On May 12, 2011 at the 2011 MATA Festival hosted by (le) Poisson Rouge, Oracle Hysterical members Elliot Cole, Brad Balliett, and Doug Balliett brought us probably the most twisted hip-hop throw down you’ve ever seen. Twin brothers Brad and Doug performed a hip-hop retelling of The Rake’s Progress, an opera by Igor Stravinsky.
Dressed respectively in all-white and black three-piece suits, the twins wrangled out the convoluted thoughts in the near-delirious mind of Tom Rakewell, the protagonist of the story. Developed by Brad and Elliot a handful of years ago as roommates at Rice University, the two imagined that in a critical moment after making a bad deal with the devil and a period of unabashed debauchery, Rakewell has an epiphany — a burst of blinding clarity — in which he sees for the first time objectively what he has done with his life — right before surrendering his sanity. Brad and Doug traded off rapping lines, generating an unbroken stream of rhyming thought that recounted Rakewell’s miserable life choices and navigated through several stages of self-recrimination and self-defense.
Originally a studio recording of voice with electronic sampling, Andrew Cyr asked Brad and Elliot to turn the CD into a live performance version with Metropolis Ensemble. The two of them spent a summer transcribing the entire album note for note for chamber orchestra. Brad reflects on the process:
We worked together on several versions over the course of this year, arranging, revising, and passing over to the other. It was a fun process, and even more of a joy to hear all of our electronically manipulated samples come to life through actual bows on strings and thumping percussion.
The final product was presented on stage at LPR for the first time. Doug and Brad shared the stage with the Metropolis Ensemble; behind the group were two screens, on which the lyrics were projected in sharp, bold graphic frames crafted by Elliot using Adobe After Effects. Elliot explains:
There are so many words, so many thoughts, that I thought it was really important to give the audience a hand through a first listen. But I didn’t just want your usual opera-house projections. I imagined tons of colors, fonts, good typography, animation, video clips.
Mixing trippy beats with musical commentary, the chamber ensemble matched the rappers’ fierceness. The brothers’ identical voices bled into one another, demonstrating how this piece really works best with twins: The Ballietts were presenting one person split into two parts, following a conversation a person would have with himself. Doug reflects on the intense performance:
There’s nothing like delivering a large stretch of dense rhymes with just the inflection you intended — probably something similar to the way a pianist might feel at the end of a Beethoven slow movement. The challenge was not learning the text, but remembering which lines were mine and which were Brad’s. I feel at this point that I could deliver either half of the text. A lot of interesting ways to divide or double the lines came out of the mistakes we made while rehearsing the piece!
But really, we ask, rap and Stravinsky? Hip-hop and an 18th-century story? This is what Oracle Hysterical is all about: the telling, retelling, and reinterpreting stories that have been told many times with a fresh hip-hop approach, touching on Greek mythology, folklore, Biblical tales, and Faustian stories. Rap works with The Rake’s Progress, as the breakneck pace at which Tom Rakewell flashes through his life necessitates an equally rapid-fire delivery. “Thoughts go fast, faster than speech,” Brad explains, pointing out that they were more concerned with narrating the thoughts, not the actions. In performance, this idiom conveys the frantic desperation and wild swings of extreme emotion. Elliot goes into the details about mixing the genres:
We’re not trying to ‘elevate’ or ‘legitimize’ hip-hop for an opera audience — that’s preposterous; hip-hop is the most grounded, alive music on the face of the planet. We just like words. We like writing them, and we like saying them. And when you add meter and rhyme, they take on a musical power that’s intoxicating. Rapping is just a super-potent way of telling stories.
Oracle Hysterical has a lot coming up. The hip-hop trio will be traveling to Luzern, Switzerland in August to be an Ensemble-in-Residence at the Lucerne Festival 2011. They’ll be presenting two evening-length concerts of new music, including a rap fantasia on the history of the world called De Rerum, and a song cycle on Grimm’s fairytales. Their next album out will be on the fairytale, The Fisherman and His Wife, which will be scored for the three composer-rapper-poets and string quartet.