“So that explains the raw meat,” I thought to myself as Gabrielle Herbst, in the opening moments of her mobile opera-in-progress Vulnerability, wandered into a Brooklyn kitchen full of spectators and began pounding a slab of raw meat lying on the counter. A hush fell over the clumps of audience members as Herbst padded around the kitchen in stockinged feet, her humming barely audible over the running sink water.
Before her entrance, members of an audience that had been limited to 30 members meandered around the kitchen and office area, sipping wine and catching up with the other awkward new-music enthusiasts present. Fresh snow was accumulating on the ground outside, but it was warm and homey in the Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone, a private home playing music venue for the night. As the opera progressed, the bewildered collection of listeners followed Herbst and the other performers through the kitchen, living room, hallway, stairwell, and even bathroom of the apartment—becoming an “audience” in the most literal sense of the word, due to limited visibility under these intimate circumstances.
Despite this slight shortcoming, the brownstone was the ideal venue for Vulnerability, which Herbst describes as “a dreamlike non-narrative tableaux…looking at inward struggles and outward connection.” Vulnerability is the first in a new series from MATA directors Todd Tarantino and Du Yun, who curate the MATA new music festival every spring. The series, “A Room of One’s Own,” provides the opportunity for female-identifying composers to try out new ideas in a low-pressure yet “immersive” environment, such as the Bed-Stuy brownstone. As Tarantino explained in his introduction to the event, “We want to give them the space to say what they need to say, and for them to be able to say it in unconventional spaces, for our friends.” The series will feature further intimate and immersive events in the spring, including “A Pool of One’s Own” spotlighting the work of Nadia Botello, which will take place in a swimming pool.
On the one hand, I applaud the MATA team’s efforts to foreground the work of non-cis-males in a field that discourages women, in a myriad of implicit and explicit ways, from fully participating. On the other hand, I am skeptical of the insularity of this event in an already-insular world: When Tarantino and Du Yun refer to “our friends,” who exactly do they mean? Among the faces I recognized among the mostly white, mostly new-music-making members of the audience, the majority were composers and musicians already steeped in this world. I would hope that when it comes to providing opportunities for composers of marginalized populations, the other side of the coin would be providing opportunities for listeners as well. A group of 30 “friends” meeting at a non-publicized address and patting each other on the back is fine, so long as it materializes later in the form of a more accessible, yet similarly immersive, experience.
It seems that will be the case for Vulnerability, which I overheard will be performed next spring at a Brooklyn space for a broader audience. When the MATA crew approached Herbst about the Bed-Stuy event, informing her she could basically do whatever she wanted, Herbst responded that “there’s this opera I’ve always wanted to do…” and they made it happen. Herbst’s vocals and electronics were joined by vocalist Eliza Bagg, clarinetist Mara Mayer, and harpist Marilu Donovan, who likewise wandered throughout the space in drapey white t-shirts and white stockings. The dreamy vibe Herbst sought to convey was reinforced with the sound of running water pervading the opera: the kitchen sink running throughout the first scene, a shower left running for the duration of another. The watery soundscape brought to mind Virginia Woolf, author of early feminist manifesto A Room of One’s Own, who wandered into the River Ouse with her pockets full of stones and drowned herself in 1941. (Woolf has provided artistic inspiration for new music shero Joan La Barbara, as well.)
Using the space of the home as a metaphor, Vulnerability explores the sorts of inner struggles Woolf explored in her stream-of-consciousness prose, calling to mind Mrs. Dalloway most vividly. In the opening moments, as conversation among audience members died down, Herbst wandered into the kitchen humming along with a distant radio and singing to herself under her breath. It was uncomfortable enough feeling like an encumbrance in the tight space (especially as our snow boots squeaked on the hardwood floors every time we moved to follow the action, and our slightest movement might obstruct the view of another spectator); yet hearing Herbst murmur “I’m ho-ome” in a breathy singsong felt somehow more uncomfortable and intrusive. We were physically present in her world, witnessing the external manifestation of a decidedly inner process. Herbst’s humming was frequently overpowered by the sounds of her dinner preparation: tenderizing the meat with a metallic clanging meat mallet, opening and closing the oven door, turning the stove burners on and off.
From the kitchen the opera migrated upstairs, where we could hear the rise and fall of Herbst’s and Bagg’s voices over the sounds of the shower, the air thick with steam. Ultimately they wound up singing across the house in an utterly beautiful call-and-response of wordless vocal lines and loops. Mayer and Donovan joined in on their instruments, perched on chairs in front of a lit-up Christmas tree in a picture window. The swirl of vocals, electronics, and acoustic instruments melded into such a quiet wintry beauty that somehow I knew before reading the title what the book was on the nightstand in the back bedroom where Bagg sang amid twinkly Christmas lights: it was James Joyce’s Dubliners. Set against the snow falling softly outside, Herbst’s duality of inner and outer, dreaminess and reality, feminist defiance and intimate vulnerability, brought to mind the final words of “The Dead,” the final short story in the collection: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
Rebecca S. Lentjes is a writer and feminist activist based in NYC. Her work has appeared in VAN Magazine, Music & Literature, Sounding Out!, TEMPO, and I Care If You Listen. By day she studies ethnomusicology as a doctoral student at Stony Brook University and works as an assistant editor at RILM Abstracts of Music Literature; by night she hatches schemes to dismantle the patriarchy.