Once upon a time a woman and her house lived by the sea. They had lived alone by the sea for a very long time—near twenty years—since the man who was the husband of the woman had gone off to war. They had lived without the man, and heard nothing of the man, for a very long time until—after near twenty years—one day he returned. He had been damaged in his long time away. He and his memory were scarred and burnt and broken by what he had seen, and what he had done, and what he had seen done, but the man had somehow remembered the house by the sea living with the woman alone, and he somehow found his way back to them, and they took him in. To help the man and herself to find what had happened those twenty years, the woman read him the story of another man, Odysseus, who had gone off to war and who had been gone a very long time—near twenty years—before one day he returned. And that story of telling a story to get to the bottom of a story was one day turned into another story, called Penelope.
The story called Penelope began as a monodrama written by Ellen McLaughlin. Penelope then became a monodrama with songs inserted in it, for alto and string quartet, with text by McLaughlin and music by Sarah Kirkland Snider. At last, Penelope became a stand-alone song cycle, performed by singer Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) and the contemporary chamber orchestra Signal, released last week on New Amsterdam Records, of which Snider is one of the three co-founders.
As I was awaiting the release of the complete recording, I tweeted that Penelope "may be the best thing to happen to Homer since Joyce." After listening to it persistently for the past seven days, I am largely prepared to stand by that burst of (admitted) hyperbole. Penelope's ambitions are more modest than those of Ulysses, but it shares with Joyce's novel the trick of mapping Homer's Odyssey without crinkles or wrinkles on to a more contemporary world. Where Joyce echoes and reechoes all of the wanderings of Odysseus and Telemachus in the wanderings of Bloom and Dedalus through the vividly tangible streets of Dublin, Penelope operates more intimately and within the more interiorized landscape of the nameless woman and returning man.
The "adventure" parts of the Odyssey play no part in Penelope. Here we have no cyclops, no sirens, no Scylla or Charybdis. Telemachus, also, goes missing, as do Penelope's slaughtered suitors. Ellen McLaughlin's text instead homes in on the incidents in the Odyssey most closely tied to forgetfulness and memory—the somnolent land of the Lotus Eaters, which here becomes the hospital ward in which the man has lain sedated with his companions ("my sleeping, drooling, smiling men") for who knows how long and which he rouses himself to leave (still lost, "but not as lost as them"), and the descent to confront and question the shades of the dead—as well as on the women who mark Odysseus' journey home: Nausicaa, Circe, and Calypso, aspects of each of them figuring in to the personality and role of Penelope, retelling the tale. Song by song, points of view shift from the woman to the man to the man's reviving memories and back to the woman. If Athena is here—Odysseus' indispensable patroness—it is in the slow, uncertain redawning of consciousness and self-knowledge. The particular details of the plot, and most particularly the details of what exactly the man has gone through these twenty years, are left intentionally vague, but the extended drawing of them out and the clear eyed looking at them plainly leads to something hopeful and to the cautiously uprising conclusion of the piece, in which the multiple tiers of story on story, "bloody and sacred, truth and lie" resolve toward an infinite horizon, "backward and forward, like the tide."
This recording is naturally, more than anything, about Sarah Kirkland Snider's score, but a great deal of credit for the success of Penelope lies in Ellen McLaughlin's text, which is refreshingly spare and perfectly suited to being set to music. Never underestimate the power of a good libretto.
Snider's score is the very model of smart, contemporary "music savant"—"knowing music" engaged with the "classical" tradition but unafraid to trot out the tools of "popular" music to suit its purposes. The Signal ensemble is structured, on paper, as a seemingly conventional, string-based chamber orchestra. Its players, however, include many of the key exponents of the New York young/new/serious music set—members of Missy Mazzolli's Victoire and violinist-composer Caleb Burhans, for example—and the ensemble is supplemented by two electric guitarists—Grey McMurray, Burhans' partner in itsnotyouitsme, and Snider's husband Steven Mackey—a drummer and electronics.
The final essential element is Shara Worden, whose singing seamlessly and potently brings text and music together. Here there is clarity, profundity, directness, intelligence . . . everything needed to raise Penelope to humane near-perfection. The composer has said that Shara Worden was her dream singer for this work, and her hopes have been richly fulfilled. Worden's voice is occasionally processed or multitracked, but for the most part it stands exposed and, frankly, wondrous.
Penelope is, for me, the finest, most indispensable and potentially lasting new work I have heard or am likely to hear this year. You should immediately get yourself a copy and listen to it over and over and over, as you would read and reread a great novel, story, or poem such as, say, the Odyssey.
Penelope can be streamed in its entirety, and purchased as a download, here—though really you should pick up the physical CD for the sake of its attractive packaging and for the sake of its inclusion of the full text.
The official site for the work is here, where you can find a free download of "This is What You're Like," the woman's reminiscence of what her husband was before he left her:
Live performances of two sections ("Calypso" and "The Lotus Leaters") are included in this broadcast from WNYC's Soundcheck:
And this just in . . . a video: