DPO presents a musical metaphor for our technology-dependent world
When I was a kid, it wasn’t all that unusual for one kid to call down his or her wrath on another. If you were really P-O’d at Bobby or Suzy, you might say something like, “I hope you fall down a deep well full of spiders that crawl in your ears and up your nose and suck your brains right out of your skull.”
Talk about spite.
And before you think such curses are child’s play, consider this: folklore is crammed with stories of people who actually did things as bad as that…and worse. For example….
In Greek mythology, there was a god named Prometheus, who committed an unpardonable crime – he brought fire to the world. For his crime, he was bound to a rock, where a giant bird picked away at his vitals in perpetuity. (They were eternally renewed and eternally destroyed each day.) Yeeeech!
After all, what was there for the gods to be so upset about? It was fire, for Pete’s sake. It heats homes, cooks food, melts metal. All good things. But obviously the gods had a different take on it.
And a brilliant American musical composer had a different take on it as well. He saw fire as representing technology, technology that has expanded for the last 500 years and drastically changed our society. Need an example?
Not quite 50 years ago, most businesses hired top- and middle-management personnel (mostly men) and supplied each with a secretary (mostly women), who performed all the clerical duties for the manager. Then technology, in the form of room-sized computers with all their support machinery (keypunch machines, optical character readers) changed the nature of the secretaries’ clerical duties to mostly those of a data entry clerk.
Not long after, managers found computer terminals on their desks replete with word processing and spreadsheet software. And looked up to see their secretaries were no longer there. An entire segment of the country’s workforce had disappeared; the company retained one secretary in each department, gave her the title of Administrative Assistant, and tasked her with hassling the various managers’ travel itineraries. In a short while, even she would disappear.
And the managers, both male and female now and armed with the new technology, became quasi-secretaries. As time passed and computer technology became infinitely smaller and more powerful it became all too prevalent for companies to dismiss large portions of their managerial staff and double the workload of those remaining. Why? To save money and increase profits.
And because they could.
Their managerial staff each had computers of their own so small that, if the managers couldn’t get all their work done in the 60-80 hours they spent in the office each week, they could simply take their computers (and their smart phones and tablets) home with them and do their work there. On their “free” time.
The American composer to whom I referred earlier is William Bolcom, a professor of composition at the University of Michigan. And his musical portrayal of the story of Prometheus follows in the footsteps of such other brilliant composers as Ludwig von Beethoven and Franz Liszt. But with a decidedly 21-st Century twist.
“We in the West have brought ourselves to a level of technical sophistication unknown to any other era,” Bolcom wrote in 2010. “We’ve wedged our way into almost-divine capability, unlike Prometheus who as a god was born with it – but at a price. We are now all Prometheus, chained to our rock of technological dependency; there is no question that our unprecedented advance has given the world enormous benefits we have no desire of relinquishing – nor should we – but we are enjoined to see the dark side of this bounty.”
And Bolcom’s Prometheus is a dark, and challenging, work.
Its musical materials are twisted, dissonant, uneven. The pianist represents Prometheus, and the chorus sings the text of Lord Byron’s poem of the same name. The orchestra is frenzied and explosive. The music gradually becomes more poetic, a salute to the spirit of mankind. Colorful. Peaceful.
11/18 & 11/19 at 8 pm
Click For Tickets
On Friday and Saturday, November 18 and 19 at 8pm in the Schuster Center, the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra presents Promethean Exploits, a program that features Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture, Bolcom’s Prometheus, Liszt’s Prometheus Symphonic Poem, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8. Guest pianist Jeffrey Biegel and the 120-plus members of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra Chorus, selected from singers from all over the Miami Valley, join Music Director Neal Gittleman and the DPO.
“When I was requested to write the present work for the same forces as Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy,” Bolcom writes, “I felt the piano part would be ideal in portraying Prometheus’ eternal agony; my Prometheus is perhaps the antithesis of the joyous mood of the Beethoven but is not devoid of hope, particularly if it points us to begin to understand our situation. This piece is dedicated to that hope.”