Sounds Heard: Gene Pritsker—William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience
Arnold Schoenberg usually gets credited for the emancipation of the dissonance that defined much of the music of the 20th century. But if there’s anything that can be claimed to categorize the music of the 21st century a mere 12 years into it, I’d argue that it’s the emancipation of cognitive dissonance. In much of today’s music, elements that seem like they don’t belong together co-exist and, in so doing, frequently yield sonic experiences that can be initially jarring and which sometimes never intellectually resolve. As recently as the 1980s such contextual ambiguities would have been considered an irreconcilable aesthetic assault, much like those emancipated dissonances were to folks in fin de siècle Vienna even though to our 2012 ears they sound somewhat quaint. But like the expressionistic plunge into atonality and beyond mirrored the zeitgeist of a century ago, today’s ambiguous-seeming free-for-all recontextualization of any and all stylistic vocabulary is an accurate reflection of our current uncertain, contradictory times.
One might even posit that the reluctance toward having one’s creative expressions confined exclusively to a single musical style is a clear manifestation of this phenomenon. Today’s almost de rigueur amalgamations of contemporary classical chamber music, jazz, and rock (genres which now sometimes don’t even really sound all that different from one another) might actually belie a response to the world in which we live that goes far beyond any attempt at crossover. It’s not so much that the composers of today are embracing every sound by which they are surrounded in an effort to attain some kind of meta-style; such an effort would be indicative of the aesthetic positions of a previous era. Rather, this blurring of boundaries is the only possible reaction to being surrounded by all of these sounds and the musical styles from which they originate. We’re no longer attempting to make them all get along with each other so much as we’re resigned to the fact that it is impossible to separate them from one another anymore; perhaps those rare moments where stylistic disparities still result in clashes are the only remaining breakthrough moments we can have.
The creative output of a musician like Gene Pritsker, who self-identifies as a composer, guitarist, rapper, and D.J., seems emblematic of such a world view. Over the years I’ve heard his music both in symphony orchestra halls and clubs. In another era, it would not have fit comfortably in either setting but now it’s at home in both. And yet Pritsker’s chamber opera, William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, recently released on Composers Concordance Recordings, still manages to sound unsettling to me. It still somehow defies any paradigm I try to create for it as I listen to it. Perhaps I still listen with 20th century ears.
Or perhaps it’s because of how I first came to hear the music Pritsker composed for this opera. A few years back, Innova released a recording of Pritsker’s Varieties of Religious Experience Suite performed by his group Sound Liberation in which he plays electric guitar and is joined by another electric guitarist, electric bass, drums, and cello. The music is a visceral jazz/rock/contemporary classical hybrid that comes across as something by a latter-day Frank Zappa, though probably more Jazz from Hell era than Mothers of Invention era. Zappa indeed would seem like a perfect role model for Pritsker, since in addition to being one of the first American composers to ignore the firewalls between commercially driven stylistic categorizations, Zappa also relished the role of provocateur. In our own time when these firewalls have long been eroded, and therefore there’s little provocation in continuing to mine their erosion, Pritsker’s attempts at doing so herein still manage to sound raw.
In the notes for that Innova release, the music was described as originally being the score for an opera derived from a somewhat unlikely source—a lecture by the 19th-century American philosopher William James. But since the music on that release was all instrumental, I didn’t think much about its operatic origins. However, now that I’m finally hearing Pritsker’s Varieties of Religious Experience in its original operatic context, my impressions of it have completely transformed. I originally thought of this music as an extremely effective genre-blurring romp whose effectiveness is in part attributable to its roughly hewn edges. But now what is center stage is the barrage of cognitive dissonances—narrative drama vs. non-linear narrative, sacred vs. profane, contemporaneity vs. historicism. These go far beyond the music’s combination of idioms (think Zappa’s jazz/rock/postclassical stew mixed with contemporary opera and musical theatre as well as hybrids like Adams’s Ceiling/Sky). And that barrage now completely defines my listening experience.
So much so, that rather than attempt to describe the opera play-by-play (which I think could run the risk of giving away the goods for anyone who hasn’t yet heard it and which would somehow diminish its impact), I will impart here a couple of the responses Gene Pritsker offered me after I sent him an email asking him to describe exactly what he is aiming to do in this opera.
Since my starting point for this music was the earlier recording of the instrumental suite, I was curious, now that the original opera was available on a recording as well, what Pritsker’s thoughts were about the relationship between these two recordings and if he considers the suite and the opera to be separate works. His rejoinder was as follows:
The two works treat the same material in a very different manner. The opera is focused on the narrative of the William James lecture and on supporting the vocal expression, while the suite takes more of a chamber jazz approach where the music is in a constant transition between the written material and improvisation, and the musicians play off each other. Since the opera was written first and the main musical ideas were composed while creating this opera I feel that it is the definitive composition for this material. But I think the suite takes this music to such a different place that it stands alone as a brand new piece of music, almost a variation on the opera. I have done this in the past with other music. A good example is a solo drum set piece which I turned into a solo violin piece.
I was particularly eager to learn more about Pritsker’s decision to convey the words and ideas of someone from the historical past with music that could not be construed as anything but 21st century, so I asked him about that as well, to which he responded:
The instrumentation of the chamber opera being scored for 2 electric guitars, cello and contra bass was intentional, since I knew I can perform it with my band Sound Liberation, so the adaptation of this music to a suite was pre-planned as I was writing the opera. I was not trying to create a period piece in any way. The most fascinating thing for me was the question: “How can I turn a dry (yet brilliantly written) lecture in to an operatic narrative?” As soon as William James enters the hall in my mind he steps into a no time place. It is not any century or any country or any period. It is a man with ideas trying to express his thoughts to the world and my job is to heighten and further enlighten these ideas and thoughts through music while creating a narrative (even a loose operatic one) in a lecture that never intended to have a narrative.
Beyond that, I think it’s best for everyone listening to do so without any additional baggage. We’ve certainly had enough of that in the 20th century despite all the attempts at emancipation.