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March 31, 1998

Modern ComposersMurders in the Rue Morgue -- The Music of Stephen Rush. Aeneas in Strophades (for four harps and tape); Save Changes Before Quitting (for electronic tape); Murders in the Rue Morgue (a one-act opera for singers, synthesizers, and computer-generated sound); Nature's Course (for marimba and electronic tape); Humandinos (for electronic tape). (MMC CD #MMC2056) 1997.

Stephen Rush is a young American composer and performer currently at the University of Michigan. As a performer, he not only performs works of modern American composers, but sometimes plays with his own highly-regarded jazz group. As a composer, Rush is particularly interested in music for dance, and serves as the Music Director for the Dance Department as well as the Director of the Digital Music Ensemble at the university. This new album from MMC Recordings contains five pieces written by Rush between 1990 and 96. The five pieces do not contain any obvious common theme or unifying ideas other than the composer's willingness and virtuosic ability to draw from a wide variety of sources for the elements of his work. The notes for the album describe one of the pieces as "a musical joyride down wide boulevards and back alleys.... Though we as passengers trust the driver..., we reach for the doorlocks nonetheless and look warily out the windows, realizing that some of these streets are truly mean...." This could have been said of the album as a whole -- though listeners may want to reach for a doorlock occasionally, the ride is worth the fare.

The title-piece of the album, written in 1995, is a one-act opera with a libretto taken from Poe's text. Aside from simply being a first-rate tale, Poe's short story makes some apt observations on the nature of creativity that Rush seems to relate to. Referring to the amateur detective M. Dupin, Poe observes that "the ingenious are always fanciful, and the truly imaginative never otherwise than analytic."

After an attention-grabbing opening, the first section of the opera shows a group of Parisians as the grisly crime of the title is committed. Scene two uses a person reading from a newspaper to tell the story of the murders. Scene three introduces M. Dupin, his curiosity piqued as he also reads a newspaper account of the crime. Scene four has ordinary Parisians speculating on the killer's nationality, and scene five has no text, but shows dancers looking for clues on the streets of Paris. After the arrest of the Maltese Sailor in scene ten, Parisians are seen again asking one another about the nationality of the man arrested.

Musically, the work is within the mainstream tradition of western opera, albeit using modern instrumentation (synthesizers and computers), and also recalls some of the techniques of both Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Politically, Rush's turn on Poe's story is partly a comment on the way both the producers and consumers of the mass media digest "news." The newspapers focus on the grisly details of the mutilation and murder, while readers are interested primarily in the nationality of the killer. Neither the writers nor readers show much imagination regarding the possibilities inherent in the known facts of the situation -- the point referred to above in Poe's description of M. Dupin's superior imagination, and the underlying point of Rush's libretto.

You can hear Murders in the Rue Morgue, a one-act opera by Stephen Rush, on WHIL-FM (91.3) at 7:30 pm, Thursday, April 9, as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

-- J. Green


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