Roger Reynolds’ Multimedia Opus ‘Knowing/Not Knowing’ Premiered at UC San Diego Park & Market

Roger Reynolds’ multimedia Knowing/Not Knowing received its superbly mounted premiere Sunday, March 17, at UC San Diego Park & Market in San Diego’s East Village. UCSD’s Pulitzer Prize-winning composer has fashioned what might be called a 21st-Century secular oratorio, a work that deftly fuses recorded and live media, alternates chorus and the spoken word, and juxtaposes live drama with instrumentalists in order to pose probing questions about the nature and range of human knowledge.

Roger Reynolds [photo (c.) Erik R. Jepsen]

Reynolds has structured his work in nine movements, each unpacking a stage or category of knowledge and usually expressed as a duality, e.g. Nature/Experience, Imagination/Reality, Darkness/Justice, Truth/Integrity, and Communality/Knowledge. The composer fashioned his own text, although he has provided an extensive list of authors and traditions whose ideas and words he has employed, from Wallace Stevens to James Baldwin, Simone Weil, Albert Camus, Toni Morrison, Carlo Rovelli as well as ancient Persian and Indian wisdom.

Under the stage direction of Robert Castro, the lithe, expressive actor Jesse Perez boldly engaged the audience in his dramatic role that shifted back and forth from the quintessential knowledge seeker to narrator as ringmaster. Eleven singers of the Sacra/Profana vocal ensemble under the direction of Steven Schick (prepared by the ensemble’s music director Juan Carlos Acosta) provided the epigraphic a cappella choral statements that punctuate the main ideas in every section, in a parallel way that the four-part chorales function in a J. S. Bach Passion. The well-focused and finely-tuned Sacra/Profana sonority proved well-suited to communicating the breadth and subtlety of Reynolds’ harmonic styles, which range from decidedly tonal to atonal.

Reynolds also employed a second chorus, a “kaleidoscopic chorus” made up of 8 non-professionals from the Park & Market locale, that comments in the work’s striking video segments, elegantly designed by Kyle Johnson. Through these video segments, grandly displayed on Park & Market’s massive digital screen, Reynolds adds speech to articulate the arguments and philosophical conundrums that are at the heart of his undertaking.  Knowing/Not Knowing also employs two onstage solo instrumentalists to act as transitional lubricants: trombonist Berk Schneider’s deep, probing themes as well as percussive flourishes from a well-stocked drum kit presided over by Kosuke Matsuda. Percussionist Aiyun Huang added edge in the video portions, and Jacob Sundstrom was responsible for the production’s spatialized and electronics effects.

In a music review, I could not hope to do justice to the depth and complexity of the work’s extensive catalogue of philosophical theses, but suffice it to say that Reynolds has concisely distilled them and deftly articulated them without indulging in pat conclusions. His title clearly shows he can live with ambiguity.

My sole question is whether other musical organizations, other universities will be able to mount Knowing/Not Knowing, or are its complex components unique to UC San Diego?   At very least, a video of this performance could be an invaluable tool for university Philosophy Departments everywhere.

This multimedia event was presented by the UC San Diego Division of Extended Studies with the support of UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, and was produced by Leslie Ann Leytham at UC San Diego Park & Market on Sunday, March 17, 2024.

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