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Beard, David Jason (2006)
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Languages: English
Types: Article
Subjects: ML
Premièred at Glyndebourne in October 1994 and subsequently performed in the UK, Austria, Germany and Holland, The Second Mrs Kong was the result of a collaboration between the American writer Russell Hoban and British composer Harrison Birtwistle. The opera’s reception has tended to emphasise the disparity between Hoban’s diverse and eclectic interests, which emerge not only in the libretto but also in his novels and essays, and Birtwistle’s more introspective and linear approach. Possible connections between Hoban’s aesthetics and Birtwistle’s music have generally been disregarded. I argue, however, that the opera’s main aesthetic concerns – namely, the mediation of images through ideas and the workings of image-identification in diverse media – are shaped by a productive exchange between librettist and composer. The clearest expression of this interaction is the love between Kong, who embodies ‘the idea of’ King Kong from the 1933 RKO film, and Pearl, a character drawn from Vermeer’s iconic painting Girl with a Pearl Earring. The representation of these visual icons in The Second Mrs Kong is inflected by Birtwistle’s own views on images, by his attempts to find musical analogues for visual techniques, as revealed especially in his sketches, and by his lively engagement with Hoban’s ideas.
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    • 8 Birtwistle on his settings of Celan's poetry, in 'A Conversation with Harrison Birtwistle', interview with Robert Adlington, Aspects of British Music of the 1990s, ed. Peter O'Hagan ( Aldershot, 2003 ), 111-18, here 115.
    • 9 Arnold Whittall describes it as 'an imaginary fugue' in his 'The Mechanisms of Lament: Harrison Birtwistle's Pulse Shadows', Music and Letters, 80 ( 1999 ), 86-102, here 97.
    • 10 Robert Adlington, 'Harrison Birtwistle's Recent Music', Tempo, 196 ( April 1996 ), 5.
    • 11 Choreography and spatial distribution of performers are used in Verses for Ensembles ( 1969 ), Secret Theatre ( 1984 ), Ritual Fragment ( 1990 ), Panic ( 1995 ) and Theseus Game ( 2003 ). The presentation of musical motifs in The Triumph of Time ( 1971 ) is compared by Birtwistle to Brueghel's etching of a procession of disconnected objects ( see Michael Hall, Harrison Birtwistle [London, 1984], 175-6 ). Ideas stemming from studies by Erwin Panofsky and Günter Grass of Albrecht Dürer's engraving Melancholia inform the composer's programme note to Melencolia I ( 1976 ). In the programme note to Silbury Air ( 1976 ), Silbury Hill in Avebury, Wiltshire, is offered as a metaphor for musical processes ( see Hall, 177 ). Geological strata are evoked in comparison to the musical layers in Earth Dances ( 1986 ). And Exody '23-59-59' ( 1997 ) is said to consist of 'gateways' and 'windows', 'which are framed and self-contained glimpses, like a curtain opening for a moment and then closing again'; quoted in Ross Lorraine, 'Territorial Rites 2', The Musical Times, 138/1857 ( November 1997 ), 12-16, here 16.
    • 12 Birtwistle originally delivered his illustrated Klee lecture, 'Ears & eyes', together with members of the London Sinfonietta, at the Hayward Gallery, London, on 7 and 8 March 2002. The talk, which was advertised as addressing the question 'Can there be a direct connection between painting and music?', was later repeated at the Lucerne Festival in 2003 footnote continued on next page footnote continued from previous page under the new title 'Eyes to Hear, Ears to See'. Birtwistle's interest in Klee ( discussed in Hall, Harrison Birtwistle ) is most directly expressed in Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum ( 1978 ), which is a response to Klee's Twittering Machine. For his thoughts on Klee and other painters, see Lorraine, 'Territorial Rites 1' and 'Territorial Rites 2'.
    • 13 Lorraine, 'Territorial Rites 1', 8.
    • 14 'I'm more envious of that than anything'. He has also commented: 'There's no equivalent of throwing paint in music, is there?'; Lorraine, 7, 4.
    • 15 Lorraine, 4. This idea is articulated in several orchestral works that the composer has compared to landscapes and processionals. As Jonathan Cross has remarked, in such works the listener may be equated 'with the spectator/composer: we listen passively as the procession passes in front of us'; Birtwistle: Man, Mind, Music ( London, 2000 ), 213.
    • 16 D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, On Growth and Form, abr. and ed. John Tyler Bonner ( Cambridge, 1997 ). Michael Hall discusses the relevance of D'Arcy Thompson's book to Birtwistle's instrumental piece Medusa ( 1969 ) ( Harrison Birtwistle, 50-1 ).
    • 17 Three-, four- and five-note contours were extracted from the 'Modual Book' for use in Nenia: The Death of Orpheus ( 1970 ). These contours indicate degrees of rise and fall rather than specific interval sizes or pitches. Ideas for The Triumph of Time ( 1970-72 ), Prologue ( 1971 ) and An Imaginary Landscape ( 1971 ) also appear in the two sketchbooks.
    • 18 For a more comprehensive account of this process and a discussion of the sketchbooks, see my doctoral dissertation 'An Analysis and Sketch Study of the Early Instrumental Music of Sir Harrison Birtwistle ( c. 1957-77 )', 2 vols. ( University of Oxford, 2000 ). See also David Beard, 'The Endless Parade: Competing Narratives in Recent Birtwistle Studies', Music Analysis, 23 ( 2004 ), 89-127.
    • 19 Robert Adlington, The Music of Harrison Birtwistle (Cambridge, 2000), 158.
    • 20 See Jacques Lacan, 'The Mirror Stage', in Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, 1977).
    • 21 Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1988), 150.
    • 22 Christian Metz, 'The Imaginary Signifier', Screen, 16/2 (Summer 1975), 14-76, here 58.
    • 26 Julia Kristeva, 'Freud and Love: Treatment and its Discontents', The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi ( New York, 1986 ), 253, cited in Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror, 119.
    • 27 Jean Baudrillard, 'The Ecstasy of Communication', trans. John Johnston, in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster ( New York, 1998 ), 145-54, here 150.
    • 28 Baudrillard, 150 and 149 respectively, where he also remarks: 'What used to be lived out on earth as metaphor, as mental or metaphorical scene, is henceforth projected into reality, without any metaphor at all . . . the instantaneity of communication has miniaturized our exchanges into a succession of instants' ( 147-8, 149 ).
    • 29 Baudrillard, 153.
    • 30 In the original production, Kong was sung by the tenor Philip Langridge in a white T-shirt and the lower half of a gorilla costume.
    • 31 In a revision of Act II scene 1, Kong's cry is also given to Orpheus when his head is removed by the Four Temptations.
    • 32 Similarly, concerning the function of the film interlude in Berg's Lulu, in which Lulu is shown in prison, Silvio José Dos Santos has observed that 'Lulu has to see her reflected image to regain her identity'; 'Ascription of Identity: The Bild Motif and the Character of Lulu', Journal of Musicology, 21 ( 2004 ), 267-308, here 295.
    • 33 As this line indicates, Kong is represented in the film by more than just a puppet: there is a robotic face for close ups ( which is noticeably different from the face of the puppet ), and a robotic hand and foot.
    • 34 Therese Davis, The Face on the Screen: Death, Recognition and Spectatorship ( Bristol, 2004 ), 2.
    • 35 Birtwistle discussed his interest in Hermann's soundtrack for Taxi Driver during the BBC Study Day on The Second Mrs Kong already mentioned. A bluesy style is also required of the saxophone that accompanies Madame Lena's attempted seduction of Kong in Act II scene 2, while in scene 3 the same instruction applies to Inanna's vocal line.
    • 36 James Sanders, Celluloid Skyline ( New York, 2001 ), 395.
    • 42 All references are to the full score published by Universal Edition ( London, 1994 ), pl.n. UE 16549.
    • 43 Microfilm 0537-0338, dated 14 May 1993. The sketches and drafts for both the text and the music of The Second Mrs Kong are housed in the Birtwistle Sammlung at the Paul Sacher Foundation, Basle, Switzerland. Although I have examined all the sketches directly, specific references in this article relate to the copy stored on microfilm, also in the Birtwistle Sammlung in Basle.
    • 44 The concepts of 'obvious' and 'obtuse' images ( 'obtuse' being defined by the presence of a supplement that has no clear meaning ), are derived from Roland Barthes, 'The Third Meaning', in his The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation, trans. Richard Howard ( Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1985 ), 41-62.
    • 57 Hoban, The Medusa Frequency, 87. By extension, in 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' Walter Benjamin observed that, although the cinematic image 'cannot be arrested', 'the spectator's process of association in view of these images is indeed interrupted by their constant, sudden change'. For Benjamin, this constituted 'the shock effect of the film', an effect that would both overturn habitual modes of viewing and reveal the alienating conditions of modernity to the masses; Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn ( London, 1992 ), 231.
    • 58 Working libretto, microfilm 0537-0367, dated 13 January 1994.
    • 59 Working libretto, microfilm 0537-0369, dated 4 February 1994.
    • 60 In the original 1933 film Steiner did not provide music from the arrival of the planes until the moment when it is obvious that Kong is seriously wounded, at which point the music accompanies his farewell to Ann Darrow. Otherwise, the scene is characterised by the eerie sound of the planes, the drone of their engines and crackle of machine gunfire.
    • 63 Theodor W. Adorno and Hanns Eisler, Composing for the Films ( London, 1994 ), 70.
    • 64 Lawrence Kramer, 'The Voice of Persephone: Musical Meaning and Mixed Media', in Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History ( Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2002 ), 173-93, here 187.
    • 65 Cited in Lorraine, 'Territorial Rites 1', 7.
    • 66 Cited in Lorraine, 'Territorial Rites 2', 16.
    • 67 Hall, Harrison Birtwistle, 145; the context is a discussion of the chamber opera Yan Tan Tethera ( 1983 ). Michael Hall later used the phrase 'the sanctity of the context' to describe this new approach; see Hall, 'The Sanctity of the Context: Birtwistle's Recent Music', The Musical Times, 129/1740 ( January 1988 ), 14-16.
    • 79 Adlington, The Music of Harrison Birtwistle, 36. See also Tom Sutcliffe, review of the Glyndebourne production of The Second Mrs Kong, The Musical Times, 136/1829 ( 1995 ), 373-5; and Ivan Hewett, 'The Second Coming', The Musical Times, 136/1823 ( 1995 ), 46-7.
    • 80 Adlington, 'Harrison Birtwistle's Recent Music', 4.
    • 81 Compare, for example, Birtwistle's previous opera, Gawain, where the instrumental parts are closely related to the vocal lines, as emerges from a study of the sketches; see David Beard, 'The Shadow of Opera: Dramatic Narrative and Musical Discourse in Gawain', twentieth-century music, 2 ( 2005 ), 159-96.
    • 82 Copies of manuscripts from the Harrison Birtwistle Collection at the Paul Sacher Foundation, Basle, are reproduced by kind permission. Excerpts from Birtwistle's The Second Mrs Kong Copyright 1994 by Universal Edition (London) Ltd., London. Reproduced by permission. All rights reserved.
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