The opportunity to create a work in celebration and commemoration of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's illustrious history brought composer Frank Proto and me together as collaborators in 1993. Frank wanted to explore some of the explosive racial, cultural, and political issues that are tearing apart the already fragile fabric of American society. He was motivated in part by the massive civil unrest that had occurred in Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, and by a long-standing desire to express his own experiences with racial prejudice as a child growing up in Brooklyn. After reading a book of my poetry and a number of recent articles I had published, Frank asked me to write the text and the lyrics for this new composition.
Since we knew in advance we were going to explore controversial issues of race, politics and religion, we also knew we would have to walk a tightrope to achieve the proper balance of subject and form. Our goal was to create a kind of dramatic lyricism: an incendiary marriage of music and language that could convey our sometimes poignant but mostly provocative ideas within a clearly discernible aesthetic. In essence, we wanted to paint the Mona Lisa in all her enigmatic glory but clothe her in army fatigues and combat boots.
Given the plethora of topics to choose from—racial hatred, religious intolerance, censorship, cultural elitism—we decided it would be advantageous to focus on the one major disseminator of it all—television. Television, after all, is itself in the center of a maelstrom of public dissension and controversy. And while it is true that the ever growing furor about the role of the media in society is a byproduct of a greater and more vociferous debate about values and culture, television's pervasive presence and influence in our lives makes it a useful metaphor and symbol of the cultural battleground on which the war is being waged.
We began our task by asking the following questions: Is television the modern version of Pandora's box? Can it be blamed for all of the social ills — bigotry, intolerance, the loss of values, the breakdown of the family, et cetera? And given the growing sentiment that killing the messenger will cure the symptoms and allow the disease to run its course, is censorship the antidote or just another placebo? We even speculated on the origin and nature of the debate itself, and wondered if it was merely another more insidious type of hyperbole foisted upon an unsuspecting public by a media machine run amok. And we pondered the age old question: If we stay tuned will the solution be handed to us before the last commercial announcement?
Television usually provides all the answers within the appropriate time slot. In our case we worked for a year and a half and came up with as many new questions as the old ones we eliminated. In any event, Frank coined the term "music drama" to describe the final product. And I, in a moment of poetic fancy, came up with the title: Ghost in Machine. What follows is a brief description of our labor of love.
Ghost in Machine opens with a recurring character, an anonymous man, flipping through the channels of a TV set. The orchestra, functioning as the television, changes musical channels with each click of the remote control. During this evocative "mini-overture" most of the musical themes used in the composition are heard in very brief passages.
The anonymous man is the audience: searching for entertainment, searching for adventure, ever searching. After he selects the broadcast of a pop concert, the two principal performers are introduced, a man and a woman, who function as the various manifestations of the ghost in the machine: they become different characters throughout the performance with each click of the remote control.
In the first segment an announcer (Adam) introduces a pop star (Angel), who also happens to be his lover. They are victims of the gender war which rages across the nation. The tale of their fiery romance is as old as humanity itself and is introduced in the aria The Garden Party.
In the next segment, the viewer, the anonymous man with the remote control, discovers he can't turn the TV off and decides to tune to the evening news. What comes across his screen instead is The Evening Blues, which is sung by a "news reporter" who, unlike her stoic colleagues on the networks, is carried away by her recitation of the daily human and natural disasters.
On Channel Z, a televangelist (The Reverend Jumping Jehosephat) struggles to cope with visions of a bloody history of slavery that contradict his most cherished beliefs about God and country. His inner turmoil has driven him to the brink of madness. Not even his favorite hymn, Kill Them All Lord, sung by his protégé, Sister Morning Glory, can assuage his guilt or alleviate his confusion. This conflict is also heard in a musical battle waged within the orchestra during the hymn, and afterwards in Voyage In The Beast, an instrumental composition that explores the evolution and dynamic cross-fertilization of America's diverse musical forms.
Watching all of this from the comfort of his rocking chair, the anonymous man reminisces and reflects on how his personal disasters seem inextricably intertwined with the national disasters that pour into his living room through the TV screen. Afterwards, during a brief reprise of The Evening Blues, he changes the channel to The Race Game, and watches as game show host Stu Bailey blatantly exploits America's obsession with race in a spoof of one of TV's most popular forms.
The anonymous man, like many viewers, talks back to the TV expressing his derision and disgust at the lack of civility and humanity in popular entertainment and discourse. In the interlude that follows, a male and a female cellist play a passionate duet, while back at the pop concert the pop star (Angel) and the announcer (Adam) continue the battle of the sexes. Theirs is a war that transcends time and space, ethnicity and culture. The pop concert and the lovers' quarrel end with the final ballad: It's Too Late For Love.
Under the hypnotic spell of the light emanating from the TV screen, the anonymous man realizes he can no longer distinguish between his dreams and reality. Not only is he uncertain of the meaning of his life, he is no longer sure of an afterlife. His perplexity ends and an epiphany occurs when he discovers that his most cherished ideals of transcendence and heaven may be merely an illusion.
Ghost in Machine is about the war being waged for the soul of America, and the role of the media on the battlefield. As artists we believe that the media, for better or worse, is the messenger. And that killing the messenger through censorship, cultural elitism, religious intolerance or political hyperbole will not solve America's problems any more than breaking a mirror which holds an ugly image will make the source of that image beautiful. The solution to our social crises rests in how we deal with public education, social welfare, human rights, civil rights, and religious and artistic freedom. After all, the trouble lies not in our TV sets but in ourselves.
The blues - the most African of all American musical styles - is a recurrent theme in Ghost. The haunting melody of The Evening Blues is repeated and reprised in the score. Blue ocean, blue flesh, blue blood, and the color blue also resonate throughout the text.
The color blue and the blues idiom serve as appropriate symbols for the social turmoil and conflict addressed throughout the work. The birth of the blues followed a painful baptism in the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Tens of millions of enslaved African men, women and children made the brutal and dehumanizing journey to the Americas known as the "Middle Passage." Chained by the neck and legs in the holds of the slave ships for voyages that often lasted six to ten weeks, packed like books on shelves where the height sometimes was only eighteen inches and there was no room to move or turn around, many would go mad before suffocating and dying. Those that survived did so only to endure a holocaust of bondage, exploitation and degradation upon reaching their destinations.
The sounds they heard while chained in the holds - the rhythm of the waves slapping against the hulls of the ships and their own cries and moans - influenced the development of African-American music (the Afro-Cuban "bata" style of drumming is an example of a "Middle Passage" rhythm).
The blues is derived from a form known as the "shout." The shout emerged at a time in American history when the enslaved Africans had not yet acquired the language, customs, and religion of their masters. The shouts, field hollers, and chants used as work songs were rooted in an African aesthetic and were performed in an African style and language. These forms later evolved into the genuinely American idiom known as the blues which, after incorporating a number of European harmonic nuances, developed into the predominant popular American musical styles of today: jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and hip hop.
The power of the blues, as reflected in its use as a metaphor in Ghost in Machine, lies not in its emotional appeal as an icon for oppression and depression, but in its ability to transcend history and to heal the scars of enslavement and discrimination. Given its birth in the belly of the beast (the holds of the slave ships) the blues is about survival, exorcism, liberation and transcendence, more than it is about unrequited love, bad liquor, or unfaithful men and women as expressed in its current modern phase.
"I woke up with the blues this morning," the Reverend Jumping Jehosephat says as he begins his descent into madness. The American dream of this character is deeply rooted in an American tragedy. In his sermonizing he struggles to cope with the dilemma of practicing a religion and espousing a culture forced upon him by his former slave masters. The irony of his self-hatred may not be apparent—but it is certainly intended. For him, as is the case for many others, the singular tool of his liberation, in this case the blues idiom, is despised and detested as the thing that reminds him of his bondage and subjugation. His vision of the Middle Passage is rightfully one of abhorrence and fear. Yet the fact that he continues to have such visions suggests that no matter how dreadful and horrific its memory, the past still controls his destiny.
The blues is a metaphor for an American past and an American history that haunts the landscape. The ghost in the machine is the spirit of that past that has yet to be reconciled with the promise of an American future. The ghost is the media, the messenger, the griot, the spirit of the crossroads. The "news reporter" sings: "I heard it all on the evening blues." Her aria is a siren song; its warning is clear: embracing our history and transforming the past leads to a free society, ignoring our history and repressing the past leads to chaos.