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Visiting Artist Spotlight: Joe Diebes and “oyster”

posted on February 5th, 2019 by Kallan Dana

Against Classification: An Interview with Joe Diebes on oyster

By Kallan Dana

“The real question is: what is the irrational root of rationality?” Joe Diebes says twenty minutes into our phone interview.

“What do you mean by that?” I ask.

“Computers,” he speaks clearly, “They’re very structured and systematic. They all make sense and are doing things according to rationality. But then one has to step back and ask: does the whole big picture make sense? Is that rational?” By the time we reach the climatic point of Diebes’s lecture-opera oyster, this question is illuminated, if not answered, in a revelatory, beautiful, and hilarious ode to the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM). But more on that later.

oyster,  conceived by Joe Diebes and directed by Skidmore Theater veteran Phil Soltanoff, revolves around the efforts of Alan Lomax, an American music archivist turned ethnomusicologist who in the 1960s founded the Cantometrics method of studying and categorizing world music. Skidmore Theater was lucky enough to co-host with MDOCS a one-night-only revival production of the show this past weekend in the Filene Concert Hall. Cantometrics, an esoteric and oft-critiqued system, analyzes pre-selected “representative” songs from a geographic region’s ostensible culture, and then transposes these songs into data on a computer. Lomax’s ethos behind this was to see if finding patterns behind a culture’s music could provide information about this same culture’s social behavior and conduct. The system has been widely dismissed, a fact which only fuels Diebes’s enthusiasm for the project.

“You don’t have to know anything about Cantometrics going into the piece,” he says eagerly. “One of the ideas behind the piece is to actually give a lecture, so by the end people do know what Cantrometrics is.”

Though Diebes is fascinated by Lomax as a figure, he insists that “Today, no one would ever dream of trying to do what Lomax did then.” He feels that the implications behind Lomax’s research reflect a sense of American identity that has shifted dramatically since the ’60s, when using a Western lens to see the world was not always challenged. Lomax’s attempt to categorize and classify music is something that, for Diebes, brings up a question of viewership. “What right do we have to analyze and define other cultures from a Western perspective?”

Alan Lomax (played here with folksy alacrity by John Rose) really does teach us about Cantometrics, with the assistance of videos that include example songs to prove his points, a pianist (Melinda Faylor) that underscores his pseudo-sung lectures, and an ensemble of three other people (Christina Campanella, Michael Chinworth, and Saori Tsukada) who through movement illustrate some of the larger points of the piece. In this way, the structure of oyster matches its subject matter—like Cantometrics, it reinvents the wheel and reconstitutes preexisting definitions and classifications.

The amorphous nature of the production—part opera, part lecture, part dance, part film—reflects both the team of collaborators behind it and the nature of the subject matter. While Diebes came up with the concept, composed the music, wrote the book, and designed the videos, he gathered several of his past collaborators in order to make the final product. He had worked with the ensemble in various capacities for over ten years, and they were the first people he reached out to in order to make the humorously dry, brightly colored musical videos that oyster centers its lecture around. The Lomax role, too, was one that Diebes wrote specifically for Rose to play. After constructing and filming the central videos, Diebes got to a place where he needed a director for staging the ensemble movement. Soltanoff was his immediate pick. “Phil and I have a very close artistic relationship,” he says, cataloguing a series of projects they’ve worked on together, going back in time twenty years. “In fact, I don’t know if I would have brought anyone else to direct this piece.”

While the making of oyster was enormously collaborative between all the players and the show itself extremely unconventional, Diebes is quick to bring up his wariness of labeling his process as a “devised” theater piece. “I think calling it ‘devised theater’ makes it sound a little bit like a convention again, when the idea of working in that way is really meant to be kind of anti-genre,” he says.

oyster is certainly anti-genre and with good reason. The refusal to label and categorize the genre of the show is connected to the piece’s interrogation of categories, something it illustrates through its uncanny, lyric-less, original songs. This brings us back to the the climatic moment of the piece, the moment when Lomax (Rose), standing behind his podium and beaming, reveals that the songs we have been listening to all night are actually the musical products of the data he collected in his research. This is when the joyous, humorous, operatic ode to IBM comes in, and Diebes’s central question on rationality is made clear. “What we were trying to do was analyze the numbers that he used to categorize all the different songs from all over the world,” he explains. From that data, they were able to construct music that sounds not exactly like music from the different cultures around the world, but instead like a computer’s representation of human-made art. “The idea is that you actually hear the analysis that he’s made and see that it’s very far away from sounding like the original music,” Diebes elaborates.

This is the irrationality of the seemingly rational—this is Diebes, and the entire oyster artistic team’s reckoning with classifications and labels. Who or what does the labeling? Is a person or a computer a better judge of truth? Can truth be judged at all? oyster does not shove a message down its audiences throats. Instead, it allows the viewers to get caught up in the experience of engaged learning at the hands of a charismatic lecturer, and invites us to come to our own conclusions about how much we buy into what he is saying.

For more information on Joe Diebes and oystervisit here.



Joe Diebes  Music, Libretto, and Video

Phil Soltanoff – Director

Damian Calvo – Cinematography

Poe Saegusa – Lighting Design


John Rose – Alan Lomax

Christina Campanella – IBM360

Michael Chinworth – IBM360

Saori Tsukada – IBM360

Melinda Faylor – Piano


*This interview was conducted by Kallan Dana ’19 and Philip Merrick ’19*

Kallan Dana ’19 is Co-Editor of the Living Newsletter.

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