Entertainment » Music

Opera Cabal: Caroline Shaw & Elliot Cole

by Christine Malcom
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Saturday Jan 28, 2012
Caroline Shaw, a performer and graduate student in Composition from Princeton University’s Department of Music
Caroline Shaw, a performer and graduate student in Composition from Princeton University’s Department of Music  (Source:Opera Cabal)

The Opera Cabal Performing Arts Association's "Opera Shop" was conceived in 2011 as a series of incubation residencies bringing together artists from outside the opera genre to create works that "confront the idea of opera itself." This January brought together Elliot Cole and Caroline Shaw, two graduate students in Composition from Princeton University's Department of Music.

The residency is the second in the Opera Shop series. As with the first in the series, it is a co-production with High Concept Laboratories, and it adds the Chicago Opera Composers as collaborators; it seems to have culminated in something very different from the Shop's first iteration in September 2011.

Cole, Shaw, and the Cabal's founder, Majel Connery, worked together at Princeton in June 2011, around the time that Opera Cabal first announced the residency series. That work led the three to question what collaboration looks like among composers and how a process of collaboration would play out in practical terms, given the "Culture of Control," as Cole put it, that dominates composition. Opera Cabal describes the resulting works as "dueling operas."

For Cole, the two-week residency has been one leg of a much longer journey with a work in progress. De Rerum is a five-part rumination on the forces that drive, demand, and facilitate the creation and collapse of music, empire, agriculture, life, the universe, and everything.

The original draft of the work's music was developed in collaboration with Brad Balliett, and much of Cole's time in the residency has been spent digitally creating "super(duper)titles" as well as experimenting with the boundaries of performance.

Ultimately, "De Rerum" will be presented in full with the Chicago Composers Orchestra on February 21, but in the course of the residency, Cole has performed elements of the piece with drums alone at one the Cabal's Hyde Park salons, and he previewed a section for me in "karaoke"; during the Shop's two performances, he'll perform with a second vocalist accompanied by a four-piece band, including Shaw on viola.

If "De Rerum" is rooted in materialism, narrative, and history, Shaw sees her piece as being inspired by Rip Van Winkle -- taking place outside of time and the contours of story and history.

Cole describes the work as falling between hip hop and classical. The section I had a chance to see was an exhilarating barrage that appropriately left me feeling as if my mind had been cracked open and its contents were assembling into never-before-seen shapes.

True to the dueling opera concept, from almost the first moment of my visit, everyone concerned characterized Caroline Shaw's "Ritornello" as the complementary opposite of Cole's piece. The 18-minute piece was created entirely during the two-week residency, and she describes the experience as a rhythmic "chipping away" at preexisting ideas in a warm, comforting environment.

Subject-wise, if "De Rerum" is rooted in materialism, narrative, and history, Shaw sees her piece as being inspired by Rip Van Winkle -- taking place outside of time and the contours of story and history. Where Cole's piece drips with text, both visually and aurally, Shaw's is full of breath and space. The sparse text is drawn largely from T. S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" -- "at the still point of the turning of the world."

The residency's theme of opposition -- call and response-carries through to the techniques Shaw employed in the creation of "Ritornello". In another counterpoint to Cole's dense digital creation, Shaw uses stop-motion captures of paper folding, pencil sketches, and occasional pulses of text from Eliot's poem to make and unmake, over and over again.

Against the visual backdrop, Shaw herself performs on viola (sometimes seen, sometimes unseen), and Cole and Connery perform a ballet, relieving the piece's "somberness" with a light-hearted "Fred and Ginger" moment, as well as making good on the Baroque promise of its title.

The result is as playful and calming as Cole's piece is challenging and disquieting -- perhaps the most wickedly successful outcome possible for a duel.

"Opera Shop" will be performed in a private preview at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, January 27. The public opening is Saturday, January 28 at 7:30 p.m. at Fulton Hall on the University of Chicago campus, 5845 South Ellis Avenue, Chicago. For both performances, RSVP to contact@operacabal.com

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.


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