(A music theater work for performance-artist and pianist.)
A General Description of Miriam.
This work explores the relation between language, creativity, and identity. We develop the premise that the pursuit of creative identity is fundamental to human dignity, and that people denied that freedom develop existential, spiritual, and psychological problems.
also explores the belief that humanity has repressed its feminine side, thus
losing many icons, archetypes, and forms of communication necessary for its
confront these issues because society imposes roles upon them that limit their
human potential. Miriam’s
domestic role forces her to wear "masks," but her buried
authenticity fights back. Women
in the workplace face similar pressures since they often confront attitudes
and prejudice that limit their development.
These were the experiences of Abbie Conant who fought
egregious discrimination in the Munich Philharmonic for 13 years.
professional women identify with Miriam. Sylvia
of the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra in Washington, D.C. and a horn player with
the National Symphony, was quoted in a feature about Abbie and Miriam
in the Washington Post:
can not imagine the power of this piece unless you were there in the room,
Alimena says. “All those
professional women, just shaken to their cores by this piece.
Of course it resonates particularly with other players, because
-believe it- the kind of treatment Abbie went through in Munich is not, by any
stretch of the imagination, unknown in the United States.’”
Miriam experiences internal crisis, but she is more than just another “mad woman of opera,” since she consciously confronts the stereo-typed roles, masks, and personas that are forced upon her as a woman. Perhaps this passage from A Spy in the House of Love by Anais Nin best describes the conflict of Miriam:
was like an actress who must compose a face, an attitude to meet the day. . .
She must redesign the face, smooth the anxious brows, separate the
crushed eye-lashes, wash off the traces of secret, interior tears, accentuate
the mouth as upon a canvas, so it will hold its luxuriant smile.
Inner chaos, like those secret volcanoes which suddenly lift the neat
furrows of a peacefully plowed field, awaited behind all disorders of face,
hair and costume, for a fissure through which to explode."
“Unfortunately, Abbie's story reflects the rule,” notes Monique Buzzarte in the IAWM Journal, “not the exception, for women trombonists. Her case is distinguished from so many others not by the actions she endured, but by their severity, her documentation of them, and most notably, by her eventual victory.”
Information about the video of The Chair.
Miriam, Part II: "The Chair" was premiered in November of 1988 for the Stuttgarter Tage für Neue Musik, which was under the direction of Hans-Peter Jahn. (The festival is now referred to as Éclat - Festival Neue Musik Stuttgart. The complete Miriam Trilogy was premiered in May 1990 as part of the Munich Biennale, which was under the direction of Hans Werner Henze.
This video was created as part of Abbie's sabbatical project for the fall semester of 2010-2011 thanks to the generosity and support of the Ministerium fur Wissenschaft, Forschung und Kunst Baden-Württemberg, and the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik Trossingen.
After several months of rehearsal, and performances at Northern Arizona University (February 22, 2011) and the University of Kansas City Missouri (March 22, 2011,) the video was edited from three run-throughs filmed between March 28-30, 2011. One run through was done on each of the three days. Through extensive rehearsal and preparation, our goal was to film only run-throughs, and only three, in order to preserve the dramatic continuity and emotional contour of the work.
We used a Sony VX-2000 camera and a Shure KSM32 microphone. The filming was completed in our studio in Taos, NM. The video was edited with Adobe Premiere CS4, with a small amount of additional audio editing with the hard disk recording software Samplitude. The results were exported into Flash for web delivery. The video lasts 35 minutes. We would encourage viewers to watch the work in its entirety, since its dramatic arch is among its greatest value. The bit rate is quite high, so some advance download time might be required for some Internet connections. If needed, please contact us and we can provide a link for downloading the video to hard disk free of charge.
In order to obtain a very black background and create the sorts of lighting effects used in our live performances, we used an extremely high f-stop setting on the Sony VX-2000 camera (f-11,) and added lighting effects with the spotlight filter in Adobe Premiere CS4. Adobe's media encoder does not properly export the lighting effects to the Mpeg2 codec used for DVDs, nor does it export correctly to the avi format. (Fortunately, export to Flash does work.) Until we find a solution for this problem, we will not be able to create a DVD version of our video, but the Flash version will make our work available to the international community.
We will be expanding this site with sizable articles about the compositional techniques and performance practices we have developed during the 30 years we have been creating these types of chamber music theater works. (The first two essays are below.) The video and essays will also be in support of Prof. Jesús Fernando Lloret Gonzáles who is completing his dissertation about our work for his doctoral degree from the University of Malaga, Spain.
The first essay below is by William and is entitled "Miriam and Chamber Music Theater." It focuses on the characteristics of chamber music theater, some of the techniques we use to create it, and why it is an important and necessary genre that should be developed. The essay is by Abbie, and is entitled "Diving Back Into the Bitter Waters of Miriam." It focuses on the correlation of our work with the seven principles of creativity used by Leonardo Da Vinci as formulated by author Michael Gelb.
Miriam and Our Theories of Chamber Music Theater
by William Osborne, April 26, 2011
probably no exaggeration to say that only those who have attempted to write
chamber music theater understand how difficult it is. It is virtually
impossible to combine words and music into theater in a way that isn’t hokey
and clunky. And it is even more
difficult if the goal is to give the words, music, and theater an equal
artistic value in the service of substantial characters that develop. It
should also be noted that these difficulties are vastly compounded if
everything is in a raw, exposed chamber music format without the trappings of
opera to pad the work with lavish sets, deafening bel canto voices, massive
orchestras, and cavernous houses.
spite of these difficulties, our goal is to make our performances so natural,
and the compositions so effective, that they seem to border on the
effortless. In some cases, this can be a bit misleading.
In this article, we will give you a look behind the scenes and outline
some of the theoretical concepts of music, theater, and performance involved
in the creation of Miriam.
hope this will help people better understand the video of Miriam, why
chamber music theater is so difficult to create, and why it is virtually
non-existent in the oeuvre of Western classical music.
You can then view (or review) the video to judge for yourselves how
well we have realized our theoretical concepts.
is also important to know that we have been involved in this work for a very
long time. Miriam, the work in the video above, was premiered 23 years ago.
As time allows, we will be creating videos of our other chamber music
theater works so those interested can see how our efforts have evolved.
We will also be adding technical essays about our methods of creating
texts, about composing the works, and about the sorts of performance practices we have had
It has long been the goal of Western culture to establish a genre of chamber music theater, but this has never been achieved. We lack a substantial literature for such a genre, which for the most part, exists only in theory. Western culture has also long had the goal of creating music theater that fully integrates text, theater, and music on an equal basis. This ideal has also not been realized. If there are works that come close to obtaining these goals, they are only the exceptions that prove the rule.
about small formats and the integration of music theater’s elements were
first outlined by the Florentine Camera which flourished from 1577
to 1582. Early developments in
opera were soon diverted away from chamber music theater toward large scale
productions with elaborate staging featuring the bel canto voice accompanied
by sizable orchestras. Since the
bel canto voice is poorly suited to delivering texts that can be understood,
the chances of opera genuinely integrating music, text, and theater were
greatly reduced. And the focus on
spectacle often precluded more subtle theatrical exploration. The goal of
genuinely integrating music and theater in small formats was lost.
Subsequent efforts in the following centuries were considered
unsuccessful. Among the most
notable were the melodramas of romantics like Schumann, Schubert, and Liszt.
The music was often remarkable and inventive, but there seemed to be a
lack of theatrical theory that could provide a basis for the creation of
effective, small-format music theater. (To
listen to a recording of Schumann’s melodrama "Die Flüchtlinge",
Op. 122, Nr. 2 performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau click here.)
absence of music theater in chamber formats represents an enormous gap in the
oeuvre of Western classical music. Filling it is a fascinating challenge
that remains to be solved. One
reason this has not been done is that the capacity to create music theater of any sort is one of the
rarest of all human abilities. In
the 500 years since the Florentine Camerata first formulated our concepts of
music theater, there have only been about 10 or 15 composers whose operas are
regularly performed. For chamber
music theater, the number is zero. Nevertheless,
this dismal situation might soon change. Developments
in technology and advances in the theory of theater since the Second World War
seem to offer exciting new possibilities for the creation of an effective
genre of chamber music theater.
Development of New Theories of Small Theater
of the most important of these developments was the appearance of a group of
playwrights who dedicated their careers to works suitable for small
theaters with limited resources and a limited number of actors.
Important among these playwrights were a group of post-war writers
based mostly in Paris that included Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Eugene
Ionesco, Jean Genet, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Antonin Artaud.
(Pinter, of course, was based in London, and Artaud worked mostly before the war.)
Their work established new forms of theatrical theory, but their
writings and plays do not seem to have been widely explored by composers or librettists.
This is unfortunate, since the concepts of these playwrights could be
very useful for the creation of music theater in small formats.
is nowhere more apparent than in the work of Samuel Beckett, who late in his
life wrote a series of miniature plays that he felt were literally analogous
to chamber music. His texts are
also extremely musical, and as a director he demanded that they be delivered
with musical precision, almost as if he were directing a musical score.
One of his most important interpreters, the actress Billie Whitelaw,
once observed when performing his short play Footfalls:
"I felt like a moving, musical Edvard Munch painting and, in fact, when
Beckett was directing Footfalls he was not only using me to play
the notes, I almost felt that he did have the paintbrush out and was
few composers seem to consider the idea that writing opera might begin
with examining the most recent developments in the theory and practice of
theater. And there are no
music schools that offer such studies a part of their curriculum.
Most composers, as a result, continue to write operas based on theories
of music theater still aligned with late 19th and
early 20th century concepts of the bel canto voice, massive
spectacle, and large orchestral resources.
Progress has been further hindered because these works are often so
weighed-down by the massive resources required for their production that
useful experimentation and theatrical exploration remain impossible.
recent decades smaller works have become more frequent, but as with efforts
during the 19th century, they seem to fail due to the inability of
most composers to apply effective theatrical theories to small-scale forms of
music theater. From the most
critical viewpoint, conceptualism often seemed to become the resort of
ignorance and inability in many of these works. This
was a general problem that plagued many artists in the post-war era, because
so many common practices and belief systems were completely shattered.
There were few accepted technical or aesthetic theories at hand, and
those that were in the process of being formulated, as with the aforementioned playwrights, were difficult to recognize in the atmosphere of doubt
that characterized the period.
our attempts to solve some of these problems, my wife and I began by spending
seven years studying the plays of Samuel Beckett and performing chamber music
theater works we created based on them. The
musicality and theatrical precision of Beckett’s plays were perfectly suited
to this endeavor. The small format
of our works allowed us to put music theater in a test tube, as it were, and
carefully explore and try-out what worked and what didn’t.
Miriam was the first work we
wrote after those many years of involvement with the plays of Beckett, and the
theories of his work are everywhere apparent in it.
Different Type of Vocal Production
of the first things we learned is that the bel canto voice is often poorly
suited to integrating music, text, and theater because it can make words
difficult to understand. It can
also hinder the forms of vocal inflection that fully integrated acting
demands. The bel canto
voice is extremely beautiful and can reflect profound humanity and emotional
depths, but it can also have a warbling, horsey, egoistic, physicality that
subsumes all other elements of theater. Even
in opera, the elephantine
character of the bel canto voice sometimes borders on the ridiculous. The
bel canto voice can be applied to some forms of chamber music theater, but in
some cases, it requires that the singer adapt his or her forms of vocal
found that the basic vocal techniques of bel canto applied to a more natural
vocal style were essential to creating types of integration between words and
music for which we were searching. Among
the things you will notice in the video of Miriam
all of the words are easily understandable, 2) we strive to give the text a
weight equal to the music, 3) detailed character development is an essential
part of the piece, 4) the work requires extensive acting skills. These
goals could only be achieved with new vocal techniques. Opera
singers are sometimes criticized for poor acting, but the fact is that musical
and theatrical contexts for good acting are often not even provided by the
all of the words are easily understandable, 2) we strive to give the text a
weight equal to the music, 3) detailed character development is an essential
part of the piece, 4) the work requires extensive acting skills. These
goals could only be achieved with new vocal techniques. Opera
singers are sometimes criticized for poor acting, but the fact is that musical
and theatrical contexts for good acting are often not even provided by the
Opera singers are sometimes criticized for poor acting, but the fact is that musical and theatrical contexts for good acting are often not even provided by the scores.
especially important characteristic of the form of singing we developed is
that it allows for seamless movement between singing and speaking.
We found that being able to use both sung and spoken passages allowed
for much more dimension in our works. The
wider pallet of inflection allowed
by a lighter voice increases the ability to create believable acting and the
authentic portrayal of characters. And
of course, we do not present these ideas merely as a concepts or theories.
We offer the video above of Miriam so that people can see the practical application of
our theories and how they work.
Importance of Texts
feel that the value of music theater texts must be reasserted if the genre is
to continue to evolve. One of the
reasons opera began to decay during the 20th century was the loss
of the art of the librettist. Since
music, spectacle, and the bel canto voice had already begun to dominate opera even in its
early history, librettos took on a strongly inferior role in productions.
Especially in the Italian operas that came to dominate the genre during
the 18th and 19th centuries, the creation of librettos
became hack work based on stock characters. By
the time the 20th century arrived, few authors were interested in
work that was considered demeaning and anachronistic.
negative views of the librettist’s art are somewhat one-sided.
Even though librettos all too often fell to hack work, their importance
demonstrated in most of the truly great operas.
Boito’s adaptations for Verdi’s Othello
and Falstaff are well-known examples.
Other important examples are the librettos of Da Ponte which so deftly
provided a framework for Mozart’s genius. It
is impossible to write truly great operas without excellent librettos.
dearth of librettists during the 20th century thus had catastrophic
consequences. More operas probably
failed due to bad librettos than to poor composition.
Another result was that the art of writing librettos did not continue
to evolve. The few librettists
that remained continued to think of opera in terms of 19th century
practices, and failed to keep pace with the 20th century’s newly
evolving theories of theater. Many
recent operas are so locked in slightly updated 19th century
conceits that they hardly even reach the early 20th century
theoretical concepts behind the comedies of Oscar Wilde or the social realism
of Berthold Brecht. Some
librettists have employed the seemingly modern techniques of minimalism, but
still in service of spectacles reminiscent of 19th century
theatrical values. There have also
been attempts to revive opera by embracing exoticism, such as the use of
Chinese instruments and myths. Here
too the efforts are superficial, have a 19th century quality, and
do not provide long-term solutions or the basic understanding of current
theatrical theory that is needed if classical music is to keep the development
of music theater alive.
it is worth noting that one off-shoot of this problem with librettos has been
the development Regietheater.
In essence, it exists because many, if not most opera librettos are so absurd that
they beg for enhancement. Sadly,
this seems to apply to many contemporary operas as well.
Unfortunately, Regietheater is a stop-gap method of trying to improve librettos
(both new and old.) And even more,
it’s a largely futile attempt to recreate texts in ways that might give the
standard repertoire more theatrical substance and modern relevancy.
Directions As An Integral Part of Scores
addition to giving our texts a weight equal to the music, we also place a
special emphasis on stage directions and actions, and precisely notate them in
our scores. Through our
study of Beckett, we developed the theoretical concept that a music theater
score can (and perhaps should) be so detailed that it becomes a production
book. As part of this, we
generally notate the rhythms of even spoken passages in order to precisely
coordinate them with their musical accompaniments and to highlight the
musical nature of their cadences and rhythms.
(It is interesting that when Beckett directed he demanded that his
words be delivered with certain kinds of rhythms even though he had not
developed any way of stipulating them in his texts.
In the mid 1980s, I gave him several of the scores I had written based
on his texts and he invited me to
was a young man during the silent film era.
He was initially interested in becoming a film director and considered
traveling to Russia
to study with Sergei Eisenstein. Beckett
also admired the work of silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin and Buster
Keaton. In 1964, he wrote a silent
film script for Keaton. Two of
Beckett’s plays are scripts for a pantomime without any spoken text,
entitled appropriately enough “Act Without Words I” and “Act Without
Words II.” All of his plays
contain extensive and explicit stage directions whose semiotic meanings are
often quite profound and are as essential to the work as the spoken texts.
Beckett thus refused to allow productions which didn’t follow his stage
directions, and his estate continues this practice.
the first few pages of Beckett’s play Happy
Days, there are over a hundred stage directions explicitly describing the
main character’s actions as she begins her morning ablutions.
When I set the text, I followed the directions in great detail and even
wrote specific musical accompaniments for almost all of them. As
you can see from the above video, we employ similar techniques for the first
part of Miriam, which contains about
a hundred small gestures all correlated with specific, short musical figures.
Our goal is to create a sort of ballet out of Miriam’s simple
gestures as she puts on make-up and works on a text she is writing. Words,
singing, speaking, gesture, and acting are strongly integrated and coordinated
with a patina of music. This is
possible because each of these elements is precisely notated in the score
which functions as a production book, and which aligns all of these elements
with the music.
Unity of Image, Time, and Place
our chamber music theater works, we also follow Beckett’s reemployment of
the Aristotelian ideal of using a single time, place, and image for each work.
Our sets are very simple, and designed so that all of the theater
naturally and spontaneously flows out of them.
One sees this theory at work in Beckett’s play Happy
Days, where a woman is buried in the earth to her waste, and later to her
neck, but is trying to remain optimistic.
It is also apparent in Waiting
for Godot where two tramps wait endlessly on an empty road with nothing in
sight except a small, barren tree. Time,
place, and image reveal an existential unity.
Similar techniques were used by Ionesco in plays like The
Lesson, by Genet in The Balcony,
Sartre in The Chamber, or Pinter in The
Caretaker. In theory, this
unity of time, place, and image creates an especially powerful, iconic effect
because it removes all that is extraneous and thus reveals fundamental aspects
of our existential condition.
is a world far removed from the bellowing, pompous, excessively lavish,
Zeferellian worlds portrayed by most operas and their productions. The humanity
of the characters is all too often buried underneath the monstrous size of the
productions. (An example would
be the Met's current Ring production which uses a 45 ton stage machine.)
By stripping away all
that is superfluous, our goal is just the opposite, to put the human center
stage and examine the most fundamental aspects of their lives.
the Musicality of Language
musicians, our goal is not only to give language an equal importance in our
music theater, but also to develop language that is realistic and
natural while being inherently musical. Even
though Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco, Genet, Sartre and Artaud all represent
similar developments in the theory and practice of theater, Beckett stood
apart in his use of language. It
is rewarding to study how he created very real characters with natural
language that is often astoundingly beautiful and musical.
His teacher and mentor, James Joyce, once advised him that, “It is
not what you say, but how you say it.” Beckett’s
thought is notably profound, but the ideas reflected in his work might be most
appreciated due to their poetic formulations.
the beautiful cadences in the famous excerpt from Waiting
for Godot quoted below. Picture two tramps on an empty road in the
middle of nowhere. Listen to the
subtle use of repetition; the sounds of the words that sting the ends of
sentences; the quick, faceted movement between extroversion and contemplation;
the richness of the vocabulary captured in simple, single-syllable words; the
percussive patterns created by the calculated rhythms of crisp consonants;
and the perfect form of the paragraph as a theatrical beat. And notice how all
is in seemingly natural language heavily imbued with the humorous and profound
ironies of absurdism:
"Let us not waste our time
in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not
every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others
would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were
addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place,
at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us
make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once
the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us! What do you say? It is true
that when with folded arms we weigh the pros and cons we are no less a credit
to our species. The tiger bounds to the help of his congeners without the
least reflection, or else he slinks away into the depths of the thickets. But
that is not the question. What are we doing here, that is the question. And we
are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense
confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come—"
Beckett savored the sounds of words and always employed them for their sonic effect. This same sensibility was applied to the shapes inherent in his sentences which were always formed by the most musical rhythms, repetitions, and symmetries. His frequent use of alliteration and subtly permutated repetitions are other techniques, as was his ability to write natural dialog infused with the cadences and syncopations of poetry, but without ever descending to poesy. Especially notable are his uses of silences, which are exquisitely musical and precisely notated in his texts.
once famously said he released his sculptures from the marble that
encased them. Setting Beckett’s
words to music is somewhat similar.
The music is simply released from the words that encase it.
Speaking his sentences is like softly moving a string of mellifluous
bells. And yet these words also
portray very natural and idiomatic characters without Sondheimian cuteness,
Gilbert and Sullivan show biz, or Rogers and Hammerstein poesy.
though the challenges are obviously almost insurmountable, we sought to make
these theoretical principles the basis of our own texts.
We wanted texts that would allow us to portray and explore fundamental
existential concepts; texts that accurately portrayed natural and believable
characters; and texts that notated actions with such precision that they could
be fully integrated with the spoken words and given structured musical
accompaniments. And as with
Beckett, we sought texts so musical that we could notate even spoken rhythms
and pauses, and language that could easily flow between spoken and sung words.
Naturally, it was and remains a difficult and frustrating task. The
video above will show the extent to which we had solved these problems by
We especially admired the aforementioned authors because they were all masters of character portrayal, even when examining the most abstract existential concepts. Character development is ideally suited to the genuine integration of music and theater. When the subjective emotionality and visceral levels of music are genuinely integrated with the objective nature of theater, a Gestalt is formed that reveals a wider spectrum of human consciousness than any other art form can achieve. Due to music theater’s simultaneous focus on the mental, visceral, and emotional levels of human identity, it is especially well-suited to character studies. That is perhaps why many operas focus on a central character’s development, and why the works are often named after them. Orfeo, Lenore, Tosca, Siegfried, Salome, Elektra, Madam Butterfly, Wozzeck, Lulu, Peter Grimes and Billy Budd are but a few examples. Following in this tradition, all of our works are monodramas that explore a single character’s world stripped down to its barest, existential foundation.
To genuinely integrate music, text, and theater we had to create new performance practices and spend years developing them. As mentioned, one of the most important was a more natural way of singing that would not overwhelm the other elements of theater, that could create an easy flow between spoken and sung passages, and that would allow for nuanced acting. To perform these works, Abbie spent years studying singing, acting, mask work, dance, and pantomime. In order to precisely incorporate these disparate elements into music theater works, we also had to develop new concepts of musical notation. (These performance practices and their notation will be the subject of a separate article, but for now you can examine the scores of Winnie, Street Scene for the Last Mad Soprano, and Cybeline and to get a sense of some of the methods we use.)
Practical Value of Small Music Theater
In addition to expanding artistic possibilities, small forms of music theater also have a great deal of practical value. We live in a time where slap-dash concerts and opera productions have become the norm. The large size of symphony orchestras and opera houses places them under severe financial restraints. There is often a lack of musical thought in their performances because there is simply not enough rehearsal time for the conductor to convey his or her ideas to the musicians. Over the centuries, opera grew to such a grand scale that it could only exist in very elaborate and expensive support environments. (To be provocative we might describe them as something like those humongous dinosaurs that would collapse on their own weight unless they stood in large bodies of stagnant water.)
The most notorious of such houses is the Metropolitan Opera whose 300 million dollar per year budget is about twice that of comparable houses in Europe, and even though its seven month season is four to five months shorter than its European counter parts. No expense is spared on its usually conservative and lavish productions, and the Met strives to hire only the most famous and expensive singers. Strangely, the artistic results are often superficial. The lavish but conservative staging is designed to suit the house’s wealthy patrons and is criticized for lacking aesthetic dimension. And the star singers have very full schedules which greatly reduces the amount of rehearsal time they are able to devote to the Met. They often show up for only a few rehearsals so the stage direction has to be very simple. Essentially they are told where to stand and sing and not much more. These park-and-bark productions with lavish, conservative sets oriented toward the tastes of wealthy donors are not held in particularly high esteem by the international opera community. They are noted more for extravagance than substance.
Productions of new works are especially difficult under this system. They are thrown together as quickly as possible and the performances are usually little more than glorified sight readings. One often senses an aggressive grasping at the music by the orchestra and stilted performances by the singers that is very unrewarding. Chamber music theater, by contrast, can still allow for extensive preparation, study, and experimentation. The performers can become fully committed to the art they are presenting and deeply embody it. Naturally, the results can be far more satisfying in terms of the depth of the performance and the messages conveyed. Chamber music theater can stand in stark contrast to the pompous, factory-like, slap-dash vacuity of work by opera houses. Chamber music theater could even benefit opera as a whole by setting new standards for innovation and engagement. If nothing else in the video above, you will notice the unusual intricacy, depth and commitment of Abbie's involvement.
theater could also fill important niches in Europe and America, though for somewhat different reasons.
We hope these thoughts will help those who watch the video of Miriam better appreciate what they are seeing and hearing. Of course, these are just words and don’t mean anything if they can’t be put into practice. So watch the video of Miriam and decide for yourself what they are worth. Consider the integration of acting and music; the balance between music and the text; the detailed and sustained character study; the new performance practices that are shown; and the ways they are notated in the score. And please consider the viability of chamber music theater, the important gaps it could fill in our artistic expression, and the practical uses it would fill in our societies. With such a difficult undertaking as chamber music theater, we are keenly aware of the risks we constantly take. And we are intensely conscious of how badly we can fail, and that we often do. But every artist has to sooner or later put him- or herself on the line and show the proof of their efforts. Whatever people might think, we hope the video and this article might help them develop their own ideas. If you have any thoughts, comments, or suggestions, we'd love to hear from you. Thank you for visiting.
Back Into the Bitter Waters of Miriam
Abbie Conant, June 13, 2011
his New York Times Bestseller, How to
Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, author Michael Gelb defined seven
principle’s that characterized da Vinci’s life and work.
For my sabbatical project, I applied these principles to aspects of
musical performance and teaching, with a specific focus on re-learning a
difficult music theater work entitled Miriam,
which was written for me by composer/director William Osborne.
I hadn’t performed Miriam since 1996. During
my semester-long sabbatical, I studied Leonardo’s life, his character, his
art, his scientific writings, and his journals.
It wasn’t my intention to become an expert on Leonardo, but to find
clues pointing to a holistic approach to performing and teaching my
instrument. Why not consult the
greatest all-round genius the world has ever known?
chose to do my work in
this period, I was invited to perform my sabbatical program entitled Apocalyptic Visions and New Worlds at
The performance you gave was absolutely profound. Your exquisite
musicianship, dramatic commitment and your simultaneously elegant and powerful
trombone playing illuminated the works performed to perfection. The works
themselves were sublime; frightening, funny, terrifyingly beautiful, powerful
and brimming over with humanity. This was a stunning, engaging and
enlightening experience. Thank you!
I also gave
master classes and talked about my work with students. I discovered that
applying the Seven Principles when learning a piece was extremely valuable and
worthwhile. The reader will be
able to see for him- or herself the merit of using the Seven Principles for
the entire spectrum of artistic endeavors by reading the article below. I
was also able to document my work by creating the video of Miriam
linked above and putting it on our website.
Miriam Trilogy is
a harrowing chamber music theater work that lasts 90 minutes. It requires a
performance artist who must be an actress, trombonist, soprano, and pantomime.
is a portrait of an artist and her struggle to find words --to tell her story
which is so much more than anything words can contain, that the attempt almost
destroys her. Miriam was premiered for the Munich Biennale in 1990, and was
written, directed, and produced by William Osborne.
in three parts:
I, The Mirror,
is a musical pantomime showing her identity crisis and attempted suicide.
II, The Chair, finds Miriam
confined to a chair in a mental institution --a chair only experienced in a
nightmare, part child’s high chair, part torture chair, part electric chair,
part symbol of a woman in the straitjacket of an abusive marriage
contextualized by modern day patriarchy. In
this part of the trilogy, we see Miriam trying to write a music theater piece
to perform for her children who are about to visit her in the institution.
There are no words that are hers, that could ever be hers, but she still vows
to somehow find them to express her predicament.
III, The River,
finds Miriam beside a symbolic river making slowly morphing gestures of taking
her infant daughter from the water and/or letting her go to float down the
Trilogy shows us what is behind each of the three doors of the subjective
perception of a woman. In general,
we experience a universal anima and feminine spirit.
We experience a woman’s spirit of creativity caught in the poisoned
landscape of patriarchy. We
experience a world where the feminine is not truly seen, where it is not taken
seriously, and where it is instrumental zed and deeply violated.
an example of a human trying to create art out of pain. The work was written in reaction to the egregious gender discrimination I
experienced in the Munich Philharmonic during my 13 year tenure there.
My husband also felt deep pain at seeing his wife abused, which led him
to compose Miriam.
You can read about my experiences in a highly documented article
entitled “You Sound Like a Ladies’ Orchestra.”
I was not exactly thrilled about returning to a
work that represented that dark period our lives but we both knew it was time
to revisit the character and spirit of Miriam
in order to be reborn, in a sense, into the next phase of our artistic lives.
What I discovered through reflecting on the seven da Vinci Principles
resulted in a deeper understanding of all aspects of interpreting and
performing. These explorations
included how I integrate trombone playing, acting, and the use of my sung and
spoken voice. I also explored how
Miriam’s spirit reverberates in the hearts and minds of the audience. I
experienced myself and my character, Miriam, as a voice in the midst of an
awakening group of humans in a patriarchal wilderness, who are to varying
degrees able to hear her cries, hear the music, and the song of her emergence
into her own light.
Even though the experience of re-learning and
absorbing Miriam happened in an
integrated manner, I will attempt to break down and separate each element and
principle so that they illuminate some of the layers and work methods I used
preparing The Chair for performance.
Here are the Seven Principles:
So many questions. How would it be
to go back to a very challenging work, both technically and emotionally?
Would it be substantially different?
In what way? What had
changed in me, and in my psychology, since the last performance in 1996 – 15
Curiositá in the context of the da Vinci Principles is not simply curiosity. It is the passionate, inquiring, scientific mind as tempered by the subjectivity of the artist. It is the impulse to expand knowledge and connotation itself, to deepen the resonance of the meaning of ideas, symbols and gesture, whether in music, art, science or culture itself. It is knowing that as one observes, one creates. In a sense, Curiositá is Leonardo’s prescience of the phenomenology developed in the 20th Century – and by extrapolation, perhaps even the beginnings of quantum physics. By questioning everything about Miriam --her character, her expression, her words, her vision, her and emotional spectrum-- I created a new Miriam.
Dimostrazione is learning through actual experience --a constant and deep questioning of one’s beliefs, assumptions, habits and methods. Miriam questions the status quo that initially put her where she is. By the end of the piece, we feel sure that through this constant questioning she will find the truth that will set her free. Dimostrazione is the scientific method that will only take truth for an answer.
In relearning The Chair, I asked myself, who is Miriam? As Miriam, how would I feel, write, sing, play trombone, be funny, weep, and so forth. Why is she imprisoned in the chair? Why does she want to write a music theater piece for when her children come to visit? Is it because she can’t communicate through verbal exchange? Or is it because she won’t be believed or taken seriously due to her invalidated position in life?
“They’ll stand there silently, looking at me!,” she proclaims. Apparently she thinks having a music theater piece ready for their visit will allow her to circumvent being looked at as a freak by her own beloved children. She will be able to share something substantial with them without embarrassment, without much interaction.
At the end of the piece, Miriam sees through some of her illusions as her memories are found to be partial or deluded. “The lighthouse…the swelling sea…no, only night. The moon upon the sand…only sand. “ So what is real? She resolves to find out. She will find words that include and celebrate the feminine. She will stare the sense of inferiority in the face and see what it is about. Dimostrazione will show her the way.
Leonardo consciously developed his senses because he believed that intelligence depended on perception. Miriam is completely alone in her world. She senses the fall of night which ushers in the danger of “too much fantasy.” Just sitting in Miriam’s chair evokes through the tactile sense, what her experience might be about. She is trapped in a kind of tortuous limbo of inarticulateness. Her relationship to the world is deeply injured if not completely severed. She is unkempt, but nevertheless has a mirror and make-up on her little table which resembles the table on a child’s high chair. She can’t “see” herself as others see her. Her perceptions are skewed with the madness of extreme emotion without the frail anchor of words. She runs out of writing paper and so uses the palms of her hands instead. They bleed under her pen point. “More words and more words, but not a song to sing!!!,” she screams. Through self-inflicted pain, she expresses her frustration, anger and sadness about her predicament. Her stigmata testify to her victimhood, but subtly allude to a possible transcendence, a rising up.
“And what if she were real?” she asks as it turns into night. She feels the cold, she shivers constantly. Her voice is ravaged, she feels she must sing, but the singing turns to screams that can’t be heard.
on Miriam’s thin slip that exposes her neck, décolleté, and arms,
communicates without words how vulnerable she is --that she is a patient, a
subject in an institution where one need not wear street clothes, but indeed
must wear clothes indicating sickness and invalidity.
One could argue that Miriam’s senses are over-refined, that this is exactly what landed her in the institution. In fact, it is these refined senses that brand her as an artist --an artist not allowed to be an artist.
She is the shadow side of the great artist who is traditionally depicted as male, powerful, and the voice of his nation or culture. Miriam is female, powerless, and has no voice. She is “put away.” Her senses deliver only pain, darkness, and the loneliness of alienation.
Sfumato means literally “up in smoke”. It was a painting technique that Leonardo developed to soften and blur the interfaces in his paintings to create ambiguity. Sfumato includes the ability to embrace the unknown, uncertainty, to allow two or more answers to a single question. Sfumato means accepting that an important part of life is mystery, unknowing, the void. Miriam is not sure of anything in her world, except for the things on her desk: her makeup, her mask, her pen, her notebook, her mirror. All around her is the extension of sfumato that bridges the presence of darkness. Her mask has an almost bridal quality, as do the diaphanous swaths of translucent white material on the back of her chair, while the piece of rope suggests bondage. There is nothing unambiguous about Miriam except her pain and her body. As the actor, I have to be comfortable with not knowing exactly what the piece means, but knowing and intuiting who this figure represents all the same. I must dredge into my own darkness in order to ignite the archetypal force of Miriam. What is behind the smoke or sfumato? The thousand-voiced self, the mystery that reveals more mystery ad infinitum.
Arte/Scienza is balancing the scientific mind with the artist mind, objectivity and subjectivity, the left and right brain. Arte/Scienza encompasses fact and fiction. History and Story. Water and Wine. Chemist and Alchemist. Logic and Imagination. Words and Music.
Acting depends on a good dose of this dual principle because the actor’s sense of what they are subjectively expressing through the character they are objectively portraying is often somewhat skewed. The actor’s perception of what they are communicating and revealing about the character doesn’t always come across to the audience. The director serves as the Scienza part of the process, and guides the actor to the correct balance of inner experience and outer expression. The visual aspect of Miriam’s predicament is the Scienza component, whereas the musical/textual aspect reflects her inner world, her subjective experience of life.
The structure (or Scienza) of the piece informs the subjective emotional/energetic arc for the actor which helps them pace and develop the flow of emotions and energy to create an integrated, impactful whole. One would deliver the text, “Nothing but empty words!” quite differently at the beginning of the piece as opposed to the end. Having the structure in mind shapes the resonance of the words. The objectivity of the score is there to temper as well as ignite the imagination of the artist.
talks to herself alone in her room in the clinic (Scienza,)
then sings behind her mask (Arte) in
alternation throughout the first part of The
Chair. When she sings behind
the mask, the irrational, the mysterious, the Arte
is expressed. A stage and a
performance are a sort of test tube where artists mix up a formula for the
soul to ingest. The objective
elements are the science, while the subjective sense of proportion and
combination are the domain of the artistic mind.
Miriam is a very physical piece. She sits before us locked in her bigger-than-life chair in all her corporeal, middle-aged, well-used, solid, but expressive body. We see her --warts and all-- dressed in a thin nightgown with a blanket covering her lap. She is almost too real, too painful to look at, all too familiar on some archetypal level. Her body suggests neglect if not abuse. Her hair is stringy, greasy and unkempt. There are dark shadows under her eyes. She is a shut-in, physically as well as spiritually. The body clearly reflects the spirit here.
And yet she has a certain poise and force. She writes with vigor, sharpens her pencil with single-minded fanaticism, flings her wads of paper in every direction, sings with a manic gusto, or shouts as if wringing out her every bodily tissue. She has command, or more accurately partnership, with her body. It is an observed body, a body bound and carefully monitored by others one moment and ignored the next. It is the wounded woman’s body crushed under the dull weight of patriarchy. Her creative impulses are dismissed into darkness and alienation. Her body is in a state of humiliation. And yet it is her body that keeps on singing. It is her body that manifests the resolve to “find the words”.
Certainly I had to train my body in many different disciplines in order to perform Miriam. I had to learn to sing at a professional, classical level. I had to learn pantomime, acting, and figure out how to go quickly between singing and playing the trombone even though the sense of support and the amount of air necessary for each is vastly as well as subtly different. I learned that every micro change in the body, every tiny movement, every breath, every thought that skitters across my face will show when I am on stage. I had to learn that all physical change must be intentional and motivated so that the body becomes the perfect medium of expression, a living crucible of the flesh.
Layers of skills merge in order to create an integrated body of free expression. The trombone is played as simply an extension of a tortured body. My instrument must take up the speechlessness, the void of words, and sing for the soul who cannot utter another word or sound because they have become empty in the face of unfathomable pain. When one’s very context is toxic and wounded there is little point in having a text.
singing and delivery of text is completely integrated with the hundreds of
gestures written into the score. My
job is to not make the audience become aware of the score but only of the
character. This requires corporal
intelligence and sense training of the highest order.
The body is honored thus in its sadness and bondage.
The human feminine becomes the embodiment, if only fleetingly, of the
Connessione is seeing the oneness in all things, that all things are related. It is also the quality of wholeness and integrity --the microcosmos that contains the macrocosmos. It is vital to see the composition as a unity, and see how all the elements and parts create a larger gesture. Music creates connection and unifies the audience. The music and text create a character, a living being who is ignited by the performer and burns as a light to the audience.
This unity creates a bond between the performer and audience. It not only reminds us that we are one, but creates a literal experience of oneness. I must become one with the music, find the character in me, and become one with her, become one with my voice, my gesture, my trombone. The audience must feel me as an extension, a part of them made visible, made real.
though I must break down the music and text into smaller parts in order to
master the technical aspects of the score, ultimately I must integrate all
that I have learned into a seamless world. The character Miriam I portray
enters the world in odd and fascinating synchronicities.
I meet an inordinate number of girls, women and even pets named Miriam.
Women I know struggle to become artists no matter what the cost.
They rage at the injustice of patriarchy and how it is poisoning all of
us and killing the earth. As the character reaches out into the world and is
reflected back to me, I find her within me looking at the world as I
experience her take on life. There
is a oneness in this process where all is permeable, interrelated and
included. The universal is the
personal and the personal universal. The
last utterance of Miriam in The Chair
is “Words.” The naked voice of
the human alone in her creation reverberates into nothingness.
We feel our existential truth, our aloneness in an incomprehensible