"Stiller - than the fields
At the full Dew -
Beautiful - as Pictures -
No man drew"
(from I went to Heaven)
The first time I heard John Adams' Harmonium, which sets the poetry of Emily Dickinson to chorus and orchestra, I was blown away by the way Adams' hypnotic, propulsive music illuminated Dickinson's text, which for me had previously been the province of high school English class. But, I doubt the Belle of Amherst ever received a more sensitive treatment of her work than the one she was given this past week at BAM's Harvey Theater by composer Michael Gordon, filmmaker Bill Morrison, director Bob McGrath and the Ridge Theater.
Lightning at our feet sets nearly a dozen Dickinson poems in a 90 minute program that felt more like an indie rock show than a piece of musical theater. Gordon left his usual battery of industrial noise at home, employing a modest, chamber-sized ensemble that played electronics, modified strings, piano and percussion. Stunning, dreamlike projections filled the stage, using both film and live-channel video that looked like something Bill Viola might conjure (especially the video for I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, which showed Charles floating slow-motion in a churning pool of water.)
The indie-show feel also had a lot to do with the presence of Elysian Fields lead Jennifer Charles, who snuck under my skin with her dark, smoldering voice. Joining her onstage were three talented instrumentalists doubling vocals: cellist Leah Coloff, violinist Courtney Orlando (from Alarm Will Sound), and keyboardist/vocalist Bora Yoon. All were dressed in flowing white, like a quartet of Vestal Virgins. In addition to Dickinson's poetry, they also sang their own text, personalizing the poet's life and work.
Here's a clip of It might be lonelier so you can get a sense of the experience. For comparison, check out this video of Dickinson's "Wild Nights" from Adams' Harmonium, with Simon Rattle and the CBSO.