Tuesday, February 9th, 2016
written by Tim Hansen
“My music is almost always several times removed from its inspiration,” states vocalist and JFund awardee Tiffany Skidmore. Both prolific and versatile, Skidmore has produced an extensive catalogue of work that ranges from finely crystalline chamber music to gothic contemporary art song fused with electronics. Perhaps then it’s unsurprising that the seeds of her music are just as diverse, from the profound to the profane.
“My piece Gridlock refers to my feelings about the current state of the American system of education,” says Skidmore, “while before writing Yeast for contrabass I spent weeks studying the growth of yeast.”
“I struggle a great deal with titles,” she continues. “I very rarely think about them until a piece is complete and then I inevitably end up choosing the simplest title that describes whatever preoccupied me the most during the piece’s composition.”
For the next few years Skidmore will be preoccupied with a novel written roughly the same time as the New Testament. The Golden Ass is an ancient novel written by the Roman Apuleius, and contains, amongst other tales, a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. The story of Psyche’s travails at the gods’ whims have been told and retold throughout the centuries, and is the seed for Skidmore’s next chamber opera. However the route to which she arrived at this text is somewhat circuitous.
Being a vocalist-slash-composer, Skidmore always has one eye open for intriguing texts. However she is equally drawn to the life of the writer as much as the written word. “I am interested in controversial people who have lived lives to some sort of extreme,” she says. “Hildegard von Bingen and Emmanuel Swedenborg were mystics, but they were also scientists and philosophers. They are respected for their influence on so many disciplines, but cynics also question their sanity. Their reputations are ambiguous, but their work is visionary. Ann Sexton is like that for me, too. Her writing is captivating and raw. I almost feel like she sacrificed herself for her poetry.”
“Of course,” she adds, “there are always copyright considerations as well.”
Skidmore isn’t simply being pragmatic. Although Apuleius’ work and Cupid and Psyche are both well and truly out of copyright, her love affair with this ancient soap opera actually began with a book by C.S.Lewis called Till we have faces. In it, the celebrated author delves deeply into the back story of the ancient myth, exploring the psychology of the characters and the motivations for their actions. Skidmore read the book when she was in college and was hooked. “I knew it would make a wonderful opera,” she enthuses.
Unfortunately however, years of difficult negotiation with the C.S. Lewis company proved fruitless. “I realized that it would be far better to begin the project with a new libretto, based on the original story by Apuleius,” says Skidmore, “but told from a completely new perspective.”
This new perspective will be a collaborative creation with writer Patrick Gallagher. Skidmore and Gallagher met in the composer-librettist studio at Nautilus Music Theatre. “We worked well together and created a really satisfying piece,” she recalls. “His work is incredibly intelligent and witty.” Their version of The Golden Ass will be a contemporary take on an ancient tale. “Rather than focusing on telling the story chronologically and primarily through the use of text,” she explains, “the universal themes surrounding experiences of trauma will be presented more abstractly through simple movements, vocalizations, visual projections, and recorded sounds.”