Hard Drive's Night

A new operatic work by Philip Glass sways the senses.

In opera, size matters. Think of Wagner's Ring cycle, or Jessye Norman's mammoth vocal prowess. And now, with Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's Monsters of Grace, think 10 gigabytes of RAM, 150 gigabytes of hard-disk space, and 10 Silicon Graphics servers chuffing along on a speedy network, all for the real-time 3-D graphics that made up the visuals for this maverick opera when it made its Seattle premiere at the Paramount last Friday.

Monsters of Grace

Paramount Theater, April 9

Of course, you couldn't even hear the hum of the computers' fans during the performance, what with the lean, eight-piece Philip Glass Ensemble and a quartet of vocalists making a montage of sounds with precious few instruments. Central to the ensemble's arsenal were three banks of keyboards, piloted by Eleanor Sandresky, ensemble music director Michael Riesman, and Glass himself. As for whether this makes for anything but the most sparse "orchestra" to accompany a full-blown "opera," one could hardly expect standard narrative from Wilson and Glass, let alone a bona fide operatic production.

What arrived instead was a mesmerizing quilt of musical and visual images rendered as the vocalists sang the poems of 13th-century mystic (and reputedly the original whirling dervish) Jalaluddin Rumi. In direct contrast to opera singers' reaching for the peak notes, Glass set Rumi's poems to music that limited the vocal ranges, which resulted in a warmth echoed and colored by moments of predictability from the musicians and many, many more moments of genuine instrumental surprises.

Every acoustic instrument—flute, clarinet, saxophone—floated somehow beyond its range, joining the keyboards in the presentation of music at once identifiable and freshly strange. From the moment members of the ensemble took the stage, bowing and seating themselves to dimmed house lights, the keyboards sounded calculatedly compressed, as if to call attention to their very electronic-ness. The effect was telescopic, and a perfect setting for the fusillade of Eastern instruments sampled throughout the 73-minute work.

Once darkness set in, the audience donned 3-D glasses—each pair sporting a Monsters logo. Random images slowly, and ever so methodically, began tumbling before our eyes. Wilson's prior work (not least of which is the four-hours-plus Einstein on the Beach, which he premiered with Glass in 1976) was imprinted in the assemblage of images: vast expanses of desert interrupted by a falling foot, a lone boot, and no sign of life. Later on came stock suburban homes, a boy riding a bicycle as the vantage point dropped into the trees, possibly leaving many viewers feeling that they'd seen a parade of objects. Two pairs of identical figures stand and move mechanically into different positions in relation to each other, helicopters fly over the Great Wall of China, and a pair of pulsing cables—a visual example of the leitmotif of connectedness that came and went—led into the bloodied wrist-end of a severed hand. All the while, the music rang in repetitious cycles and countless samples. Chinese zhengs and Indian sitars confronted each other in crashes and drones, and an assortment of lutes, harps, and other instruments made a digitally compressed orchestra in front of the ensemble's live instrumental backdrops.

Expert though the digital animation was, the images were simultaneously captivating and unconvincing. As we advance further into the world of digital graphics, we will likely look back at the limited number of images and their leisurely appearances in Monsters the same way we look at Hollywood's silent films. We might reflect on Glass and Wilson's images as harbingers of a genre's transformation, and, ultimately, the altering of music-performance models (rock concerts, operas) to keep up with a generation keen on taking in abstract imagery and provocative sonics.

 
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