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Composer's Note: A Perspective on ILLUSION


In the early 90s, I became interested in the notion of extreme knowledge, the idea that one could come into possession of awareness, of insight that one had not actively sought and did not fully understand. Perhaps there lurks in this thought a subconscious reference to the artist and his/her role in (especially) American society. At a Festival, then, I gave a lecture entitled "Listen to the Whisperings," which advised composers to do what I was only then beginning to myself: pay close attention to the fleeting impressions that one has, "in the background," so to speak. One's normal tendency is either to ignore these momentary and apparently insubstantial impressions, or to discount their significance by rationalizing their meaning. Though this phenomenon has its unbidden, mysterious tenor, it is only an indicator of what I had in mind, less forceful and unique in its effects than extreme knowledge.

Artists are always, it seems, wondering about purpose, about relevance. They fantasize incessantly. What I had in mind, however, was something different, not speculative or evanescent, rather, situations in which an individual is confident about "the way things are," but this picture of reality is not in agreement with the way that others around him view what is (presumably) the same world. The person possessing extreme knowledge is, metaphorically, on another wavelength than the rest of us. In any case, my first thoughts about this phenomenon centered on the son of the Nobel prize-winning Japanese novelist, Kenzaburo Oe. Hikari's disability does not allow him to communicate easily in the every-day, but he composes small, Satie-like musical works. They are a poignant testament to the fact that he is a sensitive being, and that his sensibility leads him toward acts of expression that can touch others. When Oe declined to enter into the collaborative operatic project I proposed - about life in a parallel, alternative world - my thoughts went toward other, well-established historical figures endowed with special insight. One possibility was the possessed visionary.

The Red Act Source

A longstanding interest in Greek mythology brought oracles and, in particular, Cassandra to mind. But as I read the Greek tragedies in which she appears, it emerged that she was, indeed, more a phenomenon, less as a dimensional character - as intuition had suggested. It was her context that was rich in narrative implication. But writing about this meant grappling with the Trojan War, with its generations-long and seriously tangled roots. I decided to take as my starting point a crisis in the relationship of Agamemnon with Clytemnestra. The fabled beauty of her sister, Helen, had attracted the Trojan prince, Paris. With him, she fled the home of her husband, Menelaus (He was, not by coincidence, also the brother of King Agamemnon.). Agamemnon must make an agonizing decision: whether to sacrifice his eldest daughter in order to free a becalmed Greek fleet to sail on Troy, or to abandon the campaign. Clytemnestra is incredulous and warns him in stark terms what she will feel if he proceeds. Each time she passes Iphigenia's room "and finds it empty of her," enmity will grow. But Agamemnon does choose to serve what he perceives as the requirements of his public role. He sacrifices Iphigenia and the Greek ships sail. After a ten-year conflict, Troy falls and Cassandra, daughter of the widowed queen Hecuba, is a prize bestowed on Agamemnon "to lie with him in the dark bed of love." Returning home, the Greek fleet is shattered by storms, and only the king's ship survives. He greets the people of Argos, but receives an ambivalent response: "You will learn in time which of your citizens have been loyal in your absence, which were reckless." Clytemnestra is, of course, further angered by the presence of Cassandra, and, in the end, she kills them both. The chorus fragments - it is a passage uncommon in Greek Tragedy - dissolving into a crowd of individual voices that debate what has actually taken place and how to respond. As these events unfold, it becomes clear that king Agamemnon's imperatives reside in the public context - ambition, fame, power - while queen Clytemnestra's are more domestically oriented - loyalty, parenting, hereditary continuity.

Now - although the story outlines are clear, the passions entirely plausible - evaluating the many entwined narrative threads is not at all straightforward. Ambiguity seems an inevitable concomitant of intense human interplay. Justification can be claimed by Agamemnon according to his values, by Clytemnestra, according to hers. The chorus, Menelaus, Hecuba, Cassandra, all have sharply contrasted interpretations of what is occurring. The collision of public/professional with private/relational realities as portrayed in the dramas of Euripides and Aeschylus is as direct, affecting, and relevant in our 21st century existence as it was 2300 years ago in Greece. What does it mean to be powerful, to possess knowledge; to what should we aspire, and what does it mean to live a principled existence?

The Red Act Project

Work on the Red Act Project began in the early 90's, when the director of the BBC Proms Festival, Nicholas Kenyon, asked me to write something for London's fabled Royal Albert Hall, a composition that would spatially explore the potential of its cavernous 6000-seat architecture. I responded with The Red Act Arias, 45 minutes in length. It posited the foundations of what was to follow. Composed for orchestra, choir, narrator, and 8-channel computer sound, it is in three movements, and they are derived, in turn, from Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis and The Trojan Women, and the first part of Aeschylus's Orestia trilogy, Agamemnon. The images evoked by the extraordinary University of Chicago Press translations of Richmond Lattimore and Charles R. Walker are searing, the language itself at times almost hallucinatory. Although I have spent more than a decade with these words, crafting their fit to my musical and formal purposes, they have lost little of their initial incandescence. The circumstances of the central story and their portrayal - as drama, idea, poetic inference - called out to me for realization in a musical context. But the variability and extremity of this narrative argues against anything conventional. While I am committed to music as the center of the Project, there is a need for the unexpected, for extreme behaviors. The goal in the BBC Proms piece, was to establish the musical source materials, the computer mediated choral "images," the shape of the complete libretto.

I have subsequently written a number of other compositions each of which is a potential resource for my long-term goal, a full-length opera: The Red Act. A Crimson Path (for cello and piano) is in three sections: Prospects, Dream, and Voyage, and it underlies the character of Agamemnon. … brain ablaze, she howled aloud … (for 1, 2, or 3 piccolos and computer sound) is a response to the extreme processes and variability of Cassandra's character, while Towards Another World … (for clarinet and computer sound) forms the musical basis for Iphigenia's character. The Red Act Arias Suite is a multichannel mosaic formed out of the computer images and interludes from the BBC work. All are extensively referenced in ILLUSION.


The penultimate stage of the Red Act Project involves two complementary works, each a little less than an hour long. JUSTICE, which provides Clytemnestra's view of what took place and why, was commissioned by Jon Newsom for the Library of Congress's Bicentennial Celebration. ILLUSION portrays the same events, but now from five differing perspectives, those of Agamemnon (with a rejoinder by Menelaus), Iphigenia, Hecuba, Cassandra, and the Greek chorus, acting as the citizens of Argos. As might be expected, the vantage point greatly affects the way events are described as well as reaction to them. The stages in the evolution of Iphigenia's character are particularly moving from a contemporary perspective. She begins as an innocent young woman, a child joyous in reunion with her father. But realizing that her life itself is at risk, she at first pleads, but then, rather startlingly, accepts her fate with measured lucidity, as a necessity of the same larger interests that impressed her father's fatal decision upon him - those of the State.

Almost diametrically opposed is the scattered, vision-disrupted, ego-centric behavior of Cassandra. The coherence of her internal life is so scarred by the juxtaposition of what she sees and hears around her at the moment (and her own individual memories) as well as the visionary experiences that are intruding into her awareness, that there seems no possibility of forging from all of these components, a plausible and consistent identity. Thus, both Iphigenia, through her dizzying evolution, and Cassandra, from what amount to multiple selves, present challenges for the composer: how best to represent these characters whose very selves, as well as whose interactions, are so variegated.

The Greek Chorus: Singularity and Multiplicity

The convention of the Greek chorus has always intrigued me, its wedding of a singular view with multiple proponents. Finding the unity in multiplicity and revealing the multiple facets of something that had seemed singular is, for me, one of the most absorbing of creative frontiers. In The Red Act Arias, I responded to this ideal by using a mixed chorus that sings, for the most part, in unison. When the melodic line traverses different pitch registers, different sections of the group are able to participate - at some points only the women, at others only the lower male voices. Particular significance or emotional intensity is signaled by the splitting of the unison line into clusters or harmonies.

The choral texts contained a number of words on which I conferred special status as images. The words "blossom," "longing," "heart," and "flames," for example, the phrase "at night," were embedded in brief chorales recorded in preparation for work on the computer component of the initial BBC piece. The recordings were done so that each of the four sections of the choir (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) could be captured in isolation. This, in turn, allowed me to extract particular words and phrases from the recordings and to both extended in time and to move each one independently: the women's voices rotating slowly counterclockwise, for example, while the men's voices moved in more irregular "choreographic" gestures. A set of relatively brief images resulted, with distinctive linguistic, choreographic, and harmonic character. These elements respond to, correspond to what seems to a contemporary sensibility, the rather obsessive over-use of particular words and images in the original Greek texts - the word "blood" is an instance, as well as the constantly invoked names of gods.

Multiple representation, arising out of the convention of the Greek chorus, and the instability of certain characters, as I have mentioned, became the guiding paradigm for the more theatrical works in the Project. Clytemnestra is represented in JUSTICE by an actress, who is responsible for the delivery of textual meaning, a soprano who gives the emotional commentary, and a percussionist who manifests the irrational, extra-human facets of what she thinks and does. The queen is an amalgam of three separate beings who sometimes perform in close proximity, almost as one, and are at others physically separated, presenting, simultaneously, differing aspects of what Clytemnestra's character is saying.

The web of multiple representation is more densely woven in ILLUSION. Agamemnon is represented by an actor, a baritone and a cello. Iphigenia by an actress and a clarinet, Cassandra by a high soprano and a piccolo. In the opening section, the actor and baritone are interwoven in a hocketing of content where two separate voices behaving in characteristic ways (speaking, declaiming, singing) present brief, alternating phrases. This is done so that we experience a singular, ongoing narration - the story of Iphigenia's peril - in a way that emphasizes its complexity through the abrupt alternation of voice aspects (actor/singer). The vocalists are accompanied by a cello that provides a medium to which both actor and singer relate. An aria for Iphigenia involves a continuous expressive line performed by the clarinet soloist, a continuity into which the actress's textual interjections are woven. Cassandra is more complex. She has two modes of delivery, an incantatory style that represents her efforts to interact directly with the world she shares with other characters, and a more disjunctive and animated mode when she becomes a medium and is delivering the content of her unwelcome visions.

The Role of the Computer

The computer functions to deepen and enlarge the implications of the other resources. It represents the individual characters not actually on stage (primarily Menelaus, Hecuba, and Clytemnestra) and also provides for the chorus function from the original Greek tragedies. The 8-channel electroacoustic score allows the individual members of the chorus to have both individual inflections and pacings, and also to be spatially mobile. Thus, the chorus has an appropriately otherworldly dimension that the live characters on stage cannot match. Occasionally, in three computer Episodes, this spatial, choreographic capacity is used to explore a non-verbal sonic landscape. The Episodes are, in turn, "Cries" (in relation to Iphigenia's sacrifice), "Dreams" (manifesting the destruction of the Achaean fleet by fire and water), and "Beast" (which gives voice to a darker divinity). Computers are also central to the preliminary stages of an ILLUSION performance, when the audience encounters elements of sonic material and story that prepares it for what is to follow. This is discussed below under Unconventional Features.

The Form of ILLUSION

There are five large sections of ILLUSION. I. Agamemnon's Tale, presents his narration of the entire chronology of events up to the moment of decision regarding Iphigenia's fate. But Menelaus counters that his version is flawed by deceit and hypocrisy. II. A Daughter's Fate, portrays Agamemnon's agony, his reunion with Iphigenia, her realization that she is to be sacrificed and her ultimate acceptance. III. Defeat at Troy, takes place after the city's destruction and introduces Cassandra, already filled with the vengeful wrath of a Fury, IV. Return to Argos, finds Agamemnon back at home, greeting his subjects, displaying Cassandra, and undergoing ironic interrogation by his queen. This section also gives Cassandra's visions their place: recollections of the dark history of the house of Atreides, as well as the foreshadowing of Agamemnon's and her own deaths. Finally section, V. Death and Discord, brings with it Agamemnon's death cries and the distraught confusion of the chorus. Into this antiphonal weave are inserted phrases from earlier perspectives, some by Agamemnon, others by Iphigenia and Cassandra, all recontextualized now by their deaths.

Each character has a number of arias, musical passages in which significant sections in the libretto are manifested either vocally (by singer, actor, a combination of them), or instrumentally. The three solo instruments always "represent," at some level, the characters with whom they are identified. This can be a direct and illustrative connection (When, say, Agamemnon has as aria about the perplexity he feels in considering his decision to sacrifice Iphigenia, the cello accompanies the actor and baritone.). The relationship can also be inferential. In the midst of a later aria, when Agamemnon encounters Clytemnestra after his return to Argos, his underlying sorrow and guilt regarding his sacrificed daughter is recalled by the presence of the clarinet in addition to the three performers normally identified with the king.

At other moments, each of the instrumental soloists have Links that act as interludes between larger and denser sections of the piece. These probe psychological states of their allied characters in a purer and more general way than is possible while the character is actually speaking. And there are a number of other elements in the mosaic that makes up the whole. The instrumental ensemble occasionally takes an accompanimental role, assisting the three soloists as the actors and singers deliver text. But its primary role is found in massed parallels to the soloistic Links. The ensemble has three extended Interludes in which it carries the commentary of the solo instrumentalists further. So, in a way, the ensemble interludes function in relation to the instruments as the chorus does in relation to the solo voices of the vocalists. In summary, each element of ILLUSION has both a singular and a multiple aspect.

No other work I have written has involved so many preparatory phases. And accomplishing JUSTICE and ILLUSION has caused me to realize that the explicitness of musical relationships cannot always carry adequately the emotional range and the sonic inferences that a drama of this intensity requires. It has led me to explore a flexibility of means that I would not previously have expected to embrace. I have also responded in ILLUSION to lessons learned as a result of work done in the context of another large collaborative project between UCSD and Ircam, in Paris, a project involving the perception and cognition of large-scale musical works in concert. Musical functions here have become more direct, more iconic. An example of this can be heard at the very outset of ILLUSION, when the ensemble enters with an accelerating series of upward harmonic successions which I have called a Signal in the score. This broadly conceived, preliminary gesture occurs five times, each appearance indicating that what follows is to have particular weight in the evolution of the whole.

Unconventional Features

When Esa-Pekka Salonen first suggested the possibility of my writing a work for Frank Gehry's visionary Walt Disney Concert Hall, it did not yet exist. He indicated that he would like a work that engaged not only the inner auditorium but the foyers as well. As we were fortunate enough to gain the support of the Rockefeller and Koussevitzky foundations, the University of California, San Diego, the LCS (Level Control Systems) and Blue Sky International companies in Los Angeles, it did, in the end become possible to achieve some unconventional extensions of the normal concert hall event. A multi-channel installation precedes the performance in the lobbies acting as an adumbration of the sonic elements - key words, phrases, and sounds - that will occur in the performance that follows.

A real-time Matrix concept suggested by Peter Otto, later reshaped and programmed by me and Pei Xiang, allows for a continually, but unpredictably evolving web of sound elements that inscribe patterns of motion across constantly changing areas of the central foyer. As members of the audience enter the hall itself, they hear story lines, individual narratives from three perspectives, those of Menelaus, Hecuba and Cassandra, floating around the perimeter of the space in an evocative web that suggests the subject matter of what is to follow without yet providing the full context. It is another stage in the gradual focusing in of listener attention and material itself on the shifting perspectives of the entire work. While, in JUSTICE, Clytemnestra lays claim to the rightful basis of her acts, ILLUSION conjures up a more nuanced and dimensional picture.

- Roger Reynolds