THE AVANT-GARDIST
BY HELEN SHAW

Issue 654 : Apr 9–15, 2008

Brendan Connelly may be a new-music nerd, but there’s nothing wimpy about his fearless adaptation of Macbeth.

It comes as no surprise that the guy who wrote a concert piece called They don’t care about the details but fuck with the structure and they’ll crush your spine refuses to see himself as part of the musical-theater mainstream. Experimental composer Brendan Connelly’s latest project is a music-saturated version of Macbeth with director Brooke O’Harra (together they form the Theater of a Two-Headed Calf). “We’re using nasty low-tech synths and lots of really loud snare drums” is all he’ll say about it at this point.
     For THC’s 2006 Kabuki take on Major Barbara, a clanging score dictated highly formalized speech; in last year’s Drum of the Waves of Horikawa, similar Japanese stylings were incorporated into a postpunk, thunderously percussive soundscape. The function of the music changes with each project, but Connelly’s impatience with labels does not. “What makes an opera opera?” he wonders when compared to a composer in the vein of Kurt Weill. “When we say opera, people think of the diva with the aria, but I think of the first 20 minutes of Parsifal—that could be drone music from the ’70s…or a Steve Reich tape piece.”
     Connelly, 32, wants to bind text and note together, but not for grand gestures. “Opera composers are interested in the heights of emotion,” he says. “It’s an experience that is pushed at you, like, ‘Now cry!’ I get claustrophobic when I’m being told where to go.” His cure lies in improvisation, jumping off from the music of artists such as jazz great Cecil Taylor and John Cage (the latter’s work on chance as a compositional technique influences Connelly’s). “There are parts in my score that are literally marked OPEN,” he explains. “I tell the musicians that it should be ‘frantic’ or ‘pianissimo,’ but I won’t solve a scene before we work on it. The musicians have to listen to the actors, not just sit in a pit waiting for a cue.”
     Besides Macbeth, Connelly is working on a chamber opera to Mac Wellman’s libretto A Morphology of Errors, and writing sound-installation works for his M.F.A. at Bard. “They think I’m a performance guy,” he laughs, describing a work he made with two cellos, two competing texts and a wet, shirtless drummer on a dolly. Why ever would they think that?