Navigating Meredith Monk

As the DVR recorded the Tony Awards for my daughter, who was working Sunday evening, I was absorbing music theater of a different kind: Meredith Monk’s opera Atlas.

I’m not exactly a Meredith Monk devotee, but Atlas was a nice surprise. Like Einstein on the Beach, it’s built from bright and downright pleasant musical phrases (repeated in groups of four, versus Einstein‘s groups of 40 minutes). But it feels more operatic. Atlas has concrete characters and a storyline, with the action occurring through mostly wordless singing. Sometimes it’s melodic; sometimes it’s vocal swooping, shrieking, half-spoken bird calls — different vocal quirks that emerge based on what the scene and story are calling for. Experimental vocals aren’t always my thing, but I mostly enjoyed Atlas.

The catalyst for listening was a New York Times article about the Los Angeles run for Atlas, happening this week. The performance is special in itself, because this thing ain’t exactly Hamilton. It sounds like Atlas hasn’t re-emerged since debuting in Houston in 1992. But what makes the upcoming show interesting is that Monk isn’t directly involved. Normally, her operas are only partially scripted and involve a lot of intuition in the casting and rehearsals, with Monk overseeing what I suppose is the loose “feel” of the project. This time, all the big decisions are up to Yuval Sharon, with Monk being kept in the loop but not directly involved.

Monk’s process sounds new-agey, but listening the ECM recording of the opera, you can tell where it comes from. There are “normal” melodies and harmonies, and many downright pretty segments filled with “ahhs” and “da-da-da-das.” But some scenes brim with abstract vocal sounds — improvised, not formally scripted, but not chaotic. The right people are playing the right parts, and they’re building a cohesive scene, but it must be largely improvised, and from what I’ve read, I would also guess that the exact sounds are tailored for each performer’s voice. (The operatic precision of the voices really does matter. It elevates the whole project.) This seems like the kind of work that won’t work unless the performers are collectively in the right frame of mind. The L.A. production is apparently the first time the vocal parts were written down; the Houston cast learned their parts by ear. No wonder Monk is normally so closely involved.

Like EinsteinAtlas has a clean, pared-down sound and pleasant, airy tonalities. It’s certainly different and minimalist but doesn’t feel like the kind of avant-garde meant to send the audience screaming to the exits. [Note to self: An opera built from angry yelps and shouting, where the sound of the audience departing loudly in disgust is actually part of the composition…]

Bits of dialogue appear here and there. “Choosing Companions” has travelers introduce themselves to the main character (a female explorer) in plain speech, then reveal character traits in vocal wandering. For one man, it’s kind of a clumsy, meandering “aah,” as if his brain is stalling during a job interview. I hope it’s meant to be a comic moment, because I did laugh. Another character launches into a scripted tune that the heroine joins in on. He must be a better fit.

Some feature operatic tones sung in what might as well have been composed form. “Loss Song” plays like a through-composed piece, a quiet break featuring vocals and harp. It’s pretty and straightforward and would make a nice standalone piece during a college radio show.

I get the feeling that on stage, Atlas uses the singers’ more abstract sounds to convey elements of character, in-the-moment emotion, and setting. There’s some shrieking in the segment titled “Ice Demons,” for example — no big surprise. And the visual aspect probably helps convey a sense of story. Probably. The L.A. production puts some or possibly all of the action inside a massive sphere, with video projections on the outside. Audiences might walk out puzzled, but I do think they will come away with a sense of a story amid all their questions.

Opera As an Immersive Experience: Invisible Cities

The Pulitzer Prize winners were announced yesterday, but it’s one of the runners-up that I’m most excited about.

It’s Christopher Cerrone‘s opera, Invisible Cities:

I’ll give away the punch line before you watch the video: The opera is performed in a public place, with cast and audience wandering about together, all connected on wireless headphones to hear the concert. Discovering where the action is, or stumbling onto the plainclothes players, is part of the whole experience.

The premiere run, in the fall of 2013, got some rave reviews and sold out every show, according to the rider. Yes, there’s a rider [21-page PDF] — they’re hoping to take this opera on the road.

Still from the <i>Invisible Cities</i> promo video.Those performances spanned two weeks at Los Angeles’ Union Station. It’s a large, elegant place — not the size of Grand Central, which would hopelessly swallow the performance, but still large enough to provide physical distance and separation. The opera was spread out, compelling the audience to wander and explore.

Part of the trick is that the opera performs during the evening, while the station is operating. My guess is that a ticket buys you the headphones, but if you’ve legitimately got a train to catch, or you just want to gawk, you get the show’s visual aspect for free.

While I’d love to see Invisible Cities in the Bay Area, I can’t think of a good location, offhand. A transit station is ideal due to the natural bustle that would surround the opera and hide some of the “offstage” performers. But Caltrain’s San Francisco station is open-air and too small — an aspects of off-stage mystery would be lost. The San Jose station actually seems bigger (it’s an Amtrak stop, too) but still not big enough, and it doesn’t have a layout that would provide a good, dynamic experience.

There’s always BART. Annnd…. I think that discussion ends right there.

So, if you live somewhere else, keep an eye out. Invisible Cities might come to your town, and you won’t even know it until the dancers spring up from that row of seats and Ashley Faatoalia‘s whispered tenor starts gently pressing at your ear.

I, Norton Happening July 5

Gino Robair’s improvisatory opera, I, Norton, will get a rare performance on July 5 in San Francisco. Performers will include Robair and, on the church organ, David Hatt, whose specialty is the organ music of Max Reger.

It’s an early show, 4:00 p.m., at St. John’s: 1661 15th St. at Julian.

The show is tied to, of all things, an American Guild of Organists convention happening July 3 through 7, which includes 16 free concerts at Bay Area churches and other organ-having sites. I, Norton is not one of them; they’re asking for $5 at the door.

As I’ve noted before, I, Norton — about the life of San Francisco’s Emporer Norton I — is not your typical opera. It’s built in fragments, any number of which can be performed by any number of performers. (Hopefully, they’ll have Tom Duff on hand to play Norton; he’s very good in the role, pacing the stage, reciting Norton’s proclamations.)  A CD version, on Rastascan Records, includes performances full of acoustic instruments and others packed with electronics. An organ in a resonant church hall could be a very powerful rendering. (I wrote about the CD in May 2010.)

Operatic side note: I, Norton will play out with the backdrop of Wagner’s Ring Cycle going on at the SF Opera. I don’t think there’s a Ring performance on this exact night, but the fact that the Ring is happening has overshadowed the Bay Area arts scene for the past few weeks, almost like the piece is technically happening even between performances. At least, that’s how I’ve thought of it — even though I’m not going to go, there’s a tingling excitement in knowing it’s happening.

Hat tip: San Francisco Classical Voice (

An Opera in Real Time

Gino RobairI, Norton: An Opera in Real Time (Rastascan, 2009)

(For detailed background on this project, check out Point of Departure‘s lengthy interview with Gino Robair.)

Having mentioned this so much last fall, I’m horrified to find out I never wrote about the actual CD.

I, Norton is an opera built of improvisation, installed in modular pieces and intended for ensembles of varying size and makeup. In one sense, it’s a concession to economic reality — large-scale experimental works are difficult to stage.

But it also means I, Norton is a living creation, augmentable, evolving. In fact, creator Gino Robair, who’s been a major force on the Bay Area experimental music scene for a couple of decades now, still considers it a work in progress. The CD, combining live performances with manipulations and samples of those performances, is just one representation of what the complete opera could be.

You won’t find opera singing. The program contrasts moments of modern-classical music with long stretches of otherworldly electronics.  Metallic buzzes and sound curtains drift by, constructed from a base of Tom Duff’s recital of Norton’s proclamations.

(If you’re wondering: Emperor Norton is one of the colorful, beloved characters of 19th-century San Francisco history. Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico — detailed biography here.)

The opera represents the flashes of memory in the final moments of Emporer Norton’s life, as he lies dying in a San Francisco street. While I, Norton doesn’t have to be a linear journey, the CD is arranged in something like a storyline, complete with an overture and an ethereal, heavenly conclusion. Along the way, Robair makes use of the moods that electronics and structured improvisation can create.

“Overture” opens with a mob of cacophonic voices, cut short by a gong that opens the spacious body of the section, colored by metal percussion and sampled, filtered fragments of Norton’s speech. It’s like hurtling through a dust cloud in space. (And I like the cut-up of Duff’s speech, done in fluttering half-syllables. We were taught as schoolkids that an opera’s Overture contains snippets of the music you’re about to hear. In this case, it contains fragments of the words you’ll eventually hear.)

The theme knitting all the pieces together is a Norton speech abolishing Congress, and it appears throughout the album in fragments or in mutated, sped-up form.  Duff does a marvellous job with the character, so the longer passages of untreated speech are a real treat. I’ve seen part of the opera live, and Duff was terrific, dressed in 1880s finery and pacing the stage while giving his proclamations.

“The Hall of Comparative Ovations” is the most classical-sounding of the tracks, using lots of conventional instruments and some quasi-composed passages: grand horns in a sadly regal mood. It sounds like the individual notes are left to players’ choices, a very Braxton-like touch.  All this is augmented with passages of improvisation textrued with squiggly electronics.

The longest track, at 28 minutes, is “Mobs, Parties, Factions (Part 1).”  Its first section is sparse, with long segments of Norton’s proclamations, and “music” built from slowed, sped, or shuffled blurs built of Duff’s voice.  We hear Norton’s words revealed slowly, in pieces, while we also possibly experience some of his madness, the voice-based noises like fascinating insect buzzes, a distraction from the core point (and yet, because they’re the “music” here, they’re also the core point.)  Aurora Jospehson adds skittery vocal sounds accompanied by piano — it’s the aria for her character, Miss Minnie Wakeman, the high school girl who Norton tried to woo. (Minnie was already engaged, and that was that.)  Given its length, this track on its own could be considered a micro version of the opera.

“The Committee of Vigilence (Mad Scene)” is a snippet of crazed electronics, some cries of anguish from Norton.  It’s aptly titled, and works as kind of a soliloquy, a standalone scene.

“Mobs Parties, Factions (Part 2)” brings us back to acoustic instruments, with hammering piano and woodwind wailing. It’s fun and spritely, with long unadulterated passages of Duff speaking — and then it turns dark, ominous. We’re nearing the end of the story.

Duff then quietly recites Norton’s proclamation, as prelude to the final track, “Joshua Norton Enters into Heaven.” A soliloquy of ghostly electronics, the piece slowly builds up to a shimmering haze before ending with a final, quiet heartbeat.