A Night at the Opera

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Lithuanian composer Arturas Bumšteinas pulls off a nifty conceptual flourish with his Epiloghi (UNSOUNDS 39u) composition, joining the dots between a number of otherwise unrelated fields of endeavour in sound art, theatre design, opera and philosophy. The basic building blocks of the piece are passages of acoustic sound effects, all realised using antique noise-making equipment that you’d have found backstage at the Baroque theatre for when they needed sound effects like thunder or storms at sea. If you’ve ever seen The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, you’ll click that Terry Gilliam has a similar interest in the visual props for that style of theatrical bravado. Bumšteinas and his crew had to scout around various European theatre museums to find these rattling and wheezy noise-makers. If any of this puts you in mind of Luigi Russolo and the Futurists, that is precisely the idea; the subtitle of the work is “Six Ways of Saying Zangtumbtumb”, and there’s a sample from a recording of Marinetti’s intense vocal babbling on one track. Apparently even this doesn’t constitute enough conceptual layers for our young Lithuanian, since he matches the Futurist Orchestra’s “family of noises” with six basic human emotions – desire, hate, love, sadness, joy and wonder – a shopping list which has been culled directly from the lost opera Dafne of 1597, composed by the Italian musician Jacobo Peri, and a work which is generally understood by musicologists and historians to be the first work that we could reasonably describe as an “opera”. Lastly, a 17th-century philosophical treatise by Descartes completes the conceptual structure. Whew. It’s to his credit that Bumšteinas outlines all of this complexity in just two paragraphs of concise, factual sleeve notes.

I suppose the real complexity is embedded in the work, and the listener is rewarded with the enjoyable task of unpacking six tightly-packed suitcases of ideas and sound-art from the album. The theatrical sound effects are used very sparingly, and not at all with the aggression which I always assumed propelled the angry young Futurists when they unleashed their acoustic roarers on an unsuspecting public (although in fact it seems The Art of Noises was nowhere near as furious or violent as we might have supposed). The works flow deliciously, guided by the exquisite harpsichord and piano passages played by Christine Kessler; and while I’m pretty hopeless with classical music, even I can spot the quotations from Beethoven’s ‘Ode To Joy’ which are seamlessly embedded into the fabric of ‘Epilogue 5. Joy’. If I am right, this leads one to suspect that further clever pastiches from musical history are woven elsewhere into this unusual composition. The album concludes with a related piece, the 22-minute ‘Night on the Sailship’ which contains no music at all, and was created exclusively using the historic theatre noise machines and other stage machine components that required cogs, pulleys and winches. It points out what an elaborate and complex machine the Baroque theatre could be; small wonder that the technicians of the day had to be trained like sailors to operate the rigging, as the composer indicates in his notes. One imagines that getting the curtain to raise was an operation as difficult as hoisting the mainsail on board a tea clipper. ‘Night on the Sailship’ casts itself as the soundtrack to this imaginary sailing vessel, full of atmospheric creaks and rattles, and it’s an ingenious stroke of acoustic composition made using inanimate objects in a massively innovative manner. We’ve always found the work of Bumšteinas never less than intriguing, but this is his best yet. From February 2014.

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