Computer Music Journal Vol. 31 No. 3
Reviewed by Mary Simoni
, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA
Saint Ambrose is an opera in one act for saxophonist/actor, computer music, and visual projections composed by Rodney Waschka II. Commissioned by saxophonist Steve Duke in 1999, the twelve-scene opera is performed by a single saxophonist who also acts the role of Ambrose Bierce. The libretto is by the composer.
Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (1842 – 1914?) was a Civil War veteran and American author who is best known for his sardonic Devil’s Dictionary, a published collection of words with definitions that codify the unabashed mockery and derogations of “Bitter Bierce.” The Devil’s Dictionary is an invaluable reference for anyone who grapples to find humor in such farcical realities as immoral politicians, religious zealots, or any other phenomenon that captured Bierce’s cynical eye. According to Bierce, a politician is “an eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared,” and a Christian is “…one who follows the teaching of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.” We can thank the composer for sanctifying the memory of Ambrose Bierce by declaring him a Saint: “A dead sinner, revised and edited.”
Mr. Waschka’s Saint Ambrose should not be confused with the real St. Ambrose, the fourth century Bishop of Milan duly declared through the arduous process of canonization by the Roman Catholic Church. The Church’s St. Ambrose is credited with contributions to music, notably Ambrosian Chant, a staple in the musical repertoire of the early Church, and the “Te Deum laudamus,” a hymn of praise to God. The Te Deum is still used today and is performed during special liturgies, such as the canonization of a saint (oddly enough).
The score contains detailed instructions on staging, equipment, props, costumes, lighting, and sound. Essentially, the milieu is that of a lecture by the famed Ambrose Bierce. The stage is stark, equipped with only a lectern and a music stand, so that Ambrose can demonstrate his newfound skill in playing the saxophone interspersed with his lampooning rhetoric. Performing Saint Ambrose is a technically straightforward endeavor, with only two microphones: a lapel mic for the speech of the performer and another for the saxophone. The computer music is pre-recorded on compact disc and the score includes specific instructions for the start and stop times of these pre-recorded tracks. Optional visual projections that generally display the text of the libretto may be used to assist with intelligibility. The score, accompanying computer music on compact disc, and visual projections are available from Borik Press, Raleigh, North Carolina (www.borikpress.com).
Mr. Waschka classifies Saint Ambrose as an opera. An opera, according to the Devil’s Dictionary, is “A play representing life in another world, whose inhabitants have no speech but song, no motions but gestures and not postures but attitudes.” Furthermore, Bierce describes an opera saying that “…all acting is simulation, and the word simulation is from simia, an ape; but in opera the actor takes for his model Simia audibilis (or Pithecanthropos stentor)—the ape that howls.” One cannot help but wonder if the witticism of the composer’s libretto is imbued with the burlesque of Bierce. Is Bierce an ape with an attitude? Is his speech gestured howling? Or does Saint Ambrose present a novel genre where the practices of extended performance techniques include acting? Whatever the case, the brilliance of Mr. Waschka’s Saint Ambrose is its parody of parody.
The twelve scenes of Saint Ambrose are: “Overture: Nothing Matters,” “Good Evening,” “Interlude #1,” “Unlike William,” “Interlude #2,” “After the War,” “Interlude #3,” “In 1913,” “The Definitions Aria,” “Interlude #4: Clementine Variations,” “Now, as promised,” and “Saintly Jam.” Between the compositional bookends of “Overture: Nothing Matters” and “Saintly Jam,” the macro-formal organization of the work essentially alternates between scenes with predominantly spoken passages and scenes comprised of saxophone solos, both types of scenes accompanied by computer music. The spoken passages effortlessly interleave the monologue of the libretto with quotes from the Devil’s Dictionary. The saxophone part was composed with the assistance of genetic algorithm software written by the composer and scored using traditional music notation. The sparse texture of the computer music part seldom assumes musical prominence and seems to have been synthesized using established synthesis and signal processing techniques.
Like the libretto, the computer part employs musical quotes from the popular music of Bierce’s day such as “La Cucaracha” from the Mexican Revolution and the American western folk ballad “Clementine.” A mockery of George Handel’s popular “Sarabande” in the “Overture” retains the rhythmic rigidity of the “Sarabande” but is satirized by the timbre of a toy piano interspersed with growling, incomprehensible speech. A genetic algorithm unfolds the musical allusion of “Taps,” originally composed by Major General Daniel Butterfield during the Civil War. Mr. Waschka’s use of “Clementine” first appears in Scene 9 in “The Definitions Aria,” followed by the “Clementine Variations” in Scene 10. The “Clementine Variations,” warped in the style of Paul Lansky’s idlechatter, concludes with the pure and angelic voice of the composer’s daughter, Lana Kurepa Waschka, proclaiming, “That’s not the way it goes!”
The performance by Steve Duke is remarkable. He effortlessly traverses the development of Bierce’s technical mastery of the saxophone throughout the chronology of the opera. From Bierce’s statement, “By the way, lately I’ve taken up the saxophone,” in Scene 2, to the accomplished virtuosity of “The Definitions Aria” and the beautiful “Saintly Jam,” Steve Duke magnificently performs a convincing array of blues and jazz creating a gifted partnership with the elegance of Mr. Waschka’s algorithms.
Saint Ambrose represents a milestone in the repertoire of computer music. The strength of the work is the artful presentation of a period in American history rendering it accessible to and enjoyable by people of all ages. As the old adage goes, “Those who have not learned the lessons of history are destined to relive it.” Rodney Waschka gives us an entertaining glint into an American life during the late nineteenth century with a derisive parody fitting for the twenty-first century.
Saxophone Journal - March/April 2003 - by Frank Bongiorno
Saint Ambrose is based on the life and writings of Ambrose
Bierce, a well-known writer and journalist in the United States during
mid-19th and early 20th centuries. He was known for his cynical
and often satirical wit as a writer, and in particular, for his accurate
and sometimes grotesque depiction of war. He was cruelly honest
whatever topic he chose write about and, so it seems, had no fear
to speak his mind about
politics, war, religion, and/or life in general.
Saint Ambrose, the composition
was commissioned by saxophonist Steve Duke and composed by Rodney Waschka
II. Between the composer's interest
in creating a theater work based on the life of Ambrose Bierce
and Duke's interest in expanding the role of the performer, Saint Ambrose,
the chamber opera, was born.
Steve Duke has performed throughout
the country and abroad. He is a champion of new music and has commissioned
numerous works with computer
music as well as acoustic solo saxophone pieces. Duke has recorded
jazz as well as contemporary music on various record labels,
and is a member of Northern Illinois School of Music faculty.
Waschka II, a faculty member at North Carolina State University, has
had his pieces performed throughout the world
and has enjoyed support
for his compositions from the NEA, Meet the Composer, and the
North Carolina Arts Council, among others. A composer/performer who has
worked with algorithmic composition and intermedia pieces, Waschka's
Ambrose is a piece based on "genetic (evolutionary) algorithms" by
the composer and uses synthesized sounds by various programs
and types of equipment, in addition to the voice and saxophone.
of the libretto
for this opera has been taken from Bierce's writings or from
accounts of his life, and is acted (narrated) by Steve Duke.
piece begins with an electronically produced Overture entitled
Nothing Matters. As the piece unfolds, the actor (Duke) recounts
life as a youngster, through the Civil War, and ultimately to
the time of his supposed death around 1913/14. However, rather than
piece suggests that Bierces is not dead, but living somewhere
in Mexico and still providing his satirical, cynical commentary
on a variety
As Duke recites the libretto, Waschka's music is used
either as a backdrop or as an interlude to sections of the storyline.
regardless of its function, the music almost always seems to
be appropriate for the storyline at the time, setting the right mood
trait. Almost an extension of the libretto, each musical section
was somewhat linked to the text and convincingly portrayed with the
same cynicism and satire as the text, but with music.
Duke does extremely
well in immersing himself within the role of Bierce. Throughout the
opera he plays the part with much gusto and authenticity,
and, although the musical sections on the saxophone are, perhaps,
too few and far between, Duke's control as well as flexibility of instrument
certainly serves him well in negotiating the demands of this
piece. In each case when he performs the saxophone, Duke is able to bring
his music to life and provide it with the appropriate personality
the appropriate time.
All in all, this is an enjoyable piece and
duke renders a fine performance as an actor as well as a musician.
For those wanting to hear forty
minutes of saxophone music, this CD is not for you. However,
should you want to be amused and entertained while listening to an intriguing
piece of music performed by a quality musician, this CD is for
you. Sit back and enjoy!"
Paris Transatlantic Magazine, July 2003, by Nicolas Sharyshkin
"Ambrose Bierce, now a mostly forgotten character of American history,
was a living legend in his own time. A curmudgeon of epic proportions,
he was the author of the notorious Devil's Dictionary as well as a Civil
War hero, whose reports on the war earned him plenty of fame and not
a little hatred. Composer Rodney Waschka's astonishing chamber opera,
scored for electronics, voice, and saxophone, is based on Bierce's writings,
narrated by Steve Duke in a slightly ironic manner (not as cynical as
one would expect of Bierce, but strikingly charismatic all the same).
Although I had mixed feelings about the toy-like computerized part of
the music, Duke's melodious saxophone playing drew me instantly into
the drama of Bierce's philosophy, which Duke, and Waschka tie handily
into current politics (freedom, liberty, and the war in Iraq). This is
an intriguing CD, with a strong narrative flow right through to the end,
in the manner of the golden age of radio drama. Let's hope for future
collaborations from this duo, with lots more of the surprises found for
example in a fogged electronic rendition of "Oh My Darling Clementine".
As the warped Clementine song finishes, a little girl's voice is heard
in the background: "That's not the way it goes!" Of course not, but I
bet Bierce would have approved."
Classical Voice North Carolina - March, 2004 - by John Lambert
Back in the fall of 1999, we were privileged to attend a "special preview performance" of Saint Ambrose, by NCSU's remarkable composer Rodney Waschka II, who manages also to produce the University's Arts Now contemporary music series. The "Definitions Aria" from the opera was performed again in February 2001, at UNC, and a recording of the entire composition was subsequently released. We've revisited it from time to time and find it consistently engaging, so we offer this recap of the 1999 preview performance and the CD itself, in part to celebrate the current season of Arts Now at NCSU, featuring the NC Computer Music Festival.
It may be worth noting that this opera, like most other such works, relies to some extent on stage props - visuals, in this case - but it works well enough for straight listening, and the booklet that comes with the CD provides more than ample background and supplemental information about the subject, war correspondent and satirist Ambrose Bierce, and his magnum opus, The Devil's Dictionary, plus fascinating details about the development of the piece. The opera is based on Bierce's life, and its text is in large measure drawn from what the composer characterizes as his "dark, satiric writings." Saxophone virtuoso Steve Duke, who played the opera at NCSU, is featured in the recording, which means that this is a "creator's" document, akin to many celebrated performances involving composers and artists who have set down interpretations of their works. At the preview concert, the hall was ringed by loudspeakers on platforms, and in media res sat Waschka, whose "instrument" was a large assortment of electronic equipment - CD and DAT and ADAT (8-channel) players, a big mixing board, and such. He also had a few less high-tech devices at hand: a wristwatch (to which he often referred), a small table lamp, a score, and various notes, handwritten and otherwise. A slide projector was also set up, slightly off to the right of center stage. Thus that evening was a saxophone recital plus.
At the time I wrote (for Spectator) that I was not sure that "opera" was the proper title for something that has no singing except for a saxophone and a snatch of "Clementine" in the accompaniment and that, in addition, includes a good bit of narration, but other experimental works are similarly devoid of singing, and there isn't really any other word to describe it. The spoken portions of Saint Ambrose are not in Sprechstimme (which is to say, the words are not pegged to pitches, finite or otherwise), nor is there secco accompaniment (which is to say that there is no harpsichord or any other related music during most of the textual parts). Still, there is a real overture, a series of interludes, an aria of sorts (the "Definitions Aria"), and a "big finish" (to borrow a phrase used by Chicago-based composer Max Raimi), so it may justifiably be considered an opera (the Italian meaning of which is, simply, "work").
The scenario deals with the reactionary writer, who disappeared (although "dropped out" might be a more appropriate way to characterize his departure from polite American society) somewhere in Mexico, sometime in 1913-14. The texts, drawn from Bierce's writings, are spoken at intervals throughout the work. The composition, in twelve sections, including the Overture, consumes about 40 minutes. As a piece of theatre, it is both gripping and compelling. As music, without the stage business, it is bracing, too. Duke is adept as an actor and is of course one of our leading saxophone virtuosos, and he pulls off this one-person show with great flair, meshing the words with the sax passages and flawlessly integrating all of them into the ongoing computer music track.
In 1999, war seemed remote for most Americans, but Waschka's timing was apt, and with our nation once again embroiled in nearly global conflict, this look back at one of our great war correspondents is more than relevant today.
It may be worth remembering that the subject of this work vanished before the US got into WWI, but - thanks to Waschka - BIERCE LIVES!
Journal Seamus - V. 18, N. 1, 2005 - by Stan Link
"You only get one chance to hear something for the first time." I've only
recently begun arming myself with this bit of Herbert Brun's
conscientiousness about new pieces. For recordings at least, it might be
weeks before the right "one chance" presents itself. And indeed, a season
had passed while Rodney Waschka's Saint Ambrose sat in cellophane. You
take your solitude where you can get it, and a southern Indiana highway
spread out a handful of hours in front of me to enjoy this piece.
Although a road trip might seem less than the ideal circumstance, 75MPH
ended up suggesting a great deal I might have missed idling at the
intersection of Stereo, Couch, and Potato. Saint Ambrose is a
century-and-a-half wide landscape of history, music, and sardonic humor
where constant motion feels like a natural setting.
A one-act chamber opera for saxophonist/actor and tape, Saint Ambrose was
commissioned by saxophonist Steve Duke, looking to "expand the nature of
his role as a performer." The twelve scenes have Duke alternating between
playing sax and acting the part of satirist Ambrose Bierce narrating his
life and reading from writings such as his Devil's Dictionary. Both of
Duke's performances are engaging and integrated - his sax playing is as
nimble as Bierce's wit, while his Bierce is jazzy, confident, and wry.
I had been driving to the peculiar mélange of Saturday morning AM radio:
conservative prattle, local sports, international music, and
advertisements for financial "success." A high-wattage radio play about a
Christian crocodile who could cite more scripture than his friends, the
Christian frog and Christian turtle, was now over. Following these
preludes of political, metaphysical, and electrical static, dynamically
compressed music and disembodied voices, Saint Ambrose bloomed from many
of those same elements into radio in its own right - drama with no stage
thriving even absent its visual promise as "opera."
However well Saint Ambrose works live, a pointed expressivity emerges from
this compact disc. Disappearing in Mexico in 1913, Bierce offers a
telling contrast to another American wit, Mark Twain, who perpetually
reappears as the image adorning his own books, T-shirts, coffee mugs,
bookmarks, greeting cards, journals, calendars, and so on. Unlike this
marketing of the Twain icon as muse to bookstore latte sippers, however,
Bierce's legacy survives mostly in his writing. The intimate relationship
between satire and print is paralleled by the centrality of speech in
Saint Ambrose. As with radio, close recording of Duke's narration
compensates for the invisibility of scene, projecting images through
listening rather than onto it - an effect the "one man show" aspect of
live dramatization could obscure when the eye has somewhere significant to
Foremost among its many musically compelling features, Saint Ambrose
sustains a crisp transparency. Some of this is naturally enforced by the
alternating role of the actor/saxophonist since the tutti of sax, speaker,
and tape can't really be performed. Offered by the recording medium
itself, of course, Waschka resists that temptation and upholds that
essential vitality of live performance found in its limits. There's an
energy that comes from the constant need to trade one voice for another,
and such kineticism is among Saint Ambrose's consistently engaging traits.
Far from limiting, then, a sense of transparency feels integral to
Waschka's aesthetic. His prevailing impulse is toward lucidity rather
than saturation. Far from remaining a textural feature, however, lucidity
becomes expressive in other terms. The exchange of solo sax and voice
enhances their co-identity while strengthening the amalgamation of both
loneliness and conversation that satirists like Bierce thrive on.
Even on the tape, as with the deliberately paced metallophone of Overture:
Nothing Matters, Waschka eschews the technological potential for
effortless density. Including the live performer, the number of layers
rarely exceeds three or four. Held in reserve as an expressive
possibility, rather than as the birthright of multi-track mixing, density
makes appearances that are dramatically substantive. This is most evident
as the spoken monologue of After the War gives way to Interlude #3, a
mournful duet for sax and a tape comprising distorted gunfire, clangorous
ringing, sweeping phase-vocoded washes, and static. The effect is oddly
moving - like tuning into battlefield reports from an imaginary Civil War
Radio Network just as some unidentified scene of destruction vaguely
emerges through the din, loses focus, and slips back into the past.
And indeed, time is of the essence in Saint Ambrose. Waschka writes that
the saxophone part uses "genetic (evolutionary) algorithms." This would
be a misleading description of the audible results, however, as the sax
warps a jazz thread through the tape's woof of the 19th century. In turn,
the combination of those elements with synthetic and processed sound draws
another breath of the work's appealing airiness. The firm stylistic
location of the sax part opens a gap between it, the time period of the
subject, and the technological component. The effect is a kind of
anachronistic interchange that feels less like disjunction than an
unbinding of some sort. Whatever forces held things in their places have
come undone, and Saint Ambrose imparts a sense of effortless mobility.
Finally, an indelible aspect of Saint Ambrose's clarity is Waschka's
technological approach, which I might term "pantechnophilic." Many will
recognize the types of sounds in Saint Ambrose along with the processes
that yielded them. Waschka notes simply that the "synthesized portions
were made using various programs and types of equipment." This is
tellingly and productively vague. The piece doesn't dwell in its own
processes. Accordingly, there are probably few moments of "how'd he dot
that?" Saint Ambrose maintains its transparency in part because it is
neither ideological nor technological "problem solving" music. There is
little outward sign here of either a piece or a composer "working through"
something and exhibiting that as product. Far from simply "accessible,"
however, Waschka's comfort and confidence in his compositional aesthetic,
musical choices, and technological resources create apiece that makes
itself consistently and pleasurably available - a sign of ease that is in
no way "easy".