A Theater Piece/Song Cycle
7 Faces (1985-90) is a theater piece conceived
and written by Michael Oliver, with music by Anna Larson. Designed with
set and a
piano on stage, it combines drama, dance, poetry, masks and music in
a stylized manner, the lead character (Ann) being represented by three
performers: an actress, a dancer, and a singer. The play is loosely based
on contemporary theories about grief and the recovery process known as
the "seven stages of grief": shock, denial, anger, guilt, depression,
faith, and growth.
Taken separately, the music forms a song cycle. In the fully staged version, however, these songs alternate with acted two-person scenes between Ann, who has suffered the loss of a child, and a succession of seven other characters. As Ann progresses from stage to stage toward recovery, each individual encountered embodies an unhealthy, entrenched example of her own current state, and each subsequent song is a contemplated "letter" from Ann to the person just encountered (except for the Prologue and Epilogue which are letters to herself). During these songs, the singer and dancer together portray Ann's personal struggle as she steps momentarily out of her daily life into a poetic, inner world of movement and song.
The music is characterized both harmonically and melodically by a dark eight-note scale of alternating whole and half steps, sometimes constricted into chromaticism for particularly painful moments and opening out into diatonicism for moments of brightening and resolution. Perhaps the most theoretically "elegant" example of the octatonic scheme occurs in #5, the song to Sharon, where, in the section beginning with the words "I cannot love", each of the 7/8 measures contains, in the piano, seven notes of an octatonic scale, while the remaining note appears as the most prominent of the vocal melody (itself strictly octatonic), until the final measure where the piano alone slowly renders all eight notes.
7 Faces was performed as a song cycle in 1990 by the University of Maryland's 20th Century Ensemble with Susan Bender, soprano, and Ron Warren, piano.
The titles are:
PROLOGUE: (To herself) mp3 mp3 mp3
I. To a Woman whose Pigeons Set Free (Aunt Sally) mp3
II. To a Man who Burnt Memory (Charlie) mp3
III. To a Man Given Life by a Gun (George) mp3
IV. To a Woman Made Twice by her Mate (Mother) mp3
V. To a Woman whose Love Pains (Sharon) mp3 (example of octatonic scale)
VI. To a Woman whose Child Never Cries (Dona Maria) mp3
VII. EPILOGUE: To a Woman Ready for Flight (To herself) mp3
Synopsis of Scenes & Poems
Prologue: Ann, now years beyond the tragedy of the death of her child, remembers her own secure youth in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and her brief, childlike motherhood. She recalls, and "relives" in song and movement, the death of her baby Alice. The scenes and songs that follow continue to tell her past story .
| I write to you, Ann,/ not out of mourning:/ you have passed/ as
so many dawns/ since an Indian / summer -- what/ you were, a woman/
without wounds has faded./ I write out of respect / for miraculous
You were daddy's / daughter, little Annie --/ the angel men incarnate/ on figs and pomegranates;/ you pranced through a veil/ with a baby in your arms, / your image magically / transposed on another/ human being's/ wiggling will./
You loved her as the moon/ falling leaf to leaf/ until, at last, one beam/ hits the ground and roots./ What strange flowers/ sprout from such enterprise!/ daffodils with thorns, / and roses melting /on the vine, and violets as/ shear as baby eyes./
No fantasy could create/ the antelope you imitate/ leaping room to room:/ the wobbling armadillo,/ the rhino's tusk,/ alligators make your funny bones/ dance across the rug --/ the planets are our fathers;/ their rings, children/ of a goddess wed to rock./
You hoisted the baby to the sky ,/ and with a banshee's cry/ a shadow passed between / your pillared arms./ Baby died, and dying/ with her were your wings,/ your paradise of rings.
Scene I: Still in shock from the death of her baby, Ann journeys to visit her Aunt Sally, whom she loved as a child but hasn't seen in years, seeking the understanding and solace of which her own mother was never capable. Aunt Sally turns out to be a strange little hermit who obsessively tends a cage of pigeons named after her estranged children and deceased husband. Ann tells her of her baby's death from pneumonia and reminisces about her own childhood bout with the same illness when last visiting Sally, recalling how her Mother had rushed her to a hospital over the protests of Sally who wanted to treat her with teas and herbs. By degrees Ann realizes that she cannot get through to Sally, and the more she tries, the more agitated Sally becomes, until the old woman suddenly flings open the cage releasing the birds into the brick lined alley, feathers flying everywhere.
Dear Aunt Sally/ did the pigeons fly home?/ Or did
they disappear/ as you projected their flight/ into the bricked air/
singing their freedom forever.
Scene II. Frequenting singles bars to escape her pain, Ann finds herself involved with an adventurer and cocaine dealer named Charlie who boasts of his many conquests, both financial and sexual. When questioned about a row of burn marks on his arm he explains that, before women can hurt him by leaving him, he always dismisses them, but not before demanding that they burn his arm with a cigarette. Horrified, Ann refuses to comply with this perverse ritual. She shuns his continued advances and departs.
| Charlie, entrepreneur and adventurer,/ so the burn marks on your
arms/ are the signatures of past lovers--/ "a Trail of Tears" as
you jokingly refer./ Let's move to a Jamaican sundown,/ write our names
in purple flames!/ Take me home down bourbon streets/ with reggae feet
and ghanga sneeze!
In heels as tall as the Eiffel Tower/ I did pirouettes and posed,/ and as I fell in your captive hands/ you opened me like prison mail./ The secrets that I'd stowed away/ (my daughter died, then died again)/ I surrendered to your reading;/ you censored my forgetfulness:
she was much to young to sleep/ under glass or in a field of roses--/ her marriage to the prince/ was years away: she would dance/ with every astronaut, senator,/ executive to a corporate world,/ Fred Astaire-- I kissed the Frog,/ but failed to wake her.
Charlie, confessor to a Queen,/ did I sing and dance for free?/ I wish I knew your last name,/ your father's place of work,/ then I could send this lovers note/ 'in care of' and keep forgetting;/ but "alas" your Trail of Tears/ burns down these mother's arms.
Scene III. Communication has broken down between Ann and her husband, George, a Viet Nam veteran bitter about the world, obsessed with his gun collection and unable to understanding Ann's sullenness and inability to be the attentive and seductive companion she once was. Ann's anger has taken over. In an explosive scene she grabs his gun, waves it at him saying she is going to leave him, then fires it. He falls, injured, and she leaves.
| Dearest husband,/ don't pray for me.../ I've taken the car/ on a
one-way trip--/ the sun never sets/ and children sip/ electric tea/
and reel hysterically down.
You couldn't endure/ the sleep I dreamed for--/ you broke her picture/ (her cheeks and double chin/ splintered on the floor).../ you drew your gun.../ I climbed into her crib,/ lullabied myself to her...
daring a trek/ over wide green space/ (her first steps bolder/ than Armstrong's giant)/ she stands on the verge/ of somersaulting down--/ found but hard earth/ wanting her body die...
I curse an invisible love--/ a man's glove of hands/ stinking of infanticide/ and nights laced with booze./ The after-hours club/ where you drew your first phallus/ lights me home/ to a neon's disgust of sleep.
Scene IV. Ann is with her mother, an aged woman who was already well up in years when Ann was born and who speaks constantly of her own dead husband, continuing to keep house for him and mend his clothes long after his death. She has lived a life of complete service to him, neglecting Ann, who concluded at a very young age that she was not worthy of any attention. She advises Ann to return to George, seeing only good qualities in him. Desperately unhappy, Ann flees to N.Y. city and takes up residence in a bare room, unable even to unpack her suitcase.
| Mother, your prodigal daughter/ holds court over four short walls,/
a dead phone, stacks of Times--/ dishes dot her white horizon:
she thinks: a night of hands/ spooning food in daddy's invalid lips,/ wiping chin-- he drools again./ Mommy-Daddy tandem head...
you groomed him for his day of rest,/ shined his shoes; you/ laid him in a mahogany bed,/ turned the sheets, closed the lid.
"If I had been born to young parents,"/ I said, half-teared. Daddy's eyes/ glazed with dreams of coffin-come/ and a little girl's soft shoe wake.
I Killed my Alice with a mommy gun,/ my tired tongue--woes thick molasses./ I called the devil by telegraph line/ but could not raise a bone...
no matter hard I tried-- Wonder Woman,/ Sally Ryde, I fall into my home and beg to die; no larger-than-life/ whips away these rabid thoughts-- cry.
Scene V. In New York she finally begins to take up dance, which she loved as a girl, and she meets Sharon, a lesbian banker who is attracted to Ann and her "artistic" life style. They are together at Sharon's place rehearsing some gymnastic moves when Sharon begins to talk heatedly of all the ills of the world: wars, drugs, space shuttle disasters, and particularly the sexual abuse of women and children, even describing her pornographic picture collection. During this gruesome litany, which smacks not just of sadness or outrage but of fascination, Ann senses Sharon's enormous need but is unable to help her or give her the love she is asking for. Suddenly and unexpectedly, it is the vision of her own baby girl that comes before her eyes, her own pain that seizes her. Facing the reality of Alice's death directly for the first time, Ann bursts into deep, cathartic sobs. They weep together.
| To a beloved Sharon Watz/ whose love I saw a man in--/ no, a woman
rising at/ the foot of my belly bed,/arms spread like wings/ from spirit
tribes/ to a distant future, unborn/ yet from a dream's yolk--/ you
knew! No life from love comes true (a flash of eyes/ and a drum pounding
sky/ bends your head to sleep
and a night of rain.../ a woman burns in a shuttle/ over NASA's frozen space,/ gatling guns name names./ Haiti, Phillipines, Nam--/ dripping manifestoes writ/ on blood, sweat, flesh.../ the firery rocks of a gone planet's paradise...)/ I cannot love, forgive me./ Alice holds my heart,
she squeezes: all the cloves/ of a four-leaf night fall/ in panoplies of veils/ the ballerina wails/ for curtain closing grace/ (no angel came, no trumpets sounded the fall of pain).../ in a pedestal of light/ the dancer dances death,/ shadows singe an agony in God.
Sharon, I rise forever--/ at the lips of dawn/ a thousand different faces/ are the face of my one child--/ Alice! Call my name!/ I will hear the echo,/ feel your voice in the wind/ follow you beneath it--/ Alice! Open wide your arms,/ mommy's coming, unearthed/ from a dream's repressive glare/ and waiting to receive you.
Scene VI. Ann, now willing to try rebuild her life with no idea what the future will hold, has moved to California and has befriended Maria, a nearly destitute Guatemalan woman with an infant child. Maria, coming from a deeply religious tradition, has clung to her faith through the extreme brutality inflicted on her family by violent political factions. Ann is helping her make tortillas to sell. At Marias's urging, Ann picks up the infant boy, the first child she has held since the death of her own. When she discovers that Maria is about to be evicted and is intending to raise her son on the streets "in God's care", Ann vows to help her.
| Dear Dona Maria,/ the Guatamalan son/ I held like a mountain home,
like your father's/ mother's maize/ and flat rocks--/ though pestilence
hunts his young life/ he never cries,/ though you watch/ you never
blink/ as if sustained/ by too many sisters/ buried in your eyes--
And yes, it wasn't God who/ hacked your brother's arms;/ American steel/ cooked red corpuscles in a jungle sun./ The serum syringed/ into your father's heart/ wasn't a doctor's - /the medical team/ ignored reports/ of the disappeared;
I couldn't let/ Filipe catch his death/ in a cold street; the kitchen store/ that made tortillas/ for a hundred mouths/ evicted you--/ you packed home/ in a paper bag/ and searched abandoned/ lives for bread;
I sighed,/ "one dead child,/ one family, friend,/ and civilization/ hoisted on a soldier's/ glint of pride"/ (you ate one roach,/ I gagged...)./ I'll come back/ when the moon rests/ and the shadow/ of the great bird/ lands on a ground/ no one owns,/ until then/ I'll light the stove,/ work the days,/ strive.
Scene VII. Ann, her spirits buoyant, is heading back to Washington by bus. She meets a young man just returning from his mother's funeral and reaches out to him. As she speaks freely of her own feelings, her pain is still present, and she possesses a serenity and depth she did not have as a child/mother. With understanding and even humor, she offers him comfort and guidance.
I write to you, Ann, / not out of mourning:/ you have passed/ as
so many dawns --/ what you were./ I've watched you/ walk so many times/
by the narrow/ gravestone --listened / to your tears roll down ;/ when
you turn, head / tilting toward the sun, / I think I see myself reborn.
Synopses by Anna Larson
Prologue sample pages
Prologue sample pages