If you happen to be reading Moby Dick right now, and you live in Washington, DC, congratulations! The Kennedy Center is putting on an opera. Go see it (it closes tomorrow). If you don’t live in DC, however, and you live in some benighted cultural desert (like New York City) then nobody is putting on an opera, but you did have the chance to see something else: an oratorio called Moby Dick: Death and Other Curiosities.
The product of West Fourth New Music (or W4)a composer collective made up of Matt Frey, Tim Hansen, Molly Herron, and Ruben Naeff Moby Dick: Death and Other Curiosities is split into twelve movements, or three from each composer. As might be expected, these composers have very different styles, interpretations, and approaches to setting the text (or even whether or not they attempt to set the text at all).
W4 can get away with these differing styles because Moby Dick does, too. Melville’s novel slips from pure narrative to sermon to internal monologue to play to cetology primer. When one thinks it has exhausted all formal possibilities it still finds a way to surprise. It might seem fitting, then, that the oratorio is bound together by a shared source material and a few shared themes (identified as “mortality, identity, the hunt”), but not by a shared understanding of Moby Dick as such.
Yet Moby Dick’s endless variation serves a uniting purpose and that purpose puts it at odds with W4’s adaptation, or with any musical adaptation at all. Moby Dick is “about” a lot of things. But its technical variety is not simplyas W4 callsa curiosity box. Instead, the variety creates an important sense of estrangementor, to use a different word, homelessness.
From its opening invocation of Ishmael, Abraham’s pseudo-legitimate and rejected son, Moby Dick focuses on those who are too restless or too strange to be really at home wherever they are. Ishmael flees to the sea when he can no longer stand to remain on the land, but he is not really at home on the Pequod either. His closest companion, Queequeg, is a cannibal. Ahab, the captain, seems only barely to inhabit the same world as his crew, his drive for revenge making little sense to anyoneeven to Ahab.
Those sudden switches in genre and in style deny the reader any steady place from which to take in the action of the book. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the infamous cetological passages, which in showing just how obsessed Ishmael is with gaining a masterful understanding of his world also demonstrates how futile that attempt is.
A person setting Moby Dick to music is thus faced with a tricky task. Music, too, has great variety; but it is immersive. It fills up the space around its audience as well as passing their time. In a narrative, music helps its listeners to share a perspective in a more immediate way. So maintaining this sense of estrangement is difficult (perhaps impossible). But even given this limitation, a musical version of Moby Dick still has a lot it can adapt or embellish: It can mimic the variety, or provide an entryway into its world, or interpret the book. Or it could try to do all of these things. Or (which comes to the same thing) none of them.
So what does Moby Dick: Death and Other Curiosities try to do? It’s hard to say, but the result is a mixed bag. The lows are very low: One of the movements felt like nothing so much as hearing the opening song of Moby Dick! The Animated Musical. And while Melville’s text isn’t exactly libretto-ready, the movements that opted to rewrite the text often ended up sounding clunky and awkward. Take this sentence, for instancecoming at a moment when Ishmael is bound to Queequeg, who is performing some dangerous work:
So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death.
This sentence became the much flatter “my individuality will be merged,” which was then dropped into a different context altogether. Instead of serving as a meditation on the ways in which we are dependent on one another, it became a thin statement about death. Not an improvement.
But the oratorio wasn’t all bad. Here’s one of those cetological passages, a perfect example of the way they seem obsessed with trivialities and yet possess a haunted quality, how they express the mystery of the whale and of the body as it dies:
One of [the whale’s] peculiarities it is, to have an entire non-valvular structure of the blood-vessels, so that when pierced even by so small a point as a harpoon, a deadly drain is at once begun upon his whole arterial system; and when this is heightened by the extraordinary pressure of water at a great distance below the surface, his life may be said to pour from him in incessant streams. Yet so vast is the quantity of blood in him, and so distant and numerous its interior fountains, that he will keep thus bleeding and bleeding for a considerable period; even as in a drought a river will flow, whose source is in the well-springs of far-off and indiscernible hills.
This passage, striking as it is, is not an obvious candidate to be set to music. But it was, in fact, setword-for-word, so far as I could tellin a gorgeous composition. Through careful use of repetition, it brought to mind not only the whale, bleeding and bleeding, but Ishmael’s own fascination with that bleeding, and Melville’s own aims in bringing this aspect of the whale to our attention.
And sometimes the looser adaptation of the text works. In the movement that struck me the most, “Some Ships,” different fragments from the book come together to demonstrate the isolation of the different ships calling out to one another on the sea. The result was so strikingly beautiful and convincingly lonely that I almost jumped to my feet in a burst of pure feeling.
Moby Dick is about estrangement and homelessness, which is another way of saying Moby Dick is weird. It was greeted with uncomprehending disdain when it was published and that disdain is not hard to understand, even when one recognizes and indeed loves it for that very weirdness.
Even if Moby Dick: Death and Other Curiosities doesn’t quite manage to translate this sense of weirdness into music, as an illustration of how difficult a book Moby Dick is to grasp the oratorio works very well. And though beautiful parts can’t themselves make a whole, the beauty of those parts remains with me. Moby Dick is too powerful for those who seek to capture him. But then, he always was.
B. D. McClay is a graduate of St. John’s College and a junior fellow at First Things. Image from the Z. Smith Reynolds Library.