Tuesday 5 June 2012

Book Review: Sum

 Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman

This inaugural book review for the Brain Box does not feature the latest neuroscience book to hit the shelves, nor is it even the latest work by author, David Eagleman. What marks this book out in particular is a recent chamber opera adaptation by composer Max Richter and directed by the choreographer Wayne McGregor, which I saw performed last night at the Royal Opera House Linbury Studio Theatre. So, this is a slightly unconventional start, part book and opera review!
"In the afterlife..."
As the title suggests, the book is comprised of a collection of short stories, more like a series of vignettes, each imagining a different possible afterlife. For example, the opening tale, Sum, invites you to image an afterlife in which you relive all your previous experiences, but reordered and grouped according to common themes/qualities. You spend six days clipping your nails, six weeks waiting for a green light, one year reading books, two week lying, three week realising you are wrong, two weeks counting money, etc. And buried in this inventory of such life experience is fourteen minutes of pure joy, as well as the pain and heartache all tallied and accounted for.
"...fourteen minutes of pure joy..."
The opera also beings with this title piece, with an intense overlay of instrument and voice, interweaving fragments of a categorised life with fourteen minutes of pure joy at the heart of the storm. It is a powerful opening, the emotion intensified by the use of space to trap and magnify the experience of sound.
"The spoken word becomes like a thought flying across space"
The whole performance is contained within a cube, or waiting room, surrounded by large projected walls carrying a constant flow of images. The musical ensemble plays from a central pit and the vocal performers roam about the audience. According to the director, all these elements should "coalesce to have a visceral, personal and profound impact on each individual in the room". Indeed, within the confined space, it is impossible to remained detached. The director certainly succeeds in creating a "living, breathing installation where the audience become intrinsic players"

Max Richter likens Sum to a series of literary variations, a study of the same subject from different angles and  perspectives. Although, strictly, each story is mutually exclusive, the narrative flows from one vignette to the other as Eagleman sketches out the human condition. Like the lone quark in the tale Conservation, a singular common theme is used to sketch out the hopes, dreams, loves and disappointments of the human, a curious creature, who, despite the sophisticated sensory apparatus, simply wants to clump together with other conspecifics, to be stroked and look at one another (from tale Narcissus).

The opera captures the powerful emotion and beauty of Sum, but not so much the humour. It would probably be a mistake to attempt an operatic translation of hilarious tales like the Death Switch, in which life is preserved through an absurd extension of the out-of-office-reply. Also conspicuously absent is the humorous tale Graveyard of the Gods. The opera is almost certainly better for these absences, enabling a more coherent, and deeper exploration of a common theme. But for the full experience, the book is essential reading.

Read and listen to more from Max Richter here
And read more from Wayne McGregor here
And hear an interview with David Eagleman on this Guardian podcast

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