Nina Dante : “no stars” is an excerpt from your opera-in-the making The Golden Ass, which is based on the Cupid and Psyche myth and is now nearing completion. Could you tell me about the opera itself, and the continuing story of its creation?
About 15 years ago, I became interested in adapting the C.S. Lewis version of the myth, Till We Have Faces. I was very taken by Lewis’s consideration of the story from the perspective of Psyche’s sister and loved the book’s poetic language and imagery. After adapting the book, I went through an extensive approval process with representatives from the C. S. Lewis Company and then wrote about 30 minutes’ worth of the music. Over time, it became clear that restrictions on the rights to Lewis’s text would cause continual setbacks for the project, so I decided to shelve the work. Years later, while discussing my frustrations about the unfinished work with James Dillon, he suggested that I write a new libretto adapted from Apuleius’s “Metamorphoses,” the source of the original myth. Soon after, Patrick Gallagher and I met and worked together as participants in the Nautilus Music-Theater Composer-Librettist Studio. The work we created in the Studio felt very satisfying and we decided to continue to work together on a new version of The Golden Ass with a significant focus on psychological aspects of Psyche’s experiences of traumatic events and her relationships with the other characters of the story — particularly as those characters age and power dynamics begin to shift.
ND : Fonema premiered “no stars” back in 2017, and since then, I’ve sung two more of your works, both for solo voice: Without Solution of Continuity (with tape), and “Mais mes mains” (another excerpt from The Golden Ass). I’m stuck by the qualities that unite these works: the slow-moving textures, the glacial tempi, the galactic solemnity, the heavy emotions felt at a distance. I can’t help but think of Sciarrino’s description of his music: like watching a volcano erupt from a distance; but in your case, perhaps like watching a star explode through a telescope. Could you talk about your musical impulses, your own conception of your sonic world, and the purposes you hope it to serve?
TS : I’m endlessly fascinated by physiological and imagined responses to sound deployed in exceptionally reverberant spaces and the way our perceptions of sound-layering and distortion also interact with our perceptions of the passing of time, gravity, motion, etc. Perhaps time moves more slowly; sounds become increasingly heavy; the ends of phrases blur; hard, percussive attacks become less perceptible; pitches bend; subsequent entrances layer to create microtonal chords, etc.
At the same time, I am interested in magnification — of gesture, of emotional state, of small details. I think your description of watching a star explode through a telescope is apt, although in my mind, the lens of the telescope is also distorted. Looking through one piece of the lens allows us to to zoom in, examining tiny details on the surface of the object. At the same time, another piece allows us to view the object from such a great distance that it shrinks and appears to float alone through a vast space. A lot of my most recent music has involved exploring ideas such as these.
These concepts are present in a different way throughout the myth of Psyche and Cupid, which is a story that inhabits many planes simultaneously — the story dramatizes large- and micro-scale natural phenomena and manifestations of deeply personal psychological experiences simultaneously.
Without Solution of Continuity explores these ideas as they relate to memory. Samuel Beckett’s play, That Time, tells the story of the life of Beckett’s protagonist at different moments throughout his life simultaneously. The play also has an overtly musical form. In Beckett’s performance instructions for the piece, he states that “Moments of one and the same voice A B C relay one another without solution of continuity…” While conceptualizing my piece, I became interested in the idea that tiny fragments of his stories — single words presented “without solution of continuity” — might still be capable of creating a textural fabric that gives impressions of the protagonist’s life. I created a new text using fragments from the play according to the same musical form that Beckett used. The tape (featuring readings by noted Schoenberg scholar, Dr. Michael Cherlin) and live vocalist create a tapestry of memories by performing the text at different rates of time.
Your question about purpose is a very complicated one. Beyond satisfying my own intellectual curiosities, I really believe that experimental music can help people to think differently about the world. I think grappling with complex ideas (whether musical or otherwise) helps prepare all of us to grapple with life-problems in a more nuanced way, because life is complex and art can reflect that reality.
ND : In addition to being a composer, you are a singer yourself. You’ve written quite a lot for the voice: choral works, solo and ensemble works, and now an opera. The three vocal works of yours that I have performed are all characterized by extremely slow and dramatically leaping lines that test a singer’s breath control, vocal range, and ability to span vocal registers smoothly. How much of a role do these challenges play in shaping the expressivity that emerges? What impulse has led you to creating this particular type of expressivity in the voice? How much of a role has your own voice played in the creation of your vocal writing?
TS : In some sense, I’m certain that everything I write is a response to my relationship to the voice as my primary instrument and, in particular, my relationship to melody as the traditional vehicle for a classically-trained vocalist. As a composer, I always find myself wrestling with the power that melody has to manipulate and I feel a responsibility to deeply consider whether and how to incorporate lyrical material. The dramatically leaping lines that characterize much of my recent music are due to my attempts to bring my lines into three-dimensional relief. I have been very heavily influenced by Webern in this regard.
More generally, I believe that testing the limits of a performer’s instrument and individual abilities creates a very special environment for expressivity, imbuing a work with tension, drama, and fragility. Music that asks so much also asks for a very high level of commitment to the work, trust in the performer’s and composer’s abilities, and a willingness by all involved to risk failure. I also think that breath and other physical mechanisms are so personal that incorporating them in a very conscious way into music creates new levels of connection — between a performer and the work, audience and performer, and, as a result, the audience and the music.
ND : The other works on our program for November 16th explore various roles for the voice within an ensemble setting. In Coïgitum, Richard Barrett asks the voice to take the role of sonic backdrop against which the instruments interact, drawing the audience’s ear into the piece without dominating the texture or even taking an equal role within the texture; and in Pablo Chin’s Si Chavela Met Matta, the vocalist retains her classic role as story-teller while the instrumentalists live their own protagonistic life beside her. What role does the voice play in the ensemble setting of “no stars”? Is this role consistent throughout your works for voice?
TS : The majority of the libretto for The Golden Ass is written in English. In "no stars", the flute is the primary declaimer of the English text, and yet the nature of vocalizing flute means that the listener rarely hears the text clearly. At the same time, the voice, moving in and out of the forefront, frequently echoes and presages translations of the English text in other languages whose cultures have retained some descendant version of the Psyche/Cupid myth within their storytelling traditions. The story is consistently obscured.
The way I treat the voice is always dependent on how I feel about a particular text. I love poetry, so sometimes I want the words I’m setting to be salient, while at other times I only want to create a musical atmosphere for the world created by the poem. Sometimes I think the best settings point to a text rather than declaiming the text directly. The best texts don’t need music, but music can talk about poetry in a way that words often can’t.