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.

Breadcrumbs: Writing your own text

WorkingMy main focus recently has been a 5-minute dramatic monologue for unaccompanied soprano, called Breadcrumbs. I’m writing it for Julia Weatherley, a marvellous singer who is also studying at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. She asked me to write a 5-minute unaccompanied piece for her final recital in September and we decided that this would be an excellent opportunity to test out some ideas surrounding the chamber opera I’m going to be writing for her next year.

Hence ‘breadcrumbs’. The opera is to be based on fairy tales and my idea had been to take the arc of a well-known fairy tale, which at the moment will probably be ‘Hansel and Gretel’, but – inspired by Jennifer Walshe‘s multilayered theatrical work – to use it as a framework to hang all sorts of other related material from. I did a lot of thinking about how this layering might happen and the text was kind of an obvious starting point. I considered writing my own text. Then I considered commissioning a libretto, then collaborating with a librettist, and finally came full-circle to face the idea that if I was even considering writing a whole libretto, I should first have a go at writing some text for something shorter. Which is this piece.

Even more than most of my other pieces, ‘Breadcrumbs’ has had quite a huge research/mental incubation phase. I read (and am still reading) a number of books of fairy tales – Joan Aiken and Jan Pienkowski’s stunning The Kingdom Under the Sea which provided the visual stimulus for the opera’s concept; The Annotated Brothers Grimm; and Angela Carter’s fascinating The Bloody Chamber, which a friend lent me and which is retellings of fairy tales from different perspectives and with a very modern sensibility; L. Frank Baum’s volume of American Fairy Tales. I thought about other material I might want to weave into the production, particularly tangentially related stories – things which aren’t really fairy tales or folk tales but which in my mind are related – Dante’s Inferno [sideline: have you seen that Clive James has just released a translation of the whole Divine Comedy? OMGSWOON!], Arthurian legends, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising books, The Wizard of Oz.

I slowly developed a structural concept for the piece – the context is that Gretel is alone in the wood with evening drawing on. She has lost Hansel and is angry at him for the breadcrumb plan going wrong. The piece draws an arc showing her feelings for him – anger at him, worry for him and for herself, joy at finding him again – with a touch of anger thrown in again as it so often does when a child has wandered off and then been found again. Interspersed among her outbursts are expressions of fear and wandering thoughts.

When I finally came to write the text, it actually all came very quickly. I had one night where I just couldn’t get to sleep, so I’d been thinking about the piece and had an idea how to start it: ‘Breadcrumbs! Breadcrumbs! [scathingly] Such an original idea! My brother, the genius’ and after mulling on it for a while I figured I’d better write it down or lose it. Hurrah for the iPad by the bed! So I wrote it down, and a couple more lines were added. Closed the iPad, tried to get back to sleep, failed, opened it again and wrote a few more lines. By the end of about 3 hours of this (at about 3am) I had a pretty clear draft of the entire text, which was:

Breadcrumbs! Breadcrumbs! Such an original idea!
My brother the genius – Hansel, where are you? Hansel!
Each alone in the dark wood – so dark-dim-shadowed, so murky-sombre, so alone

Breadcrumbs! Breadcrumbs! I hope the birds are enjoying their feast – all the way home.
Next time our father takes us out to kill us, I’m taking a ball of string
Hansel. Hans?

Twilight. Evening. Past crepuscular and into more prosaic night-time

I’m so afraid of the dark. A darkness a spoon could stand up in, as they say.
I don’t have a spoon right now, but I believe them.
Who’s them? Why did they think to bring a spoon into this blackness?

I have visions of groves of standing spoons, the clatter of cutlery as I walk…

Breadcrumbs! the bread all gone – and the crumbs too. I went to look…
Hansel!
Darkness reveals the worst of us. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.
I’m a bad sister, I know it. Poor Hansel!
He doesn’t have a spoon either,
To sample the quality of the night.
I can hear his bright sunshine-laughter.
That same yellow laugh he gave, so full of delight to go hunting with my father – joy at any new shiny thing.

Is that a light? Is it?! Such a wonderful smell! So sweet-spicy! Gingerbread!
Honeyed beacon! Oh sweet illumination!
Our sweet safe haven?

It didn’t really change very much from this until I started to compose the piece, several weeks later. As I’d been hearing the notes in my head while writing the text, I felt I was fairly aware of the musical shape I wanted the work to take. My biggest problem was trying to work out what the actual pitches should be – as a dramatic piece there’s a certain amount of parlando, sighs, indefinite pitch stuff and I found it quite difficult to interpret what was in my head into pitches either on the piano or attempting to sing myself – not being a soprano about a third of the piece lies above my range and it just didn’t sound right trying to sing it an octave lower or as notes on the piano or if I attempted to squeak it at pitch. I suspect this is something that just requires practice.

Eventually, of course, I got the pitches down, worked on the rhythms. Of course one of the benefits of writing your own text is that you can just cut or change things as you go along, depending on what works, what doesn’t and what seems to be missing. No need to check with anyone, no need to feel guilty or justify the change. I haven’t really made any huge changes, but there have certainly been some. This is where it is now:

Breadcrumbs! Breadcrumbs! Such an original idea!
My brother, the genius!
Hansel! Hansel, where are you? Hansel!

Each alone in the dark wood, each alone.
So dark, dim-shadowed, so murky-sombre, so alone, so alone, so alone.

Breadcrumbs! Breadcrumbs! Breadcrumbs! HUH!
I’m sure the birds are enjoying their feast – all, all, all, all, all the way home!
Next time our father takes us out to kill us – next time! – I’m taking a ball of string.

Hansel? Hans? Hans! Oh!

Twilight, twilight, evening.
Past crepuscular and into more prosaic night-time.

I’m so afraid of the dark.
A darkness a spoon could stand up in, so they say.
I don’t have a spoon – I don’t! – but I believe them, I believe them.

Mmmmmmmmm (hums)

Visions, I have visions of groves of standing spoons, visions, visions.
A clatter of cutlery as I walk.

Breadcrumbs. The bread’s all gone. And the crumbs too.
He went to look…
Oh Hansel. My Hansel. My brother.
He doesn’t have a spoon either. (sigh)

Darkness, darkness reveals, reveals the worst of us.
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!
Abandon hope, abandon, a- a- a- a-

Is that a light? Is it? And I can hear my brother’s sunshine-yellow laughter!
Hansel! Where have you been? Where have you been?!

What’s that wonderful smell?
Sweet-spicy,
Rich
Oh!
Gingerbread!
Honeyed beacon! Oh sweet illumination!
Our sweet safe haven?

I’m pretty pleased with where the piece is now and have sent it off to Julia to get her initial impressions, discover if any of it will be impossible to pitch and so on. I do suspect, however, that I may end up extending some of the more arioso sections – in particular ‘past crepuscular’, ‘groves of standing spoons’ and maybe ‘abandon hope’ as at the moment the piece feels perhaps a little fragmented by veering back and forth between recitative and arioso sections. This may involve having to write more text, or possibly I can do it just with repetition or wordless sounds like the humming towards the end.

Have you ever written your own text for a composition? How did you find the experience? Please share in the comments!