Singer/songwriter Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond, Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Penelope, David Lang’s Death Speaks, etc.) has mounted her most ambitious project yet, YOU US WE ALL, in collaboration with director/librettist Andrew Ondrejcak and Baroque Orchestration X (B.O.X. collective), led by Pieter Theuns. The American premiere is slated for November 11-14, 2015, at BAM. We asked Shara (SW) and Andrew (AO) to tell us more.
How did the idea for YOU US WE ALL originate?
SW: I was on tour in Belgium with My Brightest Diamond and a man asked to meet with me about a potential collaboration. So after soundcheck I met the red-headed Pieter Theuns, musical director of B.O.X. collective. He had brought his theorbo, a lute that’s kind of like a huge acoustic guitar with a million strings. I’d never seen or heard anything like it. Pieter told me about how B.O.X. had been creating new music on old instruments with rock musicians, and he asked me if I would write and arrange songs for them also. I had just finished “All Things Will Unwind,” an acoustic album with the chamber ensemble yMusic, so I wasn’t too keen on writing more in that direction. I asked Pieter if we could bring in my friend Andrew Ondrejcak so that we could create something theatrical. I had written music for one of Andrew’s plays and we had a great working rapport and we started talking about what might be possible.
What appealed to you about the medieval masque form as a model?
AO: Baroque instruments have a sound that evokes a specific physical vocabulary: a straight spine, a long neck, a lightness of expression. I didn’t want to fight against the baroque sounds, I wanted to write specifically for it – both because I love those delicate, athletic sounds and because they demanded that of me. It wouldn’t have made sense to write, say, a contemporary Woyzeck (which I have tried to do) and set it to the sounds of baroque instruments. The masque was a suggestion from the playwright Mac Wellman. My previous plays have included explicit allegories and, in a way, were a series of modern morality tales in which the actual moral seemed elusive. Mac also knew that I am interested in the theatrical EVENT, in spectacle, in what can happen on a grand scale, so he suggested more than once that I write an opera and to read more about what was happening culturally in decades leading up to Monteverdi.
What is the story arc of YOU US WE ALL?
AO: In developing the story, I read Ben Johnson’s librettos for court masques, which both document the spoken/sung text and elaborate descriptions of the theatrical event. I focused on a period of masques in the very early 17th century, when the form was new and wild, before they became so political. In many ways it felt familiar, like some of the experimental avant-garde performances (an observation that I later learned was made by Walter Benjamin in his Origin of German Tragic Drama). In one masque, the character of The Iron Age talks to The Golden Age; in another the Ocean speaks; Truth and Opinion argue. I have worked with archetypes, but in these masques I was drawn specifically to the idea that a Concept was made manifest in human form. I became bored when they only spoke according to their assigned archetype, so I began to subvert them. What would happen if Virtue is virtuous and then she gets a bit horny and finds herself at a strip club? What would it feel like for Love to be full of Death? For Death to be interested in rebirth?
How did you approach writing the music?
SW: I listened for several months to baroque music while Andrew was writing and re-writing the text. I improvised the text a cappella, so that he could have a sense of the difference between spoken and sung text. Andrew is quite musical, so I wanted to hear him read the text as well, to get a sense of the tempo he had in his mind. I went from demos to full orchestration in 6 weeks for five actors and a 10 piece ensemble, so it was a real mad dash.
Pieter Theuns chose the instrumentation, and my only contribution to that list was a drummer that could play vibraphone. I loved the idea of vibraphone and a baroque organ in unison, and that is the texture for the most pivotal song “Destruction” which happens in the middle of the work. The first reading with B.O.X. was a shock. I had asked several of the instrumentalists to demonstrate what they could do, but I still was so inexperienced with baroque instruments that I scored the music as though a cornetto was a clarinet or a viola da gamba was a cello. But they simply don’t work in the same way, so there were some train wrecks in those first readings. I didn’t sleep much, because there were so many changes to be made, but by the premiere I had worked out the bugs and also knew the players more and more, I began to create opportunities to utilize their improvisational skills. It was a balance of control and letting go; they had to get to know my language and I had to trust them too.
What would you say is the meaning of the work?
SW: In the last aria we hear the character Hope (played by me!) as she writes a fan letter to Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, some of the gods of the modern age. She calls out to them in desperation asking, “Are we not us each all split from one single chromosome, and spend our lives trying to puttith the pieces back together?” There is this baroque theme of isolation and also this sense of longing to be connected which just feels really universal to me. These archetypal characters are asking big questions about what it means to be a human being, about what we share, the commonalities of all people, and questions about the nature of love.