Wednesday, January 4, 2017

An Other Worldly Production

Photo by Daniel Belli, credit 1 below

Last year, I spent a lot of time wondering what to make of an otherworldly performance that’s hit all three of Bridgeport’s art centers -- scenes from a non-conventional opera called Thunder, Perfect Mind staged by NON:Op Open Opera Works.

I first saw a scene from it at the Zhou B. Arts Center performed by 6 young women, all delicate in white.  Three of them were seated on chairs mounted high on the walls, playing stringed instruments.  Underneath, on the floor, the other 3 women seemed to play another set of strings, strung from the ground to the ceiling like a great terrestrial harp.

The performance was beautiful, but hard to grasp, like something spoken in a language being invented while you watched, just past the limits of your intuition.

Photo by Ron Wachholz, credit 2 below

Which is why I’d come to see it, really, at the suggestion of Deirdre Harrison, who’s had a long career in musical theater.  She’d just stepped in to help the composer, Christopher Preissing, orchestrate the players, to help them spin a way to think their performance.  For the scene at the Zhou B., she knew the young instrumentalists perched on the walls would need some point of mental reference, so she’d given each of them a scrap of paper with a line from the text on it to repeat to themselves during the silences.

For I am the first and the last…
the whore and the holy one…

Photo by Brittany Tepper, credit 3 below

Thunder, Perfect Mind is titled from an ancient Gnostic text that had been dug up from the Egyptian desert in the 1940s.  It was part of a whole lost library that had been buried in giant clay jars for some 1,800 years.  Even after the jars were found, the Nag Hammadi texts were jammed up in intrigues over ownership for decades before they started to filter out into the world.  They were just becoming available to Coptic language scholars in the 1970s, and then to the public in English translation in the 1980s. That’s when Christopher Preissing first read some of them, when he was still in school.

Preissing was a graduate music composition student, writing a dissertation on the history of opera.  He was studying its conventions so he could test them later.  He would step outside the traditions of composition, explore expressive notations, subvert the way social hierarchies had been worked into the seating arrangements and the theater itself.

The Gnostic scriptures also held a counter cultural appeal.  For almost 2 thousand years, the Gnostics were known mostly from the wild accounts early Christian Church Fathers gave of their beliefs.  
Those accounts were always suspect, the Fathers were using them to establish an orthodox church by defining it against degenerate heresies.  Though as the Nag Hammadi texts became available, some of the Fathers’ most outrageous accounts, of Bible stories turned on their heads, of the Biblical God willfully blasphemed, turned out to be pretty accurate.

The library is also diverse, it presents a whole range of lost possibilities, of paths not taken, rediscovered in an age when people are suspicious orthodox authorities and how they assert the truth.  Preissing found himself drawn to the hymn called Thunder, Perfect Mind in particular because it evoked a feminine voice, and it read like a riddle.  The divine speaker describes herself in impossibilities and paradox.

I am the mother of my father and the sister of my husband -- he is my offspring.

Photo by Scott Johnson, credit 4 below

In 1992, he got a grant to make an opera from it.  Even after the first performances, he has never entirely stopped working on it.  It has continued to grow in scope and dimension as scenes are elaborated in public practice sessions around town.  Today, Thunder, Perfect Mind, the opera, is a site specific immersive performance for a 12 member chorus, percussionists, street performers, orchestral musicians and 2 sopranos, one of whom is an aerialist who will descend through the heavenly spheres to earth, and re-ascend into the divine fullness in the end.

In the shock of more recent history, ancient squabbles over divine metaphysics and the esoterica of avant-garde opera may sound beside the point.

1800 years ago, a Gnostic would say that is the point: that the so called real world isn’t actually real.  That the powers of this world aren’t just ignorant of reality, they’re constitutionally incapable of understanding it, they sense it vaguely when they spot a true spirit in other people, then they’re jealous of it, they persecute it.  But those rare souls who have that spark of the divine spirit can be restored to the divine wholeness by remembering where they came from.

Modern people are less interested in escape to transcendence in general, and the Gnostic answer in particular is elitist and radically anti-cosmic, dismissing the material world we live in as a disastrous mistake.

But Gnosticism arose in a world that had compelling parallels to the world we live in now.  The latter centuries of the Hellenistic-Roman era are sometimes called an age of anxiety, menaced by threats of barbarian invasions, plagues, even financial catastrophes.  But they were also an era of unprecedented cultural ferment and change.  Like in our own era, change was disorienting to navigate for the individual person, and the Gnostics expressed the crisis of dislocation in a startling way.  But they also show that human instinct for hope.

Photo from Hubble Space Telescope, credit 5 below

Gnosticism was a trend of thinking, not a church with clear boundaries, and the so called Gnostics were enthusiastic speculators about the origins of the world and the human condition in it.  Some of their accounts focus on the story of Sophia, or Divine Wisdom.

They start with the perfect divine Wholeness, or indescribable Depths, whose qualities begin to emanate outward in pairs, male and female.  Sophia is part of the last pair. She sins, she falls from grace, she launches a whole chain of catastrophe.

The exact nature of her sin is some form of willfulness.  She wants to create on her own, without her consort, or else she wants to contemplate the original Depths without permission.  She becomes pregnant, like the emanations before her, except she gives birth to a monstrosity, an abortion.  A divine Limit gets summoned up, and Sophia’s abortion is cast out to the other side of it.

Photo from Hubble Space Telescope, credit 6 below

It has various names, Sophia’s abortion, sometimes it’s just called the Demiurge.  But outside, in the dark, it’s scared, it’s alone, it doesn’t know where it came from.  It creates the material world to comfort itself.  It creates a whole host of celestial powers, to serve as its minions – they rule the spheres of the planets and stars, they make mischief in the sphere below the moon.  The Demiurge declares itself God and feels powerful.  But it’s never really confident in that feeling.

The Demiurge creates mankind out of filth, and breathes life into it, gives it a Soul.  But our souls are just an animating principle, our appetites, our lower passions, our perceptions of the material world.  We’d have no access to the divine realm at all except that Sophia, from some divine purgatory where she waits for her own redemption, scatters some of her light into humanity.

The human Spirit is a divine shard that’s embedded in us, it’s alien to our world, and we’re born in a condition of flesh-bound forgetfulness.  But when we hear the truth about where we really came from, our spirit responds, it remembers.  It knows.

The Gnostics didn’t believe that all people have that divine shard.  Or else we don’t have it in equal quantities. In some people, the spiritual principle is so weak or absent they are essentially just animate creatures, slaves to their material natures.  Some are in an intermediate condition, they’ve got enough spirit to be reasonable, to exert their will, they’re soulful creatures, but not truly spiritual.  The Gnostics are an elect minority of truly Spiritual beings.

These Gnostics were a great irritant to those Orthodox Fathers who were trying to build a church where everybody could participate just by faith in something they didn’t understand.  And that Gnostic Spirit is a strong rhetorical device.  Because if you don’t recognize the truth when you hear it, it’s probably not your fault, and you won’t be convinced by arguments, you’re just not equipped to know.

Meanwhile, down here in the cosmos, the Demiurge and his demons do have some vague perception of that spiritual element.  They recognize it in Eve and her daughters.  They know they don’t have it, and they’re jealous, they chase her, they rape her trying to get it, they persecute her wherever they catch a glimpse of it.

Preissing’s opera tells the story of Sophia and Eve like a double answer to the identity riddle posed by the hymn, Thunder, Perfect Mind.  The production starts with Sophia, setting out for redemption. She descends to earth, through the spheres of the planets, accumulating worldly qualities like heavy clothing.

Preissing’s Eve has wandered from the countryside into a big city, looking for adventure, but she’s quickly lost.  She wanders disoriented, she’s abused and assaulted, she sinks deeper and deeper into confusion, shame and fear.  When they meet, Sophia will relay her message, she’ll tell Eve of her true nature, remind her who she really is.  Sophia will re-ascend into heaven, restored.   Eve will stay behind.

In the opera, the results of their encounter, the nature of any transformation is left open ended, which is fitting for a terrestrial production.  So is the urban setting of Eve’s travails.  The urban condition has been one of the great themes of modern life; it is also a link into that ancient world where Gnosticism emerged.

Photo by Takashi Hososhima, credit 7 below

When Alexander the Great conquered the Persians in 331 BC, he said he was after more than glory, he wanted to integrate the known world – East and West – into a single cosmopolitan culture.  And he achieved that, he laid the ground for a new kind of empire, one built from a network of cities whose residents would be citizens of the world.  That condition exerted a dramatic psychic change.

The world had seen big empires before.  The great empires of the Near East, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians all helped lay the ground for imperial rule that wouldn’t just exploit conquered territories, siphoning off tribute and slaves.  Over centuries, they’d begun to build the bonds of trade, establish roads and postal systems.

In the west, Greek traders had been settling in foreign ports for centuries.  After Alexander’s conquests, they emigrated in much larger numbers, forming a leadership class in cities across the empire.  The Greek language became a lingua franca spoken across the realm. The Greeks also brought a common currency and cultural institutions like the gymnasia, which acted as secondary schools, teaching Greek literature and philosophy.

Some speculate that the alphabet the Greeks had adapted from the Pheonecians was a more versatile way of writing that helped them to develop new ways of thinking, especially abstract thinking, that they now brought with them across the empire.  Others have ventured that it was the dislocations of conquest itself that nudged ancient peoples to develop a capacity for thinking in universal terms.

Traditional cults had worked to guarantee the safety and integrity of small societies.  But once the town walls were razed, the local king deposed, the people sent into exile, their gods were either discredited, or else they were set loose from their parochial roles.  Exiles, soldiers and traders brought their gods along on their travels, and picked up new ones along the way.  People from all walks of life, cut adrift from all variety of old traditions, would appeal to universal gods as personal saviors.

A host of religious philosophies pushed abstract thinking to its limits, imagining a sphere of divine perfection so entirely transcendent from the earthly realm it was virtually indescribable.  The rational man might perceive it through the logos (“the Word” in the Gospel of John), a rational principle that mediates between the two realms, penetrating the cosmos, giving it shape and coherence, and resonating through the human mind.

At any rate, travel, trade and communication were all a lot easier in the new era.  The results were stimulating, but profoundly disorienting.  Geo-political boundaries were opening up, the population was more mobile, ideas that had been floated among philosophers a few centuries earlier seemed to penetrate further and more deeply into the populace, including a whole new concept of the universe.

It’s said that ancient peoples saw Heaven fitting over the earthly plain like a dome, regal but not all that distant, and there were clear axes for communication with the gods who dwelled in it.  The Ptolemaic universe exploded the dome, replacing it with a much vaster construction of planetary spheres and a realm of stars much further away.  The divine powers they expressed seemed indifferent to the passion and strife of the terrestrial sphere, maybe even hostile.

In the 1950s, the historian Eric Dodds evoked the anxiety of the age in a record of questions posed to an oracle – he says oracles had surged as the world became more changeable.  “Am I to become a beggar?” one record reads.  “Will I be sold as a slave?”  “Am I under a spell?”  “Are you God?  Or is someone else God?”

Gustav Caillebot, Paris Street, Rainy Day

The great scholar Hans Jonas thought Gnosticism expressed a spiritual condition of profound pessimism.  It reminded him of the existential alienation current in his own era. In fact, here in Chicago while Jonas was studying the Gnostics, a whole school of sociology was writing lyrically about the experience of urban life, and the psychic changes it affects on modern people.

The Chicago scholars would observe that in the modern city, life takes on a certain superficial quality, as people brush shoulders with uncountable numbers of strangers on the street each day, they each size each other up, read each other in an instant based on hints of dress and demeanor.   That pageant itself becomes fascinating and invigorating, there are whole genres of painting and literature spent observing it.

Each person traveling it can realize potentials that would be suppressed or ignored in small town life, because tradition and social conventions are much weaker in the big city than they are in the small town.  Those potentials express in good ways and bad ones: there are more artists, realizing their creative potential, and more juvenile delinquents, unrestrained by disapproving elders.

“In a small community it is the normal man, the man without eccentricity or genius, who seems most likely to succeed,” Robert Parks wrote in the 1920s. “The small community often tolerates eccentricity.  The city, on the contrary, rewards it.”

So the urban world is larger, in a wonderful sense, but more dangerous.  It is much harder to pick a course through the infinite variety and find meaning in it, much easier to skate through life on that distracting surface, oblivious to things that really matter.  It is easier to get lost.  This is the landscape Eve wanders in the scenes from Thunder, Perfect Mind -- a maze of urban streets, flickering with images and false idols -- sinking deeper into distraction and despair.

Photo by Scott Johnson, credit 9 below

Jonas links Gnosticism to a crisis of purpose in the ancient world.  He says that in the classical polis, the independent city-state, the citizen knew he was an essential part of a larger social whole.  He might be bound by its limits, he might be just a small part.  But his being helped to constitute and maintain a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.

As cities were overtaken by empire, the citizen becomes a cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world.  He is still part of the whole, but as it becomes more vast, he is reduced to insignificance.  He can still participate in it, sync up his rational capacities with that principle evident in the cosmic order.  But his actions matter only to himself, he is like an actor playing a part on a stage.  “A role played is substituted for a function performed,” Jonas writes.  He may play it well, or play it badly.  Either way, it makes no impact on the stars.

For Parks, the sociologist in Chicago, the modern city is also a whole, more than the sum of its parts, more than a meeting place of individuals.  It is a state of mind, he writes, a body of customs and traditions, and the sentiments that inhere in them.  Where Jonas ties the psychic change of the ancient city to the dislocations of empire, Parks attributes the effect of the modern one to the mechanisms of urban life itself.

He believes those mechanisms are organic, tied to “the vital processes of the people who compose it.”  But since the city is also a center of trade and industry, they include the rationalizing tendencies of industrial society, especially the division of labor, the tendency to specialize.  They make the urban person more dependent on other people in a sense – where he performs one part of a process, he relies on others to complete most things.

But the nature of the connection has changed.  In a village, people are bound together by complex emotional connections – ‘bonds of sympathy’ is Parks’ term.  In the city, these are replaced by simpler, rationalized relations based on common interest.  Bonds of interest are more volatile than the other, more complicated kind.  They can be adjusted more easily as situations change, but they also leave individuals more vulnerable to being dismissed if they are not particularly useful, or at all annoying.

Every small town has its oddballs, Parks observes.  The peculiar character, who might not command the highest respect, but who is tolerated, looked after, maybe even with some affection.  He’s an oddball, but he’s our oddball.  In the city he might find his way into the right circles and become an exceptional artist, or a billionaire entrepreneur.  Or he might just never find his function at all, and drop out from the bottom of the machine.

George Bellows, The Cliff Dwellers

Jonas believed that the material world the Gnostics wanted to escape was rational, in a demonic way.  It was a world defined by law and order, but it was “rigid and inimical order, tyrannical and evil law.”  It was “devoid of meaning and goodness,” it was “alien to the purposes of man and to his inner essence.”  Like existentialists in his own era, the Gnostics wanted to defy this tyranny, to be true to their inner essence, to live authentically.

Modern people seem to have more or less continued on the trajectory that extends the logical principle to further and further ends.  The rational, instrumental pursuit of interests reigns supreme.  It’s helped us accomplish amazing things.  It’s made our horizons much larger, but it’s made individuals smaller, it’s made the powers of this world, in government and in business, powerful to the extreme.

We still have a sense, like the Gnostics, that their powers don’t rule the whole of reality.  We know that there is some inner voice that we have, maybe not expressed in all people in the same way, but it is the link to some more authentic existence.  And when we hear it in music, for instance, or see it in art, we recognize it – or we hope we will.

I don’t think it’s accidental that when we’re talking about “authentic” experience we’re less likely to call on the spirit, we’re more likely to say something’s got soul.  We really mean that lower element.  Not the airy, the distant, the detached, but the embodied person, connected to passions, deeply embedded in the material world and its sympathies.

It’s as if that logical principle has become too ascendant.  We’ve pursued the good things it has to offer, we’ve learned to detach ourselves, to be objective, so we can see a bigger picture than what’s visible from where we stand embedded in our parochial lives.  We’ve learned to recognize that the kind of social judgment and outright bigotry that thrive in small societies ruled by sympathies are corruptions to root out.

But pursued to its ends, rational detachment becomes dangerous and proud, ignorant of that field of goods outside its reach.

I think that authentic reality is something we make up amongst ourselves.  It’s a kind of music, or a subtle language that is constantly being invented and elaborated among the people speaking it.  The process of making up the language is most obvious in art.  I think that’s what Preissing, and Deirdre Harrison and the young musicians in white were all doing that night at the Zhou B. Center.

But it is something that goes on all the time, whether we’re conversing easily with people who seem most like us, or whether we’ve got to stretch to understand how they can be so backward, or annoying, to recognize them as being essentially like us.  We have that capacity to know.

For more information about NON:op Open Opera Works visit For more information about Thunder, Perfect Mind visit

Photo from Hubble Space Telescope, credit 11 below

Photo Credits:

1.  By Daniel Delli (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

2. By Ron Wachholz, performance from Thunder, Perfect Mind at the Ear Taxi Festival, Harold Washington Library, 2016

3. By Brittany Tepper, performance from Thunder, Perfect Mind at the Chicago Loop Alliance

4. By Scott Johnson, performance from Thunder, Perfect Mind at Feed Salon, 2016

5. By NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration, and A. Evans (University of Virginia, Charlottesville/NRAO/Stony Brook University) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

6. ESA/Hubble [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

7. By Takashi Hososhima from Tokyo, Japan (Day 4: Stars #1) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

9. By Scott Johnson, performance from Thunder, Perfect Mind at Feed Salon

11. By NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons