Soprano Carmen Pelton (left) and actress Donnah Welby portray different aspects of Clytemnestra's character in the premiere of Roger Reynolds's Justice. photo by Larica Perry
The sonorous spaces of the Thomas Jefferson Building's Great Hall have been used for performances before, but composer Roger Reynolds's new operatic work, Justice, marks the first time a piece has been written that features the reverberant acoustics of the Great Hall as an integral part of the work.
Mr. Reynolds discovered the Great Hall several years ago while visiting the Library of Congress Music Division to discuss the Library's acquisition of his papers. Music Division Chief Jon Newsom took him on a tour. "When we entered the incomparable, vaulted space of the Thomas Jefferson Building's Great Hall," the composer wrote, "I was stunned and exhilarated. I knew immediately that I wanted to make music for and in this space." The result was Justice, commissioned for the celebration of the Library's Bicentennial in 2000, by the Julian E. Berla and Freda Hauptman Berla Fund in the Library of Congress, with additional support from the 2nd Theatre Olympics in Japan. The world premiere of the fully staged work, funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, took place on Nov. 30 and was repeated Dec. 1.
Written for actress, soprano, percussionist, multichannel computer sound and real-time surround sound, Justice is based on the Greek tragedy of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. The text was adapted by the composer from Aeschylus and Euripides. All three performers--actress, soprano, and percussionist--portray aspects of Clytemnestra's character as she contemplates her husband's return from the Trojan War and his subsequent death at her hand in retribution for the death of their daughter, Iphigenia. The computer sound uses pre-processed sounds as well as instruments and voices and takes on the role of both Agamemnon and the Greek chorus at various times. It is heard through an eight-channel speaker system, with six speakers surrounding the main floor audience and four more facing into the cavernous spaces of the second-tier galleries. The three performers are also individually miked, allowing an independent real-time "spatialization" of the sounds they make as they perform. Creating this sonic environment requires a three-man tech crew--each one a performer in his own right. The total effect, combined with the natural reverberation inherent in the Great Hall, is otherworldly. The sound appears to be pulled from the performers and bounced around the main floor before spiraling upward and disappearing high above. It draws the audience into the drama. As Clytemnestra sits at the foot of the Great Hall's grand marble staircase and then ascends it, we are there in the palace with her.
The challenges of producing such a work are formidable. Musical Adviser Harvey Sollberger noted in particular the difficulty of directing performers from such diverse worlds as theater, music and computers. It was necessary to find a common language that would have meaning across the three disciplines. Rehearsals proved to be problematic too. The Great Hall is a public space and provides access to several of the Library's reading rooms. Rehearsals could not begin until after the building closed and the set had to be broken down each night. The cast and crew worked until well after midnight on the nights preceding the opening.
Premiering a new work can be risky for a performer. This production of Justice was fortunate to have an outstanding cast, many of whom are known and respected for their work with new repertoire. Soprano Carmen Pelton is recognized for her interpretations of contemporary music and recently premiered Mark Adamo's Cantate Domino and Augusta Read Thomas's Ring Out, Wild Bells, to the Wild Sky. Actress Donnah Welby's previous roles as a member of Off-Broadway's Pearl Theatre Company include Clytemnestra in Electra and Andromache in The Trojan Women. And percussionist Steven Schick, a former director of the prestigious percussion program at the Darmstadt Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt, Germany, is a champion of contemporary percussion music as both a teacher and a performer. Tech crew members Peter Otto, audio systems and software designer; Josef Kucera, chief audio engineer; and Ralph Pitt, associate audio engineer, are colleagues of Mr. Reynolds at the University of California at San Diego. All have worked on previous projects with the composer. The production was directed by Henry Fonte, who has spent most of his career as an actor, playwright and director developing and promoting new work.
Roger Reynolds has been the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for his string orchestra composition Whispers Out of Time. In 1972 he founded the Center for Music Experiment (now the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts) at the University of California at San Diego, where he is currently a professor of music. Highly respected as a teacher, he has conducted master classes around the world and held visiting appointments at the University of Illinois, Yale University, Amherst College and the City University of New York. His works have been featured at many international festivals and he counts among his commissions those from Lincoln Center, the BBC, the Los Angeles and Philadelphia orchestras, the British Arts Council, Radio France and Ircam.
Mr. Reynolds's early interest in the spatial dimension of music led to his involvement with computer technology and has become a hallmark of his work. He prefers to work with natural sound that has been transformed in some way rather than with synthesized sound. The computer enables this transformation, and allows the auditory experience to be shared with an audience. He acknowledges that when he composes for a certain space, the work is not intended to be site specific. The re-creation of the piece is possible by means of a separate technical score that describes each desired sonic effect, what it adds, and where it occurs. What the technical score does not explain is how to do it. Mr. Reynolds has purposely left out hardware and software specifications due to how quickly they become obsolete.
Justice forms a part of the composer's The Red Act Project, a series of works based on the Agamemnon tragedies that will result in a full-length theatrical work, The Red Act. The first piece to come out of the project is The Red Act Arias, which premiered in 1997 at the BBC Proms Festival. Mr. Reynolds is at work on the next phase, Illusion, which he considers the complement of Justice. It will focus on the relationship between Agamemnon, Iphigenia and the prophetess Cassandra.
This production of Justice was videotaped for rebroadcast on the Web as part of the Performing Arts Encyclopedia.
Written by Robin Rausch, a specialist in the Music Division, while on detail to the Public Affairs Office as part of the Library of Congress' Leadership Development Program. Originally published in the LC Information Bulletin, January 2002.