Eric Salzman: Composer, Author, Music Theater Innovator



The Making of La Prière du Loup

Nowadays we think of the chaconne—those of us that think about it at all—as a serious and formal kind of music associated with Bach. Recently, in the course of researching an article on popular dance forms for BBC Music Magazine, I was amazed to discover that the chaconne was originally a wild and exotic American dance, “passionate and unbridled,” and roundly denounced as sensual, lascivious and subversive of the social order!

I wasn’t thinking about any kind of chaconne at all when I got a commission from a French regional theater in Brittany to create a music-theater piece on the subject of prayer. How it came to play a big role in the creation, form and even content of La Prière du Loup is a curious story.

Michel Rostain, director of the Scène nationale de Quimper, is fond of pointing out that Brittany is the part of France closest to America. One of the most beautiful and unspoiled parts of western Europe, it is an outpost of ancient Celtica at the edge of French and European culture.

The old theater in Quimper looks like a miniature version of the Casino de Monte Carlo. It is the smallest Scène nationale or national theater in France but, as Rostain says, “small is beautiful, no?”. It was falling into ruin when Rostain was invited in 1994 to take it over. In the short period since, he has largely restored the old theater (currently at 270 seats with the balcony still closed to the public), initiated the construction of a new 700-seater, and used less traditional performance spaces (notably an old Jesuit chapel in the historic center of town). He has initiated a wide-ranging season of music, dance, theater and music theater and, with a program of productions, workshops, commissions and symposia, turned Quimper into an important center for new music theater, perhaps the most important in France.

I first worked with Rostain when I translated his music-theater work Jumelles as “The Silent Twins” for a production at the London Opera Festival in 1992. Rostain, who began working in new music theater in the late 1960s, organized and directed an improvisational ensemble, strikingly similar to my own Quog Music Theatre and very nearly contemporary. For many years, he ran his own small production company from Vincennes, just outside of Paris. Originally called the Atelier lyrique experimentale or Experimental Lyric Workshop, the company altered its name a few years ago to Un thèâtre pour la musique, continuing to produce and tour one or two new productions a year but without a fixed performance space of its own.

All of this changed with the invitation from the French ministry to go to Brittany and rescue a dilapidated provincial theater. Quimper has an intact medieval center but is otherwise not a town with any remarkable history of its own and, except for its well-known local pottery, it has little fame as an artistic center. The theater, in its turn-of-the-century heyday, was mainly a tour stop for shows and entertainments from elsewhere, elsewhere being mostly Paris. However Quimper has always been an important place for Breton culture and Rostain, who believes in the importance of a community base for artistic work, wants to give the theater a stronger local presence as well as a more international outlook.

Music and music theater turn out to suit both parts of this agenda quite well. The Breton culture is highly musical and the new forms of contemporary music theater, small scale in dimension even if large in imagination, cross borders quite easily. Attendance and subscription figures have been on the rise at a rate of 50% a year and recent performances were well attended.

Rostain began a commissioning program for short new works on the theme of Prières a few years ago with Chaman or “Shaman” by the Japanese composer, Susumu Yushida. This piece, for a single performer with two percussionists, and a text in ancient Japanese, is an elaborate ritual in which not only the vocal and musical sounds are scored but also the performer’s movements. It was first performed in the Jesuit Chapel in December, 1995, by Martine Joséphine Thomas, Rostain’s wife. A second “Prayer,” Jubal, with a text by Enzo Corman, recited by percussionist Youval Micenmacher to an improvised drum accompaniment, was also performed amidst the work-in-progress reconstruction of theater. This promising beginning was somewhat marred by a nationwide transportation strike in France which prevented many people from getting to Quimper to see and hear these works.

The second round, performed in mid-March, 1997, amidst the glories of an early Breton spring, was luckier. Chaman was brought back and performed along with a work-in-progress commission from French guitarist and jazz composer, Gerard Marais, a multi-media work by Pierre Alain Jaffrennou and James Giroudon (the co-creators of Jumelles), a performance of the François Couperin Leçons de Ténèbres (the only old music on the menu), a very amusing graffiti piece by Rostain’s principal designer, Jean-Pierre Larroche, and La Prière du Loup. A symposium on the subject of text and music brought participants from elsewhere in France as well as from Great Britain, Holland, Quebec and the U.S. for the performances and two-and-a-half days of discussion about issues of language, music and collaboration.

Issues of language, music and collaboration were certainly central to the creation of “The Prayer of the Wolf” or, as I now call it in English, “Wolfman Prayer.” When Rostain originally proposed the commission and asked me to suggest a subject, I thought a lot about Brittany, a country of rugged coasts and deep estuaries but also green pastures, rolling hills and ancient forests. This landscape is covered with ancient monuments, miniature Stonehenges known as megaliths and menhirs, that testify to a vanished civilization. Similarly, the environment, although seemingly more intact than in most parts of Western Europe, is also missing much of its original flora and fauna. The wolf, which symbolizes wildness, bestiality and uncontrolled appetite in European folklore, figures prominently in Breton legend and appears in many local place names both in French and in Breton. But the wolf is long gone from Brittany and, for me, its loss symbolizes the conflict between wild nature and human society; we have domesticated, not only the landscape but ourselves as well. Let’s hear about it, I thought, from the wolf’s point of view.

I also thought, somewhat naïvely, that the wolf’s prayer could suggest the vanished or endangered culture of the Bretons themselves and, in my original concept, I was going to use the pentatonic scales and folk instruments (the cornemuse or bagpipes and the bombard, a kind of ancient oboe or shawm) of the region. My early thoughts included performing at the sites of some of the more impressive megaliths or, at any rate. videotaping segments at these locations. None of these “coals-to-Newcastle” ideas were actually used, partly for budgetary reasons but also because good sense intervened. But considerable traces of these conceptions remained in the piece in subtle ways.

In the end, the wolf turned into a man in a cage, performed by Jacques Auffray, an actor/singer who also plays the trumpet. After long discussions about text and language (a piece without any text at all was considered), it was finally decided to create a French libretto organized in a series of scenes or actions in which Monsieur Lupus—as we came to call him—mumbles, speaks, sings in a normal voice and in falsetto, dances, plays the trumpet, and makes animal noises and bird songs, all corresponding and set to musical variations.

There were a number of reasons why we chose a variation form. The limitations of the piece—one character, three musicians, a predetermined length of twenty minutes—played a major role in this decision. The idea of ringing constant changes on an unchanging foundation provided a form that I thought could work theatrically in a short piece in which the motivating conflict is between the single character and unseen enemies. Variations also seemed to me to be the right way to create a unified stage score with sufficient variety to sustain a relatively long musical movement (few symphonic movements last as long as twenty minutes) and a single, long, dramatic line for a single performer. But I did not want to write a traditional set of variations on a tune; a dance in the form of variations on a bass seemed like an appropriate solution.

Although this musical form is sometimes referred to as a passacaglia (another old dance with a similar history), it is actually the faster, dancier and more theatrical chaconne that is evoked here. When this exotic Central American dance hit Spain, it was roundly denounced as lascivious and a threat to the body politic. Of course, it immediately became a craze, spreading like wildfire to the rest of Europe. The French court took it up and gave its seal of approval, taking out the wildness. In this domesticated, but still passionate form, it became the standard dance finale for the French opera, a suitable ending to works that often treat the theme of uncontrolled passion and the danger it poses to the social order. These motifs, derived from Greek tragedy and classic French drama, are staples of French grand opera from Lully to Rameau, Gluck and even Berlioz; hence, the appropriateness of this dance as the finale to an evening of lyrical tragedy.

A special feature of the original chaconne is its rhythmic organization into two and four-measure groups of three-beat bars. It was actually the interplay and dialogue, not to say conflict, of duple and triple rhythms in variation form—and not the social history of the form—that attracted me in the first place.

Another feature that turned out to bear a relationship to the American origins of the form, was the use of mallet instruments or chordophones—marimba, bass marimba, vibraphone, xylophone—which, along with keyboards, drums and small percussion, form the basis of the instrumentation. The only truly melodic instruments are the voice and the trumpet played by Jacques Auffray.

The French text was created by Rostain, partly through an amusing bilingual e-mail interchange, Rostain writing to me in his wonderful Franglais while I replied in my broken—not to say broken-down—French.

In the end, we performed the piece on the stage of the old theater. There was no cage, just as there was no wolf, no bagpipes and no megaliths. As the audience comes in, the endlessly circulating bass line is already going round and the image of a trapped creature—trapped in a basso ostinato and a pool of light, mumbling to himself and howling in despair—is already present.

In the simple design of Jean-Pierre Larroche, the cage is a wire mesh at the back of a niche far upstage, extended downstage only by a squared-off pool of light with the classic image of a single hanging light bulb which is also, not coincidentally, a microphone. Wolfman, who is discovered squatting on a stool back in the niche, fights his way out of the enclosed space only to be trapped in the light pool. He discovers the light/microphone to which he addresses his threats/prayers until finally he sinks to a prone position on the floor from where he tries to resestablish his connection to the earth that is somewhere underneath—as if he could reconstruct a forest with his voice alone.

My biggest concern was the difficulty of the percussion parts. I made a computer tape of the music in New York for rehearsal purposes and the technowiz who made the tape for me turned out to be a mallet percussionist. The mallet writing, he assured me, is at or beyond the outer limits of playability. Even without the offending passages, the percussion parts were difficult enough as music originally conceived for three players had to be performed by the two musicians allowed by the budget. I was also concerned that some of the smaller and stranger percussion instruments might not be findable in France so I brought a few things along in my bag. But there was nothing I was going to be able to do to help a couple of inexperienced local percussionists struggle through unplayable parts; I would have to simplify or, worse, cut the problematic passages.

I couldn’t have been more mistaken. The music director and keyboard player, Hervé Lesvanan, was highly competent, reasonably exacting and responsive to the stage. The two percussionists, Olivier Fiard and Patrice Legeay, reworked their parts, reorganizing and reassigning the music and the physical setup and then recopying everything so that they could divide up all the tasks in the most expeditious—and, occasionally, spectacular —manner. They refused to consider cutting or simplifying (in the end, we even made one of the parts more difficult than it was originally) and they rehearsed, ran (literally from one instrument to the other), rerehearsed and reran the offending passage until it worked; the virtuosity of this moment itself became a theatrical highpoint. The musicians were not in a true deep pit but could be well seen at audience level just below the stage. The busy band set-up and activity provided a striking counterpoint to the cage made out of light on the broad empty space of the old stage.

Jacques Auffray, talented and dedicated actor, is an excellent musician as well. His problem was putting the dramatic and musical elements together. He could perform the music perfectly and he could give a powerful dramatic performance but, when he tried to do the two simultaneously, one would suffer and it inevitably took several rehearsals to get the two elements to work together and reinforce each other. And then every time he got new information from Rostain, it would take several rehearsals for him to regain the music and put it back into the new context. European actors do not have the training in music and voice (and movement) that most American actors now routinely receive and they are only beginning (with the help of directors like Rostain) to get music-theater experience of the kind that would enable them to stitch these skills together. In the end, it was decided that virtuoso perfection was not our principal aim and Auffray gave a strong dramatic performance supported by an effective musical and vocal projection from the stage.

When I got back home, my regular monthly shipment of CDs from Stereo Review was waiting for me. There was Murray Perahia playing a Handel chaconne and an entire album of baroque chaconnes by Reinhard Goebel entitled CHACONNE! And there was William Christie’s magnificent new recording of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, that baroque bundle of contained passion, which begins as contest between Diana and Amor, continues as Phaedre tries to seduce Hippolyte, climaxes when a giant sea monster appears to devour Hippolyte, and ends with a deus ex machina and a perfect court chaconne. Phaedre’s unbridled and illicit passion, like the savage wildness of my wolfman, threatens to destroy the very foundation of civilized life so it must be contained and tamed. This is, in a nutshell, the story of many of the great operas of the past. Seemingly by accident—in the name of environmentalism and certainly not in any burst of operatic neoclassicism—I found myself having written a music theater piece for a European theater that was, I think, quite American in style but cast in a traditional European form and on a great classical European theme which turns out to be perfectly appropriate for our time.

This article first appeared in Theatre Forum in 1997. “Wolfman Prayer”, the English version of “La Prière du Loup”, had its American pemiere in July, 2003, at the Festival of the Hamptons in Bridgehampton, N.Y. Wolfman was played by Rinde Eckert.