Preface (2009, revised 2014)As a student in 1970, I was both fascinated and appalled by the problems facing my generation of composers. New Music was obviously in deep crisis. Managers were practising human sacrifice in a desperate attempt to keep the show on the road.
Retrospective (Scenario 1970-71)
Scene One: Genesis, Prelude to Act One
Scene Two: Machines, Prelude to Act Two
Act One: Clytemnestra
Act Two: home
Scene One: Genesis, Prelude to Act One
On Stage: The lighting is off except for a spotlight or two aimed at a figure (probably
male) who is seated behind a table or desk. He has a very pale or white face. He is draped
all over in black. So is the desk. His character is ambiguous, vaguely reptilian but undemonstratively
so. For the duration of the scene (about 12 minutes) he can move only his head and jaw (the
latter sparingly), these movements should be slow. The lighting is dim and is varied mechanically
(slowly and irregularly).
Off Stage: Six vocalists (three male and three female) stage-whisper the six given parts into six separate microphones. The signal from each is independently filtered and its dynamic controlled. These processes are achieved mechanically (possibly using prerecorded varying pitches in conjunction with a pitch-voltage converter), and change, like the lighting, slowly and irregularly. The six signals are then mixed and taken to a loudspeaker concealed under the table onstage.
At the end of the scene: The figure on stage turns into a dummy. Its face explodes, revealing the net foundation to the plaster. White filaments explode out of the head, filling the space around it. This vision is visible for about 5-7 seconds, during which there is no change in the fluctuating nature of the music and lighting. A very rapid fade (almost out) in both the lighting and music ends the scene.
Scene Two: Machines, Prelude to Act Two
|This scene (like Scene One) is in the form of a tableau with one ancilliary event.
However, in Scene Two, this event need not occur right at the end.
On Stage: There is only sculpture on stage. This may or may not be mobile (with respect to itself or the stage). But all such sculpture is onstage throughout the scene. Some or all of the sculpture is designed to make sound. All movement (including the movement of lighting) is acheived by mechanical means (e.g. electric motors or clockwork etc.). There may be noisy electric motors or any other real sound. There may not be any electronic or pitched instrumental sound in this scene. The sounds produced will be controlled in time, but a precise schedule depends on the sculptures present. The sound should be controlled so as to give the scene a certain variety, not to give it musical structure. The quantity of material on stage is variable (from production to production) between one sculpture and a stage full of machines. The design must however be coherent. There may be nothing representational, only the real thing or abstracts. With the above restrictions, the ultimate design of the set is left to the imagination of the designer.
Off Stage: There are four percussionists disposed around the stage or in the pit, and a conductor who can be seen by all of them. The conductor controls not only the players but also the occurrence of sounds on stage.
During the second half of the scene: The dummy from Scene One crosses the stage in a bath on heavy, cast-iron, trundling wheels. The literalness or otherwise of the bath is up to the designer.
Act One: Clytemnestra
On Stage: An area of the stage has been cleared of sculpture. In the space there is
a tent-like structure just large enough to contain the performers inside it (the space could
even be a bit cramped). The tent forms a stage within the stage. The sides lift in the manner
of theatre curtains to reveal a Dramatic Alto and a string quartet. She is Clytemnestra, as
that character appears in a nineteenth-century translation from the Ancient Greek (Aeschylus).
She has arrived in the wrong plot, and as such must be dressed and made-up very incongruously.
She is wearing a very rich dress with beads, jewels etc. She has rings on her fingers and
an elaborate head-dress. Her face is made up as if for a much larger theatre. She performs
extravagantly. Her presence is overwhelming. The string quartet, which is seated behind her,
must perform just as if they are giving a recital. (So they are dressed and act as if they
were in that situation.) During the scene, a dummy falls onto the stage as the dead Agamemnon.
At the end, a piece of sculpture standing outside the tent is used by the character from Scene
One to kill Clytemnestra. This weapon is long and mobile so that when a handle on
it is turned, it makes a noise. It may also have a visually mobile business-end like a bird-scarer.
While being killed by the bird-scarer, Clytemnestra is also smothered by the closing sides
of the tent.
Off Stage: Currently planned are (at least) the four percussionists from Scene Two, a keyboard player (who may have played before between scenes) and a conductor/coordinator.
Remarks (1971): The music and words for Act One are deliberately different from the rest of the opera. Its five songs correspond to the five scenes of the opera. Thus, Song Three is a projection of its containing Act onto a different plane. Here, Clytemnestra is simultaneously Lady Macbeth. She dreams, talks in her sleep and wrings her hands... At the end of the third song Agamemnon dies, at the end of the third scene Clytemnestra dies, at the end of the opera the character from Scene One “dies”.
It is crucial that any allusions to Clytemnestra outside Act One should be kept ambiguous. Ambiguity is her very essence. In fact, the rest of the opera’s scenario (including the bath in Scene Two) was complete before deciding to use her text at all. The music in Act One is stylistically an expression of an alien reality (the most advanced music I could write with standard notation in 1970). It should be performed in the spirit of that reality. The music means what it says, but it is a quotation.
Act Two: home
“waked by the flitting of the gossamer...”
“Escaped, as when the fawn leaps lightly o'er the net of the unskillful hunter...”
[2009: This is no longer an obligatory part of Retrospective, but is included here for historical reasons. Note however, that whatever music is chosen to be performed between Act One and Scene Five, the character from Scene One is discovered sitting on stage towards the end of it. He(?) is dragged diagonally backwards as the rest of the scenery moves off stage or when the other performers have left.]
On Stage: The tent has been removed. Amongst the sculptures are three tall replicas of the character from Scene One. Inside each is a female singer (also from Scene One). Only their faces show, and these are sealed into the structures (like nuns). These replicas are white and solid.
Somewhere in the set there should be an inconspicuous screen (possibly a television) showing an irrelevant film (without sound track). During the scene, a pile of rope (a rope-bush?) gradually moves across. It starts to sing. (It contains a loudspeaker though which the three male voices sing.) Later it moves off stage. All the set moves off stage slowly, including the replicas and all the sculptures, leaving the character from Scene One revealed behind a screen in front of which the rope has sung. He and his desk move off slowly backwards (the stage is otherwise completely empty) towards the back wall, as if he too is part of the scenery.
Off Stage: All the players, except the three female singers:
Scene Five: Song Six
On Stage: The character and his desk come awkwardly to rest against the rear wall of
the theatre, facing obliquely to the audience. The lighting reverts to that of Scene One
Off Stage: The Dramatic Alto, who was Clytemnestra, is as close as possible to the character and his desk. Her voice is to be heard both live and through the speaker in the desk. After a short silence, she sings the speech given by Clytemnestra at the trial of Orestes. The character vaguely mimes to this. The music is an unaccompanied song, though I may decide to add some simple electronics.
Clytemnestra’s textsThese texts were assembled (1970) using the following three books and occasionally my own words. I found them by searching for 19th century translations of Aeschylus’ Oresteia at the British Museum:
|John Dunning Cooper: “The Agamemnon, Choephori, and Eumenides Rendered into English verse”|
|E. D. A. Morshead: “The House of Atreus: being the Agamemnon, Libation-Bearers, and Furies, of Äschylus Translated into English verse”|
|A. Swanwick: “The Agamemnon, Choephori, and Eumenides Translated into English verse”|
Act One (scenario)
TextsScene Five (scenario)
Act One, Song One
|Today the Greeks are in the streets of Troy!
And now full diverse cry pervades the town.
Pour in one vessel vinegar and oil, and they will part unkindly.
Even so two voices are there, each distinguishable,
Both vocal diversities of fate!
For diverse sounds distinctly now are heard within her houses
as the dismal wail of captive voices tries in vain to drown
the louder echo of the victor’s song!
For here the voice of wailing rends the air
As in despair the weeping mothers fall
Prone on the corpses of their slaughtered sons
Or wives lament for husbands dead, or maids
Round whose white necks the ruthless fate of war
Hath cast the chain of cruel slavery
Mourn for their dead sires, who, rigid now in death
Heed not their grief, nor hear their pitious groans.
While there the soldiers of the conquering host
Fierce from the fight and smit with hunger’s pang
Search through the streets and glut their appetites
With such good things as fortune first affords.
Within the captured palaces of Troy,
Stretched at their ease before the cheerful blaze,
They sleep all night, unsentineled, like Gods.
If now they fear the tutelary powers who hold the conquered land
And spare their shrines, the victors should not vanquished be in turn.
But let no ill-timed lust assail the host, to covet things unlawful, smit with gain.
A safe return has yet to be secured, and half the double course is yet to run.
But should the host come sinning ’gainst the Gods
Then would the curse of those that died
Wake, e’en though sudden evils might not fall.
Such thoughts are mine, mere woman though I be.
But may the good prevail that all may end propitiously.
For truly, I have gained great blessings by this glorious victory!
Act One, Song Two
|Some time ago I raised a cry of joy
when the first messenger of fire arrived
with tidings of the overthrow of Troy.
And someone sceptical and chiding said
“Dost thou persuaded by a beacon light believe that Troy is sacked?
Oh verily, tis like a woman to be thus elate”
By such a speech as this was I rebuked,
But nothing daunted, I in spite of all
Continued my oblations to the Gods,
Til by a woman’s edict one and all
in different places through the capital
Raised the loud shout of triumph
Pouring forth in every sacred fane the song of joy
And swung the sacred sensers to and fro
As gratefully they lulled the fragrant flame.
But Lo! There is no need to question now
for from the King himself
I soon shall hear the tale complete.
Therefore will I make haste to welcome back my well beloved lord,
Loved as my husband, reverenced as my king.
For what can glad a woman’s heart like this?
Or when did day so favourably dawn as this?
When can I open wide the gates to welcome my victorious spouse and king
Returning from the bloody field of war, safe.
For bounteous heaven has kept him whole.
Bear then this message:
Beg the king to come full speedily within the palace gates,
And may he coming find a loyal spouse to greet him,
Firm and steadfast to her trust as is the faithful watch-dog
And to foes as ill-disposed, and in all points alike.
Not in the course of long years have I lost one single seal
And as for constancy, I know not ill report from other man,
More than pure gold knows how to change its heel.
Act One, Song ThreeShe dreams she is Lady Macbeth - the sound of her dreaming, isolated twitching.
He would have been riddled more full of holes than any net.
A three-fold tomb...
Each form dying once...
But for myself, the gushing founts of grief have long been drainéd dry.
Nor does one drop remain of all the bitter tears I shed,
My sight too seems to fail me, for mine eyes inflamed with loss of sleep and grief suppressed,
Bear witness to
my deep anxiety | There’s knocking at the gate
Lamenting that the lamp forever burned gainst thy return, but never seen by thee.
And in my dreams, full oft I started up,
Waked by the flitting of the gossamer.
Imagining misfortunes for my lord,
More than could e’er have happened in the time.
I thus will call my spouse,
Faithful as the dog that guards fleecy folds,
Dear as an only child to parent’s heart.
Impurpled be the path that justice treads.
Act One, Song Four
|Though much before to suit the times was said,
It shames me not the opposite now to speak.
How else could I imbued with bitter hate
construct such snares to catch my enemy.
Hid neath the guise of love?
And snares that he with all his wise experience could not avoid.
Long since, I meditated this, how best t’avenge the ancient feud.
And now, tis done.
Here I stand where I struck him, and tis done.
I did it too, in such a way that he neither could ’scape, nor yet ward off his doom.
In truth I did, I care not to deny.
Ha! How I staked the net that snared his life, til tangled in the deadly robes he fell.
And twice I struck him: Thus and thus!
Until with two deep groans he dropped his lifeless limbs, and fell.
With that I dealt another blow,
A votive offering to the dismal king who guards the dead in Hades dark domains.
Then ebbed away his life.
While gurgling forth, the gush of crimson blood
Sprinkled my robe with drops of gory dew.
And I exult!
Not more the thirsty field, scorched by the sultry sun,
When hangs the ear lifeless and withered in the summer heat,
Rejoices in the dews of heaven!
Since then tis thus, Oh Argive senators:
Rejoice ye, if indeed ye can rejoice,
For in the deed I glory.
Fain would I, so just I deem the deed, libation pour above the corpse.
And twould be fitting too that he who thus hath filled the cup of evil to the brim,
In this his home,
Now that he hath returned, should drain it dry.
Act One, Song FiveSung “mechanically”, she is now an object without feeling, already dead.
|Ah God! Ah God!
I read your riddle!
We are to perish, even as we slaughtered him.
Tricked and betrayed!
Bring me a battle axe!
We shall see whether I’m vanquished here or vanquisher.
For to this crisis hath the evil come.
Act Two tacet
Scene Five, Song Six
What! Slumber ye? Is this a time to sleep?
While I, dishonoured by the dead, reproached
Unceasingly, because in righteous rage
I slew, am doomed to wander in disgrace
Shunned even by the denizens of Hell.
What! Slumber ye? While I, who things so dire
Have suffered at the hands of those most dear,
Stalk unavenged through Hades’ gloomy shades
Scorned by the dead, neglected by the Gods,
The victim of a matricidal son.
What! Slumber ye? Behold these reeking wounds
That, gaping, call for vengeance from my breast.
Oft when on earth I walked, I heard it said,
“Keen of discernement is the slumbring mind”
And can ye not discern my direful fate?
Oft have ye tasted my oblations rare,
Wineless libations, and the soothing gifts
I nightly offered at the hearth of fire
At hours unseasonable to the Gods,
But all these gifts are trampled under heel
And he the murderer has gone, escaped
As when the fawn leaps lightly o’er the net
Of the unskillful hunter, and he mocks
The clumsy toils ye spread for him in vain.
Give ear ye Goddesses of Hell!
A dream that once was Clytemnestra calls!
Aeschylus (ca.525-456 BC)