Opera: Ernst Krenek / The Bell Tower

In this nutty, overcrowded world, do you ever have an urge for real solitude? 

You’re stumped. You’ve wintered in those south Asian hamlets and found them overrun with trust fund yoga dames, the forearms of every one of them streaked with the same henna patterns. Took in the beauty of Venice only to find yourself menaced by American tourist swine, catcalling you from the deck of a Carnival cruise ship as it rammed its way up the Grand Canal. Sat for hours in a smog-shrouded caravan of SUVs in the Hwy 120 approach to Yosemite’s western entrance. Eaten at all the dive restaurants in Central America that Anthony Bourdain said you had to try before you die, and when you looked up from your pupusa you found yourself surrounded by people who look so much like yourself that you wanted to compare DNA to find out if they were half-siblings. You’re getting down to the last few spots on your ultimate experience bucket list and wonder if you will ever find that undiscovered someplace where you can really, truly achieve perfect zen

I have found such a place. It’s right here in my studio. Listening to The Bell Tower, the 1957 one-act opera by Austrian composer Ernst Krenek. I listened to it yesterday, and about 10 minutes into the 56-minute world premiere recording I was overcome with the realization that I was the only person on earth listening to it. On that particular day. Maybe in that whole month. Or year, even. Decade? Possibly.

Think of it. THE… ONLY… PERSON… ON… EARTH!

If culture broadens your horizons the way travel does, listening to mid-period Ernst Krenek is the equivalent of spending a night in an abandoned weather station someplace in Canada’s Northwest Territories. If you are craving that so-hard-to-find alone time, the works of Krenek are your golden ticket.

Based on a 12-tone compositional foundation and featuring a small cast of about a dozen people, The Bell Tower is sung in English with a decent libretto which takes a Herman Melville short story of the same name as a foundational work. It is as easy on the ears as you could expect from an American opera of this vintage; the plot was clear in the singing of it and the harmonic language tolerable, albeit with the usual mid-20th century herky-jerk melodies and ab-tightening dissonances. The version I experienced was the world premier staged at some festival mounted by the University of Illinois. Seems the only soul interested in presenting this work was some midwestern Krenekophile music department head who put his students through the rigors in the service of trumpeting the composer’s genius to an indifferent, uncaring world. Gotta love the dedication.

What was The Bell Tower like? I found nothing bad about it, nothing particularly great about it. But I stuck with it, just grooving on the fact that there is no one else listening to it but me. Aaah, peace!

But while I was taking it in I didn’t spend the hour just staring slack-jawed at the still image of the dilapidated church or outhouse or whatever it is featured on the YouTube world premiere video. I made use of the time by reading the Melville story the libretto was based on (which I had never heard of), and by reading up on this man Krenek

Quite an interesting life he had. As a composer he had a huge catalog of works dating from WWI to the late 1980s, running the entire gamut of 20th century compositional genres – post-romanticism, neoclassicism, expressionist opera, atonality, 12-tone, serialism, and electronic music. His most famous contribution to world music is his brilliant 2-act opera Jonny Spielt Auf, a big European hit in its day with an impressive score reeking of Strauss, Weill, and a dash of 20s-era hot jazz. The story, with dual plot lines intertwining the destinies of a middle-aged composer in love with glaciers and a black American musician who steals a violin with magic powers, is as wack and anything in the operatic canon – a mesmerizing work. For years following its release it was the ticket for modern opera in Weimar Germany, until the Nazis banned Krenek for his ‘degenerate’ music and banned his works. Krenek judiciously left Vienna in 1938 for America, eventually becoming a US citizen.

What I want to know is: after Krenek was forced to come to these shores as a refugee, how did he continue to maintain his dignified old world game in the land of Baseball, Coca-Cola, and Shirley Temple? And how did he end up in… Palm Springs?? What the hell was Krenek, the prince of the so-called degenerate central European avant-garde in that gold-plated desert paradise? 

Trying to put Ernst in the picture out there… Martinis with the Kirk Douglases. Wife Gladys poolside in her Cole of California 2-piece. 18 holes with Sinatra. Canoodling at The Nest with Governor Reagan. Small tour buses circling the family compound daily, the still of the desert afternoon disturbed by a guide’s well-rehearsed schtick over the bus’ tinny sound system:

“…And to your right is the fabulous home owned by the composer of Jonny Auf Spielt, Ernst Krenek. He and his lovely wife, who sponsor the Indian Wells Bridge Tournament every November, live next door to the Schoenberg family. Arnold Schoenbergs‘ award-winning ranch house features a unique indoor-outdoor bass clef-shaped pool complete with outdoor piano bar – a must-have when entertaining Palm Springs society at parties with selections from his hit musicals Ode to Napoleon and Moses und Aron…”

I also understand there used to be a nonprofit out there called the Ernst Krenek Society that sponsored a grant award program for any deadbeat pianists interested in hustling them for rent money. Where did the EKS get all that dough? (I probably don’t wanna know). They’ve been shuttered, leaving only the Ernst Krenek Institute in Vienna to keep the torch burning for the big guy. The small crew at this org put on Krenek performance programs, archive his music and keep his trusty Buchla synthesizer on display for fans to play with during their visit. It was deemed necessary to set up an institute to note the life and times of this unique composer in his native land.

Man, that mother really lived it up out there until he passed away in his glitzy adopted oasis at the age of 91. If his Bell Tower didn’t live, I bet the man who wrote it sure did!