Nothing Is As It Disappears


Long Beach Opera is not a company that regularly revives past productions, but it is currently making an exception with a return of David Lang's The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, which it originally staged in 2011. At that time, I foamed and raved more than somewhat in my enthusiasm for the piece and the performance. Revisiting it again this past weekend, I found it to be if anything even more impressive than it had been three years ago.

Below is a revised edition of what I wrote in 2011, with deletions, elisions, corrections, and additions as seem appropriate. There are only two more performances, for which tickets are (as it were) Difficult to obtain, but well worth the attempt.


For those few who will have the opportunity to see it, Long Beach Opera’s southern California premiere staging of The Difficulty of Crossing a Field should stand, easily, as one of the most singularly compelling musical or dramatic productions to be offered in these parts this year. Or perhaps I should say that it will stand uneasily, because unease and uncertainty, the unresolvable conjoined with the unmentionable, lie at its heart.

Difficulty hangs on the slimmest of narrative threads, a 750-word story by Ambrose Bierce in which Mr. Williamson, a plantation owner in 1854 near Selma, Alabama, one day sets out to walk across one of his fields to deliver an instruction and, in plain view of witnesses, disappears. The witnesses are astonished; Williamson’s wife loses her wits, either on the spot or shortly after. There is an inquiry by the law.  Bierce gives the oddly redacted testimony of Williamson’s neighbor, Mr. Wren, and attorney readers in particular will appreciate Bierce’s way with the shaky reliability of eyewitnesses.  Bierce reports flatly in his final sentence that Williamson was declared dead, his property distributed according to law. What has happened is never explained: “It is not the purpose of this narrative,” Bierce writes midway, “to answer that question.”

The stage version originated as a commission from San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, and premiered in a small alternative space in San Francisco in 2002. The music is by David Lang, one third of New York's Bang on a Can and recent Pulitzer Prize winner for The Little Match Girl Passion.  The text is by playwright Mac Wellman. Between them, Lang and Wellman collect the cryptic fragments of Mr. Williamson’s disappearance and spin them into something even more cryptic. In a pre-performance talk [in 2011], David Lang noted that Wellman’s libretto includes at least once every word in Bierce’s original.  Wellman’s most critical contribution is to give voice to those whose testimony is pointedly not sought out or considered to be of interest in Bierce’s story: Williamson’s young daughter (a babe in arms in the tale, a soprano here), the now-disturbed Mrs. Williamson and, above all, Mr. Wren’s house slave Boy Sam and Mr. Williamson’s own field slaves. Bierce, again:

Mrs. Williamson had lost her reason and the servants were, of course, not competent to testify. . . .  None of the field hands working in the field to which Williamson was going had seen him at all, and the most rigorous search of the entire plantation and adjoining country failed to supply a clew. The most monstrous and grotesque fictions [sic], originating with the blacks, were current in that part of the State for many years, and probably are to this day . . . .

(Emphasis added.)

David Lang scored the piece for string quartet, specifically the Kronos Quartet in the original production. (In Long Beach, the score receives a highly capable and sympathetic treatment at the hands of the Lyris Quartet, conducted [in 2011] by Benjamin Makino [and in this revival by Kristof Van Grysperre].) The music is rooted in contemporary minimalism, with discrete melodic shards repeating in shifting relation to one another. Like that of Philip Glass, Lang's minimalist method is remarkably fluid, and able to shift instantly from jittery nervousness to chanting mysticism to lyrical melanchol. It melds well with the parallel technique of Wellman's text, in which key phrases recur and recur, their seeming significance altered by the other phrases that move around them. "We are constructing a nation," the field slaves sing early on; moments later, the phrase has become more ominous: "We are constructing an erasure."


For once not wielding the conductor's baton, Long Beach Opera Artistic Director Andreas Mitisek has designed and directed a production that brings out all the ineffable mystery Difficulty carries about its person. * * * [T]he audience is seated on the stage [of Long Beach's Terrace Theater] and the performance takes place on the segmented elevator in the orchestra pit, and within the dim and cavernous space beyond.  A long ramp, illuminated from below, runs out into the house, and it is along that ramp that Mr. Williamson disappears. The investigating magistrate, bat-like shadows behind him, presides over his inquiry from the upper balcony. The rows of theater seats echo the rows of crops that are tended by the field slaves, who approach through mist out of the darkness to share their piece of the mystery. Mitisek has made a habit of staging opera in unusual spaces, or of using the available space in unexpected ways; this [was and remains perhaps] his neatest scenic conceit [ever].


The cast is uniformly impressive. Suzan Hanson * * * is mad again as Mrs. Williamson. She is perched high atop a stool or ladder, rising and descending in the pit, her enormous skirts spreading out over the ground around her as she tries to grasp what has happened to all she once took for granted. Mrs. Williamson's music is the most "operatic" in the piece, and Hanson's rich and subtle soprano (and her rich and subtle dramatic chops) entrance as they disturb. As the young Williamson girl, Valerie Vinzant spends her time on the floor drawing and recalling the last thing her father said to her—"What is the point of talking crap like that?"—in response to her Cassandra-like suggestion that the horses know something important and must be understood. Lang has given the character music as lovely as anything in the piece, and Vinzant sings it rivetingly.


The field slaves are central to Difficulty and the [mostly new nine]-member ensemble gathered in Long Beach is a powerful one[, particularly Karole Foreman as the woman known as Virginia Creeper, the slaves' ritual centerpoint, and Michael Paul Smith as the unnamed field hand obliged to recite his masters' rules and regulations.] As [the house slave] Boy Sam, Eric B. Anthony impresses with an eery high tenor, unsure what he has seen and whether he should share it (as if the whites would even listen if he did). 

Robin Buck * * * returns in the mostly-speaking roles of Mr. Wren and of Williamson's brother/overseer, through whom we learn that Williamson favored the unyieldingly harsh philosophies of John C. Calhoun in the "management" of his slave population. In separate scenes, each of Buck's characters provides testimony contradictory of the other, neither getting any grip on what may have occurred.


Mr. Williamson himself, and the investigating magistrate, both non-singing roles, are played by Long Beach stalwart Mark Bringelson. Stern, humorless and puritanical as the magistrate, grotesque in the manner of little men with undeserved power as Williamson, Bringelson is a compelling pivot round whom the other characters' plans and reactions turn. Moreover, he brings a surprising grace to his character's actual disappearance, giving away nothing while becoming nothing.

So what, we ask, has actually happened? Did Mr. Williamson light out for the territory? Was he swallowed by a particularly subtle and efficient sinkhole? Beamed up by aliens? Is he the Don Giovanni of Selma, Alabama, hauled away in a trice to pay for his sins? None can say. These are [among] the Mysteries of Selma, Alabama.

To return:  * * * Difficulty * * *[is] shudderingly fine, as a work and as a production [and left me yet again] in a condition of awe-struck wonder. * * * 


Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, from the 2014 production; used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.  

[As ever with Long Beach Opera, the blogger attended this performance as a subscriber, at his own expense.]  


The Map of the Clock

Street clock
Another opening, another show....

On Sunday, May 18, as part of the Spring program by the Sacramento Children's Chorus, one of the five choirs making up the Chorus will premiere "The Map of the Clock," a piece composed by Garrett Shatzer on a text by this blogger. In July, the Chorus will be taking "Map" along for performances in Eugene, Oregon, and "on the green" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. All of which is rather satisfying, as perhaps you can imagine.

The commission from the Children's Chorus came Garrett's way as he and I were collaborating on "Beset" and he kindly offered me the opportunity to craft up the words. Not having been so young as these singers in a very long while, I found myself thinking about Time and thinking in particular about how differently things appear when one has more future than past in one's life. That notion somehow conjoined in my mind with the idea that "the map is not the territory," a title emerged and, from that, a poem and, from that, a composition which I will hear for the first time on Sunday.

Here are the music-less words:




The map of the road ahead

is not the road ahead


The clock on the wall knows

nothing at all of Time


This moment’s monument is not

the thing you said

this moment


It is not the thing you thought

or meant to say


The road alone knows where

the road is leading


And once each mile is past,

Time blocks return


Old trickster Time, you prankster,

with your secret plan


Will anyone here who hears me

hear me again

in time


The road the time

the moments that pass

the song the speech

the road the rhyme the time

And on and on and on

or on and off

an end


Copyright 2013 George M. Wallace


Photo: Streets Clock by Flickr user Individual Design, used under Creative Commons license.

Incidental: "A moment's monument" was Dante Gabriel Rossetti's description of the sonnet form. It appears here as a backhanded reference to my first, and most ambitious, collaboration with Garrett Shatzer: "The Kissed Mouth," an as-yet unrealized song cycle for tenor and soprano—more of a chamber opera, to my way of thinking—involving Rossetti and certain supernatural elements, of which I will say no more. Mayhap I will be able to announce its premiere here someday. In time, as it were.


UPDATE [August 5, 2014]: A recording of the premiere performance of "The Map of the Clock" has gone up on Garrett Shatzer's site. I could not have asked for better treatment of this text than Garrett gave it, and the youthful singers of the Sacramento Children's Chorus (the subchoir that performed here is Jr. High/High School Freshperson age) sang it gorgeously. Listen here.


A View to Achille
[The Death of Klinghoffer, Long Beach Opera]


Controversy is a distorting lens. To the degree that a creative work becomes known as "controversial," it is that much more difficult to see and assess the actual work. That there was a riot (they say) at the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps tells us little or nothing about the Sacre, or how we should value it. That a given artist's work was caught up in the U.S. "culture wars" of the 1980s reflects neither well nor poorly on the quality of the art: the controversy swept up art both good (Mapplethorpe) and less good (Serrano, in the view of this blogger), without distinguishing between or caring to address those qualities.

Given this,

  • Step #1 in approaching John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer—now receiving its first-ever southern California production, via Long Beach Opera, many long years after Los Angeles Opera co-commissioned but ultimately decided not to stage it—should be to forget for a time that the opera has been marked as Controversial since its premiere in 1991.

  • Step #2 is, if you have the opportunity, to go, see and hear it for yourself, because it is a complex, imperfect, but worthy artistic creation deserving of your attention and assessment, because it has taken twenty years to get a full staging in this part of the world, and particularly because we are unlikely to have it on offer here again any time soon.

There is one more performance, this coming Saturday.


Part opera, part oratorio, The Death of Klinghoffer meditates upon the events of October, 1985, when four members of the Palestine Liberation Front hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean, holding crew and passengers hostage for several days while attempting to negotiate for the release of Paletinian prisoners held by Israel. On the second day, the hijackers shot and killed 69-year old Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish American retiree on a late-life vacation with his wife. His body and wheelchair were both thrown overboard. Those are pearls that were his eyes.

Alice Goodman's libretto touches on these events—with an added overlay focusing on the ship's Captain and his efforts by calm and by focus to resolve the situation without loss to crew or crowd—and wraps them in a series of grand choruses, the massed singers voicing the hopes and angers and faiths and rages of Israel and Palestine. Indeed almost twenty minutes are consumed, before the plot per se begins, with the paired "Chorus of Exiled Palestinians" and "Chorus of Exiled Jews." The choruses are underlain with some of the most elaborately fine and varied music of Adams's extensive career; the "Night Chorus" that ends Act One shares a clear lineage with the great John Donne setting "Batter My Heart" that is the highlight of the later Doctor Atomic. 

It is Goodman's libretto that has been the flash point for "controversy" surrounding Klinghoffer, criticized as unbalanced in favor of the Palestinians and insufficiently critical of the hijackers' actions. The opera premiered a mere five years after the events it portrays, so that the wounds specific to the Achille Lauro incident were more raw than they are today. That the hijackers of 1985 utilized menace and violence as quid pro quo in pursuit of concrete demands (the release of prisoners) feels almost quaint or old-fashioned now, in an era in which death—whether by suicide bomb or transit station attack or the large-scale horror of September 11—seems more commonly wielded for its own sake.  In any case, Klinghoffer avoids taking particular sides on the political issues, electing instead to simply present them: reportage prevails over advocacy. The opera certainly does not endorse the hijacking itself or attempt to justify the murder of Leon Klinghoffer: even if the hijackers' cause is accepted as just, it is plain that their self-perceived righteousness and zeal has made monsters of them. There is an implicit pacifism lying beneath the entire drama, a rejection of violence as an acceptable method in support of any cause, noble or ignoble. The figure of the Captain, in fact, in his unsatisfying effort to extricate his ship from danger by logic and moral suasion, echoes a figure in an earlier pacifist work, another well-meaning commander who cannot stop death and injustice: Britten's Captain Vere in Billy Budd.



In an atypical move for a company that generally goes its own way, LBO has imported the production of Klinghoffer helmed by James Robinson in 2011 for Opera Theatre of St. Louis. This was the first new fully staged production in this country in nearly twenty years, since the last performance of the original Peter Sellars version of the piece. A group of imposing panels echoing the hull of the ship slide and turn as the principal elements of the set. A screen rises and falls bearing projections of sea, sand and, most memorably, the empty wheelchair of Leon Klinghoffer sinking into the depths, spinning slowly slowly as it goes. The wheelchair figures as well in a startling, too-brief effect in the seconds before the opera begins.

Klinghoffer has been preceded in Long Beach in earlier seasons by two other notable post-Minimal operas: Adams's Nixon in China and Philip Glass's Akhnaten.In all three, substantial musical and dramatic weight must be borne the Chorus. As in those prior productions, the Chorus in Klinghoffer Impresses out of proportion to its size, negotiating a complex musical rhetoric with variety and point.

As the earnest but ultimately ineffectual Captain, Lee Gregory exhibits dignity, fine posture, and gravitas, especially when obliged to convey to Marilyn Klinghoffer after the hijackers' departure the admission that her husband has been murdered. Three subsidiary passengers—a Swiss grandmother, a haughty Austrian surviving on the fruit basket in her cabin and dismissing the "idiots" around her, and a dancing girl who thinks one of the attackers was really a bit of a gentleman about it—are all sung by Danielle Marcelle Bond. These characters seem an odd stab at comic relief in a piece that is otherwise relentlessly dour and serious. Ms. Bond individualizes each of them, making the most of the awkward material she has been dealt.

Of the four hijackers, two stand out. The leader of the group, Mamoud, is sung by Jason Switzer. Although the actual hijackers were men in their 20s, Mr Switzer's Mamoud is older, more thoughtful perhaps, committed to his cause but troubled and flustered when the plan is not so easily carried off as it might be. The role of Omar, written for mezzo soprano, falls to Peabody Southwell. Omar has one furious monologue, a slow burning declaration of ruthlessness that here evolves into the videotaping of a propaganda piece—modeled at least partly on contemporary "martyrdom videos"—Omar smoldering on the verge of explosion, wrapped in a Palestinian flag. 

Robin Buck and Suzan Hanson bring to their interactions as the Klinghoffers the same sincere regard and fathomless affection that marked their performances as another longtime married couple in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Each of the Klinghoffers is granted two arias: Leon Klinghoffer pivots from a praise of their comfortable normalcy to a stern confrontation with his captors before being wheeled below where he will be killed, and is granted an apotheosis of sorts in the "Aria of the Falling Body"; Marilyn Klinghoffer sings of her closeness with Leon, their lives together, and the pains and fear with which she is afflicted, and is given the opera's final word, lashing out at the Captain for "welcoming" the men who killed her husband and at the world at large for having done too little to save him, ending in the wish that she should have been the one to have died. In Mr. Buck's hands, Leon Klinghoffer is a humane and decent man, and his offstage death all the more pointless and moving for it. Ms. Hanson's Marilyn is heartbreakingly exposed, her roar of grief and rage never to be answered and ultimately unanswerable.



Tickets are available for the remaining performance, on Saturday, March 22, at 2:00 p.m., in the Terrace Theater, Long Beach.

Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.

[As ever with Long Beach Opera, the blogger attended this performance as a subscriber, at his own expense.]  

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 Master of Sir John Fastolf - Saint Francis

So then: here's a thing with which I am well pleased.

This upcoming Sunday morning, March 9, will see the premiere performances of "Beset", a choral piece composed by Garrett Shatzer at the behest of the Choir of Centerpoint Community Church in Roseville, California. The text was written by ... moi-même, this fool, me.

The piece was commissioned for performance at the Festival of Peace and Brotherhood which will take place in Rome, March 12 through 16. There was originally substantial cause to hope that the Choir would be performing the piece, with the composer at the organ, in St. Peter's itself. That prospect, sadly, has gone by the boards. Still, "Beset" will be performed several times during the Festival in historic churches roundabout Rome, so one can hardly complain. 

I was introduced to Garrett Shatzer through Dale Trumbore in connection with the New Lens Concert Series project, of which Garrett is co-creator. One idle comment led to another—I think I larkingly referred to my interest in becoming a "freelance librettist"—and here we find ourselves, Garrett and I, as collaborators. "Beset" is the first of our collaborations to see public performance, so I am as you might imagine a bit chuffed. We've another piece, for children's choir, premiering in May, of which I'll post as the day approaches. And there's a large project—the first to which we applied ourselves, a song cycle that morphed into something like a chamber opera featuring certain eminent Victorian and pre-Renaissance personages—that lies dormant for now, but of which I surely hope I will have more to report in due time. Trust me: it is the coolest thing.....

"Beset" is, I believe, the first and only overtly religous text to which I have set my hand. I cannot but confess that I suspect it is neither logically nor doctrinally sound on close reading. The opportunity to write it came up shortly after the then-new Pope had adopted Francis as his papal name. With the St. Peter's performance in mind, Garrett suggested that I consider incorporating some connection to the papal namesake, Francis of Assisi, into my text. Some puttering about led me to Francis's "Prayer to Obtain Divine Love", and that text resides sub rosa within my own. It surfaces overtly in the fourth stanza after a bout of imagery from other prayers of need and praise, such as the De Profundis and Ave Maris Stella. The spirit of John Donne, though none of his technique, is invoked. The canyon is a backhanded allusion to Messiaen. The piece is named "Beset" because "beset" is a fine old word.

At this writing, I've not yet heard a note of the finished piece. I am venturing north to hear it this Sunday and I hope, at some point, that I can supplement this post with a recording. For the nonce, here are the words without the benefit of the music that I trust will be the making of them:



Beset by fears and by uncertainty

Beset in dreams and when I wake beset


The way is hard

I cry for comfort

And comfort comes


One sparkling star still steers me onward

Across broad seas or over frowning peaks

Hail! O star of the sea,

O star of the desert and the canyon and the vail:

Guide me through the dark and recurring night.


Send me, O Lord, that sweet and fiery strength

And let your Love absorb my soul that I

May die

For love of your Love as your Love has done for me


Teach me, O Lord, to love all You have made:

All peoples, all this world, your holy Light,

That from the depths I may cry out and still be heard

And salvaged from this wreck

By holy Love

By holy Peace 



I beseech Thee, O Lord, that the fiery and sweet strength of Thy love may absorb my soul from all things that are under heaven, that I may die for love of Thy love as Thou didst deign to die for love of my love.

-- St. Francis of Assissi - Prayer to Obtain Divine Love


Illustration: Master of Sir John Fastolf, illuminator (French, active before about 1420 - about 1450), Saint Francis, about 1430 - 1440, Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment Leaf: 12.1 x 9.2 cm (4 3/4 x 3 5/8 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 5, fol. 44v

Grim Grinning Ghosts Come Out to Vocalize
[Pacific Opera Project: The Turn of the Screw]

  Be not hysterical about that staring man beneath the stairs.

Down an industrial side street south of downtown Los Angeles, a few blocks from the heart of Skid Row, there is opera being made, and made well, this past weekend and next. The location is the theater inside the unexpectedly situated Inner-City Arts, and the occasion is Pacific Opera Project [POP] staging Benjamin Britten's adaptation of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw.

POP is that grand quixotic thing, the plucky/spunky opera company. Founded little more than two years ago, POP's first production was a supremely intimate version of Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti with props and sets more or less literally crafted from cardboard cutouts. I saw it, and I liked it, as much because of its "poor theatre" qualities as despite them, but I did not know then that the company would hang in and grow as, it seems, it has. With Turn of the Screw, POP now has nine productions to its name, including all three Mozart-Da Ponte operas—and only one Puccini, which is all to the good.

Turn of the Screw is a change of pace for the company, which since Tahiti has stuck to the generally-hummable repertoire (and will continue to do so with a Carmen in March). The company's Artistic Director/prodction director Josh Shaw and Musical Director/conductor Stephen Karr have taken Turn of the Screw head on and done all that is needed to put up a production that, while it forges no new ground in its conceptual approach, is compelling from beginning to end and shows off to full advantage a piece that is certainly. between Britten's music and the near-perfect construction of Myfanwy Piper's libretto, one of the very finest music dramas of the 20th Century.

Straitened resources notwithstanding, POP's production is in no sense "backwater opera." Rather, it does credit to everyone involved in its creation.


We have been fortunate in Los Angeles in recent decades to have two very good productions of Turn of the Screw via Los Angeles Opera. (Here are my thoughts on the better and most recent of them, in 2011.) Even those, however, had to fight not to lose impact in a house as large as the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. One of the virtues of POP's production is to restore the opera to its proper "chamber" size, and to a scale where its effects and subtleties are more readily received by the audience. The results are consistently gripping.

The stage area is shallow, but also wide and tall, with a balcony that wraps around to the audience's right. Resourceful use of screens, scrims, shadows and windows adds depth and variety to the playing space. (Josh Shaw serves as designer as well as director, with lighting by Ryan Shull.) The forestage is occupied by blue fabric that, with the aid of fans and light, transforms as needed into the grim lake where the spirit of the late Miss Jessel first makes herself known.

The orchestra—Britten's full complement of thirteen—hidden in almost plain sight on the upper level, won through convincingly against a tricksy score at Saturday's opening performance. The percussion was occasionally out of balance and a touch clangy, and one or to string passages went foggy, but the reeds and harp particularly carried the evening.


After their fashion, the tenor roles Britten wrote for companion Peter Pears make demands on the singer as idiosyncratic as the Wagnerian heldentenor parts, and not every tenor adapts to them creditably. In the Pearsian dual role of the Prologue and Peter Quint, Clay Hilley was more than creditable, wittily spooky and poignantly heartsick by turns as the ghostly valet, more misunderstood perhaps than actually wicked. As young Miles, the object of Quint's attention in the living world, soprano Ariel Downs strikes the right balance of charm, boyishness, and ambiguously implied decadence, particularly in the "Malo" song and the spine-tingle conclusion of Act I. (Ms. Downing is making a small specialty of playing young boys, having also done so in The Industry's "(First Take)" program last summer.)

Rebecca Sjöwall portrays the beset and possibly unhinging Governess with the necessary blend of earnestness, resolve and stark panic, particularly in the pinpoint shift from triumph to utter despair in the opera's final crisis. Mrs. Grose (Jennifer Wallace), the housekeeper whose opinions of the departed Quint set the Governess's concerns racing, is more fully characterized and less of a cipher here than is often the case, each turn of her well meaning confusion projected with clarity. Marina Harris is the appropriately moody Miss Jessel, no happier in death than she seems to have been in life, and Katy Tang completes the ensemble as the alternatively sparkly and sullen Flora. 

With The Turn of the Screw, POP seals its place as a welcome addition to Los Angeles-area music community, reaffirming that "size isn't everything" and that it deserves to be judged as a peer alongside larger and longer established groups. The committed effort and inventiveness invested by all concerned in this production returns ample and lingering musical and dramatic satisfaction. Wider attention should be paid to POP and these performers in future.

The remaining performances of The Turn of the Screw are scheduled for the evenings of January 17 and 18, with a matinee to close out the run on January 19. Tickets [if they have not yet sold out] can be sought out here.



Photos by Martha Benedict, procured via Pacific Opera Project on Facebook.

Disclosures: Jennifer Wallace (Mrs. Grose) is, as the reader may have guessed, the blogger's sister. Every effort has been bent to maintaining objectivity notwithstanding the compelling fact of consanguinity. The blogger attended this performance as a paying customer, at his own expense. The first person singular and the active voice will be reassumed by the blogger in due time.


Death, Man.... Talking
[David Lang: death speaks]

  Death speaks

1 David Langdeath speaks

It may be [it is] hackneyed to say it, but there is yet a modicum of truth in the proposition that the creative act can be taken as a constant howl against human mortality. At the least, art provides a lens through which we mortals can contemplate that mortality, think about the ending of things, and perhaps enter into a truce of sorts, whether easy or uneasy, with Death.

Death has been a recurring presence in recent recordings of music by David Lang. His Pulitzer-winning the little match girl passion ends in a death—two, really, as the match girl's suffering final hours are held in parallel with the Passion and Crucifixion—and explicitly contemplates a supernatural life beyond. The collection of Lang's piano music, this was written by hand, included the eight Memory Pieces, each dedicated to preserving Lang's memory of a dead friend. All of these compositions looked at death and now, in death speaks, Death looks back. And not only looks back, but pulls up a chair and settles in for a chat.

Lang's process in crafting death speaks was to pore over the German texts of songs set by Schubert and to cull out the numerous occasions on which Death is personified and addresses the singer or the listener. He then translated those passages roughly in to English and arranged the results in new order suitable for resetting to [un-Schubert-like] music.

Death, as it turns out, is fond of humankind. Death yearns for human company, feels sadness over human suffering and loss, and offers to make it all better. Being as it is Death that makes it, the offer is vested with equal parts succour and unease. Death here requites the longing famously anatomized by Keats in the "Ode to a Nightingale":

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
    I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
    To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
    To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
        While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
            In such an ecstasy!

Originally conceived as a companion to little match girldeath speaks shares with it an essential stillness at the core. Where the sonic austerity of the largely a cappella match girl emulates the extreme cold of its tale, death speaks is, with a trio of guitar (Bryce Dessner), keyboard (Nico Muhly), and violin (Owen Pallett), a slightly warmer affair. Akin, though, to Milton's "darkness visible," the voice of Death sings here with a sort of radiant cold.

That voice is Shara Worden, and it is her extraordinary, nuanced and characterful performance that makes death speaks work so powerfully. Worden's Death has an awesome glamour, in the oldest sense of those terms; she ensorcels her hearer, enwrapping and binding total attention from her first word ("You") to her last ("stops"). Lang's arrangement of his texts is remarkable for the smoothness with which it draws everything into itself, but Shara Worden expands beyond those texts such that death speaks is ultimately, unspeakably moving. Highly, highly recommended.

Accompanying death speaks on the recording is "Depart," a wordless 18 minute piece for multitracked cello [Maya Beiser] and female vocal quartet, commissioned to be played in the Salle des Departs, a space in a French hospital in which the living can contemplate the passing of their loved ones. Vaporous and oddly gorgeous music, remniscent of the circulating, descending motifs in Brian Eno's "Sparrowfall" pieces.


Blogger's note: I began writing this post last May, when death speaks first released, but found myself unable to finish it in a presentable form. I returned to it in connection with my year end favorite music list, on which death speaks stands in first place. I still haven't finished full-ish posts on most of the other recordings on that list, but as today is the composer's birthday (b. January 8, 1957), it seems a proper occasion for putting at last it up.

Postscript: In June 2014, Long Beach Opera will be revisiting its production of Lang's The Difficulty of Crossing a Field. My enthusiasm for the original 2011 performance was vociferous. You should go, if you can.

Listening Listfully 2013 - Just the List



One of the signs that I have acted more as a straggler than as a blogger recently is the fact that my "favorite music of 2012" post did not go up until January 1, 2013. Rather than repeat that poor performance wholesale, this post will at least get The List qua List up and out in the world. I am continuing to work on more detailed commentary on each of the selections, in the hope that it too will see the light before we hear the chimes at midnight as the years move on.

This year, the list comes to a full 50 entries. I have abandoned any attempt to segregate by style or genre this time around: this is simply recorded music that was released in the past twelve months and that I particularly liked, arranged in a rough order of personal preference.

As always, fine distinctions of degree become more hazy as the list grows longer. That is, I feel more strongly about the rightness of the rankings in the upper half of the list than in the lower. As an added arbitrary touch, when one artist is represented by more than one choice, I have simply lumped them together with consecutive numbers. Since my purpose is to endorse all of this music, and to commend each and every item to your attention, the numbering hardly matters in the end. This catalogue is what this blog on the whole has become, an index of enthusiasms.

Eh bien, the List:


1 David Lang – death speaks

2 Big Farm –  Big Farm

John Grant –Pale Green Ghosts

4 Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society –  Brooklyn Babylon

5 John Hollenbeck – Songs I Like a Lot

June Tabor, Iain Ballamy, Huw Warren - Quercus

Leverage Models – Leverage Models

8 Son Lux – Lanterns

The Knells – The Knells

10 Caleb Burhans – Evensong

11 Midlake – Antiphon

12, 13 David Bowie – The Next Day and  
The Next Day Extra EP

14 Dawn of Midi – Dysnomia

15 The National –  Trouble Will Find Me

16 Nadia Sirota – Baroque

17 Sam Amidon –  Bright Sunny South

18 Claire Chase - Density

19, 20 R. Andrew Lee – Dennis Johnson: November and  
                                            Eva-Maria Houben: Piano Music

21 Timo Andres – Home Stretch

22 Elvis Costello & the Roots – Wise Up Ghost

23, 24 Mohammad Fairouz – Native Informant and 
                    Symphony No. 4, 'In the Shadow of No Towers'

25 Essie Jain – All Became Golden

26, 27 CFCF – Music for Objects and Outside

28, 29 John Vanderslice – Dagger Beach and 
                                           Vanderslice Plays Diamond Dogs

30 Ceramic Dog – Your Turn

31 Blitzen Trapper –  VII

32 Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle

33 Ensemble et cetera – Even the Light Itself Falls 

34 Daníel Bjarnason – Over Light Earth

35 The Men –  New Moon

36 David T. Little – Soldier Songs

37 Daniel Wohl – Corps Exquis

38 Billband –  Towards Daybreak

39 itsnotyouitsme – This I

40 Still Corners –  Strange Pleasures

41, 42 Third Coast Percussion – Unknown Symmetry and 
                                                                Resounding Earth

43 John Foxx and the Maths –  Evidence

44 Spektral Quartet – Chambers

45 Junip –  Junip

46 Harold Budd – Jane 1-11

47 Jace Clayton – The Julius Eastman Memory Depot

48 Caravan Palace – Panic

49 Nicholas Cords – Recursions

50 Arnold Dreyblatt & Megafaun – Appalachian Excitation


The Geography of Melancholy
Christopher Cerrone: Invisible Cities
The Industry, Los Angeles Union Station

Vapors of empire
Music, drama, art and technology conjoin and entwine in the world premiere production of Christopher Cerrone's opera, Invisible Cities, which opened at and in Los Angeles Union Station on Saturday evening, presented by operatic innovators The Industry. The production's successes are many, and such weaknesses as it has are intriguing in themselves. Whether or not it shows the way to a new mode of opera presentation, Invisible Cities is a richly fascinating expression of a multifold and rewarding new work. The original announced performances, through November 8, are reported to be sold out, but there is some possibility of additional dates being added.

Spirito serenissima

The work itself is a rich and marvelous thing, an opera of quick intelligence, resonant emotional depth, and lingering ambiguity. The libretto adapted by the composer from the novel by Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities emulates its source in having no conventional plot to speak of: it turns on a series of conversations between the emperor Kublai Khan and his Venetian merchant visitor and emissary, Marco Polo. The Khan's empire has grown so great that it is impossible for him to know it completely, beyond the certainty that it must fade. That the emperor might know more, Polo tells him of the many cities that Polo claims he has seen in his travels. The cities themselves are beyond knowing and, indeed, beyond belief: cities built on stilts and aerial walkways, cities in which every room is filled to its ceiling with sand, cities unheard of by the people who live there, abandoned cities, cities of the dead or the dying or the unremembered. Calvino spins out dozens of these cities; Cerrone's libretto focuses on three—Isidora, city of spirals and many women; Armilla, a lost city of water pipes inhabited by nymphs; and Adelma, whose citizens resemble those the traveler knows to be already dead—plus the equally unbelievable Venice, which Polo fears he may lose by speaking of it.

Polo and the emperor are themselves fictional inventions of Calvino and the librettist in this context, of course, and they cast doubt on whether they are really who they claim themselves to be even under those qualified conditions. Polo departs to return to Venice in the end, urging his host to continue to search for what is worth remembering and to hold to it. (In a move reminiscent of Britten's use of Yeats, Cerrone interpolates the famous lines from Eliot's "Little Gidding," that the end of exploration "will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

Invisible supertitle

Kublai Khan (Cedric Berry) and Marco Polo (Ashley Faatoalia) are the only named characters. Two women, Woman 1 and Woman 2, sing as representatives of the cities, and a four-member mixed chorus enwraps and fills vocal space as required. In addition to the singers, the cast encompasses eight dancers from LA Dance Project, the company recently founded here by Benjamin Millepied (choreographed here by Danielle Agami).

The musical forces deployed consist of an 11-piece orchestra centered on prepared and unprepared pianos, harp and assorted percussion, supported by a small complement of strings and wind instruments. The music wends and spills over it banks in a wash of sad enchantment and chastened reflection. A sampling from the opera's seven scenes can be heard here. It is, to leap ahead and oversimplify, a beautiful and resonant piece that merits a continuing life after this premiere.

The invisible orchestra
The musical satisfactions in its score should make Invisible Cities a recurring pleasure simply to listen to*, but how does one translate that into engaging live theater? The central challenge in staging Invisible Cities is that the absence of "plot-plot"—action and incident—might make it appear static and uneventful in a traditional proscenium setting. Director Yuval Sharon and The Industry have finessed that challenge in an inspired move: using wireless sound technology, they have untethered the singers from the players and from one another, and similarly untethered the audience from the performers, and set them all free (within bounds) to roam an open ended space, performing and experiencing the opera together without a need for actual physical proximity.

The space in question is Los Angeles Union Station, formerly the southwestern terminus for the Union Pacific, Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads, and still a busy regional rail and transit hub. Each audience member was provided a high-end wireless Sennheiser headset, and each heard the same opera at the same time. The orchestra and singers were fully mic'd and equipped with discreet earpieces of their own. Their performances were fed into a sophisticated mixing console to be transmitted back out to them and to the audience. The lot of us (other than the stay-at-home orchestra in the terminal's historic Fred Harvey restaurant space) wandered about, looking to find one another and to see what might be seen while the musical end of the performance played out in our heads. Throughout, the station continued its regular evening operations: passengers arriving, passengers departing, travelers and the displaced alike sitting, waiting, sleeping, watching as bits and pieces of an opera broke out around them.

The dancers from the dance

The audience was first convened in the restaurant to be greeted and to hear the overture—during a period when he had little hope of the opera being produced, Christopher Cerrone spun off the overture as an independent piece, which the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed as part of its "Brooklyn Festival" earlier this year—at the end of which we were set loose about the premises.

Three principal terminal spaces were used in the performance: the main concourse and waiting area, a pair of outdoor courtyards on either side, and the enormous original ticketing lobby of the station, which is typically used today only as a site for film shoots. Polo and Kublai Khan began in separate parts of the complex, eventually meeting face to face in the concluding scene. Each began in contemporary dress, the great Khan a seemingly humble figure in a wheelchair. How long he had sat there pre-performance, unnoticed, who can say. Unless you spotted his earpieces and mic, he would have looked like any other injured or disabled passer-through. Polo began, and remained, in baseball cap, flannel shirt and red ski vest, occasionally checking his phone or settling at a table to sip a glass of water. 

The two Women were in motion through the evening, in an array of more costume-like robes and dresses. Masks were donned for singing of Venice. The chorus and dancers, variously bedecked as travelers from various points in the past century, appeared and disappeared, rising from the crowd or discovered mopping a floor or repacking a suitcase. The action played out in multiple locations simultaneously, so no attendee could see everything that was happening at any given moment. The emperor eventually rose and walked, disappearing for a time at the far end of the now befogged ticketing cavern. with the dancers and Women as subtle guides, the entire audience found its way to that room by independent routes, to find Kublai Khan emerging in full imperial regalia for his farewell to Polo.

Xanadu station
Farewell to the merchant of venice

Although the technical end of the evening's project was carried off with impressive elan, it was not perfect: it may have been only my own headset, but I was beset by occasional random interference that, when it occurred, distracted from the immersive feel of the performance. The headset itself grew slightly tiresome in extended use, but removing it to let air into the porches of sweaty ears meant no longer hearing any singer not in the immediate vicinity nor the orchestra secreted in another building. Since the piece is definitely worth hearing in its entirety—and required extra attention on this first occasion simply by virtue of being new and previously unheard—even brief interruption was a minor irritant. All that said, the headset generally functioned exactly as promised, and the sound mix as transmitted was particularly well done, with the life and presence one would hope for from a particularly authentic live concert recording. (The singers' microphones even picked up a shading of sound from their immediate surroundings, lending an extra air of ambient verisimilitude to the sound in the headsets.)

I chose to stay on my feet through the 70-minute performance. Others elected to sit down from time to time on their way. The potential aggravation at "not seeing everything that is happening" passed quickly, overcome by the enveloping presence of the music and singing and by the sense of shared adventure or pilgrimage with my fellow travelers. Given that the performance was in such an open and public place, no one was discouraged from photography, and thousands of cell phone photos (such as those in this post) must have been taken, by audience and bystanders both. 

Things not seen

The verdict? On its own terms, this production has to be deemed a solid success. It is a fine piece of operatic writing, performed with grace and vigor by musicians and dancers alike, and the experience of landing in the middle of it was exhilarating. The technology is not perfect, but what is? Even with my quibbles, it delivered very nearly all that was asked of it. Did I mention that the opera itself is really really good? Yes, I suppose I did.

This is not—and, to be fair, was not being sold as— The Future of Opera. The bulk of the repertoire, including work already receiving workshop support from The Industry, would not adapt well to the headset approach. But in this singular case, a fatefully successful meeting of art and technology has indeed paid off. Well played, all.

L'arc d'or

As of opening night, all future performances were reported sold out. There is talk of additional performances, and I would recommend interested readers keep track of the Invisible Cities website linked above for updates.

Photos and rudimentary processing by the blogger.

* The blogger attended this performance as a ticket holder, at his own expense. Additionally, Invisible Cities was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign, to which the blogger was a contributor, at a level that promises a complete audio recording of the production. The blogger believes he chose wisely in this regard.

Petals on a wet black bough
Nom de spectacle

Carlsbad Music Festival 2013 - Saturday - Evening

A long, full evening was on offer at Carlsbad Music Festival Saturday night, with three featured performances at the Carlsbad Village Theatre.

Calder Quartet has been Ensemble in Residence at Carlsbad from its founding ten years ago.They returned again, with friends, Saturday night for a multifaceted and satisfying set full of fun, adventure and danger.

The fun, in particular, was to be had in Steven Mackey's "Physical Property" for string quartet and electric guitar, with the composer playing the latter. Originally written for Kronos Quartet, "Physical Property" poses plentiful technical challenges for its players, but is ultimately about the rush and thrill of taking them on. All five musicians, and particularly Mackey, appeared to be deriving a quantum of goofy joy as they negotiated the course.

(The coda to "Physical Property" has since been reused in "Salad Days," for Mackey's prog-rock project Big Farm; attentive readers will recall that Big Farm bids fair to be my favorite record of 2013.)

Caroline Shaw of Roomful of Teeth, infra, joined the Quartet for two selections from her "By and By," settings of hopeful folk songs with troubled and ambivalent accompaniment. While Shaw sang "Angel Band" and "I'll Fly Away" with pure sweet sincerity, the Quartet fretted and muttered and second-guessed her sunny optimism.

Danger loomed in the form of Bartok's forbidding Quartet No. 3. The Calders are scheduled to essay Bartok's entire String Quartet oeuvre later this year at New York's Metropolitan Museum. The Bartok quartets are among the most daunting in the repertoire. The Third groans, plucks, yearns and glistens through four uninterrupted movements, handled here with richness and fluidity.

The concluding work brought the Calder/Carlsbad bond full circle: a section from Festival founder Matt McBane's "Ghost in the Machine," which he wrote for the Quartet for the second year of the Festival in 2005—as they noted, it was one of the very first pieces written specifically for them. (The Quartet has a generous collection of commissions to its credit now, many of them premiered in Carlsbad, and is in the process of recording a dozen of them under the umbrella title of "Eclectic Currents.") The "ghost" in McBane's piece is live electronic manipulation of the Quartet as it plays, such that ephemeral memories of earlier portions haunt through later ones. It was a fitting punctuation to the first decade of a fruitful relationship.

Claire Chase seems able to channel the hidden breath of the universe through her catalogue of flutes. This is not your butterfly and unicorn flute, but flute with rigor, flute without compromise, flute with nonnegotiable demands.

Chase performed, without breaks or comment, five of the pieces that will appear on her forthcoming album, Density. (The other selection on the album, Philip Glass's "Piece in the Shape of a Square", was on offer at the Friday Village Music Walk.) All but the last piece involved electronic accompaniment, largely in the form of the flutist playing in the company of multiple versions of herself. Eleven of her, for example, were involved in Steve Reich's voluptuously surging "Vermont Counterpoint," during which Chase moved purposefully around the stage swapping through flutes of various registers. Bass flute was at the center of Marcos Balter's "Pessoa" (a West Coast premiere), a lustrous, humid and elegaic piece. The hardest nut on the program to crack was Alvin Lucier's "Almost New York", in some ways more science experiment than concert music, in which a pure tone oscillator screeled and shifted slowly as Chase moved in darkness from flute to flute, producing a single note on each, held until it and the oscillator found commonality. Bursting energy, and the retrn of light, were the hallmarks of Mario Diaz de León's "Luciform" (also a West Coast premiere). At last, all acompaniment and other flutes cast aside, Chase took up a flute of platinum for a piercing flight towad the infinite with Edgard Varèse's 1939 "Density 21.5." Having essentially held its collective breath for 45 minutes, the audience ovated at length.

Claire Chase will close the Festival in a joint performance with percussionist Steven Schick, including a the world premiere of this year's Festival commission.

Incidental: As was pointed out by Matt McBane—who, it must be said, is probably the most self-effacing Music Festival founder in all of Christendom—Claire Chase's home town is Leucadia, which is basically the next little village south on the coast from Carlsbad.

Mic check
Roomful of Teeth, lemme say, has the best group name of any vocal ensemble, ever.

The spunk and cheekiness of that name carried over to RoT's ten-song set, which mixed pieces from the group's splendid debut album—Number 3 on this fool's Best of 2012 list—with new and/or so-far unreleased work. They even inserted a round of "Happy Birthday" for one of their members, insisting the audience join in, on key. Highlights were many, including:

Judd Greenstein's "Montmartre," which piles up syllables, shuffles and rejuggles them, and includes in the middle a North Star-period Philip Glass pastiche that never fails to make this fool grin.

A thus far unreleased addditional section from Sarah Kirkland Snider's "Unremembered," settings of poems by Nathaniel Bellows. "The Guest," which involves the story of a child sleepwalking in the snow, has the same dramatic focus and variety as Snider's Penelope (heard here in 2011), but achieves it entirely with voices. This entire cycle will, I hope, see release some day.

William Brittelle's "Beneath the Minotaur," a particular favorite of mine, was not on the program, but Brittelle's "High Done No Why To" was. It showcases the composer's fondness for twisting pop harmonies in to exotic balloon animal shapes.

Two sections from Caroline Shaw's Partita, winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize for music, were included, the other two having been performed in Magee Park in the afternoon. "Passacaglia", inspired by the powerful colors of a Sol Lewitt work at MassMOCA, was particularly potent in live performance. 

Merrill Garbus's "Quizassa", offered here as the finale, simply exploded off the stage, like fireworks in the funkiest boite in all Bulgaria, a rousing topper to a resounding night. Vox vincit omnia.


Photos and rudimentary processing by the blogger.


Carlsbad Music Festival 2013 - Saturday - Day

Still Life with IPA and Crucifix

Like Gaul, the main body of the Carlsbad Music Festival on Saturday and Sunday is divided in three parts: a series of essentially free performances in Magee Park, two intimate afternoon performances in the chapel at Saint Michael's by-the-Sea, and main stage evening performances in the Carlsbad Village Theatre. While the evening artists might properly be thought of as "headliners," the chapel programs on offer Saturday were top drawer in their own right. 

Percussionist Ian David Rosenbaum presented a three part program featuring two very recent works and a modernist classic.

First came Christopher Cerrone's "Memory Palace" for percussion and electronics, a piece whose hand crafted quality derives in part from requiring the performer to construct some of the intruments: wood must be cut to specified lengths, beer and wine bottles must be acquired and tuned to proper pitch by filling with water, and so on. The piece itself is in four distinct segments, each for a different set of percussion equipment and each named for and drawn from the composer's past. The first segment centers on a restrung thrift shop guitar, the second on the hand cut slats of wood, the third on an array of chiming items including tuned metal pipes, the fourth returns to the wooden slat in larger numbers, and the fifth focuses on blowing over the tops of those beer and wine bottles. A loud kickdrum punctuated the transitions. The electronic elements grounded the piece with an array of low harmonic drones, underpinning the melodic elements emerging from the percussive hodge-podge.

Given the roughness of the equipment, it was a charming surprise when the overall effect of "Memory Palace" proved remarkably contemplative and moving. The composer—in southern California preparing for the premiere of his opera Invisible Cities in L.A.'s Union Station in three weeks—was present to share in the deserved applause.

The classic on the program was John Cage's 1948 piano piece, "In a Landscape," transcribed by Rosenbaum for marimba. "In a Landscape" is Cage for people who don't like Cage, a hushed and lush Satie hommage. The spectral tones of the marimba were a natural match for the straight up loveliness of the piece.

Rosenbam concluded with "Khan Variations" by Argentine composer Alejandro Viñao. Viñao was inspired by a recording of the great Pakistani singer of qawalli music, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, borrowing the core melody from that performance and running it through an array octave jumping styles and variations. Rosenbaum played it with verve and conviction, and physical stretches worthy of Cirque du Soleil, to a rousing conclusion.

Bubbly, Bowls and Cowbell
What's Next? Ensemble occupied the chapel in the later afternoon. A Los Angeles based group of performers and composers, What's Next? brought a program that it premiered last month in L.A., themed to the intermingling of "natural" and "unnatural" sounds and featuring works by two of the ensemble members on either side of a forbidding masterwork of Luciano Berio: "Naturale" (1985) for viola, percussion and recording.

The performance of "Naturale" by violist John Stulz drew an unqualified rave from the Los Angeles Times' Mark Swed, and it was easy to understand why. "Naturale" is a setting of more than a dozen themes drawn from Sicilian folk music—knotty, idiomatic stuff, sung in native Sicilian dialect and drwing heavily on north African modes. The percussionist enters and retreats seemingly at random, as do prerecorded excerpts of actual Sicilian singers. The violist works away non-stop, called upon to draw most every extended sound his instrument can be made to produce and to shift instantly from lyric to cacophony to growl to sigh. Stulz surmounted the uncountable challenges of the piece in riveting, edge of the seat fashion. He did not make it look easy: one doubts that anyone could.

Before the Berio, What's Next? offered "The Galvanized Natural Electric" by the Ensemble's electric guitarist, Alexander Elliott Miller, for guitar, viola and percussion. The two-part piece was inspired by Miller's experiments with digital treatments of his guitar, progressing from hushed tension to a crunching assertive conclusion. For a closing number, the Ensemble added a keyboard player—and Miller took up the harmonica and kazoo—for percussionist Ben Phelps' "Concerto for Viola, Percussion, and Casio Keyboard". Although there is still a good deal of serious viola work secreted about its person, Phelps' "Concerto" is ultimately an intentional hoot. Over four progressively more lengthy movements, it features a theme that seems a tribute to Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse" and a quick detour in to Carmen's "Habanera". It is the most sophisticated cartoon music you ae likely to hear, and a proper delight with which to end.

After an overcast Friday night and Saturday morning, there was nary a cloud on Saturday afternoon. One consequence of the otherwise perfect weather, though, was that the Saint MIchael's Chapel was decidedly close and toasty, and grew more so as the afternoon progressed. All of the performers, and particularly John Stulz, deserve extra commendation for playing with both grace and force under less than optimal conditions.


Photos and rudimentary processing by the blogger.