On the Bildungsroman and the Dramaturgy of the Avatar in George Lewis’s “Afterword”

OjaiFestival

Founded in 1947, the Ojai Music Festival is a four-day music festival held in Ojai, CA every June. This year’s music director is Vijay Iyer (see his artistic statement here), and he will be highlighting the outstanding legacy of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).

Program Notes for the Ojai Performance of George Lewis’s Afterword (June 9, Libbey Bowl, Ojai CA)

Premiered in 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Afterword is a two-act chamber opera composed by George Lewis to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a collective of African-American musicians founded on the South Side of Chicago in 1965. The libretto, also written by Lewis, is based on the final chapter of his 2008 book A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music—a chapter in which he depicts a fictional meeting between past AACM members who are reunited to discuss the organization’s history and hopes for the future. The discussion draws on recordings of past meetings and interviews conducted by Lewis. The opera presents this meeting as a series of episodes in which the same three singers serve as avatars of the organization’s thoughts and beliefs. I argue in these program notes that there are two central ideas for understanding Afterword: Lewis’s critical revision of the traditional bildungsroman and his dramaturgy of the avatar.

George Lewis refers to Afterword as a “Bildungsoper,” a term derived from the “Bildungsroman”—a coming-of-age novel. Lewis’s choice of terms here is especially significant, since the bildungsroman has traditionally been associated with white European values. In the bildungsroman, as discussed by Jennifer Heinert (2009), a young hero is confronted with a series of obstacles that, once overcome, lead him—the protagonist is usually male—to embrace the values of the dominant (i.e. white European) culture. Instead, Lewis presents a revision of the traditional bildungsroman—a revision that critically engages the genre’s values, assumptions, and conventional narrative techniques. In Afterword, the development of the community is just as important as that of the individual. Like the bildungsromans of Toni Morrison (e.g., The Bluest Eye), Lewis eschews the linear and teleological trajectory of the traditional bildungsroman in favor of the juxtaposition of multiple narratives and historical moments. In doing so, Afterword offers listeners a positive model of development that does not reduce African Americans and women to the role of the other.

Particularly important for understanding Afterword is its dramaturgy of the avatar. An avatar is a virtual image that stands in for a person on the internet or in a game. The dramaturgy of the avatar refers to a type of theater in which the characters on the stage are both human beings and virtual selves. Accordingly, Afterword refrains from depicting actual historical figures in the AACM and instead employs the opera’s characters as proxies for the AACM as an organization. As Uri McMillan (2015) writes about black feminist art and performance, the avatar blurs the boundary between subject and object, allowing black female artists to perform objecthood in a way that extends agency and overcomes everyday limitations.

This aspect of the avatar is evident in Afterword’s emphasis on the body as a site of meaning that extends beyond the confines of the verbal language of the libretto. More specifically, in Sean Griffin’s remarkable staging, the singers also appear as movers, performing a sophisticated gestural language in counterpoint to the verbal text. McMillan also alludes to the “polytemporal” nature of the avatar—that is, it permits performers to transcend linear time and to perform the past in the present. One finds this practice in Lewis’s libretto and its interweaving of testimonials and transcripts removed in time. Afterword does not depict the AACM’s history in a sequential fashion, but rather as a series of historical episodes.

Finally, the concept of the avatar enables us to rethink the relationship of the media involved in opera. Just as the avatar blurs distinctions between the real and virtual worlds, opera similarly transcends the boundaries of its constituent media. As Lewis states: “Sung and spoken voices, instrumental music, and movement become heteroglossic avatars, in a process described by Toni Morrison and others as the expression of a community voice.” Ultimately, in expressing the community voice, Afterword contributes to what Guthrie Ramsey (2012) refers to as the outstanding task of “denaturaliz[ing] some of the conventions that have governed blackness’s presence in opera.”

Works Cited

Lewis, George. A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Heinert, Jennifer Lee Jordan. Narrative Conventions and Race in the Novels of Toni Morrison. New York: Routledge, 2009.

McMillan, Uri. Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance. New York: New York University Press, 2015.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.

Ramsey, Guthrie. “Foreword: Singing in the Dark.” In Blackness in Opera, edited by Naomi Andre, Karen Bryan, and Eric Saylor, ix-x. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012.

(These program notes also appear on the Ojai Music Festival website.)

The Theater of the Listener’s Imagination in Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture

Program Notes for Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, Op. 62

As Scott Burnham writes in his book Beethoven Hero, what makes Beethoven’s music so exciting to listen to is that the listener identifies with the emotions and can project his or her own experiences onto it. In other words, the music does not describe just one story. It is flexible enough to support multiple readings. This observation also applies to Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, which on the surface is about a Roman general Coriolan who abandons his country to fight for the enemy Volscians. Does the music convey Coriolan’s inner turmoil, or does it depict his dialogue with his mother and wife – who plead with him not to attack his fatherland? The flexibility of the music permits either reading, as well as the listener’s own feeling of identification with the emotions expressed in the music.

Beethoven composed this work in 1807 for his friend Heinrich von Collin’s play Coriolan. Collin’s play is based on Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, which also served as the source of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. In contrast to Shakespeare, Collin shifts the drama inward – the play is about Coriolan’s inner moral dilemma – and has the protagonist kill himself at the end.

PoussinCoriolanPainting

Nicolas Poussin, Coriolanus, 1652-3, Musée Nicolas Poussin, Les Andelys.

The overture is in sonata form, and begins with an introductory section consisting of a series of fortissimo chords separated by rests. The first theme is in minor and sounds unstable. The second theme, now in the relative major, is lyrical and more stable. While the first theme suggests Coriolan’s dark, brooding thoughts, the second theme conjures up images of his pleading mother and wife. The development section develops smaller motifs taken from the exposition. The music shifts downward and features several beautiful exchanges between the strings and the woodwinds. The return of the introductory material marks the beginning of the recapitulation. The first theme is shortened, and the second one is expanded. The introductory material returns one last time, now followed by a coda in which the first theme is dissolved into silence.

At the time that Beethoven composed the Coriolan Overture, he was living in Vienna and was eager to secure a more permanent position as the house composer of the Theater an der Wien. Beethoven hoped eventually to compose an opera based on a libretto by Collin. In the meantime, Beethoven thought that the overture would demonstrate his theatrical style to his prospective employers. Though Beethoven was not offered the job at the Theater an der Wien, the directors were nevertheless impressed with the dramatic intensity of his music. And while Collin’s play quickly disappeared after its revival in 1807, the overture took on a life of its own as a concert piece. Beethoven’s work became a model for generations of composers after him, and remains a staple of the symphonic repertoire to this day.

Recording Recommendations

Harnoncourt, Nikolaus. Beethoven: Overtures. Recorded with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, November 1993. Teldec 13140, 1996. CD. [Link to YouTube]

Further Reading

Burnham, Scott. Beethoven Hero. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Kregor, Jonathan. “Expression, Musical Painting, and the Concert Overture.” In Program Music, 39-68. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Swafford, Jan. Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

Note: These program notes were written by Alexander K. Rothe for the Gustavus Symphony Orchestra’s 2016 Malaysian Tour. The concert will be held at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang, Malaysia on June 25, 2016.