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The Profanation of Hubert J. Fort

An Allegory in Four Scenes for Voice, Clarinet/Saxophone and Double Bass

By Frank Proto

The joining of words and music is perhaps the most common, popular, never out-of-fashion coupling of humankind's means of expression ever devised. Between the simplest rhythmic chant and the grandest of opera there are countless stylistic marriages of the two. Whether used for stimulation of contemplative thought, blatant propaganda, subversive exhortations or mindless entertainment, this potent duo has always been the great equalizer - available to all, with no regard to social, political or moneyed status.

When I was a student at the High School of Performing Arts in the late 50s my interest in the theatre was almost as powerful as my passion for music. The school, being situated right in the heart of the theatre district in New York City, was frequently visited by actors who were appearing in dramas or musicals within walking distance of the front door. They would be invited to speak with the drama majors, but students from the music and dance departments were also encouraged to attend their presentations. Many times, after speaking at an assembly, the featured guest would pass out a few tickets to the show in which he was appearing. These tickets were meant for the drama students, but there were always a few left over and I would usually be among the first to ask for one. In true student fashion, I was totally nonplused when someone expressed excitement after my having mentioned that I had been to the original production of musicals like My Fair Lady, Damn Yankees and West Side Story or had seen stars such as Paul Muni - in the first Broadway production of Inherit the Wind - and Tallulah Bankhead in A Streetcar Named Desire.

In the more than 40 years since my high school days my affection for the theatre has not diminished. If anything it has intensified. For a composer, occupied in the non-pop domain, working on a theatre piece or opera of some kind is usually a most welcome challenge. Having the opportunity to bring a work to performance can however be an even greater challenge. Most opera company managements look forward to presenting something a bit different from the standard repertoire with slightly less enthusiasm than having their collective gall bladders removed. And presenters of Broadway-type musicals are about equally friendly to ideas that drift too far from whatever the latest pop/rock craze is.

For me, the solution to this problem was to ignore it and think small in terms of number of performers - three, and length - under an hour. Thinking small of course has its disadvantages. Matters such as number of characters, breadth of story line, variety of orchestration and severe limitations on special effects are all affected. But are these limitations really detriments to producing an interesting experience for a willing audience? I don't think so. In fact we can make them work to our advantage. It forces us to make every note count, make every word necessary, strip away anything superfluous to the main objective. It forces us not to depend on special effects to get across a point - or to rescue us when we can't write or compose our way out of a tricky situation. And of course, there's always the pragmatic reason for thinking small; it makes mounting a performance not only practical, but indeed, in many cases possible!

In most theatrical type works, - opera, musicals, etc. - while in many instances both the music and the text are equal partners, that equality is only true up to a point. When the music and text - i.e. singing - get going along together, the music is usually accompanying, while the text, or in the case of most traditional opera, the vocal line, is the primary focus of attention. With musicals more attention is given to what the actual text is all about, but the music still accompanies when the words are sung. Yes, there is sometimes a great deal of interplay between the music and the singers. However this interplay almost always is taking place at the musical level, not at the dramatic level. This is not to say that the music in itself is not dramatic. For instance, a singer might intone: What ho! The marines are coming up the hill, followed by a blast from the trombones and horns depicting the scene. While this technique is extremely common and has been used effectively thousands of times, what the trombones and horns are doing is simply providing an aural description - a sound effect - of what the singer has just vocalized. They are not informing us of anything that we do not already know. They are not telling us: Yes, and they are bringing us the supplies that we desperately need! It is quite rare for the music to carry on a pointed discussion with the speaker (singer) of the text on a more direct or personal level. To put it more simply; the instruments do not speak - with an actual text of their own - to the actors.

The Profanation of Hubert J. Fort is an experiment. For quite some time I've been thinking of how it might be possible to have an actual dramatic give-and-take between the human and instrumental voices. An exchange between the vocal and instrumental protagonists, which allows the theme (story) to unfold in a manner where all share equally in its articulation. While there are sections in Hubert where the 2 instruments do accompany the vocalist in the traditional manner, I am attempting to create a more direct, or personal, interplay between the three. For the sake of clarity the actor sometimes tells us literally what one of the instruments has just declared. However, I've tried to keep these enunciations subtle and to a minimum, especially as the piece unfolds. Hopefully the listener will garner enough information from the instrumentalist's overall performance - inflection, emphasis, timbre, rhythm, etc. - to decipher what he is saying. While not every thought and expression will be understandable on first hearing, I hope that the listener's interest will be piqued enough to encourage a return visit to the work.

Returning to Hubert for a subsequent performance should provide an extremely different experience for the listener. There is quite a bit of improvisation in the parts of the two instrumentalists. The improvised sections are not notated with chord changes or pitch suggestions, rather with blocks of text; an indication of what they are supposed to be saying at that moment. It's totally up to the performer how to execute these lines, so the performance heard tomorrow will be vastly different than the one heard today, even more so if different players are involved.

As to the allegorical nature of the work: The Profanation of Hubert J. Fort was inspired by our own times. This inauspicious beginning to the 21st Century.

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