Tuesday, February 23, 2016


Mnimal music is a maximum argument against death penalty.


This opera is for me a mini opera with only two voices and practically only two characters. But why not? The most surprising element is the reference to Franz Kafka. That’s another age, that’s the time of anti-Semite totalitarianism and anti-spiritual communism, and that does not, those do not exist any more. So what does the subject of this opera becomes as for its modern meaning in our time?

The story is the long, very long explanation of a special old-time way of executing someone condemned to death, some industrialized or mechanized medieval chamber of torture. The execution is identified to a machine that will kill the condemned person in six hours, mind you six hours, six, Solomon’s number or the hour when Jesus is arrested. This element is meaningful in an anti-Semite perspective but that perspective has disappeared completely from our consciousness, though the two sides of anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish and anti-Islamic hostility, segregation and violence, are well and kicking in our Western societies. Who still knows apart from the few educated people concerned, that symbolical value of the number six? And if it is associated to Jesus arrested by the priests of the Jewish Temple in the “sixth hour,” it does not make sense if there is not the ninth hour, the hour when Jesus died on the cross, early enough for him to be brought down and buried before nightfall since after nightfall on Friday it is Shabbat.

If such symbolical values that were extremely strong with Fritz Lang and Franz Kafka have today eroded in value and power, what does this long execution mean?

Long indeed but with an incident since one wrist bond gets loose and forces the whole process to wait for a new wrist bond to arrive to replace the broken one. But particularly long since the Officer is explaining, ro a completely estranged visitor, the way the machine works, with even some mechanical sounds or noise from rare time to rare time. The prisoner is bound belly down naked on a table and a harrow comes down slowly from over the prisoner with many needles and this harrow is going to write the crime for which the man is executed in his back and that will last six hours with some felt or cotton ball in the prisoner’s mouth to prevent his shouting and speaking. Yet after two hours this ball will be taken out and some porridge will be presented to the man in a bowl or plate and he will be able to eat what he can reach with his tongue, nailed or pinned the way he is on the table by the descending be-needled harrow.

This is cruel for sure, inhumane and the length of the process in itself is enough to make it absurd. Even the Nazis tried to make the gassing of the prisoners as quick as possible and it lasted nothing but a few minutes in itself and maybe a couple of hours after coming off the train. All the more inhumane because there is only one prisoner! In Auschwitz and other concentration camps the human beings that were going to be gassed were first turned into some kind of human cattle, not even chattel, because of the mass of people moving together to their ordeal and execution which no longer was an execution but slaughter in a slaughterhouse. Here we have only one prisoner and thus he remains a human being. He is not slaughtered he is slowly put to death as a show for the audience of children and women along with men. From purely a barbaric inhuman crime we shift to a barbaric inhumane atrocity. Just have it televised on a couple of giant screens and we could reach the level of a crime against humanity.

But the story is even harsher because the officer represents the old time, the time of the Old Commander who was a faithful believer in this execution procedure, and he defends the old method now the New Commander is obviously against it to the point that the prisoner is freed at the end and the machine is destroyed, dismantled. Times are changing and we are surprised in the ellipse between the beginning when the condemned man was declared as going to be executed for no idenbtified reason, for no specified guilt, after no real trial and right to defend himself, even worse without the prisoner being told he was going to be executed for any crime at all, just led into the procedure and the executing machine in total unawareness of what was going to happen. And the end is the second side of the ellipse: the release of the prisoner, the dismantling of the machine as the result of this total unjust injustice, this true miscarriage of justice, a justice saved right in the nick of time by the New Commander.

Then the declaration of the visitor at the end that he is against the death penalty is nearly superfluous. We had understood the only meaning is the debunking in gross terms, including the full nakedness of the prisoner – in the libretto’s stage directions at least since the few pictures of the production of the opera do not show a naked prisoner, prudery and modesty oblige –, the full denunciation of the death penalty as being “unjust” and “inhumane.” But the opera goes slightly further since the prisoner is released and the accompanying soldier goes away along with him but a single massive needle falls down onto the Officer who is so attached to the old times and pierces his head entering through his forehead, front-wise and not in the back. You cannot be more explicit about the ritualistic vengeance and sacrifice of the representative of the past for the future to be able to emerge from a chaotic present.

But then you have the right to tell me all that is very semantic, but what does the music have to do with all that?

It has to do a lot because you cannot imagine a more harrowing music in the world with violins and other strings working on repetitive two or there notes that sound like a hand saw cutting through a log, go and come back, go and come back, on and on, forever and without any end and only very light variations not in rhythm or even melody line, just going up and down one or two degrees on the scale, shifting from one instrument to the next. The harrow that is descending with its dozens of needles to carve the condemned skin with the justification of his execution till death ensues finds in this harrowing music its perfect illustration. That’s what the world would be if it were abandoned to its own death instinct and killing bliss. The voices are just the same kind of humdrum and extremely crushed down, bulldozed diction with here and there one syllable jumping out like a cry, a yell, nothing else, a short-circuited howl that will never get any width, length or density. The only really contrast is between the two voices, one, the Visitor’s, generally targeting the high pitched range of a tenor’s voice without really reaching anything like a countertenor’s range, and the other, the Officer’s, generally targeting the lower pitched range of the tenor’s voice without really being a baritone, certainly not a bass.

We thus have a completely suspended dramatic atmosphere and situation that never really comes to any resolution. It is like an aborted event, an accidental evolution that does not implement principles but only incidental incremental changes due to the shift from one person to the next, from one generation to the next. There is no democracy, no human rights or principles, just the slow erosion of an old system under time-wear and nothing else.

This opera both in its libretto and its minimalist music is a tremendously pessimistic vision of the evolution of pour modern world. You may think it is justified, or you might ponder it is excessive, but that is not my job to choose. This opera is for me a self-contained lamentation on the barbarity of humanity and its impossibility to control its evolution that is just the result of circumstances, which is nothing but realistic if you look at the minuscule speck of dust humanity is in the cosmos. In other words Philip Glass is the composer of the time of black holes that force us to maybe start questioning all our certitudes about the evolution of our universe. The big bang has lost all ground and any creative moment is just blind ideology.


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