An hour-long mistake, Bryce Dessner’s Triptych (Eyes of One on Another) staged a confused audio-visual amalgam, a faux interrogation of infamous and controversial artist Robert Mapplethorpe.
Weakly criticizing the racist elements while still defending the work’s artistry, there was little evidence of Dessner’s critical engagement with the source material, and ultimately his music was eclipsed by the work of his own collaborators.
The large production team consisted of Dessner as composer, librettist Korde Arrington Tuttle (who synthesized poetry from Patti Smith, Rhea F. Miller, and Essex Hemphill), vocal soloists Alicia Hall Moran and Isaiah Robinson (both black singers), Roomful of Teeth, ten LA Phil instrumentalists, and a young actor – a black male “voyeur” who sat on stage and watched the piece with mild interest; his presence posed the painfully obvious meta-question: who is watching whom?
Borrowing from Mapplethorpe’s classical sensibilities, Dessner’s piece featured swarms of polyphonic vocal writing and a tendency towards constant motoric rhythms in the instrumentals (think post-minimal madrigals, or Reich meets Renaissance).
The piece also employed Roomful of Teeth’s uncommon vocal techniques, namely throat singing, yodeling, belting, and vocal fry. These classically taboo vocalizations read as a nod to Mapplethorpe’s own taboo practices, but the comparison is cheap. The 8-part choir has committed these vocal sins since the beginning of their career, and the transgressive bite has weakened with time.
Triptych’s memorable moments came from the craft of the other artists involved in the project. The still-shocking photographs uncomfortably electrified the performance, each projected image displaying Mapplethorpe’s racial blind spots in stark focus. Tuttle’s shrewd libretto balanced between skepticism and scorn, the best lines coming from excerpts of Hemphill poetry: “is the passion mutual or is one wary of the other…does fear haunt the edges of the photographs?”. And I will not soon forget the piercing solo vocals of tenor Isaiah Robinson, ending the piece with a belted vocal run that plunged down from the spine-tingling stratosphere of his range.
When I first heard the LA Phil would be producing Dessner’s Mapplethorpe project, it seemed unclear why this classical music institution would champion a white composer’s response to a white visual artist’s fetishized depictions of gay black men. Could this composer contribute to the dialogue around Mapplethorpe in any meaningful way?
It seemed that Dessner, in trying to reckon with these racial criticisms, assembled a team of black artists to affirm his final product. But this decision to recruit (even display) black talent in service of Dessner’s success was comparable to Mapplethorpe’s treatment of black people as props, as material.
Of course, all the artists involved chose to lend their craft to the project, just like Mapplethorpe’s willing models; but in both cases, the art ultimately privileges the white artist’s desire above any of his collaborators.
And at every turn – musically, visually, or dramatically – Dessner seemed to take pleasure in entertaining the ambiguous merits of Mapplethorpe’s work, regarding the beauty before mentioning the racism behind it. The cultural stakes of such an ambivalent position are low for high-art content creators like Dessner; but whether in new classical music or elsewhere, American culture would stand to benefit from privileged people taking clearer, more convincing political stances.
Then, at least, we could judge their naked intentions.
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