United States Works & Process Artists Virtual Commissions – Mazzoli, Muhly: Co-presented by Guggenheim Museum & Metropolitan Opera, New York, and streamed online 12-13.7.2020. (RP)
Mazzoli – Let Me Freeze Again to Death
Countertenor – Anthony Roth Costanzo
Pianist – Missy Mazzoli
Video – Adam Larsen
Muhly – Off the Grid
Synthesizer – Nico Muhly
Piano – Adam Tendler
When the performing arts world went into lockdown, the Guggenheim Museum responded by providing artists with funding to produce new art through the Works & Process Artists Virtual Commissions. Artists across a wide spectrum of genres were commissioned to create works less than five minutes long, while maintaining social distancing; they premiere on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube (@worksandprocess) every Sunday and Monday at 19:30 EDT, and can be viewed anytime after for free.
On 12 and 13 July 2020, new works by Missy Mazzoli and Nico Muhly were streamed. Both commissions were co-presented by the Metropolitan Opera, which has done two operas by Muhly, Two Boys in 2013 and Marnie in 2019. Mazzoli was commissioned by the Met in 2018 to write an opera based on George Saunders’s experimental novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.
Mazzoli and Jeanine Tesori, whose commission was announced at the same time, are the first female composers to be tapped by the Met to originate works for the company. Since its founding in 1883, the company has performed only two operas by female composers – Ethel M. Smyth’s Der Wald in 1903 and Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin in 2016.
Over the past few months, Mazzoli has immersed herself in electronic music, imagining works that she can create by herself in almost any environment with minimal tools. Let Me Freeze Again to Death began as a purely synthesized piece, but Mazzoli felt the need for something vocal to tie the piece to the moment and to add an operatic element to it.
She turned to countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo who suggested an aria from Purcell’s King Arthur, ‘What Power Art Thou’, better known as ‘The Cold Song’. Costanzo recorded a voice-only version of the aria in his apartment, which Mazzoli ‘dismembered, re-assembled, twisted and tweaked’. As intended, the aria resonated on several levels with the experience of being quarantined during the pandemic, but one touchpoint was totally unforeseen.
Foremost was the link between pandemics past and present: Purcell died of tuberculosis at the age of 36 in 1695 (the first effective treatments for the disease became available in the mid-1940s). Secondly, the sense of confinement and isolation expressed in the text is a feeling experienced by so many at this time. After the work was finished, the words ‘I can scarcely move or draw my breath’ became a sonic link to the tragic death of George Floyd.
There are instructions for viewing ‘Let Me Freeze Again to Death’: move to a dark place, brighten your device and turn on the volume, lean into the screen (the closer the better), press play and close your eyes. I followed those instructions, but I also watched it in the dark with my eyes wide open, and as a standalone piece of music.
Hands down, my favorite was watching with open eyes: I felt I was inside the audiovisual equivalent of an abstract expressionist painting. The aria, even when presented in a disjunct form, imposed a Baroque sensibility on the work, with text and music combining to create a passacaglia-like effect.
The jagged, fragmented music is wiped clean repeatedly by the video, when the pulsating colors stop and all color vanishes. It was amazing to later learn that the music came first, as the visuals are so essential to the experience. Costanzo sang with his usual brilliance, undimmed by Mazzoli’s manipulations.
Muhly composed Off the Grid as a duet for himself and pianist Adam Tendler, who is a New York-based pianist and author and a 2019 recipient of the Lincoln Center Award for Emerging Artists. Tendler is an internationally recognized proponent of living modern and classical composers, and is a one of the foremost interpreters of the music of John Cage. A pioneer of DIY culture in concert music, at age 23 Tendler performed in all fifty states as part of a grassroots recital tour he called America 88×50.
Off the Grid has a simple structure: a cycle of 40 chords, with the last chord being a kind of resolution of the first chord. As Muhly describes it, the piano plays almost constant sixteenth notes, with agitated little patterns or, sometimes, little proto-melodies, whereas the keyboard provides clear articulations of the chord cycle. Each chord is meant to be both a resolution of the previous bar and a strange kind of upbeat to the following.
In spite of the frenetic and at times disjointed nature of the piece, it is buoyant and upbeat. Perhaps the prevailing sense of optimism is due to Tendler’s vibrant piano playing combined with the comforting continuity provided by the chords which melt into one another. In the end, Off the Grid left me with a smile on my face.
It’s well worth the time to watch the accompanying video with the two composers and video designer Adam Larsen, moderated by Paul Cremo, Dramaturg / Director of Opera Commissioning Programs at the Met. Muhly gave a somber assessment of the future of classical music, especially opera. He likened the present time to the final minutes of Götterdämmerung; the question is what happens next, a view with which Mazzoli concurred. Both agreed that the future won’t, and shouldn’t, be anything like the past as too much has changed in recent months.
Muhly summed up the feelings of many when he asked people to desist from saying that the copious amounts of free time during the pandemic are a gift. ‘Because if it is a gift . . . I wish I could return it’.
For more information on Works & Process Artiest Virtual Commissions, click here.