A guitar and percussion-based wordless opera that details the tragic Greek myth, Mackey and Treuting construct an ambitious and accessible musical landscape.
Since their inception in 2008 New Amsterdam records has done excellent work in championing innovative voices in contemporary classical music. Although traditionally associated with “indie classical" performers and composers (a complex and confusing term intended to reference a sort of rock influenced, post-minimalist aesthetic), the label unabashedly champions whatever music it finds intriguing and worthy of promotion in a genre overwrought works that rarely see the light of day after their premiere.
Orpheus Unsung, a collaboration between guitarist Steven Mackey and percussionist Jason Treuting, is an hour-long depiction of the story of Orpheus. Originally staged as a wordless opera featuring Mackey, Treuting, and a trio of dancers, the recording may lack the visual staged element yet it nonetheless thrives as an album-length work. Equally influenced by the worlds of modern classical and rock–minimalism to surf, experimentalism to prog–Orpheus Unsung is a solid, modern retelling of Orpheus' tale of love, loss, and eventual murder at the hands of Thracian women in a Dionysian orgy (fun stuff).
The album is divided into three acts: Act I (Super Terram), Act II (Sub Terra) and Act III (Super Terram). Act I depicts Orpheus' life above ground, with O personified by Mackey's electric guitar work. They joyful riffing of “The Wedding" and treble-laced snap of “Snakebite" demonstrate Mackey's talent with composing melodies and developing atmospheres. His taste with looping and effect pedals always feels appropriate to the moment, a sign of a musician who truly knows how to operate with his tools. Likewise, Treuting balances driving rhythms with more a more subdued touch; “First Lament" effectively demonstrates best how a percussionist can contrast silence and madness.
Act II, reflecting O's descent into the underworld to retrieve his love Eurydice, is appropriately surreal. The colliding figures of “Down" and cooly stuttering vibe of “Stalactites" push the album into a more abstract realm, distancing itself from the concrete reality of Act I. Mackey's guitar is run through a variety of whammy and pitch-shifting effects while Treuting expands his pallet with exotic gongs and assorted auxiliary percussion. For what effectively amounts to a musical depiction of hell the duo never get heavy handed or resort to cliches like walls of distortion. The underworld journey feels more disarming than anything: consider the disorienting, free fusion inspired chaos of “…and other strange things" as it leads to the haunting beauty of “Lyre Music."
The solo guitar of “Final Lament" begins Act III with a sense of spacious mourning, exemplified through rich chords and melody lines bending in and out of tune. Earlier musical ideas return in “Orpheus Redux" signaling a sense of reconciliation before the looped, drum set-led chaos of “The Mob" sends everything to a glorious, avant-garde hell. The nearly 11-minute “Orpheus Oracle (The Stream)" closes the album with shifting rhythms and skittering guitar tones, an opus that embraces elements of contemporary classical music and progressive rock in equal fashion.
Composing an opera based on the myth of Orpheus is an unquestionably ambitious project. What makes Orpheus Unsung work so well is what, on the surface, some might consider its limitation: the constricted instrumentation of guitar and percussion. Mackey and Treuting work so well together, and their communication as soloists and bandmates make the record sound much grander than a duo collaboration would imply. While the opera-as-instrumental nature of Orpheus Unsung may scare off casual listeners, it's their loss. Consider it another success for New Amsterdam, another recording as rich in ambition as it is in payoff.