Tag Archives: transformations

Review: The Wanton Sublime

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Ear Heart Music, the American Modern Ensemble, and American Opera Projects joined forces at Roulette to present two short operas that represented drastically different approaches to the melding of music and theater. Today I’ll focus on the first half of the evening and return for the second later this week.

The Wanton Sublime is an adaptation of Anna Rabinowitz’s book length meditation of the duality of spirit and flesh inherent in the figure of Mary Magdalene. The original work reflects upon the Mary myth through a number of angles and lenses, wrestling with the humanity that can be extracted from the extraordinary expectations hoisted upon this one woman, a victim, saint, virgin, servant. The text is filled with heightened language and exalted purpose. The ideas and images are of a density and complexity appropriate for the page, where the reader can pour over the text, teasing out the references, wrestling with definitions and semantic friction.

Transforming a work such as this into a piece of theater is no simple task. There is no action or dramatic arc, no story, no inherent tension or change, or development. It’s a static piece, an extended inner monologue with a series of internal perspective shifts. Stewarding this realization to theatrical experience fell to composer Tarik O’Regan, director Mallory Catlett, and mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn. O’Regan’s clear, mostly atonal setting of the text was shaded by variety of textures from the American Modern Ensemble, helping to delineate the different moods and facets of Rabinowitz’s Mary. Particularly effective were the final moments of the work, when the dissonances resolved into a sonorous and beautiful harmony. Chinn is well cast, with a confident, unerring voice, vast, expressive eyes and an arresting stage presence. Catlett’s staging imagines Mary dressed in a prim green uniform, folding laundry, performing the menial tasks required of her, God’s housekeeper. The field of flowers referred to in the text is manifested in the patterns of the bedsheets. References to light are realized beautifully (if somewhat literally) on stage.

As a whole, it’s unclear if the original poem benefits from the transformation. It functions more like an extended art song than a piece of theater. John Adams took a more traditional approach to Mary’s complex ambivalence in the first half of the opera-oratorio El Niño to great effect, dramatizing the conversations between Mary and Gabriel (performed by an otherworldly trio of countertenors). The surprisingly insightful Kevin Clark film Dogma portrays Mary’s revelation with contemporary sensibilities, and while the effect is mainly comedic, the remarkable complexity behind her situation is immediately communicated. The Wanton Sublime aims for a headier space, but one that might be more completely reached in a comfortable chair with a book of poetry, a dictionary at hand, and your own time frame than with thirty minutes in a darkened theater.

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Inception: plot point or arcana?

This is kinda neat. One of the main musical gestures in the score of Inception is derived from an actual plot point in the film. Neat! Cool! I love it! But is it hearable? I mean, now that it’s been pointed out and delivered via the viral web you can hear it, and SOMEONE mustContinue Reading

2 Responses to Inception: plot point or arcana?

  1. joe says:

    um.. have you seen the movie? the use of this cue is specifically *about* the slowing down of the edith piaf music. the sound itself is what cues the characters to prepare themselves to awake form the dream state. hardly arcana.

  2. Brian Rosen says:

    Oh ya! I know! It’s really clever in the way it hooks up with the plot point. The arcana question come from whether or not the source of the musical reference in the score is detectable. I know I didn’t catch it the first time, and I doubt I would have caught it a third or fourth time. If it’s not ‘hearable’, than it becomes fodder for a trivia question, hence, arcana.

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Radiohead + Bluegrass = Crazy Delicious

Time for another transformative cover.  This time the source material is Radiohead’s Morning Bell  This track isn’t exactly uncoverable.  There’s plenty of harmonic and melodic material in there with room for an artist to interject their own sensibilities. And now here’s a cover by bluegrass super group, The Punch Brothers.   That’s right, bluegrass.  ChrisContinue Reading

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Covering the Uncoverable

Whew.  A full six days since my last post! What can I say.  Those Sondheim posts wiped me pretty hard. That was at least a month’s worth of blogging concentrated into a week’s time. The next few posts will be a lot less dense. I’ve been thinking about the point I brought up in myContinue Reading

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P. Diddy. Songwriter? Or Composer?

You heard me. P. Diddy.  Songwriter? Or Composer? Perhaps I should back up… After yesterday’s  composition lesson with David Conte, he mentioned an upcoming radio interview with NY Times blogger and critic about town Chloe Veltman.  (The interview will air next Friday, on her VoiceBox show on KALW). He thought that one of the topics wouldContinue Reading

2 Responses to P. Diddy. Songwriter? Or Composer?

  1. > there are no convincing reinterpretations or adaptations of Schubert songs or, arguably, classical pieces in general

    There are countless examples of cover versions of lower-case-c classical music: let’s start with Brahms’ “Variations On A Theme By Haydn” (although it has been suggested that the theme didn’t, in fact, originate with Haydn), Gounod’s adaptation of Bach’s Prelude in C, and any number of orchestrations and reductions. Then we move on to “A Lover’s Concerto” by The Toys, an adaptation of the minuet in G from the Anna Magdalena Bach book (sidebar: I once heard a ghastly Muzak version of this song — NOT its forebear, which is in 3/4 — in a Safeway); “Joy”, Apollo 100s revved-up version of Cantata 147; the Roto-Rooter Good-Time Christmas Band’s hilarious brass version of Sacre du Printemps; “Past, Present and Future” by the Shangri-Las; … There’s no end to it. Classical pieces can be reduced to melody and chord changes along with all but the most idiosyncratic pop tunes; there’s even a Classical Fake Book or two on the market.

    And the most sublime pop music is no less reliant on specific arrangements than classical music is; comparing a cover version of, say, The Beatles’ “Yesterday” (of which there are many) with the original shows the differences. I would add that production technique is a third element in modern music of all genres; thus a cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows” or “Revolution No. 9” (or “Powasqaatsi” or a Nancarrow study) couldn’t possibly match the original exactly.

    Such distinctions as “popular/classical” or “composition/songwriting” are convenient shorthands for marketers and critics, but evaporate under the mildest of scrutiny.

  2. Brian Rosen says:

    JR Brody! An honor to see the likes of you on my humble blog. Wondering how you came upon it…

    You make a very good counter argument. While there is a distinction between music that can survive a distillation into “simply” changes and melody and music that needs to remain intact to retain its identity, there are examples of both in classical as well as pop music. The distinction between the two is, of course, a false one, but there still seems to a nugget of useful idea in the notion that some music is more wed to any particular realization than others.

    To the point of the original post, I would still say that the person responsible for “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Revolution No. 9” created them through a composition process as opposed to a songwriting process. But further thought might make me abandon the semantic construct and just get back to writing more music…

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Live! Nude! Opera!

Disclaimer – this essay doesn’t have a lot to do with nudity or sex. The title and photo are there to draw your attention to a topic that you may otherwise find fairly dry and uninteresting, even though I happen to care about it a lot. Specifically this is an essay about how opera survivesContinue ReadingContinue Reading

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