I suppose it’s appropriate that R Murray Shafer’s Apocalypsis should be in part based on the Revelations of St. John. Is Revelations divinely inspired genius or the drug addled ravings of a half starved monk? I find myself asking similar questions about Shafer’s massive stage piece.
There are unquestionably some very fine moments and some decent musical ideas in Apocalypsis but there is also much that outstays its welcome and some parts that are utterly banal, self indulgent tosh. And, in many ways, the whole is less than the sum of its parts; a hypothesis that rather refutes the Giodarno Bruno derived text of the second half.
So what’s it like? First, it is in two quite distinct halves though it’s played through without an intermission and here was prefaced by a Sierra Leonian refugee telling her story of coming to Canada. The first half rather ambitiously portrays the end of the world. The second is a Credo that looks forward to beyond the end times. The first half starts in silence (or close to it as the rumblings of the Sony Centre HVAC system allow) and then becomes mostly very loud. It is musically very varied with lots of percussion and electronics and multiple choirs singing in different styles and languages. There are some dance elements including a rather good Polynesian dancer, a half naked man who struts around on all fours for no apparent reason and a lot of breast beating and fist shaking plus some banging on pots and pans. Then there’s the text. Some of it is basically just familiar biblically derived stuff but there’s also some really weak content from Shafer himself. At one point a chap in a suit and tie with a microphone appears. He is apparently the Antichrist (perhaps by now working forr Fox News) and he gets to portentously intone lines like :
Dwellers of the earth!… God is dead. It was a hoax designed to enslave you.
Dwellers of the earth!… Sing of the joys of computers, a narcotic to the brain.
There’s quite a lot of this and even where Shafer cleaves closer to his sources he tends to strip out the poetry. My overall impression is that it’s not nearly as deep as the composer imagines.
This is all staged, by Lemi Ponifasio, on a black stage with a set of black steps, stage wide, at the back and a perspex/glass box in the middle containing, apparently, the Whore of Babylon, who visibly ages but doesn’t really do much else. The costuming is overwhelmingly black and most of the light, what little there is, is provided by horizontal light bars across the steps and the occasional very bright, white spot. The effect is to make a lot of the action quite hard to follow and to rather diminish the impact of the dance elements. The first half does though conclude with probably the highlight of the whole show; a cameo by Inuit singer Tanya Tagaq as the Old Women. If the whole piece had had the raw, visceral impact of her performance I would have left much happier.
The second half is more coherent and one can see why it gets performed as a stand alone choral work. It’s basically a choral piece with overlapping layers of sound for many different vocal lines making for quite an immersive meditative effect. The words are drawn from some mystical mathematics by Giordano Bruno but that hardly matters as they are completely lost in the sound wash. It probably goes on a bit longer than it should but it’s not bad.
The staging for this bit was really pretty odd though I have to say I have no idea how one might stage an essentially abstract piece with no narrative at all. Players, dressed in black of course, process onto the stage. They move back and forth and eventually open up a pool in the middle of the stage and dabble their fingers in it. Then they very slowly undress and walk, equally slowly, naked up the steps at the back of the stage and disappear. I did wonder whether this was the end but then very bright white naked guy appears, walks slowly down the steps into the pool and then turns around and walks, equally slowly, back again. Then it really does end though it took the audience quite a while to realize that; perhaps wondering who would next show up for a paddle in the pond.
So two hours, five hundred performers and a million and a half bucks. As I said at the beginning it has its moments but it’s really hard to imagine this piece being staged if it wasn’t the output of a Designated Canadian Cultural Icon™. That said it’s hard not to admire the commitment of the hundreds of people; professional and amateur, young and old who participated or the amazing feat of principal conductor David Fallis dealing with more assistant conductors than there are musicians in many of the groups he directs.
R Murray Shafer’s Apocalypsis is presented as part of the Luminato Festival. It’s playing at the Sony Centre and there is one more performancetoday at 2pm which will be broadcast live on CBC Radio 2.
Photocredit – Bruce Zinger.