Madman At Sea
The Paul Dresher Ensemble and Rinde Eckert perform avant-garde opera.
Thursday, February 3, 2000
In 1968, Donald Crowhurst set sail from Britain, determined to win a contest that would make him the first man to circumnavigate the world, nonstop, in a small boat. When he entered the race, however, he was underprepared, and by the time he reached the coast of South America, he knew he could not win.
Then he decided that he would pretend to sail around the world. He made periodic radio reports of false positions and otherwise maintained radio silence. While he waited for the competition to round the horn of Africa, he wrote a bogus log. One by one the others dropped out, and by the time Crowhurst rejoined the race, there was only one sailor left. Shortly after Crowhurst ceased radio silence and reestablished his true position, the other sailor foundered off the west coast of Africa. At that point Crowhurst turned out into open ocean, apparently went mad and stepped off his boat, never to be seen again.
Composer Steve Mackey and librettist Rinde Eckert have created an opera (they call it a "staged monodrama") that explores the motives and actions of Crowhurst. Titled Ravenshead, it will take the stage at Sunset Center this Saturday night as part of the Performance Carmel series. The 1998 work has been staged in Berkeley, at Penn State and Columbia University to critical acclaim. The main attraction is Eckert, who, as singer/actor, carries the title role, indeed the only role, of the piece. The Paul Dresher Ensemble (a frequent collaborator with Eckert) provides an "orchestra" of violin, tenor sax, bassoon, keyboard, mallet synthesizer, electronic drums and electric guitar.
If the names Mackey, Eckert and Dresher are unfamiliar, know that they are all well-positioned at the forefront of new music theater in all the major cities of the country and each has an extensive CD discography. In addition to singing and acting, Eckert is a keyboard and horn player, dancer, writer and director whose solo works and collaborations have been performed throughout the US and abroad. (John Rockwell in the New York Times described an Eckert appearance as "the most exciting performance art this writer has encountered since the early days of Laurie Anderson.")
Mackey, on the faculty of Princeton University, has written all manner of instrumental, vocal and theater works. The Kronos Quartet has commissioned several pieces from him, the most recent being String Theory of 1998. His Lost and Found was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, Eating Greens by the Chicago Symphony and among the vanishing by the Kronos Quartet and soprano Dawn Upshaw.
As a performing musician and composer Dresher has followed his own path, to increasing acclaim, in the wake of the now faded minimalist trinity of Riley, Reich and Glass. Like Mackey, Dresher has been commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, as well as the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Spoleto Festival, ODC San Francisco and the American Music Theater Festival.
In a recent phone interview, Paul Dresher explained why Mackey, rather than himself, had composed the score.
"I had offered Steve a commission," said Dresher. "I knew that as a player he would write well for the electric guitar, which is my instrument. When he got back to me a few months later, he said, ''If you give me twice as much [commission] money I''ll give you 10 times the music.'' Then he told me the story of Crowhurst. I knew that this would be a winner and that Rinde was the right person to play the character. The Dresher Ensemble has all the resources to perform it. It fell together naturally."
Ravenshead is performed on Saturday at 8pm, at the Sunset Center, San Carlos and 8th, Carmel. Tickets: $13, $17. 624-3996.