A Throw of the Dice (Un Coup de Dés) by Stéphane Mallarmé

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Excerpts from the premiere performance of “Dice Thrown,” a new opera by American composer John King, at CalArts on April 23-24, 2010. Every performance is unique, according to an interview with King at Operagasm:

Can you explain in more detail how the configuration of the opera is determined by a computer-generated time code? From the description I read, it sounds like there are pieces that make up the opera, but that the order of those pieces is determined each night… am I way off? Does this mean that the text isn’t always delivered in the original order?

Yes, that’s exactly right. Each night the order changes, the durations of each aria changes (within set limits), the orchestral music changes so that sometimes a singer is singing with a full, complex orchestral texture, and the next night the same aria sung against a solo english horn (for example). The lighting changes, the video, the movement, the live electronics, etc. all change for each iteration of the piece, the changes being determined through chance operations and random number generators [that is "I" have nothing to do with it!]. We do the opera in two “acts”, each act being a different version of the poem, so that the audience can experience this “shift” within a single evening’s performance. And it will be a premiere every night!

I wonder if King has each performance filmed to preserve it for posterity? This video was uploaded to Vimeo (and also to YouTube) by the composer himself. Video appears to play a major role in the opera as well, and its design is credited to Pablo Molina.

The composition flowed directly from the sound of the poem in French, King said, which is one reason I wanted to feature this video here.

I was setting other Mallarmé texts, to be combined in a group of songs with texts by Verlaine, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Artaud. At the end of this one collection was Un coup de Dés/Dice Thrown. I was immediately struck by its visual appearance, by its use of different text styles and font sizes and by the sound of the words when read in French. There is no rhyme scheme per se, but the words have what I call an “internal rhyme”, where vowel sounds within words of a phrase or line are the same, or consonant sounds are reiterated, so that I immediately heard these wonderful shifting rhythms of sound.

The full title of the poem is “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” (“A throw of the dice can never abolish chance”), and can be seen in all its glory at A. S. Kline’s Poetry In Translation site, including an easier-to-read “compressed” translation.

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