Gapplegate Music Review
, November 2010
Let’s face it. We approach any new work of music with a set of predispositions that comes out of our experiences with music we have heard and familiarized ourselves with throughout our lives. When a new work comes along that does not fit in with what we know, difficulties can arise. That explains in part the hostile reactions that historically occurred at the premiers of works that defied the expectations of listeners in that local-historical time and place. So The Rites of Spring, the Eroica, nearly all of Mahler’s symphonies, as examples, met with incomprehension and hostility in their first performances. It was only as audiences began to become familiar with the music that they came to appreciate what seemed so jarring at first.
I had that reaction as I first listened to Morten S. Danielsen’s opera Donalds 09 (DaCapo 8.226563).
The sequence of reactions went something like the following.
First listen: Oh, yeah? Who told you you could make music like that? Second: Hmm…there’s something to all this craziness. Third: I LIKE this but I don’t understand what it is. Fourth and Fifth: I think I understand what the composer is doing and see the unique musical-dramatic logic involved, as much as it is clearly articulated. I have come to be drawn, odd as some of it is, to the recurring motifs and emotional-structural arch of the piece taken as a whole.
There are plenty of “crazily avant” CDs out there but Danielsen has a particular flair to his avantness that is ultimately appealing. But we need to start over at the beginning. Danish composer Morten S. Danielsen did not live to complete this opera, presumably his last work. It is a work with a certain sort of punk cockiness to it, which seems to be one of his trademark stances. It revels in the flippantly outrageous/funny-deadly serious edge of expression. This is one of the factors that makes it especially unusual and interesting, at least to me. Apparently Danielsen was a sort of Kurt Cobain-ish tortured and self-destructive soul. His music seems to reflect that.
The plot/libretto to Donalds 09 is disjointed and somewhat opaque. There are three Donald’s, one a woman. The opera is a kind of bildungsroman of them trying to articulate who they are or are not. And ultimately the three Donalds seem to be three personalities contained in one person. Rather than a “coming of age” journey, though, the characters seem more to be in the process of “coming apart.” Ultimately it is the sound worlds which bring these struggles alive that make the work so intriguing to me.
The unusual combinations of distinct musical sound colors and their masterly repetition-development-appearance-disappearance truly set Donald 09 apart from other avant works of its type. Some of the salient sound events that weave in and out of the work: an ensemble of what sounds like bell ringers, concrete and pure electronics, an electric punk-rock band, two distinctive electronically altered vocals, conventional operatic vocals, small-group chamber or solo piano accompaniment, baritone sax obligatto passages, choral ensemble, recitation, a child’s squeaking rubber duck (?), vocal duets with altered and unaltered voices, and the climactic sequence that I wont even attempt to describe, except to say that it seems to prefigure the composer’s own death and it haunts the aural memory long after it is played.
I don’t know what the future holds for Donalds 09 in terms of its reception. I do know that it is a profoundly moving, even disturbing work that presents a sound world and libretto so idiosyncratic unprecedented yet so compelling that it surely should not be ignored by anyone who wants to embrace what is new and interesting today. It may be a milestone. Or a madman’s self-indulgent ravings. Or both. We’ve seen that before. Don’t miss this one if you want to overturn your preconceptions of what opera can and should be.