ELODIE LAUTEN
THE DEUS EX MACHINA CYCLE (1997)
Soprano, Mezzo Soprano, Baritone,
Baroque Ensemble


Notes by John Schaefer

What’s in a name? In the case of Elodie Lauten’s Deus Ex Machina, quite a lot actually. The Latin phrase deus ex machina, literally "god from a machine", referred originally to the practice in classical Greek and Roman theater of lowering a god to the stage, usually on a crane, at the climactic moment to dispense godly wisdom and order to the messy mortal actors beneath. The deus ex machina was also much in favor during the Baroque period in Europe. In modern times, the phrase refers to the unexpected appearance of a character who provides an unlikely resolution to a problem.

For Elodie Lauten, the use of the phrase deus ex machina as a title is a multiple metaphor. "This cycle of songs brings together many different types of text and elements of my compositions, going back to 1987. There isn’t a plot, but it is the existential focus – symbolically, the divine intervention or deus ex machina – that makes everything fits together." There is a more literal reason for the title as well. "God is in the machine! Even though the music is completely acoustic, I used midi programs to create them. " she says. "So in a sense, it’s a gift of the technology."

The Baroque connection is also an important one, as The Deus Ex Machina Cycle is scored for a quasi-Baroque ensemble, with important solo parts for harpsichord, flute, and two sopranos. This consistent orchestration ties together a collection of songs and texts that draws on many different styles and cultures. Another common thread is the Baroque tuning system, an 18th century Vallotti temperament that allows the music to modulate to more chromatic areas without being restricted to the modern equal-tempered scale. The entire tuning is based on what Lauten refers to as the "Earth Tone", the vibration of the Earth expressed as a musical note. This is actually a manifestation of another Baroque ideal, namely astronomer Johannes Kepler’s notion of the "music of the spheres". (For the cognoscenti, or the merely curious, the Earth Tone – based on the year cycle – here is a C# at 136.1 hertz.)

Clearly, The Deus Ex Machina Cycle is a big work. It is Lauten’s most substantial and orchestrated work to date, with a gestation period that lasted for much of the 1990s. It presents a synthesis of neo-Baroque and postminimalist musical styles that grows out of her previous works but departs from them. But it is as much a philosophical cycle as a musical one. The subtitles of the work’s two halves, Agartha or the Realm of Emotion and Experience and Akasha or the Realm of the Unknowable, suggest Hindu mysticism. A fragment from Christian mystic and polymath Blaise Pascal used in Part Two reads almost like a Zen koan. The other texts often suggest more recent epistemology: even the façade of apparent worldliness in Steven Hall’s The Exotic World of Speed and Beauty cracks to reveal fundamental questions about perception and reality. "A swing to matrix/imaging a cloud of square dots." Get too close and the picture is nothing but black and white dots; too far and it’s one big dot. What the image is depends on how close you are to it. Perhaps the most telling use of texts in Deus Ex Machina is the Blaise Pascal setting. The Two Infinites is the composer’s own adaptation of an excerpt from Pascal’s Pensées (1670). Pascal’s particular brand of mysticism seems most at home here – the idea that at some point, knowledge fails and you must fall back on a mystical faith in order to understand the universe. This fits nicely with Elodie Lauten’s distinctive blend of rigorous, if pliable, musicology with more esoteric and otherworldly concerns. In the mid-1980s, for example, she drew upon musical and astrological theories to create a triangular lyre called the Trine. In the mid-90s, after living for a couple of years in the American Southwest, she released Inscapes From Exile, a collection of synthesizer pieces haunted by the ancient ghosts of lost Amerindian civilizations and the more recent ones of Roswell, New Mexico’s legendary extraterrestrial sightings. At certain points during the course of Deus Ex Machina, Lauten goes beyond text, as if to suggest that words fail and you have to fall back on pure music. Is music emblematic of Pascal’s mystic faith? A means of perceiving a truth or reality we can never really know?

Elodie Lauten’s diverse interests have been brought together in Deus Ex Machina. These interests include Baroque tuning theories (musicologists like Johann Mattheson wrote entire treatises cataloguing different musical tunings, scales, and chords according to the emotional effect each was thought to have on the listener). She has investigated synesthesia, the phenomenon of scales or chords having an associated color for some listeners. In her earlier, only slightly less unconventional opera The Death of Don Juan, she took a distinctive approach to the minimalist rhythms and harmonic structures, and the wild free-for-all that is the world of contemporary microtonality. Lauten’s work with alternate tunings has never been dogmatic, but rather highly personal, with entire tuning systems being altered or discarded in order to make the music sound good. One of the hallmarks of her microtonal works has been her ability to take obscure theory and put it into accessible, genuinely musical practice. The choice of the Vallotti temperament, for example, gives Deus Ex Machina an approachable sound, but also allows the subtle pungency of the flute and violin parts in songs such as Buddha in the Sunlight. In addition, the entire ensemble plays at a somewhat lower pitch than the modern standard, a pitch much closer to that used in the Baroque period. Whether you’d need perfect pitch and a finely trained ear to pick up the difference… According to Lauten, the tuning enhances the performance and is always felt, if not actually heard.

A pianist herself, Lauten has written many works in the Western equal tempered tuning system. (One composer recently confessed that he found Lauten’s Variations On The Orange Cycle, in pianist Lois Svard’s recording, the best work on the record... despite having a piece on the recording himself.) Her earliest recording, an early 1980s LP called PianoWorks, already saw Lauten stretching aural and tonal boundaries by pairing the piano with tapes of found sounds - playing with the ambiguity between sound and music. The motoric, moto perpetuo quality of these early works and the occasional piquant, unexpected chord sequence made them listener-friendly, but no less significant. And echoes of that early music are in evidence at the very start of Deus Ex Machina.

The Living Temple, the opening song, uses a kind of ur-language of syllables and phonemes - a song with vocals, but no words. The urgent accompaniment immediately highlights the similarities between Baroque harpsichord figurations and contemporary minimalist chord sequences. With the introduction of language in the second song, Answer, Lauten reveals the work’s mystical bent. Melody Sumner Carnahan’s lyrical, almost ecstatic wordplay and the cyclic repetitions of Lauten’s music suggest a sort of postmodern trance ritual, whirling itself ever farther from logic, but hinting at a deeper meaning just at the threshold of understanding. A similar, almost psychedelic effect recurs in Part Two’s Buddha In The Sunlight, another Carnahan text accompanied by Lauten’s cycling keyboard arpeggios, with gauzy punctuation from flute and violin. This quality is not dependent on texts, however. In the instrumental section The Young Thunder, a rare modern work for the Baroque viola d’amore, Lauten simultaneously evokes the string consorts of Elizabethan England and the millennial mysticism of composers like John Tavener and Arvo Pärt (Lauten’s Baroque output actually came before Taverner’s - Deus Ex Machina Soho Baroque Opera premiere, April 96.)

The millennial connection may just be a coincidence, but Lauten’s magnum opus certainly concerns itself with important questions: questions about vibration and tuning, about perception, about the role of language in determining reality, and about musical form. The Deus Ex Machina Cycle is, according to Elodie Lauten, an opera. What it does look and sound like, perhaps, is a song cycle. And Lauten is quick to confirm that the form of the piece is new. "Is it an opera, or a song cycle? The issue here is how to evolve both of these forms." Elodie Lauten is part of the generation of composers for whom LaMonte Young’s gnomic exercises in tuning and the physical properties of sound have been a formative influence. Although French-born, she has clearly placed herself in that longstanding tradition of American mavericks.

Deus Ex Machina reaches its climax in the penultimate song, Lauten’s adaptation of Blaise Pascal’s The Two Infinites. Here, the work’s underlying mysticism is in full view. To a ruminating accompaniment, the soprano spins her introspective lines. "Between the two extremes of infinity and nothingness," she sings, "after all, what is man in nature? /A nothing compared to infinity/a whole compared to nothing/a middle point between all and nothing." The universal questions of knowledge and perception are neatly summed up in the final two lines of the song.

It would, of course, take a real deus ex machina to unravel these mysteries. Elodie Lauten finds a more elegant solution in her final song, The Exotic World of Speed and Beauty. As British songwriter/producer Brian Eno once sang, "if you study the logistics and heuristics of the mystics you will find that their minds rarely moved in a line." Lauten’s Deus Ex Machina does not move along in a linear progression, and her setting of this enigmatic Steven Hall text does not provide a conclusion. Instead it cycles us back to where we were in the beginning. At a certain point, language breaks down. There are no answers, and there is no god in the machine. Or if there is, he’s just along for the ride.

John Schaefer is the producer and host of WNYC’s New Sounds program.

Note: on Orange for solo flute, Andrew Bolotowsky plays a Baroque flute by Friedrich von Huene (copy after Naust).


THE DEUS EX MACHINA CYCLE
LYRICS

(in order of performance)
Part I: Agartha or the Realm of Emotion and Experience

ANSWER - Text by Melody Sumner Carnahan

He wrote me that love yes he did me. He had me for it. Not in a way but the fine true small. The purity of it gave me a drama. He the man was I first entered being. Less whole but completely, I refuse could not his entirely love. It burned a blessing from my instant for a thought. I could see no endanger or evil come from him. He held my numbness flat and spoke himself not. To me became he a prosperity. I will I was now able be. I seek thy say. In the name now not of. In the name of brought he and within our feet to stand. I was gladdened when no further spoke he of it. Let go us then. Further and farther. I died of no evil did only in thy palaces love becoming more than I could conceive. Only he that may love never me having been to believe so of it. Loving always then and all. Not any one but endure he not of. The thrones of his judgment set me upon. His ability then to defile me my name. Said in a way such of soon he his pleasure. My sincere love not possible he feared me because of my pleasure. Say I will now. Seek I will thy good. I will peace be within thee. But much more within my walls I cannot deliver. Deceiving own his selves not hearing me. My self to free I cannot but offer. My tithes, my devotion, haven’t enough in I for him. To rip me or soil. Not coming. Not. Deceive me he while. The pool into put me. Steppeth down he before me. Whom from I flow no blessings fall. Not the shot. Not the shot fell before me. Never to wish leave you. As much as can he not. Trust but still deceive me open. Answer what prompts him with whole my heart.

ELEGY - from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegy (4)

Sieh, die Sterbenden,
sollten sie nicht vermuten, wie voll Worwand
das alles ist, was wir hier leisten. Alles
ist nicht es selbst. O Stunden in der Kindheit,
da hinter den Figuren mehr als nur
Vergangnes war und vor uns nicht die Zukunft.
Wir wuchsen freilich und wir drängten manchmal,
bald groß zu werden, denen hald zulieb,
die andres nicht mehr hatten, als das Großsein.
Und waren doch, in unserem Alleingehn,
mit Dauerndem vergnügt und standen da
im Zwischenraume zwischen Welt und Spielzeug,
an einer Stelle, die seit Anbeginn
gegründet war für einen reiner Vorgang.
Wer zeigt ein Kind so wie es steht? Wer stellt
es ins Gestirn und giebt das Maß des Abstands
ihm in die Hand? Wer macht den Kindertod
aus grauem Brot, das hart wird, - order läßt
ihn drin im runden Mund, so wie den Gröps
von einem schönen Apfel? ... Mörder sind
leicht einzusehen. Aber dies: den Tod,
den ganzen Tod, noch vor dem Leben so
sanft zu enthalten und nicht bös zu sein,
ist unberschreiblich.

Translation:

If no one else, the dying must notice how unreal,
how full of pretense,
is all that we accomplish here,
where nothing is allowed to be itself.
Oh, hours of childhood,
when behind each shape more than the past appeared,
and what streamed out before us was not the future.
We felt our bodies growing
and were at times impatient to be grown up,
half for the sake of those with nothing left
but their grownupness.
Yet were, when playing by ourselves,
enchanted with that alone endures;
and we would stand there in the infinite,
blissful space between world and toy,
at a point which, from the earliest beginning,
had been established for a pure event.
Who shows a child as she really is?
Who sets her in her constellation
and puts the measuring-rod of distance in her hand?
Who makes her death out of gray bread,
which hardens -
or leaves it there inside her round mouth,
like a round apple (?).
But this: that one, can contain death,
the whole of death,
even before life has begun,
can hold it to one’s heart gently,
and not refuse to go on living, is inexpressible.

Verlaine Variations
Clair de Lune (Sonnet by Paul Verlaine)

Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmants masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques

Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur
L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune
Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur

Et le chanson se mêle au clair de lune
Le calme clair de lune, triste et beau
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres

Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau
Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres.

 Translation by Elodie Lauten

Your soul is a chosen landscape
Where charming masked and costumed figures stroll
Playing the lute and dancing and almost
Sad under their fantastic disguises.

While they sing in the minor mode
The victory of love and the opportunities of life
They do not seem to believe in their happiness
And their song blends with the moonlight

The quiet moonlight, sad and beautiful,
Which gives dreams to the birds in the trees
And makes the fountain sprays sob in ecstasy
The tall willowy sprays among the marble statues.

FEAR
Lyrics by Elodie Lauten

Here
Now
I feel change coming
Here
Now
I sense a change
Not a good one
I don’t know why I feel cold
Here
Now
The future
Someone new
A place
A grey stranger
What can I do
to prevent life from escaping
A spell
I don’t know why I feel cold and so alone
Someone
A grey stranger
An enemy working against my life
How? I don’t know
How could I know
I never hurt anyone
A secret enemy
Why? I don’t know
The dice are cast
My fate is sealed
How could I survive the threat
the subtle spell
What will happen to me
Can I survive?
How can I fight what I don’t even know

 

 DEATH AS A SHADOW
Lyrics by Elodie Lauten

Je suis la mort
devenue plus humaine
ta dernière chance d’atteindre l’être pur

Unsterblichkeit
für immer und ewig
Ich bin ein Tod
ein Erde
Ich werden wieder menschlich
unaufhorlich leben seele
Ewigkeit für immer und Ewig

Je suis ta mort
ta mort suprême
et je t’attends toujours fidèle
sans impatience
je suis ta mort
ta mort fidèle

Io sono la tua ezistenza
il tuo mutamento
Io sono il tuo illuminismo
Aspettare, continuare
pronto, preparato
infinito, eterno
al momento della tua morte

I am your death am I
I your death am I
your faithful death am I
I becoming human again
death am I
I faithful death
your death am I
self destroy self
self destroy pleasure death am I
the human in me says you will live
death in me says
you have destroyed your self
self destroy self pleasure death
I am your death

THE ALCHEMIST
Lyrics by Elodie Lauten, adapted in part from Von Nettlesheim

Words!
The thoughts, the sound of the voice
and speech
Express the mind into words
Power to the word

Deus, deus omnipotens
Deus de viris
Temporum dominus
Deus, deus omnipotens
Deus, deus est
Temporum dominus
Deus, Animae de viris
Mirabile visu
Deus, Magister notrae animae
Deus de viris
Deus animae nostrae
Magister animae nostrae

Words have two sides
Concept and sound
Words are motions of the soul
The breath of the mouth,
The movement of the tongue
The medium of invocation
Thereby the connection
between the soul and the divine

Deus de viris
Deus animae nostrae
Magister animae nostrae

Words
Uttered in a trance
With utmost concentration of the mind
Can bring a goal to completion

 

 Part II: Akasha or the Realm of the Unknowable

THE ARCHITECT
Text by Carl Karas

Architecture
is the language of space
Architecture
has no substance
as language has none
Therefore, architecture
is neither animate or inanimate
Even though in time
Its space can change
by growing, shrinking, altering, restoring, adding or subtracting, crumbling, eroding,
or rising up again.

Architecture reveals the illusion of time
in its manifestations.
Architecture is the construction of the city
on a limited time and scale.
It is the slower moving backdrop
for human speed, action and gesture
and should no more than echo these
in a limited and restricted manner.

It is the slower moving backdrop
of the plaza and the street
for the green speed and human speed
the trees and gardens,
the pedestrians and vehicles.

Architecture is the placement
of our scale and visual preferences
in the planning of projects
large enough to include
others in the process.

Opportunities arise
from the unity in all
when we simply realize
that we are one with what is.

How much, how much when
and how much when where
are questions as pressing as what and why.

To enhance experience
is the non-goal.
Success lies
in making information screens
that no remote control can change
rightfully permanent
like a book than cannot be burnt.

Opportunities arise
from the unity in all
when we simply realize
that we are one with what is.

 

THE TWO INFINITES
Lyrics adapted from Blaise Pascal (Pensées) by Elodie Lauten

Let man contemplate nature in her ecstasy.
Let him look away from his surroundings.
Let him see the earth as a mere speck
compared to the vast orbit described by the sun.
Let him marvel at finding it to be the tiniest point seen from his eyes.
The whole visible world is only a dot in the universe.
No idea can approximate it.
Nature is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.
Let man consider what he is in comparison to what exists.
Let him take the earth, animals, forests, oceans, countries, cities, buildings,
and himself at their proper value.

What is man in the infinite?
Let him look at the atom which contains all of nature.
Let him behold the infinity of all universes and their skies, planets and satellites.

Between the two extremes of infinity and nothingness, after all, what is man in nature?
A nothing compared to infinity,
a whole compared to nothing,
a middle point between all and nothing.

 

THE EXOTIC WORLD OF SPEED AND BEAUTY
Lyrics by Steven Hall from his book Black Watch

The exotic world of speed and beauty
The beauty of these laws in the stereo towers
is in its psychological effect - that’s Sabu’s translation
In the world of fashion it’s the fashion capital
A feeling - being out there longer than again
A time for not just racing but adventure
Jackie Ix on the way to Dakar via Algiers
Let me tell you everything I expect to know
Those who survive the harrowing rescue proudly
A helicopter almost lost in the heat haze
That was a miraculous ignition at that time
Over two million works of such majestic sponsoring
String and wild light projects through certain layers
Trans-modifying whether systematic or all-wide
Averaging an amelioration of toggle ports
Another back on the screen - loosening up
A swing to matrix/imaging a cloud of square dots
Approaching that altitude with retrojetting sparks
In that sense we are meteors - real and non real

 

 

Copyright Elodie Lauten 2007