Monday, December 25, 2017

‘Tis the Season to be Melancholy: Sia’s Everyday Christmas

Justin aDams Burton


Critics haven’t really loved Sia’s album of Christmas originals, Everyday is Christmas. For that matter, neither have listeners, as Everyday’s metacritic score is lagging significantly behind her other albums. Katherine St. Asaph at Pitchfork describes the listening experience as being “like opening a gift where someone’s forgotten to remove the tags.” Rachel Aroesti of The Guardian finds Sia’s vocals “mewling, monotonous,” while at Huffington Post, Sara Boboltz wonders why there wasn’t a copyeditor somewhere who could have spotted the grammatical error in the title (it should be Every Day is Christmas). All of these reviews foreground the speed with which Sia and collaborator Greg Kurstin pumped out Everyday; the singer told Zane Lowe that the album was a two-week project. For these reviewers, it’s not just that the music is disappointing, it’s also that the process was half-baked. They’re disappointed with the album, and they can’t even fall back on the idea that it’s the thought that counts, as Sia admits—brags?—that it was a slapdash job. Though all of these critiques are couched in terms of aesthetics or process, I argue here that the response to Everyday is Christmas is conditioned more by what Christmas does and doesn’t allow us to hear than by the album’s aesthetics.


There’s one more recurring theme in these critical reviews, and the positive ones, too. In each case, Everyday is received as an earnest expression of seasonal joy. And why wouldn’t it be? “Christmas” is, among other things, a tightly-structured system that affords a very narrow range of acceptable emotional output. Joy, wonder, joyous wonder—these all pass Christmas emotional muster. While we pay lip service to the idea that the holidays can be a trying time for people, holiday depression is typically considered deviant, a pathology that needs to be overcome. A recent Huffington Post article offers a few answers to “Why We Get Depressed at the Holidays,” and those answers all ultimately lay the blame on the person who is depressed. You have “unrealistic expectations,” you’re “trying to do too much,” you’re “comparing your insides to someone else’s outsides,” or you’re “slacking on self care.” Yup, you know why you feel shitty during the holidays? Because you’re a lazy good-for-nothing who isn’t taking care of yourself well enough, misering away your self-care energy like some Scrooge. And it’s ruining Christmas for the rest of us.

Our broad social acknowledgement of holiday depression boils down to the idea that Christmas is for happiness, and if you don’t feel happy, well, you’re doing it wrong. In a post on Cyborgology, Jenny Davis describes Facebook’s public analysis of the emotional pitfalls of social media in similar terms, and I think a parallel reading of Facebook alongside Christmas can be a useful way to hear what’s going on in Sia’s album. Davis is unimpressed with Facebook’s conclusion that one’s emotional response to social media platforms is the result of how you use it: “‘It’s how you use it’ is wholly unsatisfying, philosophically misguided, and a total corporate cop-out that places disproportionate responsibility on individual users while ignoring the politics and power of design.” Davis describes these “politics and power of design” as technological affordances, what a user is or isn’t able to do as a result of the way the social platform is designed. An example that Davis offers involves Facebook’s algorithmic bias toward popular content, which pushes users to engage posts and profiles that are already receiving attention and discourages interaction with posts and profiles that don’t already have attention—it’s like a regressive tax for your social media world. Christmas isn’t a technology in the way Facebook is, but it is a multimedia institution that structures the US social world for a solid six weeks each year. And part of Christmas’s structure involves compulsory happiness, that overarching sense that the only emotions afforded us during the season are the joyful ones.

Davis has theorized Facebook’s own methods for enforcing compulsory happiness, and this is where Facebook-as-system and Christmas-as-system diverge: there’s no centralized power center, no Santa CEO who determines Christmas algorithms and rolls out updates that directly shape our interactions with the holiday. Rather, it’s a much looser social negotiation that we all (regardless of whether and how we celebrate Christmas) participate in to some degree. One part of that participation is the listening praxis that surrounds Christmas music: when and where we listen, and how we create meaning through the act of listening. The reviews of Everyday that I opened with demonstrate some of what happens when our listening praxis is conditioned by Christmas’s compulsory happiness. The usual range of possibility that we’d expect—and probably laud—from Sia is cordoned off so that her Christmas album only registers within that narrow band of seasonal joy that compulsory happiness affords. In this context, Sia’s hastily produced offering strikes music critics and listeners alike as something of a failure.

Listening outside Christmas constraints, however, I hear Everyday is Christmas as an album that is about the failure to meet Christmas’s emotional affordances. The failure is a feature, not a bug; it’s the kind of performance one must undertake during the holidays to appear and sound acceptable. To listen in this context is to shift what we can hear. If the vocals are “mewling, monotonous,” it’s because they’re trying to convince us that everything’s totally fine. They add a compensatory “seasonal twinkle,” as Rolling Stone Australia’s Annabel Ross describes it, that provides just enough cover for what is otherwise a more emotionally turbulent collection of songs. I think it’s this tension between the surface-level joy cranked to sometimes ridiculous levels—“Puppies are foreveeeeerrrrrrr!!”—and other visual and aural signifiers which let slip the lie of joy that makes Everyday tricky for listeners and critics. It sounds like a Christmas album full of holiday cheer, fueling our shopping sprees when it blasts through department store speakers, but there’s something just a bit off about it.

Sia released a video trilogy for “Candy Cane Lane,” “Ho Ho Ho,” and “Underneath the Mistletoe” that pulls this tension nearly to its breaking point. A holiday jaunt, a yuletide drinking song, and a Christmas love ballad, respectively, the three tunes hit all of the Christmas emotional affordance marks, and the claymation visuals featuring a smiling little girl with green and red hair tap into a nostalgic aesthetic indebted to seasonal television fixtures like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The narrative begins whimsically enough, with a girl and her mother decorating their house—presumably on Candy Cane Lane—but things quickly veer into something far darker and more traumatic. The girl spots a snowman stuffing himself uninvited into chimney holes, then follows him into the woods. They play together in the snowman’s house, a tableau that features the snowman turning himself into a shark’s fin and circling the girl as she repeatedly forces smiles to the sounds of Sia’s unhinged drinking song. Finally, the girl makes her way home, and the departure takes on a “Baby It’s Cold Outside” vibe as the snowman encourages her to stay. The return’s soundtrack is “Underneath the Mistletoe,” a grown-person love song that carries none of the innocence of “Candy Cane Lane.” The girl finally emerges from the woods to hug her worried mother, even as the snowman appears the next morning to continue his pursuit.



The visuals do what the album as a whole does: all the surface markers of Christmas joy—snow, candy canes, snowmen, magical houses tucked away in the woods, smiling children—are right there so that a casual viewing or passive listening allows Everyday to register within Christmas’s emotional affordances. Once we listen past the edges of what Christmas affords, though, we can hear a melancholia permeating the album, whether it’s in lyrics like “Santa is Coming for Us” or the vocal performance of “Everyday is Christmas”’s chorus, a slurred repetition of “Everyday is Christmas with you by my side” that sounds more like lament than celebration.




Even that grammatical error in the title makes a little more sense. If one’s everyday existence lacks joy, then Christmas doesn’t afford the ability to feel any differently; instead, it papers over melancholia with shiny bows and the enforcement of compulsory happiness. In this context, Every Day is Christmas would be nothing short of a horror story. The grammar of Everyday is Christmas—in the title and in the album’s sonic aesthetic—captures the mundanity of the everyday, the reality that Christmas is just another time of year to fake a smile and sing about joy at the top of your lungs and vocal range so as not to ruin it for everyone else. Everyday is Christmas is a failure to hold the façade, a rumination on the fact that Christmas is just more of the everyday.




Justin aDams Burton specializes in popular music, race, and gender and is the author of Posthuman Rap (Oxford University Press, 2017).







Thursday, December 21, 2017

Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima and the Trinity Atomic Bomb Test in Twin Peaks: The Return

By Reba Wissner

When Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return aired on Showtime in June 2017, fans and critics alike referred to it as revolutionary. The centerpiece of the episode was an extended scene of the Trinity atomic bomb test in White Sands, New Mexico, accompanied by the entirety of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960). While some viewers were not sure how to interpret Lynch’s use of the atomic bomb detonation, others read it as a creation narrative for the demonic BOB (Frank Silva), the spirit who takes over the bodies of various townspeople in order to commit murders in the town Twin Peaks throughout the series. Notably, in this scene, he emanates inside of a black orb from the mouth of a creature known as The Experiment.  This is the first and only time in the series’ three seasons that we see the creation of the town’s personification of evil. Lynch has used Penderecki’s music in the past in some of his films, but here, the use of Threnody musically mirrors, both in sound and topic, the subject of the atomic bomb.


BOB’s Birth in the Orb

The Trinity test occurred on July 16, 1945 and was a part of a larger series of atomic bomb tests that formed the culmination of the Manhattan Project. It is unclear exactly why the test was called Trinity, but it is speculated that the name came from an allusion to John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, to which Oppenheimer was introduced shortly before working on the test [1]. As the first successful detonation of an atomic bomb, the Trinity test opened the floodgates for future atomic bombs that subsequently allowed for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The atomic bomb has been a symbol for both death and birth, so it is fitting that it is used in the context of the chaos that allowed for BOB’s birth but also as the catalyst for the various murders that he causes in Twin Peaks through the possession of a human host.

The atomic bomb has a dichotomous role in popular culture. On the one hand, it represents the power of man to create. On the other, it represents man’s power to destroy. Upon seeing the Trinity bomb detonate, Dr. Robert J. Oppenheimer’s first words were a quote from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Oppenheimer, therefore, assumes the role of a deity that with one thing, the Bomb, he has the power to simultaneously create and destroy. There have been various discourses surrounding the pregnancy, birth, and death symbolism of the atomic bomb. As Evelyn Fox Keller notes, from its inception, the atomic bomb and its testing have been riddled with metaphors for pregnancy and birth with writers of the day using those terms not only in the context of the bomb’s genesis but also how the bomb created events and established mainstays of popular atomic culture [2]. Often, the bomb was credited with the “birth of a new world” [3]. For example, President Truman was notified of the Trinity test’s success with the announcement that “It’s a boy.” According to this account, if the test were a failure, they would have announced “It’s a girl.” [4]

The atomic bomb, and more specifically the Trinity test, plays a crucial role not only as a plot device in The Return but also as an explanation for the personification of evil that inhabits Twin Peaks and leads to Laura Palmer’s murder. The Trinity test scene in The Return, according to David Lynch’s sound supervisor Dean Hurley, is an extreme scene about the collapsing of time [5]. David Lynch remarked in an interview with Pitchfork after The Return ended that the atomic bomb was, in fact, a portal: “One thing or another can open up portals.” [6] In an interview after The Return ended, Lynch was asked whether he always had Threnody in mind to use for the atomic bomb scene. He continued, “I was going to experiment with Angelo [Badalamenti, the series’ composer] but that thing was, in my mind, made to order. I did chop it up a lot so that I could get different sections for the visuals, but it was just meant to be.” [7]



As is well known, Penderecki did not originally give Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima that title. The work was originally titled 8’37” as an homage to John Cage’s 4’33.” The work, composed for 52 strings, is comprised of extended techniques, microtones, and various other Expressionist effects. After the premiere, Penderecki felt that the work would be suited to having an association tied to it and realized that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima would be the perfect solution. He stated, “I was struck by the emotional charge of the work... I searched for associations and, in the end, I decided to dedicate it to the Hiroshima victims.” Four years after the completion of the work, he remarked, “Let the Threnody express my firm belief that the sacrifice of Hiroshima will never be forgotten and lost.” [8]. Given Penderecki’s fascination with historical events associated with trauma, his choice to use Hiroshima is unsurprising [9] Penderecki’s Threnody channels the destruction and chaos caused by the detonation of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, especially given the composition’s pre-existing association with the disaster.

What is especially interesting is the way the Trinity Bomb is used here both visually and sonically. The scene opens with a black and white screen with an overlay informing the viewer of the location and the date, followed by the countdown to zero. We then see the detonation and the white flash of light simultaneous with the first notes of Threnody. Given the extreme sound power of an atomic detonation, described by one eyewitness to the Trinity test as having “the quality of distant thunder, but was louder,” it is almost surreal that we cannot hear it explode but only see it while we can hear the countdown; its power is still drowned out by the sound of Penderecki’s non-diegetic score [10]. Randolph Foy has written that the piece’s sense of drama comes from its opposition between “sustained clusters and points of sound” and indeed, these musical oppositions are reflected through vantage point that occurs simultaneously [11]. The camera pans to the INSIDE of the Bomb (a CGI rendering and not the actual footage from the 1946 test), of both the mushroom top and the stem, shifting from its black and white exterior to its colorful interior. These colors reflect first-hand accounts of the Trinity test, with observers remarking on the purples, reds, yellows, and blues that were visible as the Bomb exploded [12]. This unique vantage point is illustrated by the varying timbres of Threnody, from playing between the bridge and the tailpiece and striking the soundboard with the nut of the bow, for example, which are constantly changing throughout the work. By being cognizant of the musical language and techniques in operation at each moment, paired with the visuals, the piece can offer listeners both an exterior as well as an interior listening. With each section of music and timbral change, the image onscreen changes, varying from extreme close-ups to the top of the mushroom cloud to the pulsing and flying of the fallout dust and the rapidly changing colors, thus visually highlighting the piece’s structure.

Like the Bomb’s visual impact, the musical score has a dramatic visual impact. Unlike conventional scores, the music is written using graphic notation consisting of symbols such as squiggles and large blacked out blocks that represent tone clusters. The use of microtones also gives the work a sense of eeriness and otherworldliness, especially combined with the extended techniques and rapid timbral changes. Further, Threnody plays from beginning to end, an unusual directorial choice for a piece as long as this, but given the power represented in this extended scene, it is warranted and serves to amplify the tension present in the visuals.


In this context, BOB’s birth came out of the chaos generated by the Bomb detonation, despite its carefully planned execution. We see that out of the mushroom cloud a figure emerges, one that is dubbed both The Experiment. In the midst of the detonation, which appears to have generated The Experiment, we have a period of silence before we once again see the inside of the mushroom cloud and hear the remainder of Threnody. The Experiment spits out what looks like a series of eggs, one of which bears the face of BOB. This sequence illustrates that the Bomb birthed The Experiment, which then births, among other bizarre creatures (like the frog moth that will hatch later in Part 8), BOB.

This, of course, is not Threnody’s first appearance in film or television, nor is it the first time that David Lynch has used Penderecki’s music prior to Twin Peaks. In this scene, however, he directly channels the association of the music with the visuals in order to make a statement and tell the story of one of Twin Peaks’ most iconic characters. Lynch’s use of Threnody has evocations beyond the association with the atomic bomb that Penderecki intended; that is, the birth of atomic bomb as the birth of evil that haunts the town of Twin Peaks. The title of the piece evokes mourning for the dead so perhaps, in this case, Lynch uses the atomic bomb as a metaphor for the birth of the town’s evil and with the use of Penderecki’s underscore for the scene, Lynch is amplifying the association between scientific chaos and humanity’s creation of evil.

***
[1] Stephen Hilgartner, Richard C. Bell, and Rory O’Connor, Nukespeak: Nuclear Language, Visions, and Mindset (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1982), 30.
[2] Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 189.
[3] Peggy Rosenthal, “The Nuclear Mushroom Cloud as Cultural Image,” American Literary History 3, no. 1 (1991), 66.
[4] Carroll Pursell, Technology in Postwar America: A History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 60.
[5] Synchblog, “Q&A with David Lynch’s Music Collaborator Dean Hurley – Part 2: Being Open Creatively and Knowing When to Walk Away,” July 24, 2017, accessed July 30, 2017,
http://www.synchblog.com/qa-with-david-lynchs-music-collaborator-dean-hurley-part-2-being-open-creatively-and-knowing-when-to-walk-away/
[6] Daniel Dylan Wray, “David Lynch on Bowie and the Music that Inspired the New ‘Twin Peaks,’” Pitchfork, September 19, 2017, accessed September 19, 2017, https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/david-lynch-interview-on-bowie-and-music-that-inspired-the-new-twin-peaks/
[7] Darren Franich and Jeff Jensen, “Talking to David Lynch about Twin Peaks: The Return,” Entertainment Weekly, September 15, 2017, accessed September 17, 2017, http://ew.com/tv/2017/09/15/david-lynch-twin-peaks-finale/
[8] Susan Chaffins Kovalenko, “The Twentieth-Century Requiem: An Emerging Concept (Ph.D. diss., Washington University in St. Louis, 1971), 4.
[9] Adrian Thomas, “Krzysztof Penderecki,” Grove Music Online, November 26, 2003, accessed December 5, 2017,
http://www.oxfordmusiconline/
[10] Robert Serber, Eyewitness Account—Trinity Test, July 16, 1945, U.S. National Archives, Record Group 227, OSRD-S1 Committee, Box 82, Folder 6, “Trinity.”
[11] Randolph Foy, “Textural Transformations: The Instrumental Music of Krzysztof Penderecki, 1960-1973” (D.M.A. diss., Peabody Institute of the John Hopkins University, 1994), 64.
[12] Ferenc Morton Szasz, The Day the Sun Rose Twice: The Story of the Trinity Site Nuclear Explosion, July 16, 1945 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984), 86-91.


***
Reba Wissner is on the music history faculty of Montclair State University. She is currently at work on her third monograph, Music and the Atomic Bomb in American Film and Television, 1950-1969. She is also co-editing a volume on the music and sound design in Twin Peaks with Dr. Katherine Reed, also of this series. See more here

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Optigan Allusions: Sonic Dislocation in The Return

By Frank Lehman

As an ardent fan of Lynch's oeuvre, I have trained myself to relax my critical faculties when watching his films. I prefer to simply surrender to the fantasy, to let the work act on me according to the oneiric terms the creator himself endorses. But music-theoretical habits die hard, and midway through Part 8, my ears perked up when something surprising began piping over the soundtrack: pantriadic chromaticism, the use of simple triads in unconventional progressions and routines, outside the bounds of natural, ‘rational’ tonal syntax.

Pantriadic harmony can seem phantasmagoric, as though steered by its own arcane will, rather than by human hands. Richard Cohn (2012, x) notes its affiliation with “altered and heightened” realities. It is a style tailor-suited for uncanny affects, its basis in familiar sonorities lending it that critical element of familiarity necessary for something to feel truly unsettling.  This harmonic idiom is extremely rare in the Twin Peaks soundworld, and in most forms of commercial and popular music more general. However, it is positively rife in original film and television music, where it often connotes the fantastic, the dreamlike, and the sublime.

What was doubly ear-catching to me was the fact that, rather than being incorporated into non-diegetic underscore as is typical for cinematic pantriadicism, this music was issuing from an on-screen source...



We find ourselves in an ornately appointed parlour, one room within an immense tower situated somewhere in an endless mauve sea. Music can be heard coming from a vintage phonograph player, its exact melodic contours garbled and clouded in mechanical noise. An elegantly dressed woman--"Senorita Dido," according to the end credits--sits motionlessly on a couch, listening intently to the partially-occluded jazz vamp. A large bell-like structure begins sounding an ominous knell, which seems to draw forth the Fireman (identified, with quintessential Lynchian obscurity, as “???????” in the credits). After some slow inspection, he somehow shuts off the mysterious device. The phonograph continues playing. Throughout, no dialogue is uttered, and the scene lasts three and a half minutes.

Senorita Dido's phonograph appears to be some hybrid of industrial ambient music and slinky 1930s instrumental jazz. The record cycles repeated through a glacially paced chordal succession with basically no functional or teleological foundation.[2] The diagram below charts the tonal progress of this cue, if progress is the right word. The music cycles through four "passes" of comparable progressions, beginning with fifth-based transpositions of the initial vamping module, but eventually migrating to more chromatic realms, through functionally unassimilable moves like that between B-flat minor and G-minor. The progression covers a great deal of ground, but never goes anywhere, kind of like the harmonic equivalent to a barber-shop pole illusion.[1]

Harmonic Reduction of Senorita Dido’s Phonograph




The primary effect of the music here is dislocation. The cue has enough trappings of familiar jazz to evoke standard generic associations concerning time-period, sexuality, cosmopolitanism, nostalgia, and so forth. But its aimless, looping pantriadic structure works to contradict—or at least confuse—the clean cinematic connotations of jazz, rendering cryptic what is normally semiotically clear, surreal what is often filmically coded as "realistic." The uncanny implication being, of course, that Senorita Dido has been listening to these nine chords repeat for basically all eternity; the purposeless repetition goes beyond mere minimalistic semantic saturation, verging on the horror of eternal recurrence.

Lynch is an accomplished sound-designer and a talented musician in his own right, but the carefully orchestrated jazz of this cue did not strike me as bearing his specific creative fingerprint. In fact, the pantriadic strains that haunt Dido's parlour are the result of a long chain of musical "repurposings." The cue as it is identified in the episode's credits, "Slow 30s Room," was imported from an album co-composed by Lynch and his frequent collaborator, Dean Hurley: "The Air is on Fire." When taken as a stand-alone listen, "Fire" consists of a continuous industrial ambient soundscape, of which this mutated jazz is only a small part, a tiny concession to triadic harmony near the end of its otherwise thoroughly atonal runtime.



That album, in turn, was assembled from the music Lynch and Hurley composed for an exhibition of the director's visual art in 2007 at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris. Just as in Twin Peaks, the music's purpose was ambient and textural, intended to fill an oddly-appointed physical space, to be explored at a languid pace, with equally unusual sound.

The question remains—since neither Lynch nor Hurley is a jazz-band arranger, where did this music come from originally? The answer lies in a now obscure technology: the Optigan, a fascinating hybrid juke-box/musical instrument created by the Mattel Corporation during a short window in the early 1970s. The Optigan was a marketed as a miniature dance-band for your living-room, its various functionalities evident in this commercial starring TV-dad Carl Betz.



The instrument required proprietary optical soundtrack discs, on which a variety of prerecorded instrument sounds, loops, and vamps could be played back at the press of a key. In addition to a standard organ keyboard, the Optigan included a set of 21 buttons for chord-loops--divided into 7 major, minor, and diminished triads respectively. A given Optigan disc was oriented around a specific musical style or mood, with pre-recorded samples ranging across genres from the "Country Sunshine" to "Latin Fever" to "Bluegrass Banjo"—nothing cutting-edge, stylistically, but music with a certain square, bourgeois charm nevertheless.

The Optigan



The Optigan never seems to have been more than a mid-century domestic novelty.[3] Though the sound-quality was far from crisp, and the electronics were prone to technological malfunctions, it was ahead of its time in numerous respects, predating comparable looping and sampling functions of home-synthesizers by a decade. The kitschy obsolescence of this instrument must have tickled Lynch in just the right way. One could imagine one buzzing away in the background of Dean Stockwell's suburban drug den in Blue Velvet, the instrument of choice of a twisted pater-familias, left chugging so that “there’s always music in the air.”

The particular disc Lynch and Hurley turned to for Dido's parlor is called "Big Band Beat." A quick listen to the various sounds of that proto-sample library (usefully demonstrated here on YouTube) reveals that the nine distinct chords of "Slow 30s Room" correspond to nine right-hand instrumental vamps from the Optigan. These chords are ordered seemingly ad-libitum, and with thick layers of electronic distortion and filtration applied long (long!) after the fact.[4]

Despite his reputation for inscrutability, Lynch is not a purveyor of the 'weird' for its own sake. Rather, his primary modus is to peel away the membrane of the "normal," so as to reveal the strangeness that lurked underneath all along, squirming and hungry. The number of layers being peeled away in this cue is remarkable, and characteristic of the depth of Lynch's work. By the time the big-band Optigan loop makes it to Twin Peaks: The Return, it is a sample-of-a-sample-of-a-sample, each stage further degrading the original meaning (and recording fidelity!) of the loungy jazz that served as its source. Between the meandering chromaticism, the cryptic generic allusions, and the basis in a material object only dimly remembered by most listeners, this strange Optigan ambiance is a perfect embodiment of the Lynchian aesthetic.

***
[1] Some of the material in this analysis is adapted from my forthcoming book, Hollywood Harmony (OUP, 2018).
[2] Note similar aesthetics of inexplicable looping at play in Sarah Palmer’s living room in Episode 13.
[3] And, if for any reason you’d like to reconstruct Lynch’s creative process with your own fingers, a virtual Optigan has just been released this week for iOS. The app even comes with the “Big Band Beat” proto-sample-library for free.
[4] For the curious, here's what "Big Band Beat" could sound like when performed as intended, to support a more traditionally structured piece of jazzy music, here played by Mattel's leading proponent of the instrument, Johnny Largo.

***

Frank Lehman is an Assistant Professor of Music Theory at Tufts University. His work on chromaticism in film music will appear in a forthcoming monograph with Oxford University Press. Website HERE

Thursday, December 14, 2017

“Just You and I”: Performance, Nostalgia, and Narrative Space in The Return

By Katherine M. Reed

Part 13 of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks: The Return approached its close, as had become expected, with a performance at the Roadhouse. As the opening guitar riff began, though, a collective groan rose among Twin Peaks fans. Creator David Lynch, in his perversity, had brought back one of the most mocked musical moments of the original series: James Hurley’s heartfelt throwback, “Just You.”



This musical performance was just one of many gigs at the Twin Peaks hotspot in The Return. Most episodes were marked by a final performance on the stage of the Roadhouse; most of these came from bands who exist in our own world, not just the fictitious narrative of the show. These Roadhouse scenes received a fair amount of fan attention<1>: did these vignettes have secret meanings? Just what was going on at the Twin Peaks Roadhouse?

Though this string of musical performances is diverse and resists easy interpretation, we can see each of them as serving an important narrative purpose. Here, with “Just You,” Lynch and Frost open up the world of Twin Peaks, questioning our nostalgic view of the town and the show, and bringing it much closer to our own world. Lynch is tapping into a favorite trope throughout his oeuvre: the performance of a familiar song by characters within the diegesis.<2> Typically providing us with an onscreen surrogate through whom to understand the performance, Lynch plays with our connections to the selected pre-existing music while giving us a lens through which to make sense of the scene and to enter more deeply into the narrative world of the work.<3> As Kathryn Kalinak has noted of the original Twin Peaks, the series’ music “gains its power by activating powerful conventions embodied in these models [film and television] and then both transgressing and reconstructing them.”<4> The Return plays with the expectations set by the original series, drawing on twofold nostalgia (for the song and the era it represents, and for the show itself) to complicate our experience.

Of course, The Return can be watched and enjoyed without previous knowledge of the show’s original run. I would argue, though, that Lynch and Frost seem to have conceived of this revival as existing in dialogue with their earlier work. In visual allusions, character interactions, and reused footage, The Return makes itself very difficult to watch without reference to the 1990-91 episodes. Twin Peaks has long been concerned with the passage of time (“I’ll see you again in 25 years”<5>), and this focus continues through Mark Frost’s summation of the show’s history to this point in The Final Dossier.<6> Given this, I approach this scene from the position of a repeat viewer of the show, drawing connections among episodes, though I acknowledge that this is not the sole possible spectator position.

The original “Just You” is sung in the second season of Twin Peaks by James, Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle), and Maddie Ferguson (Sheryl Lee). Singing in the Hayward living room, the three perform for no audience but each other. The song is presented as a simple (if melodramatic) expression of teenage love, and its musical expression is built to match. “Just You” begins with a simple guitar riff that will serve as the counter-melody for James’ repetitive vocal line in the first verse. At the end of the verse, a bass line and spare drum set accompaniment enter, though neither instrument is present in the scene. The girls also join with echoing vocal interjections that flesh out a bit of sparse harmony. The sound of the song is unnatural, with vocal echoes on James’ line and phantom instruments. It intentionally sounds like a transmission from the past in its doo-wop style.<7> In line with the song’s lyrical content, the scene shows the growing feelings Donna has for James, brought to the fore by James’ love song. As Michel Chion notes, James and Donna are both characters whose legibility as types allows them to “enable identification” for the audience and draw us deeper into their drama.<8> Lynch’s careful use of reaction shots<9> (see chart below) accomplishes much the same.

In The Return, the song operates differently, both evoking and challenging its original presentation, though the sound itself remains exactly the same. We witness “Just You” through the eyes of an underdeveloped character, Renee (Jessica Szohr), whose backstory is unknown. Given the lack of information about the character, we are unable to identify with her engagement in the performance. Rather, we can see her reaction as a reflection of Donna’s, and the performance as an echo of the original. The end result is that, rather than being drawn deeper into the insular diegesis of the show, we are forced to confront these performances as existing in our own world. At the Roadhouse, we as audience members are witnessing performances of songs we may know, by their original performers, in a space which seems to transgress the boundaries of Twin Peaks’ narrative as we have come to know it. Lynch embraces the idea of the Roadhouse as a liminal space, but here it is a space between the reality of The Return and our own reality.

“Just You” illustrates this liminality perfectly. First, the sound of the song: The Return uses the same recording from Season Two, as many online commenters immediately noticed. Indeed, James Marshall himself was surprised at Lynch’s reuse of the recording without any editing. Just as Mark Mazullo has described in the original iteration, this recording again makes its remove from live performance felt very clearly. In this new performance, there’s yet another remove: the presence of our memory of the original, and this performance’s very direct doubling of it.

That doubling is not only musical, but also visual. Accompanying James on stage are two young brunette singers, dressed in cardigans and strikingly reminiscent of Donna and Maddie. More than that, though, Lynch frames this sequence to subvert our expectations, built from our repeated experience of the original.

As the chart below shows, Lynch shoots the opening of the performance similarly: showing James performing, and his love interest responding. It’s in the second verse, though, that The Return forces us to confront the falseness of our nostalgic reading. Lynch gives a wide shot of the entire stage, revealing the Maddie and Donna dopplegängers. We’re confronted with an image of James, aged more than 25 years since the original, as we hear his voice from the 1990 recording and see the reflection of his former youthfulness in the female singers. It’s here that Lynch inserts wide shots of the audience, dark and anonymous, further shattering the illusion that we could somehow witness the return of the childlike, intimate original performance. In conjunction with Renee’s incongruously intense crying, we are unable to enter the scene by identifying with her and are instead left to grapple with the distance from which we, and The Return, regard the memory of Twin Peaks.





It’s fitting that this performance comes in this particular episode. Though The Return was deeply concerned with nostalgia and the passage of time, Episode 13 in particular reminds us, in each storyline, of the disruption caused to our memory of Twin Peaks by the passage of time. A stultified Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) shows a glimmer of recognition at the smell of coffee and the sight of cherry pie – but that glimmer is soon snuffed. Big Ed Hurley (Everett McGill) and Norma (Peggy Lipton) appear to have finally found a way to be together when we see them at the Double R Diner—but it quickly becomes apparent that they’re still just friends. Even the Double R’s legendary cherry pie isn’t safe from the ravages of time, as Norma’s new business partner tells her it’s simply not profitable anymore. Throughout The Return, Lynch and Frost shatter our nostalgic view of the original Twin Peaks, but it is in this Roadhouse performance that the passage of time, in Twin Peaks as in the real world, is most clearly communicated, and our nostalgia for the Twin Peaks of our memory is questioned.
***
<1>For more on the Twin Peaks online fan community, see Henry Jenkins, “’Do You Enjoy Making the Rest of Us Feel Stupid?’: alt.tv.twinpeaks, the Trickster Author, and Viewer Mastery,” in Fans, Gamers, and Bloggers: Exploring Participatory Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 115-133.
<2>Gene Willet has discussed Lynch’s use of popular music as a catalyst for the shift into Lacanian fantasy. See, for example, Gene Willet, “Popular Music as Fantasy in David Lynch,” in Popular Music and the New Auteur: Visionary Filmmakers After MTV, ed. Arved Ashby (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 87-108.
<3>For more on this practice in Lynch’s films, see Katherine Reed, “’We Cannot Content Ourselves with Remaining Spectators’: Musical Performance, Audience Interaction, and Nostalgia in the Films of David Lynch,” Music and the Moving Image 9, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 3-22.
<4>Kathryn Kalinak, “’Disturbing the Guests With This Racket’: Music and Twin Peaks,” in Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, ed. David Lavery (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995), 83.
<5>Link to clip from season 2 finale: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BL57-9171pk
<6>See, for example, Mark Frost, Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier (New York: Flatiron Books, 2017), “Interoffice Memorandum, September 7, 2017.”
<7>James Marshall notes that the song was essentially composed on set as a collaboration between Angelo Badalamenti, David Lynch, and himself. See Pieter Dom, “How David Lynch, Angelo Badalamenti, and James Marshall Wrote James Hurley’s ‘Just You,’” Welcome to Twin Peaks, August 13, 2017. Accessed October 21, 2017.
<8>Michel Chion, David Lynch, translated by Robert Julian (London: BFI Publishing, 2006), 101.
<9>For more on Lynch’s manipulation of reaction shots, see Chion, David Lynch, 177-179.
***
Katherine Reed is an assistant professor of musicology at California State University, Fullerton. Her research interests include musical semiotics, the use of pre-existing music in film, and British popular music, particularly David Bowie’s works of the 1970s. Reed’s work has appeared in Music and the Moving Image, The Avid Listener, and the Society for American Music’s Digital Lectures series. Her current book project, Hooked to the Silver Screen: David Bowie and the Moving Image, is supported by a research fellowship at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame library and archive.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

There’s Always Music in the Air: Sound Design in Twin Peaks: The Return

By Brooke McCorkle

David Lynch has always walked the fine line between painter and cinema director, and I believe we can attribute another title to his name: sound artist. Lynch, who has recorded two studio albums of his own, regularly participates in development and placement of sound in his films. For example, in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (FWWM) he personally calibrated sound levels when mixing the music. As explained in a New York Times interview, Lynch’s involvement with sound design continued with the unexpected and welcome extension of the Twin Peaks story in 2017’s The Return. Throughout the season’s eighteen episodes, ostensibly diegetic sounds are hyper-rendered; that is, they are not faithful reproductions of realistic sound.  Instead, sounds are manipulated (rendered) to evoke the desired feelings, emotions, and affects of the given situation. Hyper-rendering itself is not an uncommon technique; it is a staple of horror films and avant-garde cinema. Twin Peaks: The Return fuses these genres in terms of sound as much as narrative, a combination Lynch rehearsed in previous works ranging from Eraserhead (1977) to Mulholland Drive (2001).


Yet the sound design in The Return stands apart from the previous two seasons of Twin Peaks. Most notably, the specificity of the sound rendering marks effects as playing a significant aural role relevant to the narrative. That is, these sounds are hyper-rendered not just for an ephemeral “jump scare” moment, but rather are in service of the story and/or the overarching aesthetic of the Twin Peaks world. Lynch paints his apocalyptic portrait as much in sound (and in music, as Reba will discuss) as he does in visuals and in dialogue (a kind of sound object as well, especially when treated by Lynch). The hyper-rendering endows sound with an element of viscerality; it feels real, tangible, plastic. Sounds such as the buzz of electricity, the repetition of a bit of dialogue on television, the rumble of an atomic bomb all, despite being just vibrations in the air, certainly have tangible effects on the human bodies of auditor-spectators. The viscerality of these hyper-rendered sounds thus reinforce the corporeality of the audience as well as the characters. The people of Twin Peaks feel more real to us because the sounds feel more real. And perhaps none are more real than Laura, the tortured sweetheart, the dark woman, the damned daughter. The unnatural sounds of a distorted diegesis as exemplified in the many Black Lodge scenes are the very incarnation of the wrongness of Laura’s life and death. Hints of this slip into the real world of Twin Peaks in the form of everyday sounds like near-omnipresent electric humming. If we don’t listen, these seem fine, common, normal. But attending to them reveals a twisting of the real world into something surreal.

Lynch and his team’s creative use of mixing works to musicalize sound effects, allowing them to enter the “fantastical gap” as outlined by Robynn Stilwell.<1>  The blurring between the real and the fantastic is a Lynchian aesthetic prominent in many of his works, including The Return. In other words, sound punctures the boundary between the “real” sound of the diegetic world and the “fantastic” sound of the non-diegetic realm. For the remainder of this essay, I want to focus on one specific sound effect that illustrates this porosity: Electricity.

Why electricity? It is an effect that fascinates Lynch, as evidenced by his response to a fan at a Cambridge, MA screening of Inland Empire. Electricity is a striking effect in FWWM, and works in a sense to bring the film’s aesthetic into the televisual episodes of The Return. It is an effect that permeates the overall soundscape regardless of the location—the Great Northern Hotel, small-town trailer parks, Las Vegas, suburban homes, diners, bars, morgues, and middle-of-nowhere roads. The aural effect is ever-present, yet rarely is the source of it completely revealed. Almost anything can produce the sound of electric buzzes, whether it is a low humming or whiny whirr; thus, the sound is suggested but  unlocatable. That is, there are many possible sources, but in the many instances where the effect is present not one definitive source can be singled out. By hyper-rendering the sound of electricity, Lynch compels auditor-spectators to question the electrical sources. We may search for the sound source, but our hunt is as hopeless as Ben and Beverly’s similar pursuit for the source of a mysterious sound in the Great Northern hotel.



Occasionally, however, electricity does seem to be emitted by specific sources. Pole number 6 is an example of this. It appears in FWWM as well as in Episode 6, after a little boy’s death in a hit and run. The pole also appears in the final episode, in front of the house of Carrie (Laura Palmer’s alternate-reality twin) in Odessa, Texas. And while there are numerous theories about the relationship between these appearances of pole number 6, there are no definitive answers to its location nor to why its sound is so prominent, so loud in the mix. Electricity in a sense is transitory, as it is rooted in energy. It can travel distances, even planes of existence in Lynch’s world. This quality links it to the evil of the dark lodge, Bob, and Judy. Like electricity, the evil is transitory, or to put it better, transmigratory. Bob is a metempsychotic spirit, as is (I suspect) Judy.


But good can also be linked to electricity and mobility as much as evil. In Episodes 15-16, Agent Cooper finally returns thanks to a jolt of electricity brought on by his (alter-ego/former-future tulpa) Dougie Jones sticking a fork into an electrical socket. In this scene, maybe we can better understand the sound of electricity as a characteristic of this invisible ether, an amoral tool for spirits beyond the tangible world. Indeed, electricity is something a bit magical. We observe its effects in lights, appliances, and such, but we never see the thing itself. To touch it is to invite pain and even death. Perhaps by emphasizing the hyper-rendered sound effect of electricity, Lynch is asking us listeners to consider how invisible forces act upon us humans in the reality of our existence.

 
In Episode 14, Lynch’s character Gordon Cole recalls his dream with Monica Belluci, “We are like the dreamer who dreams, and then lives inside the dream...But who is the dreamer?” The sound design is what puts us as auditor-spectators inside the dream of the Twin Peaks world; if we listen, we can hear sound as both real and fantastic, and we become both the dreamer and the resident of dreams. Sound is the vehicle for slippage between reality and dreams in Twin Peaks. And the hyper-rendering of effects like electricity, with the affect of anxiety, lingers long after we leave our screens for the mundane. As Lynch proves, an uneasy dream slipping into reality is still better than no dream at all.


***
<1>Robynn Stilwell, “The Fantastical Gap Between Diegetic and Nondiegetic,” in Beyond the Soundtrack: Representing Music in Cinema, edited by Daniel Goldmark, Lawrence Kramer, and Richard Leppert (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 184–202.

***
Brooke McCorkle is an opera and film music scholar. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Musicology at SUNY-Geneseo. Her published and forthcoming works address topics as varied as Star Trek Concerts, Wagner reception in Japan, and ecological critiques in monster cinema. Please see here for more information.

Quick Takes on Twin Peaks



Musicology Now is delighted to offer a series of Quick Takes on  music and sound in the reboot of David Lynch's Twin Peaks.  Featuring posts by Brooke McCorkle, Katherine Reed, Frank Lehman, and Reba Wissner, the series takes us into the holiday season with an ear to the often uncanny music and sound design of Dean Hurley and David Lynch.



Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Holding Don Giovanni Accountable

By Kristi Brown-Montesano
 
Now am I allowed to say rapist.” — Rose McGowan tweet, 10 Oct. 2017

No one took Rose McGowan’s claims seriously. Now everyone is listening. ”— Headline in the Los Angeles Times, 13 Oct. 2017

At the end of summer 2016, just before the fall semester started, I received a commission from the Bilbao Opera to write a program note on the women of Don Giovanni. The requested subject was not a surprise. I finished my dissertation on the female characters of Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte in 1997; ten years later, in 2007, my book came out, expanding the coverage to Le nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte. While I subsequently stepped away from Mozart studies, I have never tired of coming back to these characters who still have a lot to say to us.


My editor at Bilbao, Willem de Waal, took a rather gutsy stance: he encouraged me to illuminate readers about ethical criticism and to address seriously the elements of sexual assault and coercion that are central to the Don Juan stories and Don Giovanni in particular. Contemporary relevance was obvious. Willem mentioned the recent arrest of Spanish porn-film producer “Torbe” who was charged with selling child pornography, abusing female minors, and sex trafficking; there were separate accusations of forcing girls to have sex with famous footballers. Here in the US, Bill Cosby has been ordered to stand trial, charged with three felony counts of aggravated indecent assault against women. A mistrial followed when the jury deadlocked. A few weeks after I submitted my piece to Bilbao, the Access Hollywood tapes of Donald Trump surfaced: “You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. This girl—beautiful, young, flirty—I met her on the street; I came up to her, took her hand; she tried to escape…

(A parte: Oh, wait: that last bit was the Don, not The Donald.)<1>

Let me backtrack. About 25 years ago, I read The Operas of Mozart (Oxford, 1977) by William Mann, one-time principal music critic of The Times of London. The book had been listed on the Metropolitan Opera’s recommended reading for Don Giovanni in 1991, the bicentennial of Mozart’s death and the same year I decided to do a dissertation on Mozart opera. Covering the complete stage works, Mann offers historical background and lightly analytical descriptions of the musical numbers, all seemingly aimed—much like Mozart’s music—to engage both the opera connoisseur and newbie amateur. His prose is eloquent, his humor mostly English, clever and dry. But in the middle of his discussion of Don Giovanni, Mann suddenly goes into the red zone, excoriating Donna Anna, the first woman character we meet in the opera and the only one who consistently denounces Don Giovanni:

Anna is an upper-class Spanish lady who has etiquette where her feelings and brains should reside. Duty and honour are her watchword. Towards all her fellow-creatures she presents a coldly correct personality. If she loves her father it is because the Bible told her so. Her censorious anger against others is a juvenile trait. All men, to her, are beasts, and it would be beneficial to her personal growing-up if she had been pleasantly raped by Don Juan.
Pleasantly raped by Don Juan. I have never forgotten these words or stopped objecting to what they represent: deceptive and toxic misogyny masked as authoritative criticism. Mann’s oxymoronic formula relies on one of the oldest and most pernicious excuses for rape: she really wanted/needed it. And while his wording might be the most egregious, Mann’s basic position is widely echoed in the critical reception of Don Giovanni, which skews heavily in favor of the libertine aristocrat, recalling what Sunday Times book critic Raymond Mortimer wrote about James Bond in 1963: What every man would like to be, and what every woman would like between her sheets<2> . Commentators and directors have idealized Mozart’s willful, seductive, and violent protagonist, crediting him with virtues (unflagging bravery, triumphant self-determination, revolutionary resistance to oppressive societal power, and sensual idealism) that are, at best, only equivocally suggested in the original libretto.

The female characters, in turn, are judged largely in terms of charm and receptiveness to the Don’s don’t-say-no sexual advances. Resistance to him is understood as a flaw—or a lie. In the words of Kierkegaard’s fictional Mr. A, “a foolish girl it would be who would not choose to be unhappy for the sake of having once been happy with Don Juan.” Fast forward 170 years later and you find conductor James Conlon rhapsodizing that all three female characters have experienced a sexual metamorphosis, compliments of Don Giovanni: “their erotic impulses awakened, magnified and irrevocably changed by their encounter with this mythical seducer.”<3>


Yes, Don Giovanni comes from a different time. But this is a poor  excuse for partitioning opera/art from contemporary ethical values,  forever justifying behavior that—in any age—is predatory and exploitive. Does the work benefit from this protection? Do we?
The original libretto repeatedly points to abuse of power and sexual trespass, beginning with this exchange between master and servant:

LEPORELLO
Bravo! Two pretty deeds!
Force the daughter, then murdered the father!

DON GIOVANNI
He asked for it: his own fault.

LEPORELLO
And Donna Anna, what did she ask for?

DON GIOVANNI
Shut up, and stop annoying me. Come with me,
unless you’re asking for something, too.

Leporello tellingly uses the word sforzare to characterize Don Giovanni’s treatment of Donna Anna, corroborating the young woman’s own statement: “He came up on me silently and tried to embrace me; I tried to break free, he held on even more tightly; I screamed; no one came. He held a hand over my mouth to silence me, and gripped me so tightly with the other hand, I thought I was beaten.” Two other incidences of what we would categorize as sexual assault make Donna Anna’s testimony more compelling: Zerlina shrieking for help at Don Giovanni’s ball after he drags her to an antechamber, and the libertine’s own account of physical intimacy with a woman using false pretenses (she mistakes him for her boyfriend, Leporello). The woman starts yelling when she recognizes her mistake, and the nobleman has to escape over a wall. 

Erotic impulses awakened, my ass.


This season, like all seasons, Don Giovanni is being staged in cities all over the world—cities in which dead-serious conversations about sexual assault are also taking place. Here in the US, the bravura rage arias sung by Rose McGowan and other victims who would not be silenced finally unmasked the scellerato Harvey Weinstein. Like Donna Anna, the original “assalitrice d’assalita,” McGowan is outspoken and resolute. If she doesn’t conform to public expectations of a victim, this should not make her accusation less forceful, her willingness to go public less courageous, her pain less profound. We should know better.<4>

So what do we do with Don Giovanni now that the work’s headliner brand of masculinity is finally facing the heat of full-coverage public denunciation in the real world? We could chuck the whole thing, of course, but I’d like to think there are more creative ways to deal with the challenge of canonic opera’s pervasive misogyny. As a staged art form, opera offers a unique opportunity to engage thoughtfully with the racial, class, and sexual politics that old operas dramatize for new audiences. Along these lines, Adrienne Rich offers a pointedly feminist perspective, addressed to women for the deliverance of women:

“Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for [women] more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for woman, is more than a search for identity: it is part of her refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.”

“Let us rescue the innocent!” exclaim Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Don Ottavio at the end of Act 1, rushing to defend the honor of a common girl, a country bumpkin, a “no one” in their class-conscious world. Soon the whole crowd will confront il dissoluto revealed. No one buys his cover story, the attempt to shift the blame to Leporello. Aristocrats and peasants alike join in condemnation: “Tremble, scoundrel, the whole world will know of your black, horrendous misdeeds, of your cruel arrogance.”


This is the moment that the women of Don Giovanni have been waiting for: the seducer-predator unmasked, judged, and found guilty. Too bad the work couldn’t just end with this scene, the three sopranos united in musical line and dramatic purpose. (How often does that happen in canonic opera?) Instead, tradition dictates that Don Giovanni meet his match in the form of a supernatural patriarch, complete with hellfire and terrific scoring.


In real-life sexual assault cases, of course, there are no vindicating Stone Guests—just a rocky judicial process that stirs to life only when victims are brave enough to tell their story and take the stand. Likewise there are no “mythical seducers” who “pleasantly rape,” only men who won’t take no for an answer<5> . Powerful, educated, creative men like Matt Lauer, John Lasseter, Mark Halperin, Charlie Rose. Like Don Giovanni.

Many of the acclaimed men who are now facing serious consequences for sexual harassment and assault have long operated in a culture that preferred to look the other way, not least because corporate employers and board members saw these men as too big to fail. Their brand was more important than the rights of alleged victims. The classical music world is no less implicated in this gentleman’s agreement. There have long been rumors and “open secrets” around conductors and applied teachers, who are often gatekeepers to major career opportunities. And few such secrets have been more open than those around James Levine, operating at the very heart of opera culture in this country. The self-interested and institutional protections around these men are finally--finally--toppling under the broad societal pressure for serious investigation.


Don Giovanni falls into a parallel category: an art product whose aesthetic value and guaranteed box-office receipts have deflected critical charges against the main character. My program note for Bilbao drew a hard line: the only way to make Don Giovanni worthy of our time, if indeed that is possible at all, is to listen more closely to the women. And if we really care about opera’s continued relevance, then everyone who loves the art form—directors, conductors, singers, critics, educators, audiences—must acknowledge the connection between what we applaud on stage and what we permit in the workplace, school, home. Because Donna Elvira could tell you, the “Catalogue Aria” is not so funny when your name, or the name of someone you love, is on the list.

***

<1>On 28 November 2017, the New York Times reported that Donald Trump is now denying the authenticity of these tapes, allegedly suggesting that the voice in the tape was not his. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/28/us/politics/trump-access-hollywood-tape.html
<2>Often misattributed to Raymond Chandler. http://jamesbondmemes.blogspot.com/2012/07/what-raymond-chandler-didnt-say.html
<3>https://www.laopera.org/news/blog/Dates/2012/9/Don-Giovanni-the-Unknowable/
<4>And yet this just in: the presiding judge in the recent “wolf pack” rape trial in Spain decided to allow evidence about the alleged victim’s personal life and character into court, but barred the prosecutor from presenting texted conversations between the accused which apparently made plans to rape women.
<5>http://video.newyorker.com/watch/harvey-weinstein-caught-on-tape

***

Chair of the music-history faculty at the Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles, Kristi Brown-Montesano received her Ph.D. in musicology from UC Berkeley, combining her strong interest in both musical performance and scholarly research.
Her book The Women of Mozart’s Operas (University of California Press, 2007) offers a detailed study of the female characters in the Da Ponte operas and The Magic Flute. Dr. Brown-Montesano has presented and published essays on music in contemporary film, opera, trends in marketing classical music, and musical culture in late 19th-century England.
In 2014-15, she was honored to participate in the UCLA Musicology Department’s Distinguished Lecture Series. An active “public musicologist,” she has been engaged by numerous organizations in Los Angeles, including the LA Opera (“Opera for Educators”), the Opera League of Los Angeles, the Mason House Concerts, and the Colburn Orchestra. She is especially thrilled to join the LA Phil’s “Upbeat Live” faculty this concert season.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Dissertation Digest: Portraying the Anti-Heroine in Contemporary Opera

By Nicholas Stevens

In September 2017, I pasted a link to an interview into an email, and sent it to my former doctoral advisor with the subject line “!!!!!!!!” In the interview, the film director Darren Aronofsky had hinted that he might pursue an adaptation of his surrealist horror hit Mother!: an opera, to be scored by the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhansson. Two men, coming together to depict the abuse and murder of a woman in an operatic allegory of the misdeeds of humanity – I had seen this movie before, so to speak. Just as the concluding minutes of Mother! imply unending repetition of the film’s grisly scenario, so did Aronofsky’s statement suggest, in light of my recently completed research, that the trend I had been examining might renew itself for years to come. To put it plainly: expect opera’s undoing of women, named as such by Catherine Clément in the context of the historical operatic canon, to continue and even intensify in new works by living composers.<1> Expect these new works to reproduce familiar musical and dramatic contours, no matter how subversive the intent.

In my dissertation, Lulu’s Daughters: Portraying the Anti-Heroine in Contemporary Opera, 1993-2013, new opera serves as both a focal point and a gateway to history. Over the course of the dissertation’s introduction and four case study chapters, I argue that opera’s anti-heroine archetype – one of the most familiar in the genre’s traditional repertoire – returned to prominence at the turn of the twenty-first century, along with many of its associated tropes and plot trajectories. However, I also document the cultural changes and shifting media landscapes that informed the creation of several pieces: Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face (1995), Louis Andriessen’s Anaïs Nin (2009-10), Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole (2011), and Olga Neuwirth’s American Lulu (2012). The project implicates reality television as well as experimental theatre, the history of cinema as well as that of the operatic voice, and urgent concerns of real-world violence as well as aesthetic debates amid European art music circles.

Between 1993 and 2013, these and other leading composers chose to update and adapt the basic scenario of a transgressive heroine who rises within her society, only to fall silent in the end. Each of the creative teams behind these works advances a novel way to modernize, transform, disrupt, or critique opera’s long tradition of doomed anti-heroines, yet each also draws upon a common, historically rooted set of musical and dramatic devices in characterizing their compromised protagonists. Like Alban Berg’s landmark Lulu of 1935, these operas include gestures toward American popular music in otherwise late-modernist scores. They also foreground and thematize forms of audiovisual media, such as film, photography, and recorded sound – a tendency that has assumed even more importance since I completed my research.

In the introduction, I trace the phenomenon of opera’s anti-heroine type back to its historical heyday: the decades between 1875 (Georges Bizet, Carmen) and 1935 (Berg, Lulu) in which many male artists, writers, and psychoanalysts took up misogyny itself as the bedrock on which their aesthetic theories, narratives, and treatises would rest. The first two case studies cover new opera’s depictions of two real women who came of age between the wars. Margaret, Duchess of Argyll becomes a complex concatenation of archetypes in Adès and Philip Hensher’s Powder Her Face, and Anaïs Nin, the posthumous librettist and sole physical character of Andriessen’s eponymous monodrama, becomes an insatiable femme fatale in the Dutch composer’s tightly edited biographical sketch. The second pair of case studies, devoted to operas about protagonists enmeshed in U.S. culture and history, opens with a look at a third quasi-biographical account of a female celebrity’s demise: Turnage and Richard Thomas’s Anna Nicole. A satire influenced by the tabloid culture of the 1990s and 2000s, the piece lifts the velvet rope between opera and pop musical theatre in service of ripped-from-the-headlines tragicomedy. In the final chapter, I turn to a work that eschews the depiction of a real woman, instead featuring a new version of a pre-existing character: Berg’s Lulu, reimagined as a New Orleans native and Josephine Baker-like dancer in Neuwirth’s experimental American Lulu.

The project emerged at the intersection of my earliest academic interest – the work of the Second Viennese School composers – and the topic of a seminar I took early in my graduate career, “Opera since Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach.” Fascinated with Lulu and its entanglements with jazz and film, I entered the seminar thinking that composers had, at midcentury, simply left such opera scenarios behind, and that the works of our putatively more enlightened age would bear little resemblance to the shockers of yore. Pieces by Glass, Kaija Saariaho, Unsuk Chin, and others initially bore out this expectation. Adès, whose third opera The Exterminating Angel had its stateside premiere in October of 2017, had by then become best known for his 2004 adaptation, with librettist Meredith Oakes, of Shakespeare’s Tempest.

Yet something familiar growled in the bass saxophone lines of Adès’s earlier Powder Her Face – an undertow of fate, pulling the protagonist toward a dark denouement. Something familiar glimmered in the eyes of Cristina Zavalloni, the mezzo-soprano and jazz musician who created the title role of Andriessen’s Anaïs Nin, based on especially sordid episodes from that literary luminary’s diaries. Something familiar lay just behind the rhetoric that Thomas, the librettist of Anna Nicole, advanced as he assured many an interviewer that his and Turnage’s satirical romp would underscore the tragedy of the title character’s demise. Neuwirth, opting for a more direct approach, had gone back to the source, crafting an elaborate audiovisual palimpsest over and around Berg’s score for Lulu. As I looked more deeply into Powder Her Face, I realized that Adès had done something similar, folding the anti-heroine archetype into a sort of meta-opera: an allusive late-modernist masterpiece as history of the form. Yet even in Neuwirth’s bracing, subversive treatment of the Lulu tale, a stubborn truth remained: somehow, over the two decades around the turn of the century, the set of musical, visual, and theatrical ideas that suffuse pieces like Berg’s had become not just newly viable, but intensely appealing to living artists.

In writing the dissertation, I aimed to expand the small but growing literature on contemporary opera.<2> However, I also hoped to issue a wake-up call to creators and practitioners. As the librettist, producer, and performer Aiden Kim Feltkamp has recently pointed out, contemporary operas tend to celebrate fondly remembered male characters while clinging to age-old negative depictions of women. With figures like Saariaho, Chin, Chaya Czernowin, and Tania León increasingly recognized for their operatic innovations, and relative newcomers such as Du Yun, Missy Mazzoli, and Ashley Fure winning some of contemporary art music’s highest honors, the needed change may come soon, without much help from the academy. However, my dissertation asks a simple question, still in want of an easy answer: why must opera lovers, like the titular mothers of Aronofsky’s film, keep waking to find the same horrific scenario laid out before them?

***

<1>Catherine Clément, Opera, or the Undoing of Women, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).
<2>Writers who have examined these pieces include Emma Gallon [“Narrativities in the Music of Thomas Adès” (PhD diss., Lancaster University, 2011)]; Drew Massey [“Thomas Adès and the Dilemmas of Musical Surrealism” (paper presented at the national meeting of the American Musicological Society, Milwaukee, November 5-9, 2014]; Heidi Hart [“Silent Opera: Visual Recycling in Olga Neuwirth’s American Lulu,” Ekphrasis 2 (2013): 126-7]; Clara Latham [“What Makes American Lulu American?” (paper presented at the 42nd annual conference of the Society for American Music, Boston, MA, March 9-13, 2016)]; and Jennifer Tullmann [“Confronting the Composer: Operatic Innovations in Olga Neuwirth’s American Lulu” (paper presented at the 80th annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, Milwaukee, WI, November 6-9, 2014)].

***


Nicholas Stevens studies art and popular music after 1920, and lectures in music history and methodology at Case Western Reserve University. His recently completed dissertation considers the aesthetics and ethics of contemporary operas that aim to depict archetypal fallen women, with emphasis on their gestures toward popular music, film and broadcast media, and historical convention. His current projects include a monograph on new opera as medium, and a journal piece on the music of Thomas Adès. He was a fellow at the Library of Congress in 2015, and an Affiliate at the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities in 2016. He also writes concert reviews and program notes, tweets about new music and musicology @sufjan_wallace, and maintains a personal website and blog at nickstevenswrites.com.