A Cacophony Of Voices, Human And Planetary: Songs Of World As One


Composer Matthew Aucoin is collaborating with director Peter Sellars on ‘Music for New Bodies,’ which has its premiere April 20 at Rice University.

PERSPECTIVE — Matthew Aucoin is hearing a lot of voices. In the shadow of the gathering climate crisis, the visionary American composer’s ambitious new work — a “synesthetic song cycle,” in his words — conjures a cacophony of human, post-human, and natural voices, both individual and collective, sometimes indistinguishable, and all struggling to be heard.

Directed by Peter Sellars in a first-time collaboration and inspired by the poetry of Jorie Graham, Music for New Bodies probes urgent themes of biology, illness, and technology using a maximalist aesthetic to explore the human and planetary condition. The ensemble DACAMERA and the Shepherd School of Music will present a concert performance of the work April 20 at Rice University in Houston. (It also will be heard in another concert production at the Aspen Music Festival this summer, and will be presented in New York by the American Modern Opera Company, a co-commissioner of the work, in 2025.)

The concept for New Bodies first sparked in 2021, when Aucoin and other members of AMOC collaborated with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra on an interdisciplinary operatic work called The No One’s Rose in San Francisco. Sellars heard the performance, and in an evening of music seized upon a unique seven-minute snippet — a partial setting of Graham’s poem “Deep Water Trawling.” Sellars told Aucoin, “That should be a full evening. That’s incredible. I was so moved by it.”

Aucoin agreed that the excerpt inhabited “a different galaxy” from his previous works. The expanded Music for New Bodies is “a much bleaker universe,” he says, beginning a new chapter in his music. “It’s a new texture, a new energy, a new darkness.” The piece now comprises five vocal soloists and an 18-instrument ensemble grouped into “schools” of string players, wind players, and percussionists. Aucoin says he borrowed the idea of schools from marine biologist and author of Silent Spring Rachel Carson. “Maybe they’re the voice of a different species.”

Peter Sellars

The expansive poetry of Graham, a Pulitzer winner, often traverses the metaphysical and the ecological; much of her recent work also incorporates her experience of dealing with cancer and the broad suffering of a world that feels out of control. Aucoin has long admired Graham’s work — she was his teacher and thesis advisor at Harvard — and was struck by the recent volume Fast. ”It hit me very hard,” he says. “It feels like someone who has to say everything urgent to the whole species because they don’t know how much time they have. There is an almost apocalyptic, visionary intensity to these poems.” He cites the poem “Prying,” which is written inside a surgical chamber, from within the experience of undergoing intense and invasive treatments.”

“Deep Water Trawling,” a selection from Fast, draws parallels between Graham’s intrusive cancer treatments and the destructive tuna-fishing practice. The analogy to fishing is visceral. Sellars says, “Deep-sea trawling is the scraping of the bottom of oceans just to catch more tuna.” Graham’s writing explores “what it means to find yourself scraped, cleaned in some horrible way, and all kinds of things being just thrown out. Her tone is not just surviving, it’s holding herself and the world together with sheer intelligence and courage and an understanding that everything that’s happening to her body is also happening to the world around her.”

Both artists were also compelled by Graham’s creation of a collective voice. Sellars has been exploring ways to push opera beyond individual psychology: “I’m the Countess, you’re Cherubino, and we all have defined zones of who we are — that’s not how things work. You are everyone else — who you’ve met and where you’ve been, and what you’re carrying from your parents and your grandparents. The ‘you’ is collective and has no limits.”

Sellars builds upon this concept to include the powerful currents that carry individuals, nations, and history in unexpected directions. “It’s taking us all there whether we want to go there or not. What does it mean to be living in a time when the currents are nothing you can ultimately resist? So I was interested in making an opera that is about all these people in a current, trying to create one composite voice.”

To Aucoin, the collective isn’t necessarily to mankind’s advantage. “It’s maybe more frightening because there’s often strength in a collective of people. But this kind is not empowering to our species. It’s a collective voice that we’ve lost control of.” This sense of being overwhelmed speaks to the chaotic bombarding of input — information, news, marketing — in the modern consciousness.

Soprano Kathryn Lewek is one of the soloists. (Photo by Pauly Simon)

All of the voices in New Bodies come from Graham’s writing, and Aucoin thinks one of them, from “Prying,” may be artificial. “One part sounds like a non-human, possibly AI-generated voice,” he says. He sets this apart musically in a movement that is “more often a bit jagged and a bit unpredictable.” The five vocalists sing in rhythmic unison with an electric bass and drum set over static harmonies. “But when this AI voice takes over, I want it to have almost a narcotic effect and be a voice that wants to lull you into a stupor. It goes on and on for uncomfortably long and just keeps spewing this text.”

Aucoin is emphatic that no music or text in New Music for New Bodies is AI-generated. For him, that would miss something crucial: “We’re not communicating. We’re not doing the thing that humans do anymore,” he says. “New kinds of art emerge from bodily experience. Modernism emerged from a feeling of chaos and suffering after World War I out of bodily experience. If the only experience is a giant data set of stuff that’s been made, you’ve broken the vital link.”

Why exactly “new” bodies? The title comes from eels. Sellars points to the mysterious reproduction system of American eels, which spend the first 15-30 years of their lives in fresh water. When it’s time to reproduce, driven by an unknown signal, they become salt-water creatures and migrate thousands of miles from North America toward the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean before they spawn and die. Carried by the Gulf Stream back toward the American coast, the hatched larvae drift in the ocean currents for months, become freshwater eels, and start the cycle again.

“In that entire lifespan, each eel has at least four bodies. So the idea that in one lifespan you have several bodies is what triggered the idea. What does it mean that we’re changing? And being carried by things that are larger than ourselves? To me, that was an important direction to go at this moment in time and explore.”