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DIETZ: Headcase: Opera Introspective

CD Button Jesse; New Music Raleigh, Dietz. English text. Centaur CRC3474

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IN 2002, composer/percussionist Brett William Dietz suffered a stroke, which rendered him mute and partially paralyzed. Miraculously, he recovered most of his normal functionality, although in the meantime he suffered from dyslexia, schizophrenia, insomnia and OCD. His 2006 composition, Headcase: Opera Introspective, gives the listener an amazing portrait-in-sound of this nightmarish two-month ordeal from inside the victim’s head.

The unsettling, prerecorded Prelude begins with processed percussion. (A lot of it sounds like mallet strokes played backward, crescendoing out of nowhere to a swooping reverse attack.) This, we’re told, represents the blood clot attacking the composer’s brain, and it’s convincing. In “Dementia I” (the first of four), we hear the composer’s own stammering voice (also processed) reading from his fragmented journal, accompanied by the sound of a manual typewriter. (“What are these? / The music numerus / frontal lobe / Who is Sibelius? / been the meaturnes / Are you completely sure?”) In “Please Try to Count,” an especially effective collage, unsympathetic speech therapists give orders to the patient over fragmented contemporary-jazz accompaniment. Bass-baritone Dennis Jesse, standing in for the composer, sings a repeated three-note figure (“one over one, one over two”), dividing an octave into two tritone intervals. The impressive layering of authoritative spoken voices, pounding, driving accompaniment and the laserlike authority of Jesse’s penetrating bass-baritone sounds at times (oxymoronically) like classic avant-garde. But the context of dementia gives it additional lucidity and blazing relevance. In “Meditation Blues,” another powerful movement, the alternating phrases “Present moment” and “Wonderful moment” recur every other line in the spoken text. It’s repetitious but also mesmerizing, and you feel like you’d miss something if you skipped ahead to the next track. The recurring digital manipulation of sound comes off not as gimmicky but as skillful and well-integrated.

Instrumental passages (such as the disorienting Overture), in which we get to hear Dietz’s original and bracing compositional voice, are an important part of the mix; the six-member ensemble New Music Raleigh, under the composer’s own knowledgeable leadership, delivers remarkably precise renderings of the piece’s jagged rhythms and striking colors. In the last movement, “My Left Frontal Lobe,” Dietz gives indications of recovery: “Today was a good day. My left frontal lobe feels fine.” But he sounds like he’s been lobotomized, and the floating, dreamlike quality has an underlying Stepford-wife creepiness. The accompaniment turns toward the tonal and expressively beautiful, but it’s unsettling, especially when it ends with the line, “I am not sure that any of us are completely sane.” Listeners who have never suffered a stroke will feel grateful, but also certain that they now know what it would sound like. —Joshua Rosenblum

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