Women In (New) Music: Du Yun’s Opera Angel’s Bone is Writing A New History

by Lauren Freman

Photo by David Adams.

There’s a fun kind of dark—take your Quentins Tarantino, your Samuels Pekinpah—a gleeful brand of hyperrealistic gore that makes you giggle uncomfortably in your seat, where the director gets lauded for “going there,” where a spray of blood is cool, a severed limb is funny.

Angel’s Bone, the 2017 Pulitzer-winning opera by Du Yun, is not that.

When stressed to extremes, our brains deprioritize recording memory accurately, and register emotion in broad strokes: fear, helplessness, pain. For this reason, Angel’s Bone’s heightened, cacophonous abstractions of violence give us a more honest representation of the experience of trauma, more real than an accurate depiction might be. If you think you might be triggered by anything related to sexual assault, drug use, or any kind of abuse, then please take good care of yourself digging into this opera.

Composed by Du Yun with a libretto by Royce Vavrek, Angel’s Bone tells the story of two angels (Boy Angel and Girl Angel, sung by Kyle Bielfield and Jennifer Charles) who have returned to Earth, only to be forced into spiritual and sexual slavery by an ordinary American couple (Mr. and Mrs. X.E, voiced by Kyle Pfortmiller and Abigail Fischer). That’s not a spoiler, that’s the premise: a barely-allegorical indictment of the horrors of human trafficking that doesn’t let you look away.

The staged production premiered in 2016 at the Prototype Festival, an NYC-based festival that showcases new works in “music-theater,” but the studio recording for Angel’s Bone drops September 22 (TOMORROW) on VIA Records. And if you’re near Brooklyn on October 7, you should absolutely attend the album release concert at the National Sawdust Theater (Take me with you? Live tweet it? Please).

This composer is very intentionally changing the landscape of classical music audiences and creators, and I am 100% here for it. In an interview with NPR’s Tom Huizenga this spring, Du Yun expressed a need for the music community to “examine what diversity really means. Diversity also means content, diversity also means styles. Diversity also means, ‘What do we want to say?’ We can’t just say one thing.”

As the music director at Music at the Anthology (MATA), she spearheads projects that amplify underrepresented voices. For example, look forward to “a three-year initiative to focus on the Islamic world, and also a series of solo concerts by female composers, called ‘A Room of One’s Own.’” Her money takes up permanent residence at where her mouth is.

One of my favorite things about Du Yun is that she pledges zero deference to the established conventions of one genre or another. In a Log Journal interview with Steve Smith, she says “We’ll be able to do so many things in so many styles, and if the content calls for that, then let’s just try it.”

While Angel’s Bone is more or less an opera in the traditional sense, each aria (song? track?) is laser-focused toward the style that tells the story best. Mrs. X.E.’s performative piety is represented in allusions to revivalist gospel in “I’ve Been Blessed,” because of course it is. The chorus of angels points to Gregorian Chant, because of course it does. Girl Angel shrieks and croaks recounting her abuse at the hands of “Brick J.” because of course she does.

Photo by Cory Weaver.

I’m prefacing this with a WHOLE LOTTA CAVEATS, but I’ll give it to ya straight: listening to Angel’s Bone was an awful experience. The performances are stunning, Du Yun’s subversion of aural expectations is deeply affecting, and the borderlessness between genres is fascinating. But. Sitting with this opera? Marinating in it for hours, watching otherwise unremarkable suburbanites brutalize extremely vulnerable people? Hurts. So. Bad.

And the question is Why. Why put audiences through that? Why put ourselves through that? Du Yun’s work is too deliberate to be intended as shock for shock’s sake, so why would she bring us so intimately close to the experiences of the victims of trafficking?

So that we would do something.

And there’s so much we can do, from influencing lawmakers to enact legislation that protects trafficking survivors, to educating ourselves, to volunteering our time or money to a nonprofit we care about—you, a presumed proponent of the arts, might be interested in checking out First Aid Arts, which equips trauma-care providers with arts-based resources.

“Art does not solve problems,” Du Yun warns. “Art, at its best, functions to provoke and suggest.” If Angel’s Bone disturbs you—and it will, and it should—then let it provoke you into action. Let it suggest that you help.

If you can, listen to this album. Have an awful experience. And then do something.


If you or someone you know is a victim of trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline to report a tip or get help.


 

Lauren Freman is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and composer, hell-bent on blurring the boundaries between high and low art. Follow her at www.freman.band, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

 

ALBUM REVIEW: ORBIT: Music for Solo Cello (1945-2014)

by Maggie Molloy

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What do Jimi Hendrix guitar solos, György Ligeti sonatas, Shakespeare sonnets, and Spanish sarabandes all have in common? Each of them appears in one form or another on cellist Matt Haimovitz’s latest release, “Orbit: Music for Solo Cello (1945-2014).”

Sprawling in scope, “Orbit” is a three-disc compilation of music for solo cello featuring works by over 20 contemporary composers, 15 of whom are still living. The ambitious solo album is also one of the first releases on the new Pentatone Oxingale Series. This innovative new project is a collaboration between the Dutch classical music label PENTATONE and Haimovitz’s own  trailblazing artists’ label Oxingale Records, which he created in 2000 with his partner in life and music, composer Luna Pearl Woolf.

Clocking in at a hefty 3 hours and 45 minutes, the album features solo works that Haimovitz initially released on Oxingale as five thematic albums: “Anthem” (2003), “Goulash!” (2005), “After Reading Shakespeare” (2007), “Figment” (2009), and “Matteo” (2011). The album also includes two newly-recorded works: Philip Glass’s “Orbit” and a new arrangement by Woolf of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.”

Over the course of three discs, Haimovitz takes the listener on a musical odyssey through time and space, from minimalism to maximalism, tonal to atonal, folk to avant-garde, abstract to narrative, and everything in between.

The album begins with the title track, Philip Glass’s “Orbit.” Warm and achingly tender melodies evolve softly over the course of this seven-minute solo work, and Haimovitz crafts each note gorgeously.

He tackles a very different style of contemporary classical in his performance of Luciano Berio’s “Sequenza XIV,” a virtuosic piece with mesmerizing rhythms inspired by Sri Lankan drumming. Haimovitz bows, plucks, taps, twangs, slides, scrapes, and soars through a number of extended techniques before settling into silence.

Another memorable moment on the album is György Ligeti’s Sonata for Violoncello Solo, a piece Haimovitz worked directly with Ligeti himself to learn. The piece’s modal melodies and Hungarian profile make clear the influence of Bartók and Kodály, and Haimovitz brings out the complex polyphonic counterpoint beautifully. It is followed by a performance of Du Yun’s “San,” a piece which weaves musical fragments of Eastern mysticism and meditation into a mesmerizing yet haunting sound world.

Haimovitz also takes a crack at some contemporary popular music: the album includes his own cello arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s famous “Star-Spangled Banner” performance at Woodstock. He snarls, growls, and wails through the Hendrix classic so convincingly that you’d almost expect him to have a whammy bar hidden somewhere on his cello. Haimovitz also takes on the Beatles’ loud, wild, and raunchy proto-metal anthem, “Helter Skelter.”

Over the course of disc two Haimovitz glides through the dramatic and dense melodies of Elliott Carter’s “Figment” (Nos. 1 and 2), the ethereal whispers of Salvatore Sciarrino’s “Ai Limiti Della Notte,” and the gorgeous cantabile lyricism of Luigi Dallapiccola’s “Ciaccona, Intermezzo e Adagio.”

But the most sentimental piece on the album is Woolf’s “Sarabande.” Derived from the Baroque Spanish dance form, the piece is also named after Haimovitz and Woolf’s child, who was lost mid-term in utero. The poignant and pensive work is both delicate and passionate, and Haimovitz brings it to life with remarkable timbral detail.

The third disc features three suites inspired by literature. The first is Ned Rorem’s “After Reading Shakespeare,” a suite in which each movement is based on a quotation from a Shakespearean play or sonnet—and the nine movements explores the romance, beauty, and balance of Shakespeare’s poetry without using a single word.

Inspired by Rorem’s work, Haimovitz commissioned two new suites based in literature by Pulitzer Prize-winning composers Paul Moravec and Lewis Spratlan. Moravec’s “Mark Twain Sez” takes the witty words of Mark Twain as the basis for an eight-movement exploration into the human condition, exploring themes of dreams, love, humor, insanity, mystery, and more.

The album comes to a close with Spratlan’s four-movement “Shadow,” a surreal musical reflection which takes the symbolist poetry of Rimbaud to a whole new world.

Because in the end, the musical possibilities for solo cello are about as numerous as the stars in the sky—and Haimovitz puts them all into “Orbit.”

Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley, from our field trip to the Tractor Tavern in Seattle on February 2, 2015