KYONG MEE CHOI: The Eternal Tao (complete opera), (2014)

KYONG MEE CHOI: The Eternal Tao (complete opera), (2014)

Performers: JulieAnn Zavala, mezzo-sop./ Brad Jungwirth, bar./ Samantha Stein, Allison Hull, Jeff Jablonski, Chadley Ballantyne, chorus/ Ensemble Dal Niente/ Allison Anich, Mei-Kuang Cheng, Natalie Williams, dancers/ Michael Lewanski
Producer/Director: Kyong Mee Choi
Studio: Ravello Records RR7866, 2013 [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 4:3 Color
Audio: Stereo PCM 2.1
Subtitles: German, English, French, Korean, Chinese
No Region Code
Length: 85 minutes
Extras: Pre-concert talk (20 minutes)
Rating: **1/2

So much of the avant-garde is so anachronistic these days. Though this is labeled as a “multimedia opera”, to even use the second word in this case is to stretch the term beyond meaning. Perhaps that’s the point—I am not sure. But “multimedia experience” would be more like it. Again, after watching (hearing?) a piece by Jacob Druckman years ago where colored black-lighted ping-pong balls flew all over the stage, and then later seeing Morton Subotnik’s Four Butterflies  performed with electronic “improvisations” done by the composer to this intensely visual large-screen work, the piece under review seems quite old hat to me. Perhaps I am old enough that the youngish audience that attended this performance simply has never been exposed to some of these late-sixties and early-seventies “pioneers” in this sort of concept, and as a result think it all new and fresh; I think of it as old and already, by-and-large, rejected. It is interesting that Kyong Mee Choi, the composer and overall-everything-creator of this piece, finds not anyone recent, but George Crumb (a favorite of mine) as a primary influence.

Even the idea of the static nature of portraying bits of wisdom found in the Tao Te Ching by Chinese master Lao Tzu, while first presenting itself to the intellect, might be something intriguing, what we see and hear are no different had the inspiration been the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, or even the Bible, such is the discombobulated impression of these images that possess artistic, although unattached textual meaning. The nature of these texts are such that almost anyone, indeed everyone, even if following a program as to what they “represent”, will not be able to find enough experiential memories to make a concrete connection. But, again, this may be the very point, as Asian philosophy often accentuates the static and essentially unknowability of the thoughts behind the words, and of the incommunicability of the words themselves. Like the text to number ten in this piece says, “the sage does without effort, and teaches without words. She embraces all that arise. She creates but doesn’t possess. She acts but doesn’t expect. She lets go so nothing is lost.” Our western sensibilities lack the innate ability to categorize and define such verbal—and in this case, musical and visual—meaning from these words. Perhaps again this is the point.

What is disappointing about this release is the fact that such an immersive multimedia activity as this, with music, singing, performers and conductor being seen often, dancers, all of it—is given sans surround sound, and sans expanded widescreen treatment. The sound is in fact plain old stereo, and the screen fit for old TV, which adds to the anachronistic feeling already mentioned. Though this is not for everyone, and I am as yet unsure of what I think of it musically, though the bonus material in interviewing the composer is interesting, surely the production could have exploited the most modern and state-of-the-art techniques of presentation. What we get is more a filmed version of what the audience saw and heard without their visual opportunities and access to the live sound. This is no doubt an interesting thing to see and hear, but in the end I am afraid that the experience is cheapened by the lack of presentation. The performance however, as far as I can tell, is exemplary from all forces involved.

—Steven Ritter

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