Sunday, May 06, 2007


The Carbon Copy Building is described in its accompanying booklet as "a comic-strip opera," and the phrase is apt. Not only did Ben Katchor, known for such comic strips as Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, write the libretto (or "text," as the booklet calls it), but this text is based, if I remember correctly, on a single installment of one of his strips, though not one that's been collected as far as I know. And it is indeed an opera, with music composed by Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe, the founders of the contemporary music organization Bang on a Can. But if your knowledge of opera comes from Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and company, you may not recognize it as one.

The "text," one of Katchor's typical meditations on "the pleasures of urban decay," tells the story of two buildings. The first, the Paladin Building, was built in 1929 in a prestigious neighborhood in a city that is unnamed, but obviously New York City. The second, the Palaver Building, was built six months later, using the same plans (the "carbon copy building" of the title). Sixty-nine years later, when the opera takes place, the Paladin retains its prestige, while the Palaver, now located in the unfashionable "bent spoon district," has gone to seed and is home to dozens of small businesses.

The story per se is slight. There's no real plot, just uneventful snippets from the lives of a few people working in one or the other of the buildings. But we do hear of a number of the strange businesses which are a specialty of Katchor's, including a firm of out-of-date calendar specialists, a broken cookie consolidator, and a dessert embalming service. The most interesting "narrative" thread revolves around a delivery boy for the last of these businesses, who from working in the Palaver Building has absorbed carbon-paper chemicals into his system, so that whatever he touches is smeared with their residue (although much of his story is told only in Katchor's stage directions).

The music is minimalist in style, with both vocal and instrumental parts made up of short repeating phrases. I'm not familiar with the recent evolution of this style; in fact, the most recent minimalist work I'd listened to before this is Einstein on the Beach. But The Carbon Copy Building's music is less schematic, and much more varied in texture, than was Einstein's music. The first scene, for example, is a melancholy recitative over a lute-like obbligato, while the second has a full-blown rock accompaniment. And the opera itself has a quasi-rock instrumentation: everything is played by four musicians on electric guitar, percussion, keyboards and woodwinds. As with the libretto, the music isn't much like that of traditional operas, even setting aside the unconventional instrumentation. There are "recitatives," but nothing that could be called an aria. As said above, I have little experience with minimalism, or indeed of the whole "downtown" (as in downtown Manhattan) music scene. But I found the music always interesting, and at times even catchy: the best thing about the opera.

On the other hand, the opera's main problem is that there is little connection between the music and Katchor's text. Apart from the opening and closing recitatives, the musical textures seem to have been chosen with little regard for the text. The composers frequently expand Katchor's brief conversations to fill a whole scene by having the singers repeat Katchor's words over and over again. His peculiar brand of poetry gains nothing by this treatment. Perhaps the composers were emphasizing the emptiness of much social conversation, but that is surely far from Katchor's intent. Overall, I can't help thinking that the opera could have been based on almost any strip by any cartoonist and had virtually the same score.

The libretto is profusely illustrated with color illustrations by Katchor. These create atmosphere and add more strange names, but they aren't among his best work: his art is best seen in black, grey, and white, and in comics, not individual illustrations.

To sum up, the opera's chief attraction is its music, and I would recommend it to those interested in, or curious about, contemporary composition. (If you're just curious, you can download individual tracks at the link above for 98 cents apiece. You can also download the whole album for $9.90, a savings of six bucks over a physical copy, though presumably you wouldn't get the libretto or illustrations.) For those whose main interest is Katchor, whether you should buy it depends on how much you're willing to spend for minor work of his. And if you have no particular interest in either Katchor or contemporary "classical" music, I would skip it.

I should say a few words about the unusual packaging. The libretto "booklet" is actually the package itself: it has hard covers and a cloth binding, and the CD fits into a paper sleeve attached to the inside back cover. This package is compact and elegant, but unfortunately it's very hard to remove the CD from its sleeve (at least in the review copy I was sent). I wound up storing the CD in a separate case, which sort of defeats the point of the packaging.

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