Hearing the Imaginedposted on April 2nd, 2009 by Alan Lockwood
High up in the Austrian Cultural Forum (ACF) in Manhattan, composer Joshua Fineberg gazed over a laptop near the glass wall. Argento Chamber Ensemble took their seats: five string players, two flutists, and clarinet. With Joanna Chao’s piano alongside Fineberg, conductor Michel Galante called this first rehearsal of Lolita to order. There was space in the white chamber for a couple of visitors, but only just—an intimacy appropriate to Fineberg’s “imagined opera,” in which Nabokov’s most familiar creation, pedophile Humbert Humbert, makes fresh tracks amidst spectral orchestration and startlingly generative voice electronics. After warming up in the rhythmic minefield of Lolita’s final passage, Argento readied for an initial run-through of Fineberg’s 70-minute opus.
It seemed an accurate setting, as the sleek, spine-width ACF building became a rare icon of progressive architecture at its opening in midtown in 2002, while over the past decade Argento has been establishing a lauded position in new music. Their mission is to play composers who advance compositional knowledge and test new forms (the New York Times glowingly reviewed their recent concert of Georg Friedrich Haas’s music). With Joshua Fineberg, specifically with Lolita, his first evening-length work, Argento has their eager, able hands full.
Humbert and Lolita’s tale has been with Fineberg since his teens, when he first envisioned it as “a ballet where everyone was mute except the narrator.” When he began teaching at Harvard in 2000 and commenced work on “an opera inside the narrator’s mind,” his first stop was the renowned IRCAM electronics lab in Paris.
“You’re hearing what Humbert is imagining,” he said of his Lolita. “As with self-conscious, postmodern fiction, it’s convincing in some ways but not convincing as reality.” His question for the tech experts was how to take an actor’s speech “and give him a lyrical space where his voice can expand? I had seen work they’d done, mathematically separating what comes off the glottis, the vocal folds at the bottom of your throat.” Fineberg likened it to separating a woodwind’s reed and body: “I can keep the actor’s reed, if you will, and manipulate that, changing the pitch to sing it through hybrid bodies: an 8-year-old girl, a teenager, adults. It’s his voice transformed by his imagination—or his voice fictionalized.”
To pinpoint subtle perspective shifts that compound in Lolita, the composer mentioned the Pierre Bonnard interiors at MoMA, where a foreground tabletop can slip the viewer into very formal paintings. “It’s tiny, but it changes your relationship to everything. The details and events Nabokov’s dealing with get twisted by slight shifts. Between an innocent gesture and a sensual, seductive gesture, there’s almost no difference, in terms of mapping out the gesture in space. That’s the key: how do you get that the same thing can become completely different, yet be able to recognize that it’s changed?”
Fineberg found that “trying to put you in Humbert’s head” affected his music, which while still daunting “feels like it’s happening to you.” He wanted Lolita to work as a concert piece, in addition to the stage production with Joji Inc. “We did Part One as an oratorio at Miller Theater [at Columbia University] in 2006. It was a sort of preview to test the technology, and that was with Argento.”
At an Istanbul festival in 2003, Argento had programmed a piece of Fineberg’s piano music, and the composer helped with production of their first CD in 2007. “The interesting thing musically about Lolita,” said Michel Galante, “is that the narrator is extroverted, blurting out his lines from the novel, but Joshua conveys the psychology of Humbert.” Where emphatic drama wields explicit musical devices (the conductor used the example of Verdi’s monstrous Othello), Galante finds the piece adamantly subjective.
“Josh’s music is so varied,” he said, “providing a psychological background, an environment, for all the text and subtext.” Impressed by the composer’s format, an imagined opera with narrator surrounded by ensemble, dance, and video projections, Galante also recognized his skill at “rendering this psychological dramaturgy clear. Josh is trying to do something new with the vocabulary of contemporary music. That gets us excited—it’s an opportunity to experiment and try a new mode of expression.”
Alan Lockwood lives and writes in Brooklyn. His pieces on classical music have appeared in Time Out New York, Musical America, the New York Sun, and other publications.