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Bridge directions

December 5, 2018

As part of our research for this piece, some of us asked others of us (cough Brian cough) to teach us to play the game of bridge. We had one go of it, more to come. Stay tuned! Maybe candid pics!

If you’ve studied Improvement, you’ll note that the final four scenes spell out a kind of bridge game. I knew that the four players in bridge were referred to as north, south, east, and west because I’ve read a lot of sports sections of a lot of newspapers and gleaned that. I hadn’t explored it played into the meaning of Improvement.

This is a preface to say I’m no expert (I’ve played a lot of euchre though, which I now realize is quite similar, just with fewer cards), but I feel like there’s some meaning to the descriptions each direction gets in the introduction to the bridge game scenes:

This is the last hand. It’s getting late.
North: Berlin, a tango. Mixed Emotions.
East: River Rouge. The Red River. The Movement.
South: Campo de Fiori (Rome). Early Warning.
West: Atlantis, where what came before and now are joined.

If Berlin is North, Rome is South, and Atlantis is West, we’re in Europe. River Rouge I imagine refers to the Ford plant in Michigan, and there are a bunch of Red Rivers. So East may be an intentional outlier, or I may be wrong in my basic orientation. There is after all Berlin, Connecticut, which is pronounced “BUHR-lynn”, stress on the first syllable.

The North/Berlin section has a lot of overtones of conspiracy – Nazis hiding in South America after WW2, the JFK assassination, “everyone’s a spy”. Linda, who remember stands in for the post-expulsion Jews in this opera, has gone through a lot of tumult and assimilation in Act 2, and the bridge game scenes to me indicate that things are not so rosy on the horizon. But it’s not a clear linear progression of that. This scene has the air of a condensed Cold War thriller.

The East/River Rouge section is the clearest little song-let in the whole piece and it goes by in a breeze. The melody for this section contains in it (if you filter out the G naturals) the passacaglia you can hear plainly at the very top of the opera, and which recurs in many forms throughout. The lyrics are a riddle to me: “the biggest building/ in the world/ pays me five a day/ brand new suit/ cigarettes/ I don’t care what you say/ words can never change it/ money talks/ work is here to stay”. This makes me think of Crash, when Bob talks about having a day job for a few decades, and how it let him smoke real cigarettes, but how much better it was for him when he had no more day job. The River Rouge Ford plant was over one square mile, not sure if that was the biggest in the world, but it no doubt was connected to a lot of jobs that resulted in cigarettes and new suits. Hard to say exactly how this applies to Linda and the narrative. Also, “The Movement” is vague enough to not point to anything specific to me.

South/Campo de Fiori, Rome is to me an intimation of the Holocaust or genocide more broadly. It repeats the number 28,278,466, citing that as the number of people who vanished in a flash. It’s not near the figure of 6 million European Jews murdered by the Nazis and their associates, but it’s quite close to the 27 million who died in the Soviet union during the war. The numbers also have a bit of the air of the $14.28 and reconfigurations of those numbers that appear elsewhere in the opera and in “The Backyard” from Perfect Lives, numbers with a certain mostly even character that recur and don’t refer to anything concrete. Special internal numbers that people (at least I do) carry around. The Campo de Fiori is also the plaza in Rome where Giordano Bruno (represented in this piece by Mr Payne) was burned at the stake by the inquisition, and where you can find a statue of him today. So there’s some message here that Bruno’s death is tantamount to or representative of the death of millions, maybe? “Early Warning” is hard to say… sounds like a Cold War thing?

The last one is West/Atlantis. Not a lot of words here, it’s a suddenly placid way to end the opera. There’s a repeated reference to some islands which are gone now but still talked about. Amidst that is an alternation between “the first among us”, “safe place for sailors”, “lost in an instant”, and “still in the papers”. The vibe I get is an Atlantis narrative about it being the source of life/culture/civilization, the something cataclysmic will happen to reveal it again, and that there’s a greater arc that returns to where it started. “what came before and now are joined” is what it says in the preface. It’s a good open ended way to conclude an opera that’s just the first of four in a larger story.

Trying to shake specific meanings out of individual lines or scenes or characters in this work is not very fruitful, but trying to hold the text and titles up to the light to reveal more associations and connections is helpful for me. To talk (or type) my thoughts out to do some mapping helps shape resonances between unexpected sections within the piece, or connect it to other parts of Bob’s work. So, bridge: it’s a colorful overlay here. It lacks a specific meaning, but those are a couple bits of meaning you can put with the game and the scenes’ content if you care to do so.

– Dave

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