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“A vision had seized hold of me, like the demented fury of a hound that has sunk its teeth into the leg of a deer carcass and is shaking and tugging at the downed game so frantically that the hunter gives up trying to calm him. It was the vision of a large steamship scaling a hill under its own steam, working its way up a steep slope in the jungle, while above this natural landscape, which shatters the weak and the strong with equal ferocity, soars the voice of Caruso, silencing all the pain and all the voices of the primeval forest and drowning out all birdsong.”
Pretty much all the music here finds its origins in this short passage of text taken from the prologue to Conquest of the Useless, Reflections from the making of Fitzcarraldo, by the German director Werner Herzog. Little did I know that when I encountered that iconic image on the pages of a movie magazine ten years ago, it would lead me down my own path of obsession and immersion culminating in an hour-long cycle of pieces which I have also named Conquest of the Useless.
There are three parts, which run seamlessly from one to the next.
Prologue takes as its starting point the central character in Fitzcarraldo, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, and his dream to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon jungle. I wanted this introduction to have all the grandeur and over-the-top emotions of a romantic opera overture and as I began to compose it, that wish became more and more literally realised with snatches of Rigoletto writhing in the undergrowth accompanied high above by the “melancholy peeping” of tree-frogs. The trajectory of the ship, and the movement towards the realization of Fitzgerald’s dreams has been somehow translated here into a gigantic glissando, starting in the depths of the orchestra and slowly climbing.
Caruso is an extended fantasy, “born of the delirium of the jungle”, as Herzog would have it. The music is almost completely made up of tiny extracts from gramophone recordings made by the tenor Enrico Caruso between 1903 and 1908, which are looped, stretched and combined to form a kind of ‘choir’ of Carusos. The electric guitar is a representation of an obsessive, creative force at the centre of it all – enveloped by, soothed by, often railing against and sometimes overpowered by this mass of sound.
Gold is the sweat of the sun, silver are the tears of the moon finally gives a voice and physicality to the driving force behind the quest to realise such a singular vision. An actor recites passages from the diaries while a mezzo soprano dives deeper into a more mysterious and sensual realm.
All the while the orchestra provides the setting and perhaps even the embodiment of what could be the true central character of this whole trilogy – the jungle itself and the river which flows through it.