for Four Acting Musicians and a Large Ensemble
Soloists: baritone, violin, clarinet, tuba.
Chamber version: baritone, violin, clarinet, tuba.
Full version: ensemble: flute, oboe, clarinet in Bb, 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass, piano, 2 percussion. Soloists: baritone, violin, clarinet, tuba.
Text: Franz Kafka (edited by the composer).
Premiere: Manhattan School of Music full production, January 2012.
Production history: Mannes College (chamber version) 2009; Manhattan School of Music (full version) 2012; The Tank (chamber version) 2012.
Video clip: Seth Gilman, baritone; Brendan Speltz, violin; Ben Ringer, clarinet; Matt Muszinski, tuba; Old Stories New ensemble, conducted by Sam Nester. Stage director: Brendan Moffitt.
Franz Kafka (1883-1924), a Jewish Czech writer, is widely regarded as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. He is mostly famous for his short stories and novels, and for his ongoing depiction of the little man standing helpless against the big system, bureaucracy, or society.
Four years ago, by a magical coincidence, I found myself with a book of hundreds of text fragments which Kafka wrote at different points in his life. The scope of these fragments ranges from three sentences to three-page long texts. Some of them are unfinished sketches, while others are perfectly structured; some are surreal to the point of complete absurdity, while others are totally realistic; some deal with the classic Kafkaesque themes, while others reflect on other ideas.
Many of those texts moved me and fascinated me, and I found many layers hiding in them: the top layer, Kafkaesque surreal narratives decorated by humoristic glimpses; the middle layer, the romantic, melancholic aspects of the stories; the bottom layer of the dark themes of existential loneliness and alienation.
In many of these texts I found a more personal facet of Kafka’s work: instead of the little man searching for his identity as a part of a huge mechanism, these texts present a different type of identity search, in which Kafka tries to define who he is according to his relationships with the people who surround him. These are the texts that I chose to set. The result is that rather than being cold and threatening Kafkaesque stories, Ambiguous Kafka presents warm, intimate, and compelling scenarios: the anxiety of being alone in a room; the trepidation of waiting for an unknown person; the stress of having to satisfy people’s expectations; the desire for a romantic love; and the fear of losing the love you have.
The process of creating the piece felt no less magical than the spell which summoned the sketches book into my hands. I started by setting one short text for a tuba player, and had no plans for a larger piece. When the tuba piece was done, I felt that I had discovered a unique concept for approaching the text, and decided to proceed and create another short piece using the same concept. Each one of the next four movements of the piece came as a result of the movements which preceded it, and at no point was there a large plan for the piece. When I finished composing the fifth movement, I knew that there was no need for anything more. Except for an overture and an epilogue, the piece was done. I had found myself facing a piece with a clear overall connecting theme – ambiguity: a man who has made a meeting with a person he actually doesn’t know; a brutal gangster who ends up as a slim, smiling man; an Olympic swimmer who cannot swim; and a balustrade which turns to a man.
While each movement in the piece has a different focus, for me, at the bottom of each of these texts lie loneliness and a desire for a human companion. This is why, to my eyes, the baritone movement is the heart of this piece: it presents this theme bare, without any disguise, and says directly “I loved a girl… …but I had to leave her… …I suffered much”.