Of the early concerts of this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Cecilie Ore’s ‘shadow opera’ A stood out as one of the most intriguing. A hour-long electroacoustic/video work, to be shown late at night in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park: what’s not to like?
I knew the music a little already from the Aurora recording (featured on Radio Rambler earlier this year), but before yesterday I didn’t know much else about what it was about (Paal-Helge Haugen’s libretto is mostly in Norwegian), or even quite how it would be staged. I liked the sound of it though, its relentlessly doomy gongs, so was looking forward to this.
One practical thing first: the decision to stage it in the sculpture park was baffling. In fact, it was staged within an identikit white box – the park’s Longside Gallery – that could have been anywhere, and surely didn’t necessitate the 30-minute coach journey there and back. Since it was long past sundown (the concert began at 10.30pm), the only part of the surroundings that was visible in any case was the car park. The school trip atmosphere was quite fun, but that was about it.
On the work itself, I was really split. Really. This was, I gather, a new video realisation (by Torbjørn Lunggren), so I’m still unsure as to what earlier productions have looked like. (You try googling “A”.) Some bits I liked; others not so much. Text, textiness, texuality: it’s all key to the work’s aesthetic. The ‘story’ is basically that of Agamemnon’s siege against Troy, told through his own interior monologue. Aware of the horrors he has perpetrated he defaults to linguistic constructions for his justification: ‘It was order. It was the world. It was revenge. It had to happen. It was an order.’ Words, and especially their formality, are the source of this power (note the pun on ‘order’).
At the same time, words are suspect, and subordinate to action. The libretto’s key couplet occurs near the middle of the piece: ‘Revenge is order. Forgiveness is chaos.’ The action of Grecian order versus the words of Christian chaos.
This is powerful stuff (drawing heavily, I think, on the original Greek), and it moved me. Ore’s stripped down soundtrack – behind the spoken voices inside Agamemnon’s consciousness there is little more than roiling gong sounds and whisps of sibiliance – achieved a powerful rituality, if at the expense of variation or nuance. But then Troy was never the place for subtlety. Most impressive was its dramatic pacing: somehow it ended exactly where one felt it should, although there were few clues in music or visuals that the end was coming up.
On the negative side of the ledger, however, one has to mention the video. This was closely modelled on Ore’s music, in that it, too, made use of a minimal number of motifs and materials. In this case, a Matrix-like datastream of phrases for each chorus section, interspersed with fixed texts that were either projected as flat and static, or whose letters fell down the screen, as 3D blocks, like collapsing buildings. The ideas were nice enough, but some of the graphics felt like they had been rushed to completion. There was the same issue of repetitiveness as in the music, but again this sort of worked within the ascetic context of the drama. What bothered me most was that – inevitably, I guess, when you’re pushing bits of Helvetica around a screen – it all looked a bit, well, Powerpointy.
As I say though, I came out of it all genuinely in two minds. Emotionally, it really connected; intellectually, I’m not so sure. Aaaaargh.