Lightning at our feet is a song cycle based on poems by Emily Dickinson. I chose twelve poems, many of them dark. Diving into her work, I found that Dickinson's poetry for the most part uses two types of rhythmic schemes: one is a sing-song, almost childlike rhythm that is disarming in its simplicity and lulls the reader into a sense of security, allowing the poet to unexpectedly hit you with an often strange or bizarre thought or image; the second type is closely related except that the rhythm is slightly irregular, the beats don't always add up, the words twist just a bit.
It was the irregular rhythms of this latter group of poems, along with the irregular half rhymes that struck me. It was as if Dickinson was trying to shove the words into a space in which they couldn’t fit. These were the poems I chose to comprise most of the libretto for Lightning at our feet.
Something else I found compelling in Dickinson’s words was that they embrace an anxiety that is very modern. There is no nineteenth-century formality, no distancing for the raw emotion. I think that is one reason that, once discovered in the early 1900s, her poetry played to an increasing anxious twentieth century.
Because I wanted to put her in a contemporary setting with contemporary music, I avoided all poems that had what we would now think of as antiquated English, like thee or thou. In addition, the poems I selected were mostly written during the Civil War. Although none mention the war explicitly, the shadow of death is never far.
It was impossible for me to escape the allure of Dickinson’s life story, and why try? In the course of working on Lightning at our feet, I visited her house in Amherst, Massachusetts and stood in the room in which she spent most of her days. I wondered about the “strange melodies” that were heard emerging from the Dickinson house when Emily was young before she shut herself away. But I was wary of worshipping a mythic figure, and I was wary of the images of Dickinson that I had read about or seen put forward.
The general impression is that she was a witty New England spinstress, baking cookies for children and raising exotic plants. A one-woman play on Broadway depicted her as one’s eccentric Aunt Tillie, full of bon mots and sly humor. But this was a woman who didn't see anyone once she reached her mid twenties. Her withdrawal was gradual –– at first she would run up to her room when strangers came to visit. Then she started staying upstairs during dinner parties. Soon her isolation was complete – even friends and family would have to sit in the corridor outside her room, what she call the “northwest passage,” i.e. uncrossable, and converse with her with her bedroom door, slightly ajar, between them.
I had to re-imagine Emily Dickinson. In my mind I transformed her into a combination of Patti Smith and Janis Joplin. Re-imagining her in this way, I was able to connect to the fire inside her words. Lightning at our feet was conceived as a theatrical presentation, with a cast of four women singing and performing on instruments. I wanted the stage to look like a girl band –– women who would make you believe the words they sang were written by a punk poetess who lived in the cool and edgy part of town.
The original production was designed by Ridge Theater and featured a set of four rolling scrims, panels that at times opened out with the expansive imagery of the words and at other times closed up like the little room in which Dickinson spent her life. The title comes from a letter Emily Dickinson sent to the poet T.W. Higginson as consolation for the death of his infant daughter. The passage reads: These sudden intimacies with Immortality, are expanse— not Peace—as Lightning at our feet, instills a foreign Landscape.
In Eight Parts: Water (Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe) 1. My Soul (David Lang) 2. Water Instrumental (Heavy Water) (Michael Gordon) 3. He Saw a Skull (Michael Gordon) 4. Before Roll, Ocean (David Lang) 5. Give Me (David Lang) 6. Thirst (Julia Wolfe) 7. Roll, Ocean (David Lang) 8. Tephillat Geshem (Prayer for Rain) (Michael Gordon)
Composers' Note: Water is a lover's tears, an unquenchable thirst, a fight for survival, a prayer for rain. Our piece Water is a meditation on the poetry of water: what it means to have it, how we misuse it, and how we struggle for it. Rain falls. Tears flow. A skull is found in a river. A man thirsts.
Water is an exploration through music, staging and projection of how dependent we are upon water in our world, and how uneasy our dependence really is. Much of our dependence is of course physical; at the same time, the hope for water, or the lack of it, can be a spiritual construct as well. Our piece explores the water we have and the water we need, the water we control and the water that controls us.
We have always lived with water in a kind of fragile equilibrium. We have too much. We have none. A rich man calls for ice in his water, next to a poor man who thirsts. It is a precarious balance, between blessing and curse, between life and death, between plenty and scarcity.
In 1943, a former cheesecake model, known only as “Acquanetta,” lit up the screen in the B-movie horror film and now cult classic, Captive Wild Woman. Stunning and exotic, Acquanetta played the untameable and gorgeous creation resulting from a mad scientist’s experiments on an ape, a role the young actress sizzled in and played so well a sequel was soon in the can. So began a brief career in bread-and-butter films that ended only a few years later when Acquanetta inexplicably walked away from the Hollywood studio system and swanned off to Mexico.
Her past is a mystery. Because of her come-hither stare and sensuous pout, Walter Winchell nicknamed her “The Venezuelan Volcano.” In interviews, she claimed Native American roots, and her obituary in 2004 stated that she was born on an Indian reservation near Cheyenne, Wyoming. Who was Acquanetta, and why did she walk out on her contract with Universal Pictures at the height of her career?
In Acquanetta, the mock serious, campy spirit of horror movies is turned inside out in a bravura, one-act deconstruction of the five minutes that changed Acquanetta’s life forever. The mad scientist Doctor, the insistent Ape, the reluctant Brainy Woman, the visionary Director and the beautiful monster herself, Acquanetta, gather in this re-imagining of that fateful experiment. In soaring, sometimes comic and always indelible songs that perfectly capture the heightened drama of horror films, these vivid characters reveal their inner longings and emotional shadows in what is ultimately a haunting meditation on the meaning of identity, transformation, stereotypes and typecasting, set in the heyday of Hollywood gloss. ––Deborah Artman Librettist, Acquanetta
Cast/Characters: Acquanetta (mezzo-soprano/alto) Brainy Woman (soprano) Ape (coloratura) Doctor (tenor) Director (bass/baritone) Chorus
Scene 3: Musical Interlude Chorus Ohhh… (Gasp!) Strangest of sights! Introducing Acquanetta. Burning fire in deep water.
Scene 4: Doctor: aria
Doctor (urgent and possessed) Who am I today? The mad scientist. I live in the inner sanctum. The fantastic world of my dreams. Who do I play today? I transmutate an ape into a woman. I glandulate an ape into a captive wild woman. I’ll transmutate an ape into a woman.
Scene 5: Ape: aria (+ Female Chorus)
Ape (despairingly) Because I'm inside this costume –
Chorus Ahhh…, ohhh…
Ape Because I’m inside this costume –
Chorus Ahhh…, ohhh….
Ape You can't tell if I'm good or bad. You can’t tell if I’m black or white. You can’t tell if I’m thin or round.
Chorus Would it surprise you if I were a woman? Would it surprise you –
Ape ¬– if I were a woman? Because I’m inside this costume –
Chorus Ahhh…, ohhh…
Ape You don't know if I'm decisive or persuasive. You don’t know if I’m commanding or alluring. You don’t know if I’m enlightened or disheartened. Would it surprise you if I were a woman?
Scene 6: Doctor/Ape Duet
Doctor (obsessively) Gown, gloves, mask, magnifying glass. Razor, drape, forcep, scalpel, hand drill. Bulb syringe, kellies, tweezer, morphine. Blood, more blood, more morphine. Electric coagulator.
Ape Last week I played the Bones from Beyond.
Doctor Transmutate –
Ape Before that the Black Widow.
Doctor Glandulate –
Ape It was so hot I almost fainted.
Doctor Trephinate –
Ape The Demon Without a Face – the mask alone took six hours.
Doctor Evolution, fluctuation –
Ape A hairy tarantula, the Fog Creature
Doctor Plasmatic transfusion.
Ape The Doppelganger, Ooze, a killer bee.
Doctor Gown, gloves, mask, magnifying glass. Razor, drape, forcep, scalpel, hand drill.
Ape Would it surprise you if I were a woman?
Doctor I’ll transmutate an ape into a woman.
Ape Would it surprise you if I were a woman?
Doctor I’ll transmutate an ape into a woman.
Scene 7: Director: aria (+ Chorus)
Director And cut! (with authority, to Acquanetta) Acquanetta, are you ok in there? (to Ape) Ape, you are hungry. (to Doctor) And Doctor, a bit more. (to Brainy Woman) And sweetheart, think of your brain as your first-born child. (dreamily, to Audience) The medium is black and white. Movies are made with shadows and light. I use chiaroscuro, deep shadows that are practically black. We call them bread-and-butter pictures. That’s where the big money is – the B’s. We’ve got to make this movie in ten days. It might gross over a million the first week.
Chorus She had a certain something.
Doctor She had a certain something. (to his cast) Alright, here we go. Quiet! Quiet, please. Roll camera! Sound. Action!
Scene 8: Brainy Woman (+ Ape + Female Chorus)
Brainy Woman Please don’t take my brain. I could be the Queen of Scream. I could be the ingenue. I could be the femme fatale. I could play a real woman.
Chorus (yodels) Ahhh..
Brainy Woman Please don’t take my brain. I could be a bathing beauty. I could be desirable.
Brainy Woman/Ape Ahhh…
Chorus (Gasp!) I want to play a real woman.
Brainy Woman + Ape + Chorus I want to play a real woman.
Brainy Woman I could be the ingenue. I could be the femme fatale. Please don’t take my brain.
Scene 9: Quintet
Acquanetta, Brainy Woman, Ape, Director, Doctor In the celluloid world, once you are cast, or miscast, you are that forever.
Scene 10: Musical Interlude
Scene 11: Acquanetta (+ Cast + Chorus)
Acquanetta I am your beautiful monster. Lovely and shy, I can stop a lion in its tracks.
I am your beautiful monster. The one with an invented past. Who will I play today? The Venezuelan Volcano. It all happened so fast.
I am your beautiful monster. Lovely and shy, I can stop a lion in its tracks.
I am your beautiful monster. My shadow cast upon the wall causes fear in people’s hearts. The secret you want to ignore is inside this costume. (yodels) Ahhh…
Ape + Brainy Woman + Chorus (yodels) Ahhh…
Director ( + Male Chorus + Doctor) I know you want everything to be clear and simple as black and white.
Acquanetta (+ Brainy Woman + Ape + Female Chorus) I am your beautiful monster. Lovely and shy, I can stop a lion in its tracks.
Acquanetta + Ape + Brainy Woman Ahhh…
Doctor + Chorus Once you are cast or miscast, The one with the invented past Burning fire in deep water
Director + Male Chorus + Doctor I know you want everything to be clear and simple
In classical music, it is quite unusual for composers to collaborate, but it wasn't like that among Flemish Renaissance painters –– if the painter in the studio next door did better angels and you painted better flowers, it wasn't unusual for a collaboration to ensue. In my case, however, the requests for collaboration has often come from others, and Julia Wolfe, David Lang and I found ourselves embarking on our third collaborative piece in 2004, courtesy of the Cologne-based musikFabrik ensemble and the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival.
The two other Gordon/Lang/Wolfe collaborative works ––Lost Objects and The Carbon Copy Building–– are made up of numerous short musical movements. With Shelter we wanted to stretch out a bit, and we conceived of the piece in seven longer movements. Once again we reunited with Deborah Artman, who had written the libretto for Lost Objects. Like Lost Objects, Shelter is a staged oratorio, but with smaller forces: three sopranos and a large mixed ensemble. And we reunited also with Ridge Theater and their principal artists, director Bob McGrath, visual artist Laurie Olinder and filmmaker Bill Morrison, our collaborators on The Carbon Copy Building,
I wrote What to Wear with the great American iconoclastic theater personality Richard Foreman, who wrote the libretto and directed the first production at the RedCat Theater in Los Angeles in 2005. What to Wear features a multitude of Madeline X's, who live in a sad, sad world and think about what to wear, and a gigantic Duck that plays golf. Like many of Foreman's scripts, the work is at once incomprehensible and deeply comprehensible.
In the early 2000’s, Richard called me on the phone and asked if I would be interested in working on a piece together. I was a long-time fan of his work and I jumped at the chance. We live within walking distance of each other, and over the next six weeks, Richard dropped off three scripts, each script shorter than the one before. He left me with only one instruction, that I was free to include or not include any part of the script as long as the Duck remained.
In order to better understand Richard's words, I asked him to make me a tape of a read-through of the libretto. Listening to Richard read illuminated his text and gave me the direction I needed to set the words to music. Along with four principal singers –– one male and three female –– the score to What to Wear includes a small woman's chorus and seven instrumentalists.
The Center for New Performance at CalArts and the Ontological-Hysteric Theater with funds provided by the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust. What to Wear is also a Meet the Composer Commissioning Music/USA commission and was produced with the additional support of the Shubert Foundation.
New Century Players, Richard Foreman, director, Redcat Theater, Los Angeles, September 20, 2006
Lost Objects is a musical exploration of the meaning of memory. With the spine of a baroque oratorio layered with the muscle of modern times, it is a powerful monument to the loss of people, things, rituals, ideas.
In their second major collaborative performance project, genre-defying composers Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe team up with polyphonic writer Deborah Artman to work a strange and beautiful alchemy of text and sound. The baroque virtuosity of the legendary Concerto Köln is challenged and stretched by the hard-edged electric Bang on a Can Lost Objects Ensemble and the avant-turntables of DJ Spooky. In the same way that oratorios such as Handel's Messiah were intended to be staged, the 3 vocal soloists and 30 voice chorus of LOST OBJECTS inhabit a mythic and beautiful stage world, under the direction of the acclaimed, award-winning director François Girard (''32 Short Films About Glenn Gould,'' ''The Red Violin'').
The result is LOST OBJECTS, a haunting, hallucinatory and humane musictheater piece for baroque orchestra, rock ensemble (electric guitar, electric bass, keyboard and drums), live DJ remix, solo voices and choir. The unique weave of sounds combines the resonance of animal gut and wood with the ethereal blend of soprano and countertenor voices mixed with the edgy force of amplified rock instruments and drums. ''LOST OBJECTS is a prayer hall, a hymn but also an invention,'' writes Ms. Artman. ''There is a narrative, somewhat sacred, but it is a fractured meditation. In the tenuous and hurried climate of the times we live in now, LOST OBJECTS asks us to pause and consider the grace bestowed upon each thing, person, animal and idea, the ordinary and the not-so-ordinary lost objects of our shared and vanishing culture.''
The Carbon Copy Building is a dynamic and visually stunning trip through the gritty underside of urban life. Words and drawings by celebrated New Yorker comic-strip artist and recent MacArthur Grant recipient Ben Katchor (best known for the dark, witty humor of his cult-classic comic Julius Kniple, Real Estate Photographer) are vividly brought to musical life in a completely collaborative effort from Bang on a Can Co-Artistic Directors Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe. The revolutionary show won the Village Voice 2000 OBIE Award for Best New American Work. After several years, the work is finally out on CD - accompanied by Katchor's beautifully illustrated libretto - in a limited edition hard-bound Book and CD case.
This revolutionary new production embraces the dark, witty humor of Katchor, known for his cult classic underground comic, Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, to look at a pair of buildings constructed from the same architectural plan. One stands on a wide, wealthy avenue and the other on the forgotten alley of a fringe neighborhood. Architecturally, the buildings and their plans are identical, but their uses and the people and businesses that inhabit them could not differ more. Combining the striking projections of Katchor's comics with powerful virtuoso performances by a cast of four singers and four musicians (winds, keys, guitar, and drums), the production inventories the contents of the buildings, explores the parallel yet opposite lives of their inhabitants, and uncovers the strange and hilarious places in which the two worlds overlap - finally bringing together the odd lives of each building over a single piece of cherry cheesecake.
Katchor's stark line drawing reverberates with the jagged angularity of Gordon, Lang, and Wolfe's explosive new music to depict a strange and powerful American urban experience.
Chaos was conceived and written with librettist Matthew Maguire. Loosely based on chaos theory, Chaos is a fast-paced, science-fiction opera in 25 short scenes for five singers and electronic made audio.
Opera synopsis: Dr. Anna Fitzroy is a rogue physicist driven to research chaos. Dr. Lorenz Boleslaw is her partner whose own obsession with their experiment is nearly as great as their love for one another. Years of heartbreaking labor finally pay off when they penetrate to the heart of the Chaos Zone, where Marie and Pierre Curie appear as their navigators and reveal to them the secrets of chaos. Fitzroy and Boleslaw proudly report their results to their mentor, Dr. Aguabone, the head of the Institute of Science, a giant of Los Alamos, and a Nobel laureate in quantum physics.
Within the scientific world there has always been a battle between two forces: those fighting for and those against the evolution of science. Deeply threatened by chaos, Dr. Aguabone, while pretending to defend Fitzroy and Boleslaw, secretly arranges their arrest. They are promised ''freedom'' to work if they recant. Realizing Aguabone’s true nature, the scientists struggle with a moral dilemma that threatens to divide them. They escape from jail and, with Marie and Pierre's help, fight insanity, open a passage to the Chaos Zone, trap Aguabone, and broadcast his meltdown in Chaos on TV. All rejoice. ––Matthew Maguire
Cast/Characters: Dr. Anna Lenehan, a rogue physicist driven to research Chaos. Dr. Lorenz Boleslaw, her partner, whose own obsession with their experiment is nearly as great as their love for one another. Dr. Marie Curie, who discovered radium with Pierre Curie. Brilliant and humble, she avoids personal gain. In the Poland of her youth she worked underground against the Czar and has remained intensely political. Still deeply in love with Pierre, she's now an inhabitant of the Zone of Chaos. Dressed in an old, acid-stained lab coat, she emanates a blue radioactive glow. In Chaos, she is thirty-six, the age at which she was awarded her first Nobel Prize. Dr. Pierre Curie, the co-discoverer of radium. A brilliant but awkward man who lives in bliss with Marie in Chaos where he is eternally forty-four years old. Though less political than Marie, he was a Dreyfus supporter. Pierre feels that Marie is a superhuman being who has escaped human laws. He's dressed in nineteenth century, lab-worn, formal attire that also glows radioactively. Dr. R. George Aguabone, Director of the National Institute of Science, one of the leading scientists to emerge from Los Alamos, a Nobel Laureate in quantum physics
I started writing Van Gogh because of my obsession with the letters Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo. I assembled the texts myself, drawing from these letters, in many cases combining lines from different letters or from different places within the same letter. What attracted me so much to Van Gogh’s writing was the pain, rawness and brutal honesty. I found it hard to believe that anyone could tell another person, even his brother, the raw emotions that Van Gogh experienced — so painful, lonely and humiliating.
I began working on these songs in the late 1980s, making trips to Holland and Southern France to get the vibe of the areas that Van Gogh wrote about. I wrote “Borinage” first and originally sang that piece myself.
Early presentations of the piece were called Van Gogh Video Opera. These included video by Elliot Caplan and were performed in Vienna and in New York City in the early 1990s. In the fall of 2003, the Crash Ensemble performed it in Dublin and for that occasion I re-orchestrated the piece, adding three instruments (cello, bass, piano).
The piece is divided into six parts and it follows the arch of Van Gogh’s life chronologically.
Libretto: 1. London A clergyman’s son who works for a living Has no time or money to study at college Would be happy to find a position related to the Church And besides is a few years older than one usually is I went to school when I was eleven And stayed there till I was sixteen Then I had to choose a profession But did not know what to choose Through the intervention of one of my uncles Partner in the firm of Goupil and Company Art Dealers and Publishers of Engravings I got a situation in his business in The Hague For three years I was employed there From there I went to London to learn English Compelled by various circumstances I’ve left the House of Goupil and Company But as my aim is a situation with the Church Though I have not been educated for the Church Perhaps my travels My experience in different countries Of mixing with various people poor and rich Religious and irreligious Of work of different kinds Of days of manual labor, days of office work Perhaps the speaking of languages May partly make up for the fact that I have not studied at College But the reason I would rather give For introducing myself to you Is my innate love for the Church And every thing connected with it That has slumbered now and then But is roused again and again
2. Borinage There is an old academic school A steel armor of prejudice and convention There may be a great fire in our soul And no one ever comes to warm themselves by it One must tend that inward fire Wait with how much impatience for the hour Dear Theo One of the reasons I am out of employment now That I have been out of employment for years Is simply that I have other ideas Than the gentlemen who give their places To gentlemen who think as they do Dear Theo I would be very glad if you could see in me something other than an idle fellow Because there are two kinds of idleness There is the man who is idle from laziness and lack of character From the very baseness of his nature Then there is the other idle man Who is idle in spite of himself Who is inwardly consumed by a great longing for action Because he seems to be imprisoned in some cage
3. The Hague Part I Then I thought I would like to be with a woman I cannot live without love, without a woman And dear me I had not far to seek I found a woman Not young, not beautiful, nothing remarkable I said to her: listen We need not make ourselves drunk to feel something for each other Just put into your pocket what I can spare When you wake up in the morning And see that you are not alone But see there in the morning twilight A fellow creature beside you It makes the world seem so much more friendly More friendly than religious diaries More friendly than white washed Church walls Sometimes when I walked the streets So lonely and in misery without money I felt that they were my sisters
4. The Hague Part II To work for the market is in my opinion not the right way Rather more trouble on a serious study Than a kind of chic to flatter the public (I heard he laughed at my becoming a painter) Sometimes in moments of worry I have longed for some of that chic But thinking it over I say: No! let me be true to myself The principal reason for my not making water colors Is that I must draw more seriously paying more attention to proportion That is more practical than his practical talks about what is saleable Today I met Mauve and had a very painful conversation with him I asked him to come see my work and talk things over Mauve refused point blank: I will certainly not come to see you At last he said: You have a vicious character Then I turned around It was on the dunes and I walked home alone I have ears Theo If somebody says ‘You have a ’ What ought I do then? Then Tersteeg told me: Mauve and I will see to it that Theo stops sending you money You failed before and now you will fail again, it will be the same old story Of one thing I am sure: You are no artist, you started too late, you must work for a living Theo, if you can, write soon And of course, the sooner you can send the money the better it would be for me I spent my last penny on this stamp.
5. Arles Dear Theo Whole days pass without my speaking to anyone Except to ask for dinner and coffee And it has been like that But the loneliness doesn’t worry me because I have found the brighter sun And its effect on nature so absorbing I have no thought of fatigue I’ll do another painting this very night and I’ll pull it off I am not conscious of myself anymore And the paintings come to me as if in a dream
6. St. Remy I think I have done well to come here For by seeing the actual truth about madness I am losing my fear of the thing And the change of surroundings is doing me good Though there are some who howl and rave continually In spite of that people get to know each other very well I can for instance sometimes chat with one who speaks incoherently A new man has arrived who is so worked up That he smashes everything and shouts day and night He tears his shirts violently too And up till now though he is all day long in a bath He hardly gets any quieter They say we must put up with others So that others will put up with us And help each other when attacks come on They told me of a case where someone had wounded himself as I did in the ear Its almost a whole month since I came here Not once has the least desire to be anywhere else come to me The treatment of the patients at this hospital is certainly easy One could follow it even while traveling For they do absolutely nothing Yesterday I began again something that I see from my window A field of yellow stubble that they are plowing A canvas I am struggling with begun some days after my attack A Reaper The study is all yellow, terribly thickly painted But the subject is fine and simple For I see in this reaper a vague figure fighting like the devil in the midst of the heat To get to the end of his task The image of death in the sense that Humanity might be the corn he is reaping But there’s nothing sad in this death It goes its way in broad daylight Flooded by a sun’s golden light