MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Finnish Creation

March is going to bring a lot of Sibelius to my ears, as the Seattle Symphony marks his 150th anniversary with an ambitious Sibelius Festival to include not just all seven symphonies (conducted by principal guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard) but the Violin Concerto and Finlandia.

According to the SSO, this three-week festival will be “the most extensive festival of Sibelius’s music this year in the U.S.” Even Seattle’s Nordic Heritage Museum is joining in for the Finnish focus with an exhibit titled Finland: Designed Environments. The exhibit will examine:

the explosion of creativity in Finnish design over the last 15 years. Examples of furnishings, fashion, and craft, as well as architecture and urbanism, illustrate how nearly every aspect of Finnish life incorporates thoughtful design thinking—from city streets and summer homes to fashion and food—and is marked by sensitivity to form and material. The exhibition is the first significant U.S. museum presentation since the 1990s to examine contemporary Finnish design.

Meanwhile, next week reunites Thomas Adès (as composer and conductor) with the San Francisco Symphony for a program on creation themes: along with his new video-accompanied piece In Seven Days, Adès will conduct Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question, Darius Milhaud’s La Création du monde, and the remarkable tone poem-with-soprano Luonnotar. (My contribution to the program book is here.)

Filed under: programming, San Francisco Symphony, Sibelius

Dot Matrix Mozart

Filed under: Mozart, technology

A Ravishingly Entertaining Semele Alights in Seattle

Brenda Rae (Semele) and Alek Shrader (Jupiter); (c) Elise Bakketun

Brenda Rae (Semele) and Alek Shrader (Jupiter); (c) Elise Bakketun

My review of Seattle Opera’s latest production is now live on (Happy 330th, George Frideric!)

It’s amusing to imagine the pitch Handel must have used to convince the presenters of Covent Garden’s oratorio concert series for the 1744 Lenten season to back his latest creation. Why not schedule his theatrical treatment of a myth that portrays the head of the pagan gods setting his human mistress up in a pleasure palace? After all, the moral is clearly stated at the end: “Nature to each allots his proper sphere”. Still, you can’t send your audience home on a such a grim choral note, so all the more reason to end things with a cheerful ode to the powers of Bacchus!

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Filed under: directors, Handel, review, Seattle Opera

“The Sun Kept Setting, Setting Still”


THE SUN kept setting, setting still;
No hue of afternoon
Upon the village I perceived,—
From house to house ’t was noon.

The dusk kept dropping, dropping still;
No dew upon the grass,
But only on my forehead stopped,
And wandered in my face.

My feet kept drowsing, drowsing still,
My fingers were awake;
Yet why so little sound myself
Unto my seeming make?

How well I knew the light before!
I could not see it now.
’T is dying, I am doing; but
I ’m not afraid to know

–Emily Dickinson

Filed under: photography, poetry

The Age of Auden

In honor of Auden’s birthday today.

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

"My face looks like a wedding cake left out in the rain." “My face looks like a wedding cake left out in the rain.”

Last month marked four decades since W.H. Auden died (he was only 66). How has he managed to retain that oracular hold over us, to continue to play the role of prophet? Auden himself abjured the myth that attached to his earliest work, the poems that first made him a celebrity. He later pointed out the foolishness of the fake choice – “we must love one another or die” – and steeled himself against the Siren sway of poetry’s utopian promise, even as he embraced other utopias.

How unforgettably Auden bids farewell to the image of the vatic poet in his elegy to W.B. Yeats, while recognizing the pressure of posterity to forge its own meaning from what the poet has left behind: “The words of a dead man/Are modified in the guts of the living.”

Jess Cotton

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The Place That Is Not the Place: An Evening with Richard Maxwell


He’s been the darling of the experimental theater scene in New York for well over a decade. Last year he received the Spalding Gray Award, which honors genuinely maverick work in the theater. This weekend Seattleites have a chance to experience the latest commission by playwright and director Richard Maxwell and his New York City Players ensemble.

It’s a piece called The Evening and is being presented by On the Boards — part of the consortium that conferred the Award — following its world premiere as part of the Walker Art Center’s Out There arts festival last month in Minneapolis.

Although Maxwell has been engaged by On the Boards before (Drummer Wanted 12 years ago, back when Lane Czaplinski took over as artistic director), last night’s Seattle premiere was my first encounter with his work.
And it’s a signature of Maxwell’s theater that it sends you out into the night with the feeling that you’ve just recalled an interesting dream and now have the work of trying to figure out why it interested you and whether it’s meant to “tell” you something — or just happens to be an arresting collage of images that won’t stop flickering in your mind.

The Evening involves a cast of three characters interacting in a depressing dive bar. Beatrice (Cammisa Buerhaus) tends bar and manages the sexual advances of the hedonist Cosmo (Jim Fletcher) as well as the petulant neediness of her sorta ex-boyfriend Asi (Brian Mendes), a washed-up fighter managed by Cosmo.

Framing this “slice of life” core of The Evening is a monologue delivered by Buerhaus: she reads from a diary documentation of a (Beatrice’s?) father’s dying days, a text replete with high-flown poetic cadence and rhetoric. Then comes the pseudo-“naturalist” dialogue of the bar sequence, followed by another poetic flight — this time rendered visually, after the bar stage set has been pointedly struck and deconstructed by stage hands. The Beatrice character cocoons herself in snow-expedition wear and disappears into the now heavily fogged upstage region, where we imagine isolated wintry mountains.

During the bar sequence we learn that bartender Beatrice (who also works as a stripper) yearns to get away from it all and head to Istanbul. Testosterone-addled Asi has just won a fight but knows he is unhappy, and he can’t seem to win Beatrice back, but he doesn’t want her to go. Track suit-clad, cheesy gold chain-adorned Cosmo confines his interest in life to drinking, getting high, insulting Asi, and making the moves on Beatrice.

The characters voice a Three Sisters-ish longing to go “there,” to escape. But Cosmo at least seems content with the bar — the drab-minimalist brown wall set and slightly menacing lights are Sascha van Riel’s design — and even finds it a kind of paradise. Cosmo’s also the one who first notices the live music (written by Maxwell) that becomes part of the action when a trio of musicians walk in and start that evening’s gig. He tries to incorporate the music into his exchanges with Asi and Beatrice.

Is this coda meant to be a vision of the adventure Beatrice pursues after bringing the situation at the bar to a violent denouement? Was it her father who died, as recounted in the “prologue,” thus lending a layer of motivation to her need to snap out of the hopeless humdrum patterns we see in the more Edward Hopper-esque scenes?

Ah, there’s the rub: Maxwell’s dramaturgy is neo-Brechtian in that it de-familiarizes the familiar by highlighting its theatricality. The whole business of “motivation” becomes suspect, just as the seemingly “real-life” setting deliberately draws attention to the artifice of its naturalism. The actors deliver lines that can make sense from moment to moment but that add up to a maze of non-sequiturs and repeated patterns. And Maxwell plays with the compositional cliché of the triangle, with the archetypes that get triggered from seeing the clues he gives us to each character.

The apparently “realistic” throughline in The Evening, which we’re so conditioned by TV and mainstream film to expect, to be served, is a decoy. (There’s even a TV set hoisted above the bar showing a sports channel as part of the set, but it acquires a Big Brotherish aura as the play continues.)

We become frustrated by the lack of all the rest following suit (understandable motivation, easy-to-read cause and effect etc.) — which is exactly what Maxwell seems to be aiming for. It reminds me of the effect of hyper-realist paintings: beneath the shimmering, “life-like” detail, a kind of uncanny valley opens up where we find ourselves in a twilight zone. The zone of evening.

So The Evening exaggerates realism to undermine it. And even the framing parts seem to be “placeholders” for the deeper aspects of an evening in the theater: these are the “visionary” parts that are meant to endow the proceedings with meaning, the “take-away” that tells us our time was well spent.

Yet in just 60 minutes — the duration of The Evening — the theatrical trickster Maxwell lays out a crossword puzzle of clues, teases, resemblances, and images that isn’t meant to be solved. What’s also striking is the pivotal role of audience response. Last night a fair group of spectators seemed bent on “figuring it out” by chuckling and guffawing as if Maxwell were merely endeavoring parody of theatrical clichés — turning the experience at times into a kind of meta-sitcom.

I found that adversely affected the haunting strangeness of The Evening — an attempt to re-familiarize what’s happening onstage. Sure, Cosmo might be a sloppy, self-satisfied creep — or, rather, Fletcher plays Cosmo playing that archetype — but Maxwell constructs a context for these characters that speed-bumps our knee-jerk tendency to read them as we would read a group of people when, say, we stroll into a bar for the evening. It’s the empty spaces that are left to resonate — and, as Beatrice/Buerhaus remarks in the opening section, meditating on the father’s death, “they say that atoms are made of 99.9% empty space.”

If you go: Richard Maxwell’s The Evening plays at On the Boards through this weekend, 100 West Roy Street. After the Friday performance there will be a post-show discussion with Richard Maxwell and Todd London; following Sat’s performance the musicians will continue with post-show music. Tickets here.

(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: On the Boards, playwrights, review, theater

Current Playlist: Music of George Walker

MEMETERIA by Thomas May


An update: Here’s another (unnumbered) volume in the Albany Records series featuring George Walker‘s music. (The label also has a series focusing on Mr. Walker as pianist.

Highlights are Music for 3 (1971) and his Piano Sonatas No. 3 (1976) and No. 5 (2003), along with several songs to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Robert Burns, and others.


Albany Records has added a fourth volume to its laudable series of recordings of music by George Theophilus Walker. At 92 (going on 93), Mr. Walker remains an active composer and was recently nominated for New Jersey’s Hall of fame — he resides in Montclair — and if he wins, it would make a lovely addition to his accolades. They just happen to include a slew of honorary doctorates, AASCAP’s Aaron Copland Award, induction into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame … oh, and a…

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The Dream Logic of Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland

"White Rabbit" by Ralph Steadman

“White Rabbit” by Ralph Steadman

At the end of this month the Los Angeles Philharmonic will be presenting the West Coast premiere of Unsuk Chin’s opera Alice in Wonderland.

Here’s my program essay for the production:

The story of Alice in Wonderland’s creation is rooted in Los Angeles: this West Coast premiere in one sense represents a homecoming. It was Los Angeles Opera that originally commissioned Unsuk Chin to write her first opera, intending to unveil it as part Kent Nagano’s final season as music director (the 2005-06 season). When that plan became unfeasible because of budget cutbacks, Nagano brought the work-in-progress along with him for his inaugural season at Bavarian State Opera.

Alice in Wonderland therefore premiered at the National Theater in Munich in 2007 — the very theater (rebuilt, of course, after its bombing in the Second World War) that gave the world its first Tristan und Isolde in 1865. A certain fantasy narrative that would similarly go on to cast a spell over an enormous spectrum of admirers also happened to be published in that year by the brilliant mathematician, pioneering photographer, and Anglican deacon Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898) — aka Lewis Carroll. Celebrations around the globe are marking the 150th anniversary of the first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 2015.

Yet well before the premiere of her opera, Unsuk Chin had written the song cycle snagS&Snarls — a kind of preliminary study to find her way into the world of Lewis Carroll (much as Wagner had done vis-à-vis Tristan with his Wesendonck Lieder). Four of the five songs comprising snagS&Snarls eventually made their way (with alterations) into the score of Alice in Wonderland. Nagano led the first performance at the Ojai Festival in 2004, the year in which Chin won the Grawemeyer Award for her Violin Concerto (more or less considered the music world’s Nobel Prize).

Other pieces by Chin have in the meantime been commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Gustavo Dudamel in fact chose to include one of these during the first week of his tenure as music director in October 2009: Šu, a concerto for sheng (mouth organ). In 2013 came the orchestral work Graffiti, Chin’s ode to street art. The composer herself has described Graffiti in terms that could well apply to her method in Alice. She writes that the musical language of Graffiti “shifts between roughness and refinement, complexity and transparency. It is rich in contrast and labyrinthine, neither tonal nor atonal.”

Unsuk Chin’s engagement with Alice in Wonderland reaches even further back than the original LA Opera commission from just over a decade ago. Most fans of Carroll’s Alice books fell in love with these stories as children. Chin, though, is typically atypical in this regard. Instead of reading the work of Lewis Carroll as a child, she was already an adult when she encountered him for the first time as a conservatory student in her native South Korea. Chin recalls that her curiosity was triggered by reading the cognitive scientist Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. The rest of that seminal book’s title, it’s useful to know, is An Eternal Golden Braid. A Metaphorical Fugue on Minds and Machines in the Spirit of Lewis Carroll.

Chin found her title for snagS&Snarls in the chapter heading of another of Hofstadter’s books (Metamagical Themas). Hofstadter intrigued Chin by pulling back the surface layer of what many assume to be the mere “childlike” fantasy of Carroll’s writings and revealing a labyrinthine complexity underneath — a complexity animated by the pure joy of linguistic play. The unpredictable imagery and logic-defying antics of the world according to Lewis Carroll immediately resonated for Chin at her core, touching not just on her aesthetic outlook but on her perception of the centrality of dreams.

“The visions of my dreams represent a far more existential level of experience than anything I have known in my everyday life,” she has stated. “Dreams are for me an encounter with another world, in which utterly different physical laws prevail. Sometimes a dream is so complex that as soon as you wake up only a vague memory of it remains.… When you try to describe such a complex dream-state in words, the result is inevitably what we call ‘nonsense,’ because our language is subject to a very different type of logic.”

Unsuk Chin

Unsuk Chin

Indeed when it came to adapting Alice in Wonderland to the opera stage, Chin decided to interpolate two of her own dream scenes as the opening and final scenes, respectively. She explains that she was “never fully satisfied with the beginning and the end” of Carroll’s published narrative, which seemed “so much more conventional than the rest of Alice” and may have possibly signaled “a concession to public taste, as otherwise the book would have been too daring for its time.” The new dreams — which present additional mysterious encounters for Alice — supply more than a neatly symmetrical framework. They’re organic to the sense of dream time and dream logic that pervades the opera and steer clear of a facile separation between dream and “the real world” (the kind of separation that gives, say, The Wizard of Oz its denouement). As Chin puts it: “I wanted the dreamworld to be the the reality in my opera.”

Chin teamed up with the distinguished playwright, librettist, and scriptwriter David Henry Hwang — a native Angeleno — who crafted a virtuoso text of eight interlocking scenes, with no intermission. The libretto artfully blends key episodes from Alice in Wonderland and the original language of Lewis Carroll with clever postdatings, from the maniacal word play for the acrosticized twisting of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to a sly reference to the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat: a potent symbol for the overall philosophy of apparently “nonsense logic” that informs the opera as a whole.

Hwang also includes myriad details in his stage directions, and these are reflected in Chin’s musical realization. They likewise pose fascinating, at times Ring-level challenges for the staging — Alice falling through the rabbit-hole, swimming in a pool of her tears, growing a mile high, and so on.

“As humans, what we’re really interested in is storytelling and concept,” says director Netia Jones in a recent interview with Mark Powell about the high-tech elements that she has enlisted to realize her vision for Alice. “To fully benefit from the amazing sleight of hand that these techniques can offer — the coup de théâtre moment that amazes or confounds, as live performance has always sought to do — it’s vital that any technology behind a production is handled confidently enough to fade into the background.” She adds: “It’s a delicate balancing act between this air of creative anarchy, which Chin’s score definitely lays the foundation for, and the
almost militaristic technical precision required to support it.”

Carroll’s penchant for enigmas, puzzles, acrostics, and other language games also appeals to Chin’s sensibility. The composer made her international breakthrough as a composer in 1993 with Akrostichon-Wortspiel (“Acrostic-Wordplay”), a work that sets texts both by Carroll and by Michael Ende — the aptly named author of another beloved children’s classic, The Neverending Story. In this case, she turned to the conclusion of the Alice saga, drawing on the second book, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (published in 1871). snagS&Snarls actually begins at the end, so to speak, with the very final poem capping Through the Looking-Glass. The poem is an acrostic in which the first letter of each line yields the name of Carroll’s (perhaps erroneously) presumed model, Alice Pleasance Liddell. (This is the only number from snagS&Snarls that never found its way into the opera Alice in Wonderland.) Chin’s list of current projects includes a setting of Alice Through the Looking Glass, which has been commissioned by the Royal Opera in London for the 2018-19 season.

Another impetus behind Chin’s choice of subject matter came from her association with one of her key mentors, György Ligeti. Following her initial studies in composition in Seoul, Chin spent three years in Ligeti’s coveted composition seminar in Hamburg (and eventually resettled in Berlin, where she resides). The maverick Ligeti has treasured Alice in Wonderland ever since encountering Carroll in a Hungarian translation as a child, and before his death in 2006 he was discussing plans for an opera based on Alice. The cartoon- and comic book-inspired “anti-opera” he completed, Le Grand Macabre, shows a number of uncanny parallels with Carroll’s tale of his heroine’s underground adventures. As it happens, Chin shares with her teacher the ability known as synesthesia, that is, to perceive sounds in terms of other senses — chords as colors, for example.

But an Alice in Wonderland by Ligeti would have been utterly distinct from Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland. She possesses the uncanny talent of being able to tap into an astonishing diversity of sources — including, at times, the manifold web of Ligeti’s orchestral textures — without diluting her unique musical language in faceless eclecticism or tamping down her one-of-kind, magical vision. You can hear fragments that suggest The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, or Bartókian folksiness. The epic motto of Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra is tucked into the fanfare announcing the witnesses in the grand ensemble trial scene. An ominous tolling motif in the lower depths recalls the Coronation music from Boris Godunov.

What results is a fascinating blend of unpredictability and irony that has little in common with, say, the neoclassical posturing of Stravinsky. Often as Stravinsky’s influence is felt in the score for Alice, Chin’s use of allusive gestures never resembles Stravinsky’s manner of being allusive.

Much of the lore of Carroll’s phantasmagoria has to do with its enormous impact on the “adult world” of interpreters. In an essay on the centrality of “imaginary theater” in Chin’s creative thinking, the musicologist Habakuk Traber remarks that “subsequent literary developments — Surrealism, Dadaism, and the Theater of the Absurd, and in particular the ominous literary world and imagery of Franz Kafka” have endowed the Alice books “with a prophetic, prescient dimension.” So, too, the post-Freudian drive to psychologize Carroll and his creations, to interpret his literary dreams. Even pop culture has tried to “explain” what happens. Ever since Jefferson Airplane’s big hit, it’s become alms impossible not to associate the White Rabbit with an afternoon spent experimenting with psychedelic drugs.

Alice in Wonderland “has so many layers,” Chin has remarked: “It can captivate experts and laymen, children and adults as well. That is also an artistic ideal for me.” She even points out that composing the opera entailed a radical shift in orientation toward writing something “much more direct and immediate than in my other pieces.” Speaking with the scientist Matthias Essenpreis, Chin says that once she committed to writing for the genre and to using the Alice material, “I attempted to break away from the traditions of contemporary music and in an instinctive and very fluent way to compose music that resembles a funhouse mirror and that is ironic.”

Chin’s infectious theatrical sensibility enhances her choice of vocal types to assign the characters — including an instrument for the Caterpillar (given a long bass clarinet solo), accompanied by written words — as well as her repertoire of types of vocalization. Alice in Wonderland contains a kind of pocket history of singing: a hint of blues in Alice’s plaintive aria “Who in the world am I,” fancy coloratura for the frantic White Rabbit, a children’s chorus of ethereal simplicity, harpsichord-accompanied recitative at the start of the Mad Tea-Party scene and a characterful Baroque aria as the Mad Hatter laments the cruelty of Time, high dudgeon vocals for the vengeful Queen of Hearts, all culminating in an ensemble of intricately ordered chaos.

Even in the version for reduced ensemble that was prepared as a counterpart to the original gargantuan (and impractical) ensemble used for the opera’s original production in 2007, the scintillating imagination of Chin’s orchestration is unmistakeable — and gives Alice in Wonderland its essential texture. From the first sounds we hear (following those of the actors’ gestures, lulling us into this dreamworld), Chin utilizes extremes of range to effect a sense of drastically elongated dimensions, for example. Yet the “nonsense” world of dream logic hardly means that anything goes.

By the same token, for all of her elaborate timbral and compositional structures, Chin knows the importance of spontaneous fantasy. She remarks that she tries “to avoid providing rigid interpretations of the book — whether psychoanalytical or otherwise. Let the story and its dialogues speak for themselves. What ultimately attracts her to Alice is “the effortless and unconscious way in which Lewis Carroll expresses deep philosophical questions. Alice is not solely a matter of dreams. It is also about a clash between the different ways in which we communicate and experience reality.”

(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: essay, Los Angeles Philharmonic, new music, opera

Literary Criticism as Science?

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Franco Moretti Franco Moretti

Franco Moretti’s new collection of essays, Distant Reading, has been generating a lot of buzz. The National Book Critics Circle just honored it with its award for criticism last month (winning out over books by Jonathan Franzen and Janet Malcolm ).

Few critics, writes the Times Literary Supplement are “as hell-bent on rethinking the way we talk about literature.” Wired declares that “if his new methods catch on, they could change the way we look at literary history.” And Joshua Rothman recently offered this reflection on the revolutionary critic in The New Yorker:

Should literary criticism be an art or a science? A surprising amount depends on the answer to that question…. Almost no one…wants to answer the question definitively, because, for a critic, alternating between one’s artistic and scientific temperaments is fun—it’s like switching between the ocean and the sun at the beach. Franco Moretti…

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A Birthday Cheer for John Corigliano

Photo by Enid Bloch

Photo by Enid Bloch

February is the birth month of another of America’s greatest composers: today marks the 77th birthday of John Corigliano. A brilliant creative force, Mr. Corigliano has earned acclaim as a master of emotionally complex chamber and orchestral music as well as artful film scores, while his grand opera The Ghosts of Versailles helped pave the way toward the blossoming of new American opera over the last quarter-century.

Los Angeles Opera’s splendid new production of Ghosts, which is bringing this masterpiece to the West Coast for the first time, led the LA Times to suggest that the opera may have “a shot at immortality.”

As if his marvelous catalogue of compositions weren’t enough, Mr. Corigliano has garnered such accolades as the Pulitzer Prize, Grawemeyer Award, five Grammies, and an Oscar.

And he’s obviously a gifted and influential teacher and mentor, as evidenced by the success of such students as Mason Bates and Wlad Marhulets, whose debut opera The Property is about to be given its premiere in Chicago.

Yo-Yo Ma speaks for many of us who care deeply about the arts in our troubled times when he says: “I feel lucky that John and I are living in the same era.”

Filed under: American music, anniversary, John Corigliano

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