Philadelphia: Symbolic Cymbal

Alyssa Timin
Alyssa Timin
Photo by Ross Hoffman

It was an oddly elongated moment as the cymbal came rollicking downstage toward us. It bounced off the steps and narrowly missed taking off my friend’s ankle, instead colliding with her chair and dropping suddenly flat on the carpet. You just never know with new opera.

Paul Dresher’s two musical theater works—although I’m tempted to call them theatrical music—The Tyrant and Slow Fire, recently played at Prince Music Theater. Both pieces feature solo vocal performances of Herculean proportions, dramatized, respectively, by John Duykers and Rinde Eckert, complemented by musicians who aren’t afraid to throw their instruments (“Chamber music with a clang,” his website touts).

Slow Fire, one of the Dresher Ensemble’s defining works, was brought out of the retirement it entered in 1996 after being performed nearly two-hundred times and exhausting the live analog tape loop system that Dresher built specially for the piece. For this production, Dresher developed a new digital performance system using a Mac PowerBook and Max/MSP software to replace the analog system. In addition to the software, the instrumentation includes electric guitar, keyboard, and electronic percussion, all performed by Dresher and Gene Riffkin, who developed the piece with Eckert in 1988. Slow Fire owes its essence to that decade in the best possible way, and seeing it performed now, in—can it be?—2005, freshly illumines the nonsense of ’80s materialism and paranoia, plastic tinted sunglasses and all.

Eckert’s performance was remarkable as Bob, the “comic but dangerous everyman.” He plays, rewinds, repeats memories of his father in a narrative that never quite gels but returns manically to the highway, to the white dotted line (the description of Act One: “Glimpses of Bob. He remembers his Dad. He asks questions./ After a phone call, bedtime. Did he lock the car?/ He settles down, he drifts./ Saturday: scrapwood for a decoy, Dad says “Fire into the clouds.”). Eckert scattered himself over the stage, climbing, jumping, falling down, moving constantly but never lapsing into a fidget, not quite dance but vigorously articulated.

The Tyrant is a new work, based loosely on “A King Listens,” a short story by Italo Calvino. Narrating the paranoiac (perhaps) throes of an actual despot, the story emphasizes the ear and the medium of sound, the last vehicle by which news reaches the ruler in self-imposed imprisonment on his throne. The Tyrant features a chamber quintet and percussionist along with the appropriately regal Duykers; his voice reaches far beyond his physical entrapment. The libretto, written with Jim Lewis, is at turns irreverent and poetic and poses a constant aural challenge, as though Dresher and Lewis demand that the audience cast itself in the role of the monarch, straining to keep its seat and master whatever comes forth, maybe succeeding, and maybe not.

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Alyssa Timin works as program associate at the Philadelphia Music Project, where she helps to fund Greater Philly’s flourishing music scene. She edits PMP’s self-titled in-house magazine to which she recently contributed a feature article on interdisciplinary performance.