Elodie Lauten:The Deus Ex Machina Cycle

Music for Voices and Baroque Ensemble

New music for Baroque Ensemble in a stunning live performance from New York’s Merkin Hall, conducted by Mimi Stern-Wolfe and featuring harpsichordist Elaine Comparone, flutist Andrew Bolotowsky, baritone Thomas Buckner, sopranos Mary Hurlbut and Meredith Borden, violist David Cerruti and many other star New York musicians. The Deus Ex Machina Cycle is a large-scale, two-part work (two-CD set).


quote from Kyle Gann, The Village Voice

"Elodie Lauten’s major opus, strikingly scored for Baroque ensemble with harpsichord, with the text chanted in a style reminiscent not of minimalism but of an exotic fusion of Stravinskian chinoiserie and the 17th cantata: very beautiful.

Notes by John Schaefer

What’s in a name? In the case of Elodie Lauten’s Deus Ex Machina, quite a lot actually. The Latin phrase deus ex machina, literally "god from a machine", referred originally to the practice in classical Greek and Roman theater of lowering a god to the stage, usually on a crane, at the climactic moment to dispense godly wisdom and order to the messy mortal actors beneath. The deus ex machina was also much in favor during the Baroque period in Europe. In modern times, the phrase refers to the unexpected appearance of a character who provides an unlikely resolution to a problem.

For Elodie Lauten, the use of the phrase deus ex machina as a title is a multiple metaphor. "This cycle of songs brings together many different types of text and elements of my compositions, going back to 1987. There isn’t a plot, but it is the existential focus – symbolically, the divine intervention or deus ex machina – that makes everything fits together." There is a more literal reason for the title as well. "God is in the machine! Even though the music is completely acoustic, I used midi programs to create them. " she says. "So in a sense, it’s a gift of the technology."

The Baroque connection is also an important one, as The Deus Ex Machina Cycle is scored for a quasi-Baroque ensemble, with important solo parts for harpsichord, flute, and two sopranos. This consistent orchestration ties together a collection of songs and texts that draws on many different styles and cultures. Another common thread is the Baroque tuning system, an 18th century Vallotti temperament that allows the music to modulate to more chromatic areas without being restricted to the modern equal-tempered scale. The entire tuning is based on what Lauten refers to as the "Earth Tone", the vibration of the Earth expressed as a musical note. This is actually a manifestation of another Baroque ideal, namely astronomer Johannes Kepler’s notion of the "music of the spheres". (For the cognoscenti, or the merely curious, the Earth Tone – based on the year cycle – here is a C# at 136.1 hertz.)

Clearly, The Deus Ex Machina Cycle is a big work. It is Lauten’s most substantial and orchestrated work to date, with a gestation period that lasted for much of the 1990s. It presents a synthesis of neo-Baroque and postminimalist musical styles that grows out of her previous works but departs from them. But it is as much a philosophical cycle as a musical one. The subtitles of the work’s two halves, Agartha or the Realm of Emotion and Experience and Akasha or the Realm of the Unknowable, suggest Hindu mysticism. A fragment from Christian mystic and polymath Blaise Pascal used in Part Two reads almost like a Zen koan. The other texts often suggest more recent epistemology: even the façade of apparent worldliness in Steven Hall’s The Exotic World of Speed and Beauty cracks to reveal fundamental questions about perception and reality. "A swing to matrix/imaging a cloud of square dots." Get too close and the picture is nothing but black and white dots; too far and it’s one big dot. What the image is depends on how close you are to it. Perhaps the most telling use of texts in Deus Ex Machina is the Blaise Pascal setting. The Two Infinites is the composer’s own adaptation of an excerpt from Pascal’s Pensées (1670). Pascal’s particular brand of mysticism seems most at home here – the idea that at some point, knowledge fails and you must fall back on a mystical faith in order to understand the universe. This fits nicely with Elodie Lauten’s distinctive blend of rigorous, if pliable, musicology with more esoteric and otherworldly concerns. In the mid-1980s, for example, she drew upon musical and astrological theories to create a triangular lyre called the Trine. In the mid-90s, after living for a couple of years in the American Southwest, she released Inscapes From Exile, a collection of synthesizer pieces haunted by the ancient ghosts of lost Amerindian civilizations and the more recent ones of Roswell, New Mexico’s legendary extraterrestrial sightings. At certain points during the course of Deus Ex Machina, Lauten goes beyond text, as if to suggest that words fail and you have to fall back on pure music. Is music emblematic of Pascal’s mystic faith? A means of perceiving a truth or reality we can never really know?

Elodie Lauten’s diverse interests have been brought together in Deus Ex Machina. These interests include Baroque tuning theories (musicologists like Johann Mattheson wrote entire treatises cataloguing different musical tunings, scales, and chords according to the emotional effect each was thought to have on the listener). She has investigated synesthesia, the phenomenon of scales or chords having an associated color for some listeners. In her earlier, only slightly less unconventional opera The Death of Don Juan, she took a distinctive approach to the minimalist rhythms and harmonic structures, and the wild free-for-all that is the world of contemporary microtonality. Lauten’s work with alternate tunings has never been dogmatic, but rather highly personal, with entire tuning systems being altered or discarded in order to make the music sound good. One of the hallmarks of her microtonal works has been her ability to take obscure theory and put it into accessible, genuinely musical practice. The choice of the Vallotti temperament, for example, gives Deus Ex Machina an approachable sound, but also allows the subtle pungency of the flute and violin parts in songs such as Buddha in the Sunlight. In addition, the entire ensemble plays at a somewhat lower pitch than the modern standard, a pitch much closer to that used in the Baroque period. Whether you’d need perfect pitch and a finely trained ear to pick up the difference… According to Lauten, the tuning enhances the performance and is always felt, if not actually heard.

A pianist herself, Lauten has written many works in the Western equal tempered tuning system. (One composer recently confessed that he found Lauten’s Variations On The Orange Cycle, in pianist Lois Svard’s recording, the best work on the record... despite having a piece on the recording himself.) Her earliest recording, an early 1980s LP called PianoWorks, already saw Lauten stretching aural and tonal boundaries by pairing the piano with tapes of found sounds - playing with the ambiguity between sound and music. The motoric, moto perpetuo quality of these early works and the occasional piquant, unexpected chord sequence made them listener-friendly, but no less significant. And echoes of that early music are in evidence at the very start of Deus Ex Machina.

The Living Temple, the opening song, uses a kind of ur-language of syllables and phonemes - a song with vocals, but no words. The urgent accompaniment immediately highlights the similarities between Baroque harpsichord figurations and contemporary minimalist chord sequences. With the introduction of language in the second song, Answer, Lauten reveals the work’s mystical bent. Melody Sumner Carnahan’s lyrical, almost ecstatic wordplay and the cyclic repetitions of Lauten’s music suggest a sort of postmodern trance ritual, whirling itself ever farther from logic, but hinting at a deeper meaning just at the threshold of understanding. A similar, almost psychedelic effect recurs in Part Two’s Buddha In The Sunlight, another Carnahan text accompanied by Lauten’s cycling keyboard arpeggios, with gauzy punctuation from flute and violin. This quality is not dependent on texts, however. In the instrumental section The Young Thunder, a rare modern work for the Baroque viola d’amore, Lauten simultaneously evokes the string consorts of Elizabethan England and the millennial mysticism of composers like John Tavener and Arvo Pärt (Lauten’s Baroque output actually came before Taverner’s - Deus Ex Machina Soho Baroque Opera premiere, April 96.)

The millennial connection may just be a coincidence, but Lauten’s magnum opus certainly concerns itself with important questions: questions about vibration and tuning, about perception, about the role of language in determining reality, and about musical form. The Deus Ex Machina Cycle is, according to Elodie Lauten, an opera. What it does look and sound like, perhaps, is a song cycle. And Lauten is quick to confirm that the form of the piece is new. "Is it an opera, or a song cycle? The issue here is how to evolve both of these forms." Elodie Lauten is part of the generation of composers for whom LaMonte Young’s gnomic exercises in tuning and the physical properties of sound have been a formative influence. Although French-born, she has clearly placed herself in that longstanding tradition of American mavericks.

Deus Ex Machina reaches its climax in the penultimate song, Lauten’s adaptation of Blaise Pascal’s The Two Infinites. Here, the work’s underlying mysticism is in full view. To a ruminating accompaniment, the soprano spins her introspective lines. "Between the two extremes of infinity and nothingness," she sings, "after all, what is man in nature? /A nothing compared to infinity/a whole compared to nothing/a middle point between all and nothing." The universal questions of knowledge and perception are neatly summed up in the final two lines of the song.

It would, of course, take a real deus ex machina to unravel these mysteries. Elodie Lauten finds a more elegant solution in her final song, The Exotic World of Speed and Beauty. As British songwriter/producer Brian Eno once sang, "if you study the logistics and heuristics of the mystics you will find that their minds rarely moved in a line." Lauten’s Deus Ex Machina does not move along in a linear progression, and her setting of this enigmatic Steven Hall text does not provide a conclusion. Instead it cycles us back to where we were in the beginning. At a certain point, language breaks down. There are no answers, and there is no god in the machine. Or if there is, he’s just along for the ride.


John Schaefer is the producer and host of WNYC’s New Sounds program.


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© 2011 Elodie Lauten; designed by Henry Lowengard
update: Aug 28, 200