So why is this so important? How can a guy like Braxton, who writes constantly, get a high mark on his first outing? Simple -- with the exception of Anthony Davis, who wrote Malcolm X, no one from the jazz side of the fence has attempted such a complete attempt to embrace the world of Western classical music so thoroughly. (Yes, forget Blood on the Fields, it's a jazz oratorio according to its composer.) And it deems that Braxton is the only one who can be counted -- if this opera, the first of 36 by the year 2020 if the composer lives that long and lives up to his word (is there any doubt?), is any example -- to have his work be worthy of comparison to the works of Webern, Berg, and Schoenberg, not to mention Morton Feldman and John Cage. Compared to his jazz work, Composition No. 162 -- An Opera in Four Acts/Shala Fears for the Poor (dedicated to Nelson Mandela) is far from dense compared to his jazz quartet, quintet, and orchestra work. The opera is performed by nine singers and a full symphony orchestra who has among its membership instrumental soloists like clarinetist Chris Speed, flutists Ned Rothenberg and Rob Brown, and violinist Sara Parkins. All of the operas in the Trillium series will have three primary levels spread throughout their acts and scenes: an "apparent story," which is a narrative that can be appreciated more or less for what it seems to say; a set of "philosophical associations" that make the work refer outside itself into the world of ideas; and finally, "the mystical or spiritual fundamental that underlines each setting," in other words, an allegory -- noh or kabuki theater anyone? The narrative in Shala is a long, drawn-out, rhetorical narrative involving the marketing of products and productions to the masses, specifically to the lower classes. These products are everything from food to loans, all of them created to extract a maximum of profit regardless of damage. Certainly there is a preaching to the converted here, with a plot as concerned with the obvious as the face of our culture. But Braxton -- through his use of color, shape, texture, and above all intersecting musical and dramatic dynamics -- cuts through and makes his dialogue enter into the imagination, where the listener extrapolates her or his own experience and places it firmly in the operatic sequence of events. The smarminess of the Board of Directors and the under-sung plaintive wail of Shala are downright moving. The interplay of the strings with the solo voices and horns and percussion creating mysterious shapes underneath, filling out scenarios and sub-plots, is masterful. Yes, it does seem as if there is a bit of the overly dramatic "snidely whiplash" in all of this, but isn't it that cynical anyway? That Braxton can overcome his temptation to preach at all is compelling (remember Schöenberg's similar taste of pulpit-climbing sin in Moses and Aaron?), as is his ability to lay everything at the altar of image (as his musicians paint them in the air next to the singers) in elongated modes of introverted harmonics and striated tonal linguistics. And after all, like all of Braxton's music, this opera, Shala Fears for the Poor, is about language and how it mediates and transcends images. Braxton is trying to transcend the language of the opera while using it for his own purposes. If this is where the future of opera is headed, if this is where it's language will ultimately be decided, then someone please give me a grammar book -- I'm in.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek