the caged bird sings… (2018)

for Mezzo-soprano, oboe & horn

Duration:
6’30

Premiered:
May 2018, Royal College of Music, London
Rosanna Cooper (mezzo-soprano)
Flic Cowell (oboe)
Alexander Oon (horn)

Score & parts available upon request; preview on issuu:

blankI wrote this piece for three friends—Rosanna Cooper (mezzo-soprano), Flic Cowell (oboe), and Alexander Oon (horn)—who were taking the Contemporary Music in Action module (in Royal College of Music). I knew that they needed a piece intended for the purposes of examination (think ‘showcase’ of technical mastery), yet at the same time I wanted to find a reasonable purpose, or a kind of ‘contextual grounding’, for the use of extended instrumental techniques. Crudely speaking, I had at my disposal a physical human voice, an air column, and a coil of metal; the latter two can be pushed to sound like distorted or ‘repressed’ voices.

blankI pursued this thread and started from a somewhat oblique angle by sourcing for poems with themes such as ‘freedom’, ‘oppression’, ‘unheard voices’, etc. After rounding up several potentially suitable texts, Angelou’s proved particularly appealing, with the additional animated metaphor of a bird—two in fact; one caged (in whom I see Angelou) and the other free (possibly Angelou’s ideal image of herself). This offered numerous opportunities for the use of multiphonics. Singing into the horn reflects not only two sonic forces (horn’s voice and player’s voice) attempting to overcome each other, but also a conceptual ‘caging’ (trapping the player’s voice within the metallic instrument). Angelou’s text was simply calling out to be set.

blankIn allusion to the themes of ‘freedom’ and ‘oppression’, and also to the socio-political zeitgeist in which Angelou lived and breathed, I quoted the tune from ‘We Shall Overcome’, a gospel hymn turned protest song of the American Civil Rights Movement. The hymn becomes the ‘caged bird’s tune’, which the mezzo-soprano timidly sings in bb. 46–58, but does not complete the final line. Deprived of the final line’s melodic notes to set the remaining words, the singer is unable to ‘sing of freedom’.

blankIn this piece, I imagine a dramatic response to American poet Maya Angelou’s Caged Bird:

blankA free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

blankBut a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

blankThe caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on that distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

blankThe free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft
through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a bright morning lawn
and he names the sky his own.

blankBut a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

blankThe caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on that distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

blankCopyright © 1983 by Maya Angelou
Used by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

blankThe text appears to already possess a ‘verse-refrain’ structure, which readily lends itself for song-setting. I have remained faithful to the original layout of Angelou’s text for most parts of the piece. However, I have decided not to repeat the refrain (‘The caged bird sings…’) per se at the end, in the spirit of maintaining a teleological narrative.

blankIn the first instance of the refrain (bb. 46–58), I removed the final word—‘freedom’—as a symbolic gesture; freedom cannot be not sung of. It is in this light that the listener subsequently arrives at the end of the penultimate stanza (‘…opens his throat to sing…’; b. 78), whose open-ended verbal syntax allows for a direct ‘splice’ into the final line of the refrain (‘…of freedom.’; bb. 80–83). This happens as the oboe and horn speed through bb. 77–80 with a desperate ‘caged bird’s tune’, which was previously properly sung in bb. 46–58. Imaginatively, this frees the caged bird of his ‘melodic baggage’, so he can move on to ‘sing of freedom’.
blank.

blank💬 Get in touch for score & parts if you’d like to perform this piece with your trio!