Machover’s Overstory Overture is a 30-minute work, for a single voice, chamber ensemble, and electronics; the narrative is based on Richard Powers’ 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Overstory. Both works explore the current state of human alienation from nature and the urgency of radically realigning ourselves with the world around us.
”For me,” says Machover, “no book has spoken more eloquently and passionately about the price humanity pays by separating ourselves from the world around us than Richard Powers’ The Overstory. As part of my project to create a full-length opera based on this great novel, Overstory Overture introduces the central character and main themes of the book, as well as the sounds, structures and sensations that dramatize the networked intelligence of the natural world, the unthinking harm that we subject it to, and the possibility of a completely new view of our interconnected responsibility and potential. Working on this project with my long-time collaborator Joyce DiDonato as well as with Sejong Soloists has been a creative delight and privilege, and we can’t wait to share the new work with New York and Seoul audiences in March.”
Overstory Overture is a stand-alone work that employs and extends many of the techniques the composer has pioneered over the course of his 40-year career and seven operas; the work offers audiences an introduction to the full-length Overstory opera that Machover is developing. The score creates two parallel narratives. One represents the human perspective, in the character of scientist Patricia Westerford, played by Joyce DiDonato, who has discovered vast networks that allow trees to communicate with each other, but she suffers the disbelief of scientific peers and professional ostracism. The other musical narrative is for the “world of trees,” represented by Sejong Soloists and electronics, shepherded by conductor Earl Lee. At various times, these layers ignore each other or intermingle delicately or clash violently, finally merging in a promising - if uneasy - synthesis. Machover’s signature electronics, here sounding “super-natural” rather than “techno-heavy,” help to make tree communication – flitting fast through the air or delicately pulsating “underground” – palpable, while exaggerating contrasts and also building sonic fusions between soloist and orchestra. The music is highlighted by lighting and movement to dramatize the work’s expressive journey.
In 2020, Sejong Soloists’ executive director Kyung Kang reached out to Machover to propose doing a project together – “something with a narrative,” Machover recalls, “a bit theatrical.” Around the same time, Machover had begun discussing with Richard Powers the idea of basing an opera on The Overstory, which excited Powers, based on his knowledge of Machover’s previous operas. Machover proposed the idea of creating a first version of the work—a kind of capsule glimpse of its feel and sound—to Sejong, and Overstory Overture was born.
“Sejong Soloists is committed to commissioning new work, and we are thrilled to be working with Tod Machover and Joyce DiDonato. They bring tremendous imagination and artistry to the project,” says Kang. “Together, we discovered our shared vision for presenting music with innovation and contemporary themes. We look forward to sharing Overstory Overture with our audiences in New York and in Seoul, Korea.”
Machover has assembled a creative team of longtime collaborators to create a powerfully immersive experience for the audience. Librettist Simon Robson is a British writer, actor, and director who created a narrative arc of four sections based on Powers’ text that move through Westerford’s experience of listening, discovering, destruction and rebirth. Boundary-pushing choreographer and director Karole Armitage designed the singer and musicians’ movement on stage to support the narrative and illustrate the evolving relationships throughout the work between humans and trees. MIT Media Lab PhD grad Peter Torpey created the visuals and lighting that help to make the forest come alive. Ben Bloomberg, another Media Lab PhD grad and long-time Machover collaborator, designed the sound system that blends acoustics and electronics in startling, subtle ways.
Sejong Soloists’ commission of Overstory Overture was made possible by a generous gift from So-Chung Shinn and Tony W. Lee.