OYSTER A New Experimental Opera From Joe Diebes, Explores The Life And Work of Alan Lomax
What might the singing style in folk music from "Arctic Asia" or "Insular Pacific" say about these regions' respective cultural levels of...sexual repression? Such was one type of question monumental blues and folk music archivist Alan Lomax sought to answer with Cantometrics. Introduced in the mid-1960s, and harnessing some of the earliest computer technologies, Cantometrics was Lomax's little-known, yet astronomically ambitious and widely dismissed system of numerically coding and analyzing all forms of sung music. In oyster, a humorous and probing new experimental opera from composer and multidisciplinary artist Joe Diebes, the score reverses this process of turning songs into numbers by turning Lomax's numbers back into songs. (February 20-21, at Roulette, 509 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn) The surprising results beg a larger, pervasive contemporary question-how much can we really know of people and culture through computer profiling?
In oyster, over a hypnotic, propulsive instrumental score, Alan Lomax (played by John Rose) gives a speech on his ethnomusicological findings at a 1966 lecture hall. His role is sung-spoken in a rhythmic and catchy style, and is accompanied by a live piano, prepared and retuned to sound like something between a percussion ensemble and a synthesizer. As Rose's Lomax sing-lectures on the "folk song science" that would culminate in his book, Folk Song Style and Culture, he brings the audience on a "world tour." This musical globe-trotting, through which Lomax was chasing the grandiose, almost spiritual idea of finding the "song-in-itself," is evoked in oyster through brightly color-coded videos, in which a vocal ensemble performs a song for each of the nine regions into which Lomax divided the world. These songs, constructed solely from the Cantometric data rather than the original music, capture the losses of translation borne of the technology and Lomax's very human, "extreme subjectivity of rating procedures," as one critic of his book would put it.
Meanwhile, a three-person ensemble (Christina Campanella, Michael Chinworth, and Saori Tsukada), pry into and piece together Lomax's life, parsing and scanning the extensive, recently declassified FBI file on Lomax. (This was compiled over the course of 40 years, as the FBI pursued him among many influential leftists in the midst of the Red Scare.) This ensemble vocally "processes" the file, applying operations such as looping, fragmenting and reversing to the spoken text, creating a collaged and data-distorted vision of something as full, unwieldy, and resistant to classification as a person.
Joe Diebes, who sees the composition of video and words as inseparable from his music, has long been rigorously deconstructing the technologic structures and perceptions through which contemporary lives are led. At once high-concept and sly, his opera projects have bent and expanded the meaning of "opera," drawing on the theatricality of the form while eschewing operatic vocal traditions-rather using the melodies and rhythms inherent in everyday speech. BOTCH, a collaboration with the same performers who appear in oyster, was his "broken-word" opera whose score followed a digital logic, consisting of if/then statements and operations common to software programs such as cut/paste, sampling and filters, resulting in a richly layered soundscape of pulverized language. Prior to that, the opera WOW (made in collaboration with Christian Hawkey and David Levine) centered on the CD-skipping scandal of the scorned 80s duo Milli Vanilli, with a live-generated score from Diebes that was itself something of an information processing system.
Says Diebes, "Most of the works I've done has been a meditation on technology, and its role in society. Now, Pandora and LastFM use algorithms that are designed to analyze music based on parameters and then tell you what you want, just as corporations and the government use big data to profile the population. oyster is like getting at those issues through the back door, through the seemingly innocuous story of a folk music collector more known for archiving Americana... Lomax used early computers to crunch things that aren't necessary quantifiable, and so he arrived at wild conclusions about how song style indicates deep economic, social and psychological truths. It was often threadbare, like using Google Translate and getting back something that makes no sense."
Diebes further explains, "What Alan Lomax did was make a 37-item list of all the various song characteristics. Qualities like tempo, volume, regularity, but then interesting ones-nasality, melisma, glottal activity, and even the social organization of the vocal group. These 37 lines were numerically coded and entered into a mainframe computer using old-school punchcards. If you average the results of all the songs from Africa with a computer, you get an average profile, but the average profile doesn't actually represent any real song; it's an average of a whole continent, like a virtual song. So that is the score for me. These are data vocalizations that perhaps reveal something about this whole procedure of breaking things down into data and then trying to put it back together again-an encoding/decoding process that's pretty much how society is becoming organized, from YouTube to Amazon shopping carts."
The audience of oyster is presented with the odd, at-times comical repercussions of an overdose of ambition. Lomax was a music collecting prodigy; he was already taking recordings of folk songs as a teenager, and archiving them at the Library of Congress in his 20s. Here, he is in his 40s, and is feeling the increasing pressure and drive to be accepted by academia. "He needs to do something big- really large, that'll put him in world historical significance; those kinds of proportions," says Diebes. "There is something of a Faustian exchange he makes-his folksy roots for knowledge and power. I was fascinated by the idea that this is someone who has devoted his life to folk song collecting, and now he has this vision of 'mapping the cosmos'-he compares himself to Dante, Marx, and Freud; that's the level he's interested in."
The audience receives lessons on "world folk music" and "Alan Lomax," but only as each is filtered through a subjective system. Drawing on the contradictory nature of Lomax as a folksy figure toying with world-changing technologies like the IBM360, and on the fragmented technical biography amassed within the FBI file, oyster voices a prelude to the Information Age, the nascient hints at a culture careening towards the slicker algorithmizing of all facets of life.
Music, video, and libretto by Joe Diebes
Featuring: John Rose, Christina Campanella, Michael Chinworth, and Saori Tsukada
Live Staging: Phil Soltanoff
Lighting Design: Poe Saegusa
Cinematography for video: Damian Calvo
Make-Up/Costumes for video: Naomi Raddatz
oyster was developed through Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center and made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
About Joe Diebes
Joe Diebes combines sound, visual media, and the human voice in multifarious ways. Recent performance projects include his broken-word opera BOTCH (HERE Arts Center 2013) and WOW (with Christian Hawkey and David Levine, BRIC Arts | Media 2014). With Phil Soltanoff he created the sound-theatre work I/O (2008), commissioned by Fusebox Festival and Theatre Garonne (Toulouse). His opera environment STRANGE BIRDS (2003) premiered at Tramway (Glasgow) in the New Territories International Festival of Live Art. Prior to developing his own performance projects he composed the scores for the Brooklyn based GAle GAtes et al (1996 - 2003), a company described by the New York Times as "an adventurous troupe with one foot in the world of postmodern art and the other in downtown performance." His sound installations, video, performances and works on paper have been exhibited in numerous galleries, museums, and public spaces including Paul Rodgers/9W (New York), The Hammer Museum, the Torino Winter Olympics, David Winton Bell Gallery (Brown University), Yuanfen Gallery (Beijing), Prix Ars Electronica and the Liverpool Biennial. He has been awarded grants from the NYSCA Individual Artists Program, The MAP Fund, LMCC, Franklin Furnace, and The Jerome Foundation. Residencies / fellowships include Yaddo, Djerassi, HERE, LMCC, BRIC Media Arts, STEIM (Amsterdam), and the Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum of American Art.