Gordon, Lang, Wolfe, Katchor The Carbon Copy Building

[Cantaloupe; 2007]

Rating: 1.5/5

Styles: comic-strip opera, rock opera
Others: Bang on a Can, Martin Goldray, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill

We will begin objectively and fairly, with observations of the object itself. The packaging of this release is lavish. What we have is a jewel case-shaped book — a comic, essentially. A hard cover, full colors, and a cloth spine. This comic is the basis for the music — the opera. The text of the comic functions as the libretto. Tucked in the back of the book is where you’ll find the compact disc, though accomplishing this is no easy task. From a packaging standpoint, the music takes a backseat to the comic. It wasn’t the easiest to find, and even tougher to enjoy.

Ben Katchor is the man responsible for the drawings and text. He is a cartoonist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Slate, and many other publications. His work deals largely with urban decay, while not forgetting his Jewish upbringing in Brooklyn. His work is put to music by a team of singers and musicians. Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe — the surnames that the spine of the package bears — composed the music. The Carbon Copy Building was originally intended for the stage, where it achieved success. This bottling of the project doesn’t seem to be the wisest move.

Here’s the premise: Two identical buildings are built 20 blocks apart. One of the buildings flourishes, while the other decays into decrepitude. There isn’t much more to it than that. There isn’t much of a plot. There isn’t much conflict. The lyrics consist of descriptions of various incidents and historical information. The comparison between the Palatine (the prosperous building) and the Palaver (the rotting building) is drawn. The lyrics dwell on a piece of gum stuck under a banister, the goings-on of executive offices, and something about embalming cherry cheesecake. Apparently the impoverished Palaver and its employees provide the Palatine with every necessity to survive and boom. Class issues are clear. The tenants, employees, and visitors of the Palaver are stained, and stain, with a blue-black residue (the carbon copy — a product of formaldehyde).

The music of this project is humdrum. There is no orchestra, only a group of rock musicians who tinker and allow their instruments to blether in the background. What are they taking a backseat to? The singing is atrocious. It comes off as a parody of opera. Ask anybody you know to imitate an opera singer and you’ll hear what the singers on this project have to offer. Maybe it’s the words they are singing. No one needs to hear “A hundred-and-fifty years ago, Park Manure Avenue was a cow-path marking the western extremity of what was to be Human Nature Park” sung without a melody, without any feeling, without any cadence, intonation, or anything. Now I’m angry. This project received “generous support” from the National Endowment for the Arts. Sending money down the laundry chute, garbage disposal, dumbwaiter, sewer pipe, wishing well, toilet bowl...

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