For detailed descriptions of the techniques in green, see METHOD
After House of Jahnke, Iris Rose’s “Greek tragedy” of a real-life patricide in Wyoming, she
was keeping her eyes open for more compelling stories of domestic tragedy that could be
dramatized. In January 1984, she read Jan Hoffman’s “Drowned in Sorrow” in the Village
Voice and decided to turn it into a short opera for the Pyramid Club. The fact that the
Jahnkes were middle-class and this story’s Jeanne Anne Wright was a welfare mother
suggested a trilogy of tragedies forming, set in three separate social classes. Unfortunately,
Iris never found the appropriate upper class story to complete the trilogy.
House of Jahnke’s style had been suggested by classic Greek tragedy, but for Camden, Iris
chose Grand Opera as an inspiration (presumably, the missing third story would have used
elements of yet another classical theatrical style – possibly kabuki theater). She decided
that for each of the five primary elements of Jeanne Anne’s story (motherhood, family life,
romantic life, her environment in Camden, and the death of her children) there would be two
songs: a recitative that advanced the narrative and an aria that encapsulated the emotional
core of that aspect of her life – concepts from classical opera, though very loosely
interpreted. Each song was about two minutes long for a total of twenty.
She enlisted Joshua Fried, who had provided music for Mysteries, her first show after moving
to New York City, to write the score, and over the summer of 1984 they created their 20-
minute electronic opera.
Joshua was fascinated by rhythms and affectionately dissected popular dance music with
a critical ear that betrayed his degree in ethnomusicology. Since moving to New York, he
performed as a one-man band, singing and playing the sound mixer like an instrument –
mixing multiple tracks live while dancing in place to the grooves he created.
For Camden, Joshua used found bits of sound, keyboards, and percussion to create a
compelling, rhythmic score to carry the story forward. For most songs, the lyrics came first,
but for some, Joshua wrote a melody, and Iris wrote lyrics to fit. For others, Iris wrote the
Creating some of the movements was a challenge, since Camden was basically a solo
piece. Iris enlisted the help of many of her usual collaborators for Frankensteins, like those
representing individual members of Jeanne Anne’s family, or to harvest movements from a
Bodies in Space.
The visual style of Camden was very spare – just Iris and a stand microphone onstage most
of the time – but there were four “special effects,” created with the help of a mostly mute
onstage assistant – a “koken,” a term and concept borrowed from kabuki theater. The first of
the koken’s duties opened the show: the koken led Jeanne Anne onstage in her handcuff
belt, then stepped up to the microphone and announced, over a recording of rushing water,
“On February 24, 1984, Jeanne Anne Wright of Camden, New Jersey, pleaded guilty to the
charge that she drowned her four children in the Cooper River,” violating the kabuki
convention that koken never speak. While Jeanne Anne stared at the floor, the koken
unbuckled and removed her belt as she removed her handcuffs.
In his own work before Camden, Joshua had made a rule for himself never to use
commercially available recorded sound effects but to always record his own. For the sound
of the rushing water of the Cooper River, Joshua recorded his own bathtub faucet running.
Recitative: Welfare Mothers
In this quick portrait of Jeanne Anne’s world, Iris abruptly switched from one frozen tableau to
another, each chosen to illustrate the elements of her day-to-day life, including: Exhaustion,
Used Pampers, Zombie, and Counting Pennies. The movements for the chorus, in contrast,
transitioned fluidly between Emblems for Babies, Too Much to Do, and Empty Arms.
handwritten lyrics for Welfare Mothers
Most of Joshua’s music at this time was based on continuous loops of reel to reel audio tape,
and this was true of Camden as well. When he performed live, the audience could actually
see the loop running over and over again through the tape heads after traveling around a
trail of rubber tipped darts stuck to the vertical face of the tape deck. For Camden’s first
section, which established Jeanne Anne and her environment, Joshua introduced a loop
that would be used again later, though processed differently. In this instance, the loop was
given a “reversed echo,” in which a fainter version of a tone was heard just before it
happened rather than after, as in a conventional echo.
Aria: Shopping Mall
This section opened with the sound of children’s voices – actually a childhood recording of
Joshua and a friend – edited to form a rhythmic motif. This was followed by an unidentified
piece of institutional music (though not officially Muzak) chosen to represent the ambience
of the welfare office. Kim X Knowlton had recorded it for Joshua at a store her father owned
in upstate New York by standing at the top of a ladder and holding a cassette recorder up to
a speaker in the ceiling. The lyrics and melody for the shopping mall section that followed
were written by Iris to fit a real Muzak version of “Born Free.” (Joshua’s fascination with
Muzak, and the songs he had collected with his unauthorized Muzak receiver, had already
been utilized in Negotiations).
The movements for this section were simple actions (Walter Kendall Fives) that would occur
on a trip to the Welfare office and the mall, such as “trying on clothes in front of a mirror” and
“having lunch in a restaurant,” most of them performed while holding a life-sized baby doll.
The koken produced the baby at the perfect moment, held it while Jeanne Anne tried on a
new outfit, and caught it at the end of the section when she tossed it offstage after singing a
mournful, minor key version of the Sergio Valente commercial jingle to Joshua’s organ-like
Recitative: The Wrights
Each of the members of the Wright family – Mom, Dad, sister Sissy, brothers Harold and Junior
– was represented by a Frankenstein based on whatever information was available about
them in the Voice article.
For this section’s ballad about Jeanne Anne’s family history, which evoked Kurt Weill, Joshua
asked Iris to come up with a melody to fit an accompaniment he had created. Its
foundation was a loop with what Joshua called a Latin hip-hop rhythm, made by combining
tiny bits of samples from other recordings on individual pieces of reel-to-reel tape – in an era
before digital sampling. He recorded this rhythm at three different speeds and used them in
different sections in various combinations. In The Wrights he layered harpsichord-like
keyboard chords played on a Roland Juno 60 (later prized by techno and house music
purveyors for its “fat” sound, according to Joshua) over the medium and slow rhythm tracks.
Jeanne Anne’s own Frankenstein from the previous section provided a starting place for Iris’
movement for this portrayal of Jeanne Anne’s struggles with epilepsy, believed to be caused
by biting a phone cord as a child. Supplementing this were Walter Kendall Fives based on a
clinical description of the symptoms of epilepsy: Rigid Muscles, Jerking Muscles, Going Limp,
Wandering, Smacking Lips, Staring, Grimacing, Rubbing, and Picking. Iris’ singing here was
purposely un-melodic to suit the tension and chaos of the situation. To the two Latin hip-hop
rhythms Joshua added the fastest of the three versions, but processed to sound arrhythmic
and distorted. The section ended with the addition of a rhythm made of whispering sounds
plus kick drums and snares; on Jeanne Anne’s final statement, “I been in a fog since the day
I was born,” everything dropped out except the rhythmic whispering.
Epilepsy Walter Kendall Fives
Recitative: Jimmy and Peaches
The vocals for MEN were delivered as a rap. Underneath Iris’ vocal was what Joshua
described as “dancing drums at a punk tempo.”
The movement for this section was made up of Emblems for the stages of the relationships
between Jeanne Anne and the two most important men in her life: Jimmy, the father of her
three oldest children, and “Peaches,” a police officer and presumed father of her fourth
Unlike most of the movements in Camden, these moved through space, since Iris took the
microphone out of the stand and traveled with it to the far sides of the stage, with each side
representing one of the men (stage left = Jimmy; stage right = Peaches).
Aria: Anyplace I Hang My Heart is Home
This rapid-fire rap was performed at twice the speed of the vocal in Jimmy and Peaches, with
Iris hitting every 1/8 note. It required such concentration, on the part of both the performer
and the audience, that the movement only happened at the end of each verse when
Jeanne Anne repeated a single word – “love,” “sex,” or “passion” – while performing a
Frankenstein based on that word. Although the vocal was doubletime, for the
accompaniment Joshua used the same rhythm from Jimmy and Peaches but distorted to
create a weird drone. This section ended with another “special effect” – Jeanne Anne
ripping her chest (shirt) open and pulling her heart out of a pocket in the ribcage appliquéd
on her red t-shirt. After holding it aloft and shouting “Anyplace I hang my heart is home!”
she threw the heart to the koken waiting in the wings.
Recitative: The Story of Camden
Iris requested a longer than usual musical introduction to this section so that she could snap
her shirt back together, in time to the rhythm of course, after ripping it open in the previous
scene. Joshua created this rhythm from a recording of him hitting a metal pipe, plus the
“gated” sound of a grunt edited to mimic a drum. The Latin hip-hop rhythm returned as well,
and there were echoing chords on top of these three layers. Since The Story of Camden
recounted the rise and fall of the industrial life of the city, it changed keys four times,
modulating upward and downward for a literal rise and fall. The Story of Camden lyrics
The movements were minimal Emblems based on important factors or events in Camden’s
history, simplified to their essence. For instance, Camden’s advantageous position as a main
railroad stop at the juncture of two rivers became two pointing fingers coming together at a
90-degree angle, then pulsing apart repeatedly like a blinking beacon; the rise of Campbell
Soup was shown by a suggested assembly line with the left hand forming a succession of
empty cans and the right hand as the mechanism that filled them over and over; a riot was
implied by a thrown match and flat hands protecting against the flames.
The Story of Camden Emblems
Aria: Stuck in Camden
This portrait of the bleak street life of Camden was made up of Walter Kendall Fives for
typical activities, like Waiting. For the music, Joshua shortened the loop from The Story of
Camden but added more aural layers and kept the “clang” at the end of each revolution.
A reviewer from High Performance magazine later referred to Joshua’s music for Camden as
“the wheezing sounds of an industrial landscape breathing its last,” nowhere better
exemplified than in this section. For the final coda, the clanging pipe dropped out and all
that was heard was the grunt.
The movements in this section echoed those of Welfare Mothers, the opening section, but
instead of Used Pampers and Counting Pennies, the tableaux here reflected a much darker
reality: No Check, No Food Stamps, and Eviction Notice. The music was based on a similar
loop to one in Welfare Mothers, with the same rhythm and reverse echo, but in a minor key
to reflect the disintegration of Jeanne Anne’s reality. In the musical transition between the
recitative and the aria, the echo switched from before to after, symbolizing the fact that she
has crossed a line.
Aria: The Drowning
The movements in this section were gleaned from a session of Bodies in Space inspired by a
description of the actual crime. Bodies in Space diagrams The koken’s final “special effect” was
the creation of the Cooper River by winding blue crepe paper from one side of the stage to
The music here contained many layers: a rhythmic keyboard part; organ-like keyboard
chords; the recordings of children and water used as accents; and an additional melody not
heard before. At the moment the actual crime was suggested, the drama was heightened
as Iris sang the vocals an octave higher than in the rest of the section and hand-held the
microphone so she could flail from side to side. The music ended with Joshua banging
arrhythmically on the keyboard and abruptly stopping, immediately followed by the brief,
loud return of the rushing water sound from the beginning but highly processed.
For the final tableau, Iris stood immobile, her hands distorting her face into a mask of horror