Ryan Brown’s Mortal Lessons Makes Death Beautiful

Tysen Dauer on February 26, 2018
Ryan Brown's Mortal Lessons | Courtesy of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music

In the final gripping moments at the closing concert of the Hot Air Festival at the San Francisco Conservatory on Sunday night I encountered something I had never heard or even considered before: a musically beautiful rendering of death in a hospital. There are plenty of examples of dramatic, heroic, supposedly cosmically meaningful deaths in opera, but Ryan Brown’s latest composition, Mortal Lessons, brings listeners into the realm of the everyday and medical, into the physical spaces where most of us can expect to end our days.

Richard Selzer's writing inspired Ryan Brown's Mortal Lessons.

Brown takes us there through Richard Selzer’s writings, which draw on his experiences as a surgeon to poetically describe organs, muse on human evolution, relate patients’ stories, describe surgery, and offer up postmodern prayers for deliverance. The texts Brown sensitively selected from Selzer are also thoughtfully ordered: not so much to create a clear plot line but rather to meditate on a theme with refreshing shifts in narrative style and length. Brown also uses elements of theater to enliven the texts. A hospital bed covered in the familiar white sheet becomes a stage prop, lighting changes follow the music’s dramatic structure, and the four vocalists occasionally act and speak. The audience was even aurally drawn into the medical setting from the moment they entered the concert space as the beeps and chirps of the hospital emanated loudly from multiple speaker locations.

At its best, it was Brown’s utterly digestible, post-Steve Reichian musical riffs, and filmic touches that vivified Selzer’s texts. In a description of being anesthetized (“Let Yourself Go”), Brown convincingly created the ambiance of a slightly and pleasantly drugged state mixed with cooler tinges of the sterile environment by connecting the preconcert beeps with high-pitched plucking on keyboards, accompanied by warm drones from bowed percussion. Over this the vocalists sang and spoke from the anesthetized patient’s point of view, occasionally even managing to be humorous. At the moment of receiving an injection, the embracing drone dropped out, singers drooped about the stage as the drug’s effects hit. The soprano wandered away from the others without her score, representing the patient’s free-wheeling, slowly evaporating consciousness in a brief, comical, operatic cadenza. It was as if we were actually there with the patient, experiencing their mind drifting off.

Ryan Brown | Credit: Lenny Gonzalez

Not all the composition’s sections were so compelling: Occasionally the piece’s oft-repeated theme “anything that moves must come to a rest” felt tired and forced. Some comedic moments bordered on being too cute, such as when the dryly humorous text “bifrontal copulation, a stunning innovation,” was simply repeated too many times. And while the performers displayed great dedication, there were occasional intonation issues for some of the vocalists, some unintended rhythmically rough patches, and an unfortunate but brief issue with the onstage amplification not handling the loudness of a climactic moment. Given the quality of the work, I expect it will receive performances where these minor issues can be worked out.

None of these grievances diminish Brown’s achievement: the beautification of medical death. It shows us death as we are likely to experience it. One thing art does for us is transform what we ignore and find mundane into aesthetic experiences. Brown’s work does exactly that; humanizing what listeners rightly expect to be a coldly clinical topic. In making such experiences beautiful without veering into the melodramatic or the insincere, Brown offers a great gift: an opportunity to encounter and contemplate the end we all move toward.