Sunday, June 22, 2003

Bolcom uses unusual styles for 'Medusa'

The Enquirer spoke with composer William Bolcom about his 40-minute monodrama, Medusa, created for Catherine Malfitano.

Question: What is the musical style of Medusa?

Answer: Certainly, there's the operatic dimension to it, but there are other things. I use the strings in all kinds of ways to give a variety of color that you wouldn't do with an opera orchestra. ... These are involving scratching techniques in the bows. The first thing you hear is this awful racket from the orchestra, topped by Medusa, and she scares the bejesus out of you. Which, of course, is the whole idea.

Q: You've collaborated many times with librettist Arnold Weinstein. How would you describe his text for Medusa?

A: It's an interesting mixture of pathos, humor and tragedy, which I love. One of the ingredients that I love the most is the fact that there's humor. People are going to be surprised. It's important that they know you are allowed to laugh. What's wonderful about mythology is it's constantly a mixture of humor and tragedy.

It's very hard to mix those things. If you look at (Bolcom's) A View from the Bridge, that's what's happening. In the middle of the darkest tragedy, there's always something humorous.

Q: What was Malfitano's reaction the first time she saw the music?

A: She screamed, "Oh my God!" First, there's the weird notation. It's a three-line staff (instead of five lines), and the notes don't mean anything. It has elements of a melodrama, which is essentially reading over an orchestra. But there are parts that are sung.

First you get introduced to Medusa when she's the young virgin, the most beautiful of Athena's vestal virgins in the temple. Then Neptune comes in and slobbers all over her, and becomes a stallion and rapes her ... From then, comes some fun with people who want to see her, and she mows them all down. (She turns them to stone by looking at them.)

I remember Arnold thinking, "We're going to need a narrator." I said, "Don't worry, you'll know who's who."

Janelle Gelfand

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