While the self-indulgent were indulging themselves with Fleet Week and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (not to mention, for the sake of fairness, the War Memorial Opera House and Davies Symphony Hall), Herbst Theatre was hosting the world premiere of the one-hour spoken-word chamber opera “Echoes,” composed by Danny Clay and given a staged performance directed by Sean San José. The piece was created to launch the new Hear Now and Then Series produced for the 38th season of San Francisco Performances. The text sources came from Youth Speaks, an organization that encourages pre-college students to get actively involved in writing and performing poetry through programs held during the school day, in after-school hours, and on weekends.
Preparation of the libretto was curated by Tassiana Willis, one of the inaugural Emerging Arts Fellows at Youth Speaks, whose texts were combined with those of four other poet-performers, Gabriel Cortez, A. M. Smiley, Aimee Suzara, and Michael Wayne Turner III. The libretto also included texts by Tongo Eisen-Martin and Enrique Garcia Naranjo; and one of the poems was delivered by San José himself. Finally, Turner’s compelling delivery of “The Young Dead Soldiers,” by the late American poet Archibald MacLeish, played a major role in establishing context for the abundance of last night’s poetry of the living.
Clay conceived a highly imaginative score to establish the context for this wealth of poetry. The background for that context incorporated field recordings most likely taken from the streets of San Francisco (most of which were probably about as far from the comfort zone of the self-indulgent as one might imagine). The performing musicians on stage included the Kronos Quartet of violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Sunny Yang and The Living Earth Show duo of guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andy Meyerson. Every now and then Clay’s tapes seemed either to echo or to reinforce the instrumental work, suggesting that his field work may have included rehearsals of his score.
There are probably several ways to interpret the opera’s title. My personal inclination is that these are all echoes from streets in San Francisco that receive little awareness or attention from that self-indulgent class I keep citing, particularly those members of the class who inhabit comfortable offices in City Hall. Those echoes first emerge as reflections of poems created by those chosen by fate to live on those streets. The poems were then themselves echoed through the performances staged by San José, and the semantic implications emerging from those performances were then reflected through the musical contexts established by Clay’s score. If that is not enough to account for the plural form of the noun in the title, I don’t know what is!
In such a context it would be fair to say that words consistently tended to prevail over music. San José coached some thoroughly compelling and passionate readings from the Youth Speaks crew. That intensity even extended to the MacLeish poem, which is now engraved on polished stone in the new Memorial Court that now occupies the space between the Opera House and the Veterans Building. Under San José’s direction, Youth Speaks exercised the talent of seizing and holding attention to every word, if not every phrase-demarcating pause.
Clay wisely decided not to compete with this intensity. Almost all of the music written for Kronos involved relatively mournful chord progressions repeated with the persistence of incantation. (Before the poets took the stage, Clay also exercised a bit of deconstruction with this context, having fragments of the individual lines of those chord progressions played as solos.) The Living Earth Show, on the other hand, was there to provide “high-intensity punctuation marks” between the readings. Much of this involved explosive percussion work, so forceful that it seemed as if Andrews was just miming his guitar work. There were also some more subtle punctuations, but what was most important was Clay’s skill in having the music speak for itself without giving any sense of competing with the words.
All of this went down excellently before a clearly highly appreciative audience. The objective may have been to speak truth to power, but power usually depends on a skill for judiciously turning a deaf ear. So it may very well be that “Echoes” never advanced beyond preaching to the choir. Even so, times are so bad these days that even the choir needs a bit of reinforcement from time to time. Ideally, this is a show that should be taken on the road, but on a road that will deliver the message to those most in need of getting it by virtue of their power to take meaningful action.