A history lesson of sorts
Morality play has message about not learning from past
Two warring impulses clash in the music of Nicholas Vines. There is the urge to communicate, to speak directly to the listener, and then there is the drive to make things problematic, to inhibit easy assimilation. On Vines’s website, the composer describes his aesthetic as being “founded on consciously naive idealism which, for better or worse, is scoured by the realities of the world.’’
That’s a heady description, but it points to some balance between complexity and pleasure, however precariously achieved.
“I don’t want it to be a sort of drug, in other words,’’ says Vines, whose new opera, “Loose, Wet, Perforated,’’ premieres tonight at Boston Conservatory, courtesy of Guerilla Opera. “It’s something that people feel: I got something out of that because I made an effort. They don’t have to make too much of an effort, because then you lose all the pleasure. But somehow the pleasure is earned from both sides.’’
Vines, a 35-year-old Sydney native, recently returned to his home city to become director of music at the Sydney Grammar School. He holds a doctorate from Harvard University and spent many years as a resident tutor at that school’s Leverett House. His music has been played by a number of local groups, including Firebird Ensemble and the Callithumpian Consort.
“Passion, complexity, imagination,’’ wrote Stephen Drury, the Callithumpian’s music director, in an e-mail when asked to describe Vines’s music. “Maybe I should add outrageousness as well.’’ The mixture results in “complex landscapes that get filled with so much activity it’s hard to take it all in - like real life, there’s always something to pay attention to, and always so many more things that slip by that you can’t catch everything the first time through.’’
Part of the reason Vines packs so much into his music, the composer says, is that “people my age and younger are just so used to being bombarded by so many sources of information simultaneously. It’s a way of thinking that was unthinkable before YouTube and multiple browsers open on multiple sites. And I’ve always found that interesting - is there a way of communicating that idea in music successfully?’’
For all his contemporary concerns, Vines reached deep into history for the model for “Loose, Wet, Perforated.’’ The opera is a contemporary version of a medieval morality play, a genre in which characters were embodiments of abstract ideas rather than fully fledged individuals. Picking up on a distinction introduced by Friedrich Nietzsche, Vines sets up a dichotomy between Wet, who somewhat naively embodies traditional notions of piety and virtue, and Loose, a strong, self-interested character whose ethic is, the composer says, “basically the law of the jungle.’’
The conflict between them plays out in the four “ordeals’’ that make up the heart of the opera. “Wet, the good character, he feels like he’s always doing the right thing,’’ Vines explains. “And things just keep going wrong. He can’t read the world, and so he just kind of falls down the food chain.’’ Meanwhile, Loose “goes from strength to strength even though she does dreadful things.’’ There is an epiphany, after which the whole thing begins again, with the characters swapping roles. For Vines, there is an important message about not learning from the past.
“Something that’s very characteristic of youth culture, the culture that I grew up in, is that it doesn’t have any sense of history. It’s constantly here and now. And then five years later people do the same thing they did before; it just feels new and fresh because no one has talked about what happened five years before, or 20 years before or 100. And personally, I find that really worrying.’’
Writing the score for the opera, Vines made an intentional decision to make it sparer, less dense than some of his other pieces. Like other works composed for Guerilla Opera, it’s written for a four-person instrumental ensemble - in this case, clarinet, saxophone, trombone, and percussion, plus prerecorded electronics. “The idea of this ensemble is as a kind of village band; they’re sort of playing for the carnival that is the story.’’
Lev Mamuya’s ‘Eagle’
The 10th anniversary of 9/11 may have passed but at least one more musical memorial is still to be heard. “The Eagle: Song Without Words’’ was written as a memorial to the victims of the tragedy by the 15-year-old cellist and composer Lev Mamuya. The piece, for oboe and strings, will be premiered on Sunday in a Winsor Music concert that also includes music of Haydn and Mendelssohn.
David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org