This week I've been working on Philip Glass' rarely-performed Madrigal Opera - theater music for six voices and violin/viola - with my beloved Choral Chameleon and director R.B. Schlather, and the virtuosic Johnny Gandelsman and Will Frampton on violin and viola, respectively.
It's an interesting animal. We have the choral form of the madrigal and the storytelling form of the opera, only Glass purposely didn't set a story or plot or theme, leaving that up to the individual director to decide. I won't spill too many details about our production - you can come hear us this weekend to experience for yourself - but suffice to say R.B. hasn't written in any plot twists or character arcs or intricate storylines to keep you gasping on the edge of your seat.
We all have plenty of storylines running through our minds already.
If you're not too familiar with Glass, he gives us vowels and simple (solfège) syllables to sing. Some phrases are more traditionally melodic than others, but still you'd be hard pressed to make an aria out of any single line in the piece. It's probably why his work is so easily skewered, made fun of (see David Ives' "Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread") and even dismissed or loathed.
But it's still called an opera, right? So there is a story in there somewhere, and as I sing my syllables and lift my face off the page and release myself from counting repetitions for dear life, I hear the creation of the fabric, the song, the storyline that is happening in the room. When I need to breathe, I can hear my counterpart carry the line for me. Here come the sopranos with that chord shift to take us forward. Thank you basses for that solid ground. Alone in the practice room I have ee and ah, sol and do. Here with all of you I am creating and witnessing a rich tapestry of sound, with meaning as varied and personal as each one present.
Minimalist? Okay. We might also call it interdependent.
Performing this piece in 2017 - we don't live in a vacuum - carries a special resonance. Isolationism would sink us by the second measure.
We may not have, or ever find, the language to discover the details of the story we tell, what each of us brings and what each of us takes. But we have enough to tell it nonetheless. Come hear it for yourself. We need you, too: there is no story without all of us.