- Barry Truax: Powers of Two: An Electroacoustic Opera
Barry Truax's Powers of Two comes packaged in a gorgeous two-CD [End Page 106] casing, with two human figures silhouetted in a tangerine halo, similar to the packaging for his previous album Twin Souls. The two releases also share elements of live performers combined with digital soundtracks, poetic texts, and an emotion of yearning. I cannot provide a synopsis for the opera better than the one provided by Truax himself in the accompanying booklet:
Powers of Two is about four young urbanites engaged in various relationships, none of which appear to be working . . . they are caught up in the technological world . . . where the virtual is confused with the real, often because the virtual seems more desirable. Inwardly though, they long for the same personal fulfillment and ideal partner as anyone else, except they are looking in the wrong place . . . The "power" of "two" in the title refers to the synergy when opposites act in harmony, not in conflict. The power of these polarities is the ability to create unity when reconciled.
This music combines the seemingly contradictory worlds of technology and emotion; the plot is a perfect fit.
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It is always difficult to review an audio recording of an opera, and Powers of Two is no exception. Listening to the piece by itself I was easily dis-tracted—the music alone was not quite enough to hold my attention. Listening to the CD while scrolling through the libretto document was much more satisfying. The file P2libretto.pdf lives on a separate volume on the CD; playing the music in a traditional CD player the listener won't be assaulted by noise as the machine creates audio out of image—thank you, Cambridge Street Records! Beyond the libretto, the file contains pictures from the visually stunning production on almost every page with the text hovering in a burnt orange rectangle above burgundy-saturated low-contrast scenes from the opera. The ever-changing background kept my interest level high, and pictures interspersed throughout the text let me visualize the staging. The set design incorporated multiple screens with video, and I'm sure when all the elements of the opera are combined the results are breathtaking.
However, I have listened to the work multiple times, and I must confess I am disappointed with the recording. I should acknowledge here that I am unabashedly a fan of Barry Truax; I think his music is some of the most moving electroacoustic music I have ever heard, and I was eagerly looking forward to listening to this CD. My high expectations most likely contributed to my disappointment with this recording.
The composer selected the poetry used in the opera from an array of authors including Charlotte Lennox, Katherine Philips, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Walt Whitman, Rainer Maria Rilke, Aphra Behn, and Jalal al-Din Rumi, as well as additional original material. I usually love the way Mr. Truax sets text, but much of the vocal lines in Powers of Two are composed simply in a pedantic speechlike rhythm within a constrained pitch range. In only a few places are the vocalists given chances to really soar, notably in a setting of "L'Homme Armé" which opens Act 4. Although the singers all have exquisite enunciation and the poetry is very clear, the vocals are too far in front of the electronics for my taste.
Only in a few places do the human and the technological merge, but those moments are tremendous—Mr. Truax uses palatal sibilants to usher in a wash of noise, he almost imperceptibly pulls electronic harmonics out of a sung long tone, and skillfully adds a resonant gong to the beginning of a declamatory statement. This separation may have been a metaphor for the character's search for fulfillment, but it didn't resolve as the opera...