Their Satanic Majesties


“For us, inspiration goes back to bands like Duran Duran. But we didn’t have instruments to emulate their sound, so we started making music with whatever was around, like scrap iron, tape recorders, typewriters, broken toys, and record players.”

It’s hard to imagine that some of the world’s most perplexing and eclectic modern music came from a trio of Duran Duran fans from Osaka, Japan. But since its inception in 1997, Satanicpornocultshop have consistently issued 28 albums and 27 singles of invigorating and unpredictable hip-hop-based music. Now, with a robust international profile, the three-piece is poised to penetrate stateside consciousness with its latest concoction, The Ship With No Cargo.

“For us, inspiration goes back to bands like Duran Duran,” Satanicpornocultshop MC and composer ugh yoing affirms. “But we didn’t have instruments to emulate their sound, so we started making music with whatever was around, like scrap iron, tape recorders, typewriters, broken toys, and record players.”

Thirsty for sounds that matched the music-making materials at hand, the members of Satanicpornocultshop began crate digging. In the late 1990s in Japan, secondhand records were inexpensive and abundant and the three musicians began exploring noise, new wave, punk, hip-hop, pop, rock, and ethnic music. Keenly aware of the theoretical antecedents to their early sonic explorations, they began to embrace French anthropologist and ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’ musings on bricolage. They felt a kinship with his interest in how communities ingeniously reappropriate cultural artifacts. Channeling this spirit into hip-hop with a pinwheel of influences outside the genre became the foundation for the Satanicpornocultshop aesthetic.


Satanicpornocultshop officially began in 1997, and, since its inception, has shifted personnel with ugh yoing being the mainstay. Currently, the trio is Frosen Pine (MC and lyrics), ugh yoing (MC and composer), and Vinylman (DJ). Throughout the three-piece group’s 18-year run, Satanicpornocultshop has had label associations mostly with international niche experimental outlets. Interestingly, in 2010, the UK-based label Some Bizzare—most notable for helping propagate the 1980s synth-pop sound through issuing unreleased material from Soft Cell and Depeche Mode—released Satanicpornocultshop’s tenth album, Arkhaiomelisidonophunikheratos.

The trio has built a sizeable international profile through experimental music festival appearances in Madrid and Paris, numerous European tours, and through garnering acclaim from electronic arts influencers such as The Prix Ars Electronica and the Quartz Electronic Music Awards.

Despite the group’s anything-goes, assemblage compositional style, there are readily definable characteristics to the Satanicpornocultshop sound. Constants beneath its fractured artistry are spacious passages with meditative, melodious female vocals, shards of white noise, chill-flow hip-hop, rarefied references from urban subgenres (juke, footwork, and ghettotech), heavy metal freak-outs, and dementedly playful recontextualizations of ubiquitous pop hooks. And these can all happen in one song.

Central to Satanicpornocultshop’s artistry is irreverence and absurdity. “Commercial music has collapsed and we’re enjoying the new freedom from this situation. Our music is about a happy, artistic exchange between three people,” ugh reveals. When pressed about flak for maybe going a little too far with the band name, ugh says: “There hasn’t been a problem, everyone is laughing. Even the pastor of the church was also smiles.”


The trio’s latest album, The Ship With No Cargo, is something of a variation and continuation of its 2014 album The Shipboard Gardener, which was accepted to Unyazi 2014, an electronic music festival in Johannesburg, South Africa. This latest entry is a collaboration with the delicately emotive Japanese vocalist Miyuki Nakagaki. Here, her own lyrics and ideas take the foreground while Satanicpornocultshop provides supportive music based on its previous album’s motifs. On The Ship With No Cargo, Nakagaki explores the concept of the fate of a shipwreck’s cargo beneath the sea—will the ship’s discarded contents be unwelcomed intruders in an underwater biosphere or will they enhance the landscape of the ocean floor as artificial reefs? The concept brims with metaphor that, according to ugh, grapples with self-identity through examining the dissonance between inner and outer worlds.

The music on The Ship With No Cargo offers an eerie majesty best described as symphonic, slow-burn EDM. On the album, arrangements patiently unfold with logical dynamic and genre shifts. “Walk On The Meridian” has a dramatic sweep that’s more akin to classical music than fearless, sample-based assemblage. The album’s concluding piece, “Maiden Voyage,” (presumably a Herbie Hancock reference as the threesome has repurposed ideas from this composition before) is pure, icy beauty without any (perceived) hidden, arty jabs. Two sure signs of the pranksters of yore occur on the album opener, “Desert Divers,” which features a lonesome ambient vocal that only in the intro bangs into a cacophonously diced-up Eastern musical motif, and the strange animal quack or glitch that spikes up at the end of the mantra-like “The Shipboard Gardener.”

The group’s creative process includes collecting and recording sounds at random. These can be loose vocal ideas, samples, found dialogue, or various morsels of noise or music.  Within the group, each member has a clearly defined role. Lyricist and MC Frosen Pine, also an accomplished metal guitarist, contributes rap phrases and guitar parts, DJ Vinylman offers macro creative conceptual direction, and ugh stitches everything together into music using the recording platform Logic.


Conceptual ideas and specific genre explorations inform the process, as well. Sometimes entire albums are built from analyzing jokes, messing with new or old technology, or by simply making a conscious decision to explore a certain musical idea. Lyrically, the band seems to pull from a William Burroughs-esque, cut-up philosophy that strings together nonsensical words. “We don’t exclusively use any country’s language,” ugh confides. “A lot of our texts are comprised of misheard words in English, Portuguese, and, occasionally, nonspecific Japanese words.”

Satanicpornocultshop perform live in masks and curate something of a hybrid experience that melds the situationist concept of the spectacle with a true, insider-y, dance club experience. Onstage the group frequently collaborates with video artist Tkayoshi Ikeguchi and performance artist/musicians AkumaDaikon & Klone7023.

Up next, Satanicpornocultshop is readying a new album. “We are now recording a sweet soul disco album targeted to single women 20 to 40 years of age,” ugh says. “I want it to play in cosmetic departments of shopping malls.”

Analog Endeavor

John Vanderslice

“The only reason that we exist is that we want to do something you can’t do at home. Otherwise, what’s the point?” — John Vanderslice

With only three weeks to go before the big opening party, Tiny Telephone Studios’ cavernous new Oakland space is far from ready. Wires dangle from the ceiling, lights flash overhead, the walls remain unfinished; yet John Vanderslice, the studio’s owner, doesn’t seem perturbed. He has just arrived from getting his hair dyed across the bay in San Francisco, and as he flits from unfinished room to unfinished room, his head radiates shades of pewter blue and radioactive green. Vanderslice, who is almost 50 but looks half that, greets everyone he sees by name, running his hands over every surface and complimenting his crew on the stains in the woodwork. At the center of the maze-like studio sits a 64-channel Neve analog mixer, currently hidden under a blue tarp like a whale on an operating table. Standing behind it feels a bit like steering a cruise ship; an enormous window exposes the studio’s live room, which right now is full only of debris.

While the space is dazzling, exciting, and a bit overwhelming, its construction is both improbable and insanely risky. In 2015, a time when Bay Area real estate has constricted artists of all stripes with a Darth Vader-like grip and anyone with a computer and a microphone has a recording studio at their disposal, John Vanderslice has decided to stretch himself across the two sides of San Francisco Bay. And it’s not just any studio he’s building, but one founded on the promise of an antiquated and painfully expensive mode of recording: the tape machine.

The Dodos by Chloe Aftel
photo by Chloe Aftel

The original Tiny Telephone Studios, squeezed between a city park and a highway overpass in a residential neighborhood of San Francisco, has been Vanderslice’s labor of love for almost two decades. A long line of indie royalty have recorded there, including Sleater-Kinney, Deerhoof, Death Cab for Cutie, the Dodos, and countless others, not to mention Vanderslice himself. Vanderslice told me that he often only gives his clients a single week to record and master an album, ensuring that they focus on their performance and don’t belabor the tiny details. Besides, when you’re recording to tape, time is money.

Tiny Telephone

When it comes to tape, Vanderslice is a bit of an extremist. “I’m Che up in the hills,” he exclaims. He is so committed to using tape that he gives it to all of his clients free of charge, a move that has cost him thousands of dollars. (His studios are still equipped with ProTools, however.) “The only reason that we exist is that we want to do something you can’t do at home,” Vanderslice says. “Otherwise, what’s the point?” For Vanderslice and his team of engineers, tape doesn’t merely lend a certain fidelity to recorded music, but completely reshapes the workflow of creating a record. Recording to tape, and the subsequent act of mixing in real time, forces artists to let imperfections slide, and leaves them nowhere to hide behind their own performances. “What you hear is what was played. That’s rare nowadays,” points out Meric Long, guitarist and vocalist for the Dodos, before ceding that you can still manipulate tape, by speeding it up or slowing it down, to make it do what you want it to.

Around the corner from the live room stand two vintage Studer 827 reel-to-reel tape machines, waiting to be installed. “I fucking hate Pro Tools,” Vanderslice told me. “If I could bomb that fucking Avid building and disconnect all that crap, I would in a heartbeat.” (When I later asked him if he is comfortable with me printing that, he solemnly responded, “No retractions,” before adding “C-4, specifically.”) During my visit to the studio, Vanderslice and Beau Sorenson, a freelance engineer who often works at Tiny Telephone, fawn over the boxy grey machines like they are vintage cars or highly accomplished children, describing the machines’ innards with feverish excitement.

Astronauts, etc. by Ginger Fierstein
photo by Ginger Fierstein

It’s not just tape machines and mixing consoles that Vanderslice collects. The San Francisco studio is (and its Oakland counterpart soon will be) full of vintage instruments—countless marimbas, guitars, synthesizers and amps. Anthony Ferraro, whose project Astronauts, etc. recorded their debut album at Tiny Telephone earlier this year, recalls being wowed by the studio’s array of synthesizers. “On [“Shake It Loose”], we decided to have a section that took the listener to synth heaven,” Ferraro explains, “so [engineer Jamie Riotto] busted out an entire additional reel of tape and we spent an evening recording a couple dozen tracks of synths…the result was, well, heavenly.” By relying on post-production software as little as possible, Vanderslice and his team depend on the instruments to speak, and sing, for themselves. Rich, vivid tones permeate countless Tiny Telephone releases, from Deerhoof’s spastic Friend Opportunity to the Dodos’ elegant Individ and Sleater-Kinney’s triumphant comeback, No Cities to Love.

Yet none of the gear or the tape matters if the engineers don’t build a sense of trust with their clients. “We bully bands at first,” Vanderslice explains; he instructs them to leave their gear at home. I ask him if what he’s doing is comparable to the military’s strategy of breaking individuals down and then reshaping them. “We’re trying to make people less robotic,” he says in response. “[Musicians] come to us in lockstep…afraid to step outside the box.” Shannon Shaw, lead vocalist and bass player for Shannon and the Clams, recalls that engineer Sonny Smith (also of Sonny and the Sunsets) “played the devil’s advocate a lot [while recording their album Gone by the Dawn], which helped me make decisions I possibly wouldn’t have made otherwise. He helped us sculpt the record to be more intense Clams.” While this aggressive approach inevitably poses a threat to some artists, it has earned Tiny Telephone a distinct reputation; the Oakland studio has already been booked for months in advance.

Shannon and the Clams

Over the course of 20 years, Vanderslice has used analog tape as a means to capture what makes a musician a musician: how well they can play their instruments. The Dodos’ Meric Long told me that recording at Tiny Telephone “made us better musicians.” With an expansion into Oakland, Vanderslice isn’t proving that analog tape is making a comeback, or even that his business has become lucrative. More than anything else, the victory belongs to the artists who have shown that in an age when any sour note or missed beat can be easily remedied, they have nothing to hide.

Creating a Wide Platform

Andrew McIntosh, Populist Records

“I think what we’re shooting for is that things have a strong individual voice, but not necessarily that they fit a particular style” — Andrew McIntosh

Last month I arrived about half an hour early to Roulette, an experimental music venue in Brooklyn, for the New York debut of the Los Angeles-based music collective wild Up. Standing outside the venue was the ensemble’s indefatigable conductor, Christopher Rountree, along with a few of their performers. They were burning sage. A representative from Roulette stepped out and told them to quit it—they didn’t want to give any potential audience members an asthma attack. It was a quintessential, almost-too-clichéd moment where West Coast hippy-dippy clashes with East Coast neuroses. The concert included everything from a delicate piano concerto by composer Andrew McIntosh, to a monstrously noisy work by Nicholas Deyoe in which a bassoonist employs a power drill, to a deft arrangement of a song by the Misfits in which musician Maggie Hasspacher played bass while coolly intoning “I ain’t no goddamned son of a bitch,” a refrain then taken up by the entire orchestra as a warm chorale. Toward the end of the concert, Rountree told the audience about the attempted sage ritual that most of them missed, admitting “We got really admonished for that.” The next day, the New York Times reviewer declared, “On behalf of my fellow New Yorkers, I hope this was the ensemble’s first visit of many.”

wild Up, Populist Records

For those who haven’t had the chance to properly take in the cleansing rituals of wild Up or its colleagues in Los Angeles, the sounds of this loose and creative scene of musicians have been captured by the small label Populist Records. Today, Populist releases the latest emission from its cadre of SoCal composers and performers: Conditional Tension, featuring violinist Andrew Tholl, drummer Corey Fogel, and bassist Devin Hoff. It marks a step forward for the label—this is Populist’s first album of entirely improvised music. It’s also an emblematic example of the label’s wide-ranging artistry—the three improvisers are all members of indie songwriter Julia Holter’s band on her latest album.

With two extended tracks, Conditional Tension captures a thicket of tense free improvisation, murmuring and relentless. There is a sense of searching to the music, a sonic questing that brings together many of the artists on Populist. Each of the label’s albums feels like a complete musical experience, but also an attempt to grasp something beyond the confines of the recorded environment. 

Andrew Tholl
Andrew Tholl

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke with Andrew McIntosh—who, with Andrew Tholl, co-manages Populist—in Los Angeles’ Arts District. We sat at a picnic table in the parking lot of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, where McIntosh had been preparing for his role in the premiere of the opera Hopscotch, a mind-bogglingly complex production that takes place in cars driving around the city. “It seemed like there was a need for that kind of a platform in L.A.,” McIntosh told me about the origins of Populist. “A lot of the labels in the United States for new music are based in New York, and a lot of infrastructure for recording new music is in New York. It seemed like there was a lot of great stuff going on in L.A., and it didn’t really have a platform.” Since 2012, Populist has issued ten albums of radical music of impressive breadth, and it recently began releasing in vinyl. Listeners can wallow in the quizzical spaciousness of bassist and composer Scott Worthington:

Scott Worthington
Scott Worthington

Or, listeners can be jolted by the taut and in-your-face trombone of Matt Barbier. On a new 10” record, he plays two short works by Nicholas Deyoe and Clint McCallum titled— respectively and appropriately—“Face Splitter” and “Bowel Resection”:

I asked McIntosh about the artistic identity of Populist, and the composer wasn’t quite sure. “It’s a little bit all over the map, it’s still growing and forming,” he noted. The one clearly unifying factor is that the musicians have strong roots in southern California. “Some of the work could fall into kind of an experimental camp, some of it maybe couldn’t. And, yeah: again, it’s still growing,” he added.

What seems to unite the disparate voices on the label is a willingness to engage single-mindedly with music in a multitude of practices: from performing intensely intricate notated music and embracing free improvisation, to investigating performance art and reconceiving classic punk songs. “I think what we’re shooting for is that things have a strong individual voice, but not necessarily that they fit a particular style,” McIntosh said. Though wild Up represents the largest-scale undertaking on Populist’s roster, there are also a number of other quirky ensembles, such as gnarwallaby, which performs new music alongside forgotten classics of the 20th century avant-garde.


And lately I’ve also been captivated by the album “Five Conversations About Two Things,” in which the Inoo/Kallay Duo tear through works for piano and percussion that are at once spaced-out and clashingly dissonant:

Along with a New York debut, another sign of welcome growth among these affiliated California musicians is wild Up’s most recent album, released not on Populist but on the Icelandic label Bedroom Community. The ensemble crowd-funded a visit to Reykjavík to record with producer Valgeir Sigurðsson; aided by the voices of the women’s choir Graduale Nobili—better known for its work on Björk’s Biophilia—wild Up performs the alluring and ethereal music of its percussionist and vocalist Jodie Landau.

“I don’t have a particular agenda about the label. It seems like something that’s worthwhile to do,” McIntosh said. “We keep doing it, even though it’s a lot of work—and doesn’t make any money.” What’s next for Populist? Back in 2010, artist Chris Kallmyer created an installation in the desert near Death Valley in which he salvaged a couple hundred bottles from mining dumps and hung them on a wire fence; McIntosh and Kallmyer then recorded the sound of the bottles shimmering the wind. Kallmyer asked Julia Holter and the experimental group Lucky Dragons to respond to the field recording, and the intriguing result will be out early next year.

Opera is the New Black

You Us We All, Shara Worden

Next Wednesday, Shara Worden’s You Us We All will have its American premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival. Though Worden is better known as the leader of the indie band My Brightest Diamond, You Us We All is unequivocally an opera: in collaboration with director and designer Andrew Ondrejcak, Worden has composed arias for a quintet of singers accompanied by an ensemble of seventeenth-century instruments. But supplementing the ageless pedigree of the operatic tradition here is a contemporary gesture that is quite unusual—and perhaps unprecedented—within classical music’s slow-moving recording industry. In advance of the first American performances of You Us We All, today Worden has released the album version of the opera.

Opera is much more often seen before it is heard. An opera house commissions a work, it develops in fits and starts over many years, and it is premiered on a stage. A few years later, if a composer is lucky, a recording might emerge. If a composer is very, very lucky, that recording might lead to future performances. But when You Us We All had its overseas debut in 2013, Worden said in a recent phone interview, “We had three days in Europe when we didn’t have a show, and so we really were like, ‘We’d love to have a recording of this, what should we do?’” Thus, the cast and ensemble gathered in a studio and captured Worden’s music. Releasing an album before the Brooklyn performances of You Us We All is a remarkably sensible move. Why wouldn’t you give potential audiences a hint of how the thing they’re paying for might sound? Opera is not exactly a genre rife with plot twists to potentially spoil.

For most of its four-hundred-year history, opera has existed primarily on the stage. But for the past century, it also has intersected powerfully with recorded media. The first musician of any genre to reach one million record sales was the tenor Enrico Caruso in 1904, singing an aria from Pagliacci. Even if the vast majority of opera recordings released today still feature a dead, European canon, many living composers are echoing Worden in guiding new opera into the world via recordings. Over the past few weeks, I spoke and emailed with several musicians who have released their operas as albums on Bandcamp. They described the practical necessities and artistic benefits of recording contemporary opera, while also acknowledging that to do so conceded essential aspects of their original visions.

The new opera and the newly recorded album actually have something in common in today’s fractured artistic landscape: they both represent fully conceived musical works realized over lengthy periods of development. As labels such as New Amsterdam and Bedroom Community underscore the importance of the album in contemporary classical music, it only makes sense that projects such as Emily Hall’s Folie À Deux—imagined by its composer simultaneously as an opera and a concept album—emerge.

Emily Hall, photo by Terry Magsonphoto by Terry Magson

“I wasn’t really sure what it would mean when I started,” Hall wrote to me. “I just knew it was something I wanted to attempt, an opera/concept album that would be one and the same piece of art.” Commissioned originally by the Mahogany Opera Group, Hall composed for an ensemble of singers and instrumentalists that she viewed as much a band as an operatic cast. As the team workshopped the future staged production, they also crafted a recording. Deftly mixed by Valgeir Sigurðsson and released last July on Bedroom Community, Folie À Deux embraces its identity as a recorded text; it’s easy to lose yourself in Hall’s sonic panoramas, oblivious of a broader narrative unfolding.

I wanted to, as much as possible, treat the recording as an art in and of itself,” Worden said of You Us We All. Reverb and delay effects bring out instrumental flourishes that might recede from focus in the theater; the music doesn’t stray far from the immaculate production of My Brightest Diamond. “We really pushed the recording, in that medium, as far as we thought we could take it, and still be true to what the music was,” she added.

In the early twentieth century, most of the population of the United States did not live within major metropolitan areas. Recordings, rather than opera houses, thus were the sole opportunity for many to hear an art form then perceived as vital to cultural uplift. Records quickly became a medium through which opera reached an unprecedented cross section of the American public. As the National Music Monthly wrote in 1917, “Why has this great interest and enthusiasm for opera so suddenly developed? Almost every layman will answer with two words, ‘the phonograph.’ People have heard in their own homes beautiful excerpts from the greatest operas, and have come to know their meaning in connection with the stories of the operas.”

You Us We All, Shara WordenBy 1921, the Victrola Book of the Opera declared: “The opera has at last come into its own in the United States. In former years merely the pasttime of the well-to-do in New York City and vicinity, grand opera is now enjoyed for its own sake by millions of hearers throughout the country.” (Not that Victrola, which sold thousands of opera recordings along with its own phonographs, necessarily stood as an objective source.) As scholar Robert Cannon describes, though, the rise of opera recording led to the concretization of a star system of singers who ceaselessly replicated the standard repertory. Composers, and especially living composers, were not prioritized. Legendary producer John Culshaw battled with the label Decca for years before they allowed him to record Benjamin Britten’s major opera Peter Grimes; he said, “It seemed to me that a larger issue was at stake, for if we were to abandon so relatively conservative a modern composer we should rule out contemporary music altogether.”

Today, the money has dried out of major classical labels, and the sphere of Decca and Deutsche Grammophon is left with a handful of stars, unreliable sales, and continued spiraling into irrelevance. Perhaps, then, the composer of contemporary music theatre can re-emerge. Ted Hearne’s The Source—released last week on New Amsterdam—sounds unlike any other oratorio, blending voices, instruments, and electronics into whirling collages to craft a portrait of Chelsea Manning. “So much of the work that I did in the score deals with shades, counteracting any sort of binary argument: there is no right or wrong, there is no male, there is no female, there is a spectrum,” Hearne said when we met last month in a Brooklyn lunch spot. Creating an album out of The Source heightened the radical music of the original staged production. “The ability to master the recording—in a really sophisticated, detailed way—and create that texture, it’s just much higher when you listen to a recording,” Hearne noted. “Especially on headphones, on nice speakers, there are so many things to hear that are in the score.”


Records are also essential for the future life of new opera. If most Americans couldn’t see any opera circa 1915, most Americans still can’t see any new opera circa 2015. You Us We All or The Source might play for a handful of nights in one or two large cities, and then vanish from the stage. I myself have never seen any of these operas in person, but their recordings have profoundly shaped my understanding of contemporary music. Landmark postwar operas, from Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten to John Adams’s Nixon in China, have stayed in the public imagination because they were recorded. When composer Missy Mazzoli was working on her Song From the Uproar in 2011, she told me in a phone interview, “I was thinking, ‘if I let this just evaporate, then that will be so disappointing.’ I know that even in grand operas the recording insures the life of the piece, and pieces that aren’t recorded don’t get performed again and again.” Indeed, the 2012 recording on New Amsterdam provided a vital framework to secure the work’s recent, celebrated run at the L.A. Opera.

Missy Mazzoli

Back in the day, aficionados might settle into an Eames chair, turn on their hi-fi equipment, and follow an opera recording with a libretto or score. Even before the advent of radio, Marcel Proust sat in his living room and listened to the local opera house play Wagner via a telephone broadcast system. Recordings stripped away the physical limitations of the theatre, allowing the listener to fully imagine, say, the comedic world of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. As philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote in a 1969 essay, “The music of Figaro is of truly incomparable quality, but every staging of Figaro with powdered ladies and gentlemen, with the page and the white rococo salon, resembles the praline box.” Opera produced in the opera house was trite and precious, unable to properly capture the power of its music; for Adorno, the LP represented a “deus ex machina” that could save the genre by granting its listener complete immersion. Recording, he wrote, “allows for the optimal presentation of the music, enabling it to recapture some of the force and intensity that had been worn threadbare in the opera houses.”

Productions of new opera today, however, stray far from the stale powdered wigs that Adorno described. Perhaps the most unusual—and at the same time, most fitting—recent translation from stage to recording is composer Christopher Cerrone’s Invisible Cities. Based on Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel, Invisible Cities began as an hyper-sensory production: in 2012, the company The Industry mounted the opera’s premiere in Los Angeles’ Union Station, providing audience members with headphones so that they could listen to performers scattered among passersby. Still, the format of that production lent itself quite easily to subsequent recording. As Cerrone wrote to me, “It seemed like a natural extension of the live show. The opera was already being sent into your headphones. You wandered around a space. Why not take that into a larger space and allow any listener to imagine Calvino’s cities?”

Christopher Cerrone

But opera is inherently as much about visual spectacle as aural immersion. When the genre emerged in courts and public theaters in Italy four centuries ago, elaborate stagecraft along with sumptuous singing guaranteed its future. The composers I communicated with acknowledged that albums represent an unfortunate, but necessary, artistic compromise. The future of their music is secured, while the important work of their collaborators—directors, designers—evaporates. “I think there is some meaning that is lost when you’re only listening to the audio,” Worden said of You Us We All. “It’s an integrated work. I think the piece makes a lot more sense when you see it.”

Invisible Cities was envisioned by The Industry’s director, Yuval Sharon, in the kind of extravagant production that is unlikely to see rebirth; Cerrone acknowledged that in recording, “what is lost is that Yuval’s production so beautiful took to life Calvino’s imaginary world. What is gained is an ability to focus on the musical alone as an object.” (Sharon’s latest project, Hopscotch, seems beyond the realm of possibility for audio recording; it takes place in twenty-four cars that drive across L.A. as the opera unfolds.) The direct political implications of the staged version of Hearne’s The Source—in which projections display footage of faces as people watch the horrifying “Collateral Murder” video released by WikiLeaks—become more subdued and ambiguous in the oratorio’s sonic document.

Emily Hall, having conceived of Folie À Deux as a hybrid artistic work—poised between album and opera—perceived a fruitful middle path between sight and sound. In practice, each version of Folie reveals alternate paths for the listener. “I think the difference is the album can be listened to as a collection of tracks, or as a story, but watching the staged opera it is impossible to avoid the narrative even though it’s fairly open-ended,” she wrote. Even if opera is a narrative art form, the album allows unanticipated experiences to emerge: “I like the idea that a listener may not have a picture of the story and narrative immediately, but it might slowly form over time. I like that a lot.”


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