John Supko’s “All Souls”
with New Music Raleigh, NC Opera and Ashleigh Semkiw
Monday, Nov. 25, CAM Raleigh

Monday night in Raleigh, composer John Supko’s moving musical collage “All Souls” became a legitimate gesamtkunstwerk, raising the ante for inter-arts performances within Triangle’s expanding scene.

The second performance of “All Souls” was a joint presentation of the North Carolina Opera and CAM Raleigh. Conducted by the Opera’s Timothy Myers and played by New Music Raleigh and Canadian soprano Ashleigh Semkiw, the piece transformed excerpts of Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom’s novel All Souls Day into nine emotionally charged movements. Supko combined field recordings and recorded readings from the novel with vocals and live instruments. And though it didn’t figure into Supko’s composition, CAM’s current Surveying the Terrain exhibition heightened the piece’s trans-European story by surrounding the audience with the kind of imagery in which both of the main characters traffic.

Arthur, a documentary filmmaker who has lost his wife and child in a plane crash, is struggling in wintry Berlin when he meets Elik, a much-younger history student with the tragic past of an abusive upbringing. They have an intense, intimate relationship—so much so that they can’t remain together. The changes they provoke in each other, however, dispatch both in new directions.

Supko solves the problem of presenting a 400-page novel in an hour of performance through his choice of episodes from the novel. He focuses on the stages of the relationship between Arthur and Elik—their backgrounds, how they meet, how they become passionately involved, how they part—and foregoes the book’s larger historical storylines. Crucially, Supko brings Elik to the fore by using Semkiw as the only live vocalist. While Nooteboom’s novel is primarily about Arthur, Supko shifts that weight to Elik by having Semkiw sing some of Arthur’s narration, offering his thoughts with her voice. In other passages, she sings what a recorded male voice reads. Rather than confusing the characters’ identities, this choice delivers the sudden, desperate intensity of their relationship as a kind of collision.

During the second movement, in which Arthur and Elik first meet in a cafeteria, Semkiw’s voicing brings a sensual aspect to Arthur’s internal description of Elik. The background recording of a bustling café combines with Supko’s ambient music to make this doubled introspection intimate. Throughout “All Souls,” Supko’s dramaturgy is just as interesting as his musical composition.

Supko’s fourth movement, one of the most musically remarkable, places a minimal violin pulse and a darting percussion line beneath sustained swells to establish a scenic tone for Arthur and Elik. As the percussion shifts over the tonal pulse, tension builds between the two as they gauge what they want to reveal to the other. Almost forgetting himself, Arthur lists the horrors he witnessed in wartime Belgrade as well as their surreal, sickening resonance with the city’s gaudy commercial imagery. With an uneasy edge, Semkiw sings text from advertisements over Arthur’s recorded narration. A now-swaying pulse in the violins render his attraction to and repulsion from the spectacle.

As the two-part sixth movement opens, Elik is on a train from Germany to Spain, leaving Arthur behind. Semkiw shines in Supko’s libretto, turning Nooteboom’s languid, phrasal prose into a rolling song. Supko picks up on the train’s meditative rhythm by echoing the last word of a phrase on the marimba.

During he seating wrapped around Maya Lin’s geographical sculpture “Blue Lake Pass,” which heightened the sense of travel across a simultaneously real and psychological landscape. Aerial photography by David Maisel and Mishka Henner flanked the audience, resonating with Nooteboom’s crisp, critical narration. Behind the performers, three of Trevor Paglen’s sinister drone pictures picked up reflected light from the instruments, reminding viewers that fiction is a kind of surveillance. The seats, all situated on the even plane of CAM Raleigh’s floor, didn’t offer much of a vantage to those in the deep rows of the rather packed house. But they all stood at the end no less, clapping enthusiastically.

This remarkable collaboration isn’t the first between the two-headed monster of Myers and New Music Raleigh. With Supko and CAM in the mix, too, hopes are now raised that “All Souls” won’t be the last thing we see from this gang in the gallery.