Alastair White’s ROBE: a ‘fashion-opera’

If Rousseau, Marx, Einstein, Lacan and Bill Gates were to collaborate on an opera, what would they create?  Perhaps something not unlike ROBE by the Scottish composer and writer Alastair White – a futuristic ‘fashion-opera’ which was first performed during the 2019 Tête-à-Tête festival and has now been recorded and released on the Métier label by Divine Art Records.

Rooted in new materialist philosophy, ROBE is an attempt to, in White’s words, overcome the space-time dialectic of postmodern culture, and to create a synthesis which marks the age of “post-truth and the end of Enlightenment”.  In conversation, Alastair explains that the ancient, poisoned robe which gives the opera its title is a symbol of the theory behind the work, a fusion of its infinitely shifting contingencies.  Hence, ‘fashion-opera’.  “Fashion is about intervention, it’s spatial,” Alastair expounds.  “Its aesthetic is based on the need to change the value of things.  Take a simple nylon bag: if you put a name on it then its exchange-value changes.  This is an aesthetic event.  Opera is concerned with time and history.  It’s an attempt at autonomy and use-value.”

White’s opera may venture into virtual realities, A.I. and cyberspace, but it does so in order to reveal their rootedness in an ancient, mythic past.  “Virtual reality has existed since the dawn of time, in that books, theatres – even the clothes we wear – are all examples of machines which transform and augment our perceptions.”  ROBE brings science, philosophy, politics and culture together and if it is not exactly a conte philosophique in the manner of Voltaire, then its protagonists pass through just as many ‘possible worlds’ as Candide and his fellow travellers, and the opera itself seems to share something of the latter’s utopian mission.  “The opera is a cascade of un-contextual worlds, a disorientating hyper-realism,” Alastair adds.  ROBE clearly aims to challenge long-held assumptions about the material world and to illuminate the performative nature of matter itself.

Scored for four singers, flute, piano and percussion, ROBE tells of a post-human society in which there is no longer any distinction between the real and the virtual.  The stability of this world is threatened by a new powerful being.  A young cartographer, Rowan, is persuaded by two elders, Neachneohain and Beira, to descend into the mind of this superintelligence, EDINBURGH, in order to map this new creature so that its desire – to become a living city – may be granted.  Rowan thus plunges into EDINBURGH’s depths of abstraction, data and dream.  Thirty years pass.  Rowan and EDINBURGH have forged a union based upon love and their shared mission.  The map is almost complete.  However, Rowan has a secret.  Into the map she has woven something that could threaten the future of the whole world.  And, as things fall apart, Rowan’s story interweaves and collides with another narrative: the history of a forgotten city and an ancient, poisoned ROBE.

Alastair White (c) Gemma A. Williams

The narrative is circular, its two separate strands, each with their own levels of artificiality and reality, begin to intertwine, through retrospective and multi-layered causalities.  How are these multiple worlds communicated in the theatre?  “The theatrical experience is created by the perspective of the audience,” Alastair explains. “They are participating in multiple perspectives and from this they have to try to create logical structures.  The fragmentation of the subject or its use in a progressive way are not new ideas. Here, it’s kind of turned inside-out. When the musical event occurs, score, performance and audience intersect.  This represents a reassembly of individuals into the ‘contingent subject’ of art – a composite of technologies and humans – that can permit the paradox of modern community. And achieve something beyond the givenness of our own limits.”

I wonder if what Alastair is endeavouring to achieve is in some sense what the modernists were seeking: a way of representing Einstein’s fourth dimension and the changing ‘realities’ of human experience at the start of the 20th century?  “Well, we’re looking at the social reality at the start of this century,” he replies, “at its aesthetic and political discourse.  Despite our cosmological knowledge, this still asserts that sense perception allows access to reality, and all perspectives are equally valid.  That’s the realism of society now.  Every morning when we wake up, we have to create our reality anew; art works can resemble that reality, and that frees dramatic potential.  Opera intervenes in our social reality.  It helps us to see how discrepancies – between ‘external’ and ‘consensus’ reality – can be dealt with.  Art is as powerful as our given social reality.   Within it, the perceiver, participating within combined perspectives, becomes part of the contingent subject.  Through this, ROBE embodies the dialectic between structure and contingency, the social structures behind the world, and creates a hyper-realism that can negate and transcend ideological fiction.”

Rosie Middleton (c) Claire Shovelton

Alastair elaborates, “Multiple structures of listening are built into the piece.  It works like a city, combining structures within a larger structure.  Disorientation is part of the effect; you are aware of many different realities.”  Elsewhere he has noted that the origin of these ideas lies in ‘the lived experience of Edinburgh, the city of parallel worlds: of coexisting paradoxes in architecture, landscape, history, language.’

Reading Alastair’s libretto alone, won’t unravel such paradoxes.  Indeed, its combination of quasi-Symbolist excess, complex wordplay and the classical poise of ancient Greek tragedy makes for a heady mix.  Beira’s appeal to her fellow elder Neachneohain, “You must speak for us, now/ Speak for we who are silent”, has the rhythmic dignity of ritual.  At the end of Act 1, when Rowan has agreed to descend “into the depths of the code”, she and the elders sing of “a clearing in the forest, pricked a bear-shin with bores.  Branches/ pulled the birch to bent curves’/ proscenium.  Baroque ivy,/ bone notes.  Heels batter the mushroom patch.”  So dense is the imagery that it’s hard to separate shape from sound from smell from texture.  At times, words seem to literally transform before one’s eyes, as when Rowan describes the screens behind the airport which show “goat-horns of bog-myrtle,/ bluebell, bell-heather, bog-bean, grain.”  Rowan recalls how she has spent 30 years learning “the shapes of motion and change”, to create the map: “Desk-toil traced your hind legs in bridges,/ torso of sewers, drainage and aqueduct./ Tollcross. Crag rock. Cobblestone. Bus stop. […] Looped lines of circles knit, entwine./ Stitch tendons to the bit of spine by/ telephone boxes, butcher-shops, the grocer’s window.”  Here, the words are like physical matter, archaeological relics, unearthed, becoming something new – as EDINBURGH’s interjections confirm: “Unceasing motion./ Shifting polygons. […] Turning earth.”

‘Song of Heather’ from ROBE

The Storyteller’s first description of the ROBE embodies this shape-shifting, time-travelling web of contingencies perfectly:

The ROBE be a wrap of red and speech,
               reams of data folded through the hemlines.
               Song of the Wavefunction
               strange fleet silence
flushed to mud like bleach.

I ask Alastair what I hope doesn’t seem an impertinent question: why does he describe ROBE as an ‘opera’, apart from the inherent hybridity of that art form?  He explains that ROBE is based upon existing traditions and strategies, inherited traditions, including notation.  “Act 1 comprises speech, answers and interruptions; in Act 2 this is reassembled into meaning.”  The musical score is highly structured, employing eight 12-note all-interval mirror chords, which Alastair has described as ‘those which contain a tritone at their centre and repeat their intervals in inversion on either side, either as perfect retrogrades or perfect repeats.  Synchronically, these imply a single structure in motion in that they map an emergence of structure from the chromatic scale … diachronically, they give a plurality of perspectives on a single object: they thus simultaneously suggest unreconciled plurality and fundamental unity.’  This is EDINBURGH’s “turning earth”, the “down-depth of endless divisibility.”

Jenni Hogan (flute)

If this sounds somewhat schematic, the sonic experience of the score is anything but.  There is simplicity – a single, angular vocal line, fractured by explosive percussive piano stabs, for example – and complexity, with melodies leaping high and low against hyperactive piano kaleidoscopes.  There is stillness – a repeating piano tone chaining the voice – which is fraught with restlessness, as a flute gabbles and gibbers, slithery yet spiky, around the vocal line.  The storyteller’s mythic tale has a folksy lyricism at times, the sense of the ‘antique’ enhanced by the flute’s discursive elaborations.  When the Storyteller sings of the Warlord Q-el, “upon the battlefield … knackered and filthy”, the musical and verbal images of violence have a strange beauty.  Voices occasionally elide in expected harmonic sweetness, only to be abruptly rent apart as the circles keep turning.  EDINBURGH’s depths of data and abstraction are rendered by the voices of Beira and Neachneohain which come together, cohere and pull apart.  At the close, Beira’s vision – a stratospheric beam of vocal light which arches, ducks and weaves – is followed by Rowan’s epilogue, in which the hint of a chronological tick in the piano’s low ostinato thud is challenged by the meandering monotones of voice and flute.  Rowan finally realises that what she had created was not a map but a city, human, pulsing, real.  Herself.  Quietly but surely, her unaccompanied voice invites us to “look – closely,/ Out of the corner of your eye … and the sky is red, red,/ Edinburgh-red”.  It feels both cathartic and complete.

Thomas Page (c) Claire Shovelton

When ROBE was premiered at The Place in 2019, the four singers were positioned on individual raised daises and the performance involved four dancers.  The costumes, by Irish designer Michael Stewart, were taken from his 2017 RCA Graduate Collection which was inspired by the notion of ‘ancient futures’.  I wonder if Alastair has any clear vision of the opera in performance, whether any instructions are included in the libretto or score, and how the choreography relates to the music and drama?  Dance is built into the structure of the music and the drama, he confirms, and this seems inevitable and natural if the opera is embodying the motions of physical matter in time and space.  But, Alastair adds, the pluralities are not “for plurality’s sake, the aim is to transcend them.  ROBE dramatises contingency; it tries to capture it without neutralising its potential.” 

Space and time; stillness and motion; plurality and union; fixity and contingency: ROBE attempts to enable such dualities and relationships to be experienced through a synthesis of word, music, movement and image, in the theatre.

An image comes to mind, from Ali Smith’s 2001 novel, Hotel World, of one character, Lise, sick, at home, losing track of minutes, days, months.  She thinks back to her days working as a receptionist at the Global Hotel, counting off the five hours until the end of her shift: ‘She watches to see if she can catch the number on the clock changing itself again.  But she looks away, just for the mere split of a second, and when she looks back it’s already 6.56pm, without her having seen any of it happen or felt any of it pass.

Alastair Whites ROBE was released in February 2021 and is available from Divine Art Records.

Claire Seymour

ABOVE: Rosie Middleton, Sarah Parkin (c) Astrid Kearney