Composed and deComposed: Music of Our Centuries

Steve Koenig

[July 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:5.]

Opera. What a wacky world. The idea of purism in a genre that is inherently a collage is, well, operatic. To paraphrase the great musical parodist Anna Russell, “The beauty of opera is that it doesn’t quite matter what you do, so long as you sing it.”

My uncle Les is the gent who introduced me to opera, first with a little Golden Record of four Sullivan and Gilbert tunes; what six-year-old could resist the permission to run around singing “tit!” at the top of his or her lungs? More recently, we attend opera together and shake our heads in wonder of each other. “How can he close his eyes and not read the titles? He’s missing half of what’s going on?” “How can he read the text during the show and miss the beauty of the music?”

Oh, and he also dislikes opera in English, whether or not it’s original or a translation. It’s the drama and the melody and the vocal acrobatics he appreciates. Me, I’m a glutton: I want everything, including knowing every nuance of dialog sung or spoken. It finally dawned on his that the reason he can appreciate opera in his way is that he’s a cartoonist; he can enjoy the broad gesture which gets to the core of meaning. This by way of introduction to three new operas, live and on disc, which deal with texts in literal, cartoonish, and absurd ways.

York Höller’s stunning new opera Der Maestro und Marguerita (col legno WWE 3CD 20059, 75:57 + 53:33 + 32:15) is a play which works on many levels, on stage literally so. Based on a Mikhail Bulgakov novel, this savage satire of life under Lenin, God, artists unions, Pontius Pilate and the devil is wickedly funny and disturbing. Appropriately, col legno must be praised for giving us both the German text, written by the composer, in addition to a full English translation of the libretto. Then we must damn them, for when I say in addition, the book designers have given us the German in front and the English in the back, rather than double-column a bilingual libretto.

My uncle wouldn’t mind this at all; he’d just listen to the orchestra and the vocals, which range from full melodic lines to avant-dissonant speech. He would dislike this piece I’m sure, but I love it. And I could love it more if only I were able to follow line by line what was going on, especially as the stage effects are brilliant; visual metaphors flashed on two stage levels, paralleling biblical events and personages with Soviet history and timeless mythology.

The music varies with the plot, but it is fluid and exciting, using piano and other percussion, woodwind swirls, and sparingly used electronics. Think of Boulez’ Répons, available on the DG 20/21 series, for an idea of the electronic textures, which here too were realized at IRCAM as well as the Studio für Elektronische Musik der Staatlichen Hochschule für Musik Köln. (Say that six times fast!). Some of the orchestral writing is percussive like Chávez, some is alludes to Purcell-like pageantry, some is wistful like Britten at sea. There is a “jazz” group of horns for when dissidence/decadence rears its beauty/ugly in the plot. The recording comes to us thanks to Köln Radio. Lothar Zagrosek conducts the Stadt Oper Köln with complete agility. Baritone Richard Salter, who always difficult work seem simple, masters the dual rôle of Der Maestro and Jeshua (Jesus). I’ll never forget his New York performance of Rihm’s Jacob Lenz.

Both absurd and sharply insightful, Der Maestro und Marguerita is a powerful work which will appeal to anyone who can deal with Janacek’s operas, or enjoy B. A. Zimmerman’s Die Soldaten, Shostakovich’s The Nose, Wolfgang Rihm’s Lear or Jacob Lenz, or Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. I’ve been a fan of Höller since the days when New York radio would broadcast live concerts, and I treasure those cassettes as well as a CD of a trumpet concerto, piano concerto and a piano trio on Largo 56676.

From the absurd to the bouffe, we now come to a Roy Lichtenstein of a work, cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s Drawn To Death: A Three Panel Opera, with music by Philip Johnston, an excellent jazz/improv musician. A wonderfully multi-media production, one watches this work-in progress at least as much for the visuals on the screen above the stage as for the singer-characters. This is the most effective use of video I have ever seen in a stage or music work. Drawn To Death is the true story about the rise and fall of pulp comics in 1950s America, when they were tied to teen delinquency and the Communist party, and of the men and woman who made them. Jumpily constructed of linked songs with dialogue, some of it Kurt Weillish in style (note the title pun), with voices ranging from Olive Oyl to the “boys” of the Lollipop Guild, this still is indeed a work in progress.

Drummer Lou Grassi, with excellent discs on Cadence jazz and CIMP, explained to me, “The music is composed, but for a jazz band. Some short sax solos are improvised, improvised obligatos, etc.” Some of the songs were lyrically naïve; comic books deserve better. It’s a matter of taste, but in the fun production-number “Crime Does Not Pay,” I was irked when transported out of the 1950s to hear the rhyme “McVeigh.” At the end, the piece halted and Art Spiegelman himself, now probably best known for his graphic novel and sequel Maus, about the holocaust, discussed what happened to the real-live comic book artists this was based on, and the political significance of the downfall of the pulp comic industry. Was it censorship? Was the Comics Code a just thing? A valid question in these times when tv shows and even some opera recordings now come with “parental advisory” labels. Speaking of parentals, my uncle was an inker for the pulps at that time, and confirms that everything and everyone portrayed in the show as accurate. He also enjoyed the whole work immensely, even more than I did.

Philip Johnson, composer of Drawn To Death, told me that “all the song lyrics, and other textual material was Art’s. Whether any musical sections were improvised is kind of a question of terminology. The score was completely composed, yet within that there were moments of improvisation. There were solos over chord changes, there were

sections where there was improvising, but within a very structured format. When you have great musicians like these, there is always a vague line between improvising and composed music, because they bring their musical strength, imagination and agility to everything they play. For me, working with Art, Jean Randich, the director, and the rest of the team, has been a great pleasure. I think it is a project that, for better or worse, will not be quite like anything else. What we did at St Ann’s was truly a work-in-progress showing, with many questions unanswered, so the main task ahead is to write the rest of it. I’m looking forward to finding out how it all comes out.”

There have been two prior recordings of Olivier Messiaen’s operatic offering to Saint François d’Assise, and this new one (Deutsche Grammophon 20/21 Series 445 176-2, 67:02 + 64:24 + 43:26 + 60:42) and if I’m correct, the second conducted by Kent Nagano, here with José Van Dam, Dawn Upshaw, the Arnold Schoenberg Choir, and the Hallé Orchestra recorded live in Salzburg, 1998. Like the York Höller opera above, this one is in a slipcased digipak (as is the rest of the 20/21 series) with a fat, photo-full book, and St Francis’s words come to us via a German-French-English side-by-side libretto.

The first recording of Saint François d’Assise was its world premiere, starring Van Dam, with Seiji Ozawa conducting the Opéra de Paris in 1983, recorded by Radio France, released on Cybelia CY 833/4/5/6. Constructed of eight tableaux which show St Francis’ increasing faith until his death, this opera is long, but has no longeurs. If you can sit through Der Meistersinger, or even a Bach Passion, there’ll be no problem with this. If you can’t, this is well tracked, so you can savor one tableau at a time.

The sound-world is familiarly Messiaenic. It opens with percussion and vibraphone, and immediately we are with St Francis and Brother Leo in a discussion of pain and bliss. There are orchestral and instrumental birds everywhere. The full orchestral palette is used and one can easily luxuriate in the opulent sound provided by DG’s engineers, an amazing feat when the full orchestral and choral forces let loose. The Cybelia performance has a little edge in terms of edginess, as you’d expect from a world premiere, but it is distant, if clear. DG’s sound, however, takes you tenth row center and the riveting performance feels as if it’s being done totally for you. Messiaen himself might have preferred a mass communion, but being a devout atheist, this is fine by me.

Peter Maxwell Davies’ 1969 theater work Eight Songs For A Mad King is a twentieth-century touchstone, and the performance by Julius Eastman beloved from Nonesuch vinyl and Unicorn CD is a must-have for any contemporary music or opera collector. Nonetheless the performance by the Minnesota Contemporary Ensemble this past winter at Miller Theater at Columbia University was my first live experience with it, and it equalled my cherished disc. Bass-baritone Robert Osborne should record his embodiment of the mad King George with this ensemble.

Other pieces on the bill included a delightful world premiere by Libby Larsen, Neon Angel,written for the MCE. A serious piece of whimsy, Neon Angel is a floating road song, with vocalise and a tape of Charles Trenet (I had to ask her during intermission) singing his hit song “La Mer” as if it were steam from a sky-writing plane. I need to look for more of Larsen, and recently by surprise did enjoy a performance of her Concerto for Marimba and Percussion in the Manner of (Lionel) Hampton in Mexico City. Paul Siskind’s Duo – Bagatelles for cello and clarinet uses cleverly changing voices and extreme changes of dynamics. If I say this piece shows excellent craftsmanship, don’t read that as dry; “Jumping Jack Flash” shows excellent craftsmanship. I hope for the chance to hear it again. John Howell’s Rising Blue is a piece for solo violin with tape (or digital effects?) altering the violin sound, playing along with it, and prevailing over the live line. For once a hall had excellent audio equipment, which added to the success of the piece.

Continuing in Miller Theater’s contemporary music series, the New York New Music Ensemble performed a new work dedicated to them, John Eaton’s Don Quixote: A Theater Piece For Musicians. Eaton said, My goal is to make it seem that anything they do and say is the inevitable goal of what they play on their instruments. Each character has a thematic motif. but these change as their personalities change.” Those familiar with some of the theater works of bassist Jon Deak might have an idea of the fun in this sly work, full of rich fun. Special credit goes to violinist Linda Quan, always a fine musician, but here revealed as an excellent comic actor. Despite a flagging final three minutes, Don Quixote is a major work; I hope to see it performed often. I’d give you more detail, but I was so drawn in to the performance that my notes are barely illegible. I first knew Eaton’s work through a Decca LP of electro-acoustic music, and his opera Danton and Robespierre. He promised to share some more of his recent work with La Folia readers. Stay tuned, same column, same URL.