"A face like music": Shaping images into sound in the second Mrs Kong

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Beard, David Jason (2006)

Premièred at Glyndebourne in October 1994 and subsequently performed in the UK, Austria, Germany and Holland, The Second Mrs Kong was the result of a collaboration between the American writer Russell Hoban and British composer Harrison Birtwistle. The opera’s reception has tended to emphasise the disparity between Hoban’s diverse and eclectic interests, which emerge not only in the libretto but also in his novels and essays, and Birtwistle’s more introspective and linear approach. Possible connections between Hoban’s aesthetics and Birtwistle’s music have generally been disregarded. I argue, however, that the opera’s main aesthetic concerns – namely, the mediation of images through ideas and the workings of image-identification in diverse media – are shaped by a productive exchange between librettist and composer. The clearest expression of this interaction is the love between Kong, who embodies ‘the idea of’ King Kong from the 1933 RKO film, and Pearl, a character drawn from Vermeer’s iconic painting Girl with a Pearl Earring. The representation of these visual icons in The Second Mrs Kong is inflected by Birtwistle’s own views on images, by his attempts to find musical analogues for visual techniques, as revealed especially in his sketches, and by his lively engagement with Hoban’s ideas.
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    42 references, page 1 of 5

    8 Birtwistle on his settings of Celan's poetry, in 'A Conversation with Harrison Birtwistle', interview with Robert Adlington, Aspects of British Music of the 1990s, ed. Peter O'Hagan ( Aldershot, 2003 ), 111-18, here 115.

    9 Arnold Whittall describes it as 'an imaginary fugue' in his 'The Mechanisms of Lament: Harrison Birtwistle's Pulse Shadows', Music and Letters, 80 ( 1999 ), 86-102, here 97.

    10 Robert Adlington, 'Harrison Birtwistle's Recent Music', Tempo, 196 ( April 1996 ), 5.

    11 Choreography and spatial distribution of performers are used in Verses for Ensembles ( 1969 ), Secret Theatre ( 1984 ), Ritual Fragment ( 1990 ), Panic ( 1995 ) and Theseus Game ( 2003 ). The presentation of musical motifs in The Triumph of Time ( 1971 ) is compared by Birtwistle to Brueghel's etching of a procession of disconnected objects ( see Michael Hall, Harrison Birtwistle [London, 1984], 175-6 ). Ideas stemming from studies by Erwin Panofsky and Günter Grass of Albrecht Dürer's engraving Melancholia inform the composer's programme note to Melencolia I ( 1976 ). In the programme note to Silbury Air ( 1976 ), Silbury Hill in Avebury, Wiltshire, is offered as a metaphor for musical processes ( see Hall, 177 ). Geological strata are evoked in comparison to the musical layers in Earth Dances ( 1986 ). And Exody '23-59-59' ( 1997 ) is said to consist of 'gateways' and 'windows', 'which are framed and self-contained glimpses, like a curtain opening for a moment and then closing again'; quoted in Ross Lorraine, 'Territorial Rites 2', The Musical Times, 138/1857 ( November 1997 ), 12-16, here 16.

    12 Birtwistle originally delivered his illustrated Klee lecture, 'Ears & eyes', together with members of the London Sinfonietta, at the Hayward Gallery, London, on 7 and 8 March 2002. The talk, which was advertised as addressing the question 'Can there be a direct connection between painting and music?', was later repeated at the Lucerne Festival in 2003 footnote continued on next page footnote continued from previous page under the new title 'Eyes to Hear, Ears to See'. Birtwistle's interest in Klee ( discussed in Hall, Harrison Birtwistle ) is most directly expressed in Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum ( 1978 ), which is a response to Klee's Twittering Machine. For his thoughts on Klee and other painters, see Lorraine, 'Territorial Rites 1' and 'Territorial Rites 2'.

    13 Lorraine, 'Territorial Rites 1', 8.

    14 'I'm more envious of that than anything'. He has also commented: 'There's no equivalent of throwing paint in music, is there?'; Lorraine, 7, 4.

    15 Lorraine, 4. This idea is articulated in several orchestral works that the composer has compared to landscapes and processionals. As Jonathan Cross has remarked, in such works the listener may be equated 'with the spectator/composer: we listen passively as the procession passes in front of us'; Birtwistle: Man, Mind, Music ( London, 2000 ), 213.

    16 D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, On Growth and Form, abr. and ed. John Tyler Bonner ( Cambridge, 1997 ). Michael Hall discusses the relevance of D'Arcy Thompson's book to Birtwistle's instrumental piece Medusa ( 1969 ) ( Harrison Birtwistle, 50-1 ).

    17 Three-, four- and five-note contours were extracted from the 'Modual Book' for use in Nenia: The Death of Orpheus ( 1970 ). These contours indicate degrees of rise and fall rather than specific interval sizes or pitches. Ideas for The Triumph of Time ( 1970-72 ), Prologue ( 1971 ) and An Imaginary Landscape ( 1971 ) also appear in the two sketchbooks.

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