The composer John Supko feels nervous, but that's exactly how he likes it. "If I'm nervous," he says, laughing, "then I know I'm doing something I've never done before."
Rehearsals for his latest concert, All Souls, are about to begin after an eight-month delay. An unconventional work, All Souls incorporates field recordings and prose readings with live performance by the New Music Raleigh chamber orchestra and Canadian vocalist Ashleigh Semkiw. Timothy Myers, artistic director of the North Carolina Opera, will conduct them all. This Raleigh performance is only the second ever, trailing the world premiere at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., by a week.
All Souls is based upon the 1998 novel All Souls' Day, by Dutch author Cees Nooteboom. Supko sets nine excerpts from the 400-page novel as movements; a voice often reads Nooteboom's text as Semkiw sings it. Semkiw voices Elik, a mysterious young woman who enters the life of Arthur, a widowed filmmaker twice her age. Their intense relationship begins in wintertime Berlin and eventually leads them to Madrid.
It's tempting to call All Souls an unstaged opera, but Supko describes his work as "somewhere between a radio play, a melodrama and an opera." It's meant as a companion piece to the Dutch novelist's work, not as a mere derivative.
All Souls was scheduled to premiere in Durham in February, but health complications prevented Semkiw from leaving Canada. In February, the piece would have shared the bill with Dances, a gorgeous chamber orchestra work by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. In the interim, Supko has developed it further: Scored for solo soprano, string quintet, piano, synthesizer, harp, two percussionists and recorded reading, singing and environmental sounds, it's longer and more complex now.
"He really got wrapped up in this, and through his energy the piece became this evening-length, 65-minute, substantial drama," New Music Raleigh curator Shawn Galvin says of Supko. "This is a complete extension of John's language."
The work draws upon Supko's collection of personal field recordings to give an impression of being in different places for different movements—a snowy street in Berlin or a highway in Spain. The simultaneous modes of recorded and live sound are meant to create a sonic landscape that does what a set designer or dramatic director might try.
"With these added voices and bits of field recording, the imagination supplies things that could possibly be more fantastic than an actual production because it exists in the mind," he says. "It's connected to personal memories and references and so has the potential to be more poignant."
Some field recordings are culled from sources other than Supko's files. At one point, the characters move through a camel market in Zagora, Morocco, a place the composer had never been. Instead, he found a YouTube video that someone had taken during a walk through the place. Supko lifted the audio from the video and combined it with the vocals. It makes the visceral scene from an ocean away feel present.
"You hear the sounds of the exact camel market that was described in the text," Supko says. "Nooteboom talks about the camel's neck being slit and the blood dripping to the sand, and then the skin is pulled off the camel revealing a gleaming blue plastic camel underneath. It's a shocking text, but I wanted the music to be very beautiful. There's a beauty to the way it's written."
Supko chose the nine excerpts for All Souls to render the simultaneous rawness and beauty of Nooteboom's original prose. The third movement contains an intense narration of a possible sexual assault from Elik's troubled childhood. The fourth movement draws upon Arthur's documentary work in the war-torn former Yugoslavia, juxtaposed with garish commercial imagery. The imagery merges to become phantasmagoric, erotic. Then, the fifth movement reveals a graphic sex scene between Elik and Arthur, which Supko found a particularly difficult compositional task.
"It's just astounding," Myers says of Supko's layered media. "He's managed to create an entire aural landscape with these other recorded voices with whom Ashleigh interacts, to tell this story at a much higher level than as if his imagination had limited itself to one voice and chamber orchestra."
CAM Raleigh adds another dimension to the performance, which will take place on the gallery's main floor. The audience will sit around Maya Lin's large floor sculpture "Blue Lake Pass," part of the current exhibit Surveying the Terrain. The piece renders a landscape topographically across a 4-by-5-foot grid of square blocks, each with a bigger footprint than a refrigerator.
"We get to perform in this environment that's almost custom-made for the subject matter of the piece," Myers notes. "It relates to the text—all the travel and the different locales and all that."
The obvious thread through All Souls' Day and All Souls, says Supko, is the love story between Arthur and Elik. But there's another, broader theme, and the museum's mapping imagery should support it.
"The ghosts of history are always surrounding us," he says, "and somehow conspiring to shape our futures. As we're conscious of the past, they tend to affect the future and the way we see the world."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Feeling the terrain."