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The cell plays host to a Den of Death

It’s getting harder and harder to be outrageous and indulgent these days. Going over-the-top is cheapened when we’ve long since spilled over. Perhaps the only option left is retrenchment: disturbing not with excess, but with the details, the incongruities, the paradoxes. The little things missing or askew in something otherwise familiar, leaving the observant viewer bugged, queasy, that something very essential was amiss. That was the approach Cadillac Moon Ensemble took at the cell in trying to depict cheekily the “den of death” of the seductress in Proverbs 7. The results were largely successful, the reason a review has not been forthcoming for nearly two months, yet the works premiered are still fresh with the author.

Members of Cadillac Moon Ensemble, from l.-r.: Statser, Burke, Michel, and Kilroy.
Cadillac Moon Ensemble

Alex Temple’s Switch: a Science-Fiction Micro-Opera continues in an unintentional series of explorations of the spooky, of mysterious travelogues and shadow-government conspiracies, and in this case, a theater piece broadcast from a parallel universe, transcribed from memory after the recording was lost. The absurd double framing device is disorienting and alienating, as is the naivety of the narrative, a dystopian tale of a state in which status and discrimination are determined by handedness. There is a frontier to which those seeking freedom can escape, like in Fahrenheit 451, but in this case, the authorities are threatened by the uninhibited creativity and liberty exhibited in this egalitarian idyll outside their control, and proceed to mount a military campaign against it, leaving it ashes and cinders, with just the most tenuous, delusional hopes nourishing the few survivors. The portrayal of situation and motive is simplistic and exaggerated, enough to be as much a mockery of two-dimensional morality tales as it is a sincere manifesto for greater tolerance in our own world. Again, weirdly, eerily mixed messages in a work you can’t take too seriously, yet can’t dismiss as a folly.

A work delivered with alarming tour-de-force intensity by Cadillac Moon cellist Meaghan Burke, who played, narrated, and sang in what is a true concert opera. Her readings were insinuating and darkly dramatic, with a noir theatricality very much a distillation of the composer’s ideals and fascinations, of uncovering the rot beneath the shiny and plastic, only to discover there’s something not quite right about the truth that set us free, either.

Viet Cuong’s Windmill sought to express indulgence through allusion to windmills, with Don Quixote and his delusions, of Napoleon (Orwell’s pig) and power, of the Montmartre and the decadence of its cabarets. There was not much Montmartre to Windmill, but it was certainly unrelenting and obsessive.

Not as obsessive, or terrifying, however, as Meow (Re)Mix, by Melody Loveless. It is a deconstruction of the Nyan Cat meme. Yes, that one. Indulgence applied to internet time-wasters. But this was not a Jellicle with a Pop Tart body to be trifled with. It was partially aleatoric and dependent on performer input, obscuring the jazzy source material at times, leaving it as mere fragments and wisps, largely unidentifiable. Other times a fugue of meows would erupt, from kazoos, from cymbals, from flute multiphonics. Bitonal Nyan Cats, ostinato Nyan Cats, Nyan Cats everywhere, the nightmarish study of a cat lady’s fever dream. This author remains haunted.

Matt Marks embraced the uncanny valley in his Kamikaze Karaoke, writing for the Hatsune Miku Vocaloid, a virtual J-Pop singer who has become something of a fad in Japan, accompanied by the live musicians of Cadillac Moon. This paragon of cute sweetness was given settings of poetry written by Japanese pilots in World War II prior to taking off on suicide missions. The texts run the gamut from patriotism to optimism to agony. Some struggle, some achieve the equilibrium of resignation. They are harrowing and heart-wrenching. Which is a problem when setting words whose emotional power cannot really be enhanced by adding music and voice to them. A live singer would only impose on them a sentimentality or mawkishness that would not give the pilots space to speak for themselves. In this case, the detachment, the artificial innocence and brightness, so slick and gauzy, of a pop singer who does not know the depth of her songs’ meanings, expose more powerfully the conflicts experienced by the authors. Speech rhythm and inflection were alienated, forced, and the electronic voice was an unnatural as overriding the survival instinct.

Cadillac Moon distinguished itself throughout the concert. In addition to the standout Burke, violinist Patti Kilroy, flautist Roberta Michel, and percussionist Sean Statser displayed imagination, intellect, and wit, imbuing technically and artistically challenging material with an effortless musicality and immediate presence. They represent the best qualities of the emergent new music ensembles: curiosity, broad stylistic interests, a sense of ensemble and awareness borne of group problem-solving and camaraderie, and a level of execution that makes all the above possible, but which is employed in service to the music and not to its own ends. It is always a pleasure to hear their programs.