Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Black History Month: The Life and Times of Malcolm X

With Black History Month rapidly drawing to a close at HurdAudio my ears are drawn to X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X: An Opera in Three Acts by Anthony Davis. Initially composed from 1984 - 1985, this work had its premier in New York City in 1986 and this recording is from 1992. This work needs to be staged again - and often. This opera is a high accomplishment that approaches a massive range of aesthetic and social issues that rarely combine for such substantial impact. There is much more happening in this work than meets the ear in a single listening and repeated exposures to this material is incredibly rewarding. Repeated stagings would be ideal.

The instrumentation is an augmentation of the standard operatic configuration. There's a full cast of singing parts for the stage, a full orchestra (the Orchestra of St. Luke's in this recording) and an additional set of "jazz" players (credited as the Episteme ensemble) that adds an important element to this sound. The challenge that Davis meets head on is in mixing the colors of trap drum kits and jazz pianos along with orchestral percussion and large numbers of string players into a cohesive and balanced sound. All while leaving room for vocals and dramatic narrative to co-exist.

The Episteme ensemble brings something substantial to this sound with so many of the greatest performer/improvisers of this era: Marty Ehrlich (flutes, clarinets, saxophones), J.D. Parran (clarinets, flute), John Purcell (flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophones), Herb Robertson (trumpet), Arthur Baron (trombone), Abdul Wadud (cello), Mark Dresser (bass), Mark Helias (bass), Gerry Hemingway (percussion), Pheeroan akLaff (drums), Warren Smith (drums), Marilyn Crispell (piano), Clyde Criner (piano) and Anthony Davis (celesta). That ensemble alone is worth the price of admission.

One of my favorite moments from this one is the "Child's Aria" from act One. Marilyn Crispell provides some delicate accompaniment as a young Malcolm seeks comfort from his mother in the wake of his father's untimely death. In this moment there is this rare moment when so many forces come together in this quiet passage as the emotional impact of the story seeps into a sound that teeters between groove, improvisation and operatic tone. The transition into "Ella's Aria" is incredibly poignant and an outstanding feat of arranging/composition. Perfect moments like these are the gems that pull me back into this listening experience and more than make up for some of the rough spots where the balance between these complicated elements don't quite line up.

Another incredible moment is "Malcolm's Aria" at the close of the first act. The instrumental buildup to the entrance of the vocal part seems to draw upon elements of Philip Glass's Satyagraha - and given the interesting contrasts between Gandhi and X - this makes for an intriguing cross-commentary between two different-yet-similar biopic operas that deal with the frustratingly slow pace of change toward greater social justice.

The form of this opera as a whole - as well as the narrative structure - pivots around "Mecca" midway through the final act. On the heals of political and personal pressures leading up to this late point in the opera (brilliantly conveyed through a near-Greek Chorus-like chanting and interposed non-sung dialog) emerges an invigorated - and renewed - figure shortly before the dramatic and untimely death that closes out this piece. As a feat of story telling this opera is a tremendous success (credit is due to Thulani Davis for the libretto).

Studio engineering practices for recording live orchestras versus smaller jazz ensembles couldn't be more different and there are times when one or the other seemed to be in an awkward sonic space as the score moves gracefully between the two worlds (often combined) while the studio engineering seemed to lag behind. The live experience must have been something.

At the Composer-to-Composer conference in Telluride, Colorado in 1989 there was an interesting series of exchanges between Anthony Davis and John Cage regarding X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X. At the root of the confusion between these important (and contrasting) 20th century composers is the role and/or virtue of "power." The story of Malcolm X and the opera based upon his life is about empowerment. It is about gaining social and economic equality "by any means necessary" and as an operatic work this takes on a deliberate commentary of the medium itself as the same stage that hosts The Magic Flute becomes a forum for exploring the ongoing struggle to realize the goals of the civil rights movement more than 40 years ago. Which is relatively contemporary in operatic time.

As an anarchist, and Zen Buddhist-influenced composer, John Cage had a different sensibility regarding "power." (And as the creator of the Europera series of indeterminacy-driven opera-like spectacles he also had a different take on opera in general). With a lifetime of works oriented around removing the ego from composition he was having a difficult time understanding the difficult aesthetic topography that Anthony Davis had negotiated with this opera. John Cage was well liked because of his curiosity, ability to listen and overall positive conversational approach. Through a series of non-confrontational questions and an honest assessment of his own aesthetic hang-ups he eventually came around to understanding what Anthony Davis has achieved with this incredible opera and expressed a sincere hope to experience a live performance of this work in its entirety. Which is a fair assessment of this work. There is so much going on at so many different levels that one's initial exposure can be unsettling. Particularly if you're not familiar with operatic conventions, avant garde jazz traditions or the story of Malcolm X. But once you start to absorb the numerous thematic and theatric qualities of this astonishing work the sheer magnitude of this accomplishment begins to sink in. X is a worthy addition to the operatic canon that deserves hundreds of new interpretations over the next several generations.


jerrie said...

Telluride must have been a heady conference.

XYBORG said...

Nice piece. Great blog.