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Friday, May 24, 2019

Bryce Dessner on Triptych (Eyes of One on Another)

By Susan Yung

Triptych (Eyes of One on Another), at the Howard Gilman Opera House (Jun 6—8), features large-scale projections of the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe and combines music by Bryce Dessner with a libretto by Korde Arrington Tuttle, performed by Roomful of Teeth with Alicia Hall Moran and Isaiah Robinson, directed by Kaneza Schaal. We spoke to Dessner (whose band The National released its eighth album last week) about his connection to Mapplethorpe’s photography, how he structured his composition, and how Tuttle’s libretto influenced the music.

What moved you to create a piece based on Mapplethorpe, and how did you choose to structure it?
Mapplethorpe has influenced me since my first exposure to his work as a teenager. Growing up in Cincinnati in 1990 I was told by the authorities that I was not allowed to look at Mapplethorpe’s photographs—that these tremendous works of art were not art at all, but pornography. I witnessed Cincinnati become the crucible of the NEA wars up close after Contemporary Art Center Director Dennis Barrie was jailed and art was put on trial in municipal court. It was a huge moment for me and for the city, and for better or for worse still resonates there and across all aspects of American culture. As a result Triptych covers a lot of ground (the middle section is inspired by the trial and my experience as a teenager)—the XYZ portfolio as an underlying structure allowed librettist Korde Arrington Tuttle and I to look across the entire span of Mapplethorpe’s work and embrace his work from where we stand in 2019.

What’s the connection between Mapplethorpe’s portraits and madrigals?
A lot of Mapplethorpe’s work directly references Italian Mannerism and Renaissance art. There are many photographs (some of the self-portraits and S&M images as well as his photographs of sculpture and the human body) that we can look at alongside Renaissance paintings and see all kinds of references and connections and his love and appreciation of beauty feels very connected to the renaissance. The Italian madrigal vocal tradition is the musical analog to this incredible period of creativity that I have always loved and this project gave me the opportunity to explore the music of Monteverdi with the amazing voices of Roomful of Teeth in relationship to Mapplethorpe’s work. In Triptych we hear a section of a Monteverdi madrigal, “Sestina” (“Tears of a Lover at the Tomb of the Beloved”), woven throughout the three sections, in re-imagined settings and re-mixed through the incredible vocal techniques of Roomful of Teeth. I originally set this idea at the opening of the piece and as a prelude to Patti Smith’s “The Boy Who Loved Michelangelo,” but as we worked more on the overall structure of the work we incorporated it into section Y and Z in faint echoes of the original.

Did you consider rock influences while writing Triptych, with a nod to Patti Smith’s sound, as you incorporate some of her poetry in the lyrics, and since she was so close to Mapplethorpe?
I love Patti Smith’s music and poetry and have been honored to perform with her several times over the years as part of Philip Glass’ Tibet House benefits at Carnegie Hall. Around the time I first learned about Robert Mapplethorpe in 1990 I was also discovering Patti’s incredible music and all the music of her contemporaries (1970s punk rock is probably the single biggest influence on my band The National and our entire generation). The vastness of her own creative output and interests has always been deeply inspiring to me. The opening of Triptych and the setting of Patti’s “The Boy Who Loved Michelangelo” was one of the first pieces of music I wrote for this project and was extremely important for me in finding the overall sound of the work. I allowed Patti’s words, in addition to the words of our librettist Korde Arrington Tuttle and the additional poetry of Essex Hemphill to guide me as I found the sounds and melodic ideas for the piece. While the piece does not directly reference Patti’s music, I think stylistically the work travels some distance between the sound world of madrigal and more classical vocal techniques, through various American idioms and singing styles (including folk music, gospel, and more rock/pop techniques) I am beyond blessed to work in a range of musical directions in my everyday work, and my musical response to Korde, Patti, and Essex Hemphill was informed by all of them.

Bryce Dessner and Korde Arrington Tuttle, photo: Pascal Gely

The repeating phrase: “When you shoot a black body…” what was the thought process while writing this movement, with its double entendre?
I spent a lot of time with this powerful moment in Korde’s libretto and trying to find a musical setting that would do justice to these words. Eventually the music came to me clearly and that piece kind of wrote itself—in a simple and raw/direct setting of Korde’s words. My intention with the entire libretto was to do the best I can in answering to the power of Korde’s words—it was one of many moments for me and the creative team in the creation of this piece that pushed us beyond ourselves.

Triptych (Eyes of One Another) will be performed at BAM on Jun 6—8.

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