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Saturday, December 18, 2010

music and words


words and music

I am embarking on a new composition – for chamber choir – which I am really excited about.  I love writing for voice. We all (or most of us) have a voice - it is our first and most compelling means of expression.  In many ways I think the human voice is the most powerful and evocative musical instrument.
Part of the appeal of writing for voice is that you have the opportunity to combine music with words, to express abstract musical ideas and non-abstract language based ideas or even narratives.  It seems like the perfect art form and of course over hundreds, if not thousands of years people have combined music and words, for one reason or another.

As I start exploring ideas for this new work one of the first things I need to do is find a text.  I find it almost impossible to start writing a piece for voice if I don’t have at least some idea of what words the voice might be singing.  It is of course quite possible to write a composition for voice that treats the voice exactly like any other instrument, that is to focus purely on the SOUND of the voice and the different ways of making the sound and how this is shaped and articulated through pitch and rhythm and texture.  As I struggled to find a text I was tempted to go down this path and write a piece of vocal music that was liberated from any specific extra-musical content, ie WORDS.  I spent some time thinking about the inherent problems of combining music and text, the various traps one can fall into when one starts with a strong text and then has to somehow ‘set’ this to music.  How does the music maintain its own integrity and shape when the compositional process is being dictated to a greater or lesser extent by a pre-existing text? 

I think one of the easiest traps to fall into when ‘setting’ a text to music is that the text comes first – the starting point is a poem or piece of writing that has its own structure and technique.  The greatest poems do not necessarily make the best pieces of text around which to compose a piece of music.  The beautifully crafted structure of a favourite poem may not lend itself readily to a reworking or interpretation through music. 
One of the things I look for in a poem or text is the SOUND of the words.  The ideas and language may be exquisite but if they don’t sound right then I have real trouble bringing them to musical life.  There is a huge difference between reading a poem in one’s head and reading it out loud.  The sound of the words, the shape of vowels and consonants, the distribution of sibilants and fricatives and plosives – this is the SOUND of the text.  And when articulated in a musical texture it is these sonic qualities that will be more clearly discerned than the ‘meaning’ of the text.  Even with the clearest enunciation, it is almost impossible for an audience, on a single listening, to fully comprehend a text that is being sung, even by just one singer, let along a whole choir of voices.  As a composer I cannot assume that the text will be clearly heard and understood.  I cannot just hang my music on a text and expect the music to absorb its meaning.
There is quite a lot of technical skill in writing well for voice.  The human voice, like most other instruments, has quite different characteristics and capabilities at different points in its range or register.  What is easy to sing in the mid register can be extremely difficult to sing up high or down low.  This is where the SOUND of the text is important and how these sounds are arranged across the range of the human voice makes a huge difference.  For instance, in the high register it is much more difficult to sing a closed vowel such as an “ee” sound with good control and projection.  Try singing a high “ee” then try the same note with an open “ah” sound – it is quite a different experience.  Without going into the physics and physiology of how vocal sound is produced, the reality is that certain vowels or word shapes sound better at different parts of the vocal range and this has an impact on whether or not the words can be easily heard when sung.

So what was I looking for in a text? Before I started thinking about words, I already had a fairly clear idea about what the piece was ‘about’; something of the emotional trajectory, of the sound world, of the morphology of the work.  The search for text was from this starting point, which in some ways made it more difficult.  I knew the kind of thing I was looking for but I just didn’t know where I was going to find it.  In the process of tidying my workspace (the usual first step when I start a new piece) I found some printed information on a Bill Viola work that I had taken a group of students to see at the NGV.  The work, ‘Ocean without was partly inspired by a poem by the Senegalese writer Birago Diop – a section of which was printed on one of the pages and caught my eye.  I had also been writing words of my own for the new piece as a way of sketching out sound and text ideas.  A couple of days later I sat down with the Diop text and my own texts and started trying to shape a kind of skeleton for the work.  The original text by Diop is in French so I looked up a couple of different translations of the poem ‘Les Souffles’ (including a computer generated translation!) and looked at the different nuances in meaning and word shape.  I went back to the original type written MS in French and noticed some slight differences in the ordering of the lines of the poem.  With a very rusty grasp of French, I got our French dictionary down from the bookshelf and worked out which of the various possible translations worked best for my purposes.  I then went back to my own text and reworked it, pulling it into a shape that would work with the Diop text.  The text I now have is full of possibilities – the Diop poem is very much a poem to be heard and the rhythm and structure of the poem is subtle and evocative.  My own text is quite paired back and explores different ways of expressing a single idea.  Together these words give me a ‘way in’ to the new piece without being too prescriptive or limiting of the musical world that will be built around them.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

the bodybox - part two

I find an old envelope containing several old photograph negatives.  On the outside of the envelope is written “Very Old Films (My Father’s time) and the only Photo’s that I am left with !!”  The handwriting, I am fairly certain, is my grandfather’s.  The negatives are unlike the modern ones I am used to dealing with.  These are larger, more square in shape and each of a single image.  I hold them up to the light and see very shadowy images of people but nothing clear enough to make out.  I’m in the middle of scanning a pile of letters and old photos so I scan in the negatives and then find the function that allows you to reverse an image – from negative to positive or vice versa.  In a moment I have transformed some fragile pieces of celluloid into images of people – the first time these images have actually been seen in a very long time.  It is a strange feeling.  I wonder how it was my grandfather had the negatives but not the photos themselves.  And of course I look at these people before me and wonder who they are.

There is an image of older man with a bushy grey beard sitting at a dining table; beside him is a young girl, probably in her teens.  The table is covered with plates and glasses and bottles – the photo was clearly taken midway through a meal.  I can almost read the label on one of the bottles but not quite.  I can almost see what they have had for dinner.  So on a particular day, over a hundred years ago, my great grandfather sat down with his family for a meal and someone decided to take a photo.  And over a hundred years later I am looking at that image on a computer screen, in a large house in Edinburgh, probably not that different from the house in which my distant family sits, having their dinner.  I feel completely drawn into this world of image and memory.

There is a series of photos of family members, all taken in front of a rather imposing sideboard, on which sits a vase containing some tall spiky leaves.  I’m not sure if these photos have all been posed for comic effect or if it was just by chance but in each photo the spiky leaves almost seem to be sprouting out of the subject’s head.  There is a young boy, whose shoulders only reach the top of the side board as he stands in front of it.  There is a young girl with a rather dreamy expression on her face, with lovely brown hair.  Another shows a middle aged woman, also seated, this time photographed from a slightly different angle but still with the sprouting head.  Another photo shows a baby sitting propped up in a leather arm chair.  I cannot make out the features of the child’s face but would guess that they might be about one year old, maybe a little older.  

Perhaps my favourite photo from this collection of “very old films” is the image of a young girl standing against a shingled roof-line, as though she has just climbed out of an attic window and someone has decided to take her photo.  Maybe this was her favourite place to go to escape from her brothers and sisters.  Maybe she liked to go out onto the roof to look across the chimneys and rooves of the New Town and up to the sky and think her thoughts.  She looks like a thoughtful girl.  And although the image is partly obscured by marks and stains on the fragile negative, she seems very present in the photograph.  She reminds me of other photos of the girls in my family, often with this same intense look.  My mother, her sisters, my cousins, me, and my own daughters.  I feel a great fondness for this girl who was more than likely one of my great aunts.

By looking at a list of birth dates that my grandfather wrote on a piece of paper I can begin to work out who is probably who.  I am fairly certain that the baby in the leather armchair is my grandfather Richard who was born in 1903.  The bigger boy in front of the sideboard is probably his brother James (‘Uncle Jim’) born in 1896.  The girl on the roof could be Jane (born 1891) or Margaret (born 1890) – the age seems about right if I work backwards from the baby Richard in the chair.  The older girl at the dinner table, and maybe also in front of the sideboard, is probably Clara (born 1888), later known as ‘Aunty Cissie’ – another story to tell.  But I am just making partly informed guesses based on a scrap of paper with some names and dates and a series of not very clear images.  I think I have given them their names but I may have it completely wrong.  It could be a whole different story, but I feel like I am close.  As I gaze at these images that only exist as light on a computer screen, I feel very strongly connected to them and wonder if there is such a thing as blood memory. I feel as though I am looking at captured moments of time in the lives of people whose blood I share, if only in part.  People whose lives have long since run their course.  How strange that I should be sitting here, over a hundred years after the photos were taken, several years after I first ‘discovered’ these images in an envelope in the body box, now on the other side of the world, and still feeling such intense fascination and wonder at this art of light and memory.