There’s a boat sinking out at sea, coastguard reports. “” Swallow—Act 3, Scene 2
Peter Grimes is, for me, yet another episode of that divine comedy of finding out what it is that eventually comes to make us, usually in the most uneventful ways; arriving often on the longest arc; improbably; often on the shy sly cusp of the most unexpected hour: these works of art, inspirations, trinkets of the mind, that come to stay with us, eternally.
i was working as a porter at the canadian opera company’s operahouse in 2013 when i first heard this opera: in between sprinting up and down those glass corridors with gallons of coffee to refill concession stands for intermission, i’d hear bits of ‘grimes is at his exercise’ and pieces of “he who despises us/we’ll destroy!” and that infamous mass-motived “grimes!...grimes!!......grimes!!!!”—each time spaced by silence a couple inches thick.
until then, my experience of the artform had so far been, and in the following order: Iphegenia in Tauris; Les Contes des Hoffmann; Tosca; Die Fledermaus and La Boheme. i can summarize that short list, in that same order as: eye-gougingly boring; spectacular! kleinzach is a riot!; ‘oh, okay i think i get opera now’; ‘nope! i don’t get opera’ and “that was good i guess”—it wasn’t until Grimes that i thought of an opera as a profound experience.
it’s a wonderful thing to revisit this opera five years thereafter, to be enchanted again by those first intimations of the most penetrating insights that only music can achieve; and to see again these same scenes with their freshness now renewed by the tug-of-war between time and memory—amidst the ever maddening dash for the newest, loudest and most instantaneous entertainment, one does best to be reminded of such undeniable monuments of enchantment that neither listlessness nor mad endeavor can destroy.
(...‘wonderful’ is making its way over to that ever growing pile of perfectly harmless words that one is no longer allowed to use if one wants to be taken seriously. so one feels the urge to elaborate on the expression, thereby overemphasizing the breath-light effect that is impressed on the mind as wonder: what i really mean, there are just some works of art (more frequently in music and film) that spontaneously elevate us to an altitude wherein one feels as if an entire lifetime would not be enough to explore the intimations, doorways and windows which an artwork, with its piercing brevity, represents. this feeling of inexhaustibility is what i abbreviate as wonder. anything that makes the world feel bigger and at the same time increases the resolution by which each detail is observed, is in its own right wonderful. )
(tessellate by alt J)———that same span of late 2012/2013 was just about when alt j’s music found a wider audience with the album An Awesome Wave (2012)—therein such gems as: Breezeblocks, Fitzpleasure, Taro—also on that album was Tessellate, which i discovered about the same time as Peter Grimes
as a verb, to tessellate means to ‘cover (a plane surface) by repeated use of a single shape, without gaps or overlapping’. tessellating with the use of triangles is the metaphor alt j used to describe what appears to be a bizarre and carnivorous invitation to a menage-a-trois in a video that remains a field-day for any semiotician with time to spare. alt j videos are especially noteworthy for their symbolic language (Hunger of the Pines, for example) but this video is in an undecipherable league of its own. the only meaning i could glean from it was the literal definition of the word tessellate, which finds its definitive visual representation in the mosaic. it was by a small leap of imagination that i came to see the struggle between Peter Grimes and the burghers in terms of the concept of tessellation—or more specifically the inability to tessellate. that is, the inability of Grimes, on account of the obtuse shape of his character, to integrate with the mosaic of the burrough. the paramount importance of this need to tessellate, and the unimaginable torment when such an integration is impossible, is the conceptual plinth upon which the spectacle of Peter Grimes is erected.
In ceaseless motion comes and goes the tide,
flowing it fills the channel broad and wide.
Then back to sea with strong majestic sweep
it rolls in ebb yet terrible and deep.
Chorus—Act 3 Scene 2
the imagery that accompanies the saying ‘no man is an island’ is as cautionary as it is informative. the information is of course in regards to how we are much more indebted to our need for each other than to any ideal of rugged and obstinate individualism. the caution however, is implicit: even if you were an island, your magnitude is, by definition, incomparable to the sprawl of sea that surrounds you on every side. that is the terror this opera is capable of striking in the chest of the attentive viewer, how susceptible those who go it alone are to the infinitude of the herd instinct’s moral force. however unique, however indefatigable, even if she is bristling at every pore with the twin glows of a demi-god—the herd instinct around a lone star is always stronger, always prevails, always it will maintain the flow of its tide (with a ‘strong and majestic sweep’...).
To those who pass the Borough sounds betray
the cold beginning of another day.
And houses sleeping by the waterside
wake to the measured ripple of the tide.
“” Chorus—Act 3, Scene 2
this opera was written moreso for the chorus than the title character, though i doubt calling it ‘The Burghers’ would have brought in as much of an audience. nevertheless, the unique character of this opera is derived from its investigation of the herd instinct, the effects of which is diffused equally amongst the population without dwelling on any one particular host. it is this herd instinct that repels an outcast like Grimes and is also why he refuses to leave his home for the wider sea where he might fair better in finding a community within which to integrate.
Grimes, since you’re a lonely soul,
born to blocks, and spars and ropes,
why not try the wider sea,
with merchantman, or privateer?
Balstrode—Act 1, Scene 1
a chorus is the perfect musical representation of this mass-motived agoratic huddle on which our civilization depends—muhammad ali was allegedly the author of the shortest poem in the english language when a poem was demanded from him on the spot during a 1975 commencement speech at harvard university, the title of the poem is Me, it goes:
such was the piercingness of ali’s wit. it is a psuch was the piercingness of ali’s wit—it is a poem that hints at the lacuna dividing what is a very tangible phenomenon (this experience of ‘me’) and the entirely conceptual phenomena that is the product of an aggregate of ‘me’s (known altogether as ‘we’). our greatest achievements have undoubtedly come by way of we, likewise our most heinous crimes are perpetrated when we excuse the action of me for the sake of we…
…for most people, at the measure of the daily occasion, this lacuna between me and we is nothing more than conceptual speculation that they don’t allow to get in the way of living. for a small minority however, our dear Grimes for example, the gap becomes too large to avoid its inevitable interruption of the daily business of living, yet not large enough to settle the question and become an outcast once and for all!
that is the promethean torture of the Grimes type: they, more than anyone amidst the chorus of group-think, have the finest ears for, and are swayed the most by the strength of the tide we, we, we.
near the end of the third act when Ellen Orford pleads with Grimes for the last time to come home with her; he seems unresponsive but instead trains his ear for the barely audible chant of the encroaching chorus calling his name. perhaps that’s where the herd instinct finds its host: in the heart and mind of those just at the edge of inclusion, though not enough of an outcast to take leave of their burrough. that’s how borderlines on a map are drawn, by cartographers who’ve surpassed the edges of their dwellings..
the insubstantial conceptuality of ‘we’ is its most awesome and terrible feature. no one person can predict the trajectory of its gyre or the ferocity of its precipitation. at times it is lukewarm and cajoling like a bright sunday morning, then all of a sudden, its darkest clouds gather above to sound their harrowing caterwaul. the most anyone can ask is to be spared the torment of its random rumpus—and to show no sympathy for anyone who doesn’t have the decency to ask the same.
Shall we not go to church this Sunday,
but do our knitting by the sea?
I’ll do the work, you talk. “” Ellen—Act 2, Scene 1
Ellen’s too is an outcast of sorts. not merely a result of her proximity to the title character, but in her own remote and subdued way—as a childless widow tending to schoolchildren. one can imagine a sequel to this opera with her name as the title, wherein the burrough’s attention is now fixed upon her—that damned Mrs. Sedley is sure to be back on the prowl—even if merely as vengeance for Ellen’s attempts to humanize Peter, but moreso for the extent to which she falls under that criteria of those “who despises us we’ll destroy”...
Ellen, you’re leading us a dance,
fethiching boys for Peter Grimes,
because the Borough is afraid,
you who help will share the blame!
“” Chorus—Act 1, Scene 1
there was a point in the late 2000’s in hollywood films when the label manic pixie dream girl was coined to describe the typecast of female characters on screen whose entire existence, it seemed, was to assist in their male counterpart’s journey towards self actualization—zoey deschanel for example, made her fortune by way of such one-dimensional selfless sirens. minus the ‘manic pixiness’, that is the same label one could apply to Ellen Orford, inasmuch as her character’s purpose is an appendage to Peter’s fever dreams—as much as he is a dreamer, she is his dream girl.
i for one would be front and center if some sophomoric composer decided to kick off her career with a Peter Grimes sequel; it would of course have to begin with that hair-raising choral chant from the opening scene: Ellen Orford! Ellen Orford!! Ellen Orford!!!!!...
For peace sake, someone start a song. “” Balstrode—Act 1, Scene 2
when i first saw Peter Grimes i couldn’t help but misidentify Peter as the philosopher type, or at least what we recognize popularly as a philosopher. or more specifically as the Nietzschean type. but in the five years between then and now i’ve come to know better. at best, Peter is that raw material from which philosophers are moulded: unchecked, odiously insociable, headlong in their desire to confront every passing challenge, suicidally experimental with their endurance of loneliness, impractically addicted to consistency—and by every other metric: a fool. understood in that way, he is indeed the Nietzschean type.
on the other hand, we have a character like Balstrode, who i’ve come to see, by the corrective hand of experience, as the resident philosopher in the burrough. his disposition is more worldly, his temperament more susceptible to a sociable cadence than Peter’s. he reads with ease the depths of Peter’s turmoil when he asks of him ‘Why not try the wider sea?’; just as easily does he hold court amidst the rowdy tenants of Auntie’s pub, not to mention how well he takes a little slap on the wrist from Auntie:
A joke’s a joke and fun is fun!
But say your grace and be polite
for all that we have done.
“” Auntie—Act 1, Scene 2
Balstrode would indeed make a very successful philosopher, and on a good day could even pass for a novelist. the graces in character which make tolerable his kinship with Grimes is, by way of stark contrast, the most glaring omissions on Peter’s part: namely the ability to speak without saying anything, namely the ability to maintain a disposition that suggests that one has gotten used to living. for people like Grimes, the habit of living has not been cultivated, much of life is still a question mark, a precipice, a riddle, a conquest—in his Zarathustra, a character similar in traits to Peter Grimes, Nietzsche observes that humanity is always on a precipice, alway in the middle of a daring experiment. such high stakes can make casual conversation nearly impossible (that the pub goers worry Peter’s songs will sour the beer, for example). is it that the Grimes-type should be more like the Balstrode-type? coating their urgent search for meaning with a fair amount of sociability?—perhaps. but one should keep in mind the sequence by which such characters are generated in the development of philosophical inquest: Balstrode is merely Peter a couple generations removed. his edges are more trimmed, more approachable. the raw material has had time to take shape. and for every Peter Grimes, granted they somehow survive their generation, the quality of their future Balstrode improves.
And do you prefer the storm
to Auntie’s parlour and the rum?
Balstrode—Act 1, Scene 1
in my opinion, i don’t think he does. perhaps for him the plastic domesticity of Auntie’s parlor represents the same effect of drowning in a storm, though at a much slower, more intolerable, more imperceptible pace.
What harbour shelters peace, / away from tidal waves,
away from storms! / What harbour can embrace
terrors and tragedies! / Her breast is harbour too,
where night is turned to day. "" Peter—Act 3, Scene 2
—those were Peter’s last words before his suicide (admittedly there are other ways to interpret reports of his boat sinking out in sea). what an absolutely brilliant question he has posed here, especially because it ends with it’s own answer.
on my part i’ve learned that no matter how new and awesome a story’s moral ambition is, it’s characters are always the same: meine mutter, mein vater, mein kind, meine frau. peace is merely the warmth emitted by these eternal characters.
(kops records)———it was a slightly augmented version of serendipity that brought me to this recording (conducted by colin davis and staged by the royal opera house at covent gardens). i had been looking for a Grimes recording to fill the final week in this catalog, so it was on the list of things to keep an eye for amidst my mindless dollar-bin dives. and there it was, untouched and unmolested. as good as new save for the tattered envelope i found inside. on it was a short note addressed to a catherine by some clever little ‘J’. his hope had been for them to ‘listen’ to it together in some upcoming evening, though i doubt that ever came to fruition on account of the note being kept with the record: something that is of sentimental value hardly ever stays in its original packaging. and i don’t blame her, you’d have to be especially daft to ask a girl to Peter Grimes and chill (as the right honourable dj khaled would say: congratulations, you played yourself).
at any rate, the note is safe and soundly framed on my wall, away from the recording. better luck next time ‘J’...
almost all of the recordings in this 52-week collection were purchased at a heavily discounted price at kops records on bloor st. the first record i bought was back in june 2014, a funk and wagnall production of beethoven’s pastoral symphony, and since purchased over a hundred records from those same grimy dollar bins. like almost everything else worthwhile on bloor st.—kops has closed down. nevertheless, gratitude pours forth continually.
(that’s the week)———
yes indeed, that’s the week: all 52 of them. here’s to another run—god willing and if the creek don’t rise.