Drama, Time, and Seven Responses

This is not the Christmas Edition of our Seven Responses blog.  That will come later in the week when I share my latest gift, a video from Seven Responses composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir.   (It’s worth the wait.) Today I’m inspired by the dominant event of my last week, The Crossing @ Christmas, which we sang Friday night – a program I conceive more as a dream than a concert, a series of scenes that may seem loosely connected, even bizarre at times, but has its own logic and, in the end, a satisfying dramatic progression.  That progression is important to me; I want to feel the ‘oh’ when the period is placed at the end of the last sentence.

I’ve been reading a lot of Tom Stoppard lately, a voice for those entangled in the humor of life’s complexities.  He makes me laugh even when he makes me sad.  He’s droll, until he’s not; and, in the moments he’s not, he reminds us that actions have consequences. 

Pirates could happen to anyone. [1]

Playwrights have greatly influenced my work. I love the theater and the feel of a stage – what’s it like to be on it, to be aware that ‘real life’ is a few steps away, offstage, and to be making a new life, a public one, in a created space – the drawers with nothing in them, a few 1x4s and some painted canvas serving as the castle walls, pretend windows looking out onto pretend orchards.  It’s a place where I and many of my friends are most comfortable, where we are able to say the things we can’t offstage, where we find the courage to be most honest.  I envy the courage of playwrights to provide those opportunities, to put our lives in front of us: Chekhov’s characters, frozen in their boredom; Tennessee Williams’ frustrated women and emasculated men, living their muted lives one drink to the next; Seneca’s tragic leaders facing the futility of trying to go anywhere, be anything; Sam Sheppard’s head-on collision of the comic and the violent in everyday family relations; and Shakespeare, always precariously one word away from a shocking absence of God.  I am a little bit of Shylock and a little bit of Nick Bottom; my George to my partner’s Martha, as Honey and Nick look on, baffled; more Biff Loman than Willy, but a little of both; a whole lot of Lear.

No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out;
And take upon's the mystery of things,
As if we were God's spies: and we'll wear out,
In a wall'd prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon. [2]

The Crossing’s programming begins with a kind of dramatic structure influenced by the 3-Act progression and, at times, the hero’s journey.  When it works, we tell a story that begins in a place we recognize, presents a crisis of sorts, arrives at a solution by which we may be reminded of one of life’s beauties or mysteries or truths, and resolves into a conclusion that may leave us satisfied, or elated, or simply sad.  And, like a playwright, the goal isn’t to educate or even enhance; it’s simply to present – to define or describe the world we know. 

We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. [3]

Seven Responses depends on this idea, but in miniature – in fact, in many miniatures; it assumes that each composer will structure a miniature drama in their composition, like each of the self-contained cantatas of Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri.  Of course, music doesn’t always needs a dramatic structure to tell a story or be effective.  In fact, it doesn’t need text at all; the combinations of notes and, particularly the harmonic movement reach our minds and memories in patterns we seem to understand dramatically.  Sometimes its linear pull warps our sense of time forward and at other times, it stops and hovers; it defines time in the same ways we experience it, based on our state of observation, viewed through the lens of stress or joy or, often, boredom. It depends on variation and our desire for unity.  There is a relationship between time in music and how it reaches our memory.  What we hear is moving into the past as we hear it – the moment that is becomes was as we experience it.

Eternity is a terrible thought. I mean, where's it going to end? [4]

In True and False, David Mamet writes rather insightfully about time and the tedium of our routines, noting our inclination toward dramatizing our environment – traffic and weather, things over which we have no control, that don’t really change all that much, that certainly aren’t surprising.  They do provide us with a kind of linear purpose; we tune in to find out what may happen, what’s happening, what could have happened.  And, we talk about them.  Endlessly.

Then grief happens. Or love. And all that goes away.  It shocks us out our need for purpose; time becomes more vertical; traffic is an annoyance and the weather is just something you dress form, or against.  There is just this moment, then the next. Our life, lived, has had a truly dramatic intrusion and we stop acting; we begin saying what we mean, and not just – as Mamet says – words designed to get what we want.

Being ‘in the moment’ is one of the great struggles of the artist – it’s different than so-called ‘losing yourself in the music.’  Rather, it’s listening to time as it passes, measured by music.  It’s hearing a work as if it is being composed. It’s letting the emotional life of the music find its own intended direction.  It’s balancing the cognitive and intuitive. This balance between the subjective and objective is so important to any composition; the difference between what goes on in our brain and what we allow.  The composers we have chosen for Seven Responses share in common the ability to render emotions clearly in musical contexts, without stepping over the line to tell us how to feel.  Their music, like all great music, exists in the moment, not allowing the future to distract or the past to haunt.  Like our little Christmas concert, their music has its own logic, its own satisfying conclusion.  And the project is conceived to provide a number of dramatic structures intertwined: the drama within each new work, the drama within Buxtehude’s conventional cantata structure, the drama between the earlier music and the contemporary response, and, over the course of the entire three and ½ hours of music, the dramatic escalation of both contemporary and 17th-century music provided by Buxtehude’s work, as the ‘limbs of Jesus’ bring us closer to the man, passing from feet to knees, hands, sides, breast, heart, and, finally, face.  It’s like a life, with a beginning and a middle and an end and a number of plays within plays along the way, sometimes tragic, often funny.

 It would have been nice to have had unicorns. [5]


[1] Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
[2] King Lear
[3] Stoppard, Arcadia
[4] & [5] Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ard Dead