Opera for soprano, three percussionists and a coffee machine.
Commissioned by Venice Music Biennale, premiered at Teatro Piccolo Arsenale 24/09/22.
Composition & Direction – Timothy Cape
Soprano – Esther Elizabeth Rispens
Percussion – Ars Ludi
I wrote a text to accompany the piece, which can be read in Italian and English here.
The score is available from The Contemporary Music Centre website, link here
Photos © Andrea Avezzu
Our contemporary society presents itself to us as a glitzy spectacle. Concealed behind this front is the faceless crowd of workers who produce and uphold it, many of whom spend hours in front of computers editing text – whether human language or computer code – or worrying over powerpoint presentations, sales pitches or emails.
Richard Seymour talks about this ubiquitous labour of writing in his book The Twittering Machine, named after Paul Klee’s 1921 painting of mechanical birds whose soulful calls appear reduced to a choked metallic clicking. Sianne Ngai, another contemporary thinker, links the frazzled zaniness of contemporary labour to the historical fictional characters of the Zanni. Precarious, stressed out, but full of performative zeal, the Zanni’s failed attempts to complete their endless list of tasks amused Commedia dell’Arte audiences in 16th Century Venice. My piece Still Drowsy is haunted by a mutant amalgamation of these two forms – characters I call Twittering Zanni – who wear the masks of the Zanni and chirp mechanically, constructing and editing word fragments with voices and percussion in machine-like rhythms.
The rhythmic machinery of the industrial era was combined with human muscle to produce wealth. This led to an understanding of power and class, and to the formation of labour unions who fought for the separation of life and work. Attend any job interview today and the first question on the list will be to describe your communication skills, your interpersonal skills. The exploitation of these social/emotional elements of our humanity for the production of profit creates a particular set of feelings, a particular type of workers’ exhaustion.
Our protagonist in Still Drowsy is no stranger to these feelings. Struggling with the proximity of life and work in her remote-working setup, Kate requires some focus so she can formulate the right words, the right emotional tone in her work-related communications. The focus doesn’t hold, she drifts into a psychological space where she is visited by references to coffee, the mind-fuel of contemporary production. We also hear her filling up on ideological fuel (fragments of quotes from best-selling motivational self-help authors) which encourages her to formulate a vision of herself as an individual devoid of political context. Lurking in the background are the Twittering Zanni, historical empathisers to her precarity and work stress.
I can’t start doing anything in the morning without my first cup of coffee. But if I take one coffee too many, I get this strange shaking feeling, part excitement and part anxiety. It’s similar to a physical feeling I have (regardless of caffeine intake) when I’m struggling to be as productive as I need to be. I wanted to fill Still Drowsy with this simmering, bubbling energy that comes with treading a precarious line between self-motivation and anxiety. To me, this feeling says something about being alive in 2022. In Still Drowsy I wanted to put that feeling on stage, smash it open and let the light in.
Timothy Cape 2022
© 2023 Timothy Cape