Vol. 45 Issue 2 Reviews
James Dashow: Archimedes - A Planetarium Opera

Reviewed by Bradley S. Green
Washington, D.C., USA

Archimedes: A Planetarium Opera by James Dashow is an opera written to be performed in a planetarium, mixing hexaphonic audio playback and live vocalists with intricate light shows that occur regularly throughout the opera’s three acts. It is a massive, complex work that took the composer nine years to complete, and though finished in 2008, this new compact disc marks its first full release, mixed down to stereo from the 6.0 surround sound original. The three compact disc set can be found on Amazon, the Neuma Records’ website, and the composer’s website. As the present recording clearly demonstrates, this work is a monumental achievement.

Before discussing the composition or recording quality, some context should be given to the story and its characters. The libretto, written by Cary Plotkin and Ted Weiss, centers around Archimedes, the famed mathematical genius from the ancient city of Syracuse in Sicily, focusing primarily on his use of war machines to defend the city during the 214 - 212 B.C.E. Roman siege. However, though the opera certainly has a concrete (albeit minimalist) narrative grounded in documented history, this narrative serves to explore deeper themes of human nature, about which Dashow describes as a “tragedy of humanity” in his liner notes. As a character, Archimedes is presented as an obsessive individual, preoccupied with the beauty and purity of his mathematical musings and motivated only by the discovery of invention. Another central character (and narrator), Marcellus, is the Roman consul who leads the siege against Syracuse and is motivated by an idealistic dream of a Roman utopia. Both characters espouse admirable goals, still both are only human. Compelled by the suffering of a terrified Syracusan people, Archimedes employs his talents to build gruesomely effective war machines to protect the city, while Marcellus, backed by the power-hungry Roman senate, plans to persuade Archimedes to use his war machines to protect Rome from its enemies. These characters are all vessels that symbolize both the best and worst of humanity, illustrating how good intentions can be used to justify heinous acts, and how we can be left devastated by our decisions, both individually and collectively.

There are two other characters that need mentioning: the Prime Mover, a god-like figure from Plato’s Timaeus that acts as architect to the universe, and Demiurge, a two-person conjoined being whom the Prime Mover tasks to “create the tribe of humans so… they may not equal gods but may imitate them perfectly.” Demiurge then creates Archimedes, giving him “a larger share of the flame, prime fire.” These entities, the events they set in motion, and their eventual bleak realization during the finale act as a frame for both the story and the theme of human duality and fallibility, broadening the perspective and extrapolating from the flaws of a few historical men to represent the flaws of humans throughout history, past, present, and future.

The music Dashow composes to this elaborate libretto compliments the story and its themes flawlessly, both on a micro and macro level. It is colorful and engaging with expertly crafted electronic sounds, and though the music is fixed media (except the vocal parts), it has a thoroughly spontaneous quality throughout. The vocal parts are performed with a mix of spoken word, sprechstimme, and fully sung lines, most of which are visceral representations of the text. There is a wonderfully stark contrast between the lyricism of the vocal parts and the colorful tapestry of electronic accompaniment which, if I’m bold enough to make an imperfect comparison, regularly reminded me of the interaction between voice and instruments in works such as Pierre Boulez’s legendary Le Marteau sans maître.

At all times during the opera, Dashow’s mastery of electronic music is on full display, and it seems as if every synthesis and sampling technique available at the time of composition was utilized, many times in simultaneity. Recorded and MIDI instruments are juxtaposed and combined with elaborately crafted synthesized instruments, audio samples are cut, mixed, and processed in a variety of ways, and most sounds are spatialized and rarely static (etc.). It would be tiresome of me to list every technique heard throughout the piece (and I would certainly miss a few), but suffice to say, it would be possible to teach an entire electronic music course with this work alone.

What is equally impressive is that such a maximalist approach to the electronics does not become tiresome or monotonous, as can sometimes occur when too much is thrown on the canvas at once. Further, Dashow balances and gives meaning to his sounds by connecting them to the characters and themes. Structurally, the opera is largely through-composed and tends to focus on color and textural density as a means of development. For instance, drums are used whenever there is war or discussions of war, and according to Dashow, the character Archimedes is represented by various guitar and guitar-like sounds, while Marcellus is characterized by a chamber group that grows as the piece progresses. Another timbre-related formal progression appears to be the use of acoustic instruments (both samples and MIDI imitations) to represent not only Marcellus, but flawed humanity in general. These sounds are contrasted against the synthesized instruments and electronic sounds, which seem to represent more godly entities and endeavors (i.e., the Prime Mover, Demiurge, and Archimedes’ many mathematical daydreams, where the most colorful electronics are heard). This dualistic use of sounds works to highlight the themes of human duality, which is most apparent in Act II, as the terrified Syracusan people interrupt Archimedes’ daydreaming for a third time. This final interruption is accompanied by sardonically imitated acoustic instruments (MIDI brass, strings, etc.), ultimately convincing Archimedes to give up his principles and build war machines to protect the city.

The music is both captivating and dramatically compelling for the entirety of the opera’s 2.5 hour duration, and though it would not be possible (or likely appreciated) to discuss every scene, there are certainly a few moments that stood out on an initial listen worth mentioning. The juxtaposition of the understated, almost somber introduction by Marcellus accompanied by (mostly) acoustic instruments in dry, impulsive spurts (entitled “Begin”), against the gravitas of the Prime Mover creating the universe in heavily reverberated and piercing sustained tones presented a striking prologue, beautifully setting the tone of the opera. At the end of Act 2 (“And the Sun”), Marcellus and the Roman senate simultaneously realize they can use Archimedes while they watch in horror the gruesome effectiveness of his war machines. Their conflicting purposes are deftly symbolized by a thematic clash of guitar (representing Archimedes), chamber instruments (representing Marcellus), drums (war), and synthesized instruments (godly endeavors). Lastly, though the opera is certainly a tragedy, there are wonderful and appreciated moments of levity throughout, including an early scene (“In Which He Grows Up”) depicting Archimedes coming of age, expressed with capricious, almost child-like synthesized sounds and processed child laughter, and later, in an amusing take on the famous “Eureka” moment, a duet between two slave girls tasked with bathing Archimedes, who apparently cannot be bothered with such an earthly task.

The vocal performances are also uniformly compelling and evocative of their respective characters, communicated solely by their tone and phrasing. The baritone plays the titular character of Archimedes with a mix of innocence and impulsive genius bordering on delusion, which pairs well with the tenor’s confident, yet tragic, Marcellus. The tenor part also plays wonderfully against the bass who represents Hieron, king of Syracuse. The performer imbues the character with hope and paternalistic compassion towards Archimedes and the city. The Soprano and tenor duets, as the conjoined Demiurge, constitutes some of the finest vocal moments of the opera, as their lines combine and overlap to create an eerie texture that alternates between heterophony and melody or countermelody. The Prime Mover is the only character that does not appear live, as the part was pre-recorded by the Shakespearean actor Philip Kerr, whose intense reading conveys a distinct profundity to the beginning of the universe. In addition, Toby Newman, Madeleine Albus, Antonio Politano, Nicholas Isherwood, and James Wright deserve to be mentioned as well for their excellent supporting work as minor characters and chorus members.

Finally, like most Neuma releases, the quality of the recording by Grammy-nominated recording engineer Adam Abeshouse, and mixing/mastering by Abeshouse, Doron Schächter and Dashow is superb. Sonorities are appropriately crisp or lush, the relationship between the vocalists and electronics was consistently well-balanced, and though there were plenty of occasions where the many overlapping sounds could easily become muddy, the audio was always clear. Additionally, Dashow writes much in the liner notes about the importance of spatialization in the original hexaphonic mix (and Dashow’s work in general), and this album does an excellent job translating the original six channels into a stereo mixdown.

Though the recording and mixing and mastering is certainly worthy of praise, by nature of this being an audio-only stereo release, a few important details are unavoidably lost in translation, the two most prominent being the depth offered by the spatialized surround sound that is integral to the original experience, and the lack of visuals, particularly the light shows, that help give clarity to certain scenes throughout. Regarding the latter, Neuma seems to understand the importance of visuals in the opera, as they link both a PDF and scrolling video recording of the full libretto from their website, including descriptions of the various light shows and character actions. The libretto is an essential listening companion, especially for the various Mathematics movements during the opera where important thematic information is communicated. Additionally, there is one other commercially available DVD release by Neuma that contains the visuals and surround sound audio (Neuma DVD 450-203), though it is only contains three scenes and not the full opera.

All of that said, this recording of Archimedes: A Planetarium Opera is the only full release of the opera, and thus represents the only method of hearing the entirety of this fantastic work outside of an actual planetarium. Though it is simply not possible to deliver the full experience of surround sound, live performance, and light shows within the bounds of a stereo compact disc set, this album is as faithful a representation of the opera as can be possible given the constraints. Further, it is indicative of the quality of both the opera and this release that it is worth experiencing even with these technological constraints in mind. In sum, the opera’s themes are relevant and poignant, the music is composed with an incredible sensitivity and attention to detail, and the quality of both the performances and the recording are exceptional. I only hope to be able to see this performed live in a planetarium at some point in the future.