A Synesthete’s Guide to the Unseen:
Creating and Recording Ross Crean’s Opera “The Great God Pan”
This recording concludes a three-year journey through grief and discovery. It began on July 2nd, 2014, when my mother Charleen was diagnosed with terminal stage pancreatic cancer. Exactly three weeks later, on July 23rd, she passed away. When she died, I stopped creating. The wellspring had simply run dry. I had lost one of my best friends and biggest supporters, and it seemed like nothing was going to be able to bring me back to what I loved doing. It was when I was cleaning her house that following October that a particular book fell into my lap, seemingly from nowhere. I was in my old bedroom. There were no shelves around, and no place where a book could have been balancing, but from out of the blue, there it was. I had no other reason than to feel like my mother was telling me, “Get back to composing! Use THIS!”
That book was Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan.
I first had the immense pleasure of reading The Great God Pan in 1995 while in my undergraduate studies for Vocal Performance. After hearing that author Stephen King referred to it as “one of the best horror stories ever written,” and discovering that it was denounced by the press at its time of publication as degenerate and horrific, I knew I had no choice but to find this story. I searched high and low for about a year, and when I was reaching the point of surrender, I fatefully (as it seemed to me) found it in a used book store in Oak Lawn, Illinois. I read it three times in a semester, and it stuck with me for years afterwards.
And after all those years, it found its way back to me.
I returned home from my mother’s house that evening with the book, as well as a black shawl she used to wear on special occasions. I sat down, wearing her shawl, and read that book from beginning to end, revisiting the story that haunted and intrigued me for so many years. It is the story of a violating experiment gone wrong, and the terrifying consequences that follow years later, as a rash of unexplained suicides plague London. The center of the mystery is a young woman who has taken London society by storm. However, this enigmatic woman has many hidden secrets of her own. Can she be the culprit of such actions, or something much worse?
* * *
I am a synesthete. To be more specific, I have chromesthesia, a form of synesthesia in which the mind associates sound with color. Certain sounds lead me to see gradients of color in a sunburst formation, others cause me to see them as various colored lines with infinitesimal height and depth, and more melodious sounds result in me seeing them as orbs that float in seas of water-like currents. It happens the same way with musical pitch. Each note has a specific color, and different combinations of pitches have their own color responses. The thing that makes this more complicated is that it is what I refer to as a “triangular cycle”, due to the fact that my emotions also play a large part in it. Sound leads to color, which leads to a strong emotional response. The reverse order happens as well. Being a synesthete made it feel like composing music was a synergistic approach, in that music and emotion simply went hand in hand, and my instincts and emotional responses to what I would compose directed me to what I felt was the truest expression of myself and the worlds I could create. It was my chromesthesia that made me want to become a composer for horror films; writing for that genre lent itself a lot more to experimentation, and I always loved playing the mad scientist when it came to sonic textures and their emotional responses.
It was also due to my synesthesia that I knew The Great God Pan was going to be the perfect story for me to adapt into an opera. It is a tale that places us between two worlds, the material and the supernatural. It is a story where the horror lies not in the open for us to see, but in what our minds create from the unseen. It is dark, decadent, and grotesque, yet at the same time, capable of wielding an unprecedented beauty that I have still yet to find in contemporary literature. The colors I dreamed up when imagining the Unseen World (which from this point on will be referred to as “the Unseen”), in my opinion, could only be conveyed through sound. That way, the terrifying things that we cannot see in the story can still exist without making it take on any kind of physical form.
I chose to use two pianos to symbolize the duality of the worlds we are presented with in the story; one piano is played in its traditional fashion, while the other is played internally for a sizable portion of the performance, to then be played on the keyboard when the worlds begin to blend. I did not promise or aim to make this opera pretty. The piano plucks, scratches, pounds, glissandos, and quakes. Sometimes, objects are thrown into the piano, and other times, chord bleeds into chord, which bleeds into chord into chord and so on. My goal was to unnerve the audience as much as the story unnerves its readers.
My synesthesia helped me to create a pitch group that symbolized the colors of the Unseen. I did not see the world of Pan as a place devoid of color, but full of colors that in various specific combination, could be both pleasant and unsettling:
C-sharp/D-flat = Royal Blue
D = Pink
F = Light Blue
F-sharp/G-flat = Red
G = Green
A-sharp/B-flat = Purple
This combination is what lead me to be able to feel and translate Helen’s world sonically. The notes are also colored in the musical score for the prepared pianist to color code into the piano when performing. Some notation for internal piano playing is note-specific, and in that case, we used color tabs we can stick inside the piano so that it is easier to find the correct pitches. Other playing methods, however, are not required to be pitch-specific. Therefore, I use graphic notation and assigned symbols to represent certain actions.
* * *
Considering my approach to the libretto, there was much work to be done to create a clear narrative that could be translated for the stage, given that much of the story is conveyed through a hearsay type of dialogue. Every character had to have their own voice, with no individual speaking for the other. This led me to the most obvious fact, that being our “villainess” Helen needed to be brought to corporeal form as a dimensional part of the narrative, and no longer exist as a mere subject of conversation between two other characters. In fact, the female characters have very little to no dialogue in the tale, so I had to carry out the task of giving them each a voice (particularly the character of Helen), and in doing so, brought a new perspective to the story; is Helen really the Antichrist figure our “protagonists” make her out to be, or is she possibly the true savior of mankind, bringing a new age of sexual freedom to our world? My goal in this project is to ask these questions about how far we think we have come in terms of gender equality and religious dogma since those Victorian days. On the surface, Helen’s actions are far from subjective, due to the fact that they are brought forth as fact from our male characters (Clarke and Villiers in particular), who paint themselves as beacons of virtue. However, there are always two or more sides to each story, and as a being who comes from a realm where nature and supernature are relatively the same, Helen may not necessarily think of herself as performing evil acts, but doing works of good in the name of Pan. Besides, if these men are committing suicide over their own guilt, brought on by the religious dogma that tells them their acts deserve no other result than death, why should SHE be the one to blame?
One of the most significant changes I made to the original story was to present Austin as a female who dresses in men’s clothing (what were referred to as Tommy Boys in the Victorian era), representing the trend of women who lived and worked as men in order to gain social status. Through this change, Austin (in my mind) becomes the symbol of conflict among the genders; she is a woman living in the world of men, and her daily actions have a potential of conflicting with her observations as to how fairly her fellow women are being treated. I imagined the new Austin’s perspective as a reflective subparallel to the original theme of the Seen and Unseen.
I completed my adaptation of The Great God Pan in February 2015. From the point of its conception, I shared my experiences with this opera on a regular basis through social media, and was able to garner much attention towards it. I was able to workshop the opera and build promotional materials for sharing the work with those that may have been interested in seeing it come to life. In early 2016, I was presented the opportunity to record it with PARMA Recordings, who would then release it on Navona Records/Naxos of America. It is officially slated to be released in July 2017.
The production of an opera recording can cost exuberant amounts of money, and I had to figure out how I was going to make this work. I saved up money for several years in hopes to get a project funded, and instead of paying the record company to hire and record the album, I decided to record in my home base of Chicago, and hired the cast and recording engineer myself. It was a blessing in many aspects: I was able to have more artistic control, save money as best as I could, and show the world the kind of amazing talent that Chicago has to offer. At the same time, with that comes more responsibility and frustration, because I had to handle many of the bumps in the road by myself. However, I kept two things with me during the rehearsal and recording process that kept me focused: my copy of The Great God Pan and my mother’s black shawl. The shawl itself was quite the conversation piece. It was a blessing to be able to share Machen’s story with those I worked with, and relaying my own experiences around it helped many of us come together to see the opera not as MY project, but as OURS. Seeing the intrigue and excitement on their faces in that they were being given the chance to bring this story to life, as well as the support and openness that the cast showed each other, made all of the hard work worth the effort.
When creating opera, I always hope to find ways to bring new audiences to the artform. I hope that my adaptation of The Great God Pan can reach audiences that would not normally attend an opera performance. It has been wonderful to receive responses from fans of horror literature expressing their interest in this project. When listening (or watching, if you ever have a chance to see a performance), the audience always has a choice: they can see it for the horror story it is on the surface, or listen deeper for the underlying symbolism that I speculate Arthur Machen may have wanted his readers to discover. Whichever choices are made in how this opera is experienced, my hope remains that people will walk away with questions and newly-formed curiosity. Besides, it is a curious question which tends to drive us to uncover more of the Unseen.
Ross Crean, March 2017