by Seth Tompkins
The release of the recording of the chamber opera The Edge of Forever by Los Angeles-based experimental opera company The Industry and modern music collective wild Up is a triumph. However, it is difficult to succinctly encapsulate exactly why this complex release is so tremendously special; some (ok, maybe a lot of) background information is needed first.
The Edge of Forever is a piece that is intentionally bound to a specific time and a specific place. This recording documents a performance that occurred on December 21, 2012. You may remember that date as a moment when various sources predicted an apocalypse of one sort or another because of that date’s association with the ending of the ancient Mayan Long Count calendar. The Edge of Forever is associated with that moment as well; this piece was inspired by the end of the Mayan calendar. Its association with this specific moment in time led its creators to perform it in public only once. This piece will never be performed again; luckily, we have a recording! To be fair, however, the released recording of the piece does contain some post-performance studio addition, but they serve only to recreate the experience of the live performance.
In addition to being tightly bound to a specific moment in time, this piece was designed to be performed specifically in its chosen venue. That venue was Los Angeles’s Philosophical Research Society. This institution is dedicated to the study and preservation of wisdom traditions from around the globe and throughout time, operating without evangelical doctrine. The Edge of Forever was designed to be staged specifically in this space, using various spaces at the Society as the narrative unfolded.
It is also important to note the mission of the Philosophical Research Society, as its devotion to cross-cultural learning and the wisdom of disparate cultures hints at the themes of transcendence and unity that emerge from every element of this piece as it unfolds. All of the major elements of this piece, both obvious and obfuscated, serve these themes. The composer (Lewis Pesacov) and the librettist (Elizabeth Cline) deserve high praise for their success in fusing the elements of The Edge of Forever into a deep and unified whole.
Elizabeth Cline. Photo Credit: Suzy Poling.
Lewis Pesacov. Photo Credit: Michael Leviton
Before exploring this recording, it might be helpful for listeners to brush up on their ancient Mesoamerican theology. However, if that idea is not appealing, the liner notes explain things adequately. Basically, according to the mythological explanation given in the liner notes, a chosen sacrificial individual was prophesized to transcend the previous era of time (pre-December 21, 2012) and act as a bridge into the next era of time through the fulfillment of a great love. That individual is the main character of this opera, La’akan.
Interestingly, and very much in line with the temporal focus of this work, the performance begins in what the creators call the “third act” of the opera. The first two acts are written to have already happened, so the audience joins the action in progress as the third act begins. The liner notes provide a somewhat-detailed account of the story up to the start of the third act. The music of this piece in divided into the five scenes (five tracks) of Act III.
As the recording begins (joining the story in scene 1 of Act III), La’akan is in seclusion, waiting for his beloved, Etznab, to appear. When the lovers are united, the prophecy states that this era of time will end and the new one will begin. Scene 1 is a “procession of the scribes.” The scribes here are four sopranos singing wordless tones that have a distinct “early-music” flavor. Overall, though, it would be difficult to confuse this music with its antique counterpart, given the striking quavering of the voices. This ancient-sounding music gradually transforms into quite modern sounds that remind me of a hypothetical chamber version of Ligeti’s Requiem (1965). The scribes are on a pilgrimage to the caves where La’akan is in seclusion so that they may witness the transformation of one era of time into another. The music of scene 1 is completely a cappella.
Scene 2 is an entr’acte. Temple bowls, I believe, augmented by electronic drones begin this movement. Later, strings and winds enter as this instrumental movement builds to a stirring climax that is at once uplifting and foreboding. The music then fades to a light electronic drone and strings enter. A mournful cello solo continues this movement, supported chiefly by percussion and light backup strings. The movement finishes with meditative drumming that should put even the most resistant or confused listener in the right frame of mind to accept the cosmic and transcendent musical scenes to come.
Scene 3 is quite brief. In this recitative, La’akan sings for the first time, singing the first English words in the piece. As scene 3 blends into scene 4 (an aria), La’akan describes his seclusion. He has focused solely on love, and abandoned all other desires. The instrumental music that accompanies La’akan during scene 4 features the soprano sax and English horn prominently, along with percussion. The sounds made by these two woodwind instruments here strongly resemble the sounds of the Tibetan gyaling. As Scene 4 ends, string imitate these sounds and carry us into Scene 5.
Scene 5 closes the piece with a second aria. As the piece enters this new sonic space that will eventually leave the audience in a warm bath of cosmic joy, a lovely English horn and soprano sax duet sets the tone. The woodwind playing could scarcely be more different that the bristly sounds of Scene 4; this dichotomy highlights both the versatility of the players and the skill of Pesacov, who has managed to compose with admirable economy, using the full expressive range of the instruments.
As Scene 5 progresses, La’akan reveals that the time has come for him to unite with the beloved and usher in a new age. His beloved is neither seen nor heard, but through the music, her presence is clear. The vocals here are accompanied by the full ensemble, but the drum and bells feature prominently. As the piece ends, the music coalesces around a single pitch, fading out in a gesture that suggests an ultimate unity. This might not seem an obvious way to end a piece about a topic that was popularly associated with an apocalypse, but after taking in the narrative of this version of the story, it makes perfect sense.
Much of the music in Scene 5 is reminiscent of John Adams’s The Dharma at Big Sur. Both pieces are deeply spiritual, but approach spirituality from apparently opposite directions (mythology vs spiritual commune with nature). One particularly tantalizing possibility about the source of this similarity might be fact that Adams’s Dharma is also about an “edge,” although a much more concrete edge; the John Adams piece is about standing on the western edge of the American continent. Whatever the true source of their similarity, it is fascinating and pleasing that they end up in similar sonic spaces, but ultimately not surprising, given the orientation of The Edge of Forever toward multifaceted transcendence of apparently unrelated realms.
This overarching themes of unity and transcendence are everywhere in The Edge of Forever. First, it is inside the narrative: it is present in the element of the bridging of two eras of time, the more simple union of a lover with their beloved (who may or may not be supernatural), and the union of humanity with the cosmic through the timeless power of love. This last element of the narrative focuses on the power of love and unity to transcend the human time scale. In the words of the librettist, “one can find forever in each moment.”
These themes are also written into this piece through the composer’s use of the ratio at the heart of the Mayan calendar. The Mayan calendar in question here is built upon the ratio 13:20, and the complex interactions of those two numbers. The Maya were able to use this simple method of counting to understand time scales of cosmic proportions which otherwise would be outside the realm of human comprehension.
Pesacov uses these numbers and this ratio to generate most of the musical structures (both large and small) in the piece. Excitingly, however, the overall effect is not that of a piece created by the cold application of numerals, but rather a lovingly conceived narrative supported by tasteful and interesting instrumental writing. The successful coexistence of these two seemingly opposing motivations is evidence of the composer’s skill.
Here, too, then, is transcendence woven into this piece in two ways: the Mayan calendar itself suggesting the extension of the human mind into otherwise unreachable territory while the construction of musical structures using its elements unifies numbers and musical expression into a beautifully multifaceted whole.
Pesacov also manages to work a third iteration of unity and transcendence into this score with his ingenious orchestration. The ensemble here is relatively small, but it is packed with instruments that have association with religions from around the world, thus deepening this piece’s commitment to transcendence. From Tibet, there are singing bowls (I think), the replication of the sound of the gyaling by the soprano saxophone and the English horn, and the conch shell. The conch is also found in the religious traditions of Pacific island nations, India, East Asia, the Caribbean, and (poignantly, in the case of this piece) Mesoamerica. Other instruments in this piece are common to religious traditions too numerous to name; drumming, bells, and a cappella singing are firmly in this category. So, even the instrumentation itself contributes to the themes of unity and transcendence in The Edge of Forever.
When I encountered this piece initially, the interesting story and beautiful performances of the players and cast drew me in. Then, the more deeply I explored this piece and its backstory, the more layers of connection (transcendence) I found. This tells me that Pesacov and Cline really knew what they were doing. The result of their multifaceted success is that any listener can enjoy this release; you can listen for the intricate construction and efficient writing or you can just sit back and enjoy the beauty of the thing, or both! Whatever your motivation, I think it would be difficult for any listener to experience The Edge of Forever without feeling the love.