Two Fish

Soprano and piano

Commissioned by Rebecca Cohen in 2014, Two Fish was written in response to a brief for an amusing song or group of songs with a total duration of approximately 4 minutes for soprano and piano. Having chosen texts from the 17th century fishing manual The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton, we worked to create two contrasting songs that reflect characteristics of the fish described. At some point during the composition process, I began to associate the fish in the texts with characters from Victorian melodrama. The music correspondingly took a melodramatic turn and both songs abound with frills and flourishes.

‘Adonis’, the first song of the pair, represents the heroine of Victorian melodrama. Beautiful and pure-hearted, this fish is the personification of innocence and love. While I was unable to precisely identify the fish described by Walton, I discovered that the herring is sometimes described as ‘The Darling of the Sea’. I learned that the herring, a fish which lives on plankton, is preyed on by a range of creatures. Specifically, I found photographs showing herring schools being attacked from above by gulls and from below by whales lunging from the depths. With the text being essentially description, with no innate drama, I used the idea of predators from below and above to build some drama into the piano part. As the piano part became more dramatic, the vocal line retreated into a simplicity informed by the idea of church chant.

‘Sargus’ represents the morally corrupt villain of Victorian melodrama. The text, the rather loose descendent of a French original based on an ancient description, describes an unnatural sexual liaison – between the Sargus fish and a goat. The mixture of description and purple-prose hyperbole in this text suggested the use of strong contrasts in this piece. The melodic material for the opening derived from a cipher on the fish’s name, while the central section was composed intuitively.

Preview the score of Two Fish (click on score to open full-screen):