Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Ben Katchor: The Carbon Copy Building
While the opportunity for the spectacular might be there, the results don't quite get there.
The Carbon Copy Building could hardly be described as an imitation of anything. Originally a multi-media stage production from 2000, the "comic book opera" now appears on CD with hardbound libretto and artwork. The combination of Ben Katchor's art and text with the music of Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe (of Bang on a Can) promises an intriguing originality. Katchor's work plumbs the depths of old gum, unfinished desserts, and mild squalor, while the musicians typically write artsy experimental pieces. While the opportunity for the spectacular might be there, the results don't quite get there.
The text focuses on two identical buildings 20 blocks apart. One of these buildings, the Palantine, has held up well since its 1929 construction, now home to "several philanthropic organizations and a number of esteemed literary publishing houses". Its architectural twin, the Palaver, has not fared so well, becoming run-down with its minor business offices "fit for cold-call phone solicitation" and its location "between a third-run movie theater and a roasted nut house" (a phrase that stands as the work's finest).
The 15 pieces of the opera contain various somewhat connected scenes taking place in each building. Katchor does less to construct narrative than to provide quick moments of juxtaposition, such as the Palantine denizen's discussion of potential grant recipients followed by the Palaver's manager's admission of cheap improvements by "semi-licensed" contractors in order to make money off its renters. The scenes add up to a fuzzy critique of the American class system, with the poor people at the Palaver becoming nearly untouchable, trapped in jobs that lead to poor health and even death by venereal disease. The rich are mocked in their examination of the history of stuck bubblegum, "a new theory of the French leisure class", and their awkward dining.
On this level, the piece almost succeeds, but Katchor can't quite pull any deeper statement together. The juxtapositions and sharp descriptions make for a nice starting point, but too often he falls on jokes on the level of "Park Manure Avenue". His key idea lies in a delivery boy who goes from one building to the other without noticing the true thinness of separation, or the ability to move into the higher, cleaner class. Unfortunately, Katchor doesn't develop this thought; he neither offers a path for social climbing nor accurately reveals the limitations of such aspirations (beyond smelling funny and leaving stains).
Like Katchor, the three composers find only equivocal success with their work. Although it wanders a bit in style, the music maintains a cohesive feel, and takes itself no more seriously than Katchor's libretto does. Gordon, Lang, and Wolfe give the ridiculous and banal moments epic consideration. "Early Birds" even turns a meditation on "eating utensils" and early diners into a jagged, spastic routine that effectively straddles the line between parody and farce. The music occasionally can't support its own weightiness, though. Gordon, Lang, and Wolfe are, after all, out to create art, and at times the effort shows through. The avant at this point is no longer truly avant, and odd melodies and rhythmic complexities swing between satisfyingly daring and unnecessary.
At the same time, the more straightforward rock numbers sound out of place. On first listen, "The Palantine Building" comes across as a driving rock number, guitar-heavy and idiosyncratic enough (especially paired with Katchor's lyrics) to be a distinctive piece. After multiple listens to the album, though, rather than adding traditional muscle to the score, it simply seems like a diversion amid more arty work.
The Carbon Copy Building, instead of building on strange matchings of class, style, aesthetics, and attitudes, can't quite rise to its own challenge. The resulting work (music and comic) remains intriguing because of its promises and occasional deliveries, but its inability to sustain its effectiveness makes it a less than satisfying listen, no matter how technically impressive it is.