Saturday, December 13, 2008

Listening to the Crack of Doom on the Hydroden Jukebox

Working on "Hydrogen Jukebox" has been more than a little consuming. Both the challenge and potential reward of working on a piece like this are far greater than traditional opera - here there is no linear narrative, no characters, no groundwork with which to begin. It is all starting from scratch and letting the mind run wild. All that to say that my days are being spent sequestered in my study creating what will eventually be the production. In the meantime - here are my recently completed program notes, that I think or hope will wet some whistles.

“Hydrogen Jukebox” is a song-cycle. It is epic in length, epic in scale, and epic in scope. Perhaps because of this, it was conceived as a staged work from its inception, and is widely understood, for lack of other vocabulary, to be an opera. It defies true categorization: a number of texts spanning the entirety of Ginsberg's work, set for a myriad of permutations (solos, duets, quartets, full choruses), which are strong in their images and diverse in their subject matters. What holds this all together – what is essential throughout the entire work – is its deeply-American language of symbols, and the balancing of extremes which it communicates.

“Hydrogen Jukebox”, with texts selected by Ginsberg himself, premiered for six singers at the 1990 Spoleto Festival. The production we present tonight is vastly different. Most noticeably, the cast has been expanded to nine and the movements have been reordered to suggest a particular dramatic arc. In its original form “Hydrogen Jukebox” was described at its premier as “a portrait of America throughout the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s”. It is my belief that by arriving at this new ordering of movements, and understanding Ginsberg's cultural references as metaphors for larger universal themes, it can be a piece about much more. Instead of a nostalgic retrospective of the most domestically-tumultuous decades of the twentieth century, our “Hydrogen Jukebox” is an abstract portrayal of the rise and fall, ebb and flow, of an entire society using the imagery of the great American century. It is a portrayal of the necessary and inevitable paradigm shifts which define the human story, with metaphors which are distinctly American in character.

By expanding the message of “Hydrogen Jukebox” far beyond its initial conveyance, this production paradoxically arrives at a general philosophy much closer to a fundamental truth contained within the body of Ginsberg's work: the meeting of apparent opposites in lasting harmony. In a way, this is the meeting of eastern and western thought which is increasingly prevalent in Ginsberg's poetry. It permeates all aspects and layers of “Hydrogen Jukebox”.

“First, in its large scale structure, the work is cyclical. It is indeed the rise and “Fall of America” (to quote the title of Ginsberg's National Book Award-winning collection of poems), but understood as the meeting ends of a circle. The series of texts which begin and end this performance focus simultaneously on creation as destruction as creation. This is an understanding of the world deeply relevant to Ginsberg, and Glass for that matter, as practitioners of eastern thought. In Hinduism, from which almost all of the non-American references in these poems come, creation-destruction can be understood as a function of the dance, called naraja, of the trimurtis-deity Shiva. Naraja is the sustaining of the universe; it is the cosmic vibration and undulation of everything beyond human consciousness. In creation there is destruction, and in the end there is beginning. Likewise, the beginning of “Hydrogen Jukebox” is about the formation of a new society, but contained within that beginning is the struggle and necessary destruction implicit in all new communities. By the same token, the end of “Hydrogen Jukebox” is about the passing away of a society, but within that is the creation of something new. Their time has past, and a new age has come.

“Secondly, the imagery of the work is about balance. In talking about the cyclical structure of this performance I cited its beginning and end as an example. At the center of the work are two movements which balance each other: “Under Silver Wing” and “from Howl”. Essentially, the references in these movements are the same. They are about the American structure; they are about technology, infrastructure, man's interaction with the natural world, and the realization of the American Dream. They are, however, opposite sides of that coin. “Under Silver Wing” portrays the wonder of the American building – skyscrapers rise like crops, airplanes are metallic insects hopping across the landscape. This America is awe-inspiring, wondrous. The America of “from Howl” is the same, but vastly out of balance. Molloch is the technological and psychological god created by man, who demands the ultimate self-sacrifice. The movement portrays materialism, ultra-capitalism, consumerism, fanaticism, and all the 'isms' which define the new global age in dark and catastrophic terms. In a sense, “Under Silver Wing” and “from Howl” portray the same exact city, but they are Metropolis and Gotham. In just this way, almost every movement is mirrored on the other side of the intermission. Ying and Yang permeate “Hydrogen Jukebox”.

“Thirdly, the small scale minutia of many of the individual movements' imagery is about balance between extremes, and in that way the sameness of extreme differences. The strongest example is the dead center of “Hydrogen Jukebox”. Between “Under Silver Wing” and “from Howl”, lies “Wichita Vortex Sutra”. It begins and ends with the personal and the trivial: a man traveling in a car across the middle of America, beginning with a rumination on the solitude of the American automobile, and ending with a pit stop in Florence, Kansas for “tea and gas”. Between these, in what could be considered the epicenter of the vortex which is “Hydrogen Jukebox”, Ginsberg the poet wanders out into the immensity of the universe. He portrays a solitary man summing from within himself all of human consciousness, all deities, all powers, to “make mantra of American language” in the phrase “I declare the end of the war”. It is microcosm and macrocosm come together; it is the most eastern and western of images along side each other to evoke the very definition of “yogi”, defined in shiva samhita as “someone who knows the entire cosmos is situated within his own body”.

“This same pairing of extremes exists in many of the movements of “Hydrogen Jukebox”. It is a literary device that Ginsberg used often, and treasured as endemic of his own style. This he took from the paintings of Paul C├ęzanne, where he noticed that there was a physical reaction, an “eyeball-kick”, when the eye moved between vastly different colors. He often cited this phrase itself, “eyeball-kick”, as an example in literature of how the same reaction could be achieved. Likewise, he cited the phrase “Dexedrine Clown” which he used to describe Bob Dylan. The most frequent example he used to describe this literary phenomenon came from his most famous poem “Howl”. The line is “Listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox”.

“Our production of “Hydrogen Jukebox” is markedly different than what was presented at its debut nearly two decades ago. It isn't about a museum portrait of America throughout its twentieth century growing pains. It is about a universal truth: ages pass away, times come and go, and societies rise from the sea of posterity to which they inevitably return. All of this, when told through the imagery of Americana, is profoundly powerful, and pregnant with meaning. Yet, on a fundamental level, the production you will see tonight reconnects with a mystical thread of insight which runs throughout all of Ginsberg's poetry, and which is latent in the music of Philip Glass.


Brian said...

Nice posting. Do you know about these Samhita texts?

Timothy Nelson said...

Thanks Brian - What a terrific resource. Much appreciation for opening my eyes to it!

superior said...