channel) players, a big mixing board, and such. He also had a few less high-tech devices at hand: a wristwatch (to which he often referred), a small table lamp, a score, and various notes, handwritten and otherwise. A slide projector was also set up, slightly off to the right of center stage. Thus that evening was a saxophone recital plus.

At the time I wrote (for Spectator ) that I was not sure that “opera” was the proper title for something that has no singing except for a saxophone and a snatch of “Clementine” in the accompaniment and that, in addition, includes a good bit of narration, but other experimental works are similarly devoid of singing, and there isn’t really any other word to describe it. The spoken portions of Saint Ambrose are not in Sprechstimme (which is to say, the words are not pegged to pitches, finite or otherwise), nor is there secco accompaniment (which is to say that there is no harpsichord or any other related music during most of the textual parts). Still, there is a real overture, a series of interludes, an aria of sorts (the “Definitions Aria”), and a “big finish” (to borrow a phrase used by Chicago-based composer Max Raimi), so it may justifiably be considered an opera (the Italian meaning of which is, simply, “work”).

The scenario deals with the reactionary writer, who disappeared (although “dropped out” might be a more appropriate way to characterize his departure from polite American society) somewhere in Mexico, sometime in 1913-14. The texts, drawn from Bierce’s writings, are spoken at intervals throughout the work. The composition, in twelve sections, including the Overture, consumes about 40 minutes. As a piece of theatre, it is both gripping and compelling. As music, without the stage business, it is bracing, too. Duke is adept as an actor and is of course one of our leading saxophone virtuosos, and he pulls off this one-person show with great flair, meshing the words with the sax passages and flawlessly integrating all of them into the ongoing computer music track.

In 1999, war seemed remote for most Americans, but Waschka’s timing was apt, and with our nation once again embroiled in nearly global conflict, this look back at one of our great war correspondents is more than relevant today.

It may be worth remembering that the subject of this work vanished before the US got into WWI, but – thanks to Waschka – BIERCE LIVES!