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Brewer launches an artistic adventure at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts

Christine Brewer
Christian Steiner
Christine Brewer

Christine Brewer is a woman of extraordinary talent and artistic gumption, and in recent years has emerged as one of the most highly regarded sopranos in all the world.

Her repertory is rich. She was a hit this summer as Lady Billows in the Santa Fe Opera production of Benjamin Britten's "Albert Herring," and her realizations of the parts of Ellen Orford in Britten's "Peter Grimes" and Elizabeth I in his "Gloriana" for Opera Theatre of St. Louis are legendary. Her performances of works by Strauss and Wagner are celebrated as well, and she recently released an astonishingly powerful recording of Strauss scenes on the Telarc label.

Also this summer, Brewer set out on an artistic adventure that ranges far indeed from the worlds of Strauss and Wagner and Britten. This adventure is called "Intervals," and it is the work of a fascinating young composer and technical wizard at the University of California at San Diego named Shahrokh Yadegari.

Brewer and I spent some time talking about singing over the weekend (Sept. 11-12) and marveling at the amazing paths open to talented and adventuresome musicians who're willing -- and have courage enough -- to wander into the risky and difficult territory of contemporary music and to participate in experiments that stretch the limits of their art.

We warmed up to the subject of new music by going over her recent performances in Switzerland, where she sang the role of Tove in the big, sprawling and very loud turn-of-the-20th century oratorio, "Die Gurre-Lieder," by Arnold Schoenberg.

This oratorio, which Schoenberg created as a relatively young composer, was completed in its present form about a hundred years ago, and had its premiere in Vienna in 1913. Brewer and a grand assembly of other artists in concert halls in Montreux and Lucerne performed it earlier this month. It is marked with influences of Mahler and Wagner and Strauss - three composers with whom Brewer is intimately familiar.

There was a 10-year interval between the time Schoenberg completed the first version of "Die Gurre-Lieder" and its premiere in Vienna. During those 10 years, Schoenberg went in a completely different direction and began churning Western musical traditions and establishing himself as a musical and intellectual rebel.

"Intervals," the new work of Yadegari's, which features Brewer, qualifies absolutely as a work in the front ranks of the advance guard of contemporary music. Its premiere is to be this month at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. In a very lineal and direct way, Schoenberg's work anticipated a composition by the young composer-sound designer-producer Yadegari, who, as a soldier in the continuing modernist revolution, is breaking new ground and old rules with his music.

Brewer is accustomed to singing demanding work by composers such as Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, so "Die Gurre-Lieder," while a challenge, is well within the realm of her experience. Yadegari's music is something else. As Brewer said, "It is absolutely like nothing I have ever sung.

"I was fascinated with the whole concept," she continued, "although it is well outside my comfort zone. I sing folk music, so I'm not totally fenced in by opera. But I do sing what's written down on the page. With this ["Intervals,"] I am in headphones with no music."

Yadegari, she said, asked her to sing a melody, three times, and to sing it identically each time. Brewer chose "In the Pines," the 19th century folksong made famous by Leadbelly. The composer asked her to signal him when she was going to begin the second and third singing of it.

"He taped it, then overdubbed it, and the result was I was singing with myself." The process raised all sorts of questions, such as, should she harmonize? "I was tentative at first, very tentative, but eventually I realized there was no right or wrong." That realization took a while, she said, accustomed as she is singing what is on the page.

Then, she said, "something rather miraculous happened." She heard not only her voice but three or four different voices. "One of them was my mother's. And at that moment," she said, "I began to cry."

What really worked for her was when Yadegari gave her images to think about: pretend you're swimming, he told her, and then, imagine there is a storm approaching then think about comforting someone who is scared.

"I don't know how to explain it - it's like a canon," a musical form in which a melody is repeated exactly after a certain amount of time. "Frere Jacques" is a rather basic example of a repeating canon. "It is harmonizing with oneself. It's sort of like rap, where you start with four-four rhythm, then elaborate on it." She repeated, "There is no right or wrong. I just need to let myself be free."

Elizabeth Zharoff, who has sung with Opera Theatre for three years, most recently in the 2010 production of "The Marriage of Figaro," is Brewer's companion in singing "Intervals," but the duo will not be out in front of the audience by themselves.

The music swirls into an exhibition currently at the Pulitzer. It is called "stylus." Artist Ann Hamilton, who has collaborated with Yadegari before, created it with the help of a posse of associates. Hamilton will join the singers - and a digital character named Lila - in the production of this complex and multi-faceted performance.

Yadegari is Lila's creator. It is an instrument programmed to respond to sound bytes it picks up from the world around it in general, and in this case, specifically from Brewer and Zharoff. They will not simply perform the new piece - certainly not in the stand-up-and-sing fashion we are accustomed to. Rather, they will help to create "Intervals" in the process of the performance.

Yadegari said he is well aware that his composition is different from other musical contexts in which Brewer has worked. Lila, he said, has been constructed technically in such a way that it provides meaningful tactile control for the electronics performer to react musically to the singers.

Before Lila, he said, similar efforts produced mechanisms the acoustic performer would use as an effect rather than as a colleague or the performers had to follow the rigid form of the electronics. "Now, it is a real conversation, a conversation with herself and with me, because I will respond to the musical gestures she makes," he said.

Yadegari tells a story about the inspiration for the conception of Lila.

"There was a mockingbird that sang all night long in a jasmine tree in my yard." The bird's singing kept Yadegari awake, so he decided to record it, then to play it back, and the bird began to respond to its recorded voice, which is rather like someone imitating the hoot of an owl, and having it hoot back. But by manipulating the song of the mockingbird, a new relationship was set up, one that was not simply imitative, but conversational and progressive.

In "Intervals," similarly, the live performer enters into a conversation with herself as well as with the composer, who directs the contribution of Lila to this complex, and, one assumes, quite rich and contrapuntal dialogue.

What is going to be most interesting and affecting in "Intervals" are the dialogues between the artists and their own live sounds, and the relationships between technology and Yadegari. He said toward the end of the piece, Brewer and Zharoff and the voice of Brewer interact with a piano being played by computer. The main concept is all these mechanisms are controlled precisely by the performers.

"The feel of it has to be that it is a duet between the acoustic singer and the electronic music performer," Yadegari said. The proof of all this is in the performance, of course.

The public has two opportunities to see and hear the artists and the technology that converses with them (see the box above) on Sept. 21 at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. Opera Theatre of St. Louis is the Pulitzer's partner in the presenting the piece; and Opera Theatre's general director, Timothy O'Leary, played a key role in persuading Brewer to give this new work an artistic shot.

"Intervals" is one of several concerts to be presented by the Pulitzer in connection with Ann Hamilton's "stylus." The concert series began Tuesday, Sept. 14, with the music of Gyorgy Kurtag, which will be presented again tonight, Wednesday, Sept. 15. For more information, go to www.pulitzerarts.org .

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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