Gene Pritsker is a musician who understands the importance of frequent experimentation when devising new approaches to music. He has authored over four hundred compositions, dizzying in their stylistic range and audacious in their scope. Orchestral works, rock songs, chamber operas, electronic soundscapes… Pritsker seems to look at all music as one genre, in which all other possible styles, sounds and traditions are meant to be used as building blocks and palette colors, combined in various configurations to create a boundless whole. This result is almost always more interesting, and representative of how most new music will be born in the 21st century, as genres and barriers begin to vanish, and as styles begin cross-fertilizing in previously unimagined ways. This past Sunday at Le Poisson Rogue, I attended the record release of Pritsker’s new chamber opera, which sets the text of William James’ classic The Varieties of Religious Experience for two sopranos and a baritone, accompanied by a small ensemble of cello, bass, and two electric guitars, one played by Pritsker himself. The evening was generally a showcase for new music from Composers’ Concordance records, and also featured short performances by Zentripetal Duo and Pritsker’s own group, The International Street Cannibals.
I was intrigued by Pritsker’s choice of text. James’ work is a modern classic of philosophy of religion, bursting at the seams with gorgeous imagery and profound insights. But, despite the beautifully woven concepts and occasionally flowery language, it is still a very… academic work. The text is meant to communicate complex ideas in a manner both detailed and concise. The evocation of emotional responses with language and wordplay was clearly an important, but secondary, goal. How would Pritsker approach this? How would he adapt sentences whose rhythms play smoothly when read but clump together when made into music? And what sort of music would serve as the proper backdrop for such a text? Pritsker’s other works are so diverse in style and emotional content that I had no way of predicting what road he’d take here. His other chamber opera, the excellent Money, incorporated a wider range of sounds and instruments, and featured an original libretto by the composer himself.
The opera opened with a bouncy splatter of dissonant patterns that recalled Tom Waits. Throughout the opera (which ran roughly 30 minutes), Prtisker alternated between spoken-word recitations of long passages and sung sections incorporating repetition of certain lines. The opening section, featuring soprano Lynn Norris, seemed to portray a sort of ambivalence, one that came to define the opera in general. The ensemble never quite stepped into full tonality or full atonality, keeping to an ambiguous realm of disjointed harmony and rhythm that underscored the chaotic vocal. Norris navigated the complex text and serpentine melodies skillfully, but the same frustrated ambiguity defined her lines. Small melodic fragments gave way to angular jabs of sharp syllables, with virtually no repetition, but in a manner that felt almost… gratuitously strange, yet still not strange enough to make a strong impact on the listener. I felt like I understood what Pritsker was trying to convey here, but I was frustrated. Musically, he seemed cautious to step too far in one direction or the other. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there cannot be middle ground, or that something cannot be simultaneously tonal and atonal or beautiful and ugly. But I felt that Pritsker kept to a narrow and ambiguous sound-world whose contrasting elements of rhythmic/melodic logic and atonal/arrhythmic confusion, instead of strengthening each other, served instead to weaken each others’ effect. Instead of the numinous chaos that (I think) he was trying to convey, the music felt non-committal, unsure of its’ purpose or direction.
There were certainly moments throughout the work where it all came together beautifully. When Norris was joined by mezzo-soprano Chandra Rule and baritone Charles Coleman, the story was quite different. Songlike sections of soulful melody were executed brilliantly, as were the more oddball, off-kilter three-part harmonies that dotted the later movements of the opera.
The second half of the program took a sharp tun, stylistically, with Dan Cooper’s “Design” for cello and violin, performed by Zentripetal Duo. Folksy and minimalistic, with equal portions of down-home blues and percussive extended techniques, “Design” was a soft, familiar afterglow following the opera’s musical entropy. Next was “Ballade #13”, an improvisatory, vaguely Middle Eastern duo for bass guitar and cello, accompanied by a dancer and a body percussionist. The highlight of the evening was Norris’ rendition of Luis Andrei Cobo’s gorgeous song “Felonies”, part of his History song cycle. Written in a Messiaen-esque style of bleak, withering beauty, Norris’ declaratory wails washed over the room, heartbreaking and surreal.
It’s important that you don’t misread my comments regarding Pritsker’s opera. As frustrated as I was with his compositional choices throughout the work, I was equally awed by his willingness to experiment. Pritsker exudes the musical fearlessness often associated with highly prolific composers like Hindemith or John Zorn, which is necessary when one is dedicated to producing a large quantity of music that also consistently pushes boundaries. I get the impression, listening to Pritsker’s catalog, that he would be thoroughly uninterested in writing music that didn’t consciously strive to sound radically new. While I may not have felt this particular musical experiment to be successful, it was clearly a product of the same adventurous mind and spirit that have produced other, more successful, experiments. Pritsker’s musical mission is wide-ranging and all-inclusive, and necessitates occasional misfires in the name of breaking new ground. It may be that the audacity of his choices worked against him: the unusual instrumentation, off-kilter musical style, and thorny difficulty of the text may have worked against each other, resulting in a piece that was powerful and individualistic, yet felt frustratingly lacking in cohesion and emotional content. I might have felt worse had I not been familiar with Pristker’s other, fantastic work, and known that he is, above all, an artist who takes risks, with all the peaks and valleys that entails.
Evan Burke is a bassist and composer living in Brooklyn.