On Approaches to text

text_stock

Finally, some breathing space after an orchestral workshop submission deadline yesterday, which also means it’s time to get my desk organised. As I was rearranging my printed scores and manuscripts, my handwritten notes for an RCM composition faculty class presentation in January popped out. After reviewing it, I thought it’d be relevant to share the ‘script’ here, since it reflects my continuous journey of compositional self-discovery.

A bit of context: Over the duration of two faculty classes, the first-year Masters Composition students were each given twenty minutes of airtime to discuss their music, recent projects, interests, influences, etc. For my presentation, I talked about my exploration of various approaches to using text in my recent pieces—a ‘come-listen-to-what-I’ve-discovered-so-far’ kind of talk. 

*        *        *

Today I’d like to share some approaches to using text which I have explored (or attempted to explore) in my recent vocal compositions. But before that, some quick background of myself. My musical upbringing has been heavily ‘instrumental’—piano lessons since the age of four, spent six years in my school’s classical guitar ensemble back in Singapore (from secondary school to A-Level). In fact, I first got into writing music through arranging pop medleys for friends in the ensemble. So as you can see, my musical training has largely been non-vocal related. And yet I’m going to talk about text in vocal pieces…

It wasn’t until my undergrad—did three years of music undergrad at Cambridge (Girton College), from which I’ve just graduated last June. In my first year there, I got involved in the College Chapel Choir, and that was my first foray into vocal music (choral music, specifically English early twentieth-century). Anthems, introits, Magnificat and Nunc Dimmitis Evensong settings by Stanford, Howells, Leighton, Sumsion, or even earlier, Byrd, Purcell… These opened my eyes, no, my ears, to the variety of ways a fixed set of text could be elaborated and reimagined. I grew to see the potential that vocal writing has for my compositional imagination. So I started writing for voice in 2015 (three years ago), and the more I tried my hand at it, the more I’m drawn to it.

Let me talk more about my choice of text, or how I select the texts I eventually come to set. Having written several vocal pieces, I realise I have a tendency to start from a concept, prior to looking for the text. For example, in The Ocean Breathes, I already had the idea of writing a piece that with a more ‘atmospheric’ nature; I knew I wanted to use sounds from three cymbals I had on loan from the Cambridge University Chinese Orchestra Society at that time. I also intended to experiment with generating my pitch materials using some sort of spectral method. Then I went on searching for a text that offered these possibilities, and eventually I found this poem online:

The Ocean Breathes
Robb A. Kopp

cymbals crash with frothy force
from dark shadows lurk jagged claws
volcanic sand gritty and coarse
moon beams off a barnacle laced jug
from dark shadows lurk jagged claws
shinny minnows in steady breaths
moon beams off a barnacle laced jug
in secluded pools the jelly fish dance
shinny minnows in steady breaths
volcanic sand gritty and coarse
in secluded pools the jelly fish dance
cymbals crash with frothy force

Copyright © Robb A. Kopp ‘The Ocean Breathes’ from PoetrySoup.com

I got to grips with the poem by analysing and dissecting it. I realised that there were six distinct lines (or fragments of texts) which repeat to give twelve lines in total:

cymbals crash with frothy force
from dark shadows lurk jagged claws
volcanic sand gritty and coarse
moon beams off a barnacle laced jug
from dark shadows lurk jagged claws
shinny minnows in steady breaths
moon beams off a barnacle laced jug
in secluded pools the jelly fish dance
shinny minnows in steady breaths
volcanic sand gritty and coarse
in secluded pools the jelly fish dance
cymbals crash with frothy force

Furthermore, the fragments are repeated in a way that a pair would envelop (or ‘sandwich’) another pair, and yet another, forming an overall arch shape. This becomes clear when visualised as such:

cymbals crash with frothy force
____from dark shadows lurk jagged claws
________volcanic sand gritty and coarse
_____________moon beams off a barnacle laced jug
____from dark shadows lurk jagged claws
__________________shinny minnows in steady breaths
_____________moon beams off a barnacle laced jug
_______________________in secluded pools the jelly fish dance
__________________shinny minnows in steady breaths
________volcanic sand gritty and coarse
_______________________in secluded pools the jelly fish dance
cymbals crash with frothy force

I then used my awareness of the structure and form of the text to inform my setting of it. In my piece, I imagine ‘moon beams’ as the lower point of my narrative arch, progressing towards ‘cymbals crash’ as the climactic turning point, and then returning to ‘moon beams’ ultimately, so that the setting comes full circle, no, full arch. The textual structure also informs my system of pitch organisation and rhythmic cycle—at the climactic ‘cymbals crash’, I invert the spectral pitch set, and also reset the counting for the rhythmic cycles of the three cymbals, each of which follow an arithmetic progression. But I won’t go into those in detail now, as I would like to focus on the text. My point is that I allow the text (the meaning and form of the poem) to inform my setting, even though yes, I had picked the text under a relatively specific set of conditions. So let me play you the piece—it’s just six minutes long. The Ocean Breathes, for twelve solo voices and three cymbals.

Now, there was something I didn’t tell you about just now, which has to do with the way I repeat the fragments (or each line of the text). The singers are divided into three groups to be spread out among the audience, to achieve some sort of spatial effect—an ‘ocean of sounds’. In particular, my allocation of lines to each group has to do with the way in which one line is enveloped between two lines. For example, at the beginning, Groups 1 and 3 sing ‘moon beams’ while Group 2 sings the lines bound in between (‘from dark shadows’ and ‘shinny minnows’). Subsequently, ‘shinny minnows’ becomes the pair which envelops another line, and so on, and so on:

cymbals crash with frothy force
____from dark shadows lurk jagged claws
________volcanic sand gritty and coarse
_____________moon beams off a barnacle laced jug [Group 1]
____from dark shadows lurk jagged claws [Group 2]
__________________shinny minnows in steady breaths [Group 2]
_____________moon beams off a barnacle laced jug [Group 3]
_______________________in secluded pools the jelly fish dance
__________________shinny minnows in steady breaths
________volcanic sand gritty and coarse
_______________________in secluded pools the jelly fish dance
cymbals crash with frothy force

cymbals crash with frothy force
____from dark shadows lurk jagged claws
________volcanic sand gritty and coarse
_____________moon beams off a barnacle laced jug 
____from dark shadows lurk jagged claws
__________________shinny minnows in steady breaths [Group 2]
_____________moon beams off a barnacle laced jug
_______________________in secluded pools the jelly fish dance
_______________________[Group 1]

__________________shinny minnows in steady breaths [Group 3]
________volcanic sand gritty and coarse
_______________________in secluded pools the jelly fish dance
cymbals crash with frothy force

The reason I’m bringing this up is because as I was writing this piece, I discovered that once you have more than one singer, you can play around with different ways of distributing the text across each of the voices. Not just complete words, but you can even break up the words into their constituent syllables (i.e. using words as sounds, or for their sounds), making different singers sing a syllable each, to form a word collectively. Interestingly, the results of these vary so much that they become a form of performative indeterminacy in themselves!

This brings me to my next piece, pe_ple_sc_ns, for soprano, baritone, and electronics (synthesised sounds). Those of you at the National Portrait Gallery Concert last December would have heard this, but allow me to talk more about it before I play it. So, context again: this was composed in response to Kurt Hoerbst People Scans. I was struck by two aspects of his work: (1) ‘freezing’ a human subject, and (2) returning the attention to the human—his subject’s physical features. Correspondingly, (1) I ‘froze’ the harmonic series on A (the sound-world of the piece resembles an ‘ethereal floating’, amidst the partials of the series), and (2) I parsed the words of a single sentence borrowed from Maya Angelou’s poem, Human Family, into their constituent syllables:

‘In minor ways we differ, in major we’re the same.’
from Maya Angelou (1928-2014), Human Family
© Maya Angelou. Provided at no charge for educational purposes.

minor – m / ʌɪ / err
ways – woo / eɪ
same – say / ʌm

While doing this, I figured that if I was already ‘messing around’ with the syllables, I could as well reorder the words in my setting—not arbitrarily, but in fact, to respond to the dual binary contrast inherent within Angelou’s original sentence (minor/differ vs major/same). Reordering also gives me the flexibility to allow the vowels and consonants  of the syllables to morph into each other, creating a kind of textual continuity through ‘syllabic enjambment’. This is what I came up with eventually:

minor → in minor → ways → we → diff → er → the → same →
in major → we are

It is worth noting that Angelou’s sentence, to begin with, is specifically relevant to the concept behind Hoerbst’s photograph portrait series, that is, exhibiting the ‘human-ness’ of his subjects—while his subjects differ in detailed features, each is no less ‘human’ than the other. I would say that my setting of the text, however, does not respond directly to its surface ‘meaning’, as how another composer might have done through word-painting, expressive melismatic writing, etc. Instead, my conceptual approach treats the text as an object to be ‘scanned’ (through the syllabification of the words). In turn, when one listens the text presented in this new form, one comes away with an image or impression of the text. Intriguingly, then, the concept of scanning transcends into a kind of psychological (or perhaps even metaphysical) one, beyond the music itself, and into the musical memory of the listener.

I find this ‘playing-with-musical-memory’ approach to text extremely fascinating, mainly because I haven’t really quite gotten my head round it (haha), and also because it provides many exciting possibilities for future pieces. Words (or propositional language) are useful and catchy mnemonic ‘handles’ or signposts which one can set up, and then either subsequently gratify to reinforce, or subvert, and exploit the implications. This is a topic for another time.

So let me end by playing you the piece; it’s just three minutes long—this is pe_ple_sc_ns for soprano, baritone, and electronics. Thank you!

(10 January 2018)

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.