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Stealing the Alphabet: Astor’s Paranormal Opera Thirty Years On
Paul Astor’s Paranormal Opera has never been performed live. That’s a good, broad statement with which to begin an essay, but unfortunately there’s no way to verify it. It may well have been performed multiple times; one would have to scour every community playhouse and university theater in the land to be sure, and half of those probably don’t keep records. What we can say with certainty is that no Astor scholar has ever turned up evidence of a staging of The Paranormal Opera. In that sense, the work is more of an academic oddity than it is an actual part of our cultural history. It has been debated and examined ad nauseam by a small but devoted group of Astor enthusiasts, all of whom seem determined that it should become somehow entrenched in our collective consciousness despite the fact that no one outside their hallowed circle has heard of it. One supposes that it was the recent resurgence of interest in Astor’s novels following his disappearance that prompted Reconstruction Records to release this, the only known recording of the Opera, made by Astor himself in collaboration with the equally-obscure band The Lull.
The work never having had an official debut, there exist no official instructions for staging the Opera. All we have are these recordings and Astor’s notes describing his vision for what it would have looked like. Upon examination of these, the first thing that can be said is that this would not have been an opera in the classical sense. It would have been more in the realm of an experimental performance art piece. Comparisons might be drawn to Philip Glass, John Cage, or Brian Eno. Costumes would have been minimal, concepts maximal. The music would have been performed by a band (presumably The Lull) hidden within a large luminescent polyhedron in the center of the stage. Care would have been taken to light the polyhedron without casting the musicians’ shadows on the inside surface so as not to distract the audience from the players acting out their story in front of it. The color scheme would have been muted—essentially confined to shades of grey and white with occasional forays into steel blue and crimson. The only permanent sets, aside from the translucent form in the center, would have been a long row of clocks of varying sizes running along the back of the stage from one end to the other, forming an oblique semi-circle around the players and the glowing shape. Various temporary sets or props would have come and gone from scene to scene.
Here we switch to the present-tense in order to give an outline of the Opera’s plot.
The performance begins with a man in plain clothes coming onstage to make an announcement. He takes the role of stage manager, although he is actually played by one of the actors. He tells the audience:
“Due to production constraints, the following roles will be combined:
℘ Daughter / Son / Homo sapiens;
ℑ Father / Angels / Mother / Teacher / Insects / Priests;
§ Spirit / Ancestors / D.N.A.”
(The symbols are reproduced from Astor’s notes. He used them to denote which actor or group of actors would sing each song or section of song.) The announcement is, of course, part of the story itself. There are no actual production constraints; Astor is most likely trying to establish a sense of archetypes blending together in a dreamlike fashion. His obsession with dreams is apparent in every one of his works, and The Paranormal Opera is certainly no exception.
In fact, the story begins with a man known as “the Banker” falling asleep in his office where he has been working all night. As he dreams, all the clocks onstage start to run backward—slowly at first, and then madly spinning. The Banker dreams that he has returned to Ancient Greece, specifically to the city of Eleusis. There, he takes part in the Eleusinian Mysteries, the annual rites of death and rebirth of which no man was allowed to speak on pain of execution. A group of insect-priests conducts the ceremony of initiation into the Mysteries. Each initiate must drink a cupful of an unknown liquid. The insect-priests sing the first song, “One Million,” along with the assembled initiates. The initiates sing a slightly different version of the lyrics than the priests, but all sing at the same time.
℘ One of you And one million You don’t stand a chance No one will back you up on this So take it to the high court of the morning My sources say the swarm is on the wind It’s all been decided Let the bells ring out for the approach Let money buy a house for each of us In the kingdom of where money buys pride and freedom The world belongs to each of us You are only you and you will never be someone else
ℑ One of you and one million of them You don’t stand a chance No one’s gonna back you up on this Even if you take it to the high court of the morning My sources say swarm is on the wind It’s all been approved and mandated by the swarm Let the bells ring out for the approach Let money buy a house for each of us In the kingdom of where money buys pride and freedom Only you are you and you will never be someone else Never be someone else
The insect-priests gather around the polyhedron as they sing, and it begins to glow. The clocks begin to spin forward just as madly as they had previously reversed. This signals a scene change.
The Banker finds himself in an unspecified time in human history (presumably after his own time, possibly in some sort of alternate timeline) in an unnamed country (presumably his own). The clocks have stopped moving. He falls in with a group of young revolutionaries in a major city. These guerrilla soldiers are fighting an oppressive regime composed entirely of their parents; for each guerrilla, there is an equivalent government official to whom they are directly related. The Banker accompanies the soldiers on a raid of a government intelligence center. Things go badly, and the raid ends with a firefight in the streets. During the battle, the revolutionaries sing “The Instant.”
℘ Here in the instant everything is round and soft Here in the instant we cry like birds Here in the instant tomorrow is coming together in lines We are running in the street with guns Here in the instant our parents have taught us what to do Here in the instant everything is coming together in lines Here in the instant tomorrow crows round and soft We are running in the street with guns
Halfway through the song, the action freezes, and all the clocks onstage start to chime and run forward, slowly this time. The chiming does not issue from the clocks themselves but is rather part of the music coming from the glowing polyhedron. At the moment when the music reverses itself, the clocks all stop and begin to run backward. The battle resumes, and this time the parents sing.
ℑ Here in the instant everything is round and soft Here in the instant we cry like birds Here in the instant tomorrow is coming together in lines We are running in the street with guns Here in the instant our parents have taught us what to do Here in the instant everything is coming together in lines Here in the instant tomorrow crows round and soft We are running in the street with guns
Scene change. After the battle, the Banker becomes disenchanted with the revolutionaries’ cause and goes to live on the streets with a group of drug dealers. Rather than selling typical substances, the dealers sell food pellets for small creatures known as Angels. The Angels appear to be large beetles with golden wings that sit on a user’s shoulder and inject chemicals into the ear with their needle-like appendages. The chemicals cause feelings of intense love and euphoria. The Angels exist naturally, flying from user to user; however, they only stay on a user’s shoulder if the user feeds them, and they only eat the food the dealers sell. The dealers claim that the creatures are literal Angels sent to Earth to spread love and brotherhood. The users are skeptical of this claim but are so severely addicted that they do not argue. From time to time, the users rebel against their addiction and cast off the Angel on their shoulder; however, it isn’t long before another Angel settles on them, and they usually do not get rid of it. The users tell the Banker of a fabled method for ending the addiction, known as the Invisible Trick. The method involves finding true love in another human being that surpasses the artificial love of the Angels. When real love enters the brain, the body produces a natural pheromone which causes the user to become invisible to the Angels. No Angel will ever settle on that user’s shoulder again. Every user claims to know someone who has succeeded in performing the Invisible Trick, but none of them can produce such a person. One of the users sings “The Invisible Trick” to explain their way of life.
℘ The Angels tell you: “Only perfect perfect love will save us from the world and only perfect people get that kind of love” It’s not as if you haven’t tried a hundred thousand times it’s not as if you haven’t spent your life reminding yourself They say: “It won’t happen” but if someone loves you madly you won’t have to listen anymore And they are gonna tell you a hundred thousand times and you will take it and you’ll shut your mouth “Love is a needle love is everything you’ve ever wanted in the space of fifty seconds in the space above the air” Love is forever love is something in the water something in a plane a hundred thousand miles above the air They’re singing: “It’ll never happen” but if someone loves you madly you won’t have to listen anymore And they are gonna tell you a hundred thousand times and you will take it and the Angels tell you: “You can’t have it” but if you want it that badly who can really stop you It’s about time you opened up your eyes and figured it out It’s not as if you haven’t spent your life As if you haven’t spent your whole life Telling yourself It’s not as if you haven’t tried the needle Not as if you haven’t tried the smoke and pills As if you haven’t tried what they say what they Say: “It won’t happen” but if someone loves you madly you won’t have to listen anymore And they are gonna tell you a hundred thousand times and you will take it and the Angels tell you: “You can’t have it” but if you want it so badly who can really stop you It’s about time you open up your eyes and figure it out figure it out They say “It won’t happen” but if someone loves you madly you’re invisible to Angels and at first they’ll see through your disguise and you will smile and you will shut your mouth But it’ll happen that when someone loves you madly they won’t see you anymore And you will have to practice at least a thousand times before you figure it out figure it out
The Banker meets a young priest who has been ministering to the users. The priest invites the Banker back to his church. Scene change. The Banker witnesses a ceremony that is essentially a bastardized version of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The priests sing “Third” to the Banker, and by extension the rest of the world.
℘ What are you for Now that I’ve got a heart of gold? What are you for Now that I have a light shining inside me? What are you for?
A figure in a long coat and a mask enters and begins to whisper. The whisper is amplified so as to be audible over the music.
§ There was a great city and we all woke up there it was filled with shadows and halogen and tungsten bulbs and moonlight (so many moons) and we could hear the howling in the distance where the mountains rose from the landscape and the water buried the shaft where some of us fell into the night which went for miles and we were transported through the pipes and hallways to a high castle filled with machines which ran the length of the world where we could look down on the landscape and see the twisted trees and the huge crocodile statues bending and reaching toward the place in the West where the light streamed down on the great city swallowed in mountains and where he told us he had made the world and he had complicated plans for what would happen there and the light shifted all day and the earthquakes rumbled and the storms were made in a huge chamber and the people roamed about in fear and confusion trying to find the ones they (we) had lost but he was made of shadows and his plans were wrong so we killed him and fled the control room and found a place which felt familiar and there was a house there with an open door and hollowed-out pumpkins and gourds with light inside that flickered in the darkness and we could see what we wanted but we were afraid to go in.
Scene change. The Banker, afraid, flees the church and runs into a group of what appear to be young children on the street; however, they are wearing masks that make them look hungry and inhuman. The children sing “Last and First Men.”
℘ Things that grow in the sunset we’ve met Things that go where the snow went we’ve let Things fall apart to show we regret Things we owe to the frozen things that Build their cities in the passing shadows Whisper secrets in the soft clean beds They’ve stolen from their children Who are in the rushes who are dead Starving the future to feed the past Telling star tales of their wars of liberation We are who we hoped we’d never be In the first days of a fallen country Flowers shiver in the sun and wind Under monuments of steel and stone The kids are rude and suicidal Echoes in the garden Internal darkness, deprivation Flower petals driven on the wind The distracted song of unhealthy souls The kids are not kids any longer Inoperancy in the world of spirit Apathy with no concentration Say goodnight Say goodnight Something wrong inside the machinery Converting money into money The kids are prone to eat each other 1. What is it that brought us to this place? and Say goodnight 2. Who are the good and worthy people? Say goodnight
The Banker falls to the ground and begins to cry. Scene change. He awakes in his office. The same dark figure in the long coat from two scenes previous is standing behind him. He is too terrified to turn around. The figure begins to speak in an unknown language, and the clocks spin in different directions, some forward, some backward. When the figure stops speaking, the clocks stop. The Banker begins to sing “Figure One,” recalling a girl named Sarah with whom he had been in love years ago before he let his career come between them.
℘ It didn’t leave I wish it would The coat is empty but I’m gonna take care of it I feel it watching from the back of the room It says: § “Figure it out figure it out” ℘ And it says: § “Love is money but money’s not love” ℘ It makes my skin crawl but I’m gonna take care of it I’m gonna write this down Everything is beautiful and slow and glowing It’s all coming back to me now You said you love me and I’m worth something I’m gonna write this down In the alcove in a sort of a coma
I miss you so bad but I’m gonna take care of it The oily wheels of every fortune Say: § “Figure it out figure it out” ℘ And it says: § “You are about to become a genius” ℘ It makes me angry but I’m gonna take care of it I’m gonna write this down I’ve never been happier than in that hour When you were here and you really cared It makes me think that all the years were § Serpentine motion Remember it when I laugh Nervous fluid force The friction of gold A sinuous design To guard against desire ℘ I’m gonna write this down The spirit in the air keeps shouting about How my old ways are nothing and I spent my life Trying to win at everything shouting about how Money’s not love money’s not love money’s not love ℘§ Love is money but money’s not love ℘ I’m gonna write this down § These books are written for everyone
Suddenly, the dark figure throws its arms in the air. The polyhedron, which has been glowing the entire time, grows brighter. The Banker, apparently still dreaming, is thrown sideways and collapses.
Scene change. He awakes in an alternate world once more. It is unclear whether or not this is the same one he had visited previously. The clocks have stopped. He stumbles out of an alley. There is some kind of political rally taking place nearby. Men in military uniforms that appear slightly too fancy to be real are standing around a large, oddly-shaped cannon with a huge metal coil on top. In this world, gunpowder was never invented and the oddly-shaped cannon that produces lethal bursts of electricity is the first long-range projectile weapon ever to be developed. It has allowed the nation of the uniformed men to conquer the entire planet. As a gesture of honor and gratitude, the nation has elected the oddly-shaped cannon President of the World. The uniformed men and the assembled crowd sing “The Electric Gun.”
ℑ We are decorated in joy for the inauguration of the Electric Gun Now there is a way to kill people at long range that’s Electrical Finally there’s a way to kill people at long range that’s Electrical It’s not me it’s the Size of this Room that makes me treat you bad It’s not me it’s the Ghosts in this Room that make me treat you bad
The Banker begins to cry again and stumbles away from the rally. A man in tattered clothes, seeing the Banker’s distress, takes his arm and guides him down the street to a halfway house. Scene change. The man in tattered clothes explains that this is where he lives. He takes the Banker inside and offers him a meal. The Banker, grateful for the tattered man’s kindness, eats. As he does, he asks the tattered man how he came to live there. The tattered man explains that he had originally committed himself to a mental health facility but is now living at the halfway house as the first step to living independently again. The Banker asks the tattered man why he committed himself to the mental health facility. The tattered man sings “The Shining Hours” by way of explanation.
℘ Birds came in the summer rain I took it hard took it too hard I took it way too hard Cities melting in the sea again I took it way too hard I took it way too hard Strange lights in the streets at night I took it hard took it too hard I took it way too hard The soldiers told me it would be all right I took it way too hard I took it way too hard You know it found the cracks It grows into the plants and wraps The cold and glowing heights It blows in through your hands at night It takes one to make the Sun I took it hard took it too hard I took it way too hard It takes two to make the Moon I took it way too hard I took it way too hard You know it found the cracks It blows in through the plants and wraps The cold and glowing heights It grows into your hands at night
When the tattered man sings, “It takes one to make the Sun,” he holds up one finger and traces a circle in the air. When he sings, “It takes two to make the Moon,” he holds up two fingers and traces a crescent in the air, starting with the fingertips touching at the top of the crescent, spreading them apart in the middle, then bringing them back together at the bottom. This seems to make sense to the Banker in some profound way. He embraces the tattered man and thanks him profusely.
Scene change. The Banker leaves the halfway house and walks the streets until he finds the alternate version of his office in the alternate world. It is inside a titanic, byzantine bank building. As he walks the halls of the building, he hears the other bankers singing “We Ignore Our Children.” A child enters to sing the first verse.
ℑ Yes we ignore our children but it’s okay As long as we all agree that it’s okay ℘ Mother says she wants to know Where I was last night where I was last night But she doesn’t care where I’ve been All my wretched stupid lonely life In the land of the free in the land of opportunity In the home of the brave in the realm of possibility ℑ Yes we ignore our children but it’s okay As long as we all agree that it’s okay We’re living in Andromeda Because we’re intergalactic intergalactic Can someone please tell us what’s wrong with us? We were supposed to be godlike supposed to be godlike Yes we ignore our children but it’s okay As long as we all agree that it’s okay Yes we ignore our children but it’s okay
The Banker finds his office and unlocks his wall safe. He removes a photograph of Sarah and exits through the back door of the bank, leaving the wall safe and his office door open. A second figure—this time in grey—follows him out. Scene change. The Banker walks the streets once more trying to find his house. The clocks run faster to signal that he has been walking for hours without success. The grey figure follows him the entire way. Finally, exhausted, the Banker lies down on a dilapidated park bench in a grimy park somewhere in the city. There is a statue of a dog sitting in the middle of the park. The plaque on the statue reads GREYFRIARS BOBBY The grey figure stands next to the statue in silence. The Banker falls asleep on the bench and dreams of the women he has known over the years. They appear as a parade of white-clad figures. His dream-self sings “Protector.”
℘ Each one’s like a different planet Like spinning round the galaxy With each new rapid angel I feel unsafe at any speed The same familiar siren sun That pulls me in and draws me down I feel my love for you Like burning through like shaking hands You’re a beautiful girl You’re a burning hole in the world I cannot fill you anymore Withdraw from my spacelanes and ground your terraplanes Mining my vermilion sands In the twilight of my silent age You’re a beautiful girl You’re a burning hole in the world I cannot fill you anymore I cannot feel you anymore No
Scene change. As the Banker contemplates his failed relationships and the loss of the one woman he truly loved, the clocks begin to spin wildly in different directions. The white-clad women file offstage, and a group of figures in various colors file on. They arrange themselves in a double-helix pattern. Another group of people in plain clothes enter. Together, they all sing “The Slow Chains.”
ℑ For the slow chains we are fighting in the fire with fire It’s enough to know you’ve got a way out § In the night behind you on the balustrade of the mantlepiece We are laughing loud and long in a song ℘ For the slow chains we are fighting in the fire with fire It’s enough to know you’ve got a way out § We take the left behind and bury them where you will Never find them never find them You are the latecomers latecomers we’ve been here forever Do not try to stop us we know what you want and we will Give it to you give it to you without mercy or regret Here it comes now here it comes now: κάτω από τον κόσμο ℑ℘ For the slow chains We are fighting in the fire with fire Twisted Round
A third figure—in white—enters. The Banker runs from the stage. Scene change. Exeunt all. The Banker reappears in the clothes of the tattered man. He stumbles through the streets, singing “The Locust Room.” The insect-priests from Ancient Eleusis enter and stand silently in the background. The clocks are still spinning.
℘ My smile won’t stick after fifteen years of failure You’re looking at me like looking at me like I don’t know Looking at me like I’m already gone It sets me off it sets me off I’m trying but I’m Trying but I’m In the Locust Room again my mind is buzzing with a brilliant song That tells me oh it doesn’t matter now I’m pretty sure that this is Gonna hurt that This is gonna hurt that This is This is Listen On the street a guy is walking past And he says something to a guy who’s walking Not like something good I’m guessing Cause there’s something in the air now And we’re And we’re In the Locust Room again where people treat each other like disease It makes you think it might be better if they all were Anyway This is gonna hurt that Gimme a break here
Snow begins to fall. The Banker finds himself on streets more thinly populated. Finally, he leaves the city altogether. In the distance, at the end of a long country road, he sees a place where a car has skidded off the side and smashed into a rocky embankment. The snow falls silently as the turn signal clicks on and off in an endless repetition. As he makes his way down the road, he hears a voice singing “The Crusher.”
§ Eyes closed on a silent street Grip white on the side of the seat Ring a note that sounds so sweet Ice flows to your hands and feet Blood pump in a pounding beat Ring a note that’s now so sweetly Come to meet me down the driving sleet and All we ever know Through the silent snows How we ever raise a hand up Feeble for our eyes And on a thousand roads All the sirens go “Ooooooooooo” Brake and shift and a twist inside As the drive train slips from side to side It’s a smooth it’s a quiet glide Snowflakes fall on the hand that steers As the sun blinds white from a thousand mirrors Make a fist for your uncried tears All we ever know Through the silent snows How we ever bring a hand up Feeble for our eyes On a thousand roads All the sirens go “Ooooooooooo”
The Banker finally arrives at the wrecked car. He opens the driver’s-side door to find a man behind the wheel covered in blood. He turns the driver’s face toward him and sees his own face underneath the blood and damage. He sinks to the ground and sits quietly in the falling snow for several minutes looking at his body in the car. No music plays. The clocks have stopped. The light from the polyhedron has faded into darkness. After a long silence, “Love Theme #85” begins to play, and a faint light comes to life in the interior of the shape. The Banker rises to his feet and begins to climb the embankment away from the car. When he reaches the top of the embankment, he looks down the other side into an icy wilderness. The sun bursts from behind the clouds, and “Sarah” begins to play. The Banker sings as images of sunlight and rushing clouds fill the stage. The rest of the cast joins him.
℘ℑ§ Across the sea of frozen water Up the cold and cloudy river Mountains hum with lions yelling “Sarah” In the wind that pulls the weather Stars are singing all together Fireflies and birds are shouting “Sarah” I kept this all here for you I just can’t wait to see what you will do with it In the violence of the summer Bells are ringing out for lovers Trying to find as much resolve as Sarah Driven in the heart of winter Melting into liquid fire This is why the lightning follows Sarah You’ve been up working all night For hours and hours and hours Bet it’s gonna be amazing when you finally turn on the light Turn on the light
The Banker awakes in his office. He rises from his desk and unlocks his wall safe. He takes the photograph of Sarah and leaves the stage as “Quiet Future” plays.
This is the end of The Paranormal Opera. The audience is left to speculate as to whether the Banker has in fact died or has simply experienced a rather strange dream. Astor’s trademark obfuscation and his use of dreams-within-dreams and dreams-as-higher-reality make anyone’s subjective interpretation equally credible. Some have pointed to similarities between the Opera and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, suggesting that perhaps the Banker has been given a second chance at life at the end of the story. Others insist that he has been caught in some sort of repeating time loop. There is argument over whether time travel has actually occurred when it seems to have occurred or whether it has only occurred in certain instances—for example: was the Banker’s initial journey back to Ancient Eleusis the only true instance of time travel, and were the rest simply part of a vivid hallucination brought on by the drugged liquid which the insect-priests gave him?
One theory that is very popular amongst the Opera’s limited fan base, and which I find myself liking more and more, is that the insect-priests have summoned the Banker and the other initiates back in time (or made time obsolete) so as to give them all second chances as part of the sacred festival of rebirth. Thus, everything that happens after the initial ceremony is part of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the exact nature of which vary according to the individual initiate. Each initiate would experience a different set of events specific to his or her own psychology and personal history. Given that “reality” is only the subjective experience of each individual mind, the drugged liquid could well alter reality itself by altering the thought processes of the initiates. After all, aren’t we only what we tell ourselves we are? This interpretation would reduce the significance of time travel, alternate realities, and the other sci-fi elements of the story in favor of a more mystical / philosophical / spiritual / metaphorical meaning. Those familiar with Astor’s other works would surely agree that this fits his style far better than some rambling fantasy.
Some fans of the Opera have made much of the fact that the Banker appears in one of the final scenes wearing the clothes of the tattered man. Their interpretation is that the entire story takes place inside the mind of the tattered man and that his meeting with the Banker is in fact a meeting with the part of himself that refuses to let go of the past.
I could go on listing the various theories, but I won’t. I want to stress that these are all essentially the result of late-night discussions amongst a rather small community of enthusiasts on internet forums. The Opera as of yet having gained no real popularity and never having been performed for the public, there have been very few scholarly analyses of the work put forth. The Astor scholars by and large prefer to focus on the author’s published stories. The Opera is basically considered a side-note—a failed experiment—in Astor’s already relatively obscure career.
I have titled this introduction “Stealing the Alphabet” because I feel that’s what Astor is doing in the Opera (and in other works): he is commandeering a set of unusual symbols and ascribing new meanings to them in an effort to form a language which will be able to express ideas or emotions that he feels may have become too well-worn to be effective as they are. His intentional use of wild and fantastic images to give a name to commonplace things like rage, despair, regret, guilt, and hope can be off-putting at times and may be why his works have not found the acclaim that many feel they deserve.
For my part, I count myself among the obsessives who are drawn to Astor’s work, and I find The Paranormal Opera a compelling enigma. Whether or not it ever finds a place in the common consciousness of humanity, I couldn’t care less. Perhaps some things are better and more valuable for their esoteric nature and their limited audience—diamonds in the caves, as it were.
PROF. JOSEPH REYNOLDS
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
NOTE: The following is a reproduction of Joseph Reynolds’ introductory essay written for the planned release of the original recordings of The Paranormal Opera in 2007. For one reason and another (copyright dispute), the release never saw the light of day. However, we at The Far Stairs were fortunate enough to get ahold of a copy of the master tapes and were inspired to record this re-creation (“re-imagining”? No. Fuck that.) of the Opera. We wish we could include a second disc of Astor’s original recordings to be played side-by-side with our versions, as they really are worth hearing; alas, until we all live in a socialist paradise, we cannot do so for fear of legal apocalypse, etc. Enjoy.