In the current world of modern composition, no movement has been more influential than minimalism. With the canon of bona fide first-generation minimalism set almost in stone with the big four (La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass), not much is left undiscovered. However, much less examined is minimalism’s second generation, with composers from across the globe who used the musical tools fleshed out by the first generation as starting points for the exploration of their own ideas. Elodie Lauten’s little-known 1985 piece, The Death of Don Juan, now rescued from obscurity by Austin label Unseen Worlds, is one such work, and a powerful one at that. A mixture of instrumental and vocal movements, the work stitches together various textures and compositional approaches into a complete two-act opera with an abstract, poetic libretto about the classic Don Juan archetype seeking redemption upon his death.
The album’s main tool is the Fairlight synthesizer, a then-cutting edge digital sampling keyboard/computer unit (famously used in the same era by musicians like Herbie Hancock, Kate Bush and Prince), which is utilized by Lauten as a tool for looping and sound manipulation, resulting in a form of Reich/Glass-influenced digital composition that sounds much like recent advancements in electronic music, especially minimalist-informed artists like Nobukazu Takemura. The extent that these advanced musical ideas are fully realized is stunning here. Instead of sounding like embryonic versions of music to come, Lauten’s musical language is fully formed to the extent that it sounds completely contemporary — no easy feat for a classical work. Plus, Lauten uses cutting-edge technical equipment of the time in a way that extends beyond simple experimentation into territory that is not only creative but also highly evocative, a feat only fully achieved in 1980s minimalism by Steve Reich with his piece “Different Trains,” which also utilized primitive sampling technology. It’s undeniable, listening to the album from the 2008 vantage point, that Lauten was mining new areas of musical expression that wouldn’t be fully discovered for decades to come.
Oddly, much of the renewed interest in the album likely comes from the presence of endlessly fascinating musical figure (and recent indie media darling) Arthur Russell, though Russell’s contributions to the piece are a mere portion of musical universe of the album. The opening to “Vision” could very well be from the sessions of World of Echo, Russell’s monolithic song cycle for solo cello/voice/echo effects, until the track morphs into interlocking Fairlight loops of hammered zithers and harpsichord atop cello and guitar improvisation. Russell’s distinct plaintive vocal style appears throughout the album as the tenor voice of Don Juan, overlapped with Lauten’s own alto to form a kind of male/female vocal exchange that is rarely seen in Russell’s work.
From a musical standpoint, Lauten’s electronic processes are the most interesting and engaging part of the work. Lauten uses the Fairlight to deconstruct: interlocking loops are created by playing musical fragments at different speeds simultaneously, creating a pulsating, kaleidoscopic world from brief moments in musical time. On “Duel,” two brief notes from Russell’s cello are sped up, slowed down and overlapped within the stereo field to construct a whole six-minute piece where the sample seems to fold out into a whole orchestra. On “Don Juan Enlightened,” trombone, harpsichord and vocal drones are stitched together to create a continuously sliding soundscape. Though these processes are a walk in the park with today’s music editing software, Lauten’s process was likely very time consuming, as Lauten re-programmed the Fairlight herself, using a complex system of matrix grids to digitally organize the structure of the piece. These repeating, layered fragments form a bed for subtle improvisations for instruments like Russell’s cello and Lauten’s electric lyre that stray from the repeated patterns just enough to break up their predetermined digital nature, resulting in a healthy balance between order and improvisational freedom. All in all the result is a complete experimental work of opera that doesn’t seem much like an experiment, and even less like an opera — instead we get a multi-faceted, thoughtful slice of modern composition and a high point for second-wave minimalism.