Friday, January 27, 2012

Concerns and Annotations

Aspects of the libretto for the upcoming opera have raised some concerns among some of those who have read it or who have some knowledge of it. Those concerns come from the real event that it references, namely the death of the three children by their mother's hand. Does it represent the people, especially those people still alive, fairly or accurately?  Might it hurt those people left behind, devastated by the tragedy?

I don't know. It's too great an event to capture in words or music. The reality is that I know nothing of the mother or her life, nothing of her inner world, nothing of her motivations or her communications with God, nothing of her relationship with her family or the events in their lives or the children or their father or anything. The libretto at most is just a fantasy, a concoction of my brain and its random associations of the few reported facts and some certainly misreported information with half-memories of my life and my prejudices and desires.

The writing was quick, a paroxysm of scribbling, multicolored, in a state, my breathing ragged and heavy, without editing. I can't really justify its point of view or claim it as my own, at least in a thoughtful sense. The writing of the libretto was the closest I have come in my artistic life to direct communication with the godhead, that divine stream that flows through us all. That direct link was a new experience for me, and I found it curious I could achieve this in writing words, when in writing music - my chosen art - it doesn't happen. For me, music has too much bookkeeping and too much intellect and too many details and decisions for it to flow freely out of my pen and spread itself across the page.

But, unthreading it all now, one can see where many of the words come from and, before one forgets, one should make note of these beginnings and directions and passes through one's neurological landscape. To follow along, one needs a copy of the libretto, which one can find here.

The opening line, as the footnote notes, is from Huxley, in particular the book pictured above. When I was a boy, I was believed to be gifted and I was placed in school programs designed for gifted and talented children. I basked in this appellation and believed in it or at least wanted it for myself. When I went to college, however, I discovered that there were people so far beyond me in intellect that I understood the reality of the quote. My geek friends said their clocks ran faster than ours, and I understood this to mean that there was no way to catch up to them, that their basic hardware was different than the rest of ours.

The second line is from Genesis 22. The Abraham and Isaac story looms large in the opera, a story that is bizarre and horrifying, as horrifying as the mother's tale, if one can get past one's Sunday School coloring book familiarity with it. There is no way to make sense of it, and even my 1950s copy of the 12 volume Interpreter's Bible begins its commentary pointing out that any man who thought of it, if his thoughts were detected, would be institutionalized, and any man who acted on it would be convicted and executed.

In reading the libretto, I see how much most of the story is me rather than the mother's: the tale of my sister's illness and the descriptions of my family, my take on Pascal and my high school friend's experiments, my reaction to hearing the story of the children, my reaction to reading the court documents, my thinking through it all while sitting at pier 7 as the day fades into evening. The libretto does not help the reader or the opera audience.  It does not clearly label the edges of my story and the mother's, and they do mix frantically and fluidly. The character LaShaun, unlike the actual mother, is oftentimes saying or thinking things that I might say or think. Also, regardless of our command of the language, our thoughts are often profound, and because of this the LaShaun/Erling character sometimes slips into a highfalutin voice when representing his or her thoughts to us.

Some of the words do come directly from witness testimony, e.g., the child pleading 'no mommy' as he was thrown into the bay. But most of the words, like most of the text of the letter, and her prayer while killing the children, are my invention, except for a few bits cribbed from the Pascal Memorial. The death of the cat is the story of my cat, and the feeling of falseness in the world when the reality of death invades is something that I have felt and that many greater writers than me have related. Some bits after the murder are from the court documents, but even those are mixed up with my words and thoughts as well.

I notice, rereading the text, that are many threes, and I remember the use of threes in the score, in groupings and repeats and word painting, relating the deaths of Jesus and the two criminals on Calvary to the deaths of the three boys. Other biblical analogies appear: Jesus carried his wooden cross and Isaac carried the wood for his burning, so it is important that the boy carry something as well, but that's just a literary importance with no basis in fact.

I didn't know anything of the life that the mother had with the father, so the sex scene in the libretto has no relation to them, but is mine alone. I have felt what is described, the desire to merge with my partner but being stymied by the gap between us, and how we are all fundamentally alone, in life and especially in death. And, just to make sure it is clear, when she speaks of being left alone, and asking how He could leave her alone, this is an existential loneliness, and the pronoun He refers to God, the heavenly father of herself and her children, not the earthly father.

Society in general seems to have decided that the mother is crazy, and I've always wondered if one were crazy whether one would know. Would one have an inkling that something was wrong in one's thoughts? Would one reflect in one's own thoughts society's prejudices about craziness? I've heard something of the pain of insanity and this leads me to answer these questions in the affirmative. Thus the mother/Erling character in the libretto finds herself navigating the prejudices of craziness in herself. When her boy is sick he enters a delirium that describes a delirium I experienced when feverish with the measles as a child, and her desire to cool him in the water is my story, something I wanted.

The man with the Lorentz transformation tattoo is a friend of mine, a burning man campmate. The description of migraines is a combination of my experience, as I encountered the aura and still do; and the experience of my first wife Lynn, who had severe nauseating migraines throughout our entire marriage, each lasting several days, except during the period when she was pregnant. When vomiting forth this section, I remembered my mother telling me that Mormons believe that Mormon women will be eternally pregnant after death - a fancy interpretation of a passage in the Doctrine and Covenants - and thus the reference to pregnancy as a heavenly state.

The end of the story is me alone. When my current wife Lynne heard about the murder of the children, her immediate comment was that she hoped no one would ever cure the mother of her insanity, that the mother's bright, clear and sane knowledge of her actions would be too horrible a punishment. Those thoughts stayed with me throughout the piece, and especially the end.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Rise of Sugary Snacks

Many have pointed to the impossibility of a pure culture, a culture untainted by others, a myth like that of the Aryan Race, whereas we know that clashes of culture, taking place in those rough boundaries between worlds, are the most fecund: lush contretemps where new growth arises. Even those attempts made by Hollywood and the English Language Popular Music Industry to bring the world under a single Novus Ordo, chanted under a bright yet monocolored flag of cultural hegemony, while successful in spreading their equivalents of Coca-Cola and the Frosted Flake to all corners of the world, have not ended the process, the ebb and flow, the mixing, the finding of the center and the unrefin├ęd tossing of flotsam at the edges.

Even we, we who fancy ourselves members of an elite art music establishment, are in fact sullied by all we hear and see and touch, the music and the noise and the screens and speakers everywhere that carry it all, a spray of seed that oft finds a fertile womb. We try to impose our rules, our concepts, our ideas of the future of music, but we find ourselves changed by the process, more affected than affecting.

But I do wonder why the aforementioned agents of cultural imperialism have been as successful as they have?  Maybe, like the Frosted Flake, dripping with sugar, a mouth feel unmistakeable, a quick and agile crunch between the teeth, they are addictive. Maybe, like the Coca-Cola, we find that, after drinking quarts at a time, every day followed by every day, there is an itch, almost a burning in the back of our throats that water will no longer satiate. In a taxi in Ghana, I am listening to Bob Marley, and when I mention I am from California the driver says "West Coast! Tupac!" and I think how strange this is, but then I remember that I am here because my son plays in a Ghanaian drumming ensemble back home, and that those concerts are so much better attended than anything I have ever done, and again I wonder who is stealthfully and insidiously penetrating whom?

But I've finished the score for the new opera and am looking at a stack of them waiting to be delivered to the performers. Now that I am done, and I go through it, it surprises me. Where is the avant-garde boy I used to be?  It's all so sweet, chords that my grandmother would have recognized as chords, and even the rhythmic complexities subtler than usual: a hemiola here and there, a confusing accent, a few meters flowing into others. Somehow I have been tainted by the songs of my youth, the poor imitations of sophistication and what we know to be the true delight that one has in great and high art, those fluff balls offered by my friends, pushed forward by the relentless pressure of the unseen and amorphous but so sharply felt peer group, a spear through the heart. But, on the other hand, just maybe I am in fact standing at an edge looking out over uncharted territory, some new veldt whose short grass will soon be replaced by another amalgam of this and that, all stolen from somewhere and everywhere.

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