Daniel Goode

Composer & Performer

Tag: harry partch

Thumb-nail Review of “Orfeo” by Richard Powers

It’s about us! Well, us, meaning us male composers of a certain vintage and background. Some of “us” may actually be in the Richard Powers 2014 novel, “Orfeo,” disguised of course. The Champagne-Urbana music faculty of around 1960-something is named with their real names. The teacher and acidic mentor of the now 70 year-old fictional composer-hero, Peter Els who in his youth went to the University of Illinois, might have been Sal Martirano. Or, not. My mentor, later of UCSD where I met him, Gaburo, is named. So is Tenney. The fictional composer is also a clarinetist. There’s an alto who…. It’s a novel about music, composition, performance and ideas, woven together in a manner both gripping and moving. I found it a page-turner. But then again, I’m one of the “us.” There are no women composers in the novel.

Descriptions of actual campus events of those times: a Cage Music Circus, and his HPSCHD are riveting—from the characters’ ears and eyes, but also by someone who had really been there. The author calls Cage “the Imp Saint.” Powers’s language chosen for these absorbing descriptions of both real and imagined music is worth studying: he manages to weave “technical terms” we know from music theory into overlapping poetics. There’s redundancy so if you don’t know the music terms, you’ve got plenty of other language to hold onto. The two together work synergistically in an admirable way: music critics take note! And writers on the arts: how he creates both musical and plot momentum during many pages devoted to a single piece. What about style and history? Well disguised. Peter, the fictional composer, starts as an interesting eccentric, and eclectic. Minimalism comes on the scene in the middle of his career. It’s really the only style mentioned by name. It makes its case, has an influence… Opera enters his life… A manic theater director. Success…failure.

Harry Partch’s hobo experiences and music form a parallel track to the fictional composer-hero’s last adventure of the novel. He also owns some “cloud chambers” like Partch’s instrument. There’s a futuristic turn to a kind of composing with DNA. The theme of a sometimes tormented composer is a flash on Adrian Leverkuhn, the composer in Thomas Mann’s novel. Each, something of a solipsist. Each involved in a spiritual search, but quite an imperfect one.

Novels about composers have got to be within number of fingers on one hand. There’s “Jean-Christoph by Romain Rolland which I’ve never read. There’s Mann’s “Dr. Faustus” (re: Schoenberg, serialism and the devil), and there’s Herman Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game” (which has music as moves in a multi-dimensional board game of the elite). That’s probably it for classical music. Proust, and ETA Hoffmann wrote about music in fiction. If we move to film, there are, of course, the entertaining composer films of Ken Russell. Composer-novels may be a strange genre. But not to me. It feels quite natural…of course.

(I did find it a little spooky that such a good novelist seems to know our world from the inside. Was he “spying” on us? Or was he one of us, once, not so long ago?)

Thumb-nail Review #37

Authentic Orientalism—Tan Dun

Authentic Orientalism—Tan Dun
by Daniel Goode

March 11th, 2007

I saw Tan Dun’s Metropolitan-commissioned opera, The First Emperor, that is, I saw the film of it at my local movie theater (what a great idea at $15 instead of a $90 Met ticket). It was the most expensive opera ever produced by the Met, and not the prettiest, far from the best, yet amazingly: authentic chinoiserie, because the creator and conductor is a true Chinese emigre composer from Mainland China, a fine musician as we can readily see in the film where he rehearses and conducts and coaxes Chinese rhythmic structure from the Met orchestra (that was my favorite part of the film).

It was as if the composer consulted a textbook on how to make an early 19th century opera, both plot and music (updated with a post-Copland tonal jam). The recipe proceeded: add a thin veneer of borrowed qualities from folk and Peking opera with plenty of generalized, contemporary ethnic sound, pleasant borrowings from Harry Partch, gamelan, flower-pot chimes of ancient China and post Cage-America. Placido Domingo painfully and humanly played the Emperor. It must have been fairly thankless: no wonderful tunes, lots of awkward a-rhythmic declamatory singing, he gets to reign over a lonely, now unified empire (represented by synchronized-swimming-style militaristic chorus); plus no off-spring, a dead son-in-law (protégé from the military killed off somehow). Not a good fate for a great culture, past or future. Elizabeth Futrel (great voice, good actress, matchstick Puccini-type) was the unlucky princess, though cured of leg-paralysis (“you don’t like my legs!”) by—exactly—one illicit love-making scene, she still had to die, and did so, thankfully, off-stage.

It’s just plain unfortunate to say that the music isn’t very good. It doesn’t ever give that special lift and momentum that makes opera work. It’s strangely reminiscent of clunky American opera composers like Robert Ward, not up to Menotti’s craft, lots of spectacle produced by specialist masters such as a Chinese male soprano/dancer who was super charismatic. But these virtues just called attention to the emptiness at the center: A little bit of Puccini-esque pentatonic European harmonizing, the show-off, Carl Orff-like “asian” sounds, some choral glissandos from Buddhists monks—you get the idea. Lots of stuff, not really melding into something satisfying.
And, to further embarrass the most tolerant ethnic sympathizer, a more-than-clunky libretto by the composer and a collaborator with choice lines like: “The dead branches are sprouting,” “dry husks of leaves rattled in my heart,” “You promised to go with me step by step to the summit.”

But maybe I’m just a little sour, because what really annoyed me subliminally throughout was the harsh audio sound, bringing the edginess, not the smoothness of these strong, vibrato-tinged voices to the fore. I had use earplugs some of the time. Movie sound systems are usually cranked up just in general. Here, one really missed the fuller, gentler, acoustic mix of the opera hall. Nobody really sounded good, even in an Italianate, harmonically friendly trio. One melodic tic became less rather than more affecting as it came back often through-out at phrase endings, a fa-mi-do, motive that reminded me constantly of some American theater composer, maybe Leonard Bernstein of Candide. But to start speculating at this level of discontent is madness.

The audience at my local New York theater was quite a bit older than most movie audiences there, sprinkled with true flamboyant artist types greeting and networking. I think these movie broadcasts are a really great innovation for the Met, even with the correctable deficit mentioned. Certainly the low price sweetens the possibility of walking out or taking breaks during slow times. The extensive intermission feature of rehearsal clips and interviews was the best part: lively, musical and all about process and art. If not fulfilled, I didn’t feel cheated. There was a lot to take in, a lot to think about in the three- hour event.