Sunday, June 5, 2011

Lessons from "Hydrogen Jukebox"

Photo by Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Opera
I attended a performance of Hydrogen Jukebox presented as part of Fort Worth Opera's 2011 Festival.  The music is by Philip Glass, and the text is by Allen Ginsberg.  The two of them actually collaborated on the project; it wasn't just a matter of the composer grabbing text he liked and running with it.  I think that sort of partnership can really pay off with presentational art, even though I don't really know how well they worked together.

Truth be told, I don't really like putting on a set of headphones and listening to Philip Glass compositions.  In some institutions of higher learning, his music is ridiculed because of its simplicity.  Heck, I've made fun of his music with a room full of theory students.  Though it may not be explicitly said, the message in some composition programs comes across as, "Write whatever you like, as long as it sounds complicated enough to impress someone."  Minimalism a la Philip Glass certainly does not apply.

What they don't bring into the conversation, though, is the fact that so much of the music Glass writes is only part of the overall experience.  There is also choreography or staging or other engaging presentational elements that go hand-in-hand with the music.   In the context for which it was created, the music becomes not only highly appropriate but incredibly effective.  I walked out of Hydrogen Jukebox thinking (among other things), "How has this work not been programmed in this country for 20 years!?"


The music is rather repetitive, although there is a fair bit of variety over the course of the entire piece.  Still, just looking at the score could trigger all manner of preconceived notions of how boring minimalist music can be.  It is a widely-held belief that if an arts organization dares to program "new" music, it will lose a significant portion of its audience.  I don't know how true that actually is, but if that concern exists, then an organization is likely to consider a minimalist composer so niche within the realm of "new" music that it would have additional hurdles to clear.  Convincing a ticket-buying public to come and see something they start off thinking they'll hate is not an appealing prospect.

It also doesn't have a real plot.  The official term for Hydrogen Jukebox is 'melodrama', and as such there are no clearly-defined stock characters involved in typical operatic relationships.  There are singers, and there is action, but it isn't easy to say what the story is about.  Even the most convoluted traditional opera can be summed up in a couple of sentences well enough for a potential audience member to know what to expect.  It can potentially be more of a challenge to interest people in a relatively unknown work that doesn't fit neatly into a pre-packaged formula.

The subject matter is also mature, which to some people means unsafe.  Ginsberg's poetry challenges society to a potentially uncomfortable level of self-examination which only becomes more poignant when set effectively to music.  Compared to just hearing the poem read, music allows for longer pauses between sung lines.  Instead of waiting for someone to say what comes next in the poem, an audience can accept that instrumental space between the words is part of the setting, and this allows the words a few more moments to sink in.  And what sinks in is challenging.  In a time when some people are looking for a reason to complain, a piece that is blatantly more than sheer entertainment is ripe for criticism.

Don't get me wrong.  People complain plenty when their entertainment isn't exactly how they expect it to be.  Heaven forbid a work of art should actually make them think as well.  Even though that mindset only describes a very small portion of the art-viewing public, it's no fun for an organization to defend itself against such an onslaught of ignorance.  When there are safer works out there with more widespread appeal and less preconceived opinions to fend off, I suppose I can see why Hydrogen Jukebox isn't programmed somewhere in the country every year.  But it should be.

Photo by Ellen Appel/Fort Worth Opera

The themes about war, gender identity, societal values, love, environmentalism, and homosexuality are as appropriate today as they were when the work premiered in 1990, if not more so.  The music is accessible, and as I have said, impeccably engaging in the context of the work.  And whatever fears or preconceived notions may send up red flags for a company considering programming the work, the Fort Worth Opera's production was completely sold out before the festival even opened.  Considering all of the potential challenges that seem inherent with a work like Hydrogen Jukebox, it's worth noting that most of the handful of complaints about the production came from people who didn't even deign to attend a performance.

I take a lot away from all of this.  Once again, I am reminded that music does not need to be complicated in order to be enjoyable or effective or "aesthetically viable," and I have an opportunity to reassess some of my current projects.  I am convinced even more strongly of the power of theatrical elements to attract an audience to a live performance in an age where music can be downloaded for a dollar.  I also see how insignificant potential potholes can turn into mountainous obstacles in my own mind, how a few ridiculous complaints from self-important individuals can cast the illusion that the entire world is against something, and how much more powerful authentic art is than any amount of ignorance or prejudice.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you on all points. I was also struck that it was Glass who approached Ginsberg, and that by writing about subjects that mattered most to him, Ginsberg helped to elevate Glass beyond the effete (where he'd been dwelling for so many years prior to Hydrogen Jukebox). Perhaps for the first time, I felt I was hearing Glass directly, and thus it was no coincidence that his musical language was more varied and feeling.

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