Composer Lewis Pesacov: A 5,000-Year Love Story’s Moment In Eternity

Composer Lewis Pesakov, right, with tenor Ashley Faatoalia as the Mayan astrologer in 'The Edge of Forever.' Image: DotDotDot Press
Composer Lewis Pesacov, right, with tenor Ashley Faatoalia as the Mayan astrologer in ‘The Edge of Forever.’ Image: DotDotDot Press

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‘The Letting Go Of Expectations’

The Edge of Forever is meant never to be performed again.

Not unlike “site-specific” arts events created to exist only in one place, this work is time-specific: It was written to observe the ending of the Mayan Long Count Calendar. And it was performed at the moment of its subject’s context, on December 21, 2012.

“I didn’t want to try to write Mayan music per se, but rather imagine my own ancient, ritual music.”
Lewis Pesacov

Remember all the 12-21-12 silliness of bad films and apocalyptic hokum? Composer Lewis Pesacov and librettist Elizabeth Cline instead looked for—and found—something far more bracing in the conclusion of the 13th baktun of this calendar from the Maya. After 5,125 years, the timekeeping framework simply reverts to zero. Not quite the explosive conclusion beloved of doomsday-mongers, but something far more beautiful.

Album Cover 900x900Cline imagined a timeframe of or March 13, 830 CE, running to the great calendar’s or December 21, 2012 CE. An ancient astronomer, Laakan—looking both for the path forward and for his love, Etznab—is the character who undergoes what Cline has termed “a quiet act of transcendence: there is no spectacle or transformative moment. It is his realization that love is infinite and not bound by time and that one can find forever in each moment.”

The fact that The Edge of Forever’s live performance could exist only in one moment, doesn’t mean that a recording can’t be brought forward more than three years later. Not for nothing does Pesacov describe “the concept of ancient Mayan cosmology” as one telling us that “time is infinitely cyclical, without beginning or end: the edge of one age simply reveals the dawn of the next.”

And so The Industry Records, which also produced Christopher Cerrone’s Invisible Cities (see our Music for Writers coverage here), now is preparing to release a specially created limited-edition recording (500 vinyl copies) of the world premiere of The Edge of Forever on June 24. The recording features the work of the Los Angeles-based ensemble wild Up (see our Music for Writers coverage of wild Up’s work with Jodie Landau), and it just may be the only big of music you hear this week that includes a part for conch shell.

The work features a single tenor, a chorus of four female voices, and a broad instrumental array including eight sine tone oscillators. As performed, the evening featured a ritualistic processional in which the audience was led into the theater at Los Angeles’ historic Philosophical Research Society, a Mayan Revival structure.

We’re grateful to be allowed to let you hear the fifth and final movement of the piece—”From Stone and To Forever,” a 12:09 minute sequence, as you read. You’ll find it almost immediately immersive, contemplative, ethereal. And that, in fact, is where we started in our conversation with the eclectic Lewis Pesacov.

Choral groups of "scribes" perform in the Los Angeles one-time-only production of 'The Edge of Forever.' Image: DotDotDot Press
Choral groups of “scribes” perform in the Los Angeles one-time-only production of ‘The Edge of Forever.’ Image: DotDotDot Press

‘Spaces Outside Of Time’

Thought Catalog: Lewis, in coming to the piece, I confess I was expecting to hear something darker. Maybe not flat-out dire, but we are talking about a culture’s endpoint, in a sense. It’s not only achingly beautiful work (I’m thinking of Scene 5: Aria 2 in particular), but also remarkably serene. All of which wants me to ask how you’ve come to this. Is it a programmatic piece, in your mind?

Lewis Pesacov. Image by Michael Leviton
Lewis Pesacov. Image by Michael Leviton

Lewis Pesacov: I definitely see The Edge of Forever as a programmatic work, especially through its intention to embed the story in a deep atmosphere of the moment.

The “doomsday” take on the 2012 end of the Mayan Long Count calendar was more of a sensationalistic Hollywood tagline, rather than a close reading of Mayan cosmology. In non-linear timescales such as that of the Maya, the end of one cycle is just the beginning of the next. Time becomes an infinite loop, shifting emphasis away from the past or future, and onto the now.

In writing the music of The Edge of Forever, I really hoped to evoke the here and the now; a place of bliss in awareness, and, yes, of beauty and serenity.

TC: Can you talk to us a bit about the relationship between the astronomer and his missing beloved? Their future reunion is the source of such hopefulness in the piece, I assume? From Elizabeth’s libretto, I get “Our love, timeless as dreams / From stone and to forever.”

The Edge of Forever was a one-time-only performance, performed exactly at the moment of which it was the subject.”
Lewis Pesacov

LP: In the story we meet Laakan, the ancient astronomer, just moments before he joins Etzneb, his beloved, after waiting 5,125 years. As the final aria draws to a close, he walks off-stage through the audience and out the back door of the theater. The audience does not actually witness the moment of their reunion; in fact, it is not written.

Elizabeth Cline. Image by Suzy Poling
Elizabeth Cline. Image by Suzy Poling

Hope is at the core of the piece, but not in the form of a prize received for the fulfillment of a process (like waiting, for instance). It’s more so in the form of faith in the letting go of expectations, and a release of the attachment to outcomes.

From the audience’s perspective, it is left unknown if Laakan actually met his beloved. It’s undetermined whether or not she existed or was a mere figment of his imagination. She is an analogy for the moment when one stops focusing on goals so that they can truly be in the present, which itself is a source of deep, boundless love. Spaces outside of time, like love and dreams, are where we connect to the infinite.

TC: How did you come to create this work? Is the Mayan calendar something you’d studied and been close to for some time?

LP: The end of the Mayan Long Count calendar in 2012 presented a beautiful opportunity for a pièce de circonstance.

Elizabeth and I were both excited by this once-in-a-lifetime chance to play into the operatic trope of telling a story via ancient legend and mythology, and simultaneously acting in a precise moment of our own time. The Edge of Forever was a one-time-only performance, performed exactly at the moment of which it was the subject. We were both so drawn in by the mystery and took a deep dive into Mayan texts and studies, and even had the opportunity to visit some temples in Mexico.

“The opera itself became an iteration of a larger ritual on the transitory nature of the material world.”
Lewis Pesacov

With regard to the instrumentation, I wanted the music to sound as if it were a balance between the ancient past and the future. The ensemble consists of instruments more native to the Western classical music tradition, as well as two conch shells blown on end, Mayan instruments found in stone glyphs. Additionally, the eight sine-tone oscillators play microtonally tuned pure frequencies; a deconstructed synthesizer of sorts.

I didn’t want to try to write Mayan music per se, but rather imagine my own ancient, ritual music. I collected all of the non-traditional instruments in the ensemble myself, and spent a lot of time touching, playing, and listening to the instruments before I even began the score.

Your insightful reference to the “pain of great endings” deeply resonates with me, as The Edge of Forever is certainly an opera about endings.

I actually wrote the final aria first, with the intention of it being an elongated ending that articulated the new beginning for Laakan. Only on finishing the music did I realize an unintentional reference to the finale from Mahler’s Das Lied Von Der Erde. (“Ewigewig” was my first ever email address as a teenager.) And there’s no ending music more devastatingly beautiful than the “Liebestod” from Tristan Und Isolde.

Tenor Ashley Faatoalia performs the role of Laakan, the ancient Mayan astrologer, in 'The Edge of Forever.' Image: DotDotDot Press
Tenor Ashley Faatoalia performs the role of Laakan, the ancient Mayan astrologer, in ‘The Edge of Forever.’ Image: DotDotDot Press

‘Like A Tibetan Buddhist Sand Mandala’

TC: I’m reminded of the Vangelis Mythodea (1993) which was revisited in 2001 by Sony’s Peter Gelb for a release timed to the Mars Odyssey craft entering Mars orbit. It’s wonderful to have such a lavish time-specific work as your The Edge of Forever. 

LP: However discontinuous it may be with the subject matter of the opera, I’m totally overjoyed by the release of the record. It feels great to finally have a form of documentation that lives on after the one-time only performance.

It was an incredibly difficult task to produce the opera—we barely had the sets up before the performance, and had to tear them down immediately afterward. The production was an unintentional act of impermanence, much like a Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala. The opera itself became an iteration of a larger ritual on the transitory nature of the material world.

TC: Where do you feel this stands in your body of work? I get such influences in listening, everything from what might be Penderecki to Vaughan-Williams, really.

back cover artLP: The music of The Edge of Forever and all of my compositional work are very close to my heart and certainly a very deep and important aspect of the “real me.”

The first two albums I ever bought as a kid were Beethoven’s “Greatest Hits” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Smash Hits” and throughout my musical life there’s been a continuing dialogue between the two. The two threads never quite weave together yet they still inform each other. For example, some of the influences on The Edge of Forever range from Albanian iso-polyphony vocal traditions to Tibetan Buddhist temple music, which is not far from the global influences found in the work in my band Fool’s Gold.

After having had my name on over 20 albums in more popular genres, I’m thrilled to release my first record in the classical/experimental music genre.

TC: Can you give us a sense for what else you may be working on? Could something like The Edge of Forever be ahead?

LP: I’m currently working on an album of new compositions ranging from two large ensemble pieces to a solo harpsichord piece, alongside a solo record of songs and electric guitar instrumentals.

Elizabeth and I are developing a new opera titled Out There in which the main character is a botanist whose inquiry into nature leads her down a similar path as our beloved ancient astronomer, Laakan.Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson is a journalist focused on books and the industry! the industry! of publishing.

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