Guide to the Music of The Long Walk

Guide to the Music of The Long Walk

Posted by Utah Opera in Online Learning, Productions, The Long Walk 15 Mar 2017

The Long Walk marks Jeremy Howard Beck’s first foray into the opera genre. He created the score in partnership with librettist Stephanie Fleischmann under the auspices of American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program. Now in its 10th year, the CLDP provides mentorship and training for aspiring composers and librettists to expand and develop their art. Beck had previously created a number of works with a theatrical perspective, but none before The Long Walk had been a full evening-length work. Critical and audience reaction to the world premiere in 2015 at Opera Saratoga was positive, with Opera News describing the opera as a “strong, moving show.”

Searching through the list of works on www.jeremyhowardbeck.com, it becomes apparent that the composer has typically been drawn to intimate groups of performers, and is consistently adding electronic components to his compositions; The Long Walk follows these patterns. The opera has a relatively large and varied cast, with singers portraying the family of five and three of Brian’s military colleagues, as well as two singers who each portray multiple roles. However, the accompanying ensemble is scored for only 17 players: flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), two French horns and trumpets, trombone and bass trombone, keyboard/synthesizer, two violins, string quintet, two electric guitars, and one percussionist playing a vast array of instruments. The orchestra is used adroitly to carry us from scene to scene of this almost cinematic libretto. Beck leads us through the challenges of this family with orchestral color and texture throughout.

The opera opens with Brian, former Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer and Iraqi veteran, running alone along the banks of the Niagara River near his home in Buffalo, NY. Since his return from Iraq, Brian has found refuge from the turmoil inside his head in running, sometimes extreme distances. Ostinato polyrhythms of four notes against triplets the consistent, even monotonous rhythm of his footfalls, while the chaotic thoughts he is trying to escape are represented by sharp orchestral outbursts. The vocal line is appropriately jagged and broken, echoing his ragged breathing and the disordered nature of his thoughts.

For the second half of the prologue, the point-of-view shifts to Jessie, Brian’s wife. While Brian’s reality is based in chaos and jumbled memories, Jessie is mired in the challenges of keeping the family going when the husband has returned from deployment, yet remains aloof and unengaged because of his experiences. She remembers her grandmother sharing the hopelessness her grandparents experienced after her grandfather returned from World War II and decides that her family will not have the same tragic outcome. The music contrasts her emotional state to that of Brian’s through an abrupt shift to a thin texture and greater tonal focus. The accompaniment is shared by electric guitar and piano, and establishes tonal centers around the pitches G and D. One of the most significant recurrent harmonic motives is introduced in Jessie’s aria, a rocking alternation between G major and E-flat major. These two chords are just a third apart, and are related via principles of music theory. This motive with its third relation often returns when associations are made with home and family and can be heard beginning at the 1:50 mark in this video from an early workshop performance.

Scene 1 begins at a typical dinner in the Castner household, present-day, with Jessie trying to maintain normalcy while Brian is brooding and sullen. The gentle conversational tone of family life is invaded by polyrhythms and outbursts as Brian is transported to a memory of a bomb disposal incident in Iraq. The members of his EOD squad appear in his kitchen as the flashback takes over his mind. When the memory fades, the gentle and relatively accessible music returns as the children are dismissed for bed. Throughout the opera, the orchestral texture shifts almost cinematically, guiding the audience through the complicated flashback scenes with the help of instrumentation and musical motives.

A bedtime scene with the children establishes their awareness of their father’s disturbed mental state, and scene 3 moves the location to the couple’s bedroom where Brian’s sleep is troubled and restless. This scene and a similar scene in Act 2 are some of the most “experimental” in sonority.  Much of the introduction to the scene lacks a regular pulse, with free tones played by celeste and crotales (a metallic percussion instrument). Even after the establishment of a sense of pulse, the meter continues to shift and the musical texture is rife with improvised rhythms and irregular patterns. When Jessie is awakened and shares her concern and helplessness in the face of her husband’s panic attacks, the music from her opening aria is brought back, though with panicked interjections.

The family situation is further demonstrated in scene 4, as we see how Brian is challenged by keeping the daily routine at home while Jessie works a stressful fulltime job. Any parent will understand the morning mayhem that can ensue on a school day, but the Castners’ morning routine is particularly frenetic, and Brian struggles to maintain normalcy. Beck employs a pianistic technique called touches bloquées (blocked keys) used by Hungarian composer György Ligeti in the 3rd of his keyboard études, (volume 1 published in 1985). The pianist silently depresses keys in chords with one hand while the other hand plays lightning fast chromatic patterns around this chord. Because some keys in the chromatic sequence are held down, they do not sound, and a frenetic and choppy pattern emerges, perfectly evocative of the scene’s title “Morning Crazies.”

Breakfast transitions violently to a montage of Brian’s days training at EOD school. The 4 squad members recite bits of information and technical jargon about EOD operations to a jagged accompaniment, with almost a driving rock-and-roll “vibe.” The harmonies agitate between E major and C major, with added non-chord tones that obscure the fact that these chords have the same third relationship as the “home” sonorities introduced in Jessie’s aria. The mood is completely different, but the chordal relationship is there, nonetheless. The scene transitions into a physical training run led by Jeff, accompanied by polyrhythmic ostinato accompaniments reminiscent of Brian’s prologue run.

The centerpiece of Act I is a memory of the day Brian’s EOD squad answered six calls to investigate and disarm vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. “The Day of Six VBIEDs” is full of urgency and chaos. Jeff, the bass-baritone, narrates the story, while Castleman describes the 6 radio calls with a choppy vocal delivery that evokes Morse code. As the scene begins, we also hear the prayers of 2 Iraqi women. Each time the EOD squad is called out, they are in public spaces filled with panicked and confused Iraqi civilians, and the 2 women represent this aspect of deployment. The prayers use Arabic text and a melodic structure built on the Arabic system of scales known as māqam. These scales contain seven notes between octaves, just as in Western scales, but the pitches are not based on the equal temperament system of Western music. Quarter tones are an integral part of the Arabic scales, which presents a unique challenge to singers and instrumentalists trained in the Western system of tonality. In the following example, Western notation is used to show the māqam saba, with a “half-flat” representing the quarter tone.

The act ends with another aria for Brian, and this moment in his journey leaves the audience uncertain of Brian’s future as well as that of the entire Castner family. Brian acknowledges that his mind is warring with itself and “there are two of me now,” the Crazy, and the Other who is waiting for the Crazy to leave. The aria ends with outbursts, more shouted than sung, from Brian, as he sets up a sentry station at the top of the stairs, cradling his rifle, and guarding his family through the long night. The following video link, from the 2014 workshop performance, begins with “The day of 6 VBIEDs” and continues through Brian’s monologue to the end of the opera where the previous act concluded; Brian silently guards the top of the stairs while Jessie mourns the life they never had as a family. Echoing the music of Brian’s birthday party monologue, Jessie speaks of the plans she and Brian made, but she determines that she cannot follow Brian any further into the darkness he is living. She has a crisis of faith, thinking that perhaps her family may suffer the same tragic fate as her grandparent’s generation, and the music of her first aria returns– the rocking triplet figures and the G major/E flat juxtaposition.

After confronting a central memory from his time in Iraq, Brian seeks help from a psychiatrist for what he has been told is PTSD. She explains in matter-of-fact tones, highlighted by relatively simply tonality, that due to repeated brain trauma from exposure to explosive blasts during his diploma, he has Blast-Induced Traumatic Brain Injury, which is responsible for the chaos and memory lapses he experiences. There is a mathematical term, the “golden ratio,” which has been adopted by artists, architects, designers, and composers to reflect ideal proportions in artistic works. Music that follows the golden ratio typically reaches a major structural moment approximately two-thirds of the way through a composition. It is interesting, referencing the original timings of the premiere, that the TBI diagnosis scene occurs fairly close to the golden ratio “moment” in the progression of the plot. Certainly this diagnosis was a powerful moment in Brian’s journey toward coping with his reality.

Brian speaks at a funeral for a lost comrade, Kermit Evans, who drowned when his helicopter crashed in an Iraqi lake. Kermit’s widow, Perneatha, sings a blues lament accompanied by the synthesizer using a Hammond organ sound, to evoke the gospel feel of African-American worship. While Brian performs his official duties in a stoic manner, Jessie joins Perneatha’s lament with her own elegy for Brian. Though Brian returned from Iraq alive, the man Jessie married has in fact “died.” The soulful blues of Perneatha entwine with quotations from Jessie’s opening aria.

Following the funeral, the Castner children observe their parents and sing a trio that explains the challenge the family is facing. About their father they sing “Our soldier looked whole, ten fingers, ten toes…but he felt like a stranger.” This trio evokes Jessie’s opening aria, which has been a musical through-line for the entire work.

Through various therapeutic methods, Brian is able to find a path moving forward, and he and Jessie begin to put their family back together. All cast members join together to sing an ensemble about the titular Long Walk – the walk that one man must take to bring safety to civilians and comrades, and Brian begins to make peace with the loss of his military companions. The opera ends as it began, with Brian running, but this time he is not completely alone. The “running music” from the opening is now interspersed with musical quotes from Jessie’s aria and the Act 2 trio of the children, but with the text changed to reflect the hope they feel for the future. “But he isn’t a stranger…not anymore.”  These voices assure him that the family is making a new start, and the footfalls of the orchestra fade into infinity.

© Carol Anderson

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