The Glass Eye: an important and impressive new song cycle at the Oxford International Song Festival

Introducing Alex Ho’s new song cycle, The Glass Eye, before this evening recital at the Oxford International Song Festival, Artistic Director Sholto Kynoch noted that this was the most substantial composition that the Festival had commissioned to date.  Having now heard The Glass Eye, I would say that this is not only a substantial work, but an extraordinarily important one.  Standing in the foyer of Oxford’s Holywell Music Room after the performance, I heard one audience member comment, “Gosh, that was a feat of endurance, for all of us!” 

Yes, it certainly was!  But, it was a necessary one.  And, one that will surely be repeated and valued immensely.  For, countertenor Hugh Cutting and pianist Dylan Perez, through their astonishing artistry, commitment, musical intelligence and captivating communication, helped us to recognise the creative and human significance of the song cycle which Alex Ho and librettist Elayce Ismail have created.

The Glass Eye is song and narrative, drama and reflection.  It fuses past, present and future.  It tells us where we are and where we might be; it contemplates our relationship with the planet we live upon, now, and in an imagined future; and, it raises the possibility of change, should, to borrow Hugh Cutting’s words, we learn to live with rather than on the Earth.  I previously spoke with Hugh and Alex, and so Opera Today readers can peruse a detailed account of the premise and form of The Glass Eye, which it seems redundant to replicate here.  But, essentially, the cycle presents a futuristic scenario where climate apocalypse has brought about human catastrophe and forced survivors underground, to become part of the mud, at one with the worms, able to view the planet on which they lived, and which their pollution has destroyed, solely through a single lens – the eponymous Glass Eye: the pool of water which is their only window to air, freedom, release.

There are essentially two strands.  In one, a narrative voice describes mankind’s predicament in the subterranean present.  As the first song, ‘The Glass Eye’, tells us, “Through the glassy water,/ A Glass Eye looks to the sky … these things are now done”.  In the other, past human experience is re-enacted, as a first-person protagonist conveys sensations of suffocation, panic, entombment – drama replacing narrative with distressing immediacy and impact. 

But, it’s more complicated than this.  The earth itself speaks to us.  The piano part embodies water (as through the glistening imagery of the pool which opens the first song), the weight of earth, the trembling murmurs of ‘The First Collapse’, the violence of human pride and greed, the terrible darkness and nullification of subterranean life.  And, the first-person voice that communicates the annihilations of the past, does so descriptively, reflectively and ‘in the moment’.  The combination of perspectives and voices is almost overwhelming in its multiplicity of experiences, but always expertly structured by Ho and Ismail, and, here, superlatively shaped by Cutting and Perez.  Striking, too, is the simultaneous ‘separation’ and simultaneity of the piano and voice.  The former is sometimes sparse and restrained, elsewhere violent and overwhelming, but the delineation of the vocal and piano strata enables the voice to be heard at all times without undue force.  It’s an impressive balance of sonic embrace and intellectual poise.

Hugh Cutting was a captivating storyteller, the extended phrases of the opening song drawing us into the struggle for breath, “The memory of life/ Of light, air and lungs”, as the piano’s pulse intimated those “gasps … a breath” – gentle humming at the close suggesting ruminative resignment to man’s fate.  The account of ‘The Collapse’ was not reflective, though, but intensely immediate.  Ismail’s text punches out a series of single words – “Sound, Ripped, Air”, “Buzz, Hum, Blast” – and who would not shudder at the ornamented, onomatopoeic rip of the “Siren” or the melismatic abrasiveness of “Loud”.  At times, Ho adopts a parlando vocal idiom, using the piano to make the listener feel the impact of the implosion: “The surface collapsed because of their mess – / The humans – their cars, their buildings, their jets”.  The vocal line shattered into instability, as the piano reached for its extremes: “The nightmarish weight of the many Collapses”.  The crash of the abyss at the close of the seventh song, ‘Battlegrounds”, was terrifying in its all too probable prediction of ongoing human self-destructiveness: “The Mud Men want power:/ The Eye’s where it starts”.

Cutting was ever attentive to the details of the musical narrative.  In the fifth song, ‘Collapse and Adapt’, the narration slips into lyrical irony with the acknowledgement of human folly and pride, even in adversity: “Forgot body and breath, tore the senses asunder/ New land for the taking, a new home to plunder”.  Melisma pointed particular words: “collapsed with disease”, “move on to new rooms”.  Always, that humming reminded one of the bitter reality: “No chance of falling when stuck in a hole”. 

Making us re-live that human destructiveness, Cutting and Perez grasped every knotty and technically challenging detail that Ho and Ismail threw at them.  ‘Here where we are’ punched out reality in accented, stabbing single syllables, which could not be denied.  Trapped in suffocating stasis, the voice was left alone to lament, “There’s only one window/ A Glass Eye on Above”.  ‘Crush’ was visceral and violent, the piano’s insistent ostinato both a human heartbeat and the pressure which threatens its extinction.  Silence and breathlessness were as important as utterance: one could only marvel at Cutting’s technical precision and sheer mental and musical stamina.  And, then, from jabbing gestures came keening lament, soft glissandi and gasps that were all too realistic representations of human pain and panic. 

‘The Underground Years’, the longest section, felt long – repetitive piano figures rolling and echoing, single words drifting in space: “Time just/ is … We just/ are”.  But, the repetition, “And The Glass Eye blinks”, which exploited Cutting’s strong, richly coloured chest register, bound together the dissolution.  Similarly, repetitions – three times we were told of the protagonist’s struggle, “Fighting”, to see – and rhapsody, “Not waiting to return/ Anymore/ But waiting for an/ Imagined future/ That will never be”, and finally stuttering – “I think/ I grasp/ I grieve/ I ghost” – made almost unimaginable psychological and physical pain palpable.

At the close, in ‘Evolution Resolution’, song slipped into a speech-like idiom, the low piano chords swinging back and forth like a prophetic pendulum.  “The air breathes” murmured Cutting, his whisper evolving into a whistle.  Those watery piano flickers and cascades returned at the start of the ‘Epilogue’ as a transfiguration of sorts took place.  The Glass Eye ends with the suggestion that, to the Earth, the “Mud men, compacted/ Now deep in the earth,/ Turned into coal” are both irrelevant and redeemed.  The planet will cure itself.  As the lights in the Holywell Music Room were extinguished, the slightest call of a bird was a beam of brightness, hope and resurrection.

The first half of the programme had presented us with the musical imagery of Stanford, Ireland, Vaughan Williams, representing a Nature separate from but respected and loved by man.  Errollyn Wallen’s ‘About Here’ conjured – with, first, a folky warm, then trickling delicacy, and finally a tumultuous release – the promise of a new moon.  Hands in pockets, sinking physically into John Denver’s ‘Rhymes and Reasons’, Cutting anticipated the hope that is ultimately glimpsed through prism of The Glass Eye: “Come and stand beside us, we can find a better way.”

Claire Seymour

Hugh Cutting (countertenor), Dylan Perez (piano)

Stanford – ‘A Soft Day’ Op.140 No.3; Ireland – ‘Sea Fever’; Vaughan Williams – ‘The Splendour Falls’; Errollyn Wallen – ‘About Here’; John Denver – ‘Rhyme and Reasons’; Alex Ho – The Glass Eye

Holywell Music Room, Oxford; Thursday 26th October 2023.