Intertwined media add to the Orpheus legend
Tales of Orpheus—a lyre-carrying, song-singing artist from Greek mythology—have been told and retold for centuries. His conquests—an attempted rescue of his wife Eurydice from hell, a gig singing songs to lull deadly sirens into complacency—were first documented in Book X of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but it wasn’t until the fourth century that a picture of Orpheus, lovesick and determined to bring his love back from the depths of hell, was first emblazoned on sculpture. Later, the Orpheus and Eurydice story permeated literature, drama and ballet. In 1949, Jean Cocteau updated Orpheus and Eurydice’s tale for filmgoers, but no art form has more thoroughly explored Orpheus than music.
In the opera world, the idea of Orpheus and his power of song was first explored in the 1600s. Contemporary stagings of operas still dominate company offerings; the Metropolitan Opera just finished a production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and the Glimmerglass Opera, a summer company housed in Cooperstown, NY, has dedicated an entire season to the retelling of Orpheus’s descent to hell, spanning from Monteverdi’s 1607 composition to a recent work by Philip Glass.
It’s in this current fascination that Orpheus: The Lowdown has been re-released. Originally produced in 2004 and written by Peter Blegvad and Andy Partridge over an 11-year period, the CD completes the Orpheus legend where most re-imaginings have failed. Instead of focusing on Orpheus’s relationship with Eurydice, the story becomes simply one part of a larger examination of Orpheus’s mythical singing ability.
Taken as an entire package, Orpheus: The Lowdown combines everything about previous stories centered around Orpheus in the arts: music, spoken and written word and paintings. This unique way of telling a story—reinforcing ideas with different media—comes across as more performance art than stand-alone CD. In fact, it’s impossible to listen to this recording as music: there are no traditional songs, and the harsh aural backdrop Partridge creates doesn’t lend itself to easily sung melodic lines. The stories, spoken in a steady, measured baritone by Blegvard, are instead meant to be heard, to reach the ears while reading the text.
The music itself works well with Blegvard’s spoken-word delivery. In “Savanah” Blegvard tells of Orpheus “building the throats of singers” just as a dissonant chord rises from a choir of nascent voices. The same stanza brings metallic audio—the sound of machinery at work—to accompany the construction of a post office and subway system. More subtle sound painting occurs in “Gavelston,” a track that begins with hollow brush strokes on a drum kit. What follows sound like thunder: an initial thump followed by rumbling and a loud crash. Blegvard’s words, “he drinks in a bar bowling alley,” suddenly focus the sound, as the explosion of bowling pins cuts through the drumming. Partridge’s contribution to the work is not passive; his audio is intertwined with Blegvard’s words. One would be lost without the other.
But Blegvard’s words, on the whole, are not as interesting as Partridge’s music. The text is restrained and borderline pretentious, and where one story centers on the convoluted language of storytelling, another is steeped in contemporary feeling. This makes some phrases incongruous: 21st century personality occasionally shines through. These passages stand out as modern colloquialisms stuck in a historic text.
The accompanying artwork—bleak muted tones, blurred images of human forms, paintings that look like x-rays dusted with a light brown—argue that this is a work to take seriously. These paper constructions, formed by the two artists, are loosely related to the accompanying poem, and are carefully printed next to white text jutting out from a black background. The whole ensemble—text, art and CD—is wrapped in a book that could easily find room next to literary collections, a cry for the sustainability of the project.
This experiment may not find the sales it needs to be remembered, but it is still a valiant effort, a risky combination of spoken word, background sounds, text and art. With the current examination of Orpheus entertainment, another interpretation of old stories could get lost, but Orpheus: The Lowdown is unique enough to merit at least a closer look.