Last year, Alex Ross described the role of a cultural critic as an act of standing in a public space and saying, “Not quite.” Over the last decade, the realm of cultural criticism has expanded to encompass all of social media, with platforms like Twitter providing the ideal public space.
In this algorithmic agora, composer and musician Matt Marks (who died of heart failure on May 11 at the age of 38) was one of the most compelling people to say, “Not quite.” It wasn’t a binary, but rather the springboard for a discussion that Marks leveraged in order to give voice to the underrepresented and marginalized. One of his last stands took place after the April 15 announcement of Kendrick Lamar as this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for music. Two days later, amid much praise and backlash for Lamar and his winning album, DAMN., Marks tweeted:
New Music People: This modernist piece sounds like noise to u because u need to educate yourself in the specific vocabulary of this type of music
Also New Music People: I don’t really listen to hip hop, but I listened to Kendrick & I’m not hearing anything musically interesting
From a second Twitter account, @NewMusicDrama, Marks went deeper with a days-long breakdown of the fallout that was characteristic of his biting wit and gregarious optimism. It highlighted his openness, which rang similar to an earlier line from Lamar: “If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us.” If the critic’s role is to stand in a public space and say, “Not quite,” then the artist’s role is to work towards unification amid the “not quites.”
Beyond the Internet, this was widely apparent in Marks’s work. As a composer, his hybrid music-theater pieces included The Little Death, Vol. 1, which traced the ill-fated love affair between two Jesus-loving kids and included a poppy showstopper that began with the line “I don’t have any fun on my own.” (Talk about unification). Marks also saw the concentric lines of history come around in works like Mata Hari (a new production of which was awarded an NEA grant just before he died) and a setting of Mother Courage and Her Children by one of the 20th Century’s leading unifiers of art and politics, Bertolt Brecht.
On the flip side, Marks – who grew up in a family more obsessed with cars than classical music – also worked with material rooted in Disney, the Beatles, and low-budget horror films (as seen in Headphone Splitter and The House of Von Macramé). As a community organizer, he was a founding organizer of both the New Music Bake Sale and the New Music Gathering. The latter event aimed to build community while addressing social and political issues—especially those that could help the music community become more inclusive and representative of the diversity of voices participating in the conversation.
Words on the Street, another Marks music-theater hybrid carrying on many of these traditions, is running at Baruch Performing Arts Center through Nov. 4. Marks was halfway through completing the work, based on a book-length poem of the same name by Anna Rabinowitz, when he died. The task of finishing it was taken up by the community he helped to foster: namely, composers Lainie Fefferman, John Glover, Mary Kouyoumdjian, David T. Little, Kamala Sankaram, Caroline Shaw, and Randall Woolf.
Marks saw his work on Words as “a gradual act of opening the sonic, dramatic, and visual possibilities of Anna’s poems to be shared with our eventual audiences,” which dovetailed with his own interest in finding an appealing way of making classical music for audiences who, like him, weren’t bred to be aficionados. As he described it to critic and musicologist Will Robin, he focused on the immediate appeal of the form by tapping into the common musical languages shared between composer and audience—more often Randy Newman than Kurt Weill.
This is a similar musical currency to what was traded in nearly a century ago during the Great Depression, when the Federal Theatre Project produced such fervent works as a dramatization of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here and Marc Blitzstein’s musical-theater piece The Cradle Will Rock. In keeping with the Project’s nationwide democratization of the dramatic form, Blitzstein eschewed traditional operatic idioms, instead mining popular forms to help deliver the immediacy of a Brechtian parable about union organizers and the absolute corruption of absolute power.
Words on the Street combines this musical point of access with a plot far more entrenched in metaphor—which traces the arc of revolution 29 years beyond Blitzstein’s stripped-down, storied world premiere, to the 1966 countercultural juggernaut America Hurrah. Jean-Claude van Italie’s trio of dramatic episodes questioned the value of disaster in a time of excess and pleasure.
Of America Hurrah’s initial 634-performance run at the Pocket Theatre, The New York Times wrote, “None of this is didactic. It is simply observant. None of it is labored. For the most part, Mr. van Italie treads inattentive earth. If some of the evening sounds as though the verse of E. E. Cummings has been rearranged by Kenneth Fearing and then set to the intrusive rhythm of ‘Turkey in the Straw,’ it’s no mistake.”
And so, over half a century later, we come full circle to a deliberate combination of unlikely forms meant to reflect on disaster in a time of excess and pleasure. If Marks had been given the screenplay to Pixar’s Inside Out and told to go crazy, it might have come out looking like Words on the Street, which treads an equally inattentive earth in search of the observant versus the didactic.
All hell breaks loose when an infant is abducted and the Seven Deadly Sins personified act out a power struggle rife with finger-pointing and CNN-style talking heads. Avaritia (greed) is played by Paul An as a clear stand-in for Donald Trump. Superbia (pride) in Lauren Flanigan’s hands resembles Norma Desmond in the era of being hashtag-blessed. Luxuria (lust, played by John Kelly) taps into Marks’s love for Kurt Weill, filtered through an Alan Cumming meets Lili Von Shtupp avatar. The collision of personalities resembles Twitter’s din just after tragic news breaks, rife with insecurity and fear fanned by hearsay and #FakeNews.
This chaotic collage brings together many of Marks’s cultural interests: musical and textual homages to the Notorious B. I. G., Disneyified “I Want” ballads, Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, and Berio’s Sinfonia abound. Beyond this, the composers who completed the work add an additional layer, their own creative fingerprints to the score rather than attempting to replicate Marks’s inimitable voice.
Skirting the line between cacophony and consonance, the work is at times limited by the production. Avaritia, for example, is played to such a Trumpian degree – at one point his name is projected above the stage in the same gold-block font we associate with Presidential real estate – that it’s hard to see him representing thousands of other sinners swimming in similar waters. The occasional strikes on this third rail, while not catastrophic, limit the heart of the conversation started here by Marks, Rabinowitz, director Krisitn Marting, and video designer Lianne Arnold. Greed has many faces beyond the self-tanning experiment gone wrong currently occupying the Oval Office. This sin, along with rage, pride, lust, sloth, gluttony, and envy, are the forms in which any of us can show up in a world where we more and more acutely have become actors in the news we consume.
And it’s a vital conversation, especially given that Words on the Street opened on a weekend that capped off a nationwide manhunt for a domestic terrorist sending homemade pipe-bombs to prominent Trump critics and the seemingly race-motivated murder of two people in a Kentucky grocery store, and one that began with the massacre of 11 synagogue congregants during the annual National Refugee Shabbat. In continuing the dialogue through their own contributions to the score, Fefferman, Glover, Kouyoumdjian, Little, Sankaram, Shaw, and Woolf show the power in the collective voices saying, “Not quite”: the power of coming together in respect, in order to unify against the enemy.
And who is the enemy? That’s a question the Seven Sins grapple with, to an ambiguous ending that illustrates the lack of black-and-white answers to the complexities facing us today. In an unlikely eleven o’clock number from Adrian Rosas as Acedia (sloth) – who remains mostly silent throughout the piece, before asking with repeated fervency “Who gives a shit?” – it becomes clear that the enemy is not the focal point of relevance. When tragedy or chaos emerges, many of us fall into one of these seven sinful categories in our initial responses.
Yet it’s on us to move beyond a one-note characterization – remember that the sins inherently are just that – in favor of creating a broader springboard for a more human discussion. It’s on us to remember that we’re all leaves on the tree of life, interdependent and responsible for how we show up to one another.
It’s on all of us.
Words on the Street runs through Nov. 4 at Baruch Performing Arts Center; baruch.cuny.edu
Olivia Giovetti has covered music and arts for Paper, the Washington Post, NPR, VAN, and beyond. She’s previously served on staff at Time Out New York and WQXR/Q2 Music, and her writing has been heard onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival. She combines her love of the arts and meditation practice on The Meditation of Art.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.