To through-compose or not to through-compose…

March 4, 2011 Comments Off on To through-compose or not to through-compose…

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of work on When Silence Sings, the song cycle for Wendy. When I took in my rough drafts and fragments to show her, one of her main comments was that I should look into repeating words and phrases.

Now. I’m very much in favor/in the habit of through-composing. For those of you not familiar with vocal music terminology, through-composing means setting the text under the music exactly as it is, with little or no repetition. Music that is not through-composed makes repetition where the original text had none; for example, my current favorite piece of all time is Purcell’s “The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation,” where part of the text reads, “Me Judah’s daughters once caressed, called me of mothers the most blessed. Now, fatal change, of mothers most distressed.” And so on. But when you actually sing the song, the words go like this: “Me Judah’s daughters once caressed, Me Judah’s daughters once caressed, called me of mothers the most, the most, the most blessed, called me of mothers the most, the most, the most blessed. Now, fatal change, now, fatal change, of mothers, of mothers most, most distressed, of mothers most, most distressed.” Purcell is the king of this. And I am not. Just about everything I write is through-composed, which is why I’ve been struggling a little with Wendy’s comment.

1. It seems that, to be moved to repeat words, the words in question should be grave and/or meaningful enough to bear repeating, and when the words are “Hold me in your arms while Saturn and Mercury make love to Venus and the sea pines for the moon,” I’m a little reluctant to give them undue emphasis. SOLUTION: I need to see beyond the poem to the ideas and images. The sea pining for the moon, for example, is a good image—a really good image, in fact, but it just happens to be in the middle of some rather vapid lines. I can do something with that.

2. At the same time, when words are repeated à la Purcell, the audience sort of stops listening to them, because “of mothers the most, the most, the most” doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Wendy suggested that sometimes you register the words and realize after the fact what the sentence was, which may indeed be the case. So here I have two conflicting thoughts: on the one hand, repeating words gives them weight and makes them seem important; on the other hand, repeating words makes the audience stop listening to them.

3. On the third hand, repeating words also makes me think that the words have nothing to do with it. I can see Purcell thinking, okay, these words will go like this…hm, that gives me an idea for a melody, it should go here and then here…yes, and then it can do this and end up way over here… and then before he knows it he’s written a page of music on what was supposed to be five words, and he looks back over what he’s done and thinks, oh crap, now I need to put some words in here, oh well, I’ll just repeat this one word over and over. Maybe above all, repeating the words seems to happen out of the necessity created by writing a long, strong melody, which is a particular weakness of mine. I don’t have a great melodic imagination, and I usually end up taking all my cues from the words, at least to begin with. The choir piece I’m working on, “Epistle,” is actually an exception, and I was really excited for a while because it felt like to a certain extent it was driving itself and I just had to do enough work to keep up with it…but then I got bogged down. Anyway, melodic imagination is something I’d like to work on, so maybe this is good practice. Also, yesterday I decided to junk almost everything I’d already been working on…but that also is good practice.

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