Friday, May 24, 2013

American Music as World Music

An article from World Literature Today by esteemed musicologist speech artist, bassist, composer and humanitarian:

American Music as World Music
“World music” has become a prominent part of an advertising lexicon promising the buyer of CDs entrée into unfamiliar conventions. The operatic creations of husband and wife team Christian Asplund (composer) and Lara Candland (poet/librettist) promise listeners something similar. 
Asplund and Candland helped create Seattle Experimental Opera, a guerilla arts organization formed in the 1990s that disbands and reorganizes like a fluid artistic insurrection. Resource starved, the group compensates with conviction. By always acting as though everything going on is perfectly normal, they foster the sense that unknown conventions are at play. The results are creations akin to opera transported on covered wagons by an under-funded kinship group so far from home that their efforts to recreate their abandoned culture produce fresh conventions.

Take their work Liquid: An Epistolary Opera, which premiered in Seattle in 2000 and can now be heard on a 2007 CD. The overture features the instrumental trio of electric guitar, electric bass and drums providing a music at once familiar for the pop scoring and defamiliarized by classicized guitar licks. Midway through the overture, Asplund reveals his make-due sensibility as one of the opera’s three singers wordlessly chimes in. Asplund had a singer available, so why not make better use of his limited resources by having her perform as a musical instrument during the overture? 
Five letters from Eva Eve to two interlocutors comprise Liquid’s entire text. We join the correspondence at an advanced and intimate point. Eva Eve loves “Dearest Charles”, but careful listening reveals that Charles may be Eva Eve’s anthropomorphic fantasy of a misshapen duck residing on her walking path from home to Seattle’s Lake Washington. A love triangle, fitting for opera, emerges in the three middle letters as Eva Eve turns her attention to friend and potential rival, Catherine. In the finale, Eva Eve breaks off her romance with Charles in the aftermath of the duck’s death. 
Three singers sing the letters. Their musical lines smack of operatic singing now and then, but also resemble incantation, speech and vocalizations defying description. Listeners will find Asplund’s heterophonic treatment of vocal lines fascinating as two singers present Candland’s vivid images simultaneously in a way that calls attention to the myriad subtle differences of each singer’s interpretation. Liquid challenges listeners for being calmly sure of its own normalcy, a normalcy common in a place no GPS can find, yet refreshingly American in its speech patterns. 
Their next collaboration, Sunset with Pink Pastoral (2006), takes the conventions of a “road movie” to present audiences with likeable innocents abroad amidst the vast landscape of the American West. The visual ambition of Candland’s libretto meets the material poverty of experimental opera head on and without compromise. Milk, the opera’s male protagonist, has a chance encounter with a young Native American, and after hearing his prayer exclaims guilelessly “that’s cool, dude. I wish I had, like, a cultural heritage or whatever.” Such a naïve young man might invite meanness from another composer/writer team courting cruel laughter, but Asplund and Candland treat Milk and everyone else inhabiting their operas gently, effectively cutting themselves off from opera’s traditions of violent emotions.
Their most recent collaboration, Lalage, features Candland’s voice reading from her poetry manipulated and embellished by Asplund’s live, low-tech electronics. They might have called this collaboration an “opera” too, but they didn’t. “Opera” means something to them, but the conventions informing that meaning belong to them alone.

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