28 Mrz 2014

Our Commute

It's rare when the inspiration for a piece of music is so clear and focused that the music virtually writes itself. But I did have that experience working on a recent project.

The project began with a Facebook post from a friend who teaches at Rutgers: "Anyone know of a piece of music arranged for soprano, alto, tenor, piano, and lever harp?" I, of course, responded, "Always happy to write one." When she took me up on my offer, I had to decide what to write. How was I going to utilize three voices in a way that made sense? Should it be a homophonic setting of a single text? Or should it be like a madrigal, three independent voices, each with its own text? Or should it be a dramatic scene, with each voice representing a separate character?

I ran this problem past another friend, Sarah Miller, with whom I had been discussing ideas for new operas. She showed me a poem she had written, entitled "Our Commute." It was a love poem spoken by a woman on a train, returning home after her workday. It certainly offered some interesting possibilities. Good music often relies on the juxtaposition of two contrasting ideas. So the conflict between the romantic inner voice of the woman and the mundane surroundings she found herself in was ideal for a musical setting.

I decided to write the piece in two stages. First I would focus on the love poem itself and would write a ballad for alto with piano accompaniment. (No offense, sopranos. But I think the more sultry alto range works better for ballads.) I would then use the ballad as the skeleton of the final composition, adding the soprano and tenor as sort of a Greek chorus, representing other commuters on the train. And I would expand the piano accompaniment into a harp/piano duet.

The ballad took only two days to write, which is unusually fast for me. I then started in on the composition proper. It begins with a rhythmic, hypnotic ostinato in the piano and harp, suggesting the rumbling and swaying of the train. The tenor, then the soprano, enter with soft, monotone mutterings, portraying the inner voices of the passengers. Their words, almost inaudible, derive from various trivia of the day: newspaper articles, Facebook postings, emails, and so on. The alto then begins the ballad, her heartfelt expression contrasting with the prosaic voices of the other passengers.

As the ballad progresses, the accompaniment (including the soprano and tenor) gradually breaks out of its monotony and becomes more lyrical, as if the singer's thoughts are projecting onto her surroundings. This metamorphosis is short-lived, however. When the ballad ends, the accompaniment slips back into the hypnotic monotones with which the piece began.

What I like about this composition is how the music and the text enhance each other. Contrast and transformation are critical to music. In this piece, both the contrast between the voice and accompaniment and the gradual transformation of the accompaniment in response to the singer's thoughts are suggested by the text itself. The music without the text and the text without the music (sorry, Sarah) would each lack something.

After describing the piece in such detail, it's a shame I don't have a performance to link to. I can offer the score itself, and I hope there will be a live performance soon. I will let you know when and where, and, assuming it is recorded, I will add a link to the performance.

Here is the aforementioned link:



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