Steven Mackey and Jason Treuting: Orpheus Unsung
New Amsterdam Records

Initially developed as “an opera without words,” this inspired re-imagining of the Orpheus legend sees guitarist Steven Mackey and percussionist Jason Treuting applying a three-act structure of the kind typically associated with stage productions to an episodic, hour-long score arranged for electric guitar and drums. Guitar acts as Orpheus's disembodied voice in this treatment, which offers a fresh spin on the well-known Greek myth. Mackey's no stranger to audacious music-making, by the way, having combined his gifts as a composer with his passion for electric guitar; among the works he's authored are two electric guitar concertos and multiple solo and chamber works. For his part, Treuting's a member of So Percussion and performs alongside Mackey in the band project Big Farm.

In abbreviated form: after Eurydice weds Orpheus, she dies from a snake bite. Unable to live without her, he journeys to the underworld where, emboldened by his substantial musical gifts, he sings his plea to the ruler of the underworld. His wish is granted on one condition: during their return, Orpheus cannot look behind him to check if she is still there. Tragically, after having crossed the threshold, he surrenders to the urge, but as Eurydice has not yet crossed she's immediately pulled back to the underworld, gone from him forever. To add to the woeful tale, Orpheus's body is later ripped apart by Thracian women in a Dionysian orgy, after which his head and lyre float down a stream, the head still singing and lyre still playing.

If desired, one can align the story's narrative to the musical content by using the fifteen movement titles as cues. With the framing acts set above ground (“Super Terram”) and the other below (“Sub Terra”), section titles such as “Snakebite,” “Down,” “The Look,” and “The Mob” make connecting the dots easy; of course, one is also free to set the narrative thread aside and simply enjoy the oft-fiery interplay between the musicians. Guitar aficionados are certainly provided with much to sink their teeth into, and Mackey's versatility and prowess on the instrument are on full display. His playing assumes a rather Frisell-like character during the thirteenth movement “Orpheus Redux,” whereas the fifth, “Pursuit and Trespass,” sneaks in a few measures of Stravinsky's L'Histoire du soldat (A Soldier's Tale), a playfully devilish theatrical work in its own right, for good measure.

Don't presume that the music's a stripped-down affair that features a single guitar with drums, as the evidence suggests multi-tracking was used. Many layers of guitar patterns (and, if I'm not mistaken, bass also) are woven into intricate wholes, and other instrument sounds, such as melodica and glockenspiel, appear with regularity. The music's palette is enriched by the broad range of textures and timbres Mackey coaxes from his axe (or perhaps axes), and the score's further enriched by contrasts of mood and dynamics, with the duo playing with tumultuous fury during one episode (“The Mob”) and elegant restraint in another (“First Lament”). Mackey and Treuting are in sync throughout, their interplay enhanced by the fact that with only two parties involved each can focus intensely on his interactions with the other. Though the structure of the piece is classical in nature, the music invites a prog classification more than anything classical-related, and consequently anyone with an appetite for intricate, guitar-heavy instrumentals should derive many hours of pleasure from the recording.

November 2017