Bryce Dessner, guitarist for the indie band the National, was a Cincinnati teenager in 1990 when the city’s Contemporary Arts Center became the epicenter for a culture war over censorship and government support for the arts.
A retrospective exhibition of work by Robert Mapplethorpe, who had recently died of AIDS, sparked an obscenity trial. The exhibit, “The Perfect Moment,” contained five graphic images of homosexual sadomasochism and two portraits of naked children, among other nudes and self-portraits — all representative of Mapplethorpe’s body of work, which provocatively merged classical form with graphic sexuality.
During Congressional hearings about funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, then-Senator Jesse Helms declared, “this pornography is sick.”
In Cincinnati both the museum and its director faced obscenity charges. They were later acquitted by a jury, a trial viewed as a victory for free speech.
“They put art on trial, basically,” Dressner has said in an interview. “It was a huge, huge cultural event in the city. It kind of turned on a light for me about a lot of issues.”
That light never turned off. It led Dressner to compose the oratorio “Triptych (Eyes of One on Another),” a tribute to Mapplethorpe’s ground-breaking work.
A multi-media performance with large-scale projections of Mapplethorpe’s photographs, “Triptych” plays the Bass Concert Hall Sept. 20.
Dressner wrote “Triptych” for eight-member Roomful of Teeth, the genre-breaking Grammy-winning vocal ensemble, and a chamber orchestra. Mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran and tenor Isaiah Robinson are featured soloists.
For the libretto Dressner tapped poet Korde Arrington Tuttle who used Mapplethorpe’s XYZ Portfolios as inspiration. Mapplethorpe named his photographic portfolios for their components: X for gay sadomasochistic imagery, Y for flower still lifes, and Z for nude portraits of African American men.
The libretto also incorporates poetry by Mapplethorpe’s close friend Patti Smith, and by the late poet and activist Essex Hemphill, who wrote about the African American gay community and criticized Mapplethorpe’s sexual objectification of black men.
“Triptych” was commissioned by UT’s Texas Performing Arts, and produced in residency with and commissioned by University Musical Society, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.
“As a teenager, I was told I wasn’t allowed to look at the photos,” Dessner told the Los Angeles Times. “Obviously, in recent years Mapplethorpe has just become more and more famous and kind of ubiquitous — also, the nature of what those images mean has changed. We see them differently now than we would have then.”