Text by Patrick Eakin Young and Orlando Wells
Commissioned by Erratica
Chamber Opera for five voices and electronics
Finally, and most enigmatically, came Christopher Mayo’s The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered. It began as an intoned narrative about the disappearance of an architectural photographer in 1972 Chicago, but then broadened to take in not just the events in his life but an elegiac lament for outmoded American buildings ruthlessly destroyed by the wreckers’ ball, with reference to the paintings of Edward Hopper and much else. That may read like a muddle: in reality it was cogent, haunting and, at the end, desperately poignant.
— Richard Morrison, The Times (June 11, 2014)
The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered by Christopher Mayo (b1980), maintained the evening’s high standard, adding recorded sounds and including a creative visual homage to Edward Hopper’s Morning Sun (1952).
— Fiona Maddocks, The Guardian (June 15, 2014)
The exhausted post-orgy scene is seamlessly followed by a redressing and presentation of a mystery concerning the disappearance of an architectural photographer. ‘The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered’ by Christopher Mayo is read between the performers like a noir-style novella; as before the vocal music builts from speech to ensemble singing. It all ends with a humming chorus in compliment to the broadcast electronica.
— Jonathan Lennie, Time Out London (May 23, 2014)
The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered concerned a photographer’s tragic obsession with the skyscrapers of Louis Henry Sullivan, interwoven with the figure of the lonely woman in Edward Hopper’s Hotel Room. While Christopher Mayo’s score was a deft mix of documentary, pulsating drones, electric guitar and sparing percussion sounds, Turk’s designs communicated the vertiginous towers rising in projections. The search for his body acquires a strangely gripping tension, with dialogue sung in the style of Adam Cork’s London Road.
— Helen Wallace, Classical-music.com/BBC Music Magazine (June 16, 2014)
The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered utilises ‘voice’ as reportage in a delicate and haunting account of the real-life disappearance of an architectural photographer…A Party and The Tall Office Building are genre-exploding delights that succeed in provoking new and exhilarating possibilities for the form.
— Lee Anderson, A Younger Theatre (June 1, 2014)
I first encountered the story of Richard Nickel in a poem by Jonathan Williams. The poem is extremely short and consists entirely of found text from the writings of architect Louis Sullivan:
a flower appears
amid the leaves
of its parents plant
It’s fitting that this poem about Nickel is expressed exclusively through the words of Sullivan. Nickel’s life work was the photographic documentation of Sullivan’s buildings and in each of the photographs, we see the artistry of Sullivan expressed through the lens of Nickel. Nickel’s own voice is subsumed by Sullivan’s in these wide shots of grand victorian banks and theatres and close ups of intensely detailed architectural ornament. But the photographs have both a real human warmth and an incisive clarity that are clearly the work of Nickel. This piece is an attempt to reveal something of this personality behind the photographs.
The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered is also the title of a seminal 1896 essay by Louis Sullivan.
The electronic accompaniment in this piece is drawn from a narrow array of sound sources, specifically the Billboard US #1 Hits from dates pertinent to the narrative. Richard Nickel was married to his first wife, Adrienne, on June 10th 1950 and the Billboard #1 Hit on this date was “Sentimental Me” performed by the Ames Brothers. The sounds drawn from “Sentimental Me” represent the past, and accompany all discussion of events preceding Nickel’s disappearance. Nickel was due to marry his second wife, Carol, on June 10th 1972 and the Billboard #1 Hit on this date was “The Candy Man” performed by Sammy Davis Jr. The sounds drawn from “The Candy Man” represent the future and accompany all discussion of events after Nickel’s death. The majority of the narrative concerns the dates between Nickel’s disappearance on April 13th 1972 and the discovery of his body on May 9th 1972. The Billboard #1 Hits on these dates were “A Horse with No Name” by America and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” performed by Roberta Flack. The sounds drawn from these two songs constantly alternate and represent the uncertainty of Nickel’s fate for the twenty six days that his body remained undiscovered.
The only additional sound source is a brief audio clip of Nickel’s friend and fellow preservationist John Vinci. He describes his efforts to find Nickel, searching through the rubble of the part-demolished Stock Exchange: “…and it was raining and damp and we were, y’know, walking around saying ‘Richard, Richard.’ No Richard, and then we found his camera and hat, I think. And his suitcase.”
May 17 – June 7, 2014 (21 performances) - Erratica, The Print Room, London, UK
June 9-10 2014 (4 performances) - Erratica, Spitalfields Summer Festival, Wilton’s Music Hall, London, UK