I think some of our group was surprised that Ars Moriendi was the first half of the performance — we’d been talking about Orpheus during the dinner preceding and I don’t think anyone knew the story behind Ars Moriendi. Mackey told us the story he writes about here, recounting the death of his father and the musical ingredients of the piece, from wheezing breaths and medical machinery to Danny Boy and the laments of the 16th and 17th century. During intermission, I heard that one Theoroian wished that Mackey hadn’t told the story — he wanted to come to the music without preconceptions — but I disagreed. I liked being able to pick apart the elements and unravel the inspirations.
While I connected with Ars Moriendi (the art of dying) on a few levels, for instance on the level of medical music, very evocative of a certain intersection of man and machine and the end of life, I ultimately find that in general modern classical music really doesn’t tap into my primal emotions. Listen to a sample here and see what you think. It’s intellectually interesting but I need a melody or a beat to really move me. The second half had more of that!
Orpheus Unsung is called a wordless opera in some places — the guitar is the voice. Electric guitar, percussion, three dancers, masking tape, and a video. That’s what makes up the hour-long second “half” of the evening. I really liked Orpheus Unsung. Melody and emotion in the music, not quite so intellectual or reserved. The dancers seemed to be playing the role of the Greek chorus and Cerberus the three-headed dog of Hades, as well as Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus was a guy in a bowling shirt, which brought to me an absurd touch of the Big Lebowski, but the bowling shirt was also about the path from life to death and back, and at the same time about blindness and sight (since the masking tape that formed the path and echoed the shirt was also the blindfold that Orpheus wore in this retelling of the story). The struggle between the dancers that results in the removal of the blindfold and the fateful look made me rethink the myth. What I remember (and looked up) is that Orpheus doubts and so looks back — Eurydice is just a passive, literally silent follower in that version of the myth. (Orpheus doubts in part because he can’t even hear her footsteps.) But in the danced presentation on Thursday, Eurydice plays a role, and it’s so much truer to marriage and partnership as I know it. Who is trying to remove the blindfold from Orpheus and who is trying to prevent it? It’s not clear and it keeps changing. Eurydice goes back and forth between Why won’t you look at me? don’t you really want to know I’m here? and You can’t look or you’ll lose me. Orpheus has a similar struggle. Don’t we all? But in this wordless dialogue between them, played out in the dancers’ hands, the real tragedy of relationship is played out. It’s not just one guy overcome by love and a bit of distrust, it’s the tragedy of two people who want to be seen, be together, but can’t quite control the cost.
The videography was well-done, I think, adding to the story and overall not putting too much stimulus into an already saturated setting. I loved the way the dancers interacted with the space and the musicians and the music. Along with their dancing and hanging out on street corners, they made some of the music as well, transforming between being roadies, Cerberus, and the fractured soul of one messed-up guy. Maybe that’s why some of the Theoroians liked the first piece better: Ars Moriendi is a piece of modern classical music, while Orpheus Unsung is a multimedia wordless opera. As such the music is essential but not at all the sole focus. It’s part of a whole that doesn’t even really make sense unless you know the story and follow the visual conversation unfolding.