“Every composer has listened to, and listens to, lots of music that isn’t contemporary classical music, or classical music. We can try and make this division within ourselves between the music we listen to outside of our work and the music we compose. [But] for me, something that has brought a lot of life into my score-based music is trying to dissolve that barrier as much as possible.” -Ábel M.G.E.
Ábel Misha Gille Esbenshade (Ábel M.G.E.) is a Hungarian-American composer currently based in London. Narrative and quotation serve as principal cruxes of Ábel’s work and he creates most of his music within collaborations; his most recent opera ‘I’m Cleaning, I’m Cleaning’ — created alongside librettist Aubrey Lavender — was premiered as part of Guildhall’s MA in Opera Making course, and described by Opera Magazine as “a veritable musical sneer”. Ábel’s work has been performed across the United States, Austria, Italy, and the UK, by organisations such as New Voices Opera, Guildhall Session Orchestra, and the Royal Northern Sinfonia, and he’s currently at work on a commission for Grange Park Opera and Sky Arts; he studied at Jacobs School of Music (Indiana University) and Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and currently studies privately with Julian Anderson. Ábel spoke to PRXLUDES about the conception and themes of ‘I’m Cleaning, I’m Cleaning’, his philosophies on nihilism, maximalism, and bending the limits of genre, and his approach to creating narrative work.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Ábel! Thanks so much for chatting to me today — and thank you for sharing your incredible opera, ‘I’m Cleaning, I’m Cleaning’. The amount of dramatic irony I found in it, particularly at the end, was insane…
Ábel M.G.E: Hi Zyggy! Thanks so much for inviting me, and for watching! Can you explain a bit more — how did it make you feel?
It’s the way you set things up… It’s very postmodern. The ending with the telemarketer on the telephone — coming to terms with the sheer gravitas of the situation — really reminded me of some Black Mirror endings, when all you can do is sit there and go…
Fuck. -laughs- That’s a really flattering comparison. I don’t think of Black Mirror at all, but now that you say it I’m comparing the two. There’s the episode where the police use this memory scanning technology — [with] the woman whose high school boyfriend is gonna admit to killing this person on the road, and she kills him and [spoiler alert] has to kill more people until she’s murdering an entire family and their newborn child. That quality of Black Mirror… [it] doesn’t care what you want. It’s very aware of what you wish would happen, and it just disregards that and makes the story keep unfolding in a way that gets worse and worse.
That’s exactly how I feel about ‘I’m Cleaning, I’m Cleaning’ — everything is set up to unravel in both the best and worst possible way.
It’s so funny, I didn’t think about it that way while we were making the piece, but now that you mention it, I totally see it.
Tell me a bit about the environment of Guildhall Opera Makers; what kind of background did yourself and your coursemates have prior to creating your operas?
My experience with my year [at Guildhall] was: none of us were huge fans of opera. Most of us were not so well-versed in the repertoire, and generally critical of what opera usually does. It’s definitely an experience that makes you appreciate opera. Guildhall [is] a very elite program for singers, so you see conventional opera being done at its very best — for me, it definitely made me go “oh, I see why so much opera is boring and shit…” -laughs- “it’s because they’re trying to do that! That’s what they’re aiming for and just missing the mark” When you have a good director, a good dramaturg, coming in, all these conventions that I didn’t like about opera suddenly fall into place.
Were there any particular aspects of the opera that changed because of the Guildhall environment?
One of the main ways was [that] the main character of the opera, the cleaning lady… we originally conceived of her having this kind of Brechtian relationship to the piece, and the audience, where she sits outside of the narrative and would only sing when she’s speaking to other characters, and would otherwise just speak. Her role would have been more acting and action-centric. But the course tutors reminded us that part of our role in writing [this] opera is we are writing for this class of opera singers, and it’s an opportunity for them too. Shouldn’t we be writing a piece that engages their strengths? So we had lots of discussions with the director, the music director, and the writing professor and they told us this idea Aubrey [Lavender] and I had is maybe something we should explore in a different piece, where there isn’t that need, basically. In the end her character does have a more standard relationship to the sung voice. My takeaway from that was that the course does have some room for experimentation: you can do things that break convention, that are untraditional, that break the box, as long as you can defend it, as long as it can stand up under scrutiny, and you can prove that it’s going to work.
Tell me about the conception of ‘I’m Cleaning, I’m Cleaning’; how did the initial ideas between you and Aubrey come about?
We were discussing a couple different options for the story. Basically — how the [Opera Makers] course starts out is [that] you have to bring three possible ideas, and they pick what they think is the strongest one and you go with that. We had pitched these three ideas — the first idea [was] about doubling — like doppelgängers — which was very serious, a changeling-type story. We came up with that first, and then [we had] this other idea about doubling, and [eventually] we imagined “What if there’s somebody who’s really badly dressed up as a general, or an important person? That would be really funny…” They would go around doing regular general-type things, and everyone thinks they’re the general, but it’s very obvious that they’re somebody else. That was our starting point. [So] we got to a cleaning lady — that image of a cleaning lady dressed up as a general, and being assumed to be the general — and then we thought “what if somebody else comes in, dressed up as the cleaning lady?”
We had this idea of silly doubles, and then the layout of the story came as a very secondary thing to that. The writing professor on the course — Stephen Plaice — [was] super helpful, and super insightful. How it played it out is: Aubrey, myself, and Stephen Plaice would meet every other week in these libretto meetings, and we sort of had a writers’ room”-type of environment. We came in with that idea of the cleaning lady dressed as the general, and he would ask “How does she get there? Why is she dressed up as the general, what’s her motivation?” — and we’d be like “maybe she’s attracted to the power”, and he’d say “so she’s someone who endeavours to be more powerful?” — he would really challenge every assertion we made. It was extremely helpful, because it helped us build up farce in this way.
What exactly do you mean by “building up farce”?
I think the essential element of farce is: somebody is forced into a situation in which they keep having to do things they don’t want to do, and the ridiculous extenuating circumstances keep forcing this person down this one path, that makes them do hilarious things they don’t want to do…
Until it stops being hilarious.
Until it stops being hilarious, as happened with ours… I guess the other half of it, aside from comedy, is more about the way the characters respond — that, because it’s constantly outside of the main characters’ power, it becomes about how they react and respond to those circumstances. And that isn’t always funny…
I’m reminded of how the tropes and motifs you used for comedic effect ended up being turned on their head — it becomes more and more ridiculous, and then it drops, and it’s not ridiculous. Literally world-ending…
Yeah. “World’s ending, world’s ending”… -laughs-
I think that idea of comedic things that then become serious goes back to the relationship that I built with Aubrey. Which first of all, Aubrey’s an incredible character. He’s a songwriter, he’s a writer for musicals, he’s trained as an actor. He has this unique dramaturgical perspective. And so he approaches most things in life, and in his work, in a very not-serious way; anything that’s really serious is only serious because it’s taking itself too seriously. I was coming from this different background of “George Benjamin is the shit, I wanna write really self-serious dramatic opera where it’s full of pathos, and these giant floating concepts that control people like puppets”. I think for him, that’s just a bit ridiculous. We were trying to find this meeting point, which ended up being something like dark comedy. We could have a world where things are quite dark, and foreboding — lots of pathos, big concepts and themes are playing out — but it’s also simultaneously ridiculous, because nothing matters.
There’s a very postmodern distance in that approach.
Yeah, totally. It’s definitely nihilist, in a very millennial kind of way: it’s like “lol, the world’s gonna end, and it’s because of a fucking telemarketer!” -laughs- Although it maybe has a touch of Gen-Z nihilism too — less “the world’s ending 😭😭😭” and more “the world’s ending 😎😎😎”. -laughs- That’s probably what we both found exciting about it; how it explores the meaninglessness of life in a way that’s impactful but also funny — and not so over-the-top.
Is this postmodern-cosmic-nihilism something that you’ve explored in other facets of your work, or did the idea birth from your relationship with Aubrey?
Specifically the cosmic nihilism… I think it’s a funny story-area. It’s not really my life philosophy, necessarily. I guess it kind of is and isn’t [at the same time]. Something that was new and unique to that piece was humour. I’d written one piece before it where I was just beginning to explore humour, and that was the first place I got to play with humour and referentiality. It was a piece called ‘Beethoven Museum’ — a Beethoven 2020 commission — it took snippets from Beethoven’s symphonies, played with them, repeated them, messed with them. It was a blooper reel of Beethoven, or a YouTube Poop of Beethoven.
Or like vaporwave?
Yeah but vaporwave isn’t funny — [or] it’s not “ha-ha” funny. It’s like a cosmic humour… Humour that your subconscious laughs at?
Do you feel like the humour you explored in ‘Beethoven Museum’ translated into your approach for ‘I’m Cleaning, I’m Cleaning’?
Yeah. I feel like because ‘Beethoven Museum’ was my first foray into humour, in that piece it felt very simplistic, it felt very slapstick. It was very Gerald Barry-inspired: jokes that are so dumb that they shouldn’t be funny, but you still laugh. -laughs- Which I love — that sounds like a damning critique, because we think dumb is a bad thing — but I think we very much need stupidity and simplicity in humour, and that’s what makes us interact with it in such a visceral way. It’s something that affects everyone the same way.
So [‘Beethoven Museum’] was very that. It also got serious at certain points, in certain ways, but it was a very simplistic exploration of humour. [But] because ‘I’m Cleaning, I’m Cleaning’ was a farce that we worked out very methodically, the humour was more built into it. The cosmic joke at the end, the phone call that ends the world… it’s a kind of humour that’s [more than] “lol, they’ve repeated that V-I cadence fifteen times now”. It’s more built into it. But it was essential that I was trying to do musical gestures that were funny, and map those gestures onto a story. Like the first phone call — where it starts as this funeral march that turns into this weird jingle — finding a musical language that has the potential to be laugh-out-loud funny.
Something that I did [also] take on from ‘Beethoven Museum’ was this idea [that] simple musical ideas make for funny moments. There’s another part of ‘I’m Cleaning, I’m Cleaning’, where the cleaning lady first dresses up as the general. It’s this cascade of descending scales in the orchestra, coming to a halt with this snap pizz ending — her whole plan coming together — and as soon as we hear the end of the scale, she opens the door and there’s the spy there. The spy hasn’t figured her out yet, but then the spy sees the dead general behind her… and building up to that is a couple of snap pizz’s and a bunch of cascading scales going upward — so basically the reverse. Her whole plan just unraveled. It was all coming down perfectly to a point, and now the opposite is happening. Those kinds of things work really well for opera.
Exactly. It’s so simple, that if you think about it too much, you’ll overscore when you don’t need to.
Definitely. That doesn’t mean the music isn’t complex, but it means that you can’t lose sight of the simple solutions. I believe that generally in music. You can’t let yourself avoid the obvious out of habit, because sometimes the obvious is exactly what you need. And just because something is obvious or simple, doesn’t mean it isn’t good, it doesn’t mean there aren’t other kinds of complexities. That section with the downwards cascading scales was still made up of a couple different Messiaen modes, played between different instruments, at different rates. You can have a simple musical idea that’s expressed in complex and interesting ways in the score/scoring, and that can feed into it being perceived [more] clearly.
Another aspect of your work I found fascinating is your uncompromising juxtapositions of genre — particularly in pieces such as the final movement of ‘Seven Dance Rituals’. How do you feel that this approach came about in your own practice?
Like everyone in my generation, the internet plays a huge role in my life. The fact that we have thousands of genres of music available to us at the click of a button means that I, like everyone, have come into contact with a lot of different kinds of music. There’s different ways of going about this, and I think for people who are working as classical music composers… every composer going into it has listened to, and listens to, lots of music that isn’t contemporary classical music, or classical music. We can try and make this division within ourselves of “that’s just easy listening music, that’s just gym music, that’s just the film soundtracks that I use to study to”, and “that’s not my serious work, that’s not my score-based music that I’m gonna submit to my professors, put on my portfolio, and have articles written about” — [but] for me, something that has brought a lot of life into my score-based music is trying to dissolve that barrier as much as possible. Try and bring in elements from James Blake, or The Bad Plus, or Flying Lotus, or Hans Zimmer — any of these other types of music that I have listened to.
I guess ultimately, because all of these musics play a role in our lives, there is no — and there can be no — hierarchy between them. They’re all using sound to express something to us. They all just have their own grammar and set of rules. I think we’re really getting to a point where people are beginning to appreciate that: music from any genre can express complex ideas, [and] is deserving of research and academic thought. Any other genre as much as classical music can express complex concepts, and can make us think about it, feel things. I think as a creator, sometimes, you’re just trying to tell a story with music, and you just need music from a different genre. That’s just what occurs to you: “oh, this is EDM now”, and you just need to pull that in. That sudden shift in genre is expressive [of the] change in tone.
How have you further explored this concept in some of your recent work?
‘Beethoven Museum’ is a piece to go back to. Genre-wise, it’s just fragments of Beethoven’s music, but for me that was an experiment in using juxtaposition to tell a story — taking music that I’ve heard, thinking about what those fragments of Beethoven [mean]. The opening of Beethoven 5, the opening of Beethoven 7, movement 2, the ending of Beethoven 9… What all those monumental moments mean to me, how those might fit together to form another kind of narrative; using pieces of existing material that we perceive as meaning something, and using them kind of like we use words, and sentences. Building up a syntax.
That kind of reminds me of plunderphonics.
Yeah! Totally, that’s a really good example to draw in. John Oswald has definitely been one source of inspiration for me. There’s an audiovisual artist too called kokofreakbean, who’s done stuff for Adult Swim. I think they’re both very maximalist. They both seem to want to express the utter chaos that is the modern experience; having stimulation of all different kinds, at every moment, thrown at us, trying to draw meaning and narrative out of that. I think that goes back to the internet, genre-crossing… We just have so many influences today that it can feel disingenuous to close them out. We, as artists, benefit from drawing in from different parts of our lives, rather than drawing up barriers. We can make a musical language which feels more broadly expressive, because it’s drawing on music that we encounter in different parts of our lives.
There’s another concept that I wanted to bring up that’s also been really inspirational to me on this front: the idea of reification. It’s a term that comes out of Marxism, and was used a lot by Theodor Adorno — it’s basically the idea of turning something into an idea. There’s a great YouTube video on this by Tantacrul, I think it’s called something clickbaity like ‘Why Star Wars Music Is Getting Worse’. But [he] points to the idea of using fragments of music not as abstractly evocative, but as things with concrete meaning, and that are referential. This comes into play in sample-based music. We can take samples from movies, or from famous pieces; the beginning of Beethoven 5, for example, is no longer the intro to this larger piece of music in which the thematic material has [a] complex relationship to other material within the piece. It’s just this moment, it’s been codified as this moment that means something more fixed to us. And I think in a way it has this fixed cultural meaning. So we can take it, display it, fuck with it, stretch it out, do things to it, and it becomes more like a linguistic syntax. We can comment on it by manipulating it.
In the video, Tantacrul uses this example of Jimi Hendrix’s version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ that he played at Woodstock. His point with it was [that] it was perceived as a political statement at the time. Because ‘The Star Sprangled Banner’ has such a codified meaning — “America, fuck yeah” — if you play it on a distorted guitar, it’s perceived as an anti-American statement, something like that. Adorno thought it was dangerous to music — music would no longer evoke abstract thought or new ideas, but would instead refer to things which we’ve already heard, which already exist in our memory. For me, it’s more neutral… it’s just another way of communicating with music.
I’ve noticed that the majority of your work — even outside of narrative and theatrical forms — has some narrative element built into it. How did you initially get drawn to writing narratively?
I would spend a lot of time in my undergrad, and in my first Master’s, writing abstract instrumental music. It was what was encouraged, [and] set up by the opportunities afforded, particularly in my undergrad in Indiana. I just found after a while that it wasn’t that compelling [for me]. Every person who writes good instrumental music has some kind of drive behind that, whether that’s an unwritten story, or some really strong conceptual thing. But when I write non-narrative music, it feels like I’m writing a bunch of notes, and exploring gestures abstractly. This became especially apparent to me during the pandemic, when I — and probably a lot of other people — were questioning what they were doing, and why they were doing it. For me, I was realising that writing abstract instrumental music just didn’t do it for me.
How did Covid change things for you — was there some sort of epiphany about what you wanted to do with your art?
It was a number of things that [also] happened concurrently with Covid. I finished my Master’s during covid, so — like many people — I didn’t have that sendoff from being in school to being out of school. There was no real transition. I had a breakup with my girlfriend of over two and a half years, I had a big falling out with some very close friends of mine who I was living with at the time, and [then] being out of school… It left me missing a lot of purpose in my life. At a certain point, I just had to search for something that wasn’t school, or career, or friends, or a partner — and find something that was personally important to me. It really codified music as holding that place in my life.
Do you feel like moving into a more narrativic compositional style was a way of coping with everything that happened to you?
That’s a good question. There was a piece I was writing when I was coming out of this period called ‘Sadie’s Story’. It’s a kind of podcast-piece that came about in November of 2020. A flautist I knew from my undergrad, Julianna Eidle, was interested in commissioning me, and she [mentioned] she had these recordings of [her] great-grandmother and family that had just been digitised. Her family had fled Eastern Europe in the ‘20s — they were Jews who were facing antisemitism and economic hardship — and these digitised interviews [told] the story of their day-to-day life of travelling around Europe, trying to get visas to go to America. This was a piece I was working on at a crucial time, and I found that I got a lot out of working with real peoples’ stories and writing music around them. I could put a lot of what I was interested in into it: I could do sound design, make electronics to go around it, I could delve into political opinions I had — as these people had a totally different perspective about America at that time that I think is not so representative of America today. And of course it was just this great and inspiring story that I think had a clear sort of emotional arc. All that to say: because I was working on the piece at this time that I felt lost, I invested a lot of my soul into it, and I feel [that] it cemented a place in my self-expression — writing music that tells stories.
What draws you to narrative as compositional process?
I started composing because I was really into film music. Hans Zimmer was my go-to, honestly, so I think there was that interest as well — in telling a narrative in the way that film music does. Narrative is something that can bring a lot of my extra musical interests into music. It also brings order to the music that I write. I feel like I’ll write disparate pieces of material, and they’ll all feel like they are telling a story from some specific points in a narrative. When I have this narrative basis for a piece, it helps me piece them all together logically. Instead of writing a string quartet, where I’m like “I’ve written all this material, and I’ll fit it together in a way that goes slow-fast-slow, ABCA, whatever”, I feel like there’s this other formalistic force that is more compelling, more inspiring: the narrative which underlies the piece. That can be the story of these people fleeing Europe, it could be a libretto, or it could be a more abstract narrative, like in ‘Beethoven Museum’.
The way you describe it reminds me of tone poems.
Yeah, definitely. It’s not that the inspiration comes from tone poems, but I think it’s exactly that kind of thing. I think that ties in sampling and using different genres again. It’s trying to tell a story by patching together samples, or connotative pieces of material, that mean things to me, or audiences, [or] listeners — finding a way that they fit together into a narrative that has reified, familiar, culturally relevant building blocks.
And so naturally, that kind of compositional approach gravitates toward opera…
I guess it does… The thing that interests me about opera is that it feels like the only art form where narrative can be so fully expressed through music. In opera, the very fabric of the music can express so many elements of the dramaturgy: you can layer a tone, or an affect, you can give a scene or a character a sort of “stink” — as Julian Phillips might say — an atmosphere or an affect that’s pervasive. Using thematic development, you can mirror character development. You can set peoples’ expectations of how they interact with the dramatic elements, because you have this amazing control over timing. You can give this overarching sense of subliminal themes. A theme or a kind of music can underlie the entire piece, can come back in different places, can signpost how a broad theme interacts with the minutiae of an encounter.
For me, the voice is secondary in opera. Ultimately, that’s how you engage with the singers, that’s their avenue towards getting into the piece, towards having them clash and interact with the drama. For me, I’m very much interested in [opera] as this fully musically absorbed, narrative art form.
Ábel is currently working on an opera commission for Grange Park Opera and Sky Arts, to premiere October 2022 – learn more at:
Check out more of Ábel’s work below:
- Black Mirror, Season 4 Episode 3: Crocodile (2017)
- Gerald Barry, ‘Mrs. Streicher’ (2020)
- James Blake, live at Pitchfork Festival Paris (2014)
- The Bad Plus, live at moers festival (2017)
- Flying Lotus, live at Glass House Festival (2021)
- John Oswald – ‘Dab’, from Plunderphonics 69/96 (2001)
- kokofreakbean – GOD KNOX (2012)
- Star Wars Music is Getting Worse – Beyond The Last Jedi & John Williams – A Music Philosophy Review, Tantacrul (2018)