T H E   M U S I C   O F   R E S U R R E C T I O N
by Anthony Brandt, Rice University, Houston

Resurrection is music of the end of the 20th century. Composers of the present day are striving both to assimilate the experimental explorations of the past 100 years, which created some of the century's most abiding achievements, and the music of the great tradition, which continues to be relevant, both for the cogency of its great masterpieces and its lasting vernacular life in popular culture. Few American composers can match the curiosity and energy of Tod Machover in this quest: his influences have ranged from high modernism in his Soft Morning, City, to Renaissance polyphony in Flora, to rock music in Towards the Center and VALIS, to chance music in aspects of the Brain Opera. Machover's music always sounds contemporary, yet it is often highly accessible, because of its dramatic shape and, amidst the future-looking swirls of sounds, the referential power of tonality.

Crucial to Machover's musical language in Resurrection is the boldness of contrasts. The music ranges from innocent, clear tonal purity to stirringly dissonant upheaval. In Act I, the action cross-cuts between a folk dance, written in a simple, evocative style, and the court room scene, a tireless cascade of unsettled rhythm and harmony. When the Prince and Katerina, newly in love, profess "Can such happiness exist on earth?," the music lingers in the simplicity of a distant era. Later, when the Prince contemplates the court's unjust verdict, his vocal line is hemmed in by a claustrophobic, suffocating haze of harmony. At the end of Act I, Katerina reflects on her lost youth with a Mozartean calm and directness; then she awakens to her present condition with an agonized distress, achieved in far more modernist terms. Immediacy of feeling is clearly paramount. Listeners accustomed to feeling put-off by the blazing dissonances and irregular rhythms of highly abstract contemporary music may find themselves surprised by the necessary grit and emotional depth they contribute to Machover's panorama.

The opera is held together by a complex web of motives and recurring harmonies. Each scene establishes a strong identity; yet, connections to the drama as a whole are carefully interspersed, reminding us of the larger story. For instance, in the court room scene, the overture's theme - seeped in the feeling of the opening to Bach's St. Matthew Passion - briefly surges when Katerina takes the stand. In Siberia, the prisoners' music conjures up that of the tribunal, momentarily recalling for us the origin of their punishment. In Act II, when Katerina sings "It means so much to me" that the Prince has followed her, her vocal line has a signature gesture which reminds us of their first meeting. Similarly, when the Prince declares "I have made up my mind to marry you," the descending bass line which accompanies him is an echo of many earlier moments, reaching back to their first encounter. These motivic references are fleet, contributing to a sense of persistent development.

The story unfolds with great momentum. The rhythm, especially in Act I, is propulsive, letting up only for brief moments of reflection. Adding to the feeling of inexorable drive and yet also binding it into clearer units is the use of pedal tones, repeated notes in the bass which underlie climactic moments. The Prince's seduction of Katerina builds its jazzy, foreboding power over an insistently fixed bass. The departure of the Prince's train is depicted over a relentlessly accelerating bass pedal. Even at the height of chaos of the prison scene, the bass holds firm. At the opening of Act II, the grim marchers trudge along to a steady bass; and later, when Simonson declares that "You change of the world one man to another," a pedal tone supports his impassioned feelings.

The vocal writing for the leads is highly virtuosic, covering the singer's full range and creating, at times, almost delerious embellishment. In the arias, Machover frequently repeats text. Yet the music is through-composed, with minimal exact repetition, giving an impression both of tunefulness and constantly evolving feeling. Katerina's lullaby is a strong example: it appears to reprise the same melody, yet the fragmentary returns are brief and most of the music constantly new. Only at the very end of the opera does the music become more strophic, as a way of finally releasing the tension.

Surprisingly, Machover's orchestra uses only 33 players, including double winds and brass, percussion, and a small complement of strings. His writing demands great agility and concentration, with frequent shifting meters and melodic fragments which dart rapidly around the orchestra.

In works such as his Hyperstring Trilogy, Machover has conceived of electronics less as an independent element and more as an extension of human capacities, enriching and elaborating upon the live musical gesture. In Resurrection, the electronics are most often in the background, subtly enhancing important melodic lines and adding heft to the orchestral sonorities. The digital keyboards in the pit sometimes provide sound effects, such as the ominous train whistle in Act I and the cold Siberian wind in Act II. At other times, the electronics supplement the instrumental sonorities: when the prisoners await Peter Simonson's whipping in Act II, the guitar, which accompanies them, is synthesized. Most strikingly, the electronics provide a layer of rhythmically independent material superimposed over the orchestra during the most chaotic scenes. The only time that the electronics are exposed on their own is as a delicate and haunting background to Katerina's much celebrated lullaby in Act II.

There has been a tendency to regard experimentation as the negation of the communal, the familiar, the recognizable. But just as Machover regards technology as an extension of human possibilities, so he regards musical innovation as building upon, intensifying, and enriching our shared musical awareness. Our common language is not set aside; rather, its consequences are made more far-reaching. The tonal music, though often linked with innocence, frequently gains a modern flair with its rhythmic intricacy, unpredictable chromaticism, and minimal exact recurrence. Meanwhile, the more dissonant passages remain grounded by Machover's sense of highly pulsed rhythm and resonant chord structures.

In Resurrection, Machover achieves an almost cinematic vividness of feeling and situation in entirely musical terms. One doesn't have to be watching to feel completely drawn in by the seduction scene, the departure of the train, the prison scene, and the somber Siberian march. In a language at once approachable and very much his own, Machover makes a powerful statement about music's ability to capture the full range of our experience.

Anthony Brandt is Assistant Professor of Composition at the Shepherd School of Music of Rice University. Recent honors include a Koussevitzsky commission from the Library of Congress and the University's Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Prize.