The 2018-29 Composer Portraits series at Miller Theatre kicked off on Saturday, October 27th with Kate Soper’s ninety-minute epic IPSA DIXIT. Composed between 2010-16, IPSA DIXIT is an exploration of the nature of art, meaning, and metaphysics, and was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Composition in 2017. Soper, who also sang the entire ninety-minute production, was joined by violinist Josh Modney, flutist Erin Lesser, and percussionist Ian Antonio of the Wet Ink Ensemble. The beautiful and stark production was brought to life by a fabulous creative team consisting of Ashley Tata (director), Anshuman Bhatia (lighting designer), Nina Vartanian (costume designer), and Bradley Peterson (projection designer).
IPSA DIXIT begins by asking a question that has captured the attention of scholars and artists for centuries: “what is art?” And through a series of excursions into classic and contemporary texts by Aristotle, Guido d’Arrezo, and Lydia Davis, among others, Soper arrives not at an answer so much as a deeper questioning of truth, meaning, and history. The movements of IPSA DIXIT orbit around these philosophical questions, tracing lines of thought and inquiry without attempting to solve them. With its unusually diverse and demanding vocal writing, this isn’t a piece that just any singer could do justice to. But Soper’s agile voice and matter-of-fact stage presence helped produce an experience that was both impressive and heartfelt.
In “Metaphysics,” Soper pontificated on the nature of being. As she spoke and sang about matter and the connections between being and cause, she walked among the other musicians (who were still playing) and began to disassemble their instruments. The circular, silver frame of a drumhead, separated from the body of the drum, became a prop. As the flutist continued to play, Soper removed a section of the flute and gave it to the violinist, who played it straight on like a recorder. She handed the violin to the percussionist, who tapped on it with a mallet, while the violinist performed a few well placed swooshes by whipping his bow through the air. The space between these well-articulated and almost ritualistically serious sounds grew longer and heavier, as if the gears moving the universe itself were grinding to a halt. The bodies of the musicians became progressively engulfed by an immersive projection of stars. And with the power of an alchemist, Soper stripped these musical objects of their familiar uses and meanings, reducing them to raw materials that carried with them a profound sense of immediacy.
Several movements took the form of an extended academic recitative, where Soper spoke and sung classic texts by Aristotle on poetics and rhetoric. At times these difficult and lengthy texts took on the dryness of a lecture, but more often than not Soper’s incessantly clever writing brought these abstract concepts to life through musical illustration, imitation, and pantomime. In especially singsong moments, Soper resembled a hyper-intellectual Mary Poppins with her tongue-in-cheek writing and playful choreography eliciting giddy laughs of recognition from the audience.
Other parts of IPSA DIXIT were more aria-like, where the text was less prosaic and more expressive. In “Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say,” an evocative text by Lydia Davis was turned inside out as it was rapidly passed between voice and flute. At times, Soper and Lesser seamlessly switched between speaking text (Lesser often spoke through the flute) and sustaining pitches. The blend and tight ensemble work was exquisite, creating the illusion of a single instrument. Lesser’s feral performance of the gargling, growling, and shrieking flute part was especially captivating.
Some sections demanded spectacular physical choreography. Soper and Antonio carried out a dialogue between Socrates and Crito while playing on two sider of the same marimba. Their dialogic dance was paralleled physically and musically, as they interwove sticks and arms to pull off tricky phrases. But even when the material was less of a spectacle, the ensemble was boldly confident, taking risks while maintaining an incredible tightness and dynamic musicality.
IPSA DIXIT is a substantial work with a lot to say, and says it remarkably well. But fear not; Soper does not demand or expect complete understanding of this academic and aesthetic labyrinth. This is a big piece that is best left to marinate in your subconscious, where flashes of images, sounds, and ideas may strike days or weeks later like memories of a dream. And while this dream may not have answered the timeworn question “what is art?” it provided something better: plenty of reasons to keep questioning. Miller Theatre’s 2018-19 Composer Portraits series continues with an exciting line up of composers including Du Yun, Wang Lu, John Zorn, Tyshawn Sorey, and David T. Little.