Strangely Operatic

AMOCA student rethinks experimental classical music while playing in a jam session with the American Modern Opera Company during a nine-day artist residency at Harvard.

By Sasha Barish ’20

I was reading Ovid on Monday, the passage that tells the myth of the skilled human weaver Arachne, who ended up in a contest against the goddess Athena. At the beginning of the story, we are told that nymphs love to watch Arachne weaving: “It was joyful not only to look at the finished cloth but also to watch while it was being made,” Ovid writes. “There was such great beauty in the craft, whether she was gathering together rough wool into a ball at first, or taming it with her fingers and softening the clouds of wool into even threads by drawing them out long over and over, or turning the tapered spindle with the light touch of her finger, or making pictures with the needle.”

I see a passage like this as speaking to the joy of art as a whole, and it came to mind again at an open jam session only hours later with the American Modern Opera Company, which has been in residence at Harvard for nine days and will wrap up with a closing celebratory reception 7 p.m. Saturday, March 3 at the Winthrop Junior Common Room. The event is free and open to the public.

Back to Monday. Two other student musicians and I, plus several musicians from AMOC, sat in a little room at Lowell and made music. Recreating AMOCor realizing or interpreting another composer’s written music is one thing, but this was improvisational, really making music: Each note was written and played and enjoyed and left behind us all at once. I fully understood for the first time the appeal of this experimental music, this strange form of unlovely, un-melodic, un-rhythmic music that I used to raise my eyebrows at. It didn’t matter that we lacked an audience because it wasn’t about that, just as it wasn’t about perfection, or about cohesive structural rules, or about making something that lasted. It was about playing with the sounds, about listening to the sounds together as we made them, and responding to each other, interacting, just being there to hear the way each instrument sounded and the way the notes melted together or broke apart.

Sometimes we did make rules. “This time let’s just hold out sustained notes,” an AMOC musician suggested. And: “This time let’s start by all playing eighth-notes in rhythm together”; “This time let’s break into pairs and work most closely with the person next to us”; “This time let’s all play different melodies at once.”

But these rules were experiments – some worked, some didn’t and some provided useful starting-points to break out of as we got deeper into the music. The point is that they were not hard-and-fast aesthetic laws, and I felt rapturously free from some of classical music’s confines. Every sound I could make was good and right, or at the very least interesting. Instead of squawking by accident I could let my clarinet squawk on purpose; it was no longer wrong to do crazy, weird-sounding vibrato; no longer wrong to flutter-tongue, to breathe too lightly, to slide from a note to its squeaks and overtones, or even to embrace the unwanted sound of my old clarinet keys clicking, to stop playing notes for a while and make music with just the clicks.

It was dark in the room. Out the window, a light was going on and off occasionally on the street below. The people who weren’t playing were lying on their backs listening. Singer Davóne Tines ‘09 was sitting next to me, and we followed each other musically for a while, creating a hymn-like wavering of our notes that echoed from clarinet to voice and back. We and the violins and the cello and piano were all working together – even though we had different instruments and tones and plans –doing things to complement each other’s sounds. “There was light,” sang Tines, “light, light.”

Was it opera? AMOC calls itself an opera company, but much of its work is outside the realm of what’s traditionally operatic. Traditional opera is a culmination of the cross-disciplinary, a form of performance art where music and words and movement and other creative tasks all come together, and in a way AMOC takes that to be the core aspect of opera and the focus of their work. At the opening reception of the residency, Julia Eichten read poetry aloud while Kier Gogwilt ‘13 played the violin, and that was in its own way operatic. When Emi Ferguson’s flutter-tonguing and dynamic shifts and almost atonal trills and swaying to the beat of her own piccolo somehow told a story without words, that too was operatic. And the magical, emotionally cleansing, out-of-body soundscape we all found our way to in that practice room at the jam session, however long it lasted or whatever experimental jumble of notes it might have sounded like to someone else, was somehow, strangely, operatic.

When Arachne competes against Athena, Athena’s tapestry is informed by convention and full of internal structure. She depicts the 12 major gods in their most recognizable iconography in the center, makes a border of laurel leaves all around the outside, and displays in miniature in the four corners four past contests between gods and mortals. Arachne’s tapestry, in contrast, lacks Athena’s geometric structure entirely, with no main image or border. It’s a jumble of scenes depicting misdeeds of the gods against mortals, all sort of blending together, and difficult to imagine on a single tapestry. But she’s created her own structureless structure: The work displays the utmost skill, and the water she’s woven looks real, and even when Athena turns her into a spider as punishment, she can’t be deterred from weaving beautiful things. Maybe AMOC is more Arachne than Athena.

See also: Music