Co-Artistic Director Rudolf Rojahn conducts a Q & A with Composer Per Bloland about his new opera Pedr Solis, which opens tonight, May 15th. Tickets are available through The Boston Conservatory website at http://www.bostonconservatory.edu/tickets.
RR: You’ve incorporated the novels of Pedr Solis in several past compositions as well as your new opera. What about the Norwegian modernist’s work keeps you coming back?
PB: His work was a relatively late discovery of mine, toward the end of my graduate years. Being of Norwegian decent (abstract as that concept has become after many generations) I have gone through several phases of investigating Norwegian authors. I am personally most drawn to the literary experiments of the modernists and the avant-garde, but Norwegian literature is much better known for its realism. I thus found myself digging into some obscure corners. This has its own set of problems since I can neither speak nor read Norwegian, and had trouble finding translations of some of the more enticing examples I uncovered. Such was the case with Pedr Solis. By sheer coincidence, only a year or two after I first came across his name in connection with his most famous novel, Stillaset, the first translation of this amazing work was released in English. I was quite excited, though the translation was then, and is still very difficult to find. As far as I know it remains unpublished.
At the time I also happened to be reading a book called The Concept of Modernism by Astradur Eysteinsson. I was struck by some of the concepts in that book, and how they were reflected in Stillaset. It became apparent that Stillaset wasn’t just a modernist work of fiction, but also a book ABOUT modernism in literature. It seemed to be an indirect investigation into some of the very concepts that Eysteinsson was directly describing. One of the most interesting of these involved the idea of subjective vs. objective modernism. The former involves representing the inward, subjective experience of a protagonist, a window into a highly personal, non-linear, and highly stylized perspective. Stream of consciousness writing, for example, is meant to convey certain things about the thought process and the mind, but is under no obligation to covey the descriptive aspects of an objective shared reality. Objective modernism involves a much more detached approach on the part of the author, perhaps in the form of an abstract organizing principle. A great example of this is Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which is divided into a limited number of chapter types, the order of which is highly structured and cyclic. (This might actually be better described as post-modern, but I’m going to punt on that distinction for now). These two ways of looking at the creative process struck me as completely relevant to my own music, if not all music.
I was also fascinated by Solis’ own story, at least that part of it I was able to uncover. There is very little published about him, but I did have a few very interesting conversations about him over the course of a visit to Norway some years ago. Apparently he was a notorious recluse, with a decidedly ambivalent relationship to the relatively little attention he did receive. He was said to be at work on a follow up novel to Stillaset, but that novel was never released. Apparently at some point in the early seventies he simply packed up and disappeared from the public eye. This was not a huge surprise, given his relationship with the public, but his ability to disappear so completely was rather remarkable. It was speculated that he moved up to Finnmark, in the very north of Norway.
RR: The new opera exists in two “realities”: the Kafkaesque world of Solis’ novel Stillaset and the real world of the writer himself (Oslo, 1970). As the opera unfolds, those two realities begin to elide. What attracted you to the idea of having Solis interact with his fictional creation?
PB: That part of the story was introduced by the librettist, Paul Schick. When the opportunity to write for Guerilla Opera first came up I approached Paul about writing the libretto. I knew I wanted the story to revolve around Solis the author and his novels. About how to draw a full opera’s worth of material from that, however, I had no idea. I told Paul everything I knew about Solis, and he immediately made a connection with Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s play The Tower. This connection has little to do with storyline. The play is about a king and his son the prince, a prophesy of patricide, and the banishment of the prince to a life of isolation in a remote tower. Pedr Solis though, as far as I know, had no children. Paul saw a parallel between the struggle of the prince in the play and this question of subjective versus objective reality played out in the novel Stillaset. Thus the unnamed hero of the Solis novel fills a dual role in the opera—he is both the Solis’ son and the main character of his novel. Paul was also struck by the parallel between the powers of a king and of an author to shape their realities. Both must abide by a set of existing pre-determined rules in order to be successful, but both also have the ability to mold these rules to fit their internal purposes.
The use of myth was an important literary device in Solis’ writing. Just as modernist authors have drawn on classical myth (James Joyce’s Ulysses being an excellent example), Solis drew on Norse myth as a source of allusions. Much of his imagery appears meaningless unless one is familiar with the mythology. I find it fascinating the way that we approach mythic tales in general, the way we are able to suspend disbelief and flow easily in and out of a linear narrative. This is particularly true with regards to the passage of time in Norse mythology. The past, present, and future all exist simultaneously in these tales, and are known and understood to some extent by many of the characters. In the opera, the Structure, the building to which our hero Ignis is banished, exists in some undesignated mythic time and place, but also in the objective reality of Oslo in the early 1970s.
I love the idea of conveying mythic time in music, of moving back and forth between non-linear suspended time and a much more driven, progressive approach to time.
The path leads on. Ahead, a monolithic structure, an unnatural cliff that sears the sparse terrain. No way around, no way over, must go through. Comprehensible at a distance, merely a constructed edifice impairing passage, this illusion collapses as one draws near. Impossibly large, impossibly flat and ashen. A dusted granite scar erupting from the arenaceous scrubland.
The corridor within continues inexorably, pitted against permeating cold dark illumination. Pale points of light arise in the distance, always remote. Their appearance and disappearance never a marked event, but with a sense of cyclic purpose, not unlike the rise and fall of the moon. On either side row after row of concisely elaborate doors, fastened and impenetrable. Occasionally an opening outward of the passage walls, and he enters a chamber, perhaps bare, occasionally otherwise though always barren.
He stops; a door, this one to his right, one of many, has flexed its hinges to reveal a deep emptiness beyond. The vivid contrast with the bleached glow of the corridor provides a moment of alluring intensity. He recoils, contemplates this tear in the fabric, then resumes his journey.
He holds the Black Book in his hands, feeling its weight, immersed in the scent of its leather binding. He has encountered such as this before, compendiums of ancient lore. This one though… strangely deficient, devoid of text. Instead filled with images, in turns ghastly and mundane, all relating to the structure. The center pages present a series of maps. Not of this structure, but of others, nearly identical. The import is carried by the discrepancies. As he studies them he understands: these are potential structures, mere zodiacs of the mind’s phantasms, each bearing within a defect. Thus rendered untenable, they fall victim to their own structure.
He returns the Black Book to its small floor crevice. A billow of dust and he exits the chamber through the open door to the corridor, resuming his journey. There is a kernel though, the hint of a scratch at the periphery, just barely noticeable and easily dismissed. The passageway, its closed doors, its periodic dilation into barren chambers, these smooth the edges of this jagged kernel, yet the pin prick remains. Its depth is unmeasurable.
More open doors passed in haste. With each view across the threshold, it grows. It grows and festers, its edges soft and caustic. And it intrudes. By concentrating on the vanishing corridor ahead he maintains. At the corners the pale shadows dance and flicker as if roused by the rising moon. The desiccated walls blanche. Yet the corridor continues, no less penetrable.
The chamber is large, the largest yet. The clamor reaches its crescendo here, overwhelming the senses. Its source is revealed—a river emerging from a glaring maw in the right wall and disappearing into another on the left. Far too wide and turbulent to ford. A metallic bridge crouches, straddling the division.
These cracks in the floor, the smooth rock thrust aside by tangles of roots. The roots of unseen trees, entwined like snakes beneath his feet. Branches veer off the path at impossible angles, otherwise indistinguishable from the main artery.
Thyrstr ek köm thessar hallar til,
Loptr of langan veg,
ásu at bithja, at mér einn gefi
mæran drykk mjathar.
All was seen to be ruinous throughout, and filled with a violent and abominable reek. It teemed with everything that could disgust the eye or the mind: the wall was plastered with filth, the roof made up of spear-heads, the flooring covered with snakes and bespattered with all manner of uncleanliness. Bloodless phantasmal monsters huddled on the iron seats, and the places for sitting were railed off by leaden trellises.
Yet even still all was not desolate, for beyond each atrocity arose a vista of great beauty. There followed pillars of red gold beneath a roof of silver set. Another with a bright-growing ash beside a thorn-bush, and a young stag, drenched in dew, who surpasses all other animals and whose horns glow against the sky itself.
Occasionally occurs remembrance of the corridor walls, now far beyond the reach of human gaze, yet ever present as a distant ephemeral source of guidance.