Korde Arrington Tuttle and The National's Bryce Dessner examine photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's work through song in "Triptych (Eyes of One on Another)"


Bryce Dessner and Korde Arrington Tuttle by Pascal Gely

Bryce Dessner and Korde Arrington Tuttle by Pascal Gely.

By the time the singers, musicians, and iconoclastic images of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe take the stage at Ann Arbor's Power Center on Friday, March 15, everything should be in place for the premiere of a new UMS-commissioned work examining the late photographer's work and legacy through song.

But just a little over a week ago, composer Bryce Dessner admitted some tweaks were still being made.

"With these types of new works, the music and the staging and the piece is always evolving," he said. "The ink is still drying, so we can kind of feel that, which I think is exciting. There are some last-minute changes I'm making to the score. By the time it gets to Ann Arbor, it will have settled more."

"It" is Triptych (Eyes of One on Another), a re-examining of Mapplethorpe's work 29 years after the famous obscenity trial over a retrospective of his photographs in Cincinnati -- and 30 years after the artist died of AIDS -- made a lasting impression on a teenage Dessner.

Produced by Thomas Kriegsman at ArKtype, with music by Dessner, libretto by Korde Arrington Tuttle, and direction by Kaneza Schaal, the show also features Grammy-winning vocal group Roomful of Teeth with soloists Alicia Hall Moran and Isaiah Robinson.

Dessner has a Wiki entry full of impressive composing credits; he's performed with new music giants, like Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and David Lang; and he plays guitar in Grammy-winning indie rock band The National, which also plays Hill Auditorium on June 25 in support of its latest record, I Am Easy to Find

I caught up with the prolific musician by phone on the eve of Triptych's music premier at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

Bryce Dessner by Pascal Gely

Bryce Dessner by Pascal Gely.

Q: There's an interesting, personal backstory of how this show came about. Can you tell me about that?
A: I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the Mapplethorpe obscenity trial around The Perfect Moment retrospective happened in 1990. I was a 14 at the time and aware enough of what was going on that it made a big impression on me. As I made a career in art and pursued my interests, it stuck with me.

Years later, the idea of doing something around this came up, and I thought it would be an interesting way to look at the pictures as an adult in a way that, as a teenager, I was told I was not allowed to. What the photos mean in 2019 compared to what they meant in 1990 is obviously different, but Mapplethorpe remains a very provocative and important artist who sort of gets at the heart of all kinds things about American identity.

Q: What can people expect to experience with this show?
A: The piece brings us into the world of Mapplethorpe in different ways. I've written the music, but really this is a collaboration of multiple artists. My job has really been to set words for the singers' voices and do my best to bring about the score in a way that asks questions of the Mapplethorpe imagery and of ourselves, and I think there's a lot of really beautiful moments in it. It's a very human piece that has, at its core, a sense of love and questioning.

Triptych production photo by Maria Baranova

Triptych production photo by Maria Baranova.

Q: What has the process of pulling all of these pieces together been like?
A: For me, the music and words are at the heart of it -- sort of the vehicle for the collaboration -- but it's a really beautiful group of people working together. The version we're doing here in LA is a concert premiere of music with a simple presentation of the images. In Ann Arbor, it's a much more theatrical piece. It'll have staging and some more layered visual presentation. With a project like this, part of the joy of doing it is the collaborative element. 10 singers and 10 instrumentalists and a team of 10 or 15 collaborators working on the visual side of it. It's been really fun and interesting.

Q: Were there any particular themes or styles you wanted to come at this from, knowing the images you're working with and the artist that you're working with in Mapplethorpe?
A: The doorway into Mapplethorpe, for me, is in looking at him as a classical artist and his interest in Italian mannerism and the baroque.

So there is a strong through-line of [that]. Specifically, there are some reimagined madrigals -- 16th and 17th century Italian vocal writing. There's a piece called "Sestina" by Monteverdi we've reimagined in the piece that's actually the opening of the work, and then you hear it again in the middle. 

The piece also brings in American forms of singing. There's a kind of reimagined gospel song, and there's something that might sound more like American folk music. There's also more avant-garde, dissonant settings of text. Roomful of Teeth bring an incredible lexicon of singing styles to their work, so there are the notes I wrote, but then there's also the interpretation of the piece, which they bring a lot of edge to. They can sing the same thing 20 different ways.

Q: In the literature promoting the show, there's mention of experiencing these images collectively as being important. Why do you think that is?
A: Sometimes when you're flipping through a coffee table book or skirting around a gallery, you can ignore images or spend as much time as you want with them. In a theatrical setting, there is the element of duration. And with Mapplethorpe, there's always this element of seeing and being seen, so watching these images amongst a bunch of other people watching these images with the singers on stage watching you watch them. There's many layers of this device at play that is theatrical and also very human. The ability to do that in the community amongst people who've decided to come to the show, I think is a beautiful thing.

Q: What do you hope to see audiences come away with from the piece?
A: I think it's an important time to examine some of the issues that come up in the piece around American identity. The work examines the Mapplethorpe legacy through his depiction of African American men and the black body, and that's a section of the piece I think is also very important. That said, my doorway into Mapplethorpe was a love of these images and appreciation for the beauty of the work, and I hope that extends as well through the music and the words that we've managed to make. We don't necessarily have a thesis or an agenda, with the exception that, at the heart of the work, is a sense of love and humanity.


A couple of days later, right after the LA premiere, I also caught up with Tuttle to talk about some of the questions, conflicts, and celebrations that came with digging into Mapplethorpe's work in 2019. He was still "very much processing" the experience of the night before, but also "filled with a lot of gratitude, excitement, and hope."

"I feel the work is challenging folks in a way that I'm excited by and also showing love to folks in a way that I'm inspired by," he said.

Q: What are some of the questions or challenges you hoped to raise with the words for this piece?
A: I'm not interested in necessarily posing questions, but I am interested in reflecting what I've seen back to audiences through the literal and figurative lens of Mapplethorpe, but also Essex Hemphill [the openly gay black poet and activist was critical of Mapplethorpe's depictions of black men, and one of his poems appears in the show]. 

Contradiction for me is part of that challenge. How do I hold space for inspiration and celebration and also contradiction and accountability and objectification? I'm more interested in that culture of radical integration, and I don't mean that in a superficial or purely racial context, but how do we allow more things to coexist?

Q: Can you give an example of something in the show that explores that idea of radical integration?
A: I was inspired by taking Mapplethorpe's XYZ series -- his seminal work -- and thinking about X as a kind of meditation on the religious iconography and S&M imagery; section Y is a meditation on the trial and flowers and still lifes; and section Z is a meditation on blackness and Mapplethorpe's relation to nude black men and the black form. 

Even though Mapplethorpe has been curated in the past with things kept very separate, it's always been clear to me he was interested in eroding these false dichotomies and these boundaries. My interest as a librettist was in the framework of these three very separate things and just a curiosity in how they speak to one another.

Q: Was the challenge to get into Robert's head or was it more about, as you put it, reflecting your experience through his lens?
A: At the very beginning there were questions about point of view and perspective. I was also spending a lot of time with materials [written] about Mapplethorpe and his life. I reached a place where it was less about getting inside his head and more about being present to what was around and within me, as I was wrestling with and being present with the images and the interviews and the text and the relationships between them.

It was less about speaking in Robert's voice and allowing myself to lucidly slip in and out of voices, points of view, perspectives -- including my own -- that want to speak to the work [and] that had everything to do with this moment in time and resurrecting Mapplethorpe in 2019.

Embrace, 1982, Robert Mapplethorpe

Embrace, 1982, (c) Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Q: As you put this together and spent time with the images, was there something you learned that changed what you thought?
A: Once I had access to Mapplethorpe's archive, I was blown away by what I discovered. The Mapplethorpe I had fallen in love with and was also deeply conflicted by, I was only privy to such a narrow lens of all that he saw, all that he shot, all that he captured. There was something incredibly invigorating and exciting and depressing about getting inside the archive and thinking, "Why haven't we seen all of this work? What does it mean that he saw all of it, but who does it benefit to operate under the illusion Mapplethorpe only saw such a small view of all there is?" There's such a wide scope and breadth of all he saw.

It speaks to this idea of integration -- women, black women. Mapplethorpe, in my mind, is not associated with black women. And I was really blown away by the different representations of not only gender and sexuality but just humanity and being that Mapplethorpe saw. That inspired me to re-examine my own assumptions of what it means to see and be seen.

Q: What were some of the things that had you conflicted as you went into this?
A: I knew early on I could not justify resurrecting Mapplethorpe and putting him on a pedestal without also wrestling with the fact that so much of his legacy rests upon the exploitation and objectification of the black body and black men. When I think about gay liberation and gay assimilation, I think about power and intersectionality, because it's all connected.

So when I spend time with Mapplethorpe and his legacy and work and materials from the '80s, and then I also look at that now, I can't help but look at that through the lens of 2019 and say, "What does it mean that some of these folks have achieved relative liberation, and others have not?"

There's a common denominator that runs between who is disenfranchised in the '80s and who is still disenfranchised. For me, it's all wrapped up together. So that was one of the many things that's conflicting and challenging, but the reason Mapplethorpe's work is so combustible and has continued to be over time, is he just captured dynamics that were so true about America and things we just don't like to look at, and we still don't like to look at them.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like people to know about this show?
A: I want queer folks, folks of colors, young folks -- I want folks to know this is actually a story that includes all of us and isn't just about or for the folks who society has decided art is for, and Mapplethorpe and opera, and all of that. I want this to be space of radical inclusion as well. 

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Concentrate Ann Arbor.

The full premiere of Bryce Dessner and Korde Arrington Tuttle's "Triptych (Eyes of One on Another)" is Friday, March 15 at 8 pm with an encore performance at the same time on Saturday, March 16 at the Power Center. Visit ums.org for tickets and more info.

Additionally, on Thursday, March 14 at 5:10 Dessner and Tuttle talk about Mapplethorpe and "Triptych" at The Michigan Theater as part of the Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series. On Friday, March 15 at 6 pm, art historian Richard Meyer will unpack "Mapplethorpe's complicated afterlife in the public imagination" at the U-M Institute for the Humanities, 202 S. Thayer St. There will also be post-"Triptych" Q&As with the artists after each performance.

Related: "10 Things About Robert Mapplethorpe + 'Triptych'" [ums.org]