Composer Nathan Davis's dance opera Hagoromo sets a 500-year-old Noh drama about a fisherman who covets an earthbound angel's magic garment. The work's premiere performances featured dancers Wendy Whelan, Jock Soto, vocal soloists Peter Tantsits and Katalin Károlyi, the International Contemporary Ensemble, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and a puppeteering troupe. Davis captures the mythical beauty and timeless truths of this traditional Japanese tale with a sense of pathos that is humanistic and universal.
|01||I. Heaven: 1. Chorus Alights|
I. Heaven: 1. Chorus Alights
|02||I. Heaven: 2. Entrance of the Angel|
I. Heaven: 2. Entrance of the Angel
|03||I. Heaven: 3. Lifting the Hagoromo|
I. Heaven: 3. Lifting the Hagoromo
|04||I. Heaven: 4. Suruga-Mai I|
I. Heaven: 4. Suruga-Mai I
|05||I. Heaven: 5. Kyogen, Losing the Hagoromo|
I. Heaven: 5. Kyogen, Losing the Hagoromo
|06||II. Earth: 6. The Bay|
II. Earth: 6. The Bay
|07||II. Earth: 7. The Storm|
II. Earth: 7. The Storm
|08||II. Earth: 8. The Island|
II. Earth: 8. The Island
|09||II. Earth: 9. Angel Emerges|
II. Earth: 9. Angel Emerges
|10||II. Earth: 10. The Encounter|
II. Earth: 10. The Encounter
|11||II. Earth: 11. An Angel Fading|
II. Earth: 11. An Angel Fading
|12||II. Earth: 12. The Bargain|
II. Earth: 12. The Bargain
|13||II. Earth: 13. Rendering the Hagoromo|
II. Earth: 13. Rendering the Hagoromo
|14||II. Earth: 14. Suruga-Mai II|
II. Earth: 14. Suruga-Mai II
|15||II. Earth: 15. Ascension|
II. Earth: 15. Ascension
Nathan Davis’ Hagoromo is a setting of a tale that has its roots in many cultures. In some form or another, the swan maiden archetype can be found in Western and Asian folklore, specifically in Germanic sources, Japanese Noh theatre, and Scottish traditional stories. The core plot of the story is consistent — a man steals a magic garment from an angel, robbing her of her connection to her native, mystical realm. The symbolism in the skeletal plot is rich, engaging with issues surrounding transactional versus enlightened interaction, boundaries of relationships, and lines between the earthly and the spiritual. Davis’ dance opera, written for dancers Wendy Whelan, Jock Soto, vocal soloists Katalin Károlyi and Peter Tantsits, the International Contemporary Ensemble, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and a puppet troupe, was premiered and recorded over several performances on BAM’s Next Wave Festival in November 2015.
Davis writes, “The instrumentation of Hagoromo is an expansion of the traditional Noh forces: the melodic and percussive roles of flute and drums are projected into an quintet of flute, bassoon, violin, guitar, and percussion. A girls choir inverts the chanting of a Noh chorus of men. And the character roles are sung by an alto and tenor while being portrayed by two dancers. The musical language of this Hagoromo is not Noh or Japanese. It was however written with an awareness of fundamental Noh characteristics, looking to analogs of these aspects in my own musical language and background. Time is demarked by recurring percussive sounds - at various points these are wood cracks, or slow time cycles played on large gongs, or the slow heavy thud of a work song - that serve to articulate different pacings. Chanted music and text setting is influenced by Japanese metric settings, particularly the hiranori patterns typical of Noh, while tending toward open harmonies. And structural conventions of Noh are generally retained together with the story.”
Davis’ music depicts two realms, the heavenly and the earthly. The heavenly music, as exemplified in the ritualistic second movement, “Entrance of the Angel”, is harmonically suspended, pulsating over regular time intervals, and articulating a pitch language built on the overtone series of the open strings of the violin. The earthly music, as heard in the haunting seventh movement, “The Storm”, or the intertwined lines of the eleventh movement, “An Angel Fading”, is characterized by pitch material generated from alternating major and minor scales and is organized into directional harmonic progressions. This audio recording, edited from those performances, chronicles the piece’s premiere run while also allowing the listener to focus on Davis’ intricate composition independent of the multi-disciplinary production. The work impressively balances myriad musical forces: an expanded palette of percussion and extended instrumental techniques, use of live electronics, and integration of the youth chorus into the dramatic fabric of the piece. The beguiling result captured here on this audio recording honors and preserves the mysterious and universal beauty of this timeless tale within the context of a multi-dimensional contemporary concert work.
– D. Lippel
Inspired by natural phenomena and the abstraction of simple stories, Nathan Davis "writes music that deals deftly and poetically with timbre and sonority" (NYTimes), elucidating the acoustics of instruments and the fragile athleticism of playing them.
The BAM Next Wave Festival and American Opera Projects presented the world premiere of Davis’ Hagoromo, a chamber dance-opera featuring the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), soloists Katalin Karolyi and Peter Tantsits, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and featuring dancers Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto. The Donaueschinger Musiktage commissioned Davis’ Echeia for string quartet and live electronics, and Tanglewood presented the premiere of The Sand Reckoner (a “macrocosmic masterpiece” - Boston Globe) for six solo voices and celeste. Lincoln Center inaugurated its Tully Scope Festival with the premiere of Nathan's landmark work Bells, a site-specific, electroacoustic piece for ensemble, multi-channel audio, and live diffusion broadcast through a conference system to audience members’ mobile phones.
Davis has written many other works for the ICE and its members, and has received commissions from Ekmeles vocal ensemble, GMEM (Marseille), Steven Schick, Miller Theatre, the Ojai Festival (for Eighth Blackbird and an installation by sound-sculptor Trimpin), The La Jolla Symphony Chorus, Doug Perkins, the Calder Quartet, SO Percussion, MATA, and Yarn/Wire.
Nathan was a Fellow at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, and was the 2018 Aaron Copland Fellow at the Bogliasco Foundation. He has also received awards from the Fromm Foundation, Meet The Composer, American Music Center New Music for Dance, Aaron Copland Fund, Jerome Foundation, New Music USA, Concert Artists Guild, ASCAP, The Trust for Mutual Understanding, and the ISCM. He and Phyllis Chen won an NY Innovative Theater Award for their score to Sylvia Milo's play The Other Mozart, for which Davis also received a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Sound Design.
Also an active percussionist, Davis has premiered hundreds of pieces, working with luminaries and fostering emerging composers. He has appeared as a concerto soloist with the Seattle Symphony, Tokyo Symphony, and Nagoya Philharmonic. A core member of ICE, he is an artist-in-residence at the Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival and performs regularly at major venues throughout NYC, across the US and Europe, and has toured Russia, Bali, Turkey, and Cuba. He has recorded for Nonesuch, Tzadik, Mode, Kairos, Sono Luminus, Sony Classical, and New Albion.
Davis served on the faculty of Dartmouth College for eight years and currently teaches composition and electronic music at Montclair State University. He has given masterclasses on composition, electronics, and extended percussion techniques at UC Berkeley, CalArts, Rice, Baylor, Yale, and the Akademia Muzyczna in Krakow, Poland, with additional residencies at Harvard, Princeton, UCSD, Brown, and other universities across North America. Nathan received his Masters in Music from Yale University, Bachelors degrees in both composition and percussion at Rice University, and was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study at the Rotterdams Conservatorium in Holland.http://www.nathandavis.com
Born in Hungary, the mezzo soprano Katalin Károlyi began her musical studies on the violin before studying singing with Noëlle Barker and Julia Hamari. She went on to set up the Studio Versailles Opéra with Rachel Yakar and René Jacobs. Since then she has concentrated on repertoire from baroque opera, chamber music and contemporary music.
Katalin Károlyi has sung under the direction of conductors such as Lord Yehudi Menuhin (Jeney Funeral Rite), William Christie (Charpentier Médée, Les Plaisirs de Versailles, La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers; Monteverdi Madrigals; Rameau Hippolyte et Aricie; Landi Il sant'Alessio,..), Philippe Herreweghe (Stravinsky Mass), Laurence Equilbey (vocal music of Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc), Paul van Nevel (music of the 15th century), Peter Srottner (Strauss Elektra), Bernard Tétu (German chamber music of the 19th and 20th centuries), Roland Hayrabedian (Stravinsky Les Noces), Reinbert de Leeuw, David Robertson, Thomas Adès, Georges Benjamin, Georges Elie Octors, Friedrich Cerha and Susanna Mälkki (contemporary music).
She has performed at many festivals including Aix-en-Provence, Ravinia Chicago, Ille-de-France and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She has also appeared with leading opera companies worldwide including the Opéra National de Paris, Teatro alla Scala, Teatro Colon, and in concert at Carnegie Hall, Wigmore and Barbican Halls, London and the Cité de la Musique, Paris directed by Jean-Marie Villegier, Cathie Boyd, André Willms, Charlotte Nessi, Adrian Noble, Christophe Marthaler.
In 2000 György Ligeti composed Sippal, Dobbal, Nádihegedüvel for her and the Amadinda Percussion Group and she has subsequently given numerous performances including with the Asko Ensemble, London Sinfonietta, SŌ Percussion, Tambucco, Contrechamps and at the Salzburg Festival, Carnegie Hall New York, NDR Hamburg, Queen Elizabeth Hall London, BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall, Wiener Konzerthaus, Los Angeles Walt Disney Concert Hall and at the Cheltenham Music Festival. Her performance with Amadinda was recorded by Teldec Classics and released as part of their ongoing Ligeti Series.
For William Christie she has sung Il Ritorno d'Ulisse Patria at the Opéra Comique Paris, Wiener Festwochen, Opéra de Lausanne, Opéra de Bordeaux, Barbican Centre London, Brooklyn Academy of Music New York and at the Festival d'Aix en Provence. This was followed by a double bill of Charpentier Les Arts Florissants and La Descente d’Orfée aux enfers with Les Arts Florissants throughout Europe.
Other notable engagements include Ligeti Aventures, Nouvelle Aventures at the Lincoln Center New York and the Opera National de Paris (Bastille), Berio Folk Songs with Psappha at the City of London Festival and with the London Sinfonietta throughout the UK, Reich Tehillim at the Berliner Philharmonie, Brown and Harvey with the Ensemble Intercontemporain, Jeney Halotti szertartas with the National Orchestra of Hungary, Les Noces with RIAS Kammerchor at the Kultur Ruhr festival Germany, Sciarrino La Infinito Nero for Almeida Opera and also with the Schoenberg Ensemble, Berio Calmo with MusikFabrik, the world premiere of John Woolrich’s The Sea and Its Shore for Almeida Opera and with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Kyriakides An Ocean of Rain for Theatre Cryptic at Aldeburgh Festival and in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. She gives regular concerts throughout Europe with Amadinda Percussion Group and Ictus Ensemble.
Katalin Károlyi has broadcast and recorded with Les Arts Florissants, the Groupe Vocal de France, Le Parlement de Musique and La Chapelle Royale.
Recently she sang Berio and Ligeti with the Seoul Philharmonic, a world premier of Addiamento by Jan van de Putte with the Asko Schoenberg Ensemble. She also appears with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a festival curated by Thomas Ades which includes performances of Sippal, Dobbal, Nádihegedüvel and new opera by Gerald Barry based on The Importance of Being Earnest.
Tenor Peter Tantsits has earned an international reputation for his dramatic flair, keen musicianship, and ability to fearlessly embrace the most stratospheric vocal writing of the 20th and 21st centuries. Always eager to push the boundaries of the lyric tenor repertoire, he was recently named “one of his generation’s most consistently satisfying contemporary vocal music specialists” by OPERA Magazine (UK). Peter is often called upon to perform the modern classics of the 20th century such as Berg and Ligeti as well as new works, particularly evidenced by recent success on the stages of Teatro alla Scala, Lincoln Center, and the Beijing International Music Festival. Performing with ICE since its inception, Peter has collaborated with the ensemble on works by composers such as Berio, Birtwistle, Gubaidulina, Kagel, Ligeti, Nono, Rihm, Ustvolskaya, and Xenakis in addition to new works.
On the operatic stage, Peter has been praised by the British publication Opera Now for his “luminous timbre” and ability to craft a role with “astute understanding.“ Opera News has cited his “gifted, agile and expressive” singing with “vibrant, penetrating beauty while managing the complexities of his role with complete mastery and infallibly good diction.” The 2010/2011 season marks his debut with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre, the Munich Philharmonic at the Kulturzentrum Gasteig, and the China Philharmonic at the Beijing International Music Festival, as well as returning to the New York Philharmonic for Doug Fitch’s production of Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen. He sings the central role of Colin McPhee in Evan Ziporyn’s opera A House in Bali at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theater as well as reprising the high tenor role of Xu Xian in Robert Woodruff’s production of Zhou Long’s Madame White Snake in Beijing and creating the central role in Du Yun’s Angel’s Bone for Philadelphia’s Mann Center for the Performing Arts. Premieres include Michael LaCroix’s adaptation of Aristophanes’ The Birds with eighth blackbird in Chicago and Marcos Balter’s Aesopica at the Morgan Library with the ICE. His concert engagements this season also include Carmina Burana (one of his signature roles) with the Oberlin Orchestra. Among his engagements for 2011/2012, Peter looks forward performing John Worthing for the European premiere of Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest with Thomas Adès at the Barbican in London, returning to Opera Boston to sing Mark in the regional premiere of Tippett’s A Midsummer Marriage, debuting in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet with Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in Le Grand Macabre and returning to China for additional performances of Madame White Snake in the opera houses of Guangzhou and Hangzhou.
A "fearless high tenor" (Opernwelt), Peter recently made a successful debut at La Scala in Milan singing the high tenor role of Syme in Robert Lepage’s production of Lorin Maazel’s 1984. He has worked with some of the world’s top orchestras collaborating with conductors Alan Gilbert, Lorin Maazel, Leonard Slatkin, Kristjan Järvi, Leon Botstein, Emmanuelle Haïm, Gil Rose and Philip Walsh. He made two acclaimed appearances with the New York Philharmonic in 2008 and 2010 (both broadcast nationally) and also performed with the Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich at Vienna’s Konzerthaus, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie at Bremen’s Die Glocke, the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center and the American Symphony Orchestra at Lincoln Center.
Identified by the New York Times as an "appealing," "versatile" and "adventurous high tenor," Peter’s repertoire ranges from Rossini’s La Cenerentola and Rameau’s Platée to Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre and Xenakis’s Oresteia. Two core works in his concert repertoire include Carmina Burana and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in addition to works by Bach, Britten, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Charpentier, and Clérambault. He has performed in a number of international festivals including Britain’s Aldeburgh Festival, the Festival Lyrique-en-mer in France, and the Festival Internacional de Musica Contemporánea in Morelia. Also of note are his performances as Tony in West Side Story in the Middle East for the Centrepoint Theatre in Dubai and his collaboration with the Mark Morris Dance Group and Moving Theater.
Peter originally trained as a violinist and earned degrees from Yale University and the Oberlin Conservatory.
The Grammy-winning Brooklyn Youth Chorus is a collective of young singers and vocal ensembles re-envisioning choral music performance through artistic innovation, collaboration, and their distinctively beautiful sound. Named WQXR New York’s 2016-17 Artists-in-Residence, the Chorus draws students from across the five boroughs and combines intensive voice and musicianship training with exceptional performance experiences.
Acclaimed for their distinctively beautiful sound, the Chorus has appeared with world-class orchestras and conductors, including the New York and Los Angeles philharmonics and London and Atlanta symphonies. Additionally, the Chorus has performed or recorded with major artists such as Barbra Streisand, Arcade Fire, Elton John, The National, and Grizzly Bear. Recordings of the Chorus have been featured in major motion pictures, commercials, and live events, including Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s OTR II World Tour.
Called “America’s foremost new music group” by The New Yorker, The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) is an artist collective that is transforming the way music is created and experienced. As performer, curator, and educator, ICE explores how new music intersects with communities across the world. The ensemble’s 35 members are featured as soloists, chamber musicians, commissioners, and collaborators with the foremost musical artists of our time. Works by emerging composers have anchored ICE’s programming since its founding in 2001, and the group’s recordings and digital platforms highlight the many voices that weave music’s present. A recipient of the American Music Center’s Trailblazer Award and the Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, ICE was also named the 2014 Musical America Ensemble of the Year. The group currently serves as artists-in-residence at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ Mostly Mozart Festival, and previously led a five-year residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. ICE was featured at the Ojai Music Festival from 2015 to 2017, and at recent festivals abroad such as gmem-CNCM-marseille and Vértice at Cultura UNAM, Mexico City. Other performance stages have included the Park Avenue Armory, The Stone, ice floes at Greenland’s Diskotek Sessions, and boats on the Amazon River.
New initiatives include OpenICE, made possible with lead funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which offers free concerts and related programming wherever ICE performs, and enables a working process with composers to unfold in public settings. DigitICE, a free online library of over 350 streaming videos, catalogues the ensemble’s performances. ICE's First Page program is a commissioning consortium that fosters close collaborations between performers, composers, and listeners as new music is developed. EntICE, a side-by-side education program, places ICE musicians within youth orchestras as they premiere new commissioned works together; inaugural EntICE partners include Youth Orchestra Los Angeles and The People's Music School in Chicago. Summer activities include Ensemble Evolution at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, in which young professionals perform with ICE and attend workshops on topics from interpretation to concert production. Yamaha Artist Services New York is the exclusive piano provider for ICE.http://iceorg.org
Nicholas Demaison is an American conductor and composer based in New York City. Passionately devoted to the music being made in our own time, he has led premiere performances of new works for orchestra, opera, choir and various mixed ensembles with new technologies by well over a hundred living composers, and appears on albums released by New Focus, Mode, and Con d’or Records. He is currently the Co-Director of Wavefield Ensemble and Director of Orchestral Studies at the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University.http://nicholasdemaison.com
Brendan Pelsue is a playwright, librettist, and translator whose work has been produced in New York and regionally. His play Wellesley Girl premiered at the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Hagoromo, a dance-opera piece for which he wrote the libretto, has appeared at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Pocantico Center. Other work includes New Domestic Architecture at the Yale Carlotta Festival, Read to Me at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, Lost Weekend with the Actors Theatre of Louisville Apprentice Company, Parking Lot, Riverbank: a Noh Play for Northerly Americans at the Yale School of Drama. Commissions include South Coast Repertory, American Opera Projects, Westport Country Playhouse, and the Actors Theatre of Louisville. He was a 2017 artist-in-residence at Chateau de la Napoule, France, where he produced the podcast We Are Not These People. He is currently working on an adaptation of Paul Harding’s novel Tinkers, a new translation of Molière’s Don Juan, and One Thousand Years of Music and Two Americans, a chamber opera, with composer Matthew Suttor. Originally from Newburyport, MA, he received his MFA from Yale School of Drama and his BA from Brown University, where he received the Weston Prize in playwriting.https://www.playscripts.com/playwrights/bios/1730
I tend to be reassured when certain configurations endure. Piano trios, string quartets, works for orchestra and choral units with soloists, operas, cantatas, etc., in other words the various em-parcelments, the various genres. They are like the fruit cake we received this time of the year from my aunt, em-parceled and delivered I think by United Parcel, with brown paper and tied with string as packages were then. It was reassuring, somehow. Not that I shy away from unusual alternate configurations like Henry Brandt's flute orchestra, but a little continuity can be a fine thing.
This morning I turn to such a grouping, an operatic work for the crack chamber outfit known as the International Contemporary Ensemble, plus the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, contralto Katalin Karolyi and tenor Peter Tantsits, under the direction of Nicholas DeMaison. All this for Nathan Davis' intriguing Neo-Quasi-Asian and Modernist resonance Hagoromo (Tundra-New Focus Recordings TUN009). The fact that it is an opera is reassuring, but then too it is innovative in what it does and how it transforms an unexpected source quite readily and absorbingly.
I covered Nathan Davis' music with ICE previously on these pages. See the posting from February 15, 2016. For additional International Contemporary Ensemble album discussions, see posts from September 1, 2015, February 27, 2017, April 15, 2017, August 3, 2018, and this just-passed December 14, 2018.
The work was recorded live at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival. It was commissioned by ICE and is designated a "dance opera." The performance situation calls for choreography for two dancers and puppetry. The libretto was written by Brendan Pelsue.
Hagoromo takes its name and story line from the 500-year-old Japanese Noh drama by the same name. It concerns a swan maiden and a fisherman. The latter finds the former's feathered cloak and wishes to keep it. Negotiations with the swan maiden ensue and in the end there is the return of the raiment to the swan maiden and the subsequent rise of a mutual affection between them.
A lively vaguely Asian percussion singularity and an alto flute in harmonics mode begins the work mysteriously and the very pronounced resonance of the work is established. The work falls naturally into the performative of soloists and chorus and the instrumental parts too seem natural. Yet all of it has an almost ritual primality at times, as definite echoes of the Noh music from the original. At the same time in varying degrees there is a High Modernity of harmonic-melodic intent. All this works quite well for a result very intriguing and worthwhile.
It all falls most nicely onto the ears. The youth chorus gives the sound quality a heightened mythical aura as does the orchestration as well. It is most lovely music! Nathan Davis is a natural! Brilliant!
-Grego Applegate Edwards, 12.20.18, Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review
This is what separates the man from the manqué. While this score from a dance opera about mystical realms could easily be characterized as pots and pans music, the chops are so evident and deep that you'd look like a fool to go with that characterization. Ears already tuned up by cats like Steve Reich will get it on the first spin. A deft work you'd think you have to be overly left leaning to appreciate, this set is the exception to the rule about the skills you'd need to have to appreciate experimental music. Winning stuff any one with open ears should give a shot to.
-Chris Spector, 11.10.18, Midwest Record
Nathan Davis is an American composer and percussionist whose output includes a number of works for the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). This disc on New Focus Recordings' Tundra label features the live recording of Davis' opera Hagoromo performed by members of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) [Claire Chase, flutes, Rebekah Heller, bassoon, Daniel Lippel, electric guitar/lap steel, Jennifer Curtis, violin, Ross Karre, percussion, hammered dulcimer], with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus (artistic director Dianne Berkun Menaker), Katalin Karolyi (mezzo-soprano), and Peter Tantsits (tenor), conducted by Nicholas DeMaison. The work was recorded live at Brooklyn Academy of Music, Next Wave Festival in performances produced by American Opera Projects.
Despite the presence of singers in the cast, words are not of prime importance in the piece and it is described as a dance-opera, with the two leading characters, the Angel and the Fisherman, performed by two former New York City Ballet dancers, Wendy Whelan and Jack Soto. Hagoromo was inspired by a Japanese Noh play some 500 years old which was re-imagined by David Michalek who directed and choreographed the work.
The story of Hagoromo links to the European tradition of the Swan maiden (think Swan Lake), and the other common theme of a man stealing a magic garment. Here the Fisherman, Hagoromo, finds a feathered mantle and wishes to keep it, not caring about the fate of the angel to whom it belonged. Unlike the tragic ending to many related European stories, here the two reach a bargain.
Davis' music is quite spare, and austere at times with texture playing a large role, what with the significant percussion part alongside the way he uses different textures from his instruments. Pitch plays a small role in this music, for much of the time. And his writing for voices is often quite instrumental too. Without seeing the work it is difficult to ascertain quite how music and movement aligned. The images of the first performance in 2015 show the youth chorus and musicians placed above and behind the dance area, so that they become almost part of the visual commentary.
The video excerpts on Vimeo, see below, show a very striking piece which uses quite a large cast including puppets and with quite Japanese inspired imagery, with music and movement interlinking well.
Whilst Davis' music is not explicitly Japanese (when he does use pitch and tonality they are generally in the Western tradition), the spareness of the writing and the way he writes for the instruments, particularly the flutes played by Claire Chase, make the music appear to be coming through a sort of Eastern filter.
As might be expected from a percussionist, the percussion part is quite significant but integrated into the whole, so much does Davis concentrate on the timbres and textures of each instrument. The two solo vocalists have relatively contained roles, and Davis' writing for them can be quite instrumental. Both Katalin Karolyi and Peter Tanstits give strong ensemble performances, though the timbre of Tanstits voice can be rather distinctive. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus gives a super performance, bringing a very human warmth to the drama.
Slightly frustratingly, the CD booklet does not give a full synopsis so that though the piece divides into fifteen scenes we have no real knowledge of what is happening in each. On first hearing, perhaps, the music can feel a little distant and austere despite the richness of some of the writing, but with gradual acquantaince the striking aural landscape that Davis creates and his feel for dramatic pacing rather engage. This was a work I would certainly love to encounter in the theatre..
-Robert Hugill, 2.5.19, Planet Hugill
The inspirations for Nathan Davis’ dance opera Hagoromo are the venerable Noh play of the same name, and the earlier legend the play is based on. The story that Davis adopts from these sources is one in which the marvelous intersects with the mundane: the hagoromo is a feather garment worn by the swan maiden, a celestial being, which is stolen by a fisherman who finds it hanging from a tree. In exchange for seeing the swan maiden’s dance symbolizing the lunar phases, the fisherman returns the garment to her, thus allowing her to return to the sky.
While retaining the classic story of the fisherman and the swan maiden, Davis introduces elements of his own. While acknowledging traditional Noh conventions he alters or expands them. For example, he supplements the standard Noh orchestra of flute and drums to include bassoon, violin and guitar; he changes the male chorus typical of Noh to a girls’ chorus; and he divides each of the story’s two roles between a singer and a dancer.
Musically, Hagoromo is divided in two as well. The first several sections are set in heaven, while the remaining sections are set on earth. The music for heaven is, appropriately enough, ethereal and stately, couched in long tones and centered on the ghostly sound of violin harmonics. Only in the last part of the heaven segment does something happen to overturn this celestial serenity: the music turns agitated when the hagoromo is lost. It’s an apt transition to the second, earth segment of the opera, where the main drama takes place. The music there reflects the story’s conflict and resolution not only in the instrumental setting but also and particularly in the singing, which carries the emotional force and range one would want from an opera.
-Daniel Barbiero, 2.11.19, Avant Music News
In 2015, two separate chamber operas based on the Japanese Noh play Hagoromo had their premieres—one of those strange instances of artistic convergence. Kaija Saariaho’s rather dull setting, recently released on DVD as part of her operatic diptych Only the Sound Remains, has little to offer beyond the surface beauty of its narcotic harmonies. But this version by American composer Nathan Davis has something more going for it, which is unusual, as he made many of the same creative decisions as Saariaho.
Ezra Pound’s 1916 English translation of this ancient drama serves as the basis for both librettos (though Brendan Pelsue’s poetic reworking for Davis occasionally borders on the nonsensical). By Western standards, the tale is decidedly uneventful: the fisherman Hakuryo steals a feather-cloak—the titular hagoromo—belonging to a tennin. This angelic spirit of Buddhist mythology, rendered flightless without her magic garment, performs a dance in exchange for its return. The bare-bones plot is typical of Noh, which unfolds slowly; stylized declamation and subtle gestures are valued over emotional conflict or a riveting story.
Rather than attempt an exact re-creation or even a hybrid of the art form, Davis reinterprets its theatrical and musical conventions through his own style. For the entrance of the Angel, he emulates the sparse, otherworldly accompaniment of a traditional hayashi ensemble. Flutist Claire Chase, standing in for the bamboo nohkan player, delivers breathy, ink-wash strokes on bass flute over the drip-like tolling of electric guitar, dulcimer and wooden temple block. In an equally ethereal episode, Peter Tantsits, as Hakuryo, manipulates his taut tenor to produce inhuman vocal overtones that blend with the “sounds and sweet airs” of an enchanted island. But unlike Saariaho, Davis doesn’t lose himself in these kinds of hypnotic soundscapes; his score has more variety and momentum. The prelude, which Ross Karre executes with meticulous precision, is a swirling, improvisatory percussion solo. And in the kyōgen comic interlude, Hakuryo’s act of thievery is illustrated in a cartoony scherzo of babbles, sneezes and other instrumental sound effects from the members of the International Contemporary Ensemble, spryly directed by Nicholas DeMaison.
As in Noh, movement plays a central role in Davis’s work, which he labels a “dance opera.” The soloists, who don’t sing until the second half, are doubled by onstage dancers. (The libretto lacks any description of the mimed actions in Part I, but it’s easy enough to get the gist from the track titles.) In spite of the emphasis on choreography, there are moments that stand out as typically operatic. Davis strikes a balance between musical experimentation and more familiar vocal writing. Contrapuntal passages of Mozartean elegance emerge unexpectedly from chaotic textures, and the expressive motives of Baroque composition provide a Western equivalent to Noh’s stylization. In the Angel’s pleading aria, for instance, Hungarian mezzo Katalin Károlyi emits sighing appoggiaturas that call to mind Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa. Later in the number, she scales the expansive altitudes of her range to dramatic effect, soaring to airy heights as the grounded Angel stretches heavenward before plummeting back to her earthy lower register. For the spirit’s liberatory dance, the ritualistic Sugura-mai, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus performs a swelling choral ode; with sprightly, silvery tone and buoyant delivery, it beautifully conveys the Angel’s final ascent in overlapping scales that rise ever upward.
-Joe Cadagin, 5.1.19, Opera News