Proposal for Kaddish, An Electronic Opera for multitrack audiotape + videotape

The Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, is commonly considered the most poetic text in Jewish liturgy. I and a student assistant taped at least sixty different declamations of these hauntingly beautiful traditional verses from rabbis and cantors descending from places around the world, the sounds (accents) of their voices implicitly representing the scope of the Diaspora (the revelation of which becomes my plot and theme). These were initially mixed into a stereo tape to fulfill a commission for German radio. That was only the first step. What we want to do next is produce an eight-track tape for eight loudspeakers theatrically arrayed (and for more modest venues, a four-speaker version as well)--an electronic opera for repeated concert performances and/or continuous installations that ideally also include a videotape, either for standard monitors or a large projection screen, containing imaginative presentations of an English translation of the text and related nonrepresentational imagery. In all cases, the speakers will made to sound, as they do on the sample tape, as though they are participating in a live performance.

I prefer producing audiotape, whether for radio broadcast or disc or a continuous performance, to live theater for several persuasive reasons: (1) it would be unfeasible (and extravagantly expensive) to gather religious professionals into a single presentation space; (2) it would, on the other hand, be inappropriate to have such prayers spoken by "actors"; (3) on multitrack audiotape can be realized a complex verbal-musical-theatrical experience of a permanent quality that would be impossible in live performance (product being more important to me than process); (4) sacred texts, to my senses, especially benefit from metahuman acoustic enhancements; (5) the completed performance can be distributed, less expensively, in its definitive form forever, initially as a stereo audiotape to Westdeutscher Rundfunk, which commissioned it, and to publishers of standard records and discs but also (in stereo, four-track or eight-track forms) to public venues such as museums, theaters and synagogues for regularly repeated, if not continuous, performances; (6) the result, unlike a live performance, offers equal access to all listeners. Ever since producing books about alternative performance theater (1968) and Moholy-Nagy (1970), I've been interested in finding an operatic analogue for an entirely "mechanical theater" that would proceed apart from human intervention; the development of multitrack audiotape makes this strategically feasible. "Kaddish" represents my first major attempt to realize a work in this vein.

A repeatable performance medium would be more appropriate for a work such as this, a work whose content is extremely subtle and whose narrative action is conceptually unusual in form: The linguistic representation of the Diaspora is portrayed not through changes in the text but through the appearance of different voices revealing various backgrounds. Most of my field recording was done in New York City (my home town), where rabbis and cantors from around the world permanently reside, and throughout Europe, where I am invited to work every year; and need I say that the Hebrew prayer for the dead is safely in the public domain. The stereo audiotape was realized at the brand-new Opus digital editing console at Lexicon, Inc., in Waltham, MA; final composition of four-track and eight-track tapes will take place at EMS-Stockholm, where I have worked gratis at a twenty-four track console several times before, or at a comparable private American studio. For both concert performances and continuous installations, I expect to produce an accompanying videotape which will resemble the sample Onomatopoeia (1990) in having a visible text composed to illustrate the verbal content of the audiotape; the typography and visual recitation will be my own. Aside from assistance in recording rabbis and editing videotape, I have been and will be personally involved in every step of the financing, creation and distribution of this work.

The multitrack Kaddish will be offered to exhibitors that have previously presented films and tapes of mine, including the Jewish Museum and the Whitney Museum, for multispeaker + video presentations in either concerts or continuous installations; WDR will also probably use it in its own performance festivals comparable to the one recently at the Whitney at Equitable in New York City. It might also be possible to use this Kaddish as the sound for a live theatrical performance that, say, could include mime or dance, much as the choreographer Manuel Alum used my Invocations (1981) for performances both in Rio Piedras, PR (1985) and New York, NY (1986).

May I add that it seems odd to me that we have not had more musical-theater for audiotape in our time, as we are more accustomed to the strictly aural experience of musical theater than we commonly allow, initially on radio and then on records; so that we could estimate that by now more operatic theater is just heard, rather than seen and heard. Moreover, in Europe as well as America, operas have been written especially for radio theater (by Walter Goehr in 1930, Gian Carlo Menotti in 1939, Italo Montemezzi in 1943, among others); but prior to the age of audiotape, their original performances were necessarily produced within the constraints of live time. However, in the post-WWII period came audiotape, which can be spliced more cleanly than the preceding technology of wire; and multitrack tape, which allows the composer to separate the component sounds and readjust them individually for a definitive stereo-spatial performance; and then sound-processing capabilities, such as filtering or more sophisticated computer speech-synthesis. More recently came videotape, with its own capabilities, including the possible use of mixed-down multitrack audiotape for its stereo soundtrack. In this context, it is clear that the most immediate predecessors for what I plan to do are the electro-acoustic soundtracks of two videotapes: Charles Dodge's The Story of Our Lives (1974), subtitled "An Operatic Dialogue for Male and Female Synthetic Voices," and Robert Ashley's Perfect Lives (1984). Indicatively, both these soundracks are also currently available just on audio-storage media (aka cassetes). My own Kaddish for audiotape will thus be not for an elite but for a larger audience, which is to say most of us millions who are, individually as well as collectively, accustomed just to hearing musical-theater. May it also stand perhaps as a pioneering example for future musical-theater initially on audiotape. My deepest ambitions for this proposal, need they be known, are to create a truly contemporary successor to the grand tradition of sacred musical- theater and, second, to realize only the second classic electro-acoustic audiotape of an Hebraic text [the first being, alas, Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gesang der Junglinge (1955)].