On Dealing With Time (Writing an Opera)

“Short Cut” of Part III, Scene I from Hunger, Darmstadt Contemporary Opera Workshop

I recently completed the second scene of Part III from Hunger and am now beginning work on the electronics, but before doing so I wanted to take a few days to reflect a bit and process some of my thoughts on the whole operation. I was asked to write a blog post for The Industry‘s upcoming premiere of Part III in Los Angeles, and although this article wound up being a bit less conversational than what we’ll eventually be publishing there, nonetheless I thought it might be worth putting out into the void…

On Dealing With Time (Writing an Opera)
In setting out to write a Multimedia Opera, one of the earliest decisions made was that the subject material would explore psychological fragility and deterioration in a way that permeates each element of the work. As one could argue that all opera utilizes multimedia, I felt it was essential that all aspects — including musical material, electronic processing, video, text, and physicality of performance — should be considered equal and structurally integrated with one another. I sought a source for the libretto that would lend itself to fragmentation, in regard to both narrative and the text itself, and soon found Knut Hamsun’s Sult (Hunger), published in 1890. One of the first examples of modern psychologically driven literature and a precursor to stream of consciousness techniques, this demanded a librettist able to balance flow and disjunction, abstraction and rich imagery. I found this collaborator in poet Darcie Dennigan, whose work speaks on a highly visceral level, and at first reading I was struck by the tactility of her words.

Rather than a faithful adaptation of Hamsun’s novel, Darcie and I chose to create a new work that would retain the essence of Sult. One of the challenges would be realizing the tremendously intimate, claustrophobic quality of Hamsun’s writing on the operatic stage. Henning Carlsen’s 1966 film adaptation captures actor Per Oscarsson’s incredible subtlety of expression and the intensity of his erratic behavior in a way that the medium of film so elegantly lends itself to. That subtlety is something that can too easily be lost in opera, with a physical distance separating the performers from the audience, and a traditional focus on ‘beautiful’ singing rather than a true embodiment of the psychological state and consequent behavior of its characters that a work may attempt to convey. Hamsun himself felt that the intricacies of the mind should serve as the main object of modern literature, and my goal then became to find means to capture this ‘internal’, claustrophobic quality with a comparably filmic subtlety of expression. Darcie and I set out with the intent to develop a work that would not be driven by dialogue or actions, but rather psychological and emotional states exploring the edges of comprehensibility.

Hunger is designed in such a way that the protagonist is realized as a composite between the soprano and baritone, representing division of self, intellectual deterioration, and volatility of the psyche. In pursuit of meaningful, structural integration of multimedia elements, this fragmentation became an underlying theme in all elements of the work, eschewing dramaturgical coherence in favor of exploring a multiplicity of potential narrative threads that are alluded to but never explicitly confirmed. One example is the way in which Ylajali, a third persona, appears in several manifestations throughout the work. Our protagonist’s state of mind is imposed upon a (potentially) living, breathing person with whom he comes into contact; we observe both her physical existence and a distortion – reality and a simultaneous projection of his needs and desires in both the physical and digital realms performing discrete, contrasting actions. It is never clear whether Ylajali is simply an imagined psychological construction and extension of self, or if the actions performed are indeed her own. This multiplicity is paralleled in all elements of the work – whether doubles of the characters or performers themselves; the live-capture and processing of video and electronics or fixed, pre-recorded media; or ambiguity of text and dramaturgical situations that are purposefully ambiguous or contradictory.

An important consideration has been the issue of what might be referred to as “operatic time”, a construction that has become the norm through an enduring tradition of arias that serve to suspend the unfolding of dramatic events and allow the exposition of a character’s emotional or psychological reaction in a neat and tidy 2-4 minute presentation of one idea before moving to the next. This sectionalization and temporal expansion is a convenient dramaturgical strategy that has continued to pervade contemporary opera, typically utilized by composers or directors who subscribe dogmatically to the idea of a linear narrative that must be communicated as clearly as possible, working under the assumption that the audience needs time to understand what is taking place, and using direct, 1:1 representation to gently guide them from point A to point B.


I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in the disorientation that happens between the initial exposure to one cell of semantic content and comprehension of what has taken place, causing the participants to continually re-evaluate any preliminary assumptions they have made – in setting up a situation or state of being where the relationship between these cells can be explored. The incorporation of multimedia opens the door to what one could refer to as “cinematic time”: providing the opportunity to present simultaneous or rapidly fluctuating streams of information. Consequently, there is potential for alternative temporal strategies such as compression or acceleration, jump cuts between seemingly unrelated cells, or juxtaposition of contradictory materials.

Through purposefully utilizing fragmentation and obfuscation of text, sound, and visual elements to heighten incomprehensibility, the participant (audience) needn’t be comfortably spoon-fed a clear linear narrative, but rather immersed in this environment and compelled to engage with the work through more imaginative means. With each piece of information they are presented with, the context of the original cell is transformed, perpetually suggesting a number of equally viable scenarios or interpretations; it is a puzzle without all the pieces, and you are left to imagine the implications of each and every possible outcome.

There are a number of ways in which these ideas are realized musically aside from treatment of text and narrative, but perhaps most salient is the way in which temporal events are governed using checkpoints (senza tempo) instead of regular metric divisions. The resulting musical situation produces malleable simultaneities rather than precise synchronizations. The conductor, singers, and ensemble members must react spontaneously and organically to one another, effectively a means to ‘bend time’ around the singers – who are thus enabled to perform with raw immediacy. These ideas transfer to harmony and musical materials in the diffusion or neutralization of pitch content through the use of extended techniques and indefinite pitch sounds, resulting in hazy and ambiguous sonorities, analogous to the dramaturgical and temporal ambiguities employed.

Ligeti once said of his work Aventures that “something happens, but I do not know what it is, and you do not know what it is”. Similarly, Aperghis stated in 2010: “My aim is that one never really knows what it is that they are doing. You can come a bit closer but if you knew, you would stop listening to the music. If you say: ‘Ok, this is that’, it’s all over. People pull in their antennae and that’s it.” Where Ligeti and Aperghis both have approached select works by building some semblance of
narrative from small fragments, such as individual phonemes, I might say that in Hunger I’ve used the same guiding principles from an inverse point through my collaborative work with Darcie. It isn’t that the work is without narrative, but that the narrative oscillates with explicit purpose between intelligibility and unintelligibility.

I’ve chosen to discuss Hunger from a technical standpoint to flesh out some of the ideas that I’ve been subconsciously considering throughout the compositional process, but also precisely for the reasons stated above – anything more that I could say in regard to its content, my own interpretation, or feelings towards the events that unfold, would only restrict the potential depth and scope of the participant’s experience and imagination.

– Jason Thorpe Buchanan