Christopher Adler’s Avant-garde Monody Follows Aeneas into the Underworld

The Italian intellectuals and musicians who invented opera at the turn of the 17th century had a great affinity to the mythological legends of ancient Greece. And these creative inventors claimed that they were recreating the musical style of that early civilization’s drama.

In truth, we have no records, no actual notation of music from that era, so those members of the Florentine Camerata were relying completely on intuition and their own imagination as they created what we call monody. Under the aegis of San Diego New Music, Colin McAllister and several musical colleagues followed in the footsteps of the Florentines, presenting Christopher Adler’s Aeneas in the Underworld, a recounting of one of the stories from Virgil’s The Aeneid in a fashion that might have been recognized by the ancient Greeks, but using a contemporary musical idiom.

Neither Adler nor McAllister claim to recreate ancient music, but rather to present an approach of heightened storytelling in a spare, compelling fashion that would honor that ancient tradition. Rather than singing, McAllister boldly declaimed the Latin text, which was projected in a simultaneous English translation by Khang Le on a screen above the performers. In place of the poet’s lyre, McAllister used his electric guitar, modified by the composer seated at a computer at the side of the stage.

For each of the work’s three acts, Adler chose a different instrumentation. In the first act, wherein Aeneas visits the caves of Cumae (the shore of modern Italy) to acquire the Golden Bough that will provide him transport through the Underworld, McAllister was restricted to his guitar. In Aeneas’ travels in the Underworld, McAllister was joined by acoustic guitarist Pablo Gómez, and in Aeneas’ rising to the realm of “Elysium,” the final act, Gómez was replaced by members of a string quartet.

Using a raft of extended techniques on his guitar, especially adaptations to restrict the strings from resonating, McAllister created taut, brittle sonic clusters—more scrape than pluck—that clearly suited Adler’s terse, atonal musical idiom. Although Gómez employed a fine classical guitar technique that might have mitigated Adler’s grating textures, the composer made certain the two instruments remained in discordant sonic fields. In this act, a short recorded vocal line provided by Barbara Santos illustrated Aeneas’ encounter with Dido, his former Queen. To suggest the Elysian Fields, Adler gave the string quartet brisk, clipped phrases to complement McAllister’s guitar.

For McAllister, reciting the extensive and frequently highly inflected Latin text while playing his instrument with unusual techniques proved an amazing tour de force. This is a role for which wide competition is most unlikely. Kudos also to the avid, polished string players: violinists Batya MacAdam-Somer and Emily Call; violist Annabelle Terbetski and cellist Jennifer Bewerse.

This program was presented by San Diego New Music on March 29, 2019, at the Athenaeum Music and Art Library in La Jolla. This organization’s next program in this venue will feature soprano Susan Narucki on May 2, 2019.

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