Oracle Hysterical and Hub New Music’s Brave “Terra Nova”

by | May 14, 2021 | Backstage

On Saturday, May 15, 5BMF will present Terra Nova — our first live concert since January 2020(!) — on the front steps of the Brooklyn Public Library on Grand Army Plaza, to be followed by a digital premiere on June 17, filmed at the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art at Snug Harbor, in Staten Island. Terra Nova is the brainchild of the composer-performer collective Oracle Hysterical in tandem with the mixed-instrument quartet Hub New Music, comprising a set of songs inspired by travelers into great unknowns.

At first glance this framing might seem a fun bit of escapism, and a timely one, too, as we gradually emerge from this stretch of being largely fixed – if not outright sheltered – in place. The archetypal explorer of our imaginations is still an intrepid, rakish, valiant sort, a character often on the flat side, of whom we rarely stop to ask why they have chosen this path, likely because we are so distracted by their many capers and quests.

Terra Nova throws a good deal of cold water on this trope. And so although it may not be terribly escapist in the end, it is certainly timely, less an action-adventure than a tragi-comedy – if not a tragedy outright, in the classical sense – in its honoring of the historical and deeper truths of this subject, a treatment that, instead of levity, inspires a healthy catharsis, a clearer head and hopefully a honed sense of purpose.

The songs’ explorers all share a common bravery, if not ambition, if not audacity (in all its connotations). The program opens with melancholy sweetness (on the musings of Amelia Earhart) and utterly endearing nerdiness (on John James Audubon’s descriptions of warblers), which both tug kindly at the heartstrings. From then on, though, things get weird, veering suddenly into the avant garde and gnarly, possibly a gauntlet thrown by Oracle Hysterical to Hub New Music’s impressive and honed chops.

Terra Nova by Robert Falcon Sco

Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed 1912 voyage to the South Pole

In what could be a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, we enter this section through a rhythmically mesmerizing wormhole composed by Dylan Greene, inspired by the speculative theory of the pre-Columbian exploration of North America by Chinese mariners. On the other side of this we find Terra’s dark side: a setting of the supremely cruel Spanish Requirement of 1513; a word from Satan, inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost; and a cruel Agamemnon on the cusp of his undoing. The program then closes with the cruelty of nature and of fate, a heartrending soundscape setting of Robert Falcon Scott’s final letter home, from the Antarctic.

Tragedy is thus the overriding flavor of this set, full of hubris and tragic downfalls, and depictions of the cruelty of humans and nature. It begs questions of the costs of ambition, when the scales tip over into the loss of human lives and one’s own humanity.

Nevertheless, Terra Nova is not an indictment of exploration as a whole; the message is not “stay home,” but rather “be brave, be kind, be curious,” and possibly even “be safe.” This is where this set comes home to the moment, because it presents, as foils to contemporary reality, the truths that many of us have lived alongside for the last 15 months: immense collective bravery and kindness; a time where we have found beauty in the small, simple, and strange; where we have had to come to terms with the cruelty of nature and the hubris and cruelty of humans; and a time to grapple with immense tragedy and loss.

Unless they are, indeed, true Oracles, Oracle Hysterical did not set out to address our lives amidst a pandemic; Terra Nova was premiered in early March 2020. It is, though, an illustration of the power of the tragic medium when it is handled deftly, with kindness, curiosity, and bravery, as Hub New Music and Oracle Hysterical have accomplished masterfully.

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