On October 6, 2017, New Amsterdam records released Steven Mackey’s and Jason Treuting’s inaugural collaborative piece, Orpheus Unsung. It’s proposed as both a “wordless opera” and “an hour-long narrative for solo electric guitar (Mackey) and drums (Treuting).” While both concepts are innovative, only one describes Orpheus Unsung–and any kind of opera it is not. The narrative here is singular: even though there are other characters involved, we understand only what Orpheus thinks, does, or what is done to him. And since Orpheus Unsung is missing literal singing, to be an opera, it can’t also miss the perspectives of other parties involved (the other characters, even the listener) that are crucial for the listener to relate to the work, and it does. The innovations in this work are the virtuosic musicianship by both musicians, a big narrative pushed by extremely limited instrumentation, and the re-telling of the Orphean myth–famously the subject of dozens of operas written over the last 200 years–in a decidedly different context.
Orpheus Unsung was originally produced as a staged performance with Mackey’s guitar “cast” as Orpheus (among others), Treuting’s percussion the orchestra, and the added elements of video and dance, directed, choreographed, and designed by Mark DeChiazza. In this piece, Orpheus is embodied not by a singer but by the inverse: his voice is the disembodied sound of the electric guitar as a contemporary version of the lyre, but if Mackey’s and Treuting’s elegant arrangements massage the boundaries of what we know to be a dramatic narrative, finding an opera in Orpheus Unsung is a challenge. Because Mackey’s guitar serves as Orpheus, most of the other characters, and the soundtrack to action, there are only moments where very clear characters in the story emerge. Though, Mackey’s transformative use of loops and tuning serve the piece well in driving its pacing. If a staged version might have been more operatic, the album itself isn’t quite convincing as an opera, albeit a wordless one.
The piece is structured in three acts Act I: Super Terram, during which we meet Orpheus, or O, in the world of the living and he loses his love Eurydice to a snake bite; Act II: Sub Terra, O journeys to the underworld to retrieve her; and Act III: Super Terram, above ground once more.
While the work is clearly influenced by art music of the 18th and 19th centuries (including shades of Christopher Willbald Gluck’s Orfeo et Euridice at times), experimental music, and surf-rock, it’s also fairly derivative of 90s post-rock. In the first track of Act I, we are introduced to O, whose theme is driving and appropriately clunky–not in technique, which remains sophisticated throughout, but melodically. Mackey’s choice to present O as, frankly, kind of a post-rock bro gives us all room to experience the forthcoming journey with newness, even if we are familiar with the plot.
Where the instrumentation hinders the ambitiousness of the piece is in the moments during which the guitar does not solely represent O. For example, in Act II, the pair effectively create a sonic space that is both descending and cosmic. Perhaps it isn’t true during the live performance, but on a recording, O gets lost. We can’t assume that he’s thinking what we’re thinking, and Mackey and Treuting don’t tell us.
What is extremely apparent in the work is the titular character’s growth. Two of the tracks that act as O’s arias gives us a real sense of his arc: in Act I, “First Lament,” which comes immediately following Eurydice’s death-by-snakebite, is angular, dissonant, and full of mournful anger, and the eventual resolve that inspires his journey into the underworld. In Act III, “Final Lament,” immediately following O’s irrevocable look and loss of Eurydice, we hear his ultimate hopelessness. The slow development, quiet repetition, and limited melodic range is a beautiful contrast to “First Lament” and lets us remember what O has been through–to Hades and back–only to lose what was most important to him.
The restrictive instrumentation of Orpheus Unsung, while innovative, erases the perspective of characters other than Orpheus himself–and limits the connection between the work and the listener. However, the work does its job as a narrative, and Mackey’s and Treuting’s fantastic musicianship and seamless teamwork effectively bring O to life, illustrate his dramatic story, and highlight a concept that is definitely something new for the world of new music.