Cut’n’paste job: Constructing a text from multiple sources

I’m very excited to have been commissioned to write a new 5-minute a cappella piece on a maritime theme for the Trinity Laban Chamber Choir. The first draft is due at the beginning of December, so I’m currently immersed in research and drafting up initial ideas. Rather than use specifically nautical poetry, with which I feel little connection and which has already been done extremely well by composers such as Stanford, I have decided to compile a text about drowning from a range of sources. I’m hoping that this approach will combine some of the benefits of writing my own text (not having pacing dictated by the text, tailoring section lengths to musical rather than poetical needs) while avoiding actually having to write my own 🙂

Cue lovely chunks of time ensconced in the National Maritime Museum’s Caird Library (I think that makes 8 libraries I belong to here now…) reading up on drowning. Some of this reading has been useful – a 1904 Method for the Treatment of the Apparently Drowned, a letter dated July 1805 (which I actually got to handle!!!) from a sailor on the HMS Victory conveying the news of a friend’s death by drowning to his parents in Nottinghamshire; other bits have been merely time-consuming, such as the six chapters of a book called All the Drowned Sailors which I read because I simply couldn’t put it down: while they didn’t actually say much about drowning, there was rather a lot of gripping narrative about insanity, dehydration and death by shark. Drowning really is a terrifyingly long way from the worst thing that can happen to you at sea…

In the past couple of days I have started ‘real’ work on the piece. My ideas for the opening solidified quite early, but I kept thinking that I should map out the structure of the piece and then work out which texts to use with what. However, I found that I was having a lot of trouble thinking about the structure without considering the specific text I should use. I guess that even though the musical structure will work independently of a textual structure, it’s still dependent on the text in the same way that when I create structure diagrams for instrumental pieces, they are often based on textural blocks. Without the texture in mind, the structure doesn’t happen, and in this case without picking out the text I wanted to work with, the structure wasn’t happening.

I had originally thought that I might be able to hang the whole piece on the letter, but I think now that that’s not going to work. It’s so very personal that I’m reluctant to use it whole, to dissipate the poignancy of its message through the mechanics of dividing the text between the voices. I had already thought to use just fragments of text from the Method, so now I’m thinking of doing the same with the letter, focusing on phrases which can represent so many similar letters that have been sent to grieving families over the centuries.

I also have a few fragments of poetry that were used in a document from the Shackleton expedition, as epitaphs for lost expedition members. Plus the names of drowned Merchant Navy seamen (I have a book of these on order at the Caird Library – due in on Tuesday!), plus an assortment of words that I’m thinking of as “drowning rhymes” in the manner of Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb’s “shawm rhymes”, “flute rhymes” etc. (which you can hear from about a minute into the following track).

These “rhymes” will be words like DOWN, DROWN, BURN and BREATHE. Not exactly rhyming, but related in the sounds they use (D/B, DR/BR/BUR and the progression of the vowel sounds) and also related to the reported experience of drowning.

I’ve worked up a first draft plan for the opening using these words, showing what I want to do with them. I think it’s fairly clear, but I’m not sure yet how much of the graphic information will make it into the score – I’m still working through some ideas in this respect.

Drowning songs opening

I’m thinking that the piece will proceed via passages of compression and relaxation. This comes from the Method: “sufficient air for the maintenance of life could be introduced by alternate compression and relaxation of the chest walls”. ‘Compression’ will most likely be rhythmic homogeneity while ‘relaxation’ will be more loosely connected material.

I’ve never compiled a text in this way before. It’s a very different way of thinking than working from complete passages or poems. The need to convey a sense of the whole text is removed because it is entirely appropriate if only fragments are comprehensible by the audience in this situation. I’ve chosen this approach because recently I’ve started to feel quite hemmed in when working with complete texts. The reason I rarely set rhymed poetry is that I feel I need to completely break the poem in order to make it appropriate for music. If I don’t then the music seems crippled by the poem’s own internal music (which all good poems have. And many bad poems too). By using fragments, it feels more like the music is in control and that the structure will develop from musical requirements, not textual ones.

The other benefit is that I can include multiple levels of meaning in the words I’m using, which is something that really appeals to me and something I touched on slightly when writing my own text for Breadcrumbs earlier this year. At the moment there are elements of the physical experience of drowning, resuscitation methods, grief and the personal and institutional expression of sorrow, and the very personal specificity of the names of people who have actually died.

I’m hoping that the book of names I’m seeing on Tuesday will yield something I can use – not sure what content I could use to fulfil this role if those documents don’t provide something useful. It’s very important to me with this piece to use – for want of a better word – authentic texts. The specific stories behind the words I’m using are a large part of the power of that text. This may not be something which conveys to an audience, but it matters to me as I’m writing it, and hopefully once the choir knows that the names are the names of real people who drowned, the letter fragments are from an actual letter, the poetry was chosen as a memorial to real people, that it will colour the approach they take in singing this material. There’s a level of respect that goes along with a true story, a gravitas, which cannot be matched by invention, no matter how plausible, and I feel that to try to fake any part of this is to belittle the pain of those who have died and those who have lost people to the sea.

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