Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2


For opera novices and experts alike, John Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2 can be a disorienting, chaotic experience. In Europeras 1 & 2, chance procedures determine how the fundamental parts of opera—music, lighting, costumes, set design, synopses, and action—will unfold independently. One line of my notes from the LA Phil’s New Music Group performance last night, directed by Yuval Sharon, reads: “cowboy, astronaut, log cabin, marble columns, mom jeans, welding mask, Marriage of Figaro?”

In a venue change from the LA Phil’s usual Walt Disney Hall, the extraordinary performance transpired at Sony Picture Studios in Culver City. After waiting on benches in the parking garage, security ushered audience members in groups through metal detectors and through the alleys of other sound stages to Stage 23.fullsizeoutput_7ff

A plush red curtain rose to reveal a dancer under a green light on a stage mapped by an I Ching hexagram of 64 neatly numbered squares. His shoes were on the corner of square 8, and after a series of quiet movements, he retrieved them.

After that, it’s difficult to say what happened. This production boasts 19 impressive soloists ranging from sopranos to basses who sing excerpts from 50 different operas. Four small orchestral ensembles traverse parts of 63 operas separately from the soloists. There are six dancers and several stage hands who variously move props around primaries, such as a vintage vibrating exercise belt that malfunctioned fantastically for a brief moment when it caught on its gears. But the feeling that the performance can’t be summarized properly speaks to the success of this production, which is also how it calls an audience to task: the Europeras 1 & 2 are not about what happens as we know it in any conventional storytelling sense.

As a literary scholar interested in the way that music affects narrative perceptions of temporality in the twentieth-century novel, I have studied the score of Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2—a sweeping array of possible narratives—with dumbfounded curiosity. An insert in last night’s program listed two synopses, one for each half of the program. But even these appear as plot crumbs of operatic essentialism. The second synopses, for example, reads: “On a public bench, he falls in love; however, her father, an evil magician, died, giving birth to him. He is in fact his son, her delight.” For those who grew up listening to opera, the barrage of familiar arias will feel like a bizarre pub quiz where your team is straining to identify phrases in the midst of so many other things. Walking out, the New Yorker’s music critic Alex Ross asked me if I’d caught whether the chef on skis had been singing one of Benjamin Britten’s operas. (I hadn’t.)

More than once, I was reminded of Robert Ashley’s statement that it is silly to think that opera—any opera—can have a plot. But now I’m beginning to think that is only true because Europeras 1 & 2 accesses a deeply unfamiliar kind of storytelling, foreign to narrative theory in literary circles but also to the everyday human experience of piecing together sequences to make sense of the world. The woman sitting next to me walked out at minute 81 of the first Europera whispering, “I’m so sorry, I just can’t take it anymore.” But others laughed out loud and, at its close, gave the performance a warm standing ovation. It is a deeply serious composition, but to be serious does not mean foregoing joy.

It is, perhaps, a rabbit hole venture to look for the story in it. Though a curtain rose and fell during the performance, the stage is open to the eye, a transparent assembly of props, lights, and ropes. Two digital clocks flanked the opposing walls, counting off events pre-determined through chance operations. I spotted a piñata standing on a prop table stage left and waited impatiently for its appearance (it finally made its debut in minute 33 of the Europera 2 to a fragmented “Flight of the Valkyries” accompaniment). There was glitter, netting, knitting, rubber anvils, a casket, a karate kid, Genghis Khan, and a white toilet. I would look up from my notebook, and suddenly the scene had changed to a sand castle, a roman soldier serenading a cauliflower, a starlet cradling a severed head, a soprano singing on a yoga mat in downward dog. The Europeras 1 & 2, as with everything Cage wrote, is something altogether undiscovered—and a supremely beautiful expression of what it is to be human.


Sarah Rothenberg’s 25 Years

Sarah Rothenberg remembers where she was when she took up the post as Da Camera’s Artistic Director in 1994: “As much as I loved Bard, it had become very clear that the model we had established would not change…I was interested in experimenting with ways of reaching audiences and also with really kind of exploding what the concert format could be.” Read my interview with her at Houstonia Magazine.

Anna Smaill’s Chimes


While the opera season has not quite arrived, some great musically-minded books have come across my desk lately to pass the time.

As a narrative device, music allows for a flexibility in space and time, opening holes in the sequence of events where characters can experience delusions about when and where they are (such as Forster’s Helen Schlegel, who sees goblins walking end to end over the universe while listening to Beethoven’s Fifth). This is very different from, say, Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto, which uses music as its subject matter but not to drive its narrative beyond that—basically, it’s a story that happens to be about an opera singer, not a story driven structurally by elements of opera or sound. Rarely, a story will have both music as its central plot and its guiding narrative device.

In Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, which I happily finished this Labor Day, music dominates a post-apocalyptic world as a powerful weapon that controls memory (mostly by erasing it), but music also acts as a device that loosens the rules about what a story can do and still make sense to a reader. Melody, counterpoint, harmony, and disharmony work as a mode of communication, suppression, liberation, and revolution. Characters carry flutes as they would machine guns; a character is sentenced to die at the dominant layer (as opposed to the tonic) of a music-making device; they describe movement as “lento,” “presto” and “subito”; when someone hums a tune, it is the same as tracing a map or recalling a memory. “I get myself lost and tuneless for a while before finding at last a way out, a tiny rivulet of melody that pulls me through,” the protagonist says (170).

But unlike most novels that deal in sound, music is strangely self-aware here as a narrative device. Because music centrally controls memory in the story, it draws from the same narrative flexibility that allows Helen Schlegel to enter a realm of goblins and gods while simultaneously attending a matinee in a concert hall. As another character muses: “Why does Chimes deaden us, our memories? Infrasound, the vibrations in the air. But something else as well. When you don’t grasp something or remember something…your mind gets to welcome that deadening. That’s what I believe anyway. Half of our memoryloss [sic] is by choice” (171).

It’s a novel that acknowledges what music allows temporally in a narrative by design and then plays on that effect by making it part of the plot, a kind of double-sided performance that is more curious and unsettling the more I think about it.

Hans Tutschku’s nighttime songs from afar

An excerpt from my review of Tutschku’s two-night concert series at Music and Literature: “Beneath the tension between machine and human in Tutschku’s compositions lies a confrontation of human with human—something we rarely admit is more uncomfortable and uncertain than the cool steel against flesh that nighttime songs from afar makes explicit. Next to friends and facing strangers on the Turrell’s squared marble benches, the audience held camaraderie while the work unfolded layer after layer of new experience.” Read it in its entirety here.