Archive | March, 2014

Review of Somnambulist

28 Mar

by Rhea H. Boyden


‘Dreams are the touchstones of our characters’ -Henry David Thoreau

‘Mayday, Mayday!’ We hear this distress call repeatedly in the track ‘Projection’ but do we get the help we are looking for? Not always when we project all our hopes and dreams onto another person. The album ‘Somnambulist’ by ‘Automating’ which is the solo project of Sasha Margolis from Melbourne, Australia explores hopes, dreams and fears in an 18-track album. The album, released under the label ‘Wood and Wire’ is a tantalising collection of field recordings, found sound and tape manipulation. With track titles such as ‘PET Scan’, ‘Neuronal Response’ and ‘Repetition Compulsion’ we can expect this album to explore deeper states of consciousness and a yearning to make sense of the world through an understanding, in particular, of dreaming and various sleep states.

The album opens with the track ‘Alpha Wave’ and we hear the sound of a chirping bird. Is this a sign that the day has commenced happily? The Alpha brainwaves are present when we are relaxed, meditative, aware and enjoying the moment. It’s a positive note to start on, but as we listen to the album we hear that it explores a whole range of human emotions experienced in various states of sleep. The track ‘Delta Wave’ does not keep one in a happy and relaxed manner for long. It is sinister, spooky and frankly, quite terrifying to listen to. In fact, much of the terror, stressors and stimulants of modern life prevent many of us from reaching the delta brainwave state as often as we should- it is the state of deep sleep and unconciousness that is most restorative. Following this is ‘Voices of the Dead’ and in this track we hear a lot of wind and water. The voices of those we have lost can be found in nature if we listen closely, but we cannot stop the passage of time and hold onto that which has slipped away. I am reminded, when listening to these tracks, of the Gothic poem by Edgar Allan Poe: ‘A Dream within a Dream’- ‘I stand amid the roar, of a surf-tormented shore’ writes Poe, in great despair, realising that he cannot hold onto the dream that is slipping away from him. He sees that he cannot even hold onto one grain of sand that slips from his hand making him question the passing of time-the sands of time- and also whether everything he ever experienced was just a dream and never reality at all. Where does the border lie between dreams and reality? And what happens in that hazy land between waking consciousness and deeper sleep?

A lot of really interesting things can happen in that hazy land and that is the part of this album that to my mind, is really exciting. The track ‘Hypnopompia’ samples distant eerie voices. Are these the voices of creativity that speak to us as we awaken in the morning? The hypnopompic state is the state of semi-consciousness that is experienced coming out of sleep and many a writer and composer swears that the insights that hit them at this moment are the ones that turn into the best stories, songs and poetry. We all know that feeling we have in our gut first thing in the morning-the one that puts us in tune with our strongest emotions- erotic feelings or feelings of deep mourning. Sentiments of joy or loss. If we can capture the truth at the core of these feelings right then and there we can turn them into new energy and life in our various creative pursuits. The track that follows ‘Hypnopompia’ is ‘Synaptic Transmission’ and in it we hear fireworks which are a wonderful way of sonically sampling and expressing the workings of the synapses. Are perhaps the fireworks a celebration of the ideas that have been successfully captured in the hypnopompic state? Happy creative synapses at work that have been well exercised in the dream state?

In other tracks we hear chanting, church bells, organs, bleating sheep, speeding trains, a didgeridoo and muffled voices. How to make sense of all of this? In the track ‘Acoustic Encoding’ I am reminded once again of that Edgar Allan Poe poem, or indeed, any poem I love that begs to be read out loud. For this is what ‘acoustic encoding’ is: the process of remembering and understanding things you hear. When we read a poem out loud we are engaging in acoustic encoding.

The album ends with the track ‘Theta Wave’. This is the perfect finale as the Theta brainwaves are activated when you are falling asleep. New ideas and enhanced creativity occur in a Theta brainwave state. And after listening to an album that makes me ponder the colourful spectrum of human emotions in a dream state, it is very pleasing to end on a track that is a gateway to learning, healing and spiritual growth. In the Theta state we retreat again to the voices and signals that come from within us, and, most beautifully, we can connect to the divine, readying us again for a new morning in the hypnopompic state: another day of capturing our dreams and commencing the cycle over. ‘Somnambulist’ (which means sleepwalker) is a truly inspiring and thought-provoking album on many levels.

Images courtesy of Sasha Margolis


Neil Collins Business English Training

27 Mar

English for Meetings: Offering your guest a cup of coffee.

Review: Katya Kabanowa at Schiller Theater – Berlin 

1 Mar


by Rhea H. Boyden

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Schiller Theater to see a Staatsoper production of Czech composer Leo Janacek’s opera Katja Kabanowa. I purchased a chocolate bar with raspberry filling and wandered around the foyer absorbing the atmosphere before taking my seat for an opera that promised to be a thrilling 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission. With the tang of raspberry still on my tongue, I read in the German supertitles over the stage that it was to be behind the raspberry bush and through a gate that the leading lady Katya was to be seduced and led to her doom.

Katya, sung by Dutch soprano Eva Maria Westbroek, is the unhappy merchant’s wife who attempts to escape her weak husband and overbearing mother-in-law by starting an affair with Boris a local merchant’s nephew. Janacek based his character somewhat on his muse, the merchant’s wife Kamila Stösslova, a woman 37 years younger than him who he was very much in love with throughout the composition of the opera Katya Kabanowa, which he wrote between 1919 and 1921. He showered her in letters and did not get the response he had hoped from her. Remembering that raspberries were the fruit that impressed me in the opera, I read with much entertainment that Janacek tried to conceal his erotic fantasies for Kamila in fruit metaphors, writing to her: ‘you are as round as a small apple that is ripe for biting into.’

As obsessed as he was with Kamila, he clearly did not waste all his time on fruit fantasies of her, as he also managed very well, quite apart from being a successful composer, to master the Russian tongue. He was very much in awe of Russian literature and it is easy to see that Katya Kabanova is influenced by Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Kerenina. The opera is also based on the 19th century Russian playwright Alexander Ostrowski’s popular play ‘The Storm’.

‘The Storm’ and ‘Katya Kabanova’ are both examples of Realism which had its roots in French literature in the mid 19th century. Realism depicted every day and banal activities of especially rural life and the hardships people faced. Janacek was a modernist and was fervently anti-romanticism. He set his opera on the banks of the River Volga in Russia in the 1860’s and the story shows how miserable the main leading lady-Katya-is with her lot in life.

Previous operas such as ‘Tristan and Isolde’ and ‘Pelleas and Melisande’ had sung and praised everlasting romantic love, but by the end of the 19th century this ideal of romantic love was dying, and its death was being depicted frequently in art, music and literature. It was clear that a grown human can change and have more than one passionate love in a lifetime and also that adultery happens.

So what happens to Katya behind the gate that is behind the raspberry bush? It is here that she follows Varvara, sung by mezzo-soprano Anna Lapkovskaya, Kabanicha’s foster daughter, to meet her lover and to cheat on her husband. But Katya does not do this without realising fully that it is a sin that she will have to pay for, ultimately with her life, for Katya is deeply religious and she knows that her erotic fantasies are a huge sin. She is driven to madness and suicide by her inability to reconcile her need for love and affection from a man who is not her husband, and her deep-seated knowledge that it is so very wrong.

In the scene before Varvara leads her to the gate behind the raspberry bush, Katya sings of how easy and free her life was before she was married. How she loved it, above all, to go to church. The orchestra, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, sets the scene of a church mass. Indeed, it was very important to Janacek to have his music match the action on the stage as closely as possible. Katya tells Varvara of her deepest and most intense dreams. She dreams of golden high cathedrals and high mountains and unseen voices that speak to her. One unseen voice that enters her now is evidently the voice of the devil, that will, despite her pious nature, lead her to her doom and she has no strength or will to ignore it.

Love was very much depicted as a sin in much of Russian literature and it is also the women who seemed to suffer the most for it. Katya is surrounded by weak men, especially her husband, Tichon-tenor, sung by Stephan Rügamer- who is unable or unwilling to protect her from his overbearing mother Kabanicha who is the heartless, jealous, cold and hypocritical character in this story.

Kabanicha, sung by American mezzo-soprano Deborah Polaski, seems to be the ultimate symbol of cold realism in this story. And it is she who drives Katya into her escapist and intense dreams and erotic fantasies that provide her a balm to soothe her pain-temporarily.


And while Janacek set the original story on the banks of the River Volga in the 1860’s, German stage dierector Andrea Breth sets this story in modern times and the opening scene shows Katya in a fridge next to an empty bottle of vodka. In the first act the fridge door is closed in her face locking her inside. This is not exactly a subtle metaphor for being locked up and treated coldly by those around her. And the bottle of vodka? It is not drunk by Katya but by Dikoj the drunk and maudlin merchant, sung by bass Pavlo Hunka. One scene depicts him and Kabanicha on the table engaging in a ridiculous looking sex act, him drunk and her putting her hands down his pants. All the time she is dressed in a beautiful purple dress, the fanciest in the whole set of costumes, which in some ways is supposed to show her decorum. But it is a false decorum, clearly. She is just as weak as the next person, but tries to hide her human weaknesses behind her social standing and powerful position in the community. Kabanicha and Dikoj feel that they are immune to sin by doing the right things in society such as paying alms and duties. They will never suffer the pain of great love as Katya does, as they are incapable of loving and caring as deeply as she does.

There is one scene in the opera where Katya and Boris- sung by tenor Florian Hoffman- sing a duett. It is the only scene in the whole performance that is a duett and is a chilling reminder that the romantic love depicted in many operas past is dead. It is a last stab at love that will soon die with Katya’s demise and downfall. Katya hopes for some relief for her sins when she admits to all -in the middle of the raging storm that has rolled up the Volga- that she has betrayed Tichon. She does not gain any relief from this confession, but rather angers all involved, bringing yet more criticism upon her from her evil mother-in-law. Boris, her love, is sent to Siberia by his uncle for his sins, and to add to Katya’s misery, he does not seem to really protest this.


Katya is now completely alone and she sings of how her grave will look after she is dead. It will be beautiful and birds will fly over it- you can hear the birds in the violins and clarinets. Flowers will grow on her grave and she will finally be at peace- a peace that was never afforded her in her time on earth. In Janacek’s original piece she then opens her arms and jumps in the Volga and drowns. In this, Andrea Breth’s interpretation, she slits her wrists while lying a bathtub. And the greatest tragedy of all lies in the fact that the opera does not end with Katya’s death, rather the assembled group argue over her dead body. Tichon cries and blames his mother Kabanicha for Katya’s downfall. His accusation is not heard and Kabanicha shows little remorse for Katya’s death. Tichon loved her, to be sure, but he was never able to stand up to his mother and his love for Katya was too little too late. The opera ends with Kabanicha thanking the assembled company for their help. She can continue in her false ways, no doubt still holding power over her spineless son.

Photos by Bernd Uhlig courtesy of the Schiller Theater Press Office