The tale of Orpheus is perfect fodder for the opera stage in particular. After his lover Eurydice dies from a snake bite, Orpheus descends into the underworld to rescue her from the grips of death. He is able to bring her back to life through the power of his music-making, which charms the gods of the underworld into releasing Eurydice. Orpheus is allowed to escort his love out of Hades on one condition—he must not look at her until they reach the land of the living. But he can’t help himself, and so he looks. She is lost forever, leaving him to mourn her for a second and final time.
Composers have long been drawn to this myth as source material for their most elaborate, virtuosic writing. The two earliest surviving operas—Jacopo Peri’s Euridice and Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo—are based on the story. Since the early 17th century when those works debuted, composers as diverse as Christoph Willibald Gluck, Joseph Haydn, Darius Milhaud, and Philip Glass have also found inspiration in Orpheus—with a climax that demands powerful music and an achingly tragic ending, his story lends itself to theatricality and to the extremes of musical possibility. And there is another reason it resonates: At its heart, Orpheus’s premise is that music is imbued with mystical powers. To be a composer or performer is to summon those powers.
For all this, and precisely because it is such a ubiquitous theme throughout the history of Western music, Steven Mackey was drawn to Orpheus’s story as a backdrop for what he describes as the most virtuosic piece he’s ever written for his own instrument.
“I’m no spring chicken,” the 62-year-old says. “I wanted to do the most ambitious thing I could do while I was still young enough to do it. It was important for me to have a story whose contours were familiar, dramatic, kind of operatic, in fact. The working concept for the piece was that it would be a guitar opera. It’s very narrative, but all the singing is in the guitar.”
Mackey collaborated with percussionist Jason Treuting to complete the work. “I chickened out about doing solo electric guitar,” the composer says with a laugh. “I needed my friend Jason on stage with me.”
Treuting helped the composer flesh out the percussion part of the piece, and Mackey gives him partial credit for the composition: “The overall shape and all the notes are mine, but Jason brought a lot to the piece, he made a lot of decisions.”
A third collaborator was Mark DeChiazza, who choreographed, directed, and designed the highly theatrical version of the show that premiered at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 2016. (A review of that premiere in the Pioneer Press was headlined ‘Wordless opera’? ‘Performance piece’? Whatever ‘Orpheus Unsung’ is, it’s excellent.)
For the Nasher performance this fall, DeChiazza designed the video that will accompany Treuting and Mackey, and while there are no dancers involved in this production, flashes of the original choreography will appear in the video.
Alongside Treuting, who performs using a standard drum set and a series of tuned gongs, Mackey plays two guitars and a swath of pedals that DeChiazza describes as “a spaceship at [Mackey’s] feet.” One of the guitars is tuned microtonally to elicit the sound of the underworld.
When he practices Orpheus Unsung, Mackey says he spends more time rehearsing the demanding, complex footwork than he does the intricate finger work. The extra effort pays off. The precise timing of the pedal work and complex looping sequences created by that “foot spaceship” create the illusion that Mackey is not one performer, but rather a full electronic orchestra.
“People know me as the composer who plays the electric guitar,” he says. “But I’ve got all this experience writing orchestral music. I bet I’ve written more orchestra pieces than any other guitarist, so I wanted to bring that experience to the guitar.”
Orpheus Unsung is a large, rich work. Mackey and Treuting are the only performers, but together they conjure a mass of complex, driving, sonic energy. So whether his song is played on a lute in ancient Rome, sung by an Italian tenor in the 17th century, or amplified to produce electronic reverberations today, Orpheus proves his point: Music has an eternal and unknowable power.