Anxiety over human hubris and the unforeseen consequences of technology has inspired composers at least since the Age of Steam. It’s behind the spike in operatic treatments of the Faust myth in the 19th century; it runs through Paul Dukas’s tone poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”; and it flares up in recent works like John Adams’s “Doctor Atomic,” which agonizes about the creation of nuclear weapons.
On Monday, the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center presented the New York premiere of Ashley Fure’s “The Force of Things,” an hourlong work billed as an “opera for objects” that is a powerful expression in sound of ecological dread. (It continues through Wednesday.) The challenge, Ms. Fure said in remarks before the performance at the Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center in Brooklyn, was to make palpable a threat that is unfolding on so vast a scale, and at such glacial a pace, that the human body is “designed to ignore it.” What would it take, she asked, for the dangers of global warming to trigger the same rush of fear as a tiger let loose in a room?
Ms. Fure — who has been commissioned to write a work for the opening of the New York Philharmonic’s season next month — and her brother, Adam Fure, an architect who designed the sculptural set, have created an immersive experience that is claustrophobic and viscerally fraught. Their central invention is the use of massive subwoofer speakers that emit frequencies too low to be audible to the human ear, yet strong enough to set abuzz every object and diaphragm in the room. While my body did not release terrorlike adrenaline jolts, the sustained barrage of throbbing vibrations in my inner ear — like driving at high speed in a car with the rear windows down — soon registered as pain.
I spent much of the hour worrying about my hearing. The rest of the time I admired Ms. Fure’s virtuosic manipulation of fear.
In some ways, Ms. Fure’s vocabulary of dread-inducing noises is familiar: a panicky pulse, heavy distortion, muffled cries and amplified whispers, sustained dissonances. The production of them, however, was novel. Members of the International Contemporary Ensemble conjured sounds out of the otherwise inaudible vibrations of the subwoofers, placing nut shells or wind chimes onto trembling surfaces, upon which they began to rattle and jump. Cables suspended from the ceiling were pulled taut and bowed until they let loose low moans. A bassoon with its top end wrapped in foil emitted choked squeals. Two singers, holding megaphones against their mouths, slurped air in tiny gulps.
In their white plastic coats, the performers looked like hazmat experts investigating the aftermath of a catastrophe. Mr. Fure’s billowing white sculptures, made of plastic, trace paper and silicon, had their own sickening beauty. Depending on the lighting (beautifully manipulated by Nicholas Houfek), they could look monolithic or flimsy, with the nacreous shimmer of spilled oil.
For the first part of the performance, the audience was invited to walk around a space ringed by the sculptures, which came alive with swooshing sounds made by unseen abrasions. For the remainder of the show, listeners sat on white leather cubes surrounded by the performers, who also moved about. Sounds grew and coalesced into dark waves that seemed to take forever to crest. At some point the singer’s voices began to assert themselves more clearly; the bassoon and saxophone started to sound more like their full-bodied selves. But although there was a certain release in the unclogging of things, in the brighter and sharper sonorities coming through at the end, they were ultimately channeled into a giant wail.
Although “The Force of Things” is an unpleasant experience to sit through, it has an ominous elegance that speaks to Ms. Fure’s command of her art. It would be interesting to expose audiences to it without introduction or program notes and see what associations it triggers. The work could probably reflect other fears of incremental, unstoppable changes: the gradual erosion of democratic safeguards, say, or gentrification. But as a “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” for the Anthropocene, it is singularly effective.