E-330 plays



for piano

6 minutes

One of the most widespread tropes in 20th century literature is the dystopia, usually depicting a fascist state led by one or another ‘benevolent’ dictator. The list of such novels and films is huge, and some of the most notable are 1984, Brave New World, Metropolis, the Dispossessed, Brazil, Vonnegut’s début Player Piano, David Karp’s haunting One, Ayn Rand’s derivative Anthem, John Boyd’s Last Starship from Earth, and so on. Less well known is that many of them have in common a shared derivation from a single, monumental, literary masterpiece, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1920-21 We. Orwell was quite clear on this, even reviewing the book, and indeed the very existence of Winston Smith diary is a homage to We’s diary structure. Ayn Rand goes further; she would seem to have essentially plagiarised We for Anthem.

Zamyatin wrote We after a couple of years spent in England, and the influence of that country clearly deeply affected him, to the extent that he learned the language and later translated English-language literature into Russian. It is said, though, that the biggest idea he took from Britain was that of the railway timetable, mentioned also in his novella the Islanders, which, when collided with his critique of Lenin’s adoption into communist factories of the very British ‘Time and Motion Study’, deeply informed his depiction of the One State, where the entire populace perform all acts (except one…) in complete unison. Which cannot fail to make one think of Metropolis, despite claims that Fritz Lang was unaware of We at the time he was making the film – he made it in collaboration with novelist Thea von Harbou, who was famously polyglot, so perhaps the influence came through her.

In this One State people are designated by numbers rather than names, and the narrator/diarist is the starship engineer and mathematician D-503. The larger-than-life female protagonist, E-330, is the embodiment of opposition to the straitlaced society in which they live; she drinks, she smokes, she flirts …and, in the course of the Fourth Diary Entry, she performs a Scriabin piano piece on an unfamiliar box known as a ‘Royal Grand’:

“…E-330 had walked up to the Royal Grand. … She took her seat; began playing. Something wild, spasmodic, motley, just as all their life was in those days – without a shadow of rational mechanicalness. And of course they – those around me – were right: all of them were laughing. Except for just a few… With what delight I listened next to our contemporary music! … Crystalline chromatic scales converging and diverging in endless series – and the summarising chords of the formulae of Taylor, of McLauren; the full-toned squarely-massive passages of the Pythagorean theorem; the pensive melodies of an expiringly oscillatory movement … ”

My piano piece E-330 plays attempts to recreate this scene; I have even been known to encourage pianists to wear a long black wig to impersonate the character. Although the Scriabin work is not specified in the book, in hindsight I clearly had Vers la flamme in mind when writing E-330 plays. Eventually E-330 corrupts D-503 and they plan to hijack the starship Integral but their plot fails and, in anticipation of the end of 1984, D-503 is lobotomised into conformity and E-330 is sentenced to execution, although Zamyatin allows a hint of optimism absent from Orwell’s vision.

Eventually I hope to complete a chamber opera based on the novel. I began it over thirty years ago, and in 2010 a scene was workshopped by Opera Victoria, but the project still continues to simmer rather ineffectually. When I do finally write this opera, the second scene will be derived from E-330 plays, and, excitingly, E-330 herself will appear onstage. I look forward to that day.

E-330 plays is dedicated to my wife, Kathryn Sullivan, in celebration of her 25th birthday. Both the work and our partnership are about to reach their 20th anniversary – a happy conjunction.

Mark Knoop gave the first performance of E-330 plays in the course of a historic complete performance of all the extant pieces in my Phase Portraits set on 14 November 2003, at Federation Hall in the Victorian College of the Arts. In more recent years Peter de Jager has performed and recorded the work.

(The story of We’s influence is convoluted. Most of those influenced early on by the book will have read it in a French translation, by Bernard Guilbert Guernay, or in an English translation of that French translation; I certainly did, which is why my piece is called E-330 plays and not I-330 plays, as in the later direct translation from the Russian. I have always felt that E-330 is simply more resonant than I-330.)


E-330 plays (6′) (1991/2003)

A score-synced version of E-330 plays can be found on the Score Follower channel.