Quadrature of the Parabola

Full marks for effort, research, and labour-intensiveness to US composer James Dashow for Archimedes: A Planetarium Opera (NEUMA RECORDS NEUMA 121).

It’s presented as a three-disc set, with a libretto credited to Cary Plotkin and Ted Weiss, and a number of accomplished opera singers from New York taking the lead parts and narration. In between the slow and portentous spoken-word interludes, and the extremely “difficult” atonal tangled-up sung passages, we have jarring electronic music made with computers and pre-recorded parts, plus I think some guitar elements – the guitars undergo “timbral changes” throughout, the better to portray the growth of the lead character Archimedes. Hearing it on disc probably doesn’t convey the richness of the original incarnation, since it was presented as a multi-media installation…inside a planetarium! After he’d been impressed by laser light shows in other such venues, Dashow devoted some nine years to realising this highly contemporary take on the Archimedes story, and even found confirmatory evidence that that justified an intellectual link between our man from Syracuse and the heavenly bodies, so the planetarium turned out to be an apt choice of venue.

Dashow’s got a great story in his hands; my main reservation is that this album takes so long to tell that story. I feel that somewhere, in amongst his impressive efforts towards a layered, multi-media extravaganza, Dashow forgot the salient parts of what it was he wanted to communicate in the first place. For instance, it requires over 20 minutes of playing time, replete with prologues and scene-setting, just to introduce us to the work – and that’s before we even get to the “Young Archimedes” section. This makes me think of recent turgid DC Comics Universe movies that dwell for far too long on retelling the superhero’s origin story, following some misplaced ideas about “authenticity”, and endlessly defer getting to the action. To be fair, it looks like the story does present an interesting angle on Archimedes, showing him facing a historical dilemma about whether to apply his mechanical skills to help save a Roman city, or remaining true to his precepts of mathematics and physics. There’s also the unorthodox notion that the scientist might not have been an actual human being at all, and rather some form of “experiment conducted by cosmic powers”, an idea which probably seemed more plausible if you saw this performed in the darkened auditorium.

Rather heavy going, but an admirable achievement at some level. (07/01/2022)