The last few nights, I’ve been dozing off to Kurtag’s Kafka Fragments, the last thoughts of the day filled by the dizzying allusions made to all things absurd, delicate and violent in Kafka’s poetry by Kurtag’s perfect ear.
And, facing that familiar feeling that sometimes motivates and sometimes cripples, of peering into something masterful, something greater that ‘I.’
Feelings of shame creep down my back. ‘How could I have felt that I had composed anything worthy of any attention only a week ago? How could I even imagine that I have understood anything about poetry and music?’ And then I feel like a child who has urinated himself in public, with no mother in sight. Perhaps Foucault was right, that it is primarily through Shame that we identify ourselves in the world. Very existential, yes. And though my millennial taste for irony and apathy cringes at all things genuinely truthful, perhaps such modernist grumbles may, after all, be at play.
Kurtag made me feel naive. Like an amateur. (And I do love feeling like an amateur, teach me, sir? I’ll be good).
You feel, when you’re listening to the Kafka Fragments that you are being given only tiny pictures, polaroids of a vast and strange place you know very little about. You want to know more. There is nothing more confident than withholding information and choosing to reveal very little. This is what great film directors do, or don’t do rather – show.
When asked what made Alien so scary Ridley Scott replied, only show the monster twice.
I, on the other hand, felt that I had shown absolutely everything pretty early on, cleared out all the sketches, eager to perform, eager to impress. Yuk. (There is nothing shameful in shame. It’s built-in, it’s part of us. It’s a psychological limb full of its own needs and desires. It’s worth investigating).
The only way to reach a genuinely contemporary audience in Opera, I mean the type of people that watch Netflix, that know little about contemporary music practice, that go to the theatre (maybe), is by making stories about this world. Not some other world. I’m probably wrong.
But let’s run with it. If we look at theatre, new writing is being made about topics that are setting servers on fire with retweets. The Writer by Ella Hickson, Barbershop Chronicles by Inua Ellams, Funeral Flowers by Emma Dennis Edwards, all of these recent plays deal with something incredibly current, perhaps even tipping into the future rather than the present.
So why why why, in Opera are we still obsessed with antiquity? And why why why Richard, did you write an Opera about some other world? How did this happen?
Well, if you want Opera that really flies like a play, you need a libretto that tingles when you touch it. That’s alive with wit and makes you feel like your coming up off your tits when you read it. (I’m hunting, there are some leads. Adaptation is the only way. Playwrights that write killer dialogue)
I went into the Opera Making MA wanting to make something light, something naturalistic, something pertinent, something funny, something serious. I wanted it to showcase dialogue, fast delivery. A British Opera Verismo full of grit, that smell of larger on the floor and headiness.
And what did I come out with? Something serious, full of tragedy, full of softness and made entirely of fiction. Yet, I am far from disappointed with the work. In fact, I think it does have its own colour, its own sheen that seemed to appeal to many audience members.
I had to place my testosterone-fuelled desires for a new opera on the shelf for the time being. As someone totally unexpected as if literally from another planet was about to walk into my life and turn everything on its head.
London has a way of intoxicating you. It’s like a hallucinogen that makes you see things that aren’t there. Or to use a Hindu analogy, it’s pure Maya, pure illusion. That’s all well and good, because of course Maya comes from and is thus part of Brahman, the ultimate unchanging reality behind Maya, creating Maya. Ok ok, but problems arise when you think Maya is the real thing, that Maya is the only reality, the only truth. This is ajnana in Sanskrit, which crudely translates to Ignorance.
In other words, London does what great lovers do. And thats get you hooked, on the details. That chip on their tooth, the taste of their saliva after three pm, the smell of their wrists. At least, I’m hooked, but some people leave and don’t get it. I was born here so am forever bound to unravel the riddle. It’s just about complicated enough for me to handle, but it ain’t New York. That place is wild.
Anyway, I suppose I got caught up. It’s got a shifting tempo, it jolts suddenly from a moderato to a presto allegro, molto agitato. I came into the MA completely hyped with ideas that belong entirely to London. Yes, I want to reflect the place I was born in, Yes I think Opera is about today.
‘Hasn’t opera always mirrored the political life surrounding it?’ Hark the voices of critics, echoing in tandem. Le Nozze di Figaro, Boris Godunov, Nixon in China – to name a few. But then it’s easy for anyone arguing a point to choose only those example that supports their argument (the whole spine of academic writing relies on this, yet its principle is so abhorrently immoral! I believe you can find similar practices in Mein Kampf).
And then, like a grandmaster, in true scholarly showmanship, examples supporting the counterargument are presented, only to later be crushed, leaving the reader far from horrified.
What about those misty operas such as Pelleas et Mellisandé, The Magic Flute, Peter Grimes?
Voices in your head like this drive you mad when you’re trying to write your very own shiney new opera. A whole chorus of imaginary academics seem to blabber on at you about everything that works and does not work in opera. And it’s hard to ignore, they have compelling arguments.
But then, even outside opera, composers have to face this question of tradition and where they and the music they want to write stands in relation to it. It’s a huge topic and I think it plagues composers perhaps more than in other artforms. Primarily because of notation. The system that we use to transcribe our sounds were born out of a slowly growing neume practice that traces back into the 11th century. In Armenia, there is an even older neume notation called Khaz that is to this day, not understood.
So at one point or another in a composer’s training, you have to face the historical truths of your art form and the fact that you are using a system that is very old. Furthermore, the practices that gave birth to the classical music of the 17th century are generally agreed to have arisen in the early 16th century.
Very quickly, composers start to feel like historians. Some, in a manner similar to the Italian Futurists, reject it all entirely and boldly look forward. And sometimes I wish I was of this camp. But, for better or worse I am very interested in the tradition and aligning myself with it in some meaningful way.
Counterpoint, Cantus Firmus, Canon, Liquidation, Augmentation, all of these very classical principles I use in my work.
Staying on this for a moment, it’s interesting to take note that the art form of opera itself was born out of a reaction against some of these stoic composition practices by a group of artists and writers in Renassaince Italy who named themselves, rather awfully, The Camerata.
But we do owe them a great deal.
They criticised the style of Renaissance polyphony, championed by composers such as Palestrina, which placed less emphasis on the meaning of the text and used the words simply as a way to get different vowel sounds from singers, often on long melodic lines.
The Camerata, on the other hand, envisioned dramatic music, with soloists, ensemble and a chorus, which placed emphasis on the text. This was their imagining of Greek Theatre, this was Opera, from the Latin, meaning work.
Among these visionary artists, imagining bold new artforms, was Monteverdi. And he was to write Orfeo, the first successful piece of opera.
Why is any of this at all important? Because it is the peculiar fusion of interests, this typically renaissance characteristic that is somehow hard-wired into the fabric of opera. And that is, this need to recreate the past, in Monteverdi’s case, Greek Theatre, whilst also being completely radical, dramatic and new. It is a completely Italian concern, not dissimilar to Dante’s Inferno, a work of poetry that once digested seems to be relevant wherever you look.
And just like everything is on a spectrum these days, so perhaps is opera, one side being very contemplative and reflexive the other being hyper-radical.
And I think that composers who have the good fortune to write more than one opera, enjoy changing their position on this spectrum with each opera. And where one is along the scale starts to inform everything about the piece, from the form, to the harmony to the smallest details of word setting. It is the curse of opera. It’s almost as if the Greek gods themselves are guarding their sacred theatre and controlling how and why such things happen as they happen. Such analogies seem lofty, but it really does seem when you are writing an opera that you are tapping into to something that has its own very real gravitational forces. I personally, have not felt this writing instrumental music, but only in opera. It is magical, no doubting that.
And gravity, in this case, pulled me very much on the side of contemplative reflexive opera that looks back, that uses opera as a device to speculate on the past. And whilst at first, I wanted to write something that did the opposite, I now find that this was precisely the piece I needed to write.
And, for this, I thank my collaborator and wonderful Librettist Yashka Moore. She lit up the ways of old for me! ‘Look you forgot about all these things you used to love.’ I seemed to hear her say.
God knows where I would have ended up if I followed my angsty whims, probably somewhere devoid of all taste. Corpses of many an opera composer lay in this region, lit up by neon signs, regularly soaked by fast passing cars hitting puddles, in full Tarantino cliche.'
I thank the heavens that Yashka intervened. That Yashka exists! Occasionally you do meet people that are totally original. I’ve been lucky enough to meet a few this year, Yashka Moore, Bahaa El-Ansary and the Iyengar teacher Claudia Donessa.
As a designer of clothing, Yashka is I feel, primarily a person with a visual imagination. The images come first and from that come the words. There is a mass of texture behind her words, cloth, ink and handiwork.
Her clothing draws on many traditions, yet somehow remains totally her own. However, I could quickly see the influence of the Caucuses in her lines and seams and we realised there was a shared language. There was almost a perennial sensibility about not only Yashka’s clothing but her entire sense of style and as a person of dual heritage, this was appealing for me.
Poseidon’s Trident was at play, already, our subject matter was taking shape, somewhere in the grey matter of the brains. Through a process that would be arduous to both write and I’m sure to read in prose, we arrived at the story of Genizah. To quote the program:
Genizah and Anhite are both devout followers of the traditions of their faith which include the art of tattooing sacred symbols. When the society in which they live decides to outlaw these practices, Anhite attempts to save her beloved Genizah from the growing threat of the villagers who seek to destroy all trace of the old ways.
Many years later archaeologists strive to make sense of their recent discovery.
It was a story about history itself, about antiquity, the very thing that I had so wanted to avoid at the start of the process was now taking up my entire field of vision. And as the nights went on, the particular nature of this story and specifically the relationship between Genizah and Anhite began to turn my dreams blue, and fill my ears with cascading 6ths and flowing streams of quavers and salmon.
I had never had sleep paralysis before until I started writing Genizah. And I’m sure the two things are linked. This made me very happy. My greatest fear is losing the child mind. And losing heightened sensitivity. Because, how would you know? You wouldn’t know that the subtle thing that quivers, had left you because it would just feet like a normal day. Terrifying.
But this was evidence that the fundamental structure of my brain was still in flux. Good. Thank God. So I had made it to twenty-eight with no sleep paralysis then suddenly it happened in a very intense way.
I was dreaming that I was Genizah, I myself was covered in tattoos of waves on my back. Then I was hovering above my bed looking down at the mattress. After being catapulted down into my body, a stream of realisations hit me about Genizah and Anhite and what they were actually feeling in the story. Great fun.
Then there it was, I was stuck. I couldn’t move a thing, not a muscle. And I became aware of a looming presence at my door watching me.
Finally, somehow, it all broke off.
No one cares for compositional procedures apart from composers. So none of that will be happening here.
Why is it that music and poetry have so much in common? When on the surface it seems they couldn’t be further away from each other.
I think Osip Mandelstam can provide an answer. (Thanks sweet and wonderful E.C for sending me this poem, Silentium).
She has not yet been born: she is music and word, and therefore the un-torn, fabric of what is stirred. Silent the ocean breathes. Madly day’s glitter roams. Spray of pale lilac foams, in a bowl of grey-blue leaves. May my lips rehearse the primordial silence, ike a note of crystal clearness, sounding, pure from birth! Stay as foam Aphrodite – Art – and return, Word, where music begins: and, fused with life’s origins, be ashamed heart, of heart!
Both forms, music and poetry are in the present tense. They happen Now. Prose, is always, past tense. Cinema also, exists, fundamentally in the past tense. We feel that it is a recording of something that has happened. Painting also, for me, feels like your viewing something in the past tense. But music has to be enacted by performers, it has to happen. (It’s not surprising that Cage found Happenings. It’s fundamental to music’s ontology, this present nature-ness.) And for some strange reason, poetry also is alive. It buzzes. Yet it requires no performer, other than trapeze artist sitting dormant in the mind alive only to words. And when they get up and dance the dance, the tired accordionist watches and may accompany them with a waltz.
And in the faint hours of morning, the Kafka Fragments wind on, I’m lost in their labyrinth. If could listen to a Borge’s short story, I think this what it would it sound like. Distilled, intense, full of wonder.
I thought about taking photos of my sketches and putting them in this account. But I know inside my heart of hearts, as Mandelstam says, that really this is just to show off my fine hand. I know I have good handwriting. My father was a copyist, amongst many other things. He trained me to write music by hand properly.
‘No thick here, thin there. A flat is not a b! Down first, then up, to get the point. Two thin lines, then two hard lines across, that’s how you write a sharp.’
He was also an oil painter, and writing music for him was something visual and very technical, just like painting. He disliked poets and anything improvisatory, a purely mechanical and wonderfully architectural man. He loved Beethoven.
I have to admit when I see the scrawly writing of living composers who were not lucky enough to have proper lessons in this, I wonder why we don’t teach proper handwriting at our conservatoires. If we are maintaining a tradition, then let’s maintain all of it.
But the Kurtag constantly makes me wonder. ‘How on God’s earth How, does this music sound like Kafka, when Kafka never wrote anything close to music all his life? What is the secret of this?’
I’ve pondered this for years actually. And, my guess is that music is somehow related to our deepest most basic desires to communicate aurally.
Like a fencer, it dashes, skirts and articulates sound in the most basic forms, like cuniforms of Sumerian, it outlines only the most basic shapes. Language has developed beyond, with its meanings and it’s complex grammars and syntaxes. But yet, it remains at its core, only sound – codified. And word is written its merely a programming language, which we train our brains, to compile into shared meaning.
And poetry, like music dances at the edge of meaning.