21 March 2014
Moby Dick: Extracts on Death and Other Curiosities
© Bruce Kung
I co-founded W4 New Music Collective in 2010 in New York with some fellow Master's students at New York University in the Music Theory and Composition program - Matt Frey, Molly Herron and Ruben Naeff. I could be here all day listing all the amazing people we've worked with since then, but, in the interest of brevity, I'll just say that, in the three and a bit years since we first started working together, we've worked with almost a hundred creative souls on a myriad musical events. However, one thing we at W4 had never undertaken was a complete, evening-length concert that exclusively featured music by the four of us.
That changed in 2012 when an opportunity arose for W4 to collaborate with New York-based new music group Contemporaneous. This young,19-piece chamber orchestra had rapidly established themselves as key players in New York City's thriving new music scene (no pun intended). My W4 colleagues and I agreed that this was our opportunity to work together on something big, but what? After much discussion, we decided we were going to collaboratively write an oratorio. And a project as ambitious as this needed something big and universal as its basis.
Moby Dick is a big novel. Anyone who has ever tackled it will either wax lyrical about Herman Melville's mastery of the English language and literary genius that enabled him to create an epic allegory that explores the rich gamut of human experience, or else despair that they, like the crew of the Pequod, are doomed to spend the rest of their lives turning page after page in fruitless pursuit of that damned white whale.
I had never read the novel prior to this project, and I admit that in the months it took me to read Moby Dick I vacillated regularly between loving and loathing it. But whatever my feelings towards the book on any given day, there was no denying that Melville had created a singular masterpiece rightfully beloved by generations, and so in June 2013, when we all gathered in Molly's living room in the guts of Brooklyn, all four of us were genuinely excited at the prospects offered by this project.
We agreed that rather than attempt to tell the story of Ahab dooming his crew in his relentless pursuit of the murderous white whale, we would instead approach this project as an homage to Melville's novel as a unique cultural artefact. Much like Moby Dick is a treasure box of mythology, history, science, poetry and storytelling, our oratorio would be a series of twelve songs that explored aspects of the book as varied as the bloody act of whaling, Ahab's inner psychological turmoil, or simply the elemental joy of experiencing the wind, sea and stars on a great whaling ship.
While the overall project was collaborative, we largely worked on our pieces independently. We each assembled our own libretti from Melville's own words, and although we initially planned to incorporate each others' work in to our own pieces in an effort to aesthetically unify the project, it quickly became apparent this was not going to work. Each of us has a very different voice and approach to composition, so instead we kept each other regularly updated on our progress via good old midi files.
Almost two years after its inception, Moby Dick: Extracts on Death and Other Curiosities premiered as part of the MATA Interval series at the Issue Project Room in Brooklyn on 21 February 2014 to a house at almost double capacity. It was hot, dark and crowded, but the atmosphere was incredible, and when the final notes died away and the audience erupted in a spontaneous standing ovation, I felt like a rockstar. This was one of those moments that made all the sacrifices one makes to be a composer worthwhile.
© Australian Music Centre (2014) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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