Et Diabolus incarnatus est : Horror and Paganism in Opera—An Interview with Composer Ross Crean

Et Diabolus incarnatus est : Horror and Paganism in Opera—An Interview with Composer Ross Crean

There are not too many operatic works that call directly on the Pagan/Occultist stream of thought. Most recently perhaps, Damon Albarn and Rufus Norris’s opera Dr Deesplit critics in London. (I hated it; it seemed to demean the majesty of Dee and Kelley’s work.) Now, Ross Crean presents a masterly working of a novella by Arthur Machen, The Great God Pan. Before embarking on the meat of Pan (I’m sure Pan would approve of the ambiguity there), I ask for some background. 

Ross, you studied music theory and composition, I believe, at Illinois. What brought you to that point? And what has brought you to your concentration on the human voice? 

I was a singer since childhood, mainly brought up in the “sean-nos” tradition, which is traditional unaccompanied Celtic singing. As a painfully shy child, it became the way I expressed myself, but also gave me the opportunity to perform and get over my shyness. For me, there was nothing like singing an unaccompanied melody and connecting to nuance and the shape of a phrase. When it came time to attend university, it seemed natural that I pursue my undergraduate degree in vocal performance. My music department professors, however, were not huge proponents of contemporary music, and as someone who enjoyed listening to the music of artists such as Nancy Van de Vate, Diamanda Galas, and Kaija Saariaho, I was not enjoying my studies singing works that were solely from the canon. I turned to composition as a tool to express my creativity during that period, and the longer I did so, the closer I came to the realisation that I could compose new works for myself to perform. I was still met with a lot of opposition from the faculty when it came to performing new works, and as a result, I was determined to make a career as a performer-composer of contemporary music. When it came to graduate school, the decision to pursue composition at Illinois State was easy. That way, I could focus on my studies and sing at my leisure in the meantime. My professors in graduate school encouraged me to go out and perform, and create whichever projects I chose. Composing for voice was just a natural thing to do, given my history. 

In view of the importance of your mother in the story of the genesis of your opera The Great God Pan, can I ask now in general terms about parental influences towards a musical life? 

I had two very different parents. My mother enjoyed contemporary Christian music, as well as Barbara Streisand and Enya. My father, on the other hand, listened to Stevie Ray Vaughan, ZZ Top, and lots of Scandinavian death metal bands. Neither of my parents were musicians, but there was always music going on in the house. I cannot say that they influenced any of my musical tastes, but they definitely encouraged my appreciation of various types of music. In turn, I exposed them to many different types of music they may not have experienced otherwise. As they are rather conservative people, I was pleasantly surprised how much they enjoyed my shows, no matter how weird the content came across. [laughs] 

I’m aware you are a singer yourself (bass-baritone), and this has clearly shaped the way you handle the voices with the utmost sensitivity. There is almost a Britten-like security in your setting of the English language. I know influences can be a thorny question with composers, but who might you class as your models in this regard? 

This is certainly not the first time that Britten has been brought up in how I approach the voice. [laughs] I have honestly never thought about who may be an influence, though I can surely understand the references to Britten. I have also been a singer-songwriter for over 10 years, and in that career I always stayed with the basic rule that accents and intonations in music should fall where those factors of the spoken language sit. Knowing that, I always paid respect to that rule, but also tried to find different angles of approach to melody in order to make that happen. I think that performer/composers have influenced me in that regard, a lot more than composers that do not perform. Lisa Gerrard, for example, has such a beautiful approach to melody. Even when she sings songs in made-up languages, there is an unspoken story or statement that is understood, and you feel that emotional response in the music itself. 

There are also many times where my melodies dictate what text I create. In moments where I have a studio all to myself, I can improvise for several hours, picking out phrases that really stand out in my mind, so while text can certainly help to influence one’s melodic direction I believe that it can also be the other way around. The “Gethsemane” aria from The Great God Pan, for example, was written phrase by phrase, with the melody coming first and the text following. 

I do think the rather uncomplicated approach to melody and text in folk music has been influential as well. In Celtic singing, we can have a basic melody written down on paper, but the text dictates how much more we can do with that melody in ways of turns, ornaments, and melismas. What words stick out to us? What phrases seem to call out for more? So many options exist, which makes it exciting when composing for the voice. 

Your choice of subject matter and indeed your titles are fascinating (The Passive-Aggressive’s Guide to Mother Goose for example). There seems also to be an interest in the paranormal, or just what can be perceived as “not normal”—a character imbalance, for example (Psychosia and The Passive-Aggressive’s Guide to Mother Goose), and your first opera The Poet’s Ghost or your soundtrack for Summerland: A Ghost Story. Where do you think this fascination comes from? 

Well, horror has been a lifelong staple. I caught my father’s love of horror films at a very early age. It was always about outcasts, the weirdos, and freaks. The stereotypes and carbon copies were always killed off in various ways that bring a sense of contentment to those watching. Many horror films are simply statements that those who embrace their individuality will survive most circumstances. There is also an overwhelming beauty in many of those movies. The old Universal Studios monster films were not only visually stunning, but also including many gorgeous scores by Hans J. Salter, Paul Dessau, Kenneth Alwyn, and Franz Waxman. 

As far as my past subject choices go, I have created many of them as character studies, particularly based on people that have created conflict in my life at the time I was composing them. It is very much a type of therapy for me, and very cathartic. Some of those character studies are based on myself as well. Xenophysius Obscura (The Stranger’s Nature in Darkness) is a monodrama that I perform in complete darkness for two reasons. Firstly, I felt like I could be more confessional about myself and my own bout with mental illness when audience members could not look at me, and secondly, because I wanted to feel and hear the audience’s reactions to the things I presented to them both during and after the performance. I personally never felt like someone who fit in “normal” society; it seemed way too boring. There is an underlying sense of grace in being on the outskirts looking in, and seeing that many of mankind’s flaws can, in actuality, be what an audience easily relates to the most. 

I loved Arthur Machen’s book. Its language seemed to link it to H. P. Lovecraft, although without his fantastical, self-invented horror creatures—here it is Pan, with a history independent of Machen, who stands in the background. Can you tell the story of how this novella brought you back to composition after a hiatus following the sad death of your mother to pancreatic cancer? 

Absolutely! I am a huge fan of H. P. Lovecraft, who was coincidentally influenced by Machen. It was because of that, as well as Stephen King’s referral to The Great God Pan as one of the best horror stories he had ever read, that lead me to search for Machen’s tale. This was probably in 1994, while I was an undergraduate. I read the book several times, and it lingered in my mind for a long time after. 

Fast forward to July 2, 2014, when my mother was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. My mother was my best friend and my biggest supporter, and the news tore me apart. My family and I spent three weeks trying to make her as comfortable as possible, which was an extremely difficult task. When she passed away on July 23, not only was my heart broken, but so was my spirit. I tried to distract myself by writing, but nothing was coming out. I simply surrendered. That following October, I was helping out with cleaning my parents’ house, and as I was sitting on the floor in my old bedroom going through boxes, my old copy of The Great God Pan fell into my lap. The strange thing is that there were no shelves above me, and therefore no place where it could have fell from. I felt like it was my mum’s way of telling me that it was time to get back to composing, and this was the story I needed to work on. From there, it all just laid itself out in front of me. 

I wrote a journal article about the full story for Faunus, the Arthur Machen quarterly, and also placed it on my website, if anyone is interested in learning more. 

Also you yourself have fashioned Machen’s novella into a workable libretto—did you consider having someone else work on the libretto, or was it always going to be your baby? 

This one was my baby! [laughs] I knew the story so well, and also knew what approaches and changes I wanted to make to the adaptation, so I did not even feel like there were any other options. Honestly, if I had collaborated with another librettist on this, I would have driven them insane with my constant looking over their shoulder. I had a very clear vision, so it was a given that I needed to take the helm. 

One of your stated aims is to give more of a voice to the female characters in the book than in the original. Do you see that as a type of “updating” to our more equal modern world? 

I am not convinced that I should refer to it as an update. I think in many ways, our society views women in the same manner as it did in the Victorian era. A sexually liberated woman seems appealing to many men, but those men can also be just as quick to call that woman a whore for the same reason. The reason I knew I had to give the characters of Mary and (more particularly) Helen their own dialogue was to give a more well-rounded perspective to the story. It is also why I decided to make the character of Austin (originally a male) female. In that period, women who dressed and lived as men were given the freedoms and social advantages that men were privy to. I wanted to make Austin one of those women in order to focus on the conflict that exists in the duality of gender as it was represented in those days. Austin becomes the symbol of that conflict. We see her carry herself with the other men as if she was always meant to be amongst them, but there is this other aspect of her that is not only fascinated with Helen, but sympathizes with her. I did not necessarily want to make a bold statement to throw into anyone’s face, but I wanted to raise these questions about sexuality, morality, and gender equality, and in turn have the audience walk away from the performance to continue the conversation. I have a sort of conspiracy theory that Machen had a cryptic intention to silence his female characters in order to make a feminist statement, but that could be fodder for another article of its own. 

You score this piece for voices and pianos (four pianists are listed!), with an extended “Intro.” Can you explain how this is laid out between the pianos? There are a lot of “special” effects (strumming, etc.). 

My intent from the beginning of this project was to use two pianos due to the varieties of timbre they are capable of producing. As a composer who at the time of the creative process had little resource available as far as instrumental ensembles, the piano was a very accessible convenience. Also, considering the content of the novella, incorporating two pianos seemed to be the perfect representation of the two worlds we explore in the opera. 

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, and 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; at other times chords bleed into chords, which then bleed into chord into chord and so on. My goal was to unnerve the audience as much as the story unnerves its readers. 

The piano parts are actually only meant to be for two pianists. However, as many recording sessions teach us to expect the unexpected, we discovered that there were a few technical glitches from our first set of recording sessions, and then had to hire two other pianists to play for the second round of recording, due to the fact that our original two pianists could not make themselves available. 

And you couch this part of the opera in a somewhat nostalgic, very lyric musical vocabulary which is nevertheless very flexible in its expression. Was there an element of distancing, to imply the world of late-1900s London? 

Not overwhelmingly so, but as far as textual language goes, I definitely chose to follow syntax and language that was prevalent in the Victorian era. I also am very fond of steampunk, which heavily relies on Victorian influence, so musically, I try to envelop a Romantic sense of musical language while also relying on more current uses of hybrid tonality and Spectralist technique. I also think my approach to the vocal line reaches much more toward contemporary musical usage of the instrument. Helen’s role, in particular, is very challenging vocally, and very much not in line with Classical or Romantic vocal writing. 

It’s fascinating to see how you’re working with synaesthesia in this score! Can you explain more for the reader? Obviously as far as this is concerned, most people just know about Scriabin and his synaesthesia if they know about it at all (the “color organ,” etc.)—can you elaborate on how this affects your composition? You have a pitch group that symbolizes the Otherworld, don’t you? 

I do! My synesthesia helped me to create a pitch group that symbolized the colors of the Otherworld. I did not see the realm of Pan as a place devoid of color, but full of colors that in various specific combinations, could be both pleasant and unsettling: 

C♯/D♭= Royal Blue 

D = Pink 

F = Light Blue 

F♯/G♭ = Red 

G = Green 

A♯/B♭ = Purple 

This combination is what led 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. 

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 me feel as if 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 originally to work as 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. To answer a question that I have been asked many times before about synesthesia: Each synesthete has his or her own individual color responses, and we do not see the same colors for the same notes. 

If anything I feel you sometimes go deeper than Machen’s original: I’m thinking here of Helen’s song, “The Universe is silent throughout the day.” Was it the frisson of tension between an 1890 novella and your own contemporary voice and times that inspired you? Or was it a personal resonance? It certainly feels as if this is an outpouring of invention. 

First of all, thank you for that compliment! I would have to say that my own personal resonance to the story pushed me to create more dramatic layers in the story and music. In my younger years, I spent a lot of time in Glastonbury, England, which has quite a bit of its own supernatural history, and it definitely helped me to shape my imagination. If I was able to paint the visuals that live in my mind on occasion, I would probably be rich [laughs], but I’ll settle on doing it through music. 

I also went on many bicycle trips throughout the forest preserves in my current homebase, and I have to say that when you are pedaling through the woods for several hours on your own, your mind most definitely has the capacity of wandering and developing new ideas and scenarios for current or future works. There were many times on those trips when I processed exactly how I could further develop the content from the original tale. It is an important thing to do, especially when adapting something for the stage; innuendo in a book does not translate well to a live audience, so you have to paint a more solid picture for its members without either spoon feeding them or taking away from the central plot. 

I just want to make sure I’m imagining something correctly in my mind’s eye: You also show the suicides in a sort of “slide show” in the second act, as far as I can gather from the stage indications…. 

Yes, I do that in order to not dwell on or glorify the act. We get a graphic enough scene with the suicide of Arthur Meyrick at the beginning of act II, so I wanted to create an effective way to show the massive plague of suicides that happen so quickly throughout London without having to broaden the production budget even further. 

There are two workable scenarios that are used in live production for this opera in terms of that scene. Shadow puppetry is quite ideal to the visual aspects of this work, especially because there are things we do not see in the novella, things that are never meant to be seen. This method can give us a solid enough representation of the things that we create in our imagination when reading the story, without giving too much away visually. The mystique of the unseen is what terrifies those who read Machen’s book. That’s the magic. 

The other scenario, which works better in terms of the montage of suicides, is the use of animation. The same shadow technique can be utilized, and give the production a more Gorey-esque feel. Using shadow puppetry in collaboration with animation can have a very successful effect, particularly if the aim is to incorporate more serpentine movement of subjects behind the scrim. 

It’s wonderful that you have included a prayer to the Horned One (II/ii). There’s a sort of fearlessness to that! My own experience, as a Pagan myself, of Pan—and this is only experiential—is that he seems resonant with the modern day worship of Baphomet. Both are overtly sexual (Pan’s Phallus is difficult to miss in many drawings!), both are Horned Gods, and both are linked to goats. These are the most obvious linkages, although there are important differences, especially with the Templar link for Baphomet. I do wonder if there is a resonance here that echoes on into the present, and whether we feel it through your music? (Incidentally, I also know occultists who deny the connection, so perhaps think of this as musing on my part!) 

Wow, that is a difficult question to answer. I think many occultists forget that there is a connection between everything, even though there may be differences. Comparative religion clearly shows Baphomet as an icon of worship or ideology among many Pagan sects, Satanic churches, Gnostic scholarship, and Masonic rites. Of what I have gathered, Baphomet seems to be a modernized version of what Pan is, the difference being that in many Pagan forms of worship, Pan is one side of a duality, while Baphomet seems to be the equilibrium of the opposites. 

The storyline of The Great God Pan clearly parallels that of the Christian nativity, and I found it important to give Helen her Gethsemane moment in the opera, hence the “Gethsemane” aria. I did that because there are so many who connect Paganism with Satanism or Black Magick, when in reality, it shares many more similarities with Christian doctrine and ritual, primarily that of the Apocryphal or Gnostic Gospels who clearly mention the feminine divine (referred to as Sophia) as the other half of the duality that created Jesus Christ. 

Back to your question: I think that there is a resonance in relation to what Helen and Pan represent. On the topic of morality, the idea of black and white really only exist in contextual terms. Many people will see this opera and come to the conclusion that Helen is a malignant being who seeks destruction, but others will see her as a beacon of the removal of shame when it comes to sex. Some will see Villiers, Clarke, and Austin as heroic protagonists who seek to rid London of an Antichrist figure who is leading men to kill themselves. Others will see them as patriarchal symbols whose religious dogma has programmed them to view sexual openness and pride in one’s desires as something to eliminate. Do the men who commit suicide do it as a result of Helen’s influence, or do they do so because their own shame through indoctrination is too much to handle? 

The truth of it is, I meant for this opera to present very muddy and blurred lines of conception. I myself hear a sense of morality and grace in Helen’s delivery of “Gethsemane”; I have heard nothing but positive things about that piece from people of many faiths and beliefs, and I hope that comes through for future audiences and listeners. 

Machen’s idea of “Fragments” for the final part (scene) works so well dramatically in your setting. However, in terms of endings, what are you intending we, as listener/observers, take away from this? 

I am so glad you caught that. To me, the “Fragments” represent the aftermath of the events that transpired in the previous confrontation scene. That final scene serves to connect the dots, but also acts as an inconclusive moral to the end of the story. The surviving cast members are broken and discombobulated, and are not necessarily sure that what they have done was the right thing. The word “fragment” just seemed very symbolic of their emotional state at the end of the opera. 

What I want people to walk away with after seeing or listening to The Great God Pan is more questions. I really believe that what causes most conflict is the belief that we know all the answers. I don’t believe any of us do or ever will. We are flawed human beings, each and every one of us, and for anyone to have the arrogance to claim that he or she has the ultimate truth is what leads to harm, primarily to others who do not agree with that truth. I really think that true understanding comes with knowing that we just don’t know. 

And where do you as a composer go from here? 

My goal is simply to keep going. My most recent opera Lost Daughters recently premiered at Oberlin Conservatory this last May, and we are going into the fundraising stage to produce a recording of the performance. I am currently working on piano miniatures based on Buffy the Vampire Slayer™ for pianist Holly Roadfeldt, as well as writing a micro-opera called The Times Are Nightfall, which follows Donna Anna and Donna Elvira after the death of Don Giovanni. I am also working on a multimedia monodrama, Werifesteria, for mezzo-soprano and Pierrot ensemble. It is about the psychology of fear and the unknown, using symbolism of the forest. Of course, the film aspect will continue to demonstrate my trend towards the macabre. Last but not least, this winter, I am going back into the studio to record a collection of art songs I have composed, including my comedic cycle The Passive-Aggressive’s Guide to Mother Goose and my Rilke cycle Metaphysisch. 

  CREAN  The Great God Pan • Catherine O’Shaughnessy, cond; Sarah Thompson Johansen (Helen); Maureen Smith (Mary); Erin Moll (Austin); Tobias Wright (Clarke); Matthan Ring Black (Dr. Raymond); Vince Wallace (Villiers); Stephen Uhl, John Cockerill, Jordan Circe, Anatoliy Torchinskiy (pn) • NAVONA 6115 (2 CDs: Text and Translation)

Ross Crean’s take on Arthur Machen’s 1894 novella The Great God Pan is a remarkable, heartfelt piece of drama. The idea of surgery that enables patients to see the Great God Pan is the starting point; the ramifications of this unfold over the course of the action in a remarkable sequence of events. The fact that the horror is so often unspoken just underlines the atmosphere. 

The use of two pianos, one prepared, one not, enables the worlds of corporeal “reality” and the Otherworld to be effectively differentiated. All four pianists involved in this recording seem of extraordinary sensitivity. Crean’s music itself is brilliantly imagined, virtuosically moving between the consonant and the overtly dissonant as the drama requires. The fact that the opera grips from first to last with the sound of a piano rather than an orchestra is testament to the skill involved here. 

The singers, too, are impeccably chosen. Rachel’s aria from act I, “Are you fair, or more like me, ugly as jimson weed?”—jimson weed is a plant also known as “Devil’s Snare”—is one of the opera’s high points, and is beautifully given on a tightrope of beauty and supernatural tension by contralto Jessica Hiltabidle. All the parts, in fact, are cast from strength: Tobias Wright’s commentary, as Clarke, on Rachel’s story is brilliantly done, pure theater. Mezzo Erin Moll is a remarkably agile singer, while Mark Haddad’s Herbert reveals a fabulously lyric, resonant bass. 

The super-high soprano of Sarah Thompson Johansen as Helen provides much joy, particularly in the earlier parts of act II as she soars over the chorus with Queen of the Night-like staccato; she also blends impeccably with the tenor of Andrew Fisher’s assumption of the artist Arthur Meyrick. As Doctor Raymond, Matthan Ring Black is superbly focused. One should note that diction from each and every singer involved in this project is exemplary. 

The chorus is, in the very best sense, diabolical, and, at times, decidedly seductive. The accusatory cries of “Antichrist!” are spine-chilling. It is the firm hand of conductor Catherine O’Shaughnessy that leads us through Crean’s musical labyrinth, ensuring that the enigma of Pan permeates the entire structure in an underlying feeling of foreboding and mystery. 

The recording is of great clarity and presence. The libretto is available at Navona’s website, as is an extended synopsis. This is a terrific work from just about every angle. The subject matter invites us to examine the darker aspects of our own psyche in our own reactions to events. Beware: This is thought-provoking music and drama. One hopes, too, that it will invite readers to explore the writings of Arthur Machen; rereading his novella in preparation for this interview and review, I found myself absolutely delighted by as well as gripped by his style. I can offer Crean no higher praise than to suggest he has done Machen proud. 

--Colin Clarke 

This article originally appeared in Issue 41:3 (Jan/Feb 2018) of Fanfare Magazine.

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