Love and Betrayal in Reflections on Espionage

On this Valentine’s Day, I find myself wondering, where is love in the music of the Imaginary Timescapes program?  There’s tenderness towards inanimate objects and hints of middle school crushes in “Confessions from the Blogosphere,” but the main love story is that of betrayal.  In Reflections on Espionage, Felucca anticipates the arrival of her lover into a trap, while thinking out loud about her predicament.  The program note and texts for this song cycle for voice and string quartet, to be premiered in this version on Feb. 16th, is as follows:

When I asked the poet John Hollander for permission to set the poems that became the song cycle Reflections on Espionage, he responded, “Poor old Cupcake’s transmissions seem at first glance to be unlikely candidates for setting (and perhaps at second glance as well),” but encouraged me to try. Perhaps it is their unusual nature that drew me to these poems that comprise an intriguing novel. But it is also the range of emotions, complicated layers of thought processes, rhythm of language, and relevance to our own less exotic lives that inspired me to write these songs.

Codename Velvet’s attempts to question his own use of violence in the name of a higher purpose, as overheard by Cupcake, offer an interesting perspective on what we would call terrorism. This terrorist is not lacking a conscience, nor is he incapable of self-doubt; he merely lacks the courage to confront these challenges to his world-view. Felucca is a more sympathetic character, torn between loyalty to her lover and to her work, and resigned to the sacrifices that her work entails. Cupcake, the narrator whose daily transmissions comprise the novel, ponders his sentimentality for the little things in this unauthorized transmission to Image.

Felucca: The Listening

Artifact, as you know, was broken early
Today, and as per instructions, Felucca
Monitored the tapes, which now leave no question
—You were, of course, right—and will have reached you by
The other route. Here I enclose a transcript
Of what our bug picked up from the listening
Felucca as she waited for him to come;
It is of no particular use to us.

(Felucca) This waiting is worst.
Microphones in place, the hidden camera
Aimed at the bathroom medicine chest, almost
At the right bottle when the door is opened.
All is silent save for the sounds of midnight
Traffic outside, far below his apartment:
I hear them in my earphones as I wait here
In an adjoining dark flat for his return.
Turn, spool, turn, spool, spin, tape and wind him home now.

The tape recorder will be activated
By his footfall, which the shrewd machine knows as
Well as I do; then when he telephones them,
The flat, uncoiling serpent hissing softly
Will witness first his betrayal of the work.
Turn, spool, turn, spool, spin, tape and wind him home now.

They knew about us, gave me the assignment
Because of that, as if trapping a lover
Tested anything—as if everybody
I tailed or listened to or marked were not my
Man, all lovers were not on the other side.
Turn, spool, turn, spool, spin, tape and wind him home now.

A greenish letter L eyes me from my watch.
Now there is a hiatus in the street noise.
My quietness is gone, my heart is heavy.
Turn, spool, turn, spool, spin, tape and wind him home now.

Cupcake: The Enciphering

Cupcake to Image: this new frequency is
Better I think for our little transmissions
And certainly free for use at the hour I
Am accustomed to using. The cipher, of
Course, remains the same old eleven-matrix.
Today at sending time my wrist just under
My watch was itching and burning as if it
Were keeping some canonical time other
Than what my watch recorded, as if it were
Ringing some pre-set alarm. I reached home in
Time to find the new frequency clear and I
Started a rapid encipherment of this
Small message, noticing how easily now
My plain text goes into a cipher like this,
So familiar with long use that I wonder
From time to time if it can still be secure.
It has a natural plainness of its own
By now. And yet I cling to it, thinking how
At any moment we might have to scrap it.
Agents should not have pets, nor grow fond of their
Ciphers: one-time pads, anonymous bedmates,
Momentarily adopted ladybugs—
These are for us, I should think, in the long run.

Velvet: The Bombing

Do well by the project. Nothing lies beyond
But madness, the incapacitating chill
Of madness. Who are “We?” Who “They”?—Neatly
Printed capitals at the heads of the ruled
Columns on my grandmother’s bridge-scoring pads.
The names had for me as a child an order,
A mystery, quite apart from the way those
Curt pronouns were used in life. “We”, then, and “They”—

The paired purposes—ours and theirs—are themselves
Matched in a gimcrack tournament whose rules are
Revised bi-monthly by a board of macaques.
Do well by the project. Nothing lies beyond.

“We” and “They”: The Eastern Theys, the Western We’s,
Two franchised teams play professional eyeball,
And if we play well, where else is the good life?

Purpose is sickening. The work would suffer.
If there were justifications for it, how
Could one bomb anything? or cause bystanders’
Limbs to sail across the street, landing with a
Wet thud at one’s feet, if one were so fatuous
As to feel that this price were paid for something.
A clearly-broken, gaily emptied egg is
All that the golden word omlette can mean.

History who would be your judge is hardly
Even a nightmare—it is something you ate.

—John Hollander

 Come hear this work on February 16th!  (Tickets, $20, are available here; proceeds befenit the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund.)


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