by Jacob Greenberg
I interviewed composer Mikael Karlsson in the lobby of the Baruch Performing Arts Center during the final rehearsals of his opera The Echo Drift, which opened earlier this week. ICE has known Mikael for more than ten years, and it's been wonderful to catch up with him during this production for the Prototype Festival.
Jacob Greenberg: When was the first time that you started thinking about the piece?
Mikael Karlsson: It was four years ago. Me and my friend Elle Kunnos de Voss were sitting on a stoop, over in Chelsea. We wanted to do something together, and we found we had similar tastes in the darker sides of literature and film. We started talking about panopticons [circular prisons with cells arranged around the center, where prisoners could be always surveilled]. And the idea of being constantly watched, and when you no longer have any options. Where does the mind go? And the piece comes out of that. We made a ragtag little version of it in four months, and it was presented in Washington DC at the Swedish Embassy.
J: That’s not much time.
M: No, no, it was crazy. I think maybe five minutes of that music is still in it. But we made a recording of it there, and Beth Morrison and HERE Arts Center and American Opera Projects saw that recording, and they said, “Well, we think you have something here, there’s a world here that you guys have created that we like. And we’d like to keep producing it.” And then it’s gone through many stages of revision and harsh criticism, and switching of singers. We’ve tried to iron out what it really wants to be.
J: What is the plot?
M: It’s about a killer who’s in solitary confinement, and she’s befriended by a moth who gives her an option to retry a moment in her life. She doesn’t know that that’s what she’s bargaining for, but that’s what happens. The question in the piece becomes whether you can change your own nature. So it’s part film noir, quasi-philosophical also, I suppose, but also hopefully just a good adventure. We like the premise being an invitation to the supernatural and fantastical. It’s a linear story that loops in the storyline, but it’s told linearly.
J: Has the production visually followed those genres that you had in mind?
M: I think so. Well, one of the benefits of starting the piece with Elle is that she’s now doing the environmental design, so she has her fingers in that. Our director Mallory Catlett understood very quickly what it was that we were going for. The production was in that same vein, there’s a darkness to it, but it’s also a complex production, which I like. Mallory is super fluent in mixing any kind of technology into a piece without it being about the technology. We have seven channel surround sound going, live processing that Levy Lorenzo is doing…
J: Levy’s the best.
M: Yes, and of course, you know ICE, and you can’t get better than that. We have projections, and a set that rotates, so I hope that there are lot of surprises in it. And the ensemble, seven instrumentalists, or eight counting Levy. Early on, I sent a suggestion to Josh Rubin about the instruments to use in the ensemble. I had what I thought was a balanced ensemble. And he sent another suggestion back, saying, “Well, why don’t we go for something that isn’t so balanced?” Now It’s a very bass-heavy, breathing vibrating ensemble: bassoon, saxophones, clarinets, bass, cello, piano and harp. What I like is that it can sound like a street band, like a big heaving thing, but it can also just transform itself through strange techniques and something that makes a lot of noise, with beautiful shimmering textures.
J: Did you always know that there would be two singers?
M: For a while there was only one, and strictly speaking, there is only one singer now. John Kelly, the fantastic performance artist...
J: …is more of an actor in this piece?
M: Yes, he speaks. But Levy does things to his voice that puts it in the special system. He’s incredible to work with. He does sing, but not in this piece.
J: That’s great. Tell me more about the sound design.
M: The sound design consists technically of three parallel stereo tracks that are positioned like a six figure on dice, so you have a front, middle, and back stereo that run parallel with the live performance via a click track that Nicholas DeMaison [the conductor] has to suffer through. So that way anything can really happen. And the instruments and John are placed in the surround field. And we have a subwoofer under the audience. Levy is doing live processing in the surround field, and we’re going to try some things out today. Our amazing mezzo, Blythe Gaissert, sings the main part.
J: Were there environmental factors for your inspiration to make the piece? Places that you’ve been, things that you’re fixated on?
M: Elle, the co-librettist with Kathryn Walat, is obsessed with prisons and harsh architecture. Most of her sets are usually black and white, and there’s a grimness to it. I took that with me in the sound image also. I want the sound to feel expansive. And I think the set, because of the video projections and black surfaces, allow for a spacelessness. So yeah, I think it’s definitely not a prison in the past, but it’s not a Star Wars prison either. But we just wanted a place without any obvious environment around it.
I often had to scale down the space of the music, to create intimate moments, and to take away all the bells and whistles. To make it as honest as possible. It’s a challenge. It’s basically a monodrama. John is mostly not on stage. And monodramas are difficult, they become boring very easily. We wanted to avoid singing about what one is feeling…someone I know called this “singing your own synopsis.” But with a story that loops, and a moth that speaks, you can go anywhere that you want. I just like that the ensemble without the electronics sounds like something that’s very stripped and natural.
J: I know you’ve been so successful writing for dance…
M: I’ve tried.
J: You’ve done really well. Is the process of writing a dramatic piece with sung and spoken parts very different?
M: It’s that boring answer of yes and no. What I like to bring with me from dance is how quickly the stagecraft moves. That’s interesting to me. Here, it’s not where you get a set and that’s the set for twenty minutes. It keeps morphing. And that allows for music that moves very fast, I think my many years of working with dance has made me focus on rhythm, but another factor of it is when you work with dance, the audience has different expectations from what you would do with contemporary concert music. You find yourself trying to figure out what their understanding of the wider musical vocabulary is. I think that people who are in the contemporary music scene can see all the gradients and beautiful aspects. Until you have exposure to that for a little while, there’s a lot of that that just sounds like it’s aggressive, that whole thing. What I found is that you can sneak some of that in to dance, but you have to find a way that doesn’t make it like that for ninety minutes. And when I talked with Josh about writing the piece, I said I guess I have to let go of most of that and write in an operatic way. And he said, “Well, I’m not sure if you can do that. Take what you know and bring it with you.” So I’m trying to do that.
And the other thing about dance is that whatever the choreographer wants, goes, and I’m fine with that—I kind of like trying to figure out what they’re going for. For me, opera is more of a horizontal experience. The team is making decisions together, and I think at least in this piece we have to move away from the abstraction dance can have. In dance there’s a playfulness and an ease…you don’t have to make sense, necessarily. But here where we’re trying to tell a story, we have to. But dance and opera overlap a lot, it’s all about stage time, it’s about presentation, it’s all about the wonderful big team of people who make it possible.
J: I think contemporary opera is really one of the trickiest things, in that one needs to prove one’s innovation, while still presenting a coherent scenario—if not a coherent plot, then a coherent picture. So it doesn’t need to be a linear experience, but it needs to be distinctive, and feature the voices to the best advantage, and be easily absorbed in some way.
M: Yeah, it’s like there’s a certain number of linear minutes in a chair. I think what I’m trying to keep in mind…my first instinct when writing an opera, I think, and this is very common, is that you want to prove yourself as a composer, you want to do everything, you have the opportunity to play with all the toys. But I found that this piece unlocked itself to me when I stopped trying to do that. I tried to allow it to have one flavor that doesn’t necessarily reflect who I am but instead serves a story. When the ego is out of the way, that’s when it usually gets interesting. So this piece is probably not going to sound like the next piece, but it just releases me, it’s entertaining to me to ask, “What is this that we’re halfway to creating?” Letting go and simply discovering can allow for a lot of decisions. The playfulness that comes of that makes [the end result] a piece that can stand on its own legs.
J: Are there any special things that you feel you’ve learned from your onstage collaborators? The musicians and your performers?
M: I’m in the middle of learning from that. It’s a very humbling experience as always. it feels the same way that when I started out in dance; you start to understand the technical aspects, the physical limitations of things. Mallory, the director, she has a lot of strong opinions about what works and what doesn’t work, and she can back those opinions up. What I think works in a musical way I have to sacrifice sometimes. But like in dance, it becomes about not taking up the whole space with the music. There’s so much else that goes into an opera. Music is a big part of it. But there’s so much else that has to work also. If the music works and the piece doesn’t work, then obviously it’s a failure.
J: Working with singers is its own thing, and knowing how to set a text that you’ve been given which is not your own words.
M: We had a soprano for the first iteration of the piece—she had a wonderful voice, but the problem became that we couldn’t hear what she was saying because it was in a soprano register. It didn’t really reflect the character either. It’s a cruel character, and it’s hard for a soprano to be that without becoming a certain [operatic] archetype. Blythe is a mezzo who can reach down to an octave below middle C, so you have a lot to play with there. I always like darker voices, and you can hear what they’re actually saying, so we don’t need supertitles. But the other thing is just the marathon of a monodrama, what it does to her voice, how you have to pace her highs and lows. And to bring clarity to it and variation in how you set it. So it doesn’t just become singsong-y spoken stuff with a melody. It’s hard.
J: So many things to consider.
M: I’m sure it’s not perfect, but that’s what we’re aiming for.