John Plant, composer

Faustus: A SaxOpera. Notes and synopsis

This work is inspired by Gertrude Stein's magnificent libretto on the Faust myth, 'Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights".  The saxophone personifies and brings life to the principal characters, delineating the individuality of each by stylistic means, while the wind ensemble establishes the atmosphere -both emotional and physical- and participates in the action of the 'plot' - even sometimes taking on the function of chorus. At certain passages, the music articulates the precise rhythm of Stein’s prose.
 It is not necessary to know the narrative of the SaxOpera to follow and enjoy the music, any more than it is for Schoenberg's Transfigured Night, or Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel . But in each case the story adds an extra imaginative dimension.  Though of course there is a precedent for concertos with narrative content (e.g. Berlioz' Harold in Italy, Strauss's Don Quixote), my intention is to imbue the work with an authentically operatic idiom, together with the theatrical intensity inherent in the form: hence the designation: SaxOpera.

 The short passage which concludes the opera was inspired not only by Stein's ending, in which a boy and a girl appeal to the Man from Over the Seas, (Please Mister Viper, do not forget to be), but also by the moving penultimate chapter of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, in which the narrator describes the final moments of the fictional Faustus cantata: 'The work admits of no consolation, no reconciliation.. but  if the entire work produces lamentation, perhaps there is a paradox: so that from hopelessness and irremediable despair, hope (in the form of a whispered question) might germinate...’
 
I've been obsessed with Stein’s text for many years; I used it as the basis for a dance piece in 1980, and a chamber opera with piano in 1988. The music (apart from a few motivic germs) is quite new; I see Gertrude Stein's masterpiece with new eyes (and ears) after many decades of marinating!!  

Act I: Faustus and Mephisto.

 Faustus, who has sold his soul to make electric light, is now in crisis and seething with discontent. He rails against Mephisto: Miserable devil... I thought I needed you.  But everybody knows the devil is all liesMephisto: Do not believe them when they say the devil lies.. He deceives - oh yes he deceives! -  but that is not lying. Do not say the devil lies. Faustus: Leave me alone. Dog and Boy, let me alone, oh let me alone. Leave me alone, let me be alone.

Mephisto tempts Faustus with the vision of a woman named Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel, who asks him: Doctor Faustus have you ever been to hell. How could you sold your soul if you had ever been to hell. Of course not! Doctor Faustus, tell me what did they give you when you sold your soul? Not hell...

 But Faustus gloomily brushes off this vision: Leave me alone... Exasperated, he gives Mephisto an awful kick and shoves him out the door.

Act II: Marguerite and the Viper in the Forest 

 Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel is alone in a dark, mysterious, terrifying forest. She hears a rustling under the leaves, and she sees that a viper has bitten her. She is terrified by the wildness she can feel rising in her blood; she is afraid to lose herself in it.In a state of panic, she runs desperately to Dr Faustus’s house. 

 

Act III: Faustus cures Marguerite 

Faustus is asleep in his studio, along with his familiars, a Boy and a Dog. Their repose is shattered by the arrival of Marguerite, calling in desperation to Dr Faustus . Dr Faustus, Dr Faustus. I am here Dr Faustus... Are you there? Are you there?

Faustus, still half asleep, throws the door open, sleepily grumbling:  Leave me alone.   He responds to Marguerite's initial supplication by reflecting gruffly on his power, and the price he paid for it:  I think I have thought. Thought is not bought... but I, I have bought thought.

Marguerite poignantly pleads with him to save her.  A chorus of outer and inner voices, rising in intensity, urges him to cure her: Doctor Faustus, do you not know what it is that is happening

Dr Faustus agrees to cure her with his electric lights, and Marguerite gradually regains consciousness.

 

Act IV: The Man from Over the Seas 

The snakebite and the healing process have brought Marguerite to a kind of enlightenment. She is surrounded by a halo of candlelight.

In a state of deep meditation, she has a vision of a ballet of lights, from which emerges the Man From Over the Sea(also known as Mister Viper) singing his song of cosmic unity: I am your Sun...And I am hers and she is mine...I love her all the time. 
But Marguerite faints in terror when she perceives Mephisto in the shadows, standing behind him.  Mephisto explodes in a furious, arrogant and disdainful tirade, enraged that Marguerite and Mister Viper have dared to transform his electric light: Which of you can dare to deceive me! Which of you!...  You know I am the devil and you do not listen to me..

 

Act V: Faustus goes to hell 

Faustus is in despair at not being able to share, not being able to see the light of the moon or the stars. He laments that Marguerite has found another light and that he has sold his soul in vain, as he cannot find love, despite the brightness of his electric light.

Mephisto appears and makes Faustus young in the hope that he will bring Marguerite with him to hell.

Faustus awakens Marguerite, who has fainted in the arms of the Man from over the sea, hoping she will accompany him to hell. But Marguerite rejects him defiantly saying: No one can deceive me, not a young man, not an old man, not a devil, not a viper.

Faustus, overwhelmed by the catastrophe of Marguerite’s rejection, gives voice to his demented and tormented soul.

Mephisto drags Faustus to hell, ironically scoffing at his hopeless cries of Leave me alone
And it is all dark...

Insomnia

INSOMNIA is a setting of poems by Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941), written in Moscow just before the 1917 Revolution.   They can be said to describe a nocturnal quest in which physical and spiritual experience are interwoven; particularly striking is the vividness with which the physical world is experienced just as it is revealed to be an illusion or a dream.  

 

Throughout the work the intensity and intimacy of the poet's encounter with the night are reflected in the intertwining of the saxophone's melodic line with that of the soprano, while the piano evokes and reveals the mysterious world in which she moves, at times echoing the sound of the poet's footsteps, at times providing shadows or glints of light.  The saxophone's inimitable range of colours makes it an ideal partner in this endeavour, as it anticipates, punctuates, illuminates and intensifies the spiritual journey traced by the singer.  The overwhelming mood is one of alert stillness.  

 

INSOMNIA was co-commissioned by Michael Couper and Jennifer Bill, and is dedicated to them.  I am deeply grateful to both artists for their role in initiating me into the myriad expressive and technical resources of their incomparable instrument, one of the most rewarding adventures of my compositional life.

 

 

Piano Quintet

I. Where are you?

The opening three-note motif evokes the words Where are you? This leads to a canonic dialogue for the two violins in their highest range, suggesting overlapping memories.  A stark recurring funeral waltz fragment for the piano is now heard, which will recur throughout the piece as a haunting refrain, between the more sustained, longing, lyrical, desolate sections voiced by the quintet. The long coda, embedding both the opening gesture and the waltz in its texture, suggests a kind of groping towards a luminous realm, which seems more and more evanescent.
This movement was composed as an elegy for my parents.

II. Scherzo.

Spiky, nervous, clashing pizzicati yield to a brief, impetuous burst of melody, enveloped in swirling glissandi. The movement continues to unfold in a flowing but inexorable playful, spirited and mirthful rhythmic momentum.
This movement is dedicated with great affection and admiration to Blue Engine String Quartet.

III. Twilight with birds.

The twilight is permeated with fragments of birdsong accompanying the birds’ soaring, swooping flight, woven into an increasingly blissful and peaceful nocturnal atmosphere. The woodpecker has the last word.

This movement is dedicated to my late aunt Helen Quilliam, founding member of Kingston Field Naturalists. A bird sanctuary in Sydenham, Ontario bears her name.

IV. Passacaglia.

The Passacaglia is based on a mode from which the notes of the C sharp minor triad (C#, E, G#) are rigorously excluded until the very end.  There are 18 variations on a theme, initially stated by the cello. The listener may recognize a shy nod (or wink) in the direction of Bach (in the theme), Rachmaninoff (variation 7) and Bizet (variation 15).  The forbidden notes emerge surreptitiously from the frenetic final variation.

This movement is dedicated to my muse, my beloved wife Jocelyne, who spurs me ever onward to new explorations. 

The entire work can be taken as an expression of gratitude toward the dedicatees, and toward the world we live in.

String Quartet

I. A fanatic heart

 The swiftly increasing ferocity of this movement emerges through obsessive motives in polyrhythmic superposition, nested in a starkly etched texture. A meditative passage of successive rising minor seconds frames the movement, and is also heard at its core. It echoes the bleak desolation which fanaticism, whether collective or personal, brings in its wake.


 

II. Lament

 The Lament can be understood as a grieving response to the first movement. There are no changes of time signature or tempo anywhere in the movement, which is an extremely unusual procedure in my music!  A plaintive arioso for solo violin gives way to a shadowy descent.  Descending figures play a prominent role in the texture which accompanies the principal melody.  An ascent from the depths, as if reversing the initial descent, leads to an ethereal coda, punctuated by descending gestures from the second violin, as if its cries of distress were echoing into space.   

 

III. Gubbinal

 The third movement is a kind of scherzo, a dialogue between two contrasting views of life.  The upper strings insistently make their case for a cheerful, buoyant outlook through teasing, wheedling, pleading. The viola and cello remain firmly in opposition, at first simply responding with a stubborn NO, then articulating their grouchy disgruntled state with grumbling and whining.  The title derives from Wallace Stevens' satiric poem Gubbinal, with its refrain 'The world is ugly/And the people are sad.'  It has been suggested that the source of 'Gubbinal' is the slangword 'gubbins' - indicating that this is a gubbinslike proposition.

 

IV. With growing passion

The Finale emerges from desolation to affirm an increasingly passionate approach to life. It is in ABA form: the upwardly-striving, fervent melody of the opening gives way to the rhythmically insistent, jolting, thrusting energy of the central section. The irregularly pulsing rhythms provoke a new blossoming of lyricism; this prepares the return of the initial melody, intensified, transfigured, building to a swift climax, culminating in a shimmering F-sharp minor triad, whose topmost note emerges like an undying flame, burning in the air.

Concerto for Orchestra

My Concerto for Orchestra is intended as a grateful homage to the expressive virtuosity of the Montreal Chamber Orchestra and its conductor Wanda Kaluzny.
 

The first movement suggests a gradual awakening, culminating in an enthusiastic embrace of life.  A more tormented passage fails to dampen the ardour of this embrace, and the movement concludes in exuberance. 


In the suite-like second movement, a brief monody recurs throughout, each time generating a change of mood: playful, hypnotic, intimate, assertive. 

 
The third movement, a Scherzo in arch form, begins with a playfully jagged passage for pizzicato strings yielding to ghostly, shimmering, ethereal music. A plaintive melody in thirds forms the Scherzo's core. The movement then proceeds 'backwards,' (with B and A sections considerably transformed), concluding with a shadowy coda for xylophone, timpani and low strings.  

The final movement, inspired by a recent trip to Russia, begins with a sombre chorale-like passage, which gives way to a brief lament, heralding the mystery of a slowly gathering storm. At the height of the storm, the lament returns, transformed into soaring song. This movement carries the following epigraph from Lawrence Raab's poem Magritte:

 

Great clouds creep across the earth
   and the storm falls into them like a song 

 

Adrienne Rich has said: Poems are like dreams.  In them you put what you don’t know you know. This precisely describes how I feel about my Concerto.

A deep clear breath of life

My dear friend Peter Kovner commissioned this fantasia for saxophone and piano as a memorial to his beloved sister Kay. In it,  I attempted to evoke something of the exuberance and the poignance of her life as I understood it.  The music traces a path through the joys, playfulness, hopes, tribulations and torments of childhood, nostalgia, longing, melancholy, exuberant Dionysian abandon, frenzy, illness; and concludes with a sense of the radiant spirit which survives and which, perhaps, represents her true legacy.

In the opening section, each of the sonorous minor sevenths in the lower register of the piano initiates a new stage of emergence into the awakening radiance of innocent childhood. The turbulent section which follows portrays the tribulations and torments caused by the cruelty of schoolmates, yielding to the melancholy of solitude. 

Kay's sojourn in Rome is evoked by an homage to Nino Rota, the composer of the matchless music for most of Fellini's films, including 'La dolce vita.' Peter expressed the wish that I would at some point pay tribute to my love of vintage Motown, which is why the work also includes an homage to Junior Walker.  Neither homage involves any conscious quotation,  but I enjoyed the challenge of integrating multiple styles and emotional states within a twelve-minute span.  Schnittke's coinage of the word 'polystylistic' seems tailor-made for 'A deep clear breath of life'  The work's title is taken from a moving e-mail I received from Peter.

I will fly like a bird

'I will fly like a bird' is a concert opera in five scenes, intended as a tribute to Robert Dziekanski, who was fatally tasered at Vancouver Airport in 2007. The story,  told entirely through the imagined voices of Robert and his mother, traces their experience from the eve of Robert's departure from Poland, through the plane ride, the arrival in Canada and the tragic events at the airport, and concluding with an elegy sung by Robert's mother.  The project was initiated by librettist J. A. Wainwright, emeritus professor of English at Dalhousie; our intention was not merely to recount a tragedy, but to honour the aspirations and hopes which brought Robert to Canada, in a format far removed from the media circus which inevitably surrounded his death.

The opera begins in Gliwice, Poland, on the eve of Robert's departure, as he anticipates his new life with his mother in Canada. She, in Kamloops, anticipates welcoming him to the place where two rivers meet.  Then Robert is heard celebrating with friends, drinking and celebrating with them on the eve of his departure, sharing his hopes and concerns. When the friends leave, and Robert anticipates the flight to Canada, he imagines his mother's voice joined with his own, as he prepares to 'fly like a bird.'

The next scene, 'Transatlantic', traces his thoughts and those of his mother as he makes the journey, through the air. A series of linked episodes show us his initial nervousness; his mother's recollection of how he used to race the trains as a boy; an encounter with the stewardess, which intensifies the image of his mother, whose letters he is reading; his awareness of the regions of Canada as he flies over them;  his mother's confidence that his smile will communicate his joy when he arrives; his thoughts on the history of Kamloops, 'where the Indians brought their furs', and his joyful anticipation of walking with his mother at the convergence of the rivers. The voices of Robert and his waiting mother converge as the plane begins its descent.

'In the Hold' opens with Robert's frenetic excitement at having reached Canada, confident that his mother is waiting for him beyond the door. But he cannot find his suitcase, and his mother is not at the baggage carousel.  He wanders for seven hours, lost, and no one offers him help; no one speaks to him.

On the Ground: he opens the door; his mother is not there. Angry and lost, with no one to help or guide him, he becomes increasingly frustrated and restless.  He throws 'the chessboard' - a computer monitor - to the ground.  When the police arrive, he first thinks they have come to help him, but their voices and attitude are hostile and hurtful. They taser him five times; he 'falls into his beating heart.'

A musical threnody takes us from the airport to Kamloops. Robert's mother, falsely informed that her son was not on the plane, had gone back home; when she returned to the airport Robert was already dead. She sings to him, at first in grief, and then with a transcendent vision of his living spirit. 

'I will fly like a bird' is operatic in that it traces its tragic story through singing as well as instrumental music, with the sort of immediacy, intensity, and characterization which only opera can provide.  Robert and his mother are shown to be in symbiotic communion throughout; their intense awareness of each other remains constant throughout the work. Each part of the work has its own tempo and thematic character, but there are also several master themes which recur, transformed but recognizable, throughout the work. The piece relies on a web of shifting harmonic and rhythmic relationships to create convincing transitions from one geographical/emotional landscape to another.

Vocal characterization is achieved through melisma, aria, arioso, duet, recitative, ritornelli, and rhythmic declamation by the musicians. Certain episodes are songlike in nature, such as the drinking song and the lullabies.

There are several key images that occur throughout the opera. Robert Dziekanski was a passionate student of geography, and a lover of chess. Kamloops, where two rivers meet, is the place to which he hopes to 'fly like a bird.'  Maps, the chessboard, the convergence of rivers, and birdflight become intertwined symbols as the story unfolds.

We wished to endow this poignant story with a universal impact, through the expression of different states of the soul as they evolve in those pivotal moments, many of which are part of everyone's experience: decision to start a new life, celebration with friends, courage, hope, filial/ maternal emotions, the kindness and cruelty of strangers, confusion, helplessness, anxiety bordering on madness.

As Wainwright wrote in his letter to Mrs. Cisowski (Dziekanski's mother) informing her of the project, "your son deserves to be remembered for the aspirations that were so cruelly taken from him in the manner of his passing."  I may add that setting Wainwright's libretto to music has been one of the most touching experiences of my creative life.