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  • Breaking Silence, Breaching Censorship:"Ongoing Interculturality" in Alice Shields's Electronic Opera Apocalypse
  • Danielle Sofer (bio)

On a warm summer's eve in 1990, American composer Alice Shields visited her friend, Columbia University colleague, and fellow composer Daria Semegen. Under the stars outside Semegen's home in Stony Brook, Long Island, the conversation veered—as it often did—to contemporary U.S. politics.1 Enraged by "bigoted puritanism," Shields and Semegen criticized the recent influx of conservatism, specifically, the increasing volume of antiabortion groups. The composers began improvising playfully in call-and-response on the risqué behavior they supposed had triggered these groups, eventually settling on the chant "Your hot lips, Apocalypse," what would later become a line from "Apocalypse Song," the title aria to Shields's electronic opera Apocalypse, written in 1993 and released a year later on CD.2

Your hot lips, Apocalypse,Your words divine made flesh in mine,Turn my blood back into wine.3

Obvious Christian themes in the text include the divine flesh paired with the reference to blood transformed into wine.4 Shields acknowledges the song's connections to the Eucharist, accompanied in the Catholic tradition by chant and ritual movements. However, the composer [End Page 135] imparts wider significance beyond Christian themes to the transformation described in this passage. Alongside Christianity, Shields explains, miraculous transformations of this sort are also variously described in Tibetan, Japanese, and Indian dance and theater, Native American shaman rituals, and Egyptian burial rites.5 Exchanges of religious and cultural signification across different systems of belief are important in the opera, and, more specifically, it was important to Shields that although each tradition realizes the theme differently, many shared the concept of miraculous transformation. Shields cites particular influence from the Indian bharatanatyam dance drama, a practice the composer has studied since the 1980s. As is characteristic of bharatanatyam's devadāsī dancer, the sole performer takes on various sacred personae and easily transforms from one character to another. In Apocalypse, Shields's multiple roles as composer and sole performer allow her, like a devadāsī dancer, to make connections through movement, text, and music between several traditions and histories.

The plot of Apocalypse is relatively simple. WOMAN embarks on a spiritual journey of self-discovery. After a setless act of independent searching, in the second act WOMAN encounters SEAWEED SEA GODDESS, who teaches her the strength to pursue a path of enlightenment with the support of an accompanying chorus. The opera culminates in the third act when WOMAN meets the Hindu God SHIVA, and together they engage in a choreographed sexual union. The opera parades typical phallic imagery—a "phallus … two feet high, with balls the size of grapefruit"—in its culminating scene to combat the post-Reagan conservatism to which Shields and Semegen were reacting.6 But instead of a climax driven by the stereotypical male sexual drive, WOMAN's encounter with SHIVA is mediated on her own terms: the performance centers around her experience of the act through sound, timbre, voice, text, lights, and physical response. Staging sex in the most obvious, visible, and audible manner, Shields avoids replicating the played-out tropes of male sexual fantasy. Rather, Shields confronts tacit sexual stigmas that plague both her contemporary American political climate and the lingering British colonial attitude toward bharatanatyam revivals. In this article, I show how Apocalypse addresses sexual censorship through music, text, and choreography to envision a world for which sex is not stigmatized but instead exists as a productive and inseparable aspect of culture and music.

Alice Shields, Some Background

Alice Shields's early success at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (CPEMC) is evident. She worked at the center for over three decades as a technical instructor and in various administrative roles, [End Page 136] but despite years of service, she hardly received the recognition of her predominantly male colleagues.7 As she recalls, when joining Columbia in 1961, "supposedly no one, not even the musicologists specializing in medieval or renaissance history, had ever heard of a woman composer, including Hildegard von Bingen or Elizabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, who were famous in their time."8 During her early days at the CPEMC...


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