Music is the perfect metaphor for the way the universe is built: An interview with César Alvarez
The Elementary Spacetime Show is a musical comedy set in a cosmic vaudevillian game show. Featuring up-tempo music that defies easy classification, a healthy dose of the absurd, and a cast featuring UArts students, the show will have its world premiere this week as part of the 2016 Fringe Festival, a co-presentation between FringeArts and The University of the Arts. Composer and writer César Alvarez spoke with us earlier this year about the show’s premise, his inspiration, and his interests in working with music.
FringeArts: Why the title The Elementary Spacetime Show?
César Alvarez: From the script . . .
ELEMENTARY for dealing with fundamentals
SPACE for where you are
TIME for when it all takes place
SHOW because we know you need for us to bear witness to your difficulties.
FA: What was the initial inspiration for the show?
César Alvarez: The show started as a combination of two ideas. I wanted to write a musical about a kid who was trying to figure out why there is “something” instead of “nothing” and would travel around through time and space and meet with scientists and philosophers in a sort of ontological revue. Then I wanted to make a more autobiographical piece about a kid who sat under his desk pretending to go to space and finding himself in a sort of fantastical world where he could work through his problems. My wife and I lost a close friend to suicide in 2013 and both of those ideas morphed into The Elementary Spacetime Show. Our friend’s journey to suicide and the intense depression that followed really informed the course of the piece. The question, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” became very linked to the question, “Why live when it hurts so badly?” aka “To be or not to be”
FA: What was the first song you wrote for the show—was there a particular inspiration?
César Alvarez: The first song I wrote was “When It Starts” which is about a question at the heart of the piece. Why exist? Now that song is at the end which indicates how the show starts over for the next contestant who is making the same choice that Alameda did to take their own life. The second song I wrote was “VOID”, which opens the show. “VOID” really set the piece in motion for me as it created the character of Alameda. That song came out of a really dark moment. I was so sad and dealing with profound weight of grief and hopelessness. I went down to my studio and just wrote the song in one fell swoop. It created a very clear point of dark matter from which the show could emerge.
FA: Can you discuss the set up of The Elementary Spacetime Show—and how you got to that point?
César Alvarez: The show begins with Alameda attempting suicide by overdosing on pills. She collapses and finds herself in a liminal vaudevillian game show, which she has to win in order to finally enter the void. The whole piece is a bit of a catch-22. The more Alameda wants to die, the harder she has to work to beat this ridiculous game. The set up allowed me to create a non-judgmental space to explore an incredibly touchy and complicated topic. Also the game is absurd and I’ve found that the humor opens people up to the darkness of it all.
In Alameda I wanted to write a character who was smart and interesting but who genuinely just wanted to be gone. I think there are a lot of very unhelpful ways that people talk about suicide. One thing people say a lot is that it is selfish. This may be true in some cases but this is also a simplification of an act which emerges from unbelievable pain. I know that my friend who committed suicide felt incredible guilt about the burden she was putting on everyone by being in and out of institutions and so impossible to be with. I know she also felt terrible about how sad we would all be. Her psychological break was insurmountable to her and suicide seemed like the only way out of it. My big hope with the show is that I can actually help people understand why people might make this decision (and become better allies), while allowing those who have struggled themselves with these feelings to feel heard. My feeling is that if I can help people laugh and cry about this then I’m doing good. Because that was what my friend couldn’t do. She couldn’t laugh and she couldn’t cry. She felt so absolutely alone and numb.
FA: How did you develop the tone of music? Was there a musical palate you drew from?
César Alvarez: The whole thing is really a vaudeville, so I wanted a lot of variety and I wanted the music to be genuinely entertaining. Eric Farber, our percussion designer, uses a found object drum set which gives a quirky yet indefinable sound. I like my music to have the quality of “inbetweeness.” Which means it doesn’t quite land in any one genre or familiar territory so you actually need to listen to decipher its intent.
César Alvarez: I feel that music has a very special ability to tell stories because it is pre-verbal. It connects to the most primal and fundamental qualities of being human. It literally “moves” you. It moves your bones and blood and cells. Because of this, music has the possibility of illuminating the eternal and archetypal in a way that no other art form can. I think music—and its cousin mathematics—are the instruction manuals for how to understand the universe. I like to think about string theory, wherein the entirety of the universe is made up of infinitesimal vibrating strings. Music is the perfect metaphor for the way the universe is built. Musicians create physical organization through pure vibration. Someone banging a rock in rhythm is a very early form of civilization. Music is the “civilization” of air through the organizing properties of rhythm and harmonics.
FA: What have you been fine-tuning the most in getting the show ready?
César Alvarez: We are definitely not fine-tuning, we are still dreaming up whole new dreams and trying to learn how to tame this giant beast and all its many limbs. Our cast will be over 35 actors and musicians so this is orders of magnitude bigger than anything I’ve ever done. I’m so excited to see this show flex its full potential. It’s going to be a wild ride.