TITLE: Hour History (an opera in 11 episodes)
CAT# (YEAR COMPOSED): #11 (1989)
INSTRUMENTATION: For 3 actresses, 1 actor, 11 male singers, and percussion (8 players).
DURATION (APPROX): 60’00
PREMIERE PERFORMANCE: Premiere performance in December 1992 at the Krannert Center in Urbana, Illinois by: The University of Illinois New Music Ensemble; The University of Illinois Contemporary Vocal Ensemble; David Billman, conductor; William Brooks, conductor of vocal ensemble; Ray Caton and Aaron Claessens, lighting directors; Scott Mandrell, production manager; Michael Edward Edgerton, director
The work is based on the novella Hour History by Pat Smith of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The stage works tells no story, rather the audience receives fleeting glimpses, or snapshots into the lives of four central characters. The glimpses tells us who they are and what they do during the course of their days. This is a community set apart from mainstream society, in any town in the world.
At the beginning of the work, we are introduced to obsessions of the surrounding townsfolk. As often happens in small villages, the people begin to talk and some of the men-folk become more than curious. In particular, one man becomes so obsessed that when his messages and overtures are refused, he plans to force himself upon the women, to break into their home. Then, one day before his planned break-in, he received the following note under his door,
our days are ordered,
each hour important,
Women in their home”
With this message, the man’s anxiety subsides and during the next few months he receives 12 messages that explain who they are, what they do and how they order their lives. The text is experimental and and suggestive of colors and scents, rather than facts and storylines. These messages constitute the major portion of the opera.
The poem HOUR HISTORY refers to the liturgical hours of the day. Thus the scenes of the opera are best described as snapshots of daily life within this small, secluded society. But perhaps the term poetry may not be the best description of this text, for in reality, it is an anlaysis and essay of life by a former member of the monastic life (the author). The literary work then constitutes a sober look into the inner world of the purity and decay of existence within shelters and wrapped within an abstract poetical language.
A major compositional concern was the relationship between text and music. After lengthy inquiry, I chose not to set the text in song, but rather to have the text intoned in a stylized, lyrical manner, that is neither speech nor song (nor Kabuki-like either). As well, the chorus mostly does not sing texts and often utilize extra-complex modes of sound production. During the entire work, only one section utilizes a heavily developed operatic voice – in this case for a tenor, who sings a bastardized Latin text that I wrote to suggest some of the gritty details of life in a commune. The voices explore many contemporary performance techniques, that led one critical observer to describe the morning hours as the “perfect night music”, when faced with the plethora of unusual unvoiced and barely voiced sounds found during slumber and night actions.