You can barely hear David Lang's The Whisper Opera, delivered as it is in near-silent singing that you must be within feet to detect. To compensate for the quiet, an audience of exactly 52 people will sit among the musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble at Duke's Reynolds Industries Theater for four performances this weekend. Each person can listen as best as their ears allow.
But right now, Lang is talking about a very loud and very specific clack, an accidental sound on the Modern Jazz Quartet's classic recording "Pyramid." The tune builds toward Milt Jackson's vibraphone solo when, on beat, someone seems to smack a stick hard against a microphone stand. In those pre-digital days, editing out the error would've been difficult. You lived with it, or you used a different take.
"Up until that moment, it's just an abstract piece of music," Lang says, "but the minute you hear that, you think, 'Is that the club? What were people drinking?' The fact that there's something accidental and live means it has a social significance that it doesn't have if it's just, 'Here are some chords, and here are some notes, and that harmony's really nice.'"
This reminds Lang of what's essential about music, of what needs to be saved.
"It makes you realize that music is not the tunes and the notes and the harmonies," he says. "It's people deciding to make those tunes and notes and harmonies."
With The Whisper Opera, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lang hopes to emphasize that exact intentionality in live music. His mission is to rejuvenate the attentions of all who hear and see it. The Modern Jazz Quartet used a big bang to get your attention. He intends to demand it gently.
Scored for soprano, flute, clarinet, percussion and cello, The Whisper Opera is only available live; the musicians play and sing so quietly they cannot be recorded. They cannot be heard in customary auditorium seating, either. Instead, Jim Findlay has designed a self-contained seating system onstage, so that the audience is integrated with the ensemble. You don't attend this performance so much as you eavesdrop upon it.
"I wanted to get the audience as close as possible," Findlay says. "I saw this idea with their heads just popping up out of the stage. We just wanted their ears. We're not just putting them on stage; we're putting their ears onstage."
Findlay, a former member of the experimental theater troupe the Wooster Group and a founder of the provocative Brooklyn group the Collapsable Giraffe, describes the staging arrangement as a curtained-off postage stamp. It's a square with holes cut into it. That's where the audience sits.
"The stage is in front of you and behind you, at the level of your shoulders or your neck," he says. "The musicians are inches away from you, making the quietest sounds they can make. It's quite present."
Frequent collaborators, Lang and Findlay have been challenging the conventional audience-performer relationship for years. Findlay's overnight performance Dream of the Red Chamber is designed for a crowd falling in and out of sleep. Lang's work "Crowd Out," inspired by the singing of soccer stadiums, is written for a chorus of at least 1,000.
They're both tinkering with tipping points. If they make a piece that's too challenging for an audience to access, they might find complete disengagement. But if they can position the performance at the fulcrum, they might solicit the audience's engagement at a profound, even thrilling degree.
Once the set for The Whisper Opera was designed, Lang and Findlay did a workshop with each I.C.E. musician, asking him or her to play at or below the audible range of their instrument. Lang wrote the music last, when the entire group was in rehearsal during a residency at Mount Tremper Arts in the Catskills.
As an act of speech, the whisper has a special value. It requires the receiver to filter out all superfluous channels. To hear the intended message, one must lean in and focus.
"People respond to the generosity of quietness," Findlay says. "The piece tunes your senses to a lower level. You start to become aware of a much more granular sense of what's happening. My hope is that when the audience walks outside, they hear and see the world differently for a little while—for a moment or a day or a week or however long the hangover lasts."
Lang hopes this level of attention serves as a compelling, even if temporary, corrective, for the omnipresent accompaniment music has become. It's so diffuse and easy to obtain now that it runs the risk of losing nececssary meaning.
"Music is a communication between people," he says. "It's a human thing, not a dispassionate, sanitized, two-dimensional thing that's floating around in the ether. It's somebody working hard to do something so that somebody else can receive a message. When I make music, I want to figure out what's essential to me. I don't want to do the things that are possible; I want to do the things that are essential."