MACHUNAS
story + music
 
english and lithuanian
MACHUNAS – STORY

“Machunas” is a Performance Oratorio put together by Lucio Pozzi and Frank J.Oteri. We describe Machunas as a ‘Performance Oratorio’ to indicate that its visual and literary components have the same weight as the musical score. The story of Machunas is blueprinted on the life and death of George Maciunas, an architect, artist and activist of the second half of the Twentieth Century. The name is intentionally misspelled for phonetic reasons as well as to indicate that this narrative is not bound to represent his life exactly nor the significance his actions might or might not have in the minds of those who know of him. Maciunas founded what might well be remembered as the last avant-garde art movement, the immensely influential “Fluxus”. Some of you might feel that our treatment of the story has nothing to do with Fluxus esthetics. The events of the life of our character, we hope, should reflect the experience of many of us, artists and non-artists alike.
 

The Oratorio is divided in 4 acts: Yellow, Green, Red, Blue. Each act has 9 parts. In this Oratorio, Machunas is the only character with a name. All others are nameless. Machunas is sung by a man. All other parts, male and female, are sung by women.
 
YELLOW

Childhood dreams and the twilight of tradition. A world which still believes in the illusion of stability. The play and conflicts of childhood are sustained by a feeling that the boundaries of existence are secure despite the many forces eroding it. Lithuania, a once great empire, is now a small country more afraid of Russia than Germany.


- A playroom and garden


A young child sits and stands fully grown and fully dressed in his baby playpen. He is Machunas. His family lives a bourgeois life. His Mother devotes her attention to him and his sister. His Father, an engineer for a large German electrical company, often leaves for business and hunting trips. Traditional benign daemons circle the playpen and bless Machunas*.

His Mother sings a lullaby to him in which she renounces her own ballet career and predicts his great future. Other children tease Machunas as they play ‘doctor’ and ‘house’. His Father tells them to make less noise. He then spins a specious theory claiming that by leaving he fosters family unity and affection. His departure prompts the very first words of Machunas who reaches out from his cradle to grab his father’s hat as he leaves.


Now knowing how to speak and wearing his father’s hat, Machunas tries to order the children around. They refuse to obey him and perform a regimented march foreboding Europe’s totalitarian fate. Separate from the other children, Machunas’ Sister, a lone optimist, dreams of becoming a famous singer. Suddenly, news of a pact between Communist Russia and Nazi Germany, allotting Lithuania to the Russians, causes everybody to scramble away in exile, upsetting the old order forever. As they march forward, the playpen is destroyed and Machunas is carried into the audience with everybody else

__
* characters selected from current obituaries are the same sung at the end of Blue.

 
 
GREEN

Transition and its attending traumas. Modern uprooting, migration, bewilderment. The clash of old and new. The singularity of ancient worlds destroyed by technological homogeneity.


- A PX store of an American-controlled camp for displaced persons in post-war Germany.


In a corner, an unfinished model of the house the family abandoned when leaving Lithuania gathers dust. Machunas started building it and will never finish it. The deteriorating model follows him everywhere in the course of his life.


Machunas fastidiously crafts a traditional Lithuanian calendar. He is in love with a Lithuanian friend of his sister. He gives her the calendar, expecting her to fall in his arms. But the girl is taken by be-bop, chewing gum and the GI’s and couldn’t care less about his romantic efforts.


The camp’s captain regiments his charges and promises everybody the wonders of the new world. The Father dies on a business trip. The Mother and Sister sense the dangers of their future in America. Everyone except Machunas exchanges old clothes for modern ones in a ballet showing the transition from the old to the new world. Machunas turns against love, tradition, nostalgia and braces for neither the new popular culture nor for the ancient ways.

 
 
RED

Utopian revolution and unrequited love.
Machunas’ epiphany.


- A basement studio, in downtown New York.


After graduating in architecture, he answers his mother’s expectations by stating that he has no time for women or for marriage. As he is tending chores in his studio, he undergoes a series of temptations, representing all that he will not have: success, religion, sex, and so on.
After the temptations subside, he puts on a dress belonging to a woman artist with whom he is collaborating on many projects. He looks into a mirror and bursts into a love song. It is obvious that he never declared his love to her in person but it is unclear whether he is in love with her or with himself.


The woman suddenly enters the room. He sheds the dress instantly and together they become angered by the hypocrisy of the media. These are the times of the Vietnam war. Machunas has designed a poster protesting the Mylai massacre in which U.S. troops slaughtered women and children in a Vietnamese village. Machunas is equally outraged by artistic conformity as by the politics of his adopted country. He rallies neighborhood artists and passers-by with a manifesto for a new way to conceive art. The woman finds him too self-centered and abstract for her ambitions, and she leaves him.

Machunas climbs on a bicycle perched precariously on a pile of tables. He pedals frantically going nowhere like a racer who would fall if stopped. He holds court. Innumerable plans are submitted for his approval, ranging from guerrilla theater and electronic art to artists housing in a section of town soon to be named SoHo. The only thing he is able to say is the mantra: “LET US MAKE ART OF IT”. Machunas is informed that his woman friend is marrying a famous rock musician and he blushes. Left alone, he bemoans the loss of his love and confesses doubts about himself.

 
 
BLUE

Descent from disappointment into death.
The downfall.


- A series of flashbacks occur in a hospital room, in Massachusetts.
- Machunas is no longer able to sing.

A dirge sets the tone. The Mother is worried about her son’s condition of stress, malnutrition and poverty. Machunas is penniless. He imports Soviet canned meat in the hope of selling inexpensive food to artists, support the Communist ideals and make a buck for himself meantime. No one buys the mountainous piles of canned food; Machunas eats it alone, one can at a time.


He is threatened from all sides. The plumbers union sends a gang to punish him for refusing to pay kickbacks; they beat him up and he loses an eye. The attorney general sends marshals to summon him to trial for irregularities in his building renovations; he answers by having postcards sent to the attorney’s office by his friends from countries abroad, pretending that he is traveling there. Artists who bought his lofts sue him because they assume he has embezzled their funds. Finally, a doctor informs him that he is terminally ill with cancer. Machunas responds to misfortune by writing “LET US MAKE ART OF IT”.


Machunas buys a rundown farm in New England. He expects all his artist friends to join him there and form a commune. They don’t. Broken by debts and illness, he marries a young lady who is his tenant. In a performance art ceremony, Machunas and his bride exchange each other’s clothes. The marriage will never be consummated.


The Sister’s telephone rings. No one seems to be on the line but she intuits that the caller is her voiceless brother. She talks to him, trying to soothe his pain but she suddenly understands that he has died while she was talking.


Obituaries of people who died the same day as Machunas are read at his funeral *. His name is inserted into the obituaries of a housewife, a lawyer, a businessman, a pastry chef, and on and on and on and on and on.

* characters selected from current obituaries are the same sung at the beginning of yellow.

© Lucio Pozzi and Frank J. Oteri 2001
 

MACHUNAS – MUSIC

Inspired by the four color scheme of red, green, yellow and blue that permeates much of the work of Lucio Pozzi, the music for the performance oratorio Machunas was created in four different colors. That is to say, each of the nine-part four acts is named after one of the colors and features a distinct orchestration and references to distinct musical styles although all four acts of the opera share melodic and harmonic material. The voices for the opera are all-women with the exception of the protagonist. Ideally, an untrained singer should be cast as the protagonist who throughout the opera sings only on one note.


Yellow, which is inspired by the protagonist's turbulent childhood years in Lithuania, features music scored for an ensemble of toy instruments. Its structural departure points are children's songs, Lithuanian sutartinës (folkloric canons dating back to pagan times), and late Romantic music.


The music for Green, which takes place in a refugee camp in Germany run by victorious American soldiers at the end of World War II, is played by a swing jazz band but the music they play has very little in common with jazz from a structural standpoint. Rather, it is a very person application of the twelve-tone method of composition, which was born in German-speaking lands and cast off, reaching its apogee in America as a result of émigrés.


Red, which conveys the birth of SoHo and the New York City art scene, is scored for a Fluxus rock band that combines electric guitars, sax, and synthesizer with a shakuhachi, a radio and a theremin, an early 20th century electronic instrument whose eerie, otherworldly sound was a staple of 1950s sci-fi movies. The music is a response to the various conceptual musics of the 1960s (indeterminacy, process music, experiments with unusual meters, etc.) as well as psychedelic rock and the more primal efforts of garage bands that emerged all over the United States at this time.


Finally, Blue uses a Baroque period instrument ensemble to perform a sacred Passion with the dying protagonist in Massachusetts serving as a latter-day Christ figure. In the last act, he does not sing at all. Rather, the other singers from time to time "sing in his name," each on a single pitch, but not on his.
In each act, a different keyboard instrument serves as a concertante instrument (toy piano, upright piano, synthesizer, harpsichord), and in each there are instruments that should not belong, i.e. the swing jazz band features an oboe and the Baroque group features an electric guitar. There are also other formal structures and devices linking the nine parts of each act to each other as well as linking all 36 parts, i.e. the very first part (the birth) and the very last (the funeral) are derived from the same melodic cell and are the only two components featuring indetermine text which will vary from performance to performance hence altering rhythms, etc.

The texts, melodies, harmonies and orchestration for Machunas were created over a 4-year period by the composer at various keyboards and computers, always in the presence of Lucio Pozzi.


Frank J. Oteri
© March 2004

 
 
 
GENESIS OF MACHUNAS
 

I have produced performances of many kinds for more than two decades. Some have been solo actions, others have included up to 50 actors, dancers, musicians and singers (Paris, France; Baltimore, Maryland). Their sounds had been most of the time discrete entities until a producer matched me with a composer in Chicago in the early nineties. After that experience I developed a wish to design my ultimate performance in the operatic mode in collaboration with a willing composer.

Finding a subject matter took a couple of years. I wanted to find a story that would be symbolic of our times. I stumbled upon the best idea during a lunch conversation with the writer Anthony Haden Guest. As we were talking of the art of the late twentieth Century, Anthony asked me what I thought about Fluxus and whether I had met George Maciunas. As I described my feelings about the little I knew about him, it suddenly dawned upon me that he represented the theme I was looking for. Romantic, ironic, utopian, he was the epitome of my agitated century. Of bourgeois European origins, like me he had migrated to the United States. Naïve like me, he had been burned by ill-conceived forays in fields outside the art.


The beginning of my search into his life happened in a very fluxish manner. I remembered vaguely having known many of the Fluxus artists but it was recommended that I talk to Jon Hendricks as a start. In my mind I had mistaken Jon’s persona with Dick Higgins’ large bodily presence. What was my surprise when I saw the slim frame of Hendricks. I guess Higgins/ Hendricks had become mixed up in my recollections.


I told Jon that I did not want the piece to be in the tradition of Fluxus sound. I wanted to cast a distant look on the events surrounding it, in a melodic tone equivalent to reaching out to the past in a time machine. I changed the name of the piece to Machunas, to indicate even phonetically this distance.
Jon liked my approach and immediately started helping me by introducing me to Nijoli, George Maciunas’ sister. I went to Connecticut a couple of times, corresponded for a while, and gathered from her innumerable anecdotes about their childhood and adult life. I then proceeded to gather further parts of the mosaic I was assembling from some of the artists I knew, such as Nam June Paik and Jonas Mekas. They in turn had me meet Larry Miller who showed me the film of Maciunas’ marriage. Everybody was extremely kind and supportive. At one point I asked them to stop reciting episodes because too many were being offered. I had enough elements to weave the symbolism I was interested in.


I divided the opera in 4 parts, naming them after the colors I often use in my artworks. I then subdivided the parts (acts) each in 7 or 8 sections, characterized by the phases of my hero’s existence, developing it in a classical mode echoing the ascent and descent of a life. Meanwhile I began listening to all the music by contemporary composers I could put my hands on, either by hearing it on the radio or by having met the person.


I wanted a composer who would not conform to serial, dodecaphonic, atonal, minimal, folkloric, jazz, electronic tenets, but who would be capable nonetheless not to deny their respective traditions. My composer needed to be well versed in literature and art and know Fluxus well enough to gaze at it, so to say, through the telescope of time. S/he especially needed to be willing to collaborate with me in reciprocal dialogue about absolutely all aspects of the piece, to convey the sense of loss, nostalgia mixed with irony I felt permeates the tragicomic story. It was my great luck to encounter the young Frank J. Oteri.


Frank is not only an exceptionally informed and talented music writer but also a skilled and demanding wordsmith. I felt lucky to find him keenly interested in the project We initiated our collaboration by wording the libretto. We spent long grueling days eviscerating and honing down every word and its possible meaning ramifications until after a week’s work we would perhaps sometimes come out with a couple of lines that could lead us to the next.


The advantage of writing the libretto together resulted in Frank being able to match the words to the nascent melodies that he tried out with me and especially to structure the whole piece according to the numerical correspondences he is so keen in developing in his art. Thus the opera came to have 9 parts for each act, singers groupings that reflect one another across the symmetries of the parts, echoes of motifs that return transformed. To my ear this became equivalent of “tempering” my original ideas into a grand new structured order.


Frank eventually formed his music according to orders different for each act and engaged in very sophisticated musical sequences that are best explained by him. As we reviewed the piece – a mixture of visual and musical ideas - it occurred to us that to call it an Opera felt inaccurate, somehow. Frank suggested we name it a Performance Oratorio.


The music being in fact structured in a way that echoes the oratorii of times past, the idea came of having the singers motions reduced to the utmost, transferring the action to a chorus of dancers whose motions would become both the action and a comment upon the story”

Lucio Pozzi ©2003