Thanks in no small part to the opera and music-theater festival Prototype, just lately New York has been awash in vivid examples of musical storytelling. But not every intersection of music with literature or narrative is quite so… well, literal in its execution. Case in point: Revert to Sea, a new multimedia work by Yuka C. Honda, presented in a workshop performance on January 6 at National Sawdust – part of the venue’s FERUS Festival, a series designed to provide early exposure for interdisciplinary projects-in-progress.
Honda, a composer and multi-instrumentalist, is best known as half of the innovative electro-pop duo Cibo Matto. Revert to Sea, though, is something different, a long-form work (or perhaps a sequence of short works) related by a common theme: the literature of Ryū Murakami, a Japanese author and filmmaker.
“I’m approaching music in the way that I would write a book,” Honda says in a brief video posted by National Sawdust ahead of her concert. “I didn’t know I was going to become a musician; I thought I would become a writer. So I thought maybe for the first time I would go full-on admitting that’s how I’m approaching the music.”
In the clip Honda cites in specific Coin Locker Babies, Murakami’s award-winning 1980 novel about two boys abandoned as infants in 1972. The plot, at least as assessed via an online summary, evidently involves mental distress, rock music, murder, madness, stormy seas, and considerably more.
The music, Honda explains, is part composed, part improvised, plotted on a “map” she designed with software and then worked with guitarist Nels Cline – a favorite collaborator and, incidentally, her husband – to “translate” into a performance piece.
Translation is a pertinent notion. Murakami’s literature is known to westerners chiefly in translated editions, of course. Honda’s work on Revert to Sea involves literally making a new translation of the original text, but also translating her own personal impressions of that text into sound – and into video images she produced in collaboration with Brian Close and Kiki Kudo, projected overhead by Chase during the performance.
A question arises, inevitably: How vital is it to know the literary underpinnings of what’s essentially an abstract musical work? Does something fundamental get lost in translation, so to speak, when you hear such a work without knowing the literature that inspired it?
That’s a question I can’t answer, because I don’t know the Murakami novel in question. The potential distance between Honda’s intention and my perception has preoccupied me for days since her performance.
Is an assessment of the performance, minus its extramusical context, a valid response? I can’t venture any insight as to the correlation between the music Honda played with her exemplary band – Cline on electric guitars and effects; Alex Cline, his twin brother, on percussion and wordless vocals; Devin Hoff on upright bass; Zeena Parkins on harp – and the watery vistas that flickered overhead. Nor can I link it to Murakami in any way beyond stated intent.
That last notion might have been addressed by program notes, but possibly Honda wants to leave translation in the hands of her listeners. Perhaps that’s something she’ll address as she continues to develop the work.
Absent those insights, what remains is the music: an amply gratifying experience in its own right. Melancholy organ chords and pealing tones evoking sunlight flickering on waves and wheeling gulls set the stage, followed with sustained guitar notes like pangs of longing. A second segment showcased Alex Cline’s penchant for overtone singing: high-pitched nasal resonances over murmuring electronics, then guttural throat tones under Hoff’s keening arco lines and Parkins’s slashing harp gestures.
An exploratory free-improvisation passage (or so I’d surmise) prefaced brief, unaccompanied solos panning across the stage. Then the players (or characters, maybe?) began to interact: at first haltingly, and then with assurance, coalescing around brittle guitar and Honda’s sympathetic chords.
What followed felt cinematic: a heady orchestral tide swirling, swelling, growing stormy and forbidding, and then subsiding. A pontillistic segment evoking minimalism and automation explodes suddenly into roiling, rumbling epic rock, Nels Cline unleashed to wail over his brother’s tribal beat.
Another heavy, dreamy orchestral passage comes roughly halfway through the hourlong work, Nels Cline’s honeyed howl again riding the crest of this new surge – further evidence of Honda’s ingenuity in assembling a band populated with players of exceptional range and versatility. The harp flutters, the density increases, the pace picks up steadily until it bursts in noisy clamor. Industrial groans cede to lounge-band repose, swiftly and surrealistically, buoyed by Parkins’s angelic ripples, Hoff’s nimble lines, and the subtle swish of Alex Cline’s timekeeping.
Samples of nocturnal insects and birds accompany impressionistic twang from Nels Cline, whose seasoned collaboration with Parkins briefly assumes the spotlight. And here, at last, are words, sung by Honda through a headset microphone and processed through her bank of electronics…
…only, whether by defect or by design, it’s impossible to make out the words she’s singing. They’re not printed in the program. They’re not projected overhead. The video provides no substantial clue, especially for a listener who hasn’t read the source.
The sound is agreeable, the voice’s arrival a subtle and relatable touch after an hour of disparate, demanding instrumental music. But the impact of this sung portion begins and ends with the fact of its existence: a disembodied voice intoning sweetly, its meaning at least for now lost in translation.
Again, that’s not a complaint, just an observation from a listener unfamiliar with Honda’s source – and I’d presume I wasn’t alone in that lack of preparation. Even so, audience response at the conclusion of Revert to Sea was resoundingly positive. Understandably! As for me, I’m eager not only to hear how Honda’s new piece develops, but also to become better acquainted with the novelist who fired her imagination.