Ocean of Forms

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Ph.D. Dissertation

Ocean of Forms is a cycle of five songs for solo soprano voice and electronic/computer music accompaniment. Traditionally, the song cycle provides composers a vehicle for expressing and highlighting a poet’s words. Word and syllabic stress, text painting, melodic development, and formal structuring have been a primary focus of many composers working within the song cycle form. The replacement of the traditional piano accompaniment with electronic accompaniment in Ocean of Forms provides further possibilities for new timbral structures and transformations, expressive microtonal intonation, algorithmic and aleatoric formal structures, electroacoustic and spatialized sound, and a broad sonic palette. This work strives to provide a more fully developed expression of the text as afforded by these expanded musical means.

The texts for the cycle consist of poems by noted Bengali poet, musician, philosopher, and author Rabindranath Tagore. In particular, four of the poems were first published in Gitanjali (Song Offerings) and one poem is found in The Crescent Moon, both collections dating from 1913. Much of the poet’s work concerns concepts such as love, death, and the nature of the human experience. These themes are often connected to the natural world, time, and the cosmos, often in a personal yet surprisingly universal manner. The continuing popularity of his work lies mainly in his ability to poetically capture and express such universal concepts. Notably, he worked as his own translator when rendering his works into English, becoming the first non-Western author to win a Nobel Prize in literature in 1913 for the translation of Gitanjali (Song Offerings). His poetry provides a particularly humane and personal expression of concepts and emotions common to the human experience.

Given the universality of these concepts, an overriding humanistic theme is clearly present throughout his work; particularly so in the selected poems. This underlying universality of the human experience is the overriding literary theme of the piece. The text setting and electronic accompaniment reflect and enhance this theme musically. The ordering of the individual poems creates an overarching narrative structure. The formal structure of the music reflects and reinforces this dramatic curve, thereby imbuing the music itself with the same dramatic tendencies as the text.

I. Light (Gitanjali 57)

Light, my light, the world-filling light, the eye-kissing light, heart-sweetening light!
Ah, the light dances, my darling, at the center of my life; the light strikes, my darling, the chords of my love; the sky opens, the wind runs wild, laughter passes over the earth.
The butterflies spread their sails on the sea of light. Lilies and jasmines surge up on the crest of the waves of light.
The light is shattered into gold on every cloud, my darling, and it scatters gems in profusion.
Mirth spreads from leaf to leaf, my darling, and gladness without measure. The heaven’s river has drowned its banks and the flood of joy is abroad.

II. Threshold (Gitanjali 95)

I was not aware of the moment when I first crossed the threshold of this life.
What was the power that made me open out into this vast mystery like a bud in the forest at midnight!
When in the morning I looked upon the light I felt in a moment that I was no stranger in this world, that the inscrutable without name and form had taken me in its arms in the form of my own mother.
Even so, in death the same unknown will appear as ever known to me. And because I love this life, I know I shall love death as well.
The child cries out when from the right breast the mother takes it away, in the very next moment to find in the left one its consolation.

III. My Song (The Crescent Moon 38)

This song of mine will wind its music around you, my child, like the fond arms of love.
This song of mine will touch your forehead like a kiss of blessing.
When you are alone it will sit by your side and whisper in your ear, when you are in the crowd it will fence you about with aloofness.
My song will be like a pair of wings to your dreams, it will transport your heart to the verge of the unknown.
It will be like the faithful star overhead when dark night is over your road.
My song will sit in the pupils of your eyes, and will carry your sight into the heart of things.
And when my voice is silent in death, my song will speak in your living heart.

IV. Brink Of Eternity (Gitanjali 87)

In desperate hope I go and search for her in all the corners of my room; I find her not.
My house is small and what once has gone from it can never be regained.
But infinite is thy mansion, my lord, and seeking her I have to come to thy door.
I stand under the golden canopy of thine evening sky and I lift my eager eyes to thy face.
I have come to the brink of eternity from which nothing can vanish —no hope, no happiness, no vision of a face seen through tears.
Oh, dip my emptied life into that ocean, plunge it into the deepest fullness. Let me for once feel that lost sweet touch in the allness of the universe.

V. Ocean of Forms (Gitanjali 100)

I dive down into the depth of the ocean of forms, hoping to gain the perfect pearl of the formless.
No more sailing from harbor to harbor with this my weather-beaten boat. The days are long passed when my sport was to be tossed on waves.
And now I am eager to die into the deathless.
Into the audience hall by the fathomless abyss where swells up the music of toneless strings I shall take this harp of my life.
I shall tune it to the notes of forever, and when it has sobbed out its last utterance, lay down my silent harp at the feet of the silent.


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