Joe Diebes – Pt. 2

Aaron Siegel

Following our conversation immediately after Part 1: The Park at Varispeed’s daylong ‘Perfect Lives,’ opera maker/artist Joe Diebes and I attended the second installment ‘The Bank’ at what ended up being a bonafide bank in Jersey City. Much rocking out ensued, after which we found a quiet spot in a local park to continue chewing on the legacy of Robert Ashley, and the idea of ‘video opera.’

JD: I’m just going to find out where the next thing is, just so we know. All right. Uh, um. Okay. It is an eight minute walk according to this.

AS: And it’s on at 3:30?

JD: 3:30. So that means we have almost an hour right now, before we have to go anywhere. So, where did we leave off?

AS: What are you thinking about?

JD: I’m thinking of, uh, Jersey City, where I’ve actually never been before, and the Midwest, where I have been, but I haven’t spent much time there. But I have seen the TV version of Perfect Lives and …

AS: Yeah.

JD: … you know, thinking of the footage of tractors and parks and supermarkets. Americana. Yeah, just trying to find a little resonance. I think there’s definitely some. What do you think? Do you know, do you know the Midwest at all?

AS: I mean, I went to school out there.

JD: Oh!

AS: I went to school in Ann Arbor, in Michigan.

JD: Oh!

AS: Yeah.

JD: This I did not know.

AS: So I know Ann Arbor and that vibe pretty well, and I connect with it pretty strongly.

JD: So then, okay. So you actually really have a strong sense of where this opera is located. I feel like the location of it is really important, right? I mean it’s like…

AS: Well, it feels important.

JD: …these are songs about the corn belt, and…

AS: It feels important, but I think with this particular interpretation of Perfect Lives, in a way it feels less important.

JD: Uh huh.

AS: It feels more important to me that the people performing it are searching. So it’s about the attitude of the performers, more than it is about location.

JD: Uh huh. Do you think the location, I mean, being in a city, and it being very much about walking through Jersey City to get to the next thing…

AS: Yeah.

JD: … I mean, it seems like there’s automatically a comparison…

AS: Yeah.

JD: …to be made. And they’ve done it a few times, in different cities. I was thinking about the libretto, he published it actually…

AS: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

JD: …as a book. And it does seem very purposefully about the Midwest as almost like a, something of a middle ground, you know, nether region between the east coast and west coast.

AS: Yeah.

JD: And there’s a certain nether region-ness to New Jersey.DSC_0914_cr_cb

AS: Well, I connect to this this idea, like, what are the origin stories of the characters, and…

JD: Mmhmm.

AS: …even though there’s very much a narrative and an arc to the experience, they’re doing things, it also feels very, I don’t know, it’s about character more generally?

JD: Mmhmm.

AS: So you get this guy who narrated the bank, who’s like the captain of the football team, and we bring our biases against football as a unifying experience in the American culture.

JD: Uh huh. Well that’s a very Midwestern…

AS: Yeah, totally, yeah. Sort of middle of the road experience, and…

JD: What do you think of the … oh …

AS: I think, I just feel like Bob both embraced his Midwestern origins and he was older in a lot of ways when this was written. He was already in his fifties…

JD: Right.

AS: …at that point. And had been part of the Midwest, which I think was probably not the center of culture, and then had come to New York, and had been a part of the art scene, so to speak.

JD: Uh huh.

AS: And I think there’s a tension between this idea of being counterculture and part of the culture…

JD: Mmhmm.

AS: …in a way. And being an outsider, and wanting in, but also recognizing the power of being an outsider.

JD: Right.

AS: That seems to me it plays more into like the attitudes of the Midwest, as opposed to the environment of it.

JD: Right. Maybe also it’s the thing that symbolizes America…

AS: Right.

JD: …in the most sort of broad stroke. Especially if one is making an American opera, because he was pretty insistent on the term ‘opera’.

AS: Yeah.

JD: And so, that’s a term that comes from Europe, really. A history that comes from Europe. So to really stake out, stake a claim for a new kind of American opera, it seems kind of important that he chose such Americana as his material. What did you think about all the different, having multiple…

AS: There’s something in my hair.

JD: Oh [Laughing].

AS: It may or may not be bird shit.

JD: Uh…

AS: Or, it just may be like some juice from one of these berries or something.

JD: Yeah [laughing].

AS: What do I think about what?

JD: Having different performers do the narrator. Which I assume they’re going to do in each section probably, rotate it…

AS: I like that. I mean, it feels to me more accessible in that way.

JD: Mmhmm.

AS: And less iconic.

JD: Right.

AS: Because you can’t really take his place.

JD: Right.

AS: He narrates the whole thing on the video.

JD: Right.

AS: But this is very much like, it’s distributed. I feel like it’s more, I don’t know, democratic or something.

JD: Yeah [laughing]. Well, it’s interesting how the voices are in quite different settings. I mean, one being an outdoor sound system…

AS: Yeah.

JD: …and one being interior bank acoustics. I mean, that was a very different setup to begin with. But vocally, the performances were…

AS: Yeah, totally different.

JD: …were totally different approaches.

AS: And that’s why I feel like it’s personality driven, you know, in the sense that, that was very much a Gelsey performance.

JD: Uh huh.

AS: Like, it draws on her skills as a performer. And you know, it’s really hard to do all those words, and have the diction be so clear.

JD: Yeah.

AS: And so fast. She’s like a trained singer, and she really knows how to use her voice as an instrument.

JD: It was very impressive.

AS: Yeah.

JD: The, just the speed at which she was…

AS: [Laughing]

JD: …delivering.

AS: And the accuracy. She didn’t really flub any words, and…

DSC_0923_cr_cbJD: No, it was very dynamic too. I liked, I actually really liked, how it concluded. You know, really brought it into this very intimate space, really slowed it down. And it went into that voice that I more associate with Ashley, which is the, again kind of interior…

AS: Yeah.

JD: …monologue, and then, then, the outro with the rock refrain, which was pretty cool.

AS: I think that cuts both ways, though. I feel like there’s a kind of coolness to Ashley.

JD: Uh huh.

AS: And then there’s also like the sort of intellectual side.

JD: Mmhmm.

AS: And I think the coolness part is like the rock song, like, we’re gonna throw in this kinda like doo-woppy radio tune.

JD: Right.

AS: And it’s interesting to find the balance between that commentary on pop culture and pop music…

JD: Mmhmm.

AS: …and trying to figure out what place is it serving within this larger piece, which is obviously not really meant for commercial consumption.

JD: Right. My memory anyway of that section of the TV version was pretty different, I think Varispeed was much more rock.

AS: Yeah, totally.

JD: It was much, it felt like they were like a rock band…

AS: Yeah.

JD: …whereas in this TV version it was still very subdued…

AS: Yeah.

JD: … I mean, that’s my memory of it anyway.

AS: That’s what I think, I mean, when we think about opera in a more traditional sense and the repertory nature of it…

JD: Mmhmm.

AS: …of reinterpreting scores, and reinterpreting written music…

JD: Right.

AS: That’s the flexibility of that, they’re embracing, which is like, well, we could take this at a different tempo, and we could, like, wear fluorescent wigs, and it will have a different feeling to it…

JD: Mmhmm.

AS: …because of that. Which is really cool and kind of unexpected, because so much of his work, I mean, he said himself, he didn’t mind that it would, basically going to die with him.

JD: Right.

AS: Because it wasn’t written down in the same way that traditional operas or traditional music is written down.

JD: It feels like he would have embraced this version.

AS: I mean, he loved this. And he saw it a couple times.

JD: Yeah, right.

AS: He really encouraged it. And probably, he talked about how for him it was like a way of seeing that his work actually would live on…

JD: Right.

AS: …past his life.

JD: And the thing is, it’s smart, because it is actually inevitable for people to bring their own spin to it. I mean, a control freak like Wagner never would have imagined there would be all these stagings that are completely…

AS: That are complete trash next to his…

JD: …anachronistic or, like, Robert Wilson, bringing minimalism to it, or …

AS: But that’s, I mean, I guess that’s what makes it work relevant from generation to generation.

JD: Mmhmm.

AS: And, unfortunately, I feel like once a work has been sort of canonized, and I think Perfect Lives is a great example of that, it starts to cloud out the newer work, in a way. Cloud it out.

JD: Right.

AS: …or the newer work that’s being generated now.

JD: Mmhmm.

AS: Because of it’s iconic nature, it takes on more of an importance than maybe he intended, or it needs, in a way.DSC_0939_cr_cb

JD: Right. Well, what do you think about these, like, two hour breaks in between each section?

AS: I mean, it’s a production necessity, I think.

JD: Right.

AS: But…

JD: Yeah.

AS: It’s kind of cool to talk to, have a chance to digest a little bit.

JD: Yeah.

AS: It’s less immersive though.

JD: Yeah, well again, it does allow you to walk, you know, hang out in Jersey City. I mean, most of the day is actually spent walking around the streets of an American, you know, smaller city. There’s something, something to that. There’s a certain festival aspect to it…

AS: Oh, totally.

JD: …you know?

AS: It’s got a nice durational vibe to it. Say more about the difference between the acoustic experience outside and inside. Because I feel like that’s something that you are very attuned to, in terms of the quality of the sound. What impact does that have to you on the…

JD: Well, it’s very, it’s very much an amplified opera, you know?

AS: Yeah.

JD: Very much amplified voices, and electronics, in the original, and this is actually much more live in so many ways. I mean, you really do hear the live instruments. I mean, trombones and clarinets and drum set. He uses a drum machine, like a sort of Casiotone style drum machine in the movie. But still, it’s a very electronic thing. So the acoustics actually really do come into play, I think, a lot, when you’re dealing with the sound system…

AS: Yeah.

JD: …what place you’re in. And also what the bleed is going to be. Because again the, the first one was very colored in an interesting way by the chatter of the people that were not really quite in the performance area. There was that whole other street fair going on. And then there’s the traffic. The trucks driving by. Which I guess is why maybe his delivery was informed by that. A public speaking kind of a voice. Then the bank, the bank offered its own [laughing], interesting acoustics, which is just basically very resonant. Sort of difficult live acoustics, especially with, like, things like a drum set.

AS: The trombone was really resonant in there.

JD: Yeah.

AS: Kind of dominated.

JD: Yeah, I’m sure it’s really hard to mix there, especially given that they probably had, like, well, we saw the sound check, so…

AS: [Laughing].

JD: They could only do a thirty-second sound check. It was very nice though, that end section, when they were just doing those very slow two-note intervals. But I’m curious to see these other ones, because the next one is in the supermarket.

AS: Yeah. That’s the one I have seen most of, in terms of video. The videos I have seen, they’re walking around the supermarket.

JD: Yeah, I actually that’s the only one I saw.

AS: I hope it’s the same thing.

JD: Yeah…

AS: I imagine it will be, but…

JD: That’s probably the one place where they can actually set up a, set up a sound system.DSC_0997_cr_cbAS: I think a lot about public art, and what are the challenges and opportunities that are made, or that artists have when they are in, in spaces that are more public spaces.

JD: Uh huh.

AS: Do you think about that at all?

JD: Uh, sure, yeah. I think it’s actually really hard to make a piece that’s sort of a free, open to the public kind of thing because so many people that would hear it and experience it have very little context…

AS: Yeah.

JD: Because it’s free, and because it’s just open, you just sort of run into it. You find yourself inside it with no idea who Robert Ashley is, or what’s going on, or why this is happening.

AS: It seems like it’s so easy to respond to it, it’s like, “Oh, what’s this weird thing that’s happening?”

JD: Right. I’m sure that’s the, [laughing], I’m sure that’s what’s going on with most of the people, if you were to walk, I mean, people aren’t going to walk into that bank by chance, but like…

AS: At this point, right, yeah.

JD: The supermarket section. Which is interesting because thing about a somewhat undetermined structure, is that you don’t quite know how it’s all going to come together. It makes it less of a distinct message that’s being sent from the composer to the audience. So in a way, a work like that suits this environment…

AS: Mmhmm.

JD: Where people are just going to come into it with whatever mind frame they have.

AS: And it really sort of places the priorities squarely in the space of conveying the character and the feeling of it, as opposed to any kind of precision…

JD: Mmhmm.

AS: …nuanced message. I guess that’s what you’re saying.

JD: Right. Yeah yeah yeah yeah. This has always been my experience of Ashley operas. I mean, I will listen to them very closely on occasion, but I’ll put them on as ambient music as well. And, sort of go in and out of it, and mostly just allow its rhythmic feel and tone to put me in a certain mood. Which, you know, wouldn’t be true of a lot of…

AS: No, they’re very engaging.

JD: They’re actually the only operas I would put on for that reason. I wouldn’t put on, like, Alban Berg to do that. Well, since you’re the producer and director of an experimental opera institution, organization, you probably have a pretty wide lens on what composers are doing. I mean, do you feel like Ashley has got a certain legacy that continues? I mean, certainly with the people in the Varispeed group I would…

AS: Yeah.

JD: …imagine, but otherwise have you seen or heard a lot of stuff with …

AS: Yes and, I mean, yes and no. I don’t know that there are a lot of people who are making work that, my experience of his work is coming from a kind of, American maverick rebel kind of tradition. And kind of a distaste for European music history in a way.

JD: Uh huh.

AS: And in that way, I think the Collective and all those people, some of the people who are in thingNY, some of the work that Brian does with his other performing ensemble, I think that kind of is connected to that. But more along the sort of do it yourself collective experience. Like about making work.

JD: Mmhmm.

AS: Not so much as about his work in particular.

JD: His style.

AS: His style, yeah. Because it is about style. I mean, I think that’s the thing. It’s very stylistic.

JD: Mmhmm.

AS: Which doesn’t say that there’s no substance, but it’s very much about an attitude, and a coolness. Like a…

JD: Right.

AS: …that feels, it is so recognizable that if you actually tried to like copy it or like, rip it off, it would be, really evident very easily.

JD: Right.

AS: You can’t do it subtly. But no, I think in America and in New York, there’s a real difference between what people think about as being serious music…

JD: Mmhmm.

AS: …and the whole classical music structure. And my sense is that Ashley never really was accepted by them in any significant way…

JD: Mmhmm.

AS: …in terms of his role as an opera maker.

JD: Right.

AS: I think he talked about that. Why he wasn’t accepted in that way. But at the same time, it seemed like he was most comfortable operating outside of the rules that one would have to play by in order to fit within those conventions.

JD: Right, right. Well, it seems like there’s a couple of very different ways of finding yourself being an opera composer. One is because you’ve found yourself in the opera circuit on some level, whether it’s getting some advanced degree in either composition or opera vocal performance or something like that. Then you find yourself in this existing institution where there’s all of these parameters that are already kind of laid out for you, you know, there’s just a lot of things that are already decided…

AS: Yeah.

JD: …and I guess, a composer might find themselves really wanting to work within that framework and really excel within that framework, and so they, you know, study European scores very closely, and they, you know, figure out all the various production conventions that they need to understand and work with in order to get their work done at like, an opera house.

AS: Right.DSC_1004_cropped_cbJD: And then, very different from that, is the composer that decides that they want to work with narrative, and they want to work with image, or they want to work with these other components, and there’s no other way to think about it other than as an opera.

AS: Right.

JD: So Ashley’s definitely the second…

AS: Oh yeah, totally. I mean, in that way I think he is incredibly influential, because it would be even harder than it is to do that now, without the history of his experiences with that.

JD: Yeah. He broke a lot of ground. I mean, I remember ten or fifteen years ago, when I was really trying to clarify to people where I stood in all of this, I really tried very hard to find composers other than Ashley to reference, as far as, like…

AS: There aren’t a lot, yeah.

JD: …where I stand. And I found it very difficult. I mean, there really aren’t very many. I mean, there’s for example Harry Partch certainly, who was working very outside of the conventions. But his work is really very challenging for people.

AS: To listen to, or to perform?

JD: Both I think.

AS: Okay.

JD: But to listen to.

AS: Yeah.

JD: It wouldn’t register in remotely the same way to the general public.

AS: Right.

JD: And of course there’s other experimental operas that have happened in the United States, but not with, like, one person really devoting a life’s work outside the ‘opera world’. Philip Glass is an opera composer I admire a lot. But as far as I know he does work within…

AS: Yeah…

JD: … the opera institutions…

AS: …very much so, yeah.

JD: …and he has broad acceptance within that institution, which wasn’t the case at first. I think he self-produced…

AS: Yeah.

JD: …initially. But there aren’t too many examples of composers that continue to self-produce their whole career.

AS: And of course nowadays I think that’s the way people work. There is no system. It’s totally inaccessible and also getting smaller and smaller every year.

JD: Right. Well yeah. I guess it seems like almost everything in the various industries around the arts, everything has become, you know, more towards the self-production model. Even being in a band…

AS:   Yeah.

JD: …or, even being an artist these days, a visual artist. You kind of have to be your own business, your own small business.

AS: Yeah.

JD: Which I don’t think was the case, as much anyway, in like the sixties.

AS: One of the things this makes me think about is the way that Ashley’s work was accepted by and engaged by the visual art and performance art world.

JD: Right.

AS: And I think that’s interesting, because I find that those worlds really think and function very differently than the contemporary music world.

JD: Yes.

AS: In terms of values and in terms of how they organize and what represents curatorial perspective and…

JD: Mmhmm.

AS: …do you have any thoughts about that? Like why his work would appeal to the visual art world or the fine art world in a certain way?

JD: Yeah, I have a few. I mean, one is that the opera voice sets off hives…

AS: Yeah.

JD: …in a lot of [laughing] people. They just don’t like the voice. And Ashley works, you know, without the opera voice. But I think as soon as that opera voice is heard, it conjures something that is very much not contemporary. And if anything, the visual art world is interested in contemporary work. And there’s also kind of an allergy to virtuosity in the contemporary art world. The virtuosity that is really the goal of classical music, the classical music world.

AS: Yeah.

JD: The visual art world, in general I feel, actually views virtuosity like that with suspicion. You know, it’s like you’ve been cultivated by a system that’s not contemporary if you have a virtuosity like that, whereas one thing about Ashley that I think is really kind of disarming for people that approach him for the first time, especially if they’re coming from musical training or something, is they’re like, this isn’t very technically advanced, and there seems to be all this stuff left open to chance. There’s so many technical things that aren’t even considered. You know, standard pitch notation, the sort of structural compositional things that just don’t feel like they’re even there. It feels very casual. Sometimes it feels like there’s a joke on somebody, and there’s like a certain irreverence and humor that you just don’t find in more ‘serious’ classical music. So I think all those things are not appealing to someone who has devoted their whole life and career to being a virtuoso, and you know, very refined and technically precise in a classical music sense. But it’s also why I think the contemporary art world finds it very…

AS: Yeah.

JD: …appealing. He’s also a writer, really. You know? It’s like, I think one thing about Ashley, you realize when you start to read and listen to a lot of his works is how much he is an American writer.

AS: Yeah.

JD: A novelist, almost. A very distinct American kind of style. And that, there’s also not really so much of a place for that in classical music. Like, he’s a composer, and he has composed, but I feel like a lot of what he is composing is narrative and words.

AS: But is that, now, I think that what the, I totally heard you on the virtuosic point, in terms of that being viewed with suspicion. But then there’s also this point about, the point you’re making about writing, which is I think more about multi-disciplinary work.

JD: Uh huh.

AS: And about someone who is in the music world feeling emboldened enough to use language as part of their work.

JD: Right.

AS: And I think that actually, that feels to me like very much of the art world in the sense of someone working with different materials, not because their teacher said they could, but because…

JD: Right.

AS: …they felt like that was the way that they were going to be able to, you know, get out the idea that they’re thinking about or the images that they’re seeing, or the ideas that they’re trying to express.

JD: Mmhmm.

AS: So, do you feel like that multidisciplinary urge is particularly innovative or sort of special to him?

JD: Well, you don’t see it very much in classical music, in those institutions. Not that I’ve spent a lot of time in music conservatories recently, but I don’t think there’s so much in crossing over into visual media and you know, writing…

AS: Yeah.

JD: …narrative, and things like that. Whereas, if you go to art school, especially right now, I think it’s really encouraged to find ways to, like you said, bring in new material. Find ways to put two mediums together, and see what they do to each other. Which actually fundamentally is what more op…

AS: Yeah.

JD: … what an opera would be, is incorporating all these sort of diverse elements. It makes sense that the contemporary art world that has become more interdisciplinary would be excited about that.

AS: Yeah. It seems like the notion of sound art is something that’s blossoming, and embraced by the institutions, and it feels like that’s coming from the same urge, well, if you want to, if it’s important to hear things or ex…have an aural experience in order to have an, an interaction with your work, then you should include it.

JD: Uh huh.

AS: And I can’t imagine anyone at the Conservatory being like, yeah, you know, you really should work on a sculpture for this theory class. That would be the best way…

JD: Right, yeah [laughing].

AS: …to do it.

JD: This is the best way to think about tone rows. [Laughing]. But Ashley was a teacher. Did you actually have, was he your teacher?

AS: I didn’t study with him. He was at Mills College for a number of years and had a really big impact on a lot of people…

JD: Right.

AS: …through his work there.

JD: He taught a lot of his life, didn’t he?

AS: Yeah. And he kept on saying, like, “I don’t want to do it anymore.” He wouldn’t take students in his later years, because he felt like he was done with that.

JD: Well so did, to your knowledge, did that spawn any offshoots, I mean, from like his students…

AS: I think there are lot of people who…

JD: …following in his…?

AS: …yeah. I don’t know a lot of the people’s names, because I think they never really blossomed into as much of a name as he did. Someone was telling me that this composer, Mikel Rouse, do you know him?

JD: Oh yeah, sure. Yeah.

AS: He studied with Ashley.

JD: Oh, I didn’t know that.

AS: But, I don’t know that for sure. I was surprised to hear that too. But it also made sense in the way that his music is very visual and theatrical as well.

JD: Yeah. And as far as I have heard, I mean, I have heard a couple of his operas, they’re very based in rhythm and you know, speech is very present in it. Pop … pop vocabulary gets mixed in with more sophisticated sorts of compositional ideas.

AS: In the eighties, it was okay to have a drum machine in your piece in the eighties. It must have been really new and exciting and…

JD: Right. Well, there’s been quite a few drum machines in Experiments in Opera showings that I have been involved with.

AS: Yeah, there are.

JD: Including my piece.DSC_0982_cb_rotJD: Right. Huh. Well, you probably have a sense of what most people are working on with your video thing coming up with Experiments in Opera. I mean, how about, like, those projects in relation to the idea of Ashley’s TV opera? Are are any of the projects very directly…

AS: Umm…

JD: …related, or do you think there’s some…

AS: Well, I mean…

JD: …correspondence?

AS: … I mean, there’s, like I said, there has surprisingly been few people to respond to that conceptual tone…

JD: Yeah, I don’t know why.

AS: Yeah.

JD: Like, I teach a class in new opera, and The Death of Klinghoffer was at the Met…

AS: Uh huh.

JD: …last year, and so we also watched a film made of Death of Klinghoffer, that’s a total dramatic film. Shot…

AS: Hmm.

JD: …as a fiction film. It’s not like on an opera stage. They’re actually on a cruise ship, like it’s a film about a cruise ship. And there’s something just so, weird about the operatic voice on video. You know? And actually, I don’t know, I find it kinda icky. But I think Ashley’s whole, you know, taking the spoken voice to this level of intimacy that you would get in broadcast. I think that’s a huge reason why he could do work on video.

AS: Yeah, I think people are playing with that in different ways, and choosing different topics to discover. One thing that I’m struck by is…

JD: Are these all, like commissions?

AS: Yeah.

JD: They’re all new works?

AS: Yeah. One thing is that the music videos happened.

JD: Mmhmm.

AS: Which was a way for people to experience music with narrative, in some cases, and other times just visual aesthetic ideas.

JD: Mmhmm.

AS: And some of the music videos are, you know, they’re very experimental, interesting artworks in some ways. Some of them are completely not that way.

JD: Someone did a music video Hip Hopera. Did you see that?

AS: I have not seen that one. No. Is that, do you show that one in your class?

JD: No. But I can’t remember the name now. It was actually a Hip Hop artist that did it, like maybe ten years ago or something. I wish I could, I’ll look it up.

AS: Uh…

JD: But there haven’t been too many.

AS: And then I think the other thing that has happened, you know, recently, is just like there’s, this explosion of web video, like as a way of people creating work…

JD: Mmhmm.

AS: …with relatively high production values…

JD: Mmhmm.

AS: But most of that work has been around narrative, like sitcoms, and so I think these videos that we have commissioned are going to be playing off of this work and not being music videos…

JD: Mmhmm. Oh okay, that’s cool.

AS: …in that way.

JD: I mean, I feel like there’s not even a ton of experimentation in film itself as it relates to sound. You know? I mean, just in terms of, like, film scoring and sound design. I mean, it seems some of the most interesting visionary directors will do these completely revolutionary things visually, and then just hire a composer that just does a score.

AS: Just like, yeah, a stupid, like standard score.

JD: Yeah, and I’m always so surprised, you know, that there hasn’t been more, I mean, there’s just so much that can be done post-production now, and there’s so many people making interesting music.

AS: Do you mean specifically around people making music for films? Or do you mean around the way that the sounds are processed?

JD: No, no. I mean, just the sensibility, just the choices that are made in scoring a scene in a certain way and it seems very hard for filmmakers to break that, you know, passive understanding that the score is supposed to emotionally support a scene or emotionally drive a scene while remaining invisible.

AS: Yeah.

JD: But even bad attempts to do something different than that are almost always more interesting. I don’t see too many…

AS: People are afraid of that. I mean, I think, it’s really hard to let your ears lead in terms of what’s going on in a sensory experience.

JD: Mmhmm.

AS: You know, I work with directors, and they’ll be like, “I am too distracted by this.”

JD: You mean, for film or videos?

AS: Yeah, and what they usually mean is that the music is giving them more information…

JD: Right.

AS: …than they can process.

JD: Right.

AS: Than they know how to process.

JD: Right.

AS: Because they’re not used to processing things through sounds.

JD: Right.

AS: I think it’s really intimidating to a lot of people.

JD: Yeah.

AS: Like they feel like somehow, they’re out on the joke, or there’s some kind of sophisticated elitism going on…

JD: Right.

AS: What you expect to hear isn’t there.

JD: Or perhaps they have just thought about it very much in terms of the visual narrative, and…

AS: Yeah.

JD: … they’re just expecting music to come in and make it more profound and emotional or something.

AS: Yeah.

JD: But the idea that it would come in as an equal player and start to generate, you know, experience between sound and image…

AS: Yeah.

JD: You don’t get that too much. I mean, there’s people like Godard that did it.

AS: Yeah.

JD: But he’s not known in the mainstream, at least the films where he was most experimental with sound.

AS: And if you asked me, what’s the difference between opera and other visual or musical theatre forms, it is that difference, which is that there are decisions that have been made around sound. Sound is either the most important thing, or one of the most important things happening.

JD: Right.

AS: And it’s not solely in support of either the narrative or of character or some kind of transformative experience.

JD: Right.

AS: Yeah. I think that’s why people respond the way that they do to opera. Which is generally, like, “Yeah, I don’t get it.” Or, “I don’t like it.”

JD: Right.

AS: Because they’re just not used to thinking about processing sound as a primary sensory experience.

JD: A lot of the problem I think people have with opera is that they feel like what they’re supposed to follow is obscured in some way.

AS: Yeah.

JD: You know, they can’t hear what people are saying. They can’t hear the words. They can barely follow the story. And if they do, they feel like the story doesn’t really have very much, you know, sophistication. And I think that’s a big barrier for people. I think just not being able to hear the words is a barrier for people. I think that’s some of the reason why people who don’t like opera like Ashley.

AS: Yeah.

JD: Although I couldn’t get all the words in the bank scene. That was an acoustics issue though. Let’s see how we are for time, just to make sure we don’t miss our…I think we probably have a lot of time left. Well, it’s 3:04.

AS:   Should we get walking? I wouldn’t mind getting a little coffee.

JD: Maybe.

AS: …something, a little pick me up or something.

JD: Okay, yeah. I feel like we kind of came to a pause, so.

End of Part II

Joe Diebes creates operas in which the human voice encounters algorithmic systems.  Recent projects include WOW (in collaboration with Christian Hawkey and David Levine at BRIC 2014) that recombines measures from Wagner’s Meistersinger into an opera about Milli Vanilli, and BOTCH (2013 – present), a broken-word opera in which an ensemble of performers run code using only their voices.  In addition to his performance work, he has also exhibited internationally his sound installations, video, and works on paper for art galleries, museums, and public spaces including Paul Rodgers/9W (New York), The ’06 Olympics (Torino, Italy), Yuanfen Gallery (Beijing), Prix Ars Electronica and the Liverpool Biennial.  Currently he is working on a new opera, OYSTER, that will function as a shadow media outlet processing news feeds from the Middle East.  His score for LEIMAY’s Borders can be heard at BAM in February 2016.