Wednesday 31 January 2018

Gardner - Gunfighter Nation (Berlin, 2016)

Evan Gardner - Gunfighter Nation

Opera Lab Berlin, 2016

Musashi Baba, Antoine Daurat, Manuel Nawri, Michael Höppner, Yuka Yanagihara, Gina May Walter, Lena Haselmann, Georg Bochow, Martin Gerke, Enrico Wenzel, Shin Joo Morgantini, Jone Bolibar Nuñez, Matthew Conley, Jack Adler-McKean, Matthias Koole, Evoxia Filippou, Alexandros Giovanos, Mia Bodet, David Eggert

Wergo - DVD

From the pieces of music that you can find of the Berlin-based American composer Evan Gardner on SoundCloud, you might expect his opera work to be somewhere in the same style as Salvatore Sciarrino. Gardner's chamber pieces are often similarly sparse of instrumentation but complex in composition and sonic reverberation, creating a world of whispering voices, scratching strings and flurries of flute set against a background of ominous silence, with the occasional more lushly orchestrated composition. While evidence of that style can be heard in Gunfighter Nation, Gardner's second opera, the composer applies and indeed extends extended techniques to a new idea of opera performance, using a bolder musical expression to meet the demands of the rather brash nature of the all-American theme of the work.

Gunfighter Nation was created for Opera Lab Berlin. a company founded in 2014 by Gardner with theatre director Michael Höppner with the intention of breaking down the usual strict demarcations between the roles of singer and musician, and indeed composer or conductor. Evidently in this "instrumental theatre" world the audience aren't treated entirely as passive recipients either, separated from the performance by an orchestra pit, but are rather seated in and around the musicians/actors/singers/performers, and - in the case of Gunfighter Nation - invited to wear Indian feathers and headbands to better fit in with the whole theatrical experience.

The use of such conventional - some might say hackneyed - stereotypical imagery is however very much a part of Gunfighter Nation, which evidently relies to a large extent on satire, ideas and symbols, as well as using existing cut-up texts and materials to present the concept rather than create a narrative-based libretto. As an America composer living in Berlin, Gardner is aware of the power of American iconography in Europe and across the world, so stereotypical imagery it might be, but these are nonetheless strong universally recognised visual reference that are American writ large. As if there is any other kind. The characters consequently are dressed in costumes that are American to the core; cowboys and Indians, Superman, an American football player, rednecks, an evangelical preacher, Dolly Parton, Marilyn Monroe, Al Jolson and Michael Jackson, a soldier, a McDonalds employee, a cheerleader and a hooker.

Created as a sequence of scenes with no defined order, if there is one unifying theme that comes out of all these random American symbols and if you can derive one narrative arch or theme that reaches from one end to the other, it's money and expansion. The native American Indians who are pushed off their land in the opening section are seen adopting all-American ways and drinking Coca-Cola by the end of Gunfighter Nation, or indeed to put it much more satirically and cynically, the pregnant Indian squaw actually gives birth to and nurses a bottle of Coca-Cola, the ultimate symbol of America taking over the world.

That perhaps makes it sound crass or even similar to Philip Glass's rather weak satire of the kind of American values espoused by Walt Disney in his opera The Perfect American, but there is nothing conventional about the way that these ideas are conveyed to the audience. The texts are a blend of cut-up material and satirical improvisations of songs, spoken texts, etiquette manuals, speeches and treatises. The cowboy song 'Home on the Range' ('Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam...") is blended in with texts and references that include 'America the Beautiful', John L. O'Sullivan's 'The Great Nation of Futurity' (1839), and even Ingmar Bergman's very non-American film 'Scenes From a Marriage', which is referenced in a domestic dispute.

Aside from the audience being scattered around in the same theatre space as the performers, the most significant difference between instrumental theatre and conventional opera that soon becomes evident is that the musicians are all singers/actors/performers. Inevitably this demands an extensive and specialised range of skills to be able to sing, perform and play in individual scenes, as well as part of an ensemble. In one scene a preacher walks around swinging his cello using it to emphasise the fervour of his pronouncements; an American footballer with a Dobro guitar duels with an American soldier on tuba in a macho display, raising the stakes with casino chips; a trio of 'good-time girls' blow seductively and suggestively on wind instruments; and a redneck couple conduct a domestic dispute on percussion instruments.

This obviously allows a closer connection between the music and the 'drama' (albeit non-narrative drama) than you would find in a conventional opera or indeed even the most avant-garde contemporary opera works. While it might appear somewhat exaggerated and caricatural, the multidisciplinary ability and talent of the performers is impressive, and surprisingly effective as a manner of theatrical expression. Some scenes work better than others, some points are too obvious, others obscure, others just irritating, but personally I found it hugely engaging and involving. I daresay such theatre demands physical presence in the theatre to be truly effective, but it's a tribute to how well that the performance is filmed for this DVD release that it holds the attention thoroughly. Occupying the same space as the performers that could have been no mean feat, but the recording captures all the energy, creative interaction and indeed, the impressive efforts that have gone into the staging of Gunfighter Nation as a compelling piece of opera theatre.

Gunfighter Nation is released on DVD in a CD-sized jewel case. Aside from the full performance of Gunfighter Nation recorded at Ballhaus Ost in Berlin in November 2016, the DVD also includes three audio-only tracks by Evan Gardner - Sonic Voyager II, Scandinavian Knitting, and No Thanks: Five Poems by e.e. cummings. The DVD is in PAL format, Region free, with English and German subtitles.

Links: Evan Gardner, Opera Lab Berlin