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Lincoln Center Festival 2004, Tone Test (world premiere), Clark Studio Theatre, New York City, July 23, 2004 (BH)

 

Music and libretto: Nicholas Brooke

Director: David Herskovits

 

Music Director: Alan Johnson

Set and Costume Design: Carol Bailey

Lighting Design: Beverly Emmons

Technical Director: Dan Dryden

 

Cast:

Anna Case: Dina Emerson

Bob: Gregory Purnhagen

 

Live Sound Mixer, Keyboard: Christopher Tignor

 

Sometimes after experiencing a new, unexpectedly stimulating work of art, a period of disorientation sets in, and that is exactly what happened in the first 48 hours after seeing Nicholas Brooke’s two-character tornado called Tone Test.

 

Shortly after the turn of the century, Thomas Edison’s remarkable phonograph made its debut to a perhaps skeptical, mildly disbelieving world. As part of the public relations campaign for the new device, Edison enlisted one Anna Case, who occasionally sang at the Metropolitan Opera, to conduct "tone tests" all over the country. From 1915 to 1920, audiences heard the real Anna Case, as well as her recorded voice played back on the new device, and attempted to tell the difference between them. Interestingly, later it emerged that Ms. Case had deliberately tried to sing like her voice on the phonograph and further, as a not insignificant aside, she was reputed to have had something of an intimate encounter with Mr. Edison.

 

Nick Brooke has take this fascinating bit of history and created a chamber opera out of it, starting with sound samples from Edison’s original Diamond Disc recordings. I mention the term "opera" only because some people have referred to it as such, but the word doesn’t really do justice to what Brooke has created, which seems more in the realm of "performance art." Carol Bailey’s simple but handsome set is dominated by an enormous sepia photograph of Edison, with four ukuleles hanging at left, in increasing stages of destruction. Scattered about are piles of what appear to be some of the original discs – much thicker than their LP successors – an overstuffed chair amid some potted palms. And of course, a phonograph.

 

Let me try to describe what Brooke asks of his performers. One of the first scenes has Ms. Case saying, "Watch my mouth," followed by her singing only the first few syllables of the choral phrase from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, "Freude sch—." This is then interwoven with the first few syllables of an all-too-familiar song made popular by Gene Kelly, "Just sing—." Then imagine, if you can, these two excerpts forming a sort of strange fugue, and then these two melodic kernels are further combined with a recorded fragment of a foxtrot called One Rose in the Back. All the while the singers are interacting with the original Diamond Disc recordings, sometimes singing "with" them, sometimes in counterpoint "to" them. Underlying all of this are long, deeply resonant electronic tones, generated by Christopher Tignor (in sensational form on keyboards and at the mixing board), that seem to anchor the twittering, eclectically drawn vocal parts. Brooke has studied with Princeton composer Paul Lansky, whose ingenious work, among other things, deconstructs musical phrases, shattering them into hundreds of pieces and then reassembling them again. Similarly, Brooke takes his palette of sounds, songs, and arias, and then asks his performers to create a sort of live aural collage using these elements, all blended into a virtually seamless mix of recontextualized elements.

 

I found it completely intoxicating. The issues Brooke raises rush by almost as fast as his music: live performance vs. recorded, electronic music vs. acoustic, and certainly the blending of Broadway, classical, rock and electronics to create a new, difficult-to-categorize sound. Some in the audience were not amused. Even though the work is scarcely an hour long, when it ended I heard at least one person sigh, "Thank God," although I hardly felt that way. As with composers like Lansky, Steve Reich, Georges Aperghis and others, Brooke is experimenting with the rhythms created by repetitive patterns, and in a larger sense with the boundaries of music and speech. And while Brooke is anything but a hardcore minimalist, to my ears he does share something of their concerns and perhaps a willingness to explore similar subtle evolutions.

 

The performers were excellent, relying on surefooted stage instructions by director David Herskovits. As Anna Case, Dina Emerson, a regular with Meredith Monk’s ensemble, not only met the composer’s extreme vocal demands with great assurance, but captured the underlying pathos in the character (which to be fair, the libretto didn’t always project) – an artist who has become complicit in being used, and was probably more than a bit unhappy about it. Gregory Purnhagen’s Bob, deliberately somewhat ambiguous, seemed to interject the present with an alarming, slightly smooth unease – perfectly suited to the jarring juxtapositions in the score, especially when he adopts a slight rock star persona near the end. Both of these singers must be commended for rising to an unusually demanding occasion with elegant singing, sympathetic characterization and just a general willingness to go along with the composer’s ideas. Not all performers would have this kind of trust. And another word of praise for Mr. Tignor, whose electronic "orchestra" was every bit as crucial to Mr. Brooke’s concept as the startling performances of the vocalists.

 

Brooke’s laboratory of a piece raises so many questions – on sound reproduction, on the act of listening, on the natural and the fabricated, and all with a slightly sad subtext of how an artist can be used or abused commercially – but wisely doesn’t attempt to answer them all. Quite an evening.

 

Bruce Hodges



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