John Zorn Scores Richard Foreman’s Astronome


Richard Foreman has a stimulus package for those who’ve missed the Ontological-Hysteric Theater’s sensory overload the last few years. The director-playwright-designer founded his pioneering theater in 1968, mounting total-environment stagings of his own mind-plays. But in 2006, he embarked on the Bridge Project, a series of smaller video-performance hybrids exploring—among other things—the deadening of the Western mind. His new piece, Astronome, is a bit of a break from that experiment—it doesn’t use film, but it’s not formally a Foreman play either. The subtitle calls it “A Night at the Opera,” and the composer is none other than genius noisemaker John Zorn.

But hold on to your Viking helmets: While operatic in emotion, Zorn’s recorded score doesn’t aspire to that genre in any conventional sense. The human voices we hear let out orgiastic shrieks and groans, whispering, whimpering, and murmuring mysterious words and phrases. Zorn’s soaring instrumentals—at rock-concert volume—move from throbbing, contemplative bass lines into raucous ecstasy. (Given Astronome‘s reliance on aural intensity, it’s a shame we can’t hear it with live musicians.)

Foreman devised Astronome‘s scenarios and tableaux (mostly wordless) to mirror Zorn’s fervent composition. In a quasi-mystical chamber where writing covers every surface, seven ghostly figures try to reconcile bodily, experiential pleasure and mental anguish. They look like hallucinated victims of Western philosophy’s ancient split of body and soul—a division causing painful headaches and requiring remedy.

Everywhere in Astronome we perceive manifestations of that state of mind. One of Zorn’s motifs is an extended-voice strangulation. Over and over, performers urgently attempt to sever heads from bodies, to make them disappear behind curtains and hoods, under lampshades and pillows. A woman transforms her head into a large, plump strawberry, and a man takes a giant, sensuous bite. A strangled corpse dangles overhead, while to one side, a green-faced man in a feather headdress ritualistically re-enacts his choking death with a cord. Music offers a reprieve, if not a solution, to this philosophical quandary: It can unite body with mind, feeling with thought. Foreman’s characters wonder if music can provide a way out of their dilemma—or if the sounds they hear are just more evidence of a consciousness too painful (and pleasurable) to endure.

Whatever these ghouls might conclude, Astronome offers us what a night at the opera always should: a head rush and a quick trip to the sublime.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 18, 2009

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