The Dark-Eyed Chameleon
Many of us suffer from internalized emotional pain that we are ashamed or afraid to let out, or simply unable to give effective voice to. But artists (especially writers and composers) are blessed in this regard, as they have the creative tools to mirror their existences effectively in their work, thereby sharing their inner selves in ways that are both personally cathartic and meaningful to others.
Such a release valve is The Dark-Eyed Chameleon, a five-song cycle that served as Abel’s way of dealing with the trauma of a particularly agonizing breakup. The few of us fortunate enough to hear it have reacted with wonder and fascination.
Delos’ Director, pianist Carol Rosenberger, put it pretty much in a nutshell: “I’ve never heard anything like this! A searing personal story of a disintegrating love relationship … plunging from a peak of happiness into painful collapse. The cycle’s honesty and insight evoke a powerful response, and make it unforgettable.”
The first song – “The Burned Horizon” – both sets the scene and looks back, as its lyrics are written from an after-the-fact perspective. It introduces us to the partner’s deeply troubled soul, hiding behind flimsy and crumbling facades as she turns to the temporary refuge of a romantic relationship. And it outlines some of her history, which is marked by indelible damage from “so long ago.” The lyrics also hint at the composer’s self-reproach at allowing his better judgment to be clouded by the promise of love. The music generates an unsettled mood, framing texts that seem just as much prose as poetry. Shifting rhythms and free verse combine to repeatedly evoke the pace and patterns of human speech: a device you will hear in many of the songs that follow. A lingering, melancholy sympathy for the former love surfaces at the end (“And finally you came to me … . If only I had known all this”).
“Full Sail” recounts the heady intoxication of initial attraction and the ecstatic belief that “the beloved has appeared.” The music and singing roll out passionately from the solo piano measures that follow the introduction, swiftly moving toward a near-breathless depiction of the partners as able to overcome any obstacle. At the end, however, a provocative (though undocumented) remark pulls the plug, introducing a sense of uncertainty and foreboding. The singer uneasily inquires: “Is this important? Need I ask who you are?” For now, though, things will go forward.
The powerful song “Premonition” recounts the first direct encounter with the darkest depths of the partner’s psyche, manifested in a near-catatonic episode – “You are mute, frozen, alone … on a dead planet without a name, orbiting a dead sun.” Growing doubt and dread are touched upon in a quiet, eerie section introduced by a low bass tremolo in the piano: “Under us, the ground is always shifting.” Yet hope (and self-delusion) still prevail.
Perhaps the most touching part of the cycle is “Your Girl,” a poignant recollection of the ex-lover’s young daughter. Music and words alike spin a narrative of joy, carefree play and fresh, unexpected delight – turning suddenly bereft toward the end as a late-night car ride signals that doom is just around the corner. As this emotional piece reaches its climax, words of farewell that there was no time for are expressed by the composer.
“Cataclysm,” the cycle’s final chapter, spells profound trouble right from the start. The piano’s ragged, dissonant opening – soon punctuated by a startling rumble from its bass register – amplify the tormented words. The relationship’s death-stroke – “I don’t love you anymore” — comes via telephone, with no reason provided beyond lame and simplistic excuses. The piano crescendos into a sudden hammerblow of wrenching, Messiaen-like chords.
Music and words then unfold in classic stages of grief, as we fully realize that “the beloved” was seeking a short-term respite from inner demons she had little hope of exorcising on her own. Close to halfway through the track, the baleful motif at the end of “Full Sail” resurfaces in the piano, a mute commentary on the earlier song’s final line: “I trust you will reveal.”
A desolate section asking “Did I ever know you?” follows, capped by a turbulent portrait of being symbolically swept out into a fathomless ocean of mourning and loss. The fever pitch of suffering then gradually begins to die away, and a brief, fugue-like piano solo injects a measure of calm and comfort. After “eons have drifted by,” the singer-narrator rises again to the surface under a star-studded night sky. Once on the beach, there is the blessed realization that “I am no longer thinking of you.” The time for healing can finally begin.
Soprano Chamberlin and pianist Kirsch deliver intensity and total commitment throughout the cycle’s 29-minute span. Abel observes: “Jamie clearly ‘got’ Chameleon and poured everything she had into it. I have to say, very simply, she gave a stunning performance.”