Chicago-based composer Alex Temple, whose music you should certainly check out on her website, has a piece coming out titled End that will be of great interest to those of you that might have an awareness of a phenomenon known as “closing logos” (or “scary logos”). Readers of The Glass are definitely familiar with these from my coverage of Eric Siday’s work as well as my interview with filmmaker Rodney Ascher about his short The S From Hell. End is an operatic take on the scary logo phenomenon, and as an interesting twist, the work will be presented as a 3-part podcast–the premiere dates have yet to be announced, so please be on the lookout for them.
In the meantime, Alex has another work premiering at NY’s Cell Theater on December 20th at 8 PM titled Switch: A Science-Fiction Micro-Opera that will be part of an evening program titled Den of Death, featuring the Cadillac Moon Ensemble and other works by Matt Marks, Melody Loveless and Viet Cuong. Click here or the link at the bottom for info/tickets.
CM: I noticed that there seems to be a whole community and, in some ways, a “culture”, of people that have had some rather traumatic reactions to these things called “closing logos”, and although they existed for many years in movies (and they still do), the ones from 1960s and 70s TV shows are the most notable, particularly the Screen Gems one (aka, The S from Hell) that had electronic music provided by Eric Siday. I had just as much trouble with this clip as a youngster, and admittedly it still gives me chills. Can you talk about how this whole thing became the inspiration for your opera?
Alex: I first discovered the world of closing logos about five years ago. I was thinking about an experience I’d had when I was young: on certain winter days, I would get up early for school, look out the window, see a thick blanket of snow, and sit in front of my dad’s small TV, watching the names of schools scrolling by on the news, waiting to see if mine had declared a snow day. I found myself wanting to see one of those broadcasts again, so I started looking on YouTube for local-news clips from the late 80s. That led me to TV station IDs, and TV station IDs led me to the closing logo community.
[Pictured left, the 70s era Viacom logo, a.k.a. the “V of Doom”]
Until that moment, I had no idea that anything like this existed. A lot of the logos people were talking about were from the 60s and 70s, and they were much starker than the ones I grew up with, all minimalist design and alarming analog synths. And people weren’t just talking about being scared of them as kids, either. They were also giving them nicknames: “The S From Hell,” like you mentioned, but also “The S from Heaven,” “The V of Doom,” “The V of Steel,” “The Pinball,” and many more. They were creating compilations of the scariest logos, recreating logos using their own software, doing mashups using the sound from one logo and the animation from another, and even making videos in which a logo is replayed faster and faster until it “explodes,” apparently as a sort of therapeutic technique. And then there were the conspiracy theories: claims that closing logos were brainwashing people, sending subliminal messages, or hinting at esoteric mystical truths.
A lot of my work at the time had to do with trauma, memory and secrets, so I was immediately drawn to the idea of writing a piece about the closing logo phenomenon. I had a lot of other projects going on at the time, though, so I let the idea percolate in the back of my mind for a few years. I moved to Chicago, and bit by bit, seemingly unrelated elements started coming together into a single story: closing logos, the Midwestern landscape, the Orpheus myth, 1950s Googie architecture, a walk around a suburban block at night, a crush I once had in a dream, strange Chicago weather, a water tower in Waunakee, Wisconsin — and the end of the world.
The Top 10 Scariest Logos (one of many such compilations on YouTube)
CM: What is the opera’s story and how does the logo legend figure into it?
Alex: The whole thing is set up like an interview podcast in three episodes. There are two characters whose voices you actually hear: the interviewer, Rachel (played by me), and the protagonist, Julie (played my my fellow Chicago composer-performer Jenna Lyle). Rachel introduces Julie as someone who claims to have discovered something extremely important — but Julie tells her story bit by bit, drifting between speech and song, and we don’t find out what her discovery was until the end of the final episode.
When the story begins, Julie is living in Chicago, with a tedious office job and few friends. She discovers the closing logo community the same way I did: by looking on YouTube for media from her childhood. But in her world, the community exists in real life as well as online, and she goes to Madison, Wisconsin — close to her hometown of Waunakee, which she refuses to go back to for reasons that are never made clear — to check out a closing logo support group. While she’s there she meets a woman named Olivia, who’s convinced that closing logos are a sign of an impending apocalyptic event. They hit it off and start dating. They travel around the Midwest together, and the whole time, Julie is haunted by visions — an aerial view of the house she grew up in, a piece of paper spooling out of a fax machine, long strings connecting her to certain buildings as she drives by them. She’s also convinced that closing logos have a terribly important hidden meaning, but that Olivia and the other conspiracy theorists in the support group have misunderstood what it is. And then, just as the two of them arrive in Chicago, she suddenly understands…
CM: Why have you decided to present this piece as a podcast?
Alex: When I first started playing with the idea of a closing-logo opera, I imagined it as a stage production. I actually had a very vivid image in my head of what the lighting would look like — very stark, all white and hot pink and electric blue. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like it would work better as a recording. Narrative audio has been important to me for a long time: in high school I was obsessed with the experimental comedy albums of the Firesign Theatre, and more recently I’ve been strongly affected by Robert Ashley’s surreal, speech-like operas. Ashley does put on live performances of his work, but the recorded versions of them are clearly studio creations, not documents of something that happened in a theater one night. Making a recording gives you enormous control over the nuances of production and vocal style — and I’m very picky about vocal style. (A friend once joked that if someone wrote a biography of me, it would be called “Fuck Vibrato Forever: The Alex Temple Story.”) Presenting the opera as a recording also lets you leave a lot to the audience’s imagination, which is ideal for a piece as dreamy and cryptic as this one.
So why a podcast rather than a CD or digital-download album? That’s also thanks to Robert Ashley, in a way. The reason he turned to TV opera in the 70s was that, in his observation, TV was the only medium most Americans were willing to engage in for hours at a time. Similarly, podcasts are by far the most popular form of narrative audio in the 2010s. I imagine that it’s much easier to get someone to download a series of podcasts than to get them interested in an hour-long narrative album like the ones the Firesign Theatre put out in the 60s and 70s, when album culture was more mainstream. I also like the idea of squeezing one form into another and seeing the distortions that result. For example, I’m imagining the songs in End as overgrown versions of the short musical interludes that you often hear between different sections of a podcast.
CM: Are you going to include your own musical take on these pieces as part of the work?
Alex: Yes! I’ve already written two electronic pieces that will eventually be incorporated into End, and one of them, “Support Group”, includes a bunch of fake closing logos of my own invention, along with real comments from YouTube videos about scary logos. If you’re familiar with the logo repertoire, you’ll hear allusions to a bunch of famous (or infamous) ones, including the 1971 PBS logo, the 1986 Viacom Logo (a.k.a. The V of Steel), and of course the S from Hell.
I’m also going to end the opera with a closing logo, because how else could it end?