Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum kicked off its innovative series of new vocal works curated by avant-garde impresario Beth Morrison last Thursday with a packed house for Sarah Kirkland Snider’s moody, evocative song cycle Penelope. Morrison began planning avant-garde performances in the jewel-box shaped Calderwood Hall this summer as part of what the Globe called “a significant enhancement of its offerings in contemporary music and performance art.” This year’s series of events includes Penelope, Paolo Prestini’s Labyrinth concerto installation on Feb. 4th, and a semi-staged version of MIT composer Keeril Makan’s new opera Persona.
Premiered on February 1, 2008 at the Getty Villa in Malibu and issued by New Amsterdam Records (where the composer is a co-Director) in 2010, Penelope is a kind of multimedia cabaret piece which has been acclaimed as a landmark combination of art song and indie rock, making many “Top Ten” lists for best classical, “genre-defying,” and “alternative art song” albums. The work is a unique hybrid of classical and popular styles, interpreting fourteen dreamlike poetic sections through speech, murmur, and song.
The current song cycle originated as a much simpler music-theater monodrama for alto/actor (premiered by the librettist Ellen McLaughlin) and the Eclipse (string) Quartet; it was commissioned by the J. Paul Getty Center in 2007. The title role (a woman evoking the classical Penelope) has been typically interpreted by vocalist Shara Worden, for whom the original orchestration and sound design was expanded in 2009 through a collaboration with programmer Michael Hammond on sound design.
Worden and the avant-garde chamber ensemble Signal, under the direction of acclaimed conductor Brad Lubman, recorded this expanded version of Penelope with producer Lawson White November 3-6, 2009, at Clinton Studios in New York, NY; the production has been produced frequently (as many as eight times per year) with a variety of orchestral groups from New York’s Merkin Concert Hall, Poisson Rouge, and The Kitchen to Portland, Oregon.
Carla Kihlstedt, co-founder of the alternative rock band Rabbit Rabbit, provided the vocal firepower necessary for the Gardner’s stylistically diverse tour-de-force. Trained at Oberlin and the San Francisco and Peabody Conservatories, her work ranges from jazz and avant-garde progressive rock performances on violin, electric violin, and Stroh violin to vocal projects with Tom Waits and Fred Firth. Kihlstedt is a founding member of the quintet, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum,a past member of Tin Hat, and (along with her husband, Matthias Bossi) has recently launched an online subscription series for new works, Rabbit Rabbit Radio.
Entering Calderwood Hall can feel like walking into a huge Rubik’s Cube. During the performance, the house lights were out, allowing the mostly-white surfaces (including the undersides of the stacked balconies that completely surround the intimate space) to undulate with changing colors. Bailey Costa’s lighting design oozed through bright solid colors for each of the movements, and Murat Eyuboglu’s video images (projected behind the ensemble) helped to strengthen the dramatic flavor by acting as metaphorical guideposts. Since half of the audience was seated in and under layered balconies, we were embraced by the innovative sound and lighting design, but were totally unable to consult notes, titles, or texts in the program. See BMInt’s detailed overview of acoustics and design of the hall here.
Well-balanced, robust sound from the instruments and electronic elements obscured Penelope’s dream-like narrative. Sarah Snider requires her soloist be a vocal chameleon, interpreting the poetry without whimsy and contrasting forceful and vulnerable tones throughout. The vocal part combined clear, attractive melodic sections with recitation, whispering, and moans, but was most notable for the way the voice acted as an extension of the string timbre. Spoken and whispered texts were enhanced through the use of close miking and special processing techniques (including distortion and fuzztone on the vocal mike), and the orchestration was generally transparent and intimate.
Since Penelope’s 14 songs are not clearly delineated by strong cadences and silence, each movement propelled gently into the next, washing over us in waves, rather than telling fourteen parts of a coherent story. Songs appeared to be deliberately constructed with audible references to cabaret, chamber pop, art pop, and opera, but failed to establish the mounting dramatic shape of 20th-century song cycles such as Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire on Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King.
For the first third of the work, Kihlstedt’s voice blended seamlessly with the strings, adding flashes of color and timbre but not communicating a clear narrative intent. The concert was engineered by Ryan Ainsworth, who choose levels and mixes of sounds appropriate to a pop performance (where the elements were balanced to have roughly the same punch), rather than a classical performance (where contrapuntal details and text would have been more clear). As we moved through the hour-long soundscape, some songs recalled the best 1980s work of Laurie Anderson and Meredith Monk, whereas others showed Snider’s admiration for 1990s alternative (indie rock) confessional female singer-songwriters like Liz Phair and PJ Harvey.
The virtuosity inherent in Penelope’s subtle orchestration was masterfully interpreted by the Firebird Ensemble, directed by Jeffrey Means. The group played with energy, virtuosity, and passion, weaving their way through a score that showcases elements of Stravinskyan chamber music (à la The Soldier’s Tale), the gloom of Gothic rock, and some of the Velvet Underground’s “melancholy noise.”
The large string-dominated classical chamber sound was enhanced with rock drumset (both Assistant Director Aaron Trant and William Manly on percussion), musique concrète, quiet but sometimes-distorted electric guitar played by guest Taylor Levine, and industrial noise. Founding director Kate Vincent (on viola) and cellist Jacques Wood soared through melancholy obbligato melodies, and Rane Moore’s dark, resonant clarinet tone evoked a foreboding, sorrowful soundscape.
Snider wields voice and instruments like a flexible set of industrial tools, each fulfilling a single function in the depiction of an abstract, tormented conversation. Trios and quartets felt at once micro-orchestrated and passionately spontaneous, and at the work’s best, I was reminded of David Bowie’s fantastic, morbid score for the haunting 1982 film Cat People.
Librettist, playwright, and actor Ellen McLaughlin (1957-) jams a lot of big ideas into fourteen intimate lyrics. Well-known to American audiences as the original “Angel” in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, McLaughlin is an award-winning playwright who successfully reinterprets the universal truths found in ancient Greek drama through a feminist lens. Her interest in Greek tropes has resulted in numerous plays that reinterpret classical characters through modern lenses. Some of her recent work has garnered acclaim in Boston (Ajax in Iraq, produced at ART in 2008; Iphigenia and Other Daughters at BU, 2013), and since joining the Barnard faculty in 1995, several plays have taken New York by storm (The Trojan Women, Helen, The Persians, Oedipus, and The Greek Plays).
Inspired by The Odyssey, Ellen McLaughlin developed 14 related texts to depict a woman whose husband returns home (I. I have a house/Looks out to sea/And this is where he came/The stranger with the face of a man I loved) from an unnamed war after an absence of twenty years. Since he doesn’t know who he is, she finds a way into her husband’s memory (II. Try to remember/This is what you once were like/Where is it you’ve gone?/How can I find you?) by reading Homer’s Odyssey. Her meditation on “memory, identity, and what it means to come home” echoes Penelope’s classical quest for the restoration of her husband (V. Just take my hand, Stranger/Just take my hand/And I will lead you home.).
The lyrics are alternately intimate and dramatic, and movement titles include references to the events of the Odyssey itself (III. The Honeyed Fruit and IV. The Lotus Eaters) and to characters that have shaped the soldier’s memories (Calypso, Teresias, and Helios). McLaughlin explores the husband’s loss of identity (III. “Those who tasted it fell where they were, dreaming, their faces smeared smiling with the sweetness of the end of any desire for home.”) and the wife’s quest to restore it (VI. “Never will I sleep like that, sleep like that/And I’m lost in this night/I’m already lost, but not as lost as them/my sleeping, drooling, smiling men.) Other moments deal directly with regret and loss (VII. One day my hollow heart cracked to powder like an old egg and I fell where I stood, eyes still clinging to the empty horizon.), developing an atmospheric, dirge-like rhythm through repetition.
The most poignant and emotionally wrenching poem lies at the heart of Penelope in the sixth movement (Circe and the Hanged Man): the woman speaking/singing has made it halfway to the possible resolution she seeks, but like the musicians, we remain suspended in time and space: “Have you ever noticed that/Between the business of its going up/and the business of its fall/it hesitates?/It just waits…”
The final song gives us some relief from longing and nostalgia by taking apart the narrative search itself:
“It moves like a live thing in his hands
The story, his story
Bloody and sacred, truth and lie…
And it tells itself,
the pages turn and tell themselves,
Backwards and forwards like the tide.”
Two months ago, composer Sarah Kirkland Snider released a follow-up to Penelope in the form of a 13-movement song cycle, premiered at the 2013 Ecstatic Music Festival in Merkin Hall. The album is a studio recording of her collaboration with New England poet and illustrator Nathaniel Bellows entitled Unremembered. In November, the Globe printed an exploration of Snider’s continuing success and compositional influences.
Beth Morrison’ collaboration with the Gardner continues with Labyrinth on February 4th and Stir: on May 5th. Next year she presents at Emerson with a September 2016 cycle of three contemporary operas entitled The Ouruboros Trilogy, conceived by Cerise Lim Jacobs. These full-length works include Scott Wheeler’s Naga, Paola Prestini’s Gilgamesh, and Zhou Long’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning Madame White Snake (premiered by Opera Boston in 2010). The three operas will be presented both individually and as part of seven hour full-day events.