R E S U R R E C T I O N :
H I S T O R Y A N D C O N T E X T
By Alan Rich, LA Weekly & Variety
"A search for unity, harmony, and beauty amidst seemingly insurmountable complexity and fragmentation." So wrote Tod Machover to define his own musical ideal, for a 1984 concert in New York's Symphony Space. The program that night consisted of more-or-less "ordinary" works among the 30-year-old Machover's already considerable legacy: a major work for piano solo (played by Alan Feinberg) and a string quartet (played by the fearless Kronos). At that tender age Machover had already made his mark at music's outer edges: several years as director of musical research at IRCAM, Pierre Boulez's underground (in more ways than one) electronic workshop; a growing repertory of works for stand-alone instruments, orchestras-plus-computer technology, computer alone; a deskload of designs for new-fangled "hyperinstruments," invented by Machover to explore the vast possibilities in interaction between live performer and circuitry.
One peak, however, remained unscaled - understandably so, perhaps, since the chances that a composer best-known for his unbridled innovations could make any kind of mark in the world of opera (where the icon of the C-major toe-tapper reigns against faint opposition) were slim, to say the least. Four years later, however, Machover had created VALIS, an opera like none other and, even more remarkable, a stunning success. The dramatic substance came from one of the last novels by sci-fi master Philip K. Dick, in whose own inscrutable brain the convoluted, psychological, self-revealing action seemed to take place. The work was performed worldwide (Europe, Japan, U.S.), recorded, and hailed with some awe as "the first computer opera." Among its early admirers was David Gockley, whose Houston Grand Opera was creating its own awesome place as a remarkably open-handed inspirer and performer of brand new American operas - including such off-the-wall works as John Adams' Nixon in China and Philip Glass' sci-fi fantasy The Making of the Representative from Planet 8. "I saw VALIS in Europe," Gockley later said, "and knew I had to commission an opera from this composer." The result of that commission, Resurrection, became the 24th Houston Grand Opera world premiere.
In between, Machover worked on several other musical dramas which he was pleased to refer to as "opera." In 1994 there was Media/Medium, a mini-opera composed for the magician/comedians Penn and Teller, and brought by them to Bally's casino in Las Vegas and then on a national tour. Brain Opera, created in 1996, was the sensation of that year's Lincoln Center Festival, and is a work that drew its ever-changing substance from the interaction of each viewer using specially designed hyperinstruments and the all-knowing computer that transformed their contributions into a collective music - related, thus, both to the inner churnings of the hero of VALIS and to the performers of other works of Machover on "hyperviolin," "hypercello" and their related gadgetry. Two years later there came Meteor Music, a "walk-through opera" composed as a permanent installation at the Meteorite Museum in Essen as the sonic counterpart of that remarkable high-tech visual display, creating a total immersive environment.
All of the above serve brilliantly to exemplify the basic nature of opera, as a dramatic device carried forward in music. None of them, however, would be instantly recognizable as congenial territory to the seasoned operagoer commuting between, say, La Traviata and Parsifal. Resurrection, given its world premiere in 1999 by the Houston Grand Opera that had commissioned its existence, bridged that gap with astonishing success.
Here, at long last, was opera with plot, heroes and heroines, choruses and a steaming orchestra - with, to be sure, an admixture of contemporary instrumentation, a subtle wash of computer-generated sound enhancement. Based on Leo Tolstoy's dense, speculative novel on the redemption of souls, invoking the need for musical treatment along traditional Romantic operatic lines, "Resurrection" represents for Machover both a step ahead and a memoir of past accomplishments. One work in particular comes to mind, the 45-minute piano work "Chansons d'Amour" that Alan Feinberg had performed in that 1984 all-Machover concert cited earlier in these words.
Tolstoy is said to have detested opera as an encumbrance to his words; previous treatments of Resurrection, including a lurid misrepresentation by Franco Alfano that reduces Tolstoy's moralizings to soap opera, justify his distaste. Librettists Laura Harrington and Braham Murray have provided Machover with a more honorable, literate treatment of Tolstoy's alternately dramatic and intimate probing of guilt and salvation. Machover, in turn, has given their words a richly intelligent setting, gritty at times but soaring, intensely lyrical at others, remarkable in its sure sense of propulsion.
Perhaps his creation of a full-scale opera on a Tolstoy novel - scored for traditional orchestra with a very skillful use of electronics, managing with sure musical insights the novel's tense, dark emotions and liberating catharsis - may strike his cutting-edge confreres as a backsliding. As refutation - if such be necessary, an arguable matter - consider Machover's own post-partum concerns in the transition from live performance on the stage of Houston's Wortham Theater Center to the two discs herein.
"My goal in producing this CD," Machover writes, "was to combine the directness and spontaneity of the original performance with sonic enhancements that would really make the work come alive, and also be as close as possible to my musical image of the piece." To this end he confronted, in his home studio, the seven live-performance recordings made during each night of the Houston run, extracting the optimal presentation of each musical phrase in turn, adding electronic enhancement to virtually every measure to shadow singing voices, strengthen bass lines, and endow the entire performance with the proportion of color and vitality of the live performance in relation to the home-listening experience. The result, therefore, is more than the usual live-performance or off-the-air recorded document; it is, instead, a resurrection of Resurrection as a compact-disc artwork - an interactive process, in other words, in the same sense as the interactivity of the Machover hypercello in the hands, say, of Yo-Yo Ma.
Live in the opera house, or equally live as newly created on disc, Resurrection is a work of genuine originality, remarkably skillful in the vocal writing, its music imaginatively tinged - enhanced, in fact - with a light wash of Mussorgsky here, and Prokofiev there. It adds to the paltry store of worthwhile new operas a work of great attractiveness and power.
From Resurrection CD Liner Notes