Too Many Notes

Let’s talk infelicitous combinations of artistic form. I’m thinking in particular of Philip Glass’ musical adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” which I saw last night. Setting? Small, intimate, and great. Cast? Pretty good. But in the end, both props and players could only benefit so much from the raw material available to them, namely, Glass’ score and libretto.

Charlotte Salomon, on Wikimedia Commons

Charlotte Salomon, on Wikimedia Commons

It’s not that the music and lyrics themselves were bad*– it’s just that this particular composer, given the singularly thick nature of his work (even when it’s being minimalist!) never should have tried to set such an efficiently-told tale to music. Frantic, repetitive crescendos, musical signals that something ominous is taking place: it’s all OK for a soundtrack– especially of the American variety– but all the elaboration and padding that must of necessity go into operatic productions… well, they’re all wrong for that unique brand of sparse-yet-laden weirdness Kafka’s so good at.

Could anyone do a good job putting this story into musical form? I don’t think so; it just wasn’t made, say I, to handle forms of sensory input ancillary to the word. I could maybe, maybe envision “In the Penal Colony” existing as a well-executed short film– but even there, I don’t feel comfortable with the possibility.

The piece reminded me of other literary greats that should have been, or should be, left untouched by film directors; I found On the Road predictably disastrous, and I’m terrified to think what’s going to happen to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, if filming really does come to completion on that project. Infinite Jest? Please. Based on what he did with The Tempest, I can see Peter Greenaway having a self-indulgent go at it, but I hope he doesn’t get any ideas. If someone could make a cinematic version of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves as scary and intelligent as the book, I’d be thrilled– but again, there should be some sort of test one must pass before even thinking about doing such a thing.

Ah, well. In short, there’s usually a reason why music or the visual arts can convey some things so much better than any number of words– but then again, there’s often no substitute for spoken/written language well-used. I’m glad I got to see the musical venture I did last night– but I won’t be sad if the notes fade from memory altogether, never to be reawakened.


* OK, there were times when the words seemed to be exemplifying how the theater of the obvious should function, but overall, they were no worse than those of any other musical.



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