Thursday, July 31, 2008

premiere of SUCKTION, a HyperOpera buffa

Anne LeBaron and Douglas Kearney (American Gothic with vacuum);
Nina Eidsheim

Sucktion, my cyber-erotic 'vacuum cleaner' opera with a libretto by Douglas Kearney, and direction by Nataki Garrett, premieres tonight in Los Angeles at REDCAT with performers from the band soNu: Nina Eidsheim, soprano; Gustavo Aguilar, percussion, and Phil Curtis, laptop / electronics. It all began around ten years ago with an extreme sonic experiment: feeding nails and other objects into half a dozen homeless vacuum cleaners (rescued from the streets of Pittsburgh) during an exploratory recording session, with the soprano (and composer) Alice Shields pushing them around and screaming lines such as ‘Oreck, I knew him well.’ When the ensemble soNu approached me to write a work for their group in 2003, I decided to move ahead with the vacuum cleaner idea, and construct a ‘wordless’ experimental piece. I soon invited Douglas Kearney into this process. We invented an initial version of the work, which I scored in blazing colors, in the Microsoft Word program, Excel (a guided improvisation, allowing the players quite a lot of freedom). A recording session for this first effort ensued. Then, in 2007, Sucktion was one of 40 new works selected for a the Multi-Arts Production Fund (a program of Creative Capital supported by the Rockefeller Foundation), from over 650 submissions.

Sucktion follows a woman’s cyber-erotic transformation from abject housewife into a self-sufficient cyborg via the subversive use of a vacuum cleaner. With elements of satire and science fiction, Sucktion critiques sexism, particularly how socially reinforced female dependence on male economic dominance reduces women to domestics without agency: “clean machines.” Sucktion’s narrative arc progresses through six songs: Soap Aria, Sucktion Remix, Anniversorry, Cleaning House, Rabbitroobabot'rumba, and Cyborgasm.

When we first meet Irona (the housewife), she speaks in a patois of jingles, daytime TV and soft rock. Sucktion’s text enacts her metamorphosis into a cyborg via her adoption of an artificial language imagined as creolized English, German and onomatopoeic approximations of appliance sounds. Sucktion furthers investigations of the intersection of written text and aural performance by fusing a typographically performative libretto with experimental concert theater. The text, with its visual collisions of careening type, is at once lyrics, stage directions and environment, recreating daytime TV’s barrage of housekeeping advertisements, chat shows and melodramas in one song and Irona’s appliance-destroying rampage in another.

There are two additional performances on Friday and Saturday (Aug. 1 and 2).

Friday, July 18, 2008

Jakob Lenz, opera by Wolfgang Rihm

The Closing Chapter, Part I: Jakob Lenz

In the past few weeks I’ve been fully immersed in completing SUCKTION, a ‘woman meets vacuum cleaner and they merge’ cyborg hyper-operetta, for the upcoming performances at REDCAT in Los Angeles (July 31, August 1 and 2). Consequently I wasn’t able to keep up with daily entries, but there are some remaining highlights of my stay in Vienna that I want to share...and this is one.

Of the four contemporary operas that were part of the Vienna Spring Festival, I found Wolfgang Rihm’s Jakob Lenz (performed on several evenings in May at Hall E in the Museum Quarter) to be the most immediately part, I believe, because I had just finished reading Georg Büchner’s only ‘narrative text,’ Lenz (written in 1835), and therefore brought a deeper personal understanding to the production. Yet I’ve delayed writing about it until now, as I wanted to take my time and to absorb the after-effects of an extraordinary production that suffered from one near-fatal flaw.

Lenz, based on extant sources, is a biographical narrative chronicling nineteen days that Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751-1792) stayed with a pastor, Johann Friedrich Oberlin, in a pastoral mountain setting, hoping to overcome his schizophrenia. As a writer once admired and befriended by Goethe (who later rejected him), Lenz has been critically portrayed as being inhumanely treated by Goethe and his literary circle. During Lenz’s extended visit with the pastor Oberlin, his mental illness led to suicide attempts and to difficulties for Oberlin, resulting in Lenz’s expulsion from the village.

Rihm’s second chamber opera is more than a biographical study about Lenz. He foregrounds the societal abuse inflicted upon those who suffer from schizophrenia, and explores the extreme fluctuations between light and darkness. In the opera, Lenz was brilliantly and fearlessly brought to life by Georg Nigl, who performed in and out of water with such abandon that I feared for his health---as did critics who wrote about this production. (In Büchner’s text, Lenz often immerses himself in a fountain in the village; in the opera, Lenz would hurl himself up the side, over and down into a dumpster / tub of water, sometimes joined by other cast members/villagers.)

The flaw: there were two lengthy spoken sections, accompanied by electric guitar and a kind of bluesy folk song, that were ‘disapproved’ by Rihm in an insert in the program. In fact, these interludes dissapated the compact, focused energy from the opera, making it seem top-heavy in these lengthy interludes. The style of this music was foreign to Rihm’s highly individual writing, itself fresh and playful after thirty years. (The opera was written in 1978.) Although I wasn’t privy to the backstage developments, this usurping of the composer’s intentions by the director seems to be an unfortunate trend. Otherwise, the direction, by Frank Castorf, was terrific, and the Klangforum Wien performed with commitment and stellar artistry under the dynamic, sensitive conductor, Stefan Asbury.

Wolfgang Rihm remarks, in the program notes, that “Chamber opera is not a ‘little opera.’ It is much more, similar to the relationship between chamber music and the symphony...” He goes on to say that complexity, in a chamber context (in this case, comparing chamber opera to grand opera), can be more sharply focused and thus capable of a more intensive ‘provocation.’ Clearly he has mastered the chamber opera form, and like seeing the rare film that does justice to a novel, my memories of Büchner’s quasi-novella will forever be enhanced by this production of Rihm’s opera.

Try Breadcrumbs Next Time

After an emotional parting with Yvonne's friends Stefan and Julia (that's Yvonne with Stefan, at Schönbrunn) at the Vienna Airport, 4 AM on July 16, we made our way through security, where my Blackberry crawled out of my bag and was left behind. (After frantic phone calls from LA yesterday, it was found---big exhale---and will be sent back by courier.) We flew to Frankfurt with three hours to kill before the flight to L.A. Brilliant, we’ll take the Sky Train from our departure area (A) to the adjacent section (B) where I can turn in my V.A.T. receipts and win back some of our hard-spent Euros. We were so sleep deprived that I thought nothing of leaving Yvonne, with our carry-on luggage, in the corridor where there were chairs for her to rest in. Sailing through passport control, I went in search of the Global Refund counter, officially stamped receipts in hand. The line for the one person manning the counter was too long and bogged down to chance a missed flight, so I gave up after 10 minutes. But finding my way to that little corridor where Yvonne was patiently waiting proved to be a far greater challenge than originally assumed.

After an hour of retracing my steps, I began to feel like Alice in the rabbit hole. Every single official I asked to help me was of no use, they all gave conflicting directions. Finally in a panic I begged the three people at one of the information desks to send someone to accompany me to find Yvonne. So a very nice man with a cheerful disposition (a rare find) joined me on additional retrograde journeys. We descended deeper into the rabbit hole...I went through security and passport controls multiple times in a fruitless search along corridors of all shapes and sizes. Yvonne’s passport and ticket were in my possession, so she couldn’t go anywhere, but I knew she must also be worried at this point. Our Austrian phones were both dead...oh yes, and the Blackberry was still in Vienna. We repeatedly paged her but she couldn’t hear us in the corridor. One of the ‘helpful’ information ladies, a Brit, asked me what Yvonne’s age was. (She’s 16.) “Well, she’s old enough to hear the announcements and respond!” (As it turned out the announcements couldn’t be heard in the corridors.) After repeatedly and persistently describing exactly where I left Yvonne, we found the spot, two hours after beginning my search. By then our flight had departed. We were rebooked on a later flight, but our luggage has been shuttling between San Francisco and Seattle, due to the re-routing of the two humans (originally routed through Seattle, but had to fly through SF). Breadcrumbs are always good to have along in the emergency kit, as those fairy-tale inventors knew all along.

Now that we’re home among the palm trees and oleander, with fresh tomatoes and basil right outside and the pool beckoning, I will attempt a different sort of blog---one that continues in the larger cultural vein, but with more focus on my projects and how they are developing. First, however, a few loose ends to wrap up from the four glorious months in Vienna, to be posted later today.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Three Generations

Jiseon Yun, my student, joined composer Nancy Van de Vate (an American but also an Austrian citizen), my husband, and myself, for lunch at a Chinese restaurant near Nancy's apartment today. Nancy had kindly loaned me her synthesizer and we were returning it. Here we are, three composers spanning three generations, entertaining one another with stories, having a fine time!

Thanks to a call from my daughter to alert me about a musical event that I would ‘love,’ we made our way later in the afternoon to the Museum Quarter. Yvonne was right, the rehearsal for the opening concert of the 25th Vienna International Dance Festival, taking place tomorrow night, was riveting. Forty Indian musicians, representing three generations (the Manganiyars, of the musicians caste in Rajasthan), sit in individually lit cubicles stacked high above, and backed by a huge red curtain. The intention of the visual setting (recalling Amsterdam’s red light district), in combination with the passionate vocal music enhanced by bowed instruments, drums, and wind instruments all native to this region of India, is to seduce the soul. The Sufi poems, praising Allah, also relate the birth of Krishna. This music held me like a magnet, right at the lip of the stage. Seated above everyone and in the center of the construction (like an enlarged and lit 'Hollywood Squares' set), the animated children were obviously having a fantastic experience, especially when they sang. Vocal and instrumental solos or ensemble configurations were interspersed with sections of the entire orchestra playing. The mouth-harp performer and the circular-breathing wind player were remarkable. I would see the performance tomorrow night but will be in Graz, meeting the Koktem choir from Kazakhstan, as they participate in the World Choir Olympics. More information can be seen here.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Bohemia---Alive, Well, and Resonating

Trstenice, a small village in the heart of the Czech Republic was the idyllic setting for a yearly gathering of young composers and percussionists, a week-long course known as the Symposium Trstenice 2008. I was invited there by one of the organizers, the composer Ivo Medek, to lecture on the extended techniques I’ve developed for the harp and to perform. My composition student Jiseon Yun came from Seoul, joining the young composers for an intense week of lectures in the morning by seven faculty---composers (Ivo Medek, Martin Smolka, Uros Rojko, Jeff Beer), percussionists (László Hudacsek, Tomáš Ondrůšek, Jeff Beer) and the odd composer/harpist (me). Another gifted composer, Markéta Dvoráková, was present and helpful with many things. Lectures were followed by private lessons in the afternoon, an evening concert, and a late-night round-table discussion centering on specific topics. Training sessions were also held during the day---meaning exercise, ranging from helping Tomas, the owner of the houses, chop up fallen trees on his estate, to yoga, to tai chi-inspired stretching. Hearty meals of authentic, rustic Czech cuisine (the cherry dumplings were simply the best ever, topped with sour cream and cinammon sugar) took place around a long thick wooden table in the upper house, and concerts were performed in a barn on the grounds of the lower house. Jiseon took the two photos of my talk and my concert posted here. I strongly recommend this course to any young composer or percussionist...a high level of instruction in a relaxed atmosphere with many unique possibilities for developing work. Tonight is the final concert of the week, which I will miss but send congratulations to all the students for their performances this evening!