As the air is released from a bright red balloon, the stage erupts in a strict pandemonium. Distorted guitars squeal. A thunder of drums clatters into action. Actors’ bodies spasm and thrust their outstretched fists as if fighting with unseen ghosts. “It could be so much fun, I promise!” yells a bearded man centre stage, his voice rising to an extended roar, “So much fucking FUUUNNNNN!” The balloon pirouettes through the air before landing, crumpled and deflated, on the floor.
So begins the latest opera by New York-based new music collective Object Collection. It’s All True is derived from more than 1,200 hours of archival live recordings by the American post-hardcore band Fugazi. In an exhaustive months-long process, composer Travis Just and writer Kara Feely meticulously transcribed all the incidental stage banter, random drum beating and tentative guitar noodling between tracks – everything, that is, except the group’s actual songs. What results is a 100 minute-long assault upon the ears, scored for four electric guitars, two drum kits, and four actor-singers. Cosi Fan Tutte it is not.
From 1987 until an “indefinite hiatus” starting in 2002, Washington DC four-piece Fugazi were one of the most electrifying live bands in America. Marrying the urgent clamour of hardcore punk with the structural ingenuity of post-rock, their concerts were renowned as much for their spontaneity (they supposedly never wrote a set list before a show) as their political commitment (all their hometown shows were benefits for different causes). Gigs might be interspersed with extended rants about anything from mosh-pit etiquette to Middle Eastern wars.
In the years since, Fugazi have gradually been uploading recordings of all their old shows to the web. Everything had to be digitised, mastered, identified and evaluated. “It took a lot of time and many wonderful people chipping in with their expertise,” says the band’s guitarist Guy Picciotto, who never expected anyone to make something out of it all. “My main thought was just that someone who saw us in Kalamazoo in 1991 and wanted to revisit the experience could go on the archive and find it.”
For Object Collection, working with Fugazi stage banter is not so outlandish. In previous works deconstructionist essays by Jacques Derrida have rubbed up against dialogue from Sam Peckinpah films; eyewitness reports on Russia’s October revolution entwined with the contemporary art journal October. But although appropriation has long been part of their M.O., there was never any question of using Fugazi’s songs. “There’s nothing to be gained from rehashing that stuff,” Just insists. The last thing they wanted to produce was a Mamma Mia! but with Fugazi tracks.
For a lifelong fan of live recordings like Just, to do something with all the in-between stuff was an almost irresistible joke. “What if we actually took that joke to the most extreme level possible,” Just asked, “and really did something with it?” Just proceeded to sit at home, acoustic guitar in his lap, listening through all 891 available gigs, picking out usable material, and scoring what he found in the dots and lines of music notation.
It was an exhausting, almost insane undertaking – and not without its absurdities. Just recalls one particular phrase he was struggling with, “this weird sliding thing with one hand and then the other hand coming back up on the other string...” Defeated, he finally turned to YouTube, only to discover the noise in question was the result of Picciotto slamming his guitar against a mic stand and rubbing it back and forth.
It’s moments like this that made Fugazi such an appealing choice for a project like It’s All True. “There’s something sonically distinctive about them,” Just argues, “that carries through the detritus that we’re scoring, and is reflected in the way that they played, in the stuff that they’re talking about in their songs, the way that they would organise their tours, and the way that they would interact with their audience.”
The challenge for Just and Feely was to be true to that spirit. “The thing we wanted to avoid above all was any sense of nostalgia. If the piece can be simplified to just ‘the Fugazi opera’ then we failed and it is worthless.” And if their urge to score such random acts sounds perverse, for Picciotto, hearing the final results “hits much more deeply than any cover of one of our actual songs could ever do”.
Watching the work’s premiere at last year’s Borealis festival in Bergen, Norway, was a thrilling ordeal. The work sharply divided its audience but everyone was talking about it; spectators I spoke to who were irritated by its oblique narrative arc and unremitting dynamic upon first leaving the theatre found themselves still preoccupied by it days later. There is an excessiveness that makes it hard to take in one sitting, but that also gets to the heart of the meaning of opera: something “bigger than life” as Feely puts it, “ferocious in scope”.
“I appreciate that plenty of people would hear five seconds of it and say, that’s not opera,” Just concedes. Half sung, half spoken, the vocal style is far from bel canto – but then neither was that of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives nor much of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. Just cites a line of influences stretching from Mozart’s recitative to hip-hop via Schoenberg’s sprechstimme. When vocal rehearsals weren’t working he had the singers watch a Velvet Underground live video. “As a composer, I don’t want to live in a world where I can’t draw on Public Enemy as a resource,” Just says. “The 20th century happened. You can’t erase Yoko Ono.”
- Object Collection perform It’s All True at Cafe Oto, London, 21-22 September. It is released by Slip in October.