Saturday 20 February 2021

To cope with the complexity of modern experience - composer Alastair White discusses the striking philosophical underlay of his opera ROBE, which is receiving its premiere recording

Alastair White (Photo Gemma A. Williams)
Alastair White (Photo Gemma A. Williams)

We caught the premiere of Alastair White's opera ROBE at Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival in August last year [see my review] and his opera WEAR received its first full staging the same month at the Opera in the City Festival at the Bridewell Theatre. Now ROBE is receiving its premiere recording on the metier label with Clara Kanter, Rosie Middleton, Sarah Parkin, Kelly Poukens, flautist Jenni Hogan and pianist Ben Smith

Alastair describes both ROBE and WEAR as fashion-opera and they are part of a sequence of four that are planned. Alastair's use of the term fashion-opera does not simply mean that the pieces are staged with elaborate costumes (though the design for both ROBE and WEAR was striking), but there is a philosophical meaning behind the term and behind the works themselves. Alastair writes both the words and the music, he is very much the works' onlie begetter.

I met up with Alastair, via Zoom, last month to chat about ROBE, the new recording and the ideas behind the opera. We are both composers, but come from very different backgrounds; I trained as a mathematician and spent my working life in engineering and IT, whereas Alastair brings a very different philosophical outlook, as well as having been the founder member of a couple of two Edinburgh bands. So my interview with him was a fascinating discussion that turned on music and philosophy. 

The idea of paradox is essential to the works

The idea behind the Alastair's fashion-operas arises from contingency dialectics, and the idea of paradox is essential to the works. If you consider fashion and opera the two are opposed. Alastair describes fashion as spatial, interventionist, based on contemporary culture and aesthetic form, whereas opera is temporal, autonomous and based on tradition. Fashion exists at the point of exchange value, here he quotes a Prada handbag made of cheap nylon whose value derives from the Prada label, whereas opera is the opposite (the term Alastair uses is 'use value'). 

So the challenge in his operas is how to balance these paradoxes and make both art forms integral to the work.

And these balances apply not just to fashion and opera, but to the music and the words, the visual and the musical, these define a series of tensions and paradoxes in the work. For the words, Alastair uses his own system of poetic strategies which exist independently of (and in tension with) the music. And within the music, there is a further set of paradoxes, with three different systems in tensions - Boulezian multiplication, Elliott Carter's intervallic characterisation and polychoral tonality. In essence, Alistair uses the tension created by three apparently mutually exclusive systems. Again we are back at paradoxes and contingency dialectic.

Of course, experiencing the recording the listener will only have part of the whole opera, but Alastair feels that the experience is sufficiently complex with the various paradoxes embodied in music and text, though the recording is only part of a much larger work.

Alastair White: ROBE - Rosie Middleton, Sarah Parkin - (Photo: Astrid Kearney)
Alastair White: ROBE - Rosie Middleton, Sarah Parkin - (Photo: Astrid Kearney)

The reason for the theory in the first place is to cope with the complexity of modern experience

Before we go any further in our interview, I ask what contingency dialectics is. It is at this point that we discover that we each approach composition from apparently differing points of view, and the conversation has a fascinating diversion. When I request a simple explanation for contingency dialectics, Alastair comments that he doesn't mean to be complicated in his explanations but that the reason for the theory in the first place is to cope with the complexity of modern experience.  The theory is based on the idea that the biggest change in this century will be quantum computing; when this becomes everyday, then the striking scientific discoveries arising out of quantum theory and quantum computing will have to become accepted. 

At the moment, all our current discourse is based on the idea that our sense of perception is reliable, whereas quantum computing will shatter this. Contingency dialectics tries to analyse this paradox and make art based on it, the discrepancy between external reality and consensus reality, the reality we all agree on.

This discrepancy is very politically relevant so that art that looks at these discrepancies of perception is socially and politically relevant. Alastair brings in the Hegelian idea of how we overcome the structures that we perceive, and art can be powerful in this area engaging with structures that exist in mutual exclusivity, a paradox at the heart of society. This brings us back to fashion and opera and making a work of art based on two things that cannot exist together.

Alastair White: ROBE - Thomas Page - (Photo: Claire Shovelton)
Alastair White: ROBE - Thomas Page - (Photo: Claire Shovelton)

Neither a musician nor a philosopher

Alastair describes himself as initially being neither a musician nor a philosopher. In Edinburgh, he played in bands and studied literature (mainly poetry). In the bands, he improvised a lot, which is how he learned music, but he also became more and more interested in the politics of aesthetic form. The way form can enact a political intervention in the structures of experience, which was linked to what he describes as his traumatic discovery of a certain type of music and opera. So political activism and political intervention coalesce with a type of performance to get a point across, in a sense mutually exclusive things combining.

These were all discoveries for Alastair, and he admits that he finds these ideas fascinating, what we know about the universe is fascinating. Art is the perception of reality, ancient technology which combines people together to achieve things that an individual cannot. For Alastair, this fascination with these ideas helped him make sense of the paradox between scientific reality and consensus reality. He finds music a good analytical tool for thinking ideas through, a lot comes from musical analysis, so twentieth-century concepts of time and structure can be thought through in music in a way that is hard in language.

Trying to convey perceptions of reality

In a way, Alastair sees ROBE as a satire, a way of imaging and engaging with ideas outside of perception. The work arises from wanting to communicate ideas, the feeling that the most meaningful parts of life are those not written and celebrated. Again, we come back to trying to convey perceptions of reality. Whilst aspects of the drama are complete fabulations, about people in the future, they are modelled on things that happen and Alastair mentions Nestor in The Iliad in connection with one of the characters in the opera. He talks about trying to imagine things that are everywhere but not immediately perceivable, things that are present, but we can't see.

Alastair feels that in his work there is always a moment of emotional trauma and transformation, but that the work is not just about that, it is about human experiences. In ROBE, it is the importance of everyday things, seen from the corner of the eye. He talks of singing being a way that strategies and poetry interlock. The work speaks about the splintering of time, and to convery this needs both words and music.

Alastair White: ROBE - Moses Ward - (Photo: Claire Shovelton)
Alastair White: ROBE - Moses Ward - (Photo: Claire Shovelton)

The traumatic world-changing experiences that Alastair mentioned earlier in our conversation comes from Wagner, from experiencing The Ring for the first time. It showed Alastair what form can do, the way Wagner uses music as a dramatic tool, a way of thinking through things.

A world you enter with different layers, not a puzzle that you solve

Pierre Boulez was the first modernist composer that Alastair discovered, notably Boulez' Sonatine for flute and piano. He listened to it all the time and found he could make sense of it; this was music as a labyrinth without a beginning and end, something to be immersed in rather than a problem to solve. The other composers that he discovered were those involved in New Complexity, such as Michael Finnissy, Helmut Lachenman, and Jason Eckhardt. And he liked these for a different reason, for showing what the systems of notation can do. 

Notation is a system that we are trapped in, limited by what the notation can do, and these composers showed him a way of leveraging the system of notation against itself. There was the thrilling sound of the music, which he really loves; a world you enter with different layers, not a puzzle that you solve. But there was also a point in his musical development when Bach and Haydn were the most revolutionary thing he ever heard. Bach's music was entirely incredible with mathematical structures pulsing with emotion, whilst Haydn had drama, structure, movement and ideas.

Alastair White: ROBE: a fashion-opera - Ben Smith, Clara Kanter, Jenni Hogan, Kelly Poukens, Rosie Middleton, Sarah Parkin - metier

The nature of transformation and contingency

Three of Alastair's fashion-operas are written, and the fourth is being put together. So that WEAR and ROBE have been performed, there are plans for the third opera, WOAD and the fourth, RUNE will be about language and cosmology.  
WOAD is for soprano and saxophone and is for the soprano Kelly Poukens with whom Alastair has worked a lot. WOAD is based on the Scots border ballad, Tam Lin. This is about a boy bewitched by the Queen of the Fairies, who transforms Tam into a series of things. The story serves to talk about the mutability of the body, involving ideas such as adolescence, pregnancy, love and social status. But Alastair is also using the story to talk about the nature of transformation and contingency, and he comes up with rather an inscrutable quotation about it being not about the rolling of the dice but making the dice grow a seventh side.

And he points out that 2020 was very much an era of historical contingency. WOAD was meant to be premiered during 2020/21, but this was postponed and they now hope to film it in Belgium in March. This will be in somewhat reduced form, without choreography and dancers, but with physical theatre with soprano Kelly Poukens and the designs will be by the fashion designer, Renli Su.

Alastair White: ROBE: a fashion-opera - Ben Smith, Clara Kanter, Jenni Hogan, Kelly Poukens, Rosie Middleton, Sarah Parkin - metier - available from Amazon

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