Vol. 31 Issue 3 Reviews

Rodney Waschka II: Saint Ambrose

Compact disc, 2002, Capstone Records CPS-8708; available from Capstone Records, 252 DeKalb Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11205, USA; telephone (+1) 718-852-2919; fax (+1) 718-852-2925; electronic mail mail@capstonerecords.org; Web www.capstonerecords.org/

Reviewed by Mary Simoni
Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA

Saint Ambrose is an opera in one act for saxophonist/actor, computer music, and visual projections composed by Rodney Waschka II. Commissioned by saxophonist Steve Duke in 1999, the twelve-scene opera is performed by a single saxophonist who also acts the role of Ambrose Bierce. The libretto is by the composer.

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (1842 – 1914?) was a Civil War veteran and American author who is best known for his sardonic Devil’s Dictionary, a published collection of words with definitions that codify the unabashed mockery and derogations of “Bitter Bierce.” The Devil’s Dictionary is an invaluable reference for anyone who grapples to find humor in such farcical realities as immoral politicians, religious zealots, or any other phenomenon that captured Bierce’s cynical eye. According to Bierce, a politician is “an eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared,” and a Christian is “…one who follows the teaching of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.” We can thank the composer for sanctifying the memory of Ambrose Bierce by declaring him a Saint: “A dead sinner, revised and edited.”

Mr. Waschka’s Saint Ambrose should not be confused with the real St. Ambrose, the fourth century Bishop of Milan duly declared through the arduous process of canonization by the Roman Catholic Church. The Church’s St. Ambrose is credited with contributions to music, notably Ambrosian Chant, a staple in the musical repertoire of the early Church, and the “Te Deum laudamus,” a hymn of praise to God. The Te Deum is still used today and is performed during special liturgies, such as the canonization of a saint (oddly enough).

The score contains detailed instructions on staging, equipment, props, costumes, lighting, and sound. Essentially, the milieu is that of a lecture by the famed Ambrose Bierce. The stage is stark, equipped with only a lectern and a music stand, so that Ambrose can demonstrate his newfound skill in playing the saxophone interspersed with his lampooning rhetoric. Performing Saint Ambrose is a technically straightforward endeavor, with only two microphones: a lapel mic for the speech of the performer and another for the saxophone. The computer music is pre-recorded on compact disc and the score includes specific instructions for the start and stop times of these pre-recorded tracks. Optional visual projections that generally display the text of the libretto may be used to assist with intelligibility. The score, accompanying computer music on compact disc, and visual projections are available from Borik Press, Raleigh, North Carolina (Web www.borikpress.com/).

Mr. Waschka classifies Saint Ambrose as an opera. An opera, according to the Devil’s Dictionary, is “A play representing life in another world, whose inhabitants have no speech but song, no motions but gestures and not postures but attitudes.” Furthermore, Bierce describes an opera saying that “…all acting is simulation, and the word simulation is from simia, an ape; but in opera the actor takes for his model Simia audibilis (or Pithecanthropos stentor)—the ape that howls.” One cannot help but wonder if the witticism of the composer’s libretto is imbued with the burlesque of Bierce. Is Bierce an ape with an attitude? Is his speech gestured howling? Or does Saint Ambrose present a novel genre where the practices of extended performance techniques include acting? Whatever the case, the brilliance of Mr. Waschka’s Saint Ambrose is its parody of parody.

The twelve scenes of Saint Ambrose are: “Overture: Nothing Matters,” “Good Evening,” “Interlude #1,” “Unlike William,” “Interlude #2,” “After the War,” “Interlude #3,” “In 1913,” “The Definitions Aria,” “Interlude #4: Clementine Variations,” “Now, as promised,” and “Saintly Jam.” Between the compositional bookends of “Overture: Nothing Matters” and “Saintly Jam,” the macro-formal organization of the work essentially alternates between scenes with predominantly spoken passages and scenes comprised of saxophone solos, both types of scenes accompanied by computer music. The spoken passages effortlessly interleave the monologue of the libretto with quotes from the Devil’s Dictionary. The saxophone part was composed with the assistance of genetic algorithm software written by the composer and scored using traditional music notation. The sparse texture of the computer music part seldom assumes musical prominence and seems to have been synthesized using established synthesis and signal processing techniques.

Like the libretto, the computer part employs musical quotes from the popular music of Bierce’s day such as “La Cucaracha” from the Mexican Revolution and the American western folk ballad “Clementine.” A mockery of George Handel’s popular “Sarabande” in the “Overture” retains the rhythmic rigidity of the “Sarabande” but is satirized by the timbre of a toy piano interspersed with growling, incomprehensible speech. A genetic algorithm unfolds the musical allusion of “Taps,” originally composed by Major General Daniel Butterfield during the Civil War. Mr. Waschka’s use of “Clementine” first appears in Scene 9 in “The Definitions Aria,” followed by the “Clementine Variations” in Scene 10. The “Clementine Variations,” warped in the style of Paul Lansky’s idlechatter, concludes with the pure and angelic voice of the composer’s daughter, Lana Kurepa Waschka, proclaiming, “That’s not the way it goes!”

The performance by Steve Duke is remarkable. He effortlessly traverses the development of Bierce’s technical mastery of the saxophone throughout the chronology of the opera. From Bierce’s statement, “By the way, lately I’ve taken up the saxophone,” in Scene 2, to the accomplished virtuosity of  “The Definitions Aria” and the beautiful “Saintly Jam,” Steve Duke magnificently performs a convincing array of blues and jazz creating a gifted partnership with the elegance of Mr. Waschka’s algorithms.

Saint Ambrose represents a milestone in the repertoire of computer music. The strength of the work is the artful presentation of a period in American history rendering it accessible to and enjoyable by people of all ages. As the old adage goes, “Those who have not learned the lessons of history are destined to relive it.” Rodney Waschka gives us an entertaining glint into an American life during the late nineteenth century with a derisive parody fitting for the twenty-first century.