Being a long time Zorn connoisseur, and having greatly enjoyed the CD version of Astronome, I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of this DVD. As such, it greatly saddens me to write this review.
First of all, lets talk about the production values on the DVD, because that is a major stumbling block. There is constant clipping (loud 'ticks' that result from sound levels exceeding a safe recording level) throughout. This steady stream of distortion really ruins the DVD for me, as it is massively irritating and distracting. The music itself sounds much more compressed than on the CD - the fidelity is simply lacking. It sounds like the music is being played out of a small radio, which means you can give up any hope of a head-busting, brutal sound. In order to get the music loud enough to get the proper effect, you'll ruin your speakers because the clipping is much louder than the regular soundtrack.
Second, I'll discuss the project itself. Foreman has created an inscrutable stage production--bizarre set, weird costumes, non-sense narration, everything. There is literally nothing to latch onto here. Maybe with many repeat viewings, I'll find some entrance into this world, but for now, I'm completely perplexed. I know this isn't some narrative-based song-and-dance production, but I don't think you can just drop a spectator into something this bizarre without any help at all.
I usually abstain from critiquing the thing itself, as I feel judgments of taste are best left to the individual on a case-by-case basis. However, I have a legitimate complaint here: Foreman has taken Zorn's three act "opera" and turned it into four acts, with the third track on the CD being split in two parts. This seems like quite a liberty to take. Between the music, there is silence, distortion on the DVD track, and some strange narration, where a man with an unpleasant voice talks in riddles.
The good part is Henry Hills' video work and editing. He edits together twelve video streams taped over the course of five nights in a manner that helps focus attention on ostensibly relevant portions of the production. I say "ostensible" because I have no idea if there ARE relevant portions here. The downside is this was taped with consumer-grade DV cameras and it looks exactly like it. Maybe this has something to do with Hills' aesthetic, but the video quality is grainy and generally not great. This doesn't bother me as much as the sound, but it's worth noting for anyone who cares.
Perhaps I would have a higher opinion of this project had I not endured such a poorly produced DVD. The sound just kills it for me. Above all, there is the music and when the music isn't coming across clearly, or when it's competing with loud pops on the sound track, there is a real problem. It's sad because I wanted to love Astronome.
* UPDATE *
Someone claiming to be the sound producer of this DVD has written a review claiming that my sound equipment is to blame. To test this, I tried the DVD on two of my friends systems. I got the same result. He doesn't address the terrible clipping that constantly dominates the audio track either. If TJ is indeed the audio engineer, I would not hire him to produce my DVD. Yikes!
Since he saw fit to take issue with my review, I might as well add that the stage sounds and the actors voices are treated in a bizarre manner. They sounds are muffled, probably due to poor recording quality. The actors voices sound completely untreated - no reverb - as if they're speaking in an anechoic chamber. Not only that, but the mix itself makes no sense to me. It's largely due to the non-musical portions that the music sounds so terrible, like it's buried in the mix.
Perhaps I got a defective DVD, but I'll stake my reputation as a Top 1000 reviewer on what I've heard on the DVD I received.
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About the reviewer
I'm in my second year of PhD work at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. My primary interest is Lacanian psychoanalysis and music.
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Richard Foreman is one of the great geniuses of modern theatre, and his dynamic staging of John Zorn's opera “Astronome” was one of his greatest works. Drawing upon Alchemical and Mystical imagery, the visual world Foreman created was sumptuous, provocative and mysterious. For this DVD, 10 performances were captured on film from hundreds of angles and brilliantly edited by filmmaker Henry Hills, a longtime friend of both Zorn and Foreman. You can now experience this once in a lifetime presentation with a whole new intensity. Staged so as to hear the music better and clearer than ever, “Astronome” is a revolution in opera / music theatre.