Composer Annie Gosfield and Yuval Sharon’s ‘War of the Worlds’
Annie Gosfield made her name by composing percussive and highly rhythmic contemporary music often employing sounds such as industrial noises and radio static. So she was a natural choice to create the score for Yuval Sharon’s experimental opera “War of the Worlds,” a musical adaptation of Orson Welles’ controversial 1938 “fake news” radio broadcast, based on the H.G. Wells classic about an alien invasion.
The opera received its world premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Nov. 12 and will return for two more performances on Nov. 18.
“The genesis of the project was doing something involving public art and World War II air-raid sirens,” Gosfield said in a telephone interview. “When I lived in Los Angeles in the 1980s, I was completely fascinated by them and how they would go unnoticed.”
For Gosfield, 57, part of the challenge of “War of the Worlds” was building an arsenal of otherworldly sounds: “There’s also quite a bit of static, the sound of the radio going a bit haywire, and jammed radio signals,” she said. “Taking something that is not considered music and lending it a high degree of refinement — tuning it, even though it might not be traditionally tuned, changing the level and getting the pitch where I want — is important to me.”
The Grammy-winning, Israeli-born soprano Hila Plitmann plays the alien, singing an eerie and sinister wordless role.
It was Gosfield’s idea to have Sigourney Weaver of the “Alien” film franchise emcee the concert inside the hall, which is performed by the L.A. Philharmonic New Music Group led by Christopher Rountree. Reports of the unfolding invasion gradually emerge from three outdoor “siren sites” — complete with refurbished World War II air-raid sirens — where speakers will broadcast “news” of the invasion.
“We have the sense of people on the street being the eyes and ears of the people in the concert hall,” Gosfield said. “We’re playing with pitches high and low, but we actually had to be careful not to make the air-raid sirens sound exactly like [real] air-raid sirens. We had to evoke them, so people wouldn’t think there’s a real emergency.”
Gosfield also wanted to convey the spirit of a ballroom dance orchestra as heard on a radio broadcast from the period.
“The project has been in the planning stages for quite a while, before Trump and fake news became part of the culture,” Gosfield said.
But while Welles’ radio play brought panic to thousands of listeners, she isn’t worried that Sharon’s take on the story will generate a similar reaction. “Do you think somebody coming upon three percussionists onstage and somebody portraying a general will think it’s terrorism?” she said. “I certainly hope not.”
Sharon, who is also the opera’s director, praised Gosfield’s “complex but engaging music, [which] goes far beyond setting the tone of the drama. … She immediately saw the opportunities in the disembodied voices concept, and spun a truly unique and unpredictable score.”
Gosfield also gave the word “unpredictable” an admiring spin when asked about working with Sharon, who is a 2017 MacArthur Fellow and artist collaborator with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “You don’t know exactly how different elements are going to come together,” she said. “That makes it especially exciting for me, because the classical music world can be a little staid. But with Yuval, it’s this sense of flying by the seat of your pants.”
Gosfield, whose grandparents were left-leaning Eastern European immigrants, grew up Jewish in Philadelphia. “My parents were incredibly supportive, not musicians but great music lovers,” she said. “They emphasized creativity.”
One of Gosfield’s more groundbreaking projects, “EWA7,” featured on her 2001 disc, “Flying Sparks and Heavy Machinery,” was inspired by her site-specific residency in industrial environments in Nuremberg, Germany. There, she explored how machine sounds and ambient noise were perceived and developed in a factory. The piece was performed in working factory EWA7 with her band and some help from factory workers.
“I was living in a house that was once the ministry of finance for the Third Reich,” Gosfield recalled. “It was the 70th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, where senior Nazi officials discussed the Final Solution. In many ways, it felt great to say, as a Jew, ‘Here I am, an honored guest.’ How much have things changed? It was pretty incredible.”
“War of the Worlds” will be performed twice on Nov. 18. For tickets and more information, visit laphil.com.