Updates – Wigmore Hall Concert

I haven’t been maintaining this blog remotely as often as I should of late.

So, time for some updates, first up, Wigmore Hall!

Back in May, I finished a collaboration with the writer Sally O’Reilly, which was performed at Wigmore Hall. The piece was for soprano, string quartet and tape. This represented my first time working with a writer, and it was an incredibly creatively stimulating experience.

We decided that we would devise music and text in tandem, to create something from the ground up. Sally proposed that our song should be a ‘found cultural object’, as this pertains to her interests as a writer – her libretto for the opera ‘The Virtues of Things’, is concerned with a similar subject.

Sally compiled a list of items with these qualities. It was agreed that this was quite a rich base from which to work.

Culture is full of objects that have specific functions, like mnemonics, which are for remembering things, or chants, which can be to summon spirits or to make fun of people (‘ner ner ner ner ner’). Most of these objects have specific characteristics – mnemonics tend to be catchy (‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’), chants have a reduced number of pitches and a strong rhythmic profile.

Our found cultural object is a sleeping song, sung by an insomniac oil rigger in the North Sea. As an initial piece of text, Sally proposed to use a sheep counting system which was traditionally employed by shepherds in the north of England:

‘Yan ten tethera mether pick

Sesan asel catel oiner dick

Yanadick tanadick tetheradick metheradick’.

The narrative would be that our protagonist is attempting to get to sleep and so is counting sheep. She edges towards sleep, but cannot sleep, and so is snapped back to wakefulness; this happens twice in our piece. The third state of wakefulness is much more vivid, as the protagonist begins, in increasing desperation, to invoke the names of saints to get to sleep. There is a deeper edging towards sleep, before a ‘jolt’ to wakefulness, during which she is in a half-remembered dream. This half dream-state in turn becomes more wakeful, building to a point of panic, and the narrative begins to dissolve. Sally’s conception of this was that the importance of not sleeping is exaggerated and confused by other images. These images may only be linguistically related, but as this is a found object, we can only really infer. The text of this section is reproduced below:

What was I thinking?

There’s really no need,

What was I?

What was I thinking?

No need really to fall,

To fall down to the…

What? To never fall

Down to the ocean’

There is however, the prospect of serious consequences due to not sleeping, namely the possibility of her slipping due to exhaustion when high on a rig, this is alluded to by the text: ‘never, falling, to the ocean floor’. This dreamed slip could lead to a real slip, and so the narrative is actually circular.

Eventually, sleep is achieved, and the narrative dissolves further, the saints’ names becoming intermingled with the thoughts and reflections of the protagonist, along with various statements evocative of the mechanics of the oilrig:

As this was to be a found cultural object, and we were using an ancient English dialect, it felt appropriate to devise folk-like material to marry to the words, which is what is heard in the opening of the piece (‘Yan tan tethera…). The folk idiom is entirely fictional, and obviously not typical of the north of England, due to its asymmetry, but it felt valid to generate folk material of a disembodied or alien character. It was decided that this would be sung with a straight tone (without vibrato). Drones in the violins are intended to lend the music an ancient feel.

Depicting sleep and wakefulness

In this piece, the live string quartet represents everything that is wakeful, while the tape track represents the dream state. This is achieved through having the tape play distortions of what the live quartet plays. We wanted the dream-state to feel strange and almost hallucinatory, therefore, the live quartet was assigned five-note chords, while the electronics play distortions (transpositions) of these pitch sets. These transpositions were by major 6th, diminished 5th and major 3rd. These transpositions were chosen intuitively. The last section represents a state of total sleep.

The initial sketches were for a large, droning texture, but given the size of the available forces, drones were not going to feel sufficiently powerful. We both wanted a sense of being lost or drowning inside an enormous texture, so there lay a significant challenge in rendering an idea that seemed to be more suited to realisation by a string orchestra, for the available forces. The quartet was therefore ‘animated’ in the dream sections, they play florid, heterophonous figuration.

With respect to the tape track, there was initially difficulty in choosing a suitable sound. Normale strings were considered, but this idea was abandoned as it was felt that it would appear overly artificial. It was therefore decided to use pre-recorded string harmonics to present this material. String harmonics are colder and more ‘sickly’ in character, and reflect the strangeness and psychological profile of the text, and are naturally related by timbre to the ‘live’ quartet, and so this felt cohesive.

Various signal-processing techniques were considered to degrade the sound of the electronics and render the separation more obvious, but ultimately these were not employed. The speakers were also placed inside the quartet, to ensure integration of the sound.

Extremes of vocal writing:

During the section of maximum panic, the intention was to push the vocal line as far as possible. This is very affected, extreme writing. This material is essentially one grace-note gesture, which expands and becomes more complex. The asymmetrical and punctuated nature of the line lends it a hiccupping and uncontrolled effect, which enhances the intensity of the juxtaposition of the protagonists internal questioning: ‘what was I thinking?’, physical complaints: ‘itchy’, ‘annoying’, ‘distracting’, and horror at the notion of drowning: ‘down’.

Several compromises were reached to make the line singable, as it was important to me for the line to feel unnatural, while being physically doable.

As the tape part needed to be synchronised precisely, a click track was necessary, as was a conductor (James Hoyle), who proved an essential addition, as the quartet writing is very complex, featuring many irregular rhythms, which are difficult to coordinate. Additionally, many of the chord voicings are unorthodox, and having an additional person in rehearsal to assist in tuning these chords proved invaluable.

It is the most overtly dramatic piece I have ever written and its mode of expression is extremely heightened, and so it represents something very different in terms of my output so far, but I think it turned out to be quite an exciting piece, and it was received really well!

It would be bad form to write all of this without letting you hear the piece, and so I’m pleased to say that a recording of it will be available this week.

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