In the Realms of the Unreal

ENS.2009.1 | 21′
3 Trumpets, 3 Pianos, 3 String Quartets


In the Realms of the Unreal

I. At Jennie Richee. Hard pressed during storm by persuing enemy they become lost in cavern of volcanic Mt. Sootreemia. Cavern at sections illuminated by mysterious source.

II. At Jennie Richee. Racing through a field of gigantic flowers to seek shelter as the storm renews.

III. To escape forest fires they enter a volcanic cavern. Are helped out of cave by Blengiglomenean creatures.

IV. The Blengiglomenean Lance!

V. Volume 8: Walter Starring descends into the craters. After the cataclysmic destruction of Abieann, June 1, 1913.

VI. Predictions and Threats

VII. At McCalls Run. Hands of fire

Henry Darger was a janitor and lived alone. But when he moved to a nursing home in the last year of his life his landlord cleaned out his apartment and found amazing things. He found a fifteen-thousand page novel and its ten-thousand page sequel, not to mention a five thousand page autobiography that is mostly about a tornado. And he found art: the extraordinary eight or ten foot-long paintings filled with hallucinatory visions of nature and war and little girls with penises tied to trees that have become Darger’s legacy. A quintessential outsider artist, creating his work not for public consumption but to satisfy some inner compulsion, his work possesses a striking vibrancy and inherent weirdness whose untutored naïvete and fervent Christian faith finds uneasy accommodation with an incessant darkness and violence.

The paintings for which he is best known were originally created as illustrations to his masterpiece, The Story of the Vivian Girls, In What Is Known As The Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, possibly the longest novel ever written. As hinted by its title, the work is set in an imaginary world and concerns a war fought against the evil Glandelinians by enslaved children and their allies. The Vivian Girls of the title, seven sisters ranging in age from seven to ten, are the protagonists, joined in their efforts to defeat the Glandelinians by various friends such as the Abieannians, whose country is completely destroyed in a massive explosion in Volume Eight, and the Blengiglomeneans, flying creatures that often take the form of little girls with wings, although they can also be gigantic dragon-like serpents. Inspired by chronicles of the Civil War, in The Realms crowded compositions, gigantic flowers and impossibly green landscapes are combined with a lush fairy tale atmosphere with what is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Darger’s work, the constant violence perpetrated against children, usually small girls, depicted in the most extreme and detailed way.

It is hard to overstate the weird intensity of his work and the fascination it inspires, and since I first saw an exhibition years ago at late, lamented American Museum of Folk Art on 53rd street. I intended to make a work about this singular figure. I am not the first to do so, and this is not even my first Darger work—John Ashbery wrote a characteristic book-length poem entitled Girls on the Run, portions of which I set in an eponymous composition—but I wanted to make an instrumental piece in response to the various aspects of his oeuvre, both written and pictorial. In particular I relied on John M. MacGregor’s excellent study In the Realms of the Unreal, whose close reading and psychological speculations allowed a better look at this strange and reclusive man.

My twenty-minute composition attempts to simultaneously evoke the childish sweetness, bleak devastation, and mental instability that coexist in Darger’s world. Written for three trumpets, three pianos, and three string quartets deployed across the stage in three equal groups, this work is intensely structured, following a symmetrical harmonic storyline through a series of constantly reiterated and combining variations of a handful of basic motives. Additionally, the piece moves physically across the performing space from left to right as if reading a book or viewing a painting, with its point of greatest saturation in the center as one steps back to view the work in its entirety.