the games headline

the games subhead

At first I was dismayed. Were Yoshi Yabara's sets and costumes meant for a science fiction film, or for a music-theater piece by Meredith Monk and Ping Chong? I'd seen the steel wells (the action seemed to take place inside a large metallic room) and the jumpsuits over and over again in the movies and on TV; the glowing screen placed high in the wall at the back looked -- especially when slides of galaxies were projected on it -- unnervingly like the screen that serves as a window on the bridge of the starship Enterprise. I don't mind science fiction, though maybe it's a bit much to evoke Star Trek in what's meant to be a serious work. But the trouble with received imagery of any kind is that it blunts our response to feelings and ideas that might have been more powerful if they spoke to us directly. Monk and Chong want to tell us about the sometimes desperate, ultimately triumphant survivors of a nuclear holocaust. The science fiction imagery helps make their abstract narrative easier to understand (we know we're in the future, in a culture related to ours, but alien. But it lulls us -- before it's overwhelmed by the cry of pain at the heart of the piece -- until we're in danger of too easily accepting the horror we're asked toimagine.
I'm talking, of course, about The Games, which opened this year’s Next Wave at BAM, and which -- to overcome an uncomfortably ambivalent initial reaction -- I saw twice, on October 9 and 12. In the end, I believed in it. It tells the story of people in the generation after the holocaust, who have survive, mourn what they’ve lost, and finally relive the holocaust itself before they can rebuild. Form is their most precious achievement (just as it's also the most precious achievement of any real artist), touching because for them it so transparently represents security. When future centuries conclude, as we’re told they do, that form itself is beauty and truth, we understand how important, after a holocaust, the retoration of even a small degree of control over life would be. Monk and Chong have imagined recovery from devastation with far more compassion than most science fiction writers: what's most poignant is the rebuilding not of society, but of identity. People try desperately to remember what teaspoons were because their new culture -- their social compact, as a political theorist of the past might have said -- is built on a need to overcome the horror they lived through when they lost not just teaspoons, but everything they knew.
Form was initially preserved in the "Games" of the title, a ritual like our Olympics, but so deeply felt that in Monk's and Chong's German narration (left over from the premiere of the piece a year ago in Berlin) their name is pronounced, reverently, in gently distorted English, suggesting that they grew from something distant, badly understood, and beloved. (This, I think, is part of the reason why the German narration -- translated on slides -- seems appropriate even in New York.) We see the Games generations after the holocaust. First come simple, almost childish games {Statues, for instance, and a variant of Musical Chairs), which serve both to establish an image of a confident, slightly wacky future society and, more to the point, to represent a vision of simpler, happier days of the past, days that seem almost childish because they were so notably free of the care that came later, Later, more substantial games, more like rituals than competition, are called Migration, Memory, and, in German, "Vier" ("Four"), an obvious pun -- "v" in German is pronounced like our "f" -- on fear.


These later games show us the struggle to survive, the struggle to remember, and the final reliving of the holocaust. They outline the story of the piece; they also outline its form. Some people find them too abstract to follow; I'd suggest -- in spite of what I've said about the science fiction cliches of the set -- that they consider one big difference between current science fiction films and science fiction films of the '50s. In science fiction films of the '50s there'd be a menace. The army would be called out to fight it; we'd see top brass in Washington gathered round a table, planning what to do. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind (to cite a more recent example) UFOs are about to land and the army's ready to meet them. But we haven't seen top brass making any plans; we're supposed to understand that it's obvious soldiers would be there, and we simply see them. arrive. Monk and Chong in effect take the ellipsis of Close Encounters a few steps further. We don't need to see firestorms, terror, deaths from radiation sickness, or the heat and blast of the bombs. We've been told about these things in hundreds of works of fact and fiction, from John Hersey's Hiroshima to The Day After; Monk and Chong take us directly to what they think might be the holocaust's emotional reality, and let us fill in the too-familiar details for ourselves.
Other people find the scenario of The Games too obvious. To these people I'd argue that the piece is saved, as its own scenario almost suggests, by its form, structured by music. I say "very nearly" because there are some, crucial differences, but consider for a moment the organization of the music into large-scale sections, each corresponding to an episode of the story, This is exactly how Mozart. organizes large-scale finales in his operas; it's how opera composers always work, whether they invent new musical forms or draw on forms that already exist. Monks’ music for The Games divides into six or perhaps seven parts. The section that's hard to classify is a collage of wind, babbling voices, and faint electronic beeps, which we hear as we take our seats, and which serves in effect as an overture. The first part of the main body of the score depicts an introductory ceremony; the next few parts correspond to the four rounds of games I've described (Statues and the like, Remembrance, Migration, Memory, and "Fear"); the last part is a mostly choral finale. The differences between sections are differences of texture, tempo, and gesture, found above all in the writing for synthesizer and electric organ that runs through most of the piece. The music runs for long stretches without changing very much; even so, each section has a clear climax, sometimes supplied by added effects. that sound like gunshots or explosions. The work as a whole has both a climax (the disturbing clangor of layered machine rhythms at the end of "Fear") and a conclusion (the choral finale); the conclusion is introduced – much like the conclusion of Wagner's Götterdämmerung -- by the literal or paraphrased reprise of the Gamemaster's music in the first gains and the synthesizer pattern that runs through much of Migration.


All this wouldn't be worth describing if I were talking about an opera in more traditional form; I stress it here for people who found the piece shapeless, or don't think it's music-theater. For people who found it tedious I'd suggest listening closely (if they ever have the chance) to the music for Migration, the longest -- "22 minutes, 30 seconds," as Monk proclaims from the stage -- and least overtly eventful part of the piece. Here they'll find whispering, talking (both gibberish and coherent), chittering, dissonant clusters of choral sound (made up of randomly chosen pitches, I'd guess), and varied vocal melodies -- more variety, in fact, than they'll hear elsewhere in the piece; every few moments there's something new to hear, just as traditional musical values suggest them should be, in a long passage whose overall mood and color never change.
Some, things about the score aren't traditional. The Games is an example of a new kind of music-theater which is only partly structured by music, but in which the structural power of music spreads to everything we see and hear: words, notes, stage movement, and even elements of set and costume design blend together in a single stream that flows with the continuity of music. For this reason the sections of the score don't have to be as different from each other as they would in a conventional opera; the various parts of The Games are differentiated -- visually as well as musically -- by blue light in Migration, for instance, and red light (what else?) in "Fear." The piece flows even when the music stops. There's an extended bit of choreography with flags in the introductory ritual, which in a conventional opera or even a ballet would feel like a parenthesis, because the music stops a soon as the flags begin to wave. Here it's an ongoing put of the piece; the choreography of the flags substitutes for the flow of the music.
There are problems with the performance of The Games. The two keyboard players aren't consistent or rhythmically alert enough to sustain interest throughout the hour and a half that the piece lasts; some people in the cast move clumsily, and -- even though they may be members of Monk's own vocal ensemble – don’t sing strongly enough to project in a theater the size of BAM's Opera House As performances that used to be avant-garde move toward the mainstream, the mainstream's standards begin to apply. Monk, Chong, and artists like them face a dilemma, which may well be painful: should they stick with loyal performers who may have exactly the emotional quality the work requires, or should they ruthlessly scrap long-time friends and look for new performers who may have to be taught the inner meaning of the work but who are technically accomplished enough to meet the standards a mainstream audience expects?
About the work itself, though, Mark and Chong shouldn't have any doubts. In spite of its quirks [why did I need to be so judgmental?], The Games is as effective as any new music-theater you're like likely to hear.

Village Voice, October 30, 1984

Other Village Voice columns from the '80s:

Cage Speaks Faster When the Street Gets Noisy

The Cage Style

Feldman Draws Blood

Beethoven Howls

A Fine Madness [about Milton Babbitt]

The Secret of the Silver Ticket