Inspired by Mapplethorpe, Dessner’s “Triptych” ponders the sacred and profane

October 31, 2019 at 11:59 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Roomful of Teeth performed Bryce Dessner’s Triptych Wednesday night at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. Photo: Maria Baranova

In 1990, the Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati came under fire for featuring an exhibit entitled The Perfect Moment, a collection of sexual and sadomasochistic photographs taken by Robert Mapplethorpe.

Bryce Dessner, then 14, followed the resulting obscenity case closely. For the next several decades, the composer pondered the grey area between art and pornography without ever putting his ideas into musical form.

His interest in the case finally came to fruition in Triptych (Eyes of One on Another), a daring and unique musical spectacle that examines a selection of Mapplethorpe’s controversial images. Heard in its Boston premiere at the Cutler Majestic Theatre on Wednesday night, sponsored jointly by the Celebrity Series and Arts Emerson, Triptych explores the very limits of artistic expression for an age in which almost nothing seems shocking.

More poetic oratorio than dramatic narrative, Triptych is structured around Mapplethorpe’s X, Y, and Z portfolios, which involve graphic images of homosexual sadomasochism, nude portraits of African-American men, and, perhaps ironically, flowers. The libretto, which Korde Arrington Tuttle wove together from poetry by Patti Smith and Essex Hemphill, muses that such images can be seen as extensions of classical idealism. But the text also situates the often crude sexual visuals in thoughtful juxtapositions.

Dessner’s well-crafted music deftly unites text and image. Written for and performed on Wednesday by the versatile vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, Triptych presents episodes that reflect Renaissance polyphony yet soon take on stinging dissonances. Much of the score sets the words in the same repetitive manner that Steve Reich explored in his docu-opera works.

Dessner remains one of the most compelling composers on today’s scene. In his work as guitarist for the rock band, the National, and in his film scores, he crafts music of visceral intensity. But his concert music is more nuanced, the Reichian minimalism unfolding in large structures that change mood on a dime, as in his Concerto for Two Pianos.

Triptych is Dessner’s most arresting and provocative work to date; the musical lines reveal the symbolic subtleties that the show explores in its hour-long length. The opening section sets the chorus, singing in a tightly woven Renaissance style, behind a scrim, onto which an image of a man hanging upside down gradually comes into focus. Though uncomfortable at first sight—the man is nude and adorned with mask and chain—the photograph, when viewed to the music, calls to mind the crucifixion of the apostle Peter. Truly effective art, the image and music suggest, brings to light the polar extremes of the sacred and profane.

And for much of Triptych, Dessner’s music underscores similar ideas that have elicited strong reactions over the years. The second partsets case files from the obscenity trial. Using the full stage, the singers stood rank and file as if a jury at court, while Isaiah Robinson, singing with a bright, soulful tenor, served as lawyer. Here, Dessner’s music drives and churns as the chorus lofts quotations that tell of Senator Jesse Helms, who famously carried Mapplethorpe’s photographs in his pocket to confront and force reporters into admitting that such material was lewd.

But the photographs for this scene largely feature flowers, equally naked and beautiful in their own way. As Dessner’s music softens to delicate tones, one begins to ponder what actually constitutes sexual imagery.

In the final section, the show’s sexual themes are more overt. Mapplethorpe’s photographs of African-American men frame a story about a passionate homosexual relationship that falls apart, is repaired, but always hidden from society due to fears of persecution. Dessner’s gospel-style music in this scene, performed zestfully by singer Alicia Hall Moran, recasts sexual acts as spiritual experiences. The final, plush-toned chorus even builds upon the explicit line, “In America, I place my ring on your cock, where it belongs.” Base desire, it seems to say, can also yield lasting relationships.

Throughout the performance, Roomful of Teeth sang with conviction and sensitivity. Their warm tonal blend often spread into raspy sonorities, and other sections featured the singers in groans, hums, and whispers without the ensemble ever losing vibrancy and resonance. Dessner’s score also calls for chamber ensemble, and Wednesday night the NEC Ensemble, led by Brad Wells, brought enough energy and momentum to inject the music with urgency.

Kaneza Schaal’s staging for Triptych was minimal but effective, with the amplified singers moving around the stage to set the scenes of the trial and lovers’ quarrel. Dancer Martell Ruffin was a constant presence, sitting idly on stage for much of the show, infrequently mimicking the poses in the photographs, and interacting with Robinson in the final act. Ruffin’s high leaps and brisk turns brought a gentle, balletic grace.

Triptych runs through Sunday at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.; 617- 482-6661

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