Composer Spotlight: Alex Temple
We’ll be premiering Alex Temple‘s Switch: A Science-Fiction Micro-Opera on our Den of Death concert at The Cell in New York City on December 20th. Come check it out!
We sat down (via the internets) to ask Alex a little bit about the piece.
Can you talk/write a little bit about your process in developing the libretto/story of this piece? I found it really exciting to hear your different ideas as they developed before you began composing, and would love to hear the story behind the story again!
I’d actually been thinking for a couple of years about writing something set in a parallel universe where the most basic social division was between right- and left-handed people, with a protagonist who was “trans-handed” — born as a righty, but living and identifying as a lefty. I never thought it would be a piece of music, though. I had always imagined it as a short story.
When Meaghan asked me to contribute a piece to the “Den of Death” show, I knew I wanted to write something involving trans politics, both because it seemed thematically appropriate for a concert that was originally conceived as a response to a set of sexist liner notes, and because it’s a topic that’s often on my mind. For a while I was thinking of taking some kind of horrible transphobic screed, like some of the things Susan Stryker quotes in her book Transgender History, and giving it an abrasive, sarcastic setting, but Meaghan and I both felt that putting that kind of text in the mouth of a singer who wasn’t herself trans didn’t seem like a great idea.
Once I decided to use my sci-fi story idea for the piece, things came together pretty quickly. As soon as I wrote the first lines — “I have a confession to make: I was born right-handed. Does that shock you? I realize that my telling you this is dangerous…” — it became clear that this was not just a stratified society but a dystopian one, and the darker, more violent aspects of the story developed from that realization.
Along with that, when did the 1960s come into the composition?
That happened more or less by accident. One of the first ideas I had was for a scene in which the protagonist reminisced about having lived in a commune with a bunch of other misfits, during a brief period of liberalization preceding a crackdown. At some point it occurred to me that this was really a more extreme version of what happened after the 60s and early 70s in our own world: the liberated society that must have seemed like it was just around the corner never materialized. I remember reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven a year or two ago, and one thing that jumped out at me was that Le Guin, writing in 1971, expected businessmen of the future to sport shoulder-length hair and goatees. That must have seemed pretty plausible at that point in history. Instead we got Reagan, yuppies and privatization. That’s not as bad as a tyrannical dictatorship that commits mass murder and burns a third of the country to the ground, which is what happens in Switch, but it’s still a far cry from peace, love and understanding.
Was the piece influenced by any specific composers or styles of music?
For sure. Like a lot of my other music, Switch uses style as a kind of iconography. For example, the brief period of liberalization I mentioned is associated with the optimistic sound of early-60s advertising and film music, and passages involving the utopian Free Zone allude to psychedelic rock, folk and soul. (See if you can spot an orchestrational quote from “Strawberry Fields Forever”…) Even the atonal passages were inspired by music from the same period; while I was working on the opening, I spent a while studying the score for Berio’s Laborintus 2, which is an old favorite of mine. For the most part these styles are freely intermingled, distorted, and linked together through melodies and rhythms that appear in multiple guises.
It’s not all 60s, either. Kurt Weill is always just around the corner, because I love him and I don’t think I could write a piece of satirical political music-theater without him watching. There’s also a passage which was inspired by the monotone singing in Robert Ashley’s operas. It’s sung by a “right supremacist” zealot, and since in this universe, creativity is seen as the domain of the left-handed, I figured it would make sense to have the character sing in a speech-like style with little variation in pitch.
What role, if any, does politics play in your music? Do you feel that composers/musicians have a general responsibility to engage with political issues?
“Responsibility” seems too strong to me. Not everyone has the inclination or the right personality to make good political art, and I think it would be a boring world if people stopped making things whose only purpose was to be beautiful or fascinating. I’ve actually been hesitant to address political issues explicitly in my work, because there’s such a danger of being heavy-handed, even if you’re doing allegory rather than direct protest (see: Animal Farm). Switch is by far the most political piece I’ve written, and at this point I’m still too much inside it to know whether or not it manages to avoid that trap. My hope is that it’ll work by virtue of the sheer weirdness of its tone, which is often goofy and tragic at the same time. I guess we’ll find out at the premiere!