Music of the mind | March 29, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

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Arts & Entertainment - March 29, 2013

Music of the mind

Stanford composer explores auditory hallucinations in two new chamber operas

by Rebecca Wallace

People have likened the new Bing Concert Hall at Stanford to an oval and a theater in the round. Sometimes a ship with swooping sails of acoustic paneling. Jonathan Berger might be the first to call it a brain.

Both of the faculty composer and researcher's two new operas are about hallucinations. Thanks to the oval design of the hall, Berger imagines that he's placing the audience right inside the mind.

Twenty-six speakers hung around the audience will provide a vivid soundscape for the first opera, "Theotokia," in which protagonist Leon is a schizophrenic man immersed in religious hallucinations. As five singers and a chamber ensemble perform Berger's music, electronic sounds will emerge, timed and placed to mimic the brain activity that occurs during verbal hallucinations.

The system is based on ambisonic electroacoustics, "a computational method that allows you to localize sound," Berger said. It was developed at the university's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, where the music professor is based. Berger, who has been at Stanford for 15 years, has premiered many an electroacoustic composition along with his chamber, orchestral and vocal works.

On April 12 and 13, "Theotokia" will premiere at Bing with another of Berger's brand-new one-act operas, "The War Reporter." Both have librettos written by Dan O'Brien. "Theotokia" is deeply spiritual: Leon is enticed and jeered by the mother of God, hearing her alternately as Shaker leader Mother Anne, the God mother Yeti and his real mother. At times, his speech morphs into glossolalia, or he compulsively beats a rhythm on his own body.

Meanwhile, "The War Reporter" depicts the earthly struggles of Canadian photojournalist Paul Watson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1993 photo of the body of a captured American soldier mutilated by a Mogadishu mob. Just before he took the photo, he heard the voice of the soldier in his mind: "If you do this, I will own you forever." Watson remains haunted by guilt and self-loathing as he seeks forgiveness from the soldier's family, even while throwing himself into more dangerous war zones.

Musically, "Theotokia" begins simply, with Mother Anne (the soprano Heather Buck) singing with Shaker minimalism, then joined by the chorus (the New York Polyphony ensemble) in tight harmony. The music becomes more complex as Leon's hallucinations deepen, and as his mother fantasies evolve. "Along the way, you realize that his real mother is as mentally unstable as he is," Berger said.

"The War Reporter" is more narrative, with the music growing increasingly tonal as Watson's thoughts become more haunted by his post-traumatic stress disorder. Berger believes that all good music surprises, and in this opera the music and lyrics can play off each other in startling ways. In the scene where Watson receives his Pulitzer, the external world is celebratory. Buck becomes a lounge singer and performs what seems at first to be a slinky number. "But the text is horrifying," Berger said. "She's singing what he's imagining. He's reliving this moment in Mogadishu."

The two chamber operas display "very different faces of inner voices," but their shared subject matter makes them a natural pairing, Berger said. They will be performed together twice, on Friday and Saturday nights. In between, during the day on Saturday, Berger, Watson and others will delve even more deeply into the topic of hallucinations with "Hearing Voices," the 2013 Music and Brain Symposium.

Berger presents the free symposia annually, focusing on a topic that he's been researching or composing around. Past themes have included music and aging and memory, and rhythm and brain-wave enhancement. Scholars, writers and researchers come together to discuss various facets of the topic. This year, programs will cover musical hallucinations, the neuroscience of and hallucinations from schizophrenia, and PTSD and its sufferers who are plagued by voices.

Speakers will include Stanford anthropology professor Tanya Luhrmann, author of "When God Talks Back"; Diana Deutsch, director of the Music Perception and Cognition Laboratory at the University of California at San Diego; and Stanford's Shaili Jain, who works with veterans with PTSD and also heads the Primary Care-Behavioral Health Team at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System.

Watson himself will also speak at the event, something Berger is particularly looking forward to. "I sort of timidly asked him to come, and he was amenable to speaking," Berger said. "He's in Syria right now. He goes where the danger is."

The new operas' librettist, Los Angeles writer Dan O'Brien, has had a long history with Watson. He has written the play "The Body of an American" and a collection of poetry called "War Reporter," both about Watson's experiences. O'Brien was already working with Watson when he teamed up with Berger to create "Theotokia." So "The War Reporter" became a natural subsequent project.

Like the war reporter himself, Berger has a personal connection to the topic of hearing voices. His late mother had hearing loss and dementia, a combination that can lead to musical hallucinations. "She was hearing music she couldn't identify," Berger said.

The composer also had an interest in schizophrenia. In 2010 he was commissioned by the Spoleto Festival USA to write what would become an earlier version of "Theotokia." He created it for the famed soprano Dawn Upshaw, who sang its arias at the festival.

"I jumped at the chance to write something that would lead into the opera. I loved the idea of having all the mothers sung by one voice," he said. "It's a prolonged, difficult part."

Heather Buck will clearly have a big job ahead of her at Bing next month, singing all the mothers and then portraying Watson's inner voice in "The War Reporter." Also featured will be the four singers of New York Polyphony, the St. Lawrence String Quartet and several other musicians, all conducted by Christopher Rountree. Costumes and scenic designs will be paired with video.

Rinde Eckert — a director, composer, musician, librettist and Pulitzer Prize finalist — will direct the operas. His past stints at Stanford have included performing his play "Horizon" here in 2006, and directing part of Trimpin's sound-sculpture work "The Gurs Zyklus" in 2011.

The Bing venue was designed as a concert hall, so there are limits for operatic and theatrical productions: not much of a backstage, for example. Berger said he's rather enjoyed the challenge of working with the hall's design. It gave him the whole "audience inside the brain" idea, and he's using the choral-terrace seating for scenery instead of audience.

Also, since there's no orchestra pit like one would find in a theater, the musicians must be on stage with the singers. That has led to a cabaret-like setting that may be particularly effective in the Pulitzer-party scene, Berger said.

Berger is looking forward to the premieres, but is never quite sure what to expect from audiences. After all, his operas are experimental, contemporary, often high-tech and at times dissonant.

"I want people to come away moved," he concluded. "My art is unabashedly expressive. ... In that context I'm a very conservative composer."

What: "Theotokia" and "The War Reporter," two new chamber operas by Jonathan Berger and Dan O'Brien

Where: Bing Concert Hall, Stanford University

When: at 8 p.m. on April 12 and 13

Cost: Tickets are $20-$56 general and $10 for Stanford students, with discounts available for youth, groups and other students.

Info: Go to or call 650-725-ARTS. The free symposium "Hearing Voices" is planned from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on April 13 at Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, 660 Lomita Drive. To register, go to New York Polyphony is also scheduled to perform at Bing on April 5; go to


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