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Monday, June 11, 2012

Michael Sahl and Eric Salzman, Civilization & Its Discontents

Dubbed "An Opera for Our Times," Michael Sahl and Eric Salzman's Civilization & Its Discontents (Labor 7089) had a popular run on NPR radio and was released originally on Nonesuch some time in the '80s.

Aside from the reference to Freud's monograph (which is not unrelated), it is a full-length cabaret-opera with lots of sung dialog on the empty club-hopping, networking, pre-Aids casual coupling, the empty life of vain striving for relational and occupational success that was a big part of the late '70s-early '80s.

As with Eric Salzman's earler Nude Paper Sermon it has lots of words and looks to encapsulate the social-cultural malaise of the times. Michael Sahl (known especially at the time for his "Mitsvah for the Dead") brings in his musical acuity.

The characters are lost in their abortive attempts to communicate, via telephone, live banter, bodily engagements and rebuffs in a world where Club Bide-a-wee forms the locus of their futility and the apartments where pickups end up willy-nilly to continue the unsatisfying cycle that brings them back again to the club for another go at it. As the MC suggests in the end, the club promises much but ends up functioning as a kind of dog pound for the stray humans who gravitate there.

Musically it's most definitely in the tongue-in-cheek club cabaret, Broadway emptiness pop-disco vein. And that fits the ambiance and thrust of the work. It was designed to be dated when it was made and it is dated now. But that is the point. The characters go through the motions, put on the clothes, dance to the music and have the casual attempts at sex like manikins in a department store window. Fashion soon makes them irrelevant and it's time to retool for the next wave of chic endeavor.

This is an opera-play-avant-musical where the music is secondary to the plot. It's most thoroughly worth hearing again today. The music is more incidental than it is central. But what is being portrayed still speaks today. So there you go. I am glad to have heard it.


  1. You excellently summarized the plot and social commentary, but I wonder if another couple of closer listenings might not change your mind about the music. My first impression was not unlike yours — on first hearing I was perhaps more annoyed than enthralled — but as I listened over and over (I had to, because I designed covers for both the LP - rejected - and the CD - accepted) it would be an understatement to say it grew on me. Sahl and Salzman are not musical lightweights; Salzman literally wrote the book on 20th Century music, and it's a gem, in print with many new editions for almost fifty years. The "shameless exuberance" (NY Times) of their eclecticism, and the fact that the show supposed to be painfully trite, can't mask the depth and brilliance that goes far beyond mere wit and bounciness (of which there is an abundance).

  2. Thank you kindly Vann for your comments. I will be honest. I listened to the CD closely five times. I understand that there is much music there to appreciate and I did appreciate it. It probably comes down to a matter of taste. I know the credentials of the composers and have lived for many years with their recordings. This opera sways toward music theater, Broadway, musical comedy, pop, and the like. That of course was deliberate. The dialog is often in the form of recitative and there is a great deal of it. The recitative is, almost by definition, not distinguished musically. The emphasis there is on the dialog and well it should be. Beyond that the music that is sarcastic pop perhaps has the fault of not being quite sarcastic enough. "If It Feels Good Do It," for example, is pretty much deadpan disco from the era. If I compare this music with Weil's many collaborations with (and without) Brecht or Frank Zappa's music for "200 Motels" to give two example that come to mind, I find that melodically there is much less to offer here than in those classic cases. How many composers have that knack for melody? So perhaps the comparison is unfair. Of course there is music of interest to be found in this opera. I do not think there is quite enough of it to say that all told the plot and dialog are well-balanced with the music. But others may disagree and are welcome to do so of course.

    Thanks again,
    Grego E

  3. One last thought--you must consider that I dislike 90% of the Broadway shows I have been exposed to. West Side Story, South Pacific, and a few others I consider brilliant musically. So anything that smacks of that, e.g. the song "Creativity" from the opera, falls short in my own view. And as far as contemporary opera goes I don't even like "Einstein on the Beach"-- though I find "Nixon in China" interesting musically. So when it comes to this sort of thing I do not impress easily. And as an independent music writer who stands to gain nothing by good reviews (and stands to lose nothing by bad) I follow my own ears. But keep in mind, if you read over my review you will find it is positive. "Civilization and Its Discontents," musically speaking, is NOT a masterpiece. "Wozzeck" IS. "Civilization and Its Discontents" is something I think people should hear. Enough said.