John Aylward to Release Chamber Opera OBLIVION, Inspired By Dante's Purgatorio, Via Soundtrack And Film

Aylward takes those elements to spellbinding extremes in this new work exploring the value of self-knowledge, and the nature of redemption.

By: Sep. 26, 2023
John Aylward to Release Chamber Opera OBLIVION, Inspired By Dante's Purgatorio, Via Soundtrack And Film

On Friday, September 22, 2023, composer and librettist John Aylward will release the soundtrack for his one-act chamber opera Oblivion on New Focus Recordings, with a feature-length film through Graham Swon's Ravenserodd Productions scheduled to follow in fall 2023. Aylward takes those elements to spellbinding extremes in this new work exploring the value of self-knowledge, the nature of redemption, and our capacity to distinguish truth from falsehood. Drawing inspiration from Dante's Purgatorio, Oblivion takes us inside a surreal netherworld where two disoriented Wanderers struggle to make sense of their existence, unsure of whose account to trust - or whether they even want the answers. The scene is set by Aylward's score for four voices, backed by viola, cello, double bass, electric guitar and electronics. Notes by Dan Lippel, who performs the electric guitar part, call the score "beguiling and mysterious ... virtuosically intertwining spoken and sung texts with angular figures in the instruments. ... The closing material in the ensemble has an ethereal and disembodied ambience, as if the musical figures themselves are circles in Purgatory."

Starring baritone Tyler Boque and soprano Nina Guo in the roles of the two Wanderers, Aylward's opera also features baritone Cailin Marcel Manson as the inscrutable Hunter, proprietor of the mysterious lair the two Wanderers have stumbled into. There, the Wanderers also encounter The Bound Man, sung by tenor Lukas Papenfusscline, an enigmatic figure they are warned against approaching. As the narrative unfolds, much is revealed even as other matters are shrouded in shadow and deceit. The Bound Man attempts to convince the Wanderers he was once a benevolent King, and the two Wanderers are identified as earthly lovers who died before entering the afterlife, leaving behind all memories of themselves, each other, and the dark events that brought about their deaths. Ultimately, the Wanderers are faced with a choice: drink from a fountain that will restore their memories and self-knowledge - or venture into the wilderness in search of a new destiny, with no real knowledge of their quest or destination. The closing scenes bring together trickery, denial, fear of the unknown - and fear of one's own self - as each Wanderer chooses a path, with a revealing final twist.

Along with Lippel on electric guitar, Oblivion's instrumental score features Laura Williamson on viola, Issei Herr on cello, Greg Chudzik on contrabass, and Aylward himself on electronics - used primarily atmospherically, fashioning ambient spaces within which action of the voices and ensemble unfolds. Stratis Minakakis leads the ensemble as music director and conductor, with Tianyi Wang as electronic sound design assistant. Through seven scenes, the music guides a narrative "that teems with existential wonder and pathos," Lippel writes. A prologue evoking "a foreboding windscape" gives way to a first scene where "the Wanderer's disorientation is captured in the halting vocal part and the juxtaposed material in the ensemble." As the two Wanderers take in their otherworldly surroundings, "dialogue unfolds over woozy glissandi and delicate trills." The King is revealed amid arias "dramatically underscored with virtuosic contrabass writing that is rarely heard in operatic settings." As the Wanderers contemplate the dawning truth of their predicament, "Aylward paints their evolving comprehension with pensive harmonies and timbres that evoke an intimate and personal melancholy." Climactic scenes are set to "dense orchestrations of swooping glissandi, chordal swells, and technically masterful ensemble singing" - giving way, in the end, to "Aylward's hollow Lynchian windscape from the opening ... a dark echo of a world perhaps bereft."

In his composer's note for Oblivion, Aylward cites the influence of Dante, along with scholar and author Joseph Campbell, known for his work The Power of Myth. In his depiction of the wild, Aylward captures Campbell's central question of whether nature is fallen or divine - a place of purity and redemption, or a wasteland of the hopelessly lost. From Dante's Purgatorio, Aylward echoes the promise of the River Lethe, which Dante (in his literary depiction) drinks from to erase all memory - leaving him with a clean conscience, but also the recognition that guilty deeds he no longer remembers must have led him to drink from the river in the first place. On a more personal note, Aylward discusses how his Wanderers' moral dilemma reflects his parents' journeys in immigrant families who struggled with the tension between their older religious views and their need for reinvention in a new country.

"As an adult, able to see my parents simply as people trying to make sense of life, I have realized how much they struggled to find distance from their Catholic upbringings," Aylward writes. "These reflections led me to want to explore the difficulties they must have endured in finding themselves. Ultimately, the opera asks if we can escape ourselves through forgetting and whether redemption, that highest of Catholic concepts, is worth seeking after all."

About John Aylward

John Aylward is a composer of solo works, chamber music, orchestral work and music for film and multimedia. Born to immigrant parents - his mother a World War II refugee from Germany - Aylward was raised in the Sonoran Desert on the border of Arizona and Mexico under circumstances of both tremendous diversity and economic instability. His music takes profound inspiration from his early background, reflecting a deep sense of community, rich expressions of converging cultural histories, and the otherworldly landscapes of the desert.

Among many awards and fellowships, Aylward has been recognized by the John S. Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, the Koussevitzky Commission from the Library of Congress, the Fulbright Foundation (Grant to Germany), the MacDowell Colony, Tanglewood, the Aspen Music School, the Atlantic Center for the Arts, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the International Society for Contemporary Music.

Aylward is the co-director of Ecce, a contemporary new music and performance art ensemble. Besides Aylward, the ensemble is co-directed by oboist Hassan Anderson and Sarah Borgatti, featuring Emi Ferguson, flutes; Barret Ham, clarinets; Natalie Boberg, violin; Robbie Bui, cello and Geoffrey Burleson, piano. Unconstrained by traditional boundaries in classical music, Ecce creates new and original interactions with music by performing in often unconventional environments. Known for supporting the work of emerging composers, especially through its annual Etchings festival, Ecce has cultivated a worldwide community through in-person performances, educational endeavors, and a wealth of video and multimedia resources. Learn more at

Oblivion Tracklist

John Aylward - Oblivion
I. Prologue [4:13]
2. Scene 1 [6:29]
3. Scene 2 [8:21]
4. Scene 3 [6:05]
5. Scene 4 [12:48]
6. Scene 5 & Interlude [12:19]
7. Scene 6 [14:20]

Total time: 64:35

Album Credits
Recorded at the Bombyx Center for Arts and Equity in Florence, Massachusetts from June 25th-30th, 2022
Produced by John Aylward
Joel Gordon, recording engineer
Peter Atkinson, recording assistant
Edited, mixed and mastered by Joel Gordon and John Aylward

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