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Eve, Absinthe, Alice: A Conversation with Oliver Caplan

Boston-based composer Oliver Caplan chose three poems of Ruth Kessler’s for his new choral work, Eve Absinthe Alice, commissioned by the New Hampshire Master Chorale for premiere performances on November 19 and 20, 2016. The poems are among 17 depicting women from myth, art and literature, published under the title Fire Ashes Wings.

Eve – the mother of us all, Genesis tells us – tastes a forbidden fruit that awakens a world of knowledge. Addressing Posterity, she rues the blame she brought upon herself and all womankind and asks herself “Would I do it again?” The Absinthe Drinker, originally painted by Edgar Degas, is a nameless Parisian woman who escapes from despair by drinking the infamous green liquor. Alice journeys through Wonderland, meeting nonsensical, threatening or arrogant exemplars of life’s dramatic personae. Most importantly, she encounters an old Knight who exhorts her never to let go of childhood’s wonder and imagination.

Eve, Absinthe, Alice inspired Master Chorale music director Dan Perkins, who has performed Caplan’s instrumental chamber works, to assemble an entire concert program of lyrics written from a woman’s point of view, including pieces by contemporary female composers.

This is an edited version of a conversation with Oliver Caplan conducted by Richard Knox, a Master Chorale baritone, on November 2, 2016.

What attracted you to this project?

In 2013, I had a fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, an artist colony on 400 acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Ruth Kessler and I were among two dozen authors, composers and visual artists. I was working on another project but am always on the lookout for authors to collaborate with. I loved Ruth’s poetry, and she gave me a manuscript of her book of poems on legendary women. When I read it, these three poems jumped out at me and resonated, without any particular intention of looking for themes that go together. While at first blush the three women may seem to be an unusual juxtaposition, when I reflected on the poems I realized they go together quite well. They’re three women from very different times and cultures, but each explores the boundaries of curiosity and temptation.

I think there are deeper layers and things going on with each of these women but one thing that excites me is their curiosity and this idea of reaching and searching and pushing boundaries. I think it’s very human.

The radical disparity among these three characters is provocative.

Yes, it is unexpected. When I tell people about the piece the reaction is the same every time. Eve doesn’t get their attention at first – she’s such a familiar character. But when I talk about the Absinthe Drinker, people’s eyes light up and they want to know more.

What’s the Venn diagram of these three women? Where do they overlap, if at all?

For me, I think the unity is two-fold. They’re all pushing boundaries, they have curiosity, they embrace temptation. And the other side is this idea of living in concurrent realities – Eve through the knowledge of good and evil; when she takes a bite of the apple, the world is the same physically but everything is changed. The Absinthe Drinker travels to a different place through alcohol. Alice takes her imaginary journey down the rabbit hole. I think this is very human. We all reach out, we all are tempted, and it lands us in very different places.

[To underscore the unity,] at the end of the Alice piece I brought back a hint of the Eve theme and the Absinthe Drinker theme. There’s this moment when the chorus and soloist sing again, “All I wanted to do is reach further.” There’s a sort of passing of the baton from Eve to Alice. Eve in a way had a naïveté, an aspect of childhood – but of course she never had a childhood, she sprang fully formed from Adam. The Absinthe Drinker suffers the disillusionment of misspent youth. And Alice’s trip through Wonderland is the ultimate childhood experience.

You (and Ruth) end by having the worldly wise Knight tell Alice that if she commits the road back to childhood “to memory and longing” someday she may earn the Artist’s crown. Are you saying that these three women share an artist’s sensibility?

Yes, they go on quests – the hallmark of artists. Eve bears the blame for her curiosity. The Absinthe Drinker is a sadder, lonelier story; absinthe opens up another world but it’s an escape from a dreary reality – it’s the dark side of curiosity. And at the end of “Alice” we have an ultimate celebration of curiosity.

The process of setting poetry to music must be very different from composing for instruments. How do you go about it?

You can either embrace the words or play against them. When I write vocal music I like to begin by taking the poem and putting it on the piano almost as if it were sheet music and playing the poem, just improvising. And then there’s another person in the collaboration – the author of the text. My interpretation is different from Ruth’s. But I want to do justice to her ideas. So we had a little bit of back-and-forth.

One thing I was thinking about a lot when I started work on this piece is: What does it mean for me as a man to be setting poetry in women’s voices? And then, what does it mean for a mixed chorus of men and women to sing the words? Ruth and I had some back-and-forth about that.

What did she say that influenced the process?

The thing she really honed in on is that of the three women, Eve is the most quintessentially feminine – she embodies the female experience. So her words are mostly sung by a female soloist or female choral voices. She’s addressing Posterity; it’s half a lament and half anger at the way she’s been unfairly blamed. The men a lot of the time are humming or doing drone-like tones behind the women. It’s the idea of placing women in the context of the men’s world.

One of the things I like in the poem – and I tried to set it in this way – is Eve’s nostalgia for the lushness and romance of the garden. And also, her relishing the idea of reaching further, the excitement over that, and then moments of bitterness at how it all turned out.

And the question that hovers over it all is: “Would I do it again?”

It’s such a great, open-ended question! On the one hand it’s for each audience member to decide. In a way my answer is yes. In my mind the absinthe drinker and Alice are different versions of Eve. They’re doing it again – going on their own journeys, embracing their curiosity -- in different ways. The statement at the end -- “My name is…Artist” -- is my answer to “Would I have done it again?”

To me, that line is the key that unlocks the mystery of the entire piece. Can you talk a little bit about your musical approach to portraying these three very different characters?

I tried to create a sound world that evokes each character, her time and her place. To get a little technical, for Eve’s music I used a Phrygian dominant mode to evoke an eastern, Mesopotamian mood. For the Absinthe Drinker I created a gloomy, slightly wobbly sound -- sprinkling the melodies with off-key accidentals. I also inserted some jazz syncopation and Asian music – hallmarks of the French tradition of classical music. I wasn’t trying to sound like Ravel, but to give hints of the French tradition. And for Alice I saved the most romantic lyrical writing because she inhabits a world of imagination. There are Lydian modal inflections – the mode that to me has always sounded magical. I think there’s this sense of magic and wonder about the Lydian mode.

Typically people who commission pieces of music seek out a composer. But in this case you approached Dan Perkins and the Master Chorale. Why?

It’s a piece I’d been wanting to do and had bare-bones sketch ideas. Last spring I was looking for someone to commission the piece and bring it to life.

As to why I thought of Dan, I did my undergraduate work at Dartmouth College and used to sing in the Handel Society; our director was on sabbatical my senior year and Dan was our director then. It was a really seminal experience for me. He has this way of getting at the heart of the emotion and meaning behind the lyrics -- the characters under the text. Which is one reason why he likes to program contemporary music. He’s the ideal conductor for a piece exploring the voices of three legendary characters.

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