Anthony Davis



Just when opera seemed headed for the brontosaurs’ boneyard, composers and librettists revived it by embracing modern historical figures: Nixon (in China), Einstein (on the beach), Malcolm X…and Patty Hearst. She’s a less commanding figure for sure, but she was once America’s most notorious fugitive, and her bizarre tale is strong enough in outline to stand up to complex music. She even had a distinctive aural signature: her voice, heard on taped communiques she and her comrades released from time to time, upper-crust but distinctly Californian, a mix of Jackie O. and valley girl. That was just one duality of many: Hearst was at once good Patty and bad Tania, but both characters seemed sketchy, only as well-rounded as the story required.

A quick review of particulars: In February 1974 the 19-year-old granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst was abducted from the apartment she shared with boyfriend Steven Weed by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a small cadre of armed lefties with code names like Teko and Cinque Mtume. Ten weeks later she helped the SLA rob a San Francisco bank, and was immortalized by security cameras as the rifle-toting, beret-wearing reborn revolutionary Tania.

The transition had been forced: she’d been bound and blindfolded in a closet for weeks, raped, and given political tracts to memorize. On tapes the SLA made public, Tania denounced her parents as greedy, Weed as sexist and ageist, and the American way as fascist. The horrors she’d lived through notwithstanding, to cynics observing the case from afar (myself among them, truth to tell), there was an air of the playacting rich girl about Tania. Folks would imitate her pouty voice for a laugh. On tape, she could sound a bit too gleeful, rubbing former loved ones’ noses in shit. She remained on the lam for over a year after the cops wiped out most of the SLA in a firefight; apprehended 19 months after her abduction, she gave her occupation as “urban guerrilla.” But before standing trial she’d do another 180, denouncing her revolutionary buds. Tania was gone, and Patty was re-reborn as Patricia. Sentenced to seven years, she served 22 months before Jimmy Carter pardoned her.

Anthony Davis, whose little-heard 1992 opera Tania is finally out on two CDs, knows something about duality. Twenty years ago he made his reputation as a smart jazz pianist and composer who collaborated with other savvy conceptualists like Leo Smith, Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, and James Newton. Now he’s known primarily for his operas, including X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X and Amistad, which the Lyric Opera of Chicago premiered in 1997. But Davis didn’t trade in one life for the other. The motherlode of inspiration for his mature style was his 80s orchestra Episteme. It was populated by improvisers who could breathe life into his complex rhythmic figures, audibly inspired by the quilted 12/8 dances of Indonesian or West African percussion choirs. (You can hear the resemblance between Davis’s music and postminimalist works like Tehillim by Steve Reich, who was drawn to those musics too.) Davis’s style emerged back in naive “world music” days, but it was no one-world mush. Instead he focused on the elements that set those musics apart, reimagining them on his own terms: log drummers’ avoidance of a synchronized downbeat, so the time flows like a river you can dip into anywhere; the shimmering timbres of Balinese gamelans, in which intersecting instrumental layers move at various speeds–low instruments slow, high ones fast.

Episteme served as the orchestra for Davis’s X, completed in 1986, a model modern opera. Malcolm X’s autobiography was unbeatable source material, one of the truly inspiring contemporary biographies, ably condensed in a superb vernacular libretto by poet (and composer’s cousin) Thulani Davis. The music amplified its themes. Davis’s mix of operatic arias, jazz inflections, and a polyrhythmic undercurrent set the stage for the hero’s eventual realization of universal siblinghood. Its success gave Davis clout–he got to score Tony Kushner’s Broadway spectacular Angels in America in 1993–but some folks never warmed to his ingeniously transgeneric mix. It’s too classical for those jazz people who frown on African-American improvisers stepping away from jazz (as if jazz existed to limit musicians’ options) and too groove oriented for the composers he rubs shoulders with in academe. (He teaches improvisation, not composition, at U.C. San Diego.)

The new Tania recording won’t win over the skeptics. Its musical momentum is vintage Davis, but it doesn’t hit X’s peaks, due mostly to deficiencies that stem from Michael John LaChiusa’s libretto. Still, the premise is serviceable enough, and the essential duality of Patty/Tania rings out loud and clear. The surreal narrative is set in a bedroom Patty shares with a character identified as her husband at the outset, and in the bedroom closet, from which the SLA emerges and into which she disappears, in more ways than one. It’s an old story: at night strange creatures behind the coat hangers lead you on a glorious or terrifying adventure–it’s Time Bandits or Monsters, Inc., the dream or nightmare of a child.

The infantilized context doesn’t flatter the subject, but little here does. In bed in scene one, Patty fantasizes about mild celebrity pitching snack foods on TV, and Tania’s revolutionary pronouncements later appear to be the flip side of that; the TV reporting on her case is yet another variation, echoing the banal language of her imaginary commercial. She’s easy to sway because there is so little in her world to anchor her. There was no love at home, as Dad (Thomas Young, who as in X sounds oddly like Sammy Davis Jr.) helpfully reveals: “It’s easy to give away a house / It’s easy to give away a car / But love: Love you mustn’t part with.”

The music depicts her unmoored quality more effectively. A brisk eighth-note pulse underpins much of the action, but those beats are grouped and regrouped (and revoiced by the ensemble) in various ways. The downbeats get turned around as patterns stretch or contract or undergo internal reorganization: a 15-beat cycle becomes 14/8, 9/8 shifts to 8/8 and back, and so forth. The 16-piece orchestra includes a jazz rhythm section–with Episteme vet Gerry Hemingway on drums–to keep the accents sharp and the momentum flowing. The ensemble is heavy on flutes and winds, giving the loopy patterns a pastel transparency that doesn’t interfere with the voice parts, which exist on another plane altogether. But sometimes Davis uses alto or tenor saxophone, or plunger-muted trumpet or trombone, to comment on the vocal lines, like horn players on 1920s classic blues 78s. It’s a strong nod to jazz language (like the sleek Mingus-style ballad that serves as an overture) and an effective way to open the music up, breathe life into the machinery.

At the top of the second and last act, in the aftermath of Patty’s rape by Cinque, the rhythmic momentum disintegrates for a time, as she drifts between worlds. Only when the SLA finally wins her over do the old whirlwind cycles begin again: she’s back on a roller coaster of someone else’s devising. Those rhythms carry a lot of freight here: a sign of an unstable foundation, of military-style oppression, of forces that pull us in or along, ready or not. The jazzier, Latin-inflected rhythms associated with Cinque are sensual by comparison; they pull the music and Tania another way, put her in touch with her body.

Davis’s instrumental textures wear their jazz inflections well, but his vocal lines are faithfully operatic: declamatory, with widely leaping intervals and vibrato-heavy delivery. The most effective singer sounds the least at home in an opera house, but is the best actor on hand: Cinque is Avery Brooks, X’s original Malcolm, Hawk on TV’s Spenser: For Hire, and Sisko on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Brooks has gravitas to spare, and a forceful baritone that he doesn’t push too hard. He makes a very convincing seducer, drawing Tania into his web, but the music gives him plenty of help: his vocal lines, like their backdrops, are curvier and more inviting than anyone else’s.

As Patty/Tania, soprano Cynthia Aaronson-Davis (the composer’s wife) makes far less of an impression, but she has the harder gig. Missing from her role as scored is a sense of Hearst’s voice, despite passing quotations from the actual tapes and a token nod to the salutation (“Mom, Dad…”) that became her tag line in the public ear. (Scott Johnson worked it into his score for Paul Schrader’s 1988 film Patty Hearst.) LaChiusa and Davis suggest Patty’s defilement and Tania’s verbal aggression by having Teko teach her to sing “fucking fascist bourgeois pig” a bit like Henry Higgins taught Eliza to sing about the rain in Spain. In this episode, at least, the conflict between Patty’s cultured voice and Tania’s jargonized brickbats comes through–as she assaults mostly well-heeled operagoers with potty talk, making them surrogates for the Hearsts. (This is that rare opera recording that sports a parental advisory warning.)

The juxtaposed musical styles and the multiple layers of musical activity (moving at halved or doubled speeds in relation to each other, making the basic pulse ambiguous at times) amplify all the dualities: the waking and dreaming worlds, good girl and bad girl, the clash between the shallow denizens of her two worlds. Other realities are always intruding–the first-act finale is an Ivesian hubbub of intersecting musical spheres. Patty chants a message for tape in the background, echoed or prompted by Cinque; in the foreground, over a backbeat, the SLA’s Gelina (Jana Campbell Ellsworth) sings a melody paraphrasing “Amazing Grace” in a voice recalling privileged protest singer Joan Baez. It’s dense and stirring and it all fits, one way or another–Ives despised William Randolph Hearst, for one thing.

What LaChiusa’s version lacks is the farcical edge of the real events–he serves up irony without laughs. Tania ends in murky symbolism: she chooses conflagration with the SLA in the flaming closet, but in the final scene she’s back in bed with hubby and the bran crackers, as if it had all been a dream (or maybe her return is, as the extradreamy music suggests). A libretto, like any story, can cover only so much, but Tania stops short of some of the saga’s choicest bits. Hearst never went back to Weed, but married her police escort. At her trial the defense, not the prosecution, presented the most damning evidence: the tapes. (Hearst later sued her lawyer, F. Lee Bailey.) Once Patricia had finally drifted out of the public eye, she let skanky auteur John Waters drag her back, appearing in his Cry-Baby, Serial Mom, Pecker, and Cecil B. Demented. Kathleen Turner, Serial Mom’s killer mom, said Hearst knew how to roll with a punch.

Anthony Davis is an important composer, deftly melding jazz, classical, and minimalist tendencies. Strange then that so few of his records are currently available. He recorded prolifically in the 1980s, but most of that stuff, including two of Episteme’s three albums, never made it to CD–and Episteme, like X, is out of print, albeit still findable. One of his first albums is now out on CD, however: 1978’s Of Blues and Dreams (Sackville), with drummer Pheeroan akLaff, violinist Leroy Jenkins, and cellist Abdul Wadud. Even then, a few months after his first session under his own name, Davis was mixing jazz and chamber music and looping riffs. It’s raw compared to later stuff, but from the first he demonstrated that a composer can serve several masters without coming off as fickle or a flirt. He’s made all his selves into one integrated self, in a way Patty, Tania, and Patricia never have.