Saturday night I went to hear “Song from the Uproar: The Lives & Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt”, a new fully staged multi-media opera by Missy Mazzoli. It was staged at The Kitchen, an institution for hosting world premiers of challenging new works by ambitious young experimental artists.
To give a quick summary of the show, it follows the story of the young swiss adventurist, Isabelle Eberhardt, who, in the turn of the last century, following a series of tragic family deaths, fled to Algeria, alone. She dressed as a man; converted to Islam; roamed the desert; fell in love with an Algerian soldier; survived an attempted assassination; joined a Sufi order; and died at the age of 27 in a flash-flood. Her jounals were saved, and later published in Western Europe. This piece follows her story through a series of poetic vignettes and musical images, taken from the journals in a dream-like fashion that floats the audience through a strange and mystical journey.
This piece fits squarely into the modernist genre of “multi-media opera”, championed to death in NYC by such venues as BAM and The Kitchen. Established prominently in the ’70s, with such pieces as “Einstein on the Beach” (Philip Glass), and “United States of America” (Laurie Anderson). The genre seems to require video projections, in order to satiate modern man’s addiction to film/tv/etc. The orchestras/ensembles are usually incorporated into the staging. There is usually some extensive sound-design, involving pre-recorded sound, artificial manipulation of the acoustic instruments, and the use of electronically-based instruments (keyboards, etc).
Song from the Uproar had some very bright moments, and some others quite a bit less-than. However, one thing that made this piece stand out was the lack of sub-text. This was a majorly refreshing aspect — the story, environment, music, and experience was, without a doubt, singular and focused. There was no philosophical, theological, or political doctrine. It was merely a beautiful, dreamy, wind-swept adventure through the desert, one filled with the expansiveness of the un-bound mind, the independent soul, and the expansive imagination. This was a piece based on poetry, not on doctrine. The story was simple; the actions were clear; there was no muddying intention. It was straight and clean.
The scoring was beautiful, with a small ensemble (NOW Ensemble) of clarinet (bass & soprano), flute, electric guitar, acoustic bass, and piano. The lead role was performed virtuosically by Abigail Fischer, who sang almost consistently for the full 75 minutes, all the time weaving elegantly in and out of the highly-stylized and choreographed 5-person choir, floating props, and even joining the band for one number (for a lovely 3-handed piano piece). The sets (by Zane Pihlström) were simple and lovely. By draping 2 giant pieces of canves on both sides of the stage, and filling the sides of the stage with sand, one was immediately swept into a world of canvas tents, sand, and wind. The films, too, (by Stephen Taylor) were quite lovely — never adding anything of specificity, but always adding to the dreamy poetry of the environment. They evoked a constant flickering of the sun, an on-going presence of light, and time, and memories. They consisted of mostly black-and-white grainy images evoking photos of our grandparents, of another era, of memories, of reflection.
A big problem that I had was the sound. I’m not sure if I can even point to the sound designer — but there seemed to be a complete disregard for sonic aesthetics.
1) What is UP with electric guitarists in new music ensembles? I feel like many young composers decide to incorporate electric guitars into acoustic chamber-style groups. Having grown up on Led Zeppelin and Hendrix, there is certainly a room for this aesthetic in today’s contemporary composers’ voices. But respect the electric guitar, and what it is made to do. Do NOT put a digital distortion on the instrument!!! The electric guitar was made electric so it could be LOUD. The distorted guitar was a natural outcome of playing SO loud that the amp was blown. The blown (broken) cones created a natural buzz and fuzz, one that was unique to each amp. It’s a beautiful thing, when it’s big, and loud, and BRASH. It’s common now to use pedals and effects to recreate that cracked, distorted tone… but it must be PLAYED with that original intention. There are ways to do this within a quieter setting, such as in a venue like The Kitchen, playing among a chamber ensemble. One such concept is to play through a tiny amp, one which “breaks up” (i.e. “turn it to 11”), while still remaining at a quieter over-all volume. There was some very beautiful writing for the guitar, involving plenty of lovely harmonics, and beautiful clean-sounding lines. However, when Mazzoli wrote for big, nasty power-chords, it sounded flacid. New Music guitarists/ensembles have a LONG way to go with incorporating the electric guitar into their sound worlds. I find this to be a common problem that drives me nuts.
2) In a medium-sized room like the Kitchen (roughly 300-400 seats, I’m guessing), all of the singers were miked with clip-on lavalier-type mics. It was sad, bordering on tragic.. The voices were strong and dynamic; hearing them through a PA system was not a good decision. There was a lot of nuance and dynamics that were lost, and in general it felt like the whole sound design was EQd poorly. I’m sure that a much better balance could have been struck between the singers’ natural voices and the “sound support” that was needed to compete with the room and the band.
This was a multi-media opera — the sound design should be CRUCIAL to the over-all experience. Instead, I found myself focusing on problems with the over-all sound of the piece. This, ultimately, distracts from the music itself, and removes your attention from the sweeping dream that this piece is supposed to take you on.