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Reviewed by:
  • James Dashow: Archimedes—A Planetarium Opera
  • Bradley S. Green
James Dashow: Archimedes—A Planetarium Opera
Neuma Records, 2021

Digital download, 2021, Naviar Records NR011, available from Naviar Records, London, England,;

Archimedes: A Planetarium Opera by James Dashow is an opera written to be performed in a planetarium, mixing hexaphonic audio playback and live vocalists with intricate light shows that occur regularly throughout the opera’s three acts. It is a massive, complex work that took the composer nine years to complete, and, though finished in 2008, this new compact disc marks its first full release, mixed down to stereo from the 6.0 surround-sound original. The three-CD set can be found on Amazon, the Neuma Records Web site, and the composer’s Web site. As the present recording clearly demonstrates, this work is a monumental achievement.

Before discussing the composition or recording quality, some context should be given to the story and its characters. The libretto, written by Cary Plotkin and Ted Weiss, centers around Archimedes, the famed mathematical genius from the ancient city of Syracuse in Sicily, focusing [End Page 85] primarily on his use of war machines to defend the city during the 214– 212 BCE Roman siege. Although the opera certainly has a concrete (albeit minimalist) narrative grounded in documented history, this narrative serves to explore deeper themes of human nature, which Dashow describes as a “tragedy of humanity” in his liner notes. As a character, Archimedes is presented as an obsessive individual, preoccupied with the beauty and purity of his mathematical musings and motivated only by the discovery of invention. Another central character (and narrator) is Marcellus, the Roman consul who leads the siege against Syracuse and is motivated by an idealistic dream of a Roman utopia. Both characters espouse admirable goals—still, both are only human. Compelled by the suffering of a terrified Syracusan people, Archimedes uses his talents to build gruesomely effective war machines to protect the city, while Marcellus, backed by the power-hungry Roman senate, plans to persuade Archimedes to use his war machines to protect Rome from its enemies. These characters are all vessels that symbolize both the best and worst of humanity, illustrating how good intentions can be used to justify heinous acts, and how we can be left devastated by our decisions, both individually and collectively.

There are two other characters that need mentioning: the Prime Mover, a god-like figure from Plato’s Timaeus who acts as architect to the universe, and Demiurge, a two-person conjoined being whom the Prime Mover tasks to “create the tribe of humans so . . . they may not equal gods but may imitate them perfectly.” Demiurge then creates Archimedes, giving him “a larger share of the flame, prime fire.” These entities, the events they set in motion, and their eventual bleak realization during the final act as a frame for both the story and the theme of human duality and fallibility, broadening the perspective and extrapolating from the flaws of a few historical men to represent the flaws of humans throughout history, past, present, and future.

The music Dashow composes to this elaborate libretto compliments the story and its themes flawlessly, both on a micro and macro level. It is colorful and engaging, with expertly crafted electronic sounds, and although the music is fixed media (except for the vocal parts), it has a thoroughly spontaneous quality throughout. The vocal parts are performed with a mix of spoken word, Sprechstimme, and fully sung lines, most of which are visceral representations of the text. There is a wonderfully stark contrast between the lyricism of the vocal parts and the colorful tapestry of electronic accompaniment which, if I’m bold enough to make an imperfect comparison, regularly reminded me of the interaction between voice and instruments in works such as Pierre Boulez’s legendary Le Marteau sans maître.

At all times during the opera, Dashow’s mastery of electronic music is on full display, and it seems as if every synthesis and sampling technique available at the time of composition was utilized, many times simultaneously. Recorded and MIDI instruments...