Semantics is for Poets

This is a piece that was composed last fall for a reading session with the amazing quartet loadbang (baritone voice, trumpet, clarinet/bass clarinet, trombone). They were gracious enough to give their time and talent towards a reading session with a handful of student works at SUNY Fredonia. Loadbang was brought in by Ethos New Music Society, and besides the reading session and an amazing concert, Jeff Gavett and Will Lang each gave a lecture/masterclass. The residency was very will received! I was really inspired by the ensemble’s strange instrumentation and experimental repertoire. It struck me that this was a perfect opportunity to experiment with some aleatoric ideas that I had been interested in for a long time. Pulling from various sources including Lutosławski, Cage, and Earle Brown, my concept was to create a fluid texture in the ensemble, over which the singer could present some lines of text… what text?

On that front, I was actually inspired by a course I was taking at the time called History of the English Language (affectionately known by its acronym-cum-epithet, HEL). I was struck by the absurdity that I found to be inherent in using elevated language to describe the most basic elements of its construction. I considered myself to be a very good speaker of the English language even before knowing, for example, what an allomorph is, or what morphophonolgy is for, or the difference between phonology and phonetics. I was intrigued by the idea of using a text that was essentially anti-poetry (à la Part III of Louis Andriessen’s De Materie) and thought about using definitions of various linguistic terms or particularly dry excerpts from some of my textbooks. But nothing seemed satisfactory. Finally a sarcastic line that I used to end a discussion-forum post for the class stuck with me and seemed to capture the notion of using ‘anti-poetry’: “semantics is for poets.” So I ran with that and eventually came up with these lines: “All language is systematic; syntax is for scientists; semantics is for sculptors; syntax is for scholars; semantics is for poets; all languages change.” The score indicates the inflection for the delivery of the text but there is not pitch, allowing for a clear, declamatory delivery.

Besides the aleatoric ‘box’ notation and the original text (a first for me) I also got to experiment with a third thing: deconstructing the phonemes (not phonetics!) of the words and developing them in an essentially musical way. This has been a long-standing desire of mine, and the aesthetic worked perfectly in the sound-world I was trying to create. The main challenge in this piece was creating a convincing form even while relinquishing so much control to the performers. The text helped significantly in this regard, as a way to help structure the musical ideas to fit the delivery of the text. But the musical material is organized to create a logical progression as well.  Here is an amazing group of performers from Fredonia performing the piece in concert! Michael Manganiello, voice; Omar Ore-Quinones, bass clarinet and clarinet; Gianluca Farina, trumpet; and Peter Isaac, trombone. Recording is courtesy of Tim Bausch.

Score: ScottAMillerII-Semantics is for Poets – Please contact me if you’re interested in performing the piece!


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