Dissertation Proposal

On 2011/07/20, in Dissertation, by lsp

I recently completed my dissertation proposal. I decided to provide updates as I work on my dissertation as a way to record the process and keep me on task. Here’s a breakdown of how I got to this point.

I had several major ideas when starting out on this work. One of my overriding concerns has always been the interaction between text and sound, words and music. I find the solo voice most appropriate for exploring this area, so that portion of the ensemble was set more or less from the beginning. For my master’s thesis, I used solo voice with small chamber ensemble.

I had two ‘big-picture’ ideas to start with – either a monodrama for soprano and electronics (along the lines of Schoenberg’s Erwartung), or a song cycle for the same ensemble. In both pieces I wanted to examine (with a modern approach) the ideas and emotions that Wagner explored with Tristan und Isolde, and especially the Liebestod. For myself, the idea of life, love, and death connected in one emotional gesture is a powerful and poetic image. It is also a timeless and universal concept, since it nicely includes major themes of nearly any human life. I ended up going with the song cycle, as I was unable to find a suitable story that I felt I could competently turn into a libretto.

Naturally, the poetry to be set was my primary concern. I am not the type of composer happy with setting bad or even mediocre poetry (vis-a-vis Schubert). Not that there is anything inherently wrong with text setting for the sake of text setting, but what interests me most is the integration and interaction of text and sound. Since the poetry drives the music, setting ‘bad’ poetry won’t allow for the best musical results. In my search for poetry, I was fortunate enough to come across the work of Rabindranath Tagore. His work struck me with its direct yet emotional engagement of the human condition. His poetry is at once beautiful, specific, universal, and musically complementary. One thing I avoid in a text is a rhymed or overly metric structure. I find this narrows the delivery of the text into square, predictable phrases. Thankfully, Tagore translated his works from the original Bengali into English by himself. This seems to have preserved the musicality of the words without forcing them into an artificial metric or rhyme scheme.

Tagore was quite prolific, so I had many poems to choose from. I began with his Gitanjali: Song Offerings, which is perhaps his most famous collection, for which he was awarded the 1913 Nobel Prize in literature (Tagore was the first non-european author to be honored in this way). I started with a big list of poems that in some way tied in with my main idea. I grouped these poems by their various themes, in hope of creating some thematic and musical shape through their arrangement. Time, music, love, light, and distance were the groups I had created, though many poems fit into more than one category. From this group, I had narrowed it down to nine poems. In this group of nine, there are some interesting formal connections that appealed to me in particular. When grouped into three sets of three poems each, a clear thematic parallel appears. The first poem of each set deals with love and light; the second with searching, distance, and silence; and the third with music. In this way the overall form reflects the form within each grouping of three, giving a nice shape to the work as a whole, particularly one that suggests a definite musical structure.

However, this arrangement created several problems. First was one of length. If each poem were a minimum of 3 minutes, the overall work would be at least 27 minutes in length. While this isn’t prohibitive by itself, I do need to finish the work on a timetable. Furthermore, it doesn’t allow me the time to fully create an appropriately extended musical shape for each poem. I wouldn’t have the time to effectively shape, express, and sustain the intent of each poem. Instead of a narrative shape that grows in time, I worried that so much text would necessitate a series of vignettes.

So, I finally narrowed it down to five poems. The rigid structure of the previous nine is gone, but instead a more open-ended and interpretable structure remains. Still, there are some interesting formal aspects of this arrangement. The opening poem, Light, provides a strong opening to the work as a whole, especially as I hear it in my head. The third poem, My Song, combines themes of music and eternity together, providing a strong focal point of the work. The final poem provides a perfect ending to the work, especially in the last lines. Overall, this arrangement feels most appropriate for the size and scope of the piece and I feel this will allow me the best opportunity to fully express these poems.



On 2011/06/14, in Shows, by lsp

My work, Thrymmatízo, will be performed at the Pixilerations festival this coming fall!  Show dates will be provided when I get the final schedule.


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