Archive 156: [escala.]


Review of [escala.] - The Oberlin Review
6. September. 2001
by Mark Barden

While six basketball hoops, a quasi-parquet floor, and a gigantic American flag do not usually a concert hall make, they proved to be quite a suitable venue for Conservatory Senior Vincent Calianno’s newest ambient opera entitled [escala.].  At 7pm, the Saturday sun setting on Hales gym floor serving as the only accompaniment, a violist in the corner humbly begins playing a pianississimo sustained tone.  Three minutes later a cello meekly begins a two note ostinato.  As if infused with the slow and calm energy of the cello line, the viola adds a note.  Four minutes later, alto saxophone.  What follows is a five hour exploration of subtlety, color and pattern which challenges the audience to question their conceptions of how music should be.

The piece was scored for an “unspecified number of winds, strings, keyboards and voices”.  The score consists of simple whole note patterns represented on broken staves, each with a time designating the beginning. It was conducted by a wall clock perched on a music stand.  To begin the opera, Calianno set the clock to 12.  Patterns generally changed every three or four minutes, though not all pattern changes occurred simultaneously.  This staggering of the changes coupled with Calianno’s choice to allow the performers to individually choose the value of a whole note contributed to an overall fluidity and timelessness.

The sheer magnitude of the opera coupled with the informality of a gymnasium allow for (demand?) a certain flexibility in listening style. Audience members walk around the performance space, sprawl out on the floor, drift off to sleep, take a break to get some air outside, stretch. It was somewhat reminiscent of the dijeridu and trombone concert in Warner Gymnasium two years ago, minus the spontaneous yoga and contact improv. Ambient music is so called because it contributes to the ambience rather than being the necessary focal point.  In the words of the composer, “The music becomes part of the room.”

One might very well question Calianno’s choice of the appellation ‘opera’ for a five hour long chamber piece which lacks a libretto and uses vocals relatively sparsely.  Perhaps the answer lies in the etymology of the word ‘opera’.  It is the plural of ‘opus’ which is derived from the Latin word for ‘work’.  Having listened to the opera, I have to concede the name is oddly fitting.  “This is what it is,” responded Calianno when questioned on the nature or genre of his piece.

[escala.] is the fourth of Calianno’s marathon operas to be premiered at Oberlin: jacob’s ladder, she stood there sliding into the night, and advent days the latter of which lasted 24 hours and 5 minutes.  All three took place in 1999.

Performers relate astonishing anecdotes of playing for 17 hours straight (Cahn-Lipman) and falling asleep while holding a note, only to wake up to find themselves still holding the note (Reminick).  The endurance issues associated with the performance of a Calianno opera are formidable and not be underestimated.  The music sounds quite simple, but this is illustrative of the incongruity of audience and performer experience. “Nobody believes me when I say this, but Vin writes really hard music,” says Reminick.

It must be said that Vincent Calianno consistently offers unique experiences to both audience and performer from 24 hour operas to dropping Steinway piano lids from full heights to enormously obscene and obscenely enormous concert posters in the con lounge.  His work is truly not to be missed.

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