A lasting impression
A tale of nuclear waste and warning labels inspires a new piece for flute and voice.
How does one write a sign to warn earthlings (or aliens) away from a radioactive mountain 10,000 years from now? What language should be used? Or what simple iconography? This is an honest-to-god dilemma explored in John D’Agata’s 2010 nonfiction work, About a Mountain. The essayist and University of Iowa creative writing professor examines the U.S. government’s attempts during the last eight years to transform Nevada’s Yucca Mountain into a dumping ground for nuclear waste. The project has been derailed, in part by the impossibility of developing warning placards that could remain universally understandable during its 100-century-plus lifespan.
Earlier this year, while reading About a Mountain, local mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley became fixated on the idea of the ephemerality of language. That concern has led to an exciting collaboration with composer Laura Schwendinger.
“I found the meditation on modes of communication, and what has a chance of enduring, to have real pertinence to our efforts here and now as artists,” the River Forest resident tells us. After working with and befriending Schwendinger during the Music Institute of Chicago’s Four Score Festival in 2009, Bentley knew she wanted the University of Wisconsin–Madison associate professor of composition to translate the concept into music. The singer made one restriction—to orchestrate the piece for flute and voice only. “The flute is like the [human] voice with a layer of communication already stripped away,” Bentley explains. Chicago flute diva Mary Stolper will handle the woodwind element.
The lyrics were pulled primarily from just a few sentences from the book of a government report on nonverbal communication. Schwendinger tells us by e-mail from France that she simplified the “coldly unemotional” bureaucratic text to achieve something iconic, more like visual symbols. “The words and sentence structure are used to feel ancient or alien,” she explains. “They have an ominous portent.” The result has the air of something both ancient and modern.
Bentley, a premier new-music specialist, is known for excavating the beauty from the abstruse scores of, say, Paul Hindemith and Luciano Berio. With a résumé spanning the traditional (Chicago Symphony, Lyric Opera, Newberry Consort, Chicago Chamber Musicians) and the contemporary (MusicNow, Fulcrum Point, CUBE), the fortysomething daughter of professional musicians, John and Judith Bentley, credits her prowess to an early introduction to the genre. “My mother was in the first wave of extended-technique flutists,” she says. “Being exposed to those sound worlds as a kid was like having that famous advantage of learning a foreign language early—you don’t realize it’s anything unusual.”
Bentley champions new music not only onstage; after concerts, the much-beloved pedagogue is often seen swarmed by adoring students. Now in her second year on faculty at DePaul University, the adjunct professor of voice is passionate about inspiring young singers to embrace the possibilities of less traditional music. “It’s easy to recognize how Schubert should be sung. And the performer can rely on the audience’s familiarity with that repertoire to buoy the performance,” Bentley explains. “But [with avant-garde American composer George] Crumb, you have to take full responsibility.”
Prior to her recital of “Mountain,” Crumb’s magnificent “Madrigals” and George Rochberg’s “Eleven Songs to Poems by Paul Rochberg” on Saturday 8, Bentley will lead master classes for DePaul students on selected works of John Cage and Luciano Berio, as well as Crumb.
“Ultimately, we want young musicians to take full responsibility for every instant of every bit of music they’ll make,” Bentley says.
Julia Bentley performs Saturday 8 at Music Institute of Chicago.