Artist Statements: Stranger Love
About this Piece
The music of Stranger Love is expansive and extreme everything it does. Passages of ecstasy dance faster and longer than we might believe the musicians can play or we could continue in such joy. Music of intimate stillness drifts over vast stretches, its serenity complete as the sound of ice cracking on the river at night between sentences. Moments of nostalgia linger in eternal vision of a beautiful past, like the undying light from a long-dead star.
I describe this piece variously as feeling like a gospel revival, or the vertigo of staring into the stars, the tranquility of watching snow fall beneath a streetlight. These are all scenarios — in different ways — of the illusion of endlessness, and it is that experience that is crucial to Stranger Love. The music offers a seemingly infinite vision of everything it encounters, of the instants of meaning that pass through our lives, from the touch of a stranger’s hand to the summer rain or the memory of a future dreamed in childhood. The music isolates these moments and gives them each their place on a colossal landscape.
The music is a search for and grand presentation of what we really love. Imagine your favorite moment of a song — when your leg involuntarily kicks, you start to sing along, when you’re flooded with the meaning of the song, its history in your life, the image of someone you once shared it with. What if you could experience that emotion endlessly — not simply listening to the same second over and over again, but truly experiencing it for the first time, again and again? That is what the music of Stranger Love seeks to offer. It is an act of permission to love the things you truly love.
At the same time, the music of Stranger Love teaches itself to you. The duration allows space for each section to become almost like a tangible object, something around which you can move, take in its different sides, the way the sun might hit it at different times of day. The music is monolithic — even the segments of emotional ambiguity are monolithic in their ambiguity. As such, it welcomes you as a listener in its assertiveness while at the same time taking you prisoner. The music crashes over you like a wave on the sand — it is not heard so much as felt, and for the audience it is never something far away to be regarded and considered, but is always overwhelmingly present, a flood that surrounds you.
The overall structure of the opera also carries you with it — the first act takes place on an almost-human time-scale. We see moments of two lives and can recognize them in time. The characters are small on the landscape, with the music carrying a larger role than the individuals, but still we see events take place like we might in a mirror of our conception of our own life. As the opera progresses, the events become further and further apart, and the music stretches, gradually pulling you into a slower time. The second act sees these stories — the stories you’ve heard all your life — reframed in the fundamental movement of three pairs of dancers, the line traced along the lives of the characters, like love as a structure seen from space. Finally by the time we reach the third act, there are no events — it is a never-ending instant.
What I want to do with Stranger Love is to offer an experience directly to those who are most in need of it. I hope for Stranger Love to be a gift — an offering of a world where time bends to love like gravity, and where moments of bliss, of fear and of rapture — the moments in which you’ve felt most alive — are the colossal pillars that hold up the fabric of the stars. Stranger Love is an experience of joy and love, of the passage of time and our undying connection as beings of stardust to the seasons, the planets, the stars.
In a strange and beautiful book titled The Double Flame, Octavio Paz writes that love is “a wager against time and its accidents.” Through it, “we catch a glimpse, in this life, of the other life. Not of eternal life, but… of pure vitality." Something like that intuition or hope or delusion has inspired the making of Stranger Love. The work is the fruit of a conversation about music and language conducted over the course of years. This conversation yielded the initial impulse to compose a vocal work that, many visions and revisions later, would become Stranger Love. In the making, music and words were composed in response to one another—at times one, then the other coming first—and both also in response to images and ideas. The working rhythm was call and response.
The sources—musical, textual, and visual—are many and diverse. Plato’s Symposium informs the overall structure of the three acts, and his conception of love (erôs) has been a tutelary spirit throughout the work. With regard to Act I, the story of star-crossed lovers is familiar, even archetypal, while the specific threats any given couple encounters, their losses and gains, their defeat, triumph, or détente, are poignantly unique and indelibly marked by the time in which they come to be. Rousseau’s Julie and St. Preux are nothing like Héloïse and Abelard, and yet Julie is also the new Héloïse. A friend who heard an early performance of a few scenes from Stranger Love said afterward, “it doesn’t sound like music.” We took this as an encouraging sign. Through the interplay of abstract and particular, dialogue and diegesis, we’ve endeavored to tell a new story, a new kind of story, that’s also somehow familiar, and that invites the audience to dwell within it and, in the end, to complete it with us. “Another opera about love?,” someone recently asked me, in only half-feigned disbelief. The right answer, I think, is that we could do no other. We couldn’t not make this very thing. But also, as one of Shakespeare’s poems puts it, love, like the sun, is daily new and old. Just so, Stranger Love is also telling what is told.