On April 19, having rushed to Roulette leaving behind the last minutes of an international Sound and Affect conference in order to experience Anthony Braxton’s Trillium J (The Non-Unconfessionables), at first I could not stop thinking: how does this performance affect me and why? And – “whose are these emotions?” – as Deniz Peters questioned earlier that day.
I fail to describe my feelings having never experienced anything like this before. Perhaps one could compare Trillium J to Richard Foreman’s plays in the way it captures the absurd, the unexpectedness and ambiguity of contemporary world. Weave these into the voices of 12 vocalists and the sounds of 12 instrumental soloists with full orchestra, excellent acting, pseudo-philosophical digressions, visual projections, young skipping-rope Jazzy Jumpers and two of New York’s best contemporary dance improvisers Rachel Bernsen and Melanie Maar, and you get the mix.
At any specific moment I could not recognize what exactly (music, words, acting, etc.) made me smile in a very strange way – the smile that sometimes comes from experiencing the misfortunes of Daniil Harms’s characters. This is perhaps the genius of a gesamtkunstwerk artist (Braxton wrote both the music and the libretto) – to blend all the media so naturally that a spectator cannot recognize the source of their feelings.
How does the absurd feel?
As an interlude before the Second Scene of Act IV, Jazzy Jumpers entered with their skipping-ropes and the choir started improvising “random” sounds to their movements. I sensed tears in my eyes, obviously neither out of sadness or joy. What catalyzed the sublime was (perhaps?) the excitement that something so contemporary and so musically apt was composed –the genre of opera has a future; at least it definitely has a present.
But the climax was still to come. The interlude could either feel like just another meaningful nonsense – the ridiculousness that was so fittingly at the wrong place, – or depict a stratum of society to be juxtaposed with the final scene – the trial of Sally Wanton. Despite the obvious references to social injustices of American society, Ms Walton reminded me of Russian President Vladimir Putin in her ability to pour complete nonsense and reject obvious evidence of crime with complete confidence (as well as accept it and immediately render crucial statements trifle). This is where, perhaps, “the concept of affinity,” the opera’s major theme, lies. Everyone walked out with a radiant face – those who thought of multiple possibilities of political connotations, or those who just took “the poetic transiency” and “undefinition that seeks its own level” as a flow of beautiful nonsense.
George Crumb once said that he was “frightened of a possibility to write an opera, nothing comes close to Wozzeck.” Whether you agreed with that or not in the past, you would definitely have to consider replacing Wozzeck with The Non-Unconfessionables. Should 21st century opera, and music for that matter, only be political? It is not always this or that, it is often the other.
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