chamber opera for soprano, theremin, and recorded sound (2006)
Text and music by Elizabeth Brown
Video by Lothar Osterburg
Performed by Elizabeth Brown, theremin and voice
In Rural Electrification, a single character is joined by the unearthly electrical voice of the theremin as she reveals her hopes, dreams, and fears of what electricity will mean for herself, her family, and their prospects in the world. The premiere was presented by XO Projects on May 24-27, 2006 at The Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn, New York, with the composer playing theremin, Stephanie Skaff performing the role of MaryAlice, and video by Lothar Osterburg. Rural Electrification was commissioned by the Barlow Foundation. It was written in Brooklyn, NY and at the MacDowell Colony.
When rural Americans finally got electricity in the 1930’s and 40’s, decades after the cities, many went outside just to look back at their illuminated houses – it was wonderful, just like going from darkness to daylight. Corners of rooms, or a loved one’s face, were magically lit. As one Rural Electrical Administration worker said, “I’ve seen this happen, the lights come on, hundreds of places, and it’s an emotional situation you can’t describe – something happens, lightning strikes them, and they all at once are different. People prayed, they cried, they swore.” Work was transformed as well, with farm and household chores no longer tied to daylight hours, and countless new machines and appliances from which to chose.
The theremin, with its unearthly vocal quality, is a unique blend of the human and the electrical. An analog electronic instrument invented by Leon Theremin (1896-1993) in 1919 in Russia, it’s played by interrupting radio waves with one’s hands. The player appears to be playing the air. It effectively conveys the awe felt by rural Americans at their first experience of electricity.
The recorded sound portion of Rural Electrification consists of whistling teakettles, birdsong, a glass armonica simulated from tuned wineglasses, resonance from piano strings, and a music box from my childhood which plays The Farmer in the Dell. No sounds were electronically produced, but many were transposed and/or slowed down (especially the birdsong). The idea for this soundscape grew out of hearing beauty and music in everyday sounds, then assembling the sounds into choirs. These are the birds, in order of appearance: mourning dove, Carolina wren, screech owl, meadowlark, mockingbird, white-throated sparrow, rufous-sided towhee, chickadee, song sparrow, butcherbird, boubou, catbird, black and white warbler, osprey, wood thrush, house wren, cliff swallow, Chuck-Will’s widow, ovenbird, veery, flicker, bluejay, red-headed woodpecker, red-winged blackbird, grackle, yellow-headed cowbird, bittern, and purple finch.