The cutting-edge US artist will discuss composing in a post-truth world and perform her work inspired by a military “blood chit”.

Cutting-edge composer, improvising harpist, writer and lecturer Anne LeBaron tells Limelight about her involvement in Perth’s Totally Huge New Music Festival as one of the Festival’s featured artists:

When Tos Mahoney, director of Tura New Music and the Totally Huge New Music Festival (THNWF), invited me to be one of the featured artists at the 2017 THNMF, I was intrigued and also thrilled. This will be my first time in Perth, and what a grand way to learn about West Australia! The festival will provide a rare opportunity for an overview of my work as a composer, improvising harpist, teacher/workshop leader, writer, and lecturer.

Anne LeBaron. Photograph supplied

Several pieces I’ve composed will be featured as part of the main concert on Friday October 27 at Subiaco Arts Centre. The day before, I deliver the keynote address at the State Library Theatre, “Sonic Ventures in Post-Truth Surrealism: Raudelunas, the Rev. Fred Lane, and Huxley’s Last Trip.” Designed to investigate the festival theme of how composers and sound artists function in our post-truth era, and how they respond to a world riven by untruths, my keynote will focus on personal and particular experiences as they relate to the larger topic at hand. Some of the questions I’ve proposed and will attempt to answer in whole or in part are: How are today’s musicians and musical communities confronting, reacting to, or embodying belief systems grounded in deception? Does the notion of authenticity embrace or reject deliberate falsifications? To what extent can an opera about LSD address the impossibility of knowing what actually occurs during a psychedelic experience? These inquiries into the irrational will be illuminated by examples of performers, philosophical inquiry, writers, entertainers, composers, and creative collectives, exploring the spectrum between truth and post-truth.

Earlier in the week, on October 20, I’ve been invited to lead an improvisation workshop, and to give a more informal artist talk, more of a back and forth Q&A session. Depending upon what we discover in the workshop, we may reprise some materials in the main concert, something I would very much like! I’ll also participate in a performance at Club Huge on Saturday October 21.

I started out as a young composer and musician ravenous for new sounds coming from anywhere, including a staid instrument like the harp. Coaxing unimagined sounds from the instrument, first with bowing it, attaching clips to the strings, weaving paper and foil through the strings, and taking superballs to the body to elicit groans and moans, I eventually graduated to electronic processing of the instrument. This all culminated in the mid-1980s in a composition that I’ll perform as part of the main concert: I am an American…My Government Won’t Reward You (formerly known as I am an American…My Government Will Reward You). Inspired by a blood chit—a piece of silk cloth carried by military flight crew members, with the American flag in one corner – it bears the following inscription written in several languages: “I am a citizen of the United States of America. I do not speak your language. Misfortune forces me to seek your assistance in obtaining food, shelter and protection. Please take me to someone who will provide for my safety and see that I am returned to my people. My government will reward you.” I found the message on this blood chit to be chilling. As it turns out, and not surprisingly, people who attempted to assist downed American military personnel to escape enemy territory were sometimes tortured or killed.

I had a desire to bring the blood chit concept into an artistic/performance space, and composed a piece for electric or amplified harp with live effects such as distortion, accompanied by an electronic collage of sirens, a Sacred Harp hymn, raw beating of chopper blades, a crash, a train, and other sounds woven in. I am an American thus pits the harp against an assault of sonorities associated with combat. My upcoming performance in Perth, essentially a new version, adds another layer to the recorded sound file and harp score, with a shift from the word ‘will’ in the title to the word ‘won’t’—underscoring the current political situation. On the CD liner notes, I dedicate this composition to “the many selfless and compassionate souls on foreign soil, who suffered as a result of helping Americans escape from hostile territory”.

Although my work as a composer has often been fueled by objects of fascination, figures, events, visual art, science, and literary works, it has on occasion brushed up against controversy. For instance, the aforementioned piece has resulted in walkouts by audience members who misunderstood it. Another composition and its performance resulted in hate mail. Pope Joan, a dance opera co-commissioned by the company Dance Alloy and the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, depicts the only female who ever served as pope (earning that distinction while disguised as a man). She gave birth during a papal procession in the year 848 and was stoned to death for her deception. After the performance, a letter was sent to the director of the dance company, full of outrage that a performance depicting a female pope had taken place, and assuring the dance company that they were about to lose a subscriber.

Anne LeBaron. Photograph supplied

A number of my compositions address environmental issues, beginning with Concerto for Active Frogs, a piece that uses real frog and toad vocalisations front and center, and one that we will perform on the main concert at the festival. The most heartbreaking comments began to come up about ten years after the premiere (which was 1975), when people would tell me that they used to hear so many more frogs when they were younger. Indeed, frogs were and are becoming extinct. I later composed Croak (The Last Frog), an opera inspired by the Golden Toad of Costa Rica, which essentially became extinct overnight. Some years later, another opera, Wet, focused on flooding caused by the deforestation and rampant/unnecessary bottling of water. My most recent opera, Crescent City, lays bare the consequences of the final looming natural disaster hovering over the grand city of New Orleans. The threat of complete destruction is so powerful that it lures the infamous Vodou Queen, Marie Laveau, from her tomb, in a last-ditch effort to save her beloved city.

Political and social issues are embedded everywhere in the opera I’m now writing. Huxley’s Last Trip (formerly LSD: The Opera) charts the powerful historical ramifications – cultural, political, and spiritual – set into motion by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann’s discovery of lysergic acid diethylamide in 1943. Before LSD jump-started the counterculture movement, it was appropriated for nefarious uses by government agencies such as the CIA, and was ostracized, demonised, and feared. Practically half a century had to pass before the value of LSD as a therapeutic agent in medical and psychiatric settings began to once again gain traction and respect. The panorama of dramatic events initiated by the appearance of LSD (as a soprano trio called Love, Sex, and Death) encompasses scientific discoveries, murders, CIA classified experiments, festivities, and extraordinary meetings of minds among iconic figures such as Aldous Huxley, Albert Hofmann, and Timothy Leary. However, the guiding lights of the opera are women: the LSD trio, Laura Huxley (wife of Aldous), and the idealistic Mary Pinchot Meyer, one of JFK’s last mistresses. The instrumentation includes many of the Harry Partch instruments. These are tuned to a 43-tone scale, and were selected for inclusion for their destabilizing sonic effects.

I’m anticipating an amazing ten days with so many activities and new performers and composers to discover during the Totally Huge New Music Festival. It’s a great honour to be there and I look forward to the residency!

Anne LeBaron is a West Coast experimenter who is an innnovative performer on the harp as well as a composer of works that embrace unusual challenges and social and political themes. She is a professor (Dr Alice Anne LeBaron) at the School of Music, California Institute of the Arts.

The Totally Huge New Music Festival runs October 19 – 29 at various Perth venues.