Edmund Scott Miller, composer

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Writing Randall’s Leaf, II: The Expressive-Object

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This summer I’ll be posting some thoughts and observations on what I’ve learned from writing Randall’s Leaf, a 38 minute chamber opera in one act. The second installment investigates what makes opera opera.

In this post I’d like to discuss some ideas concerning text and development in Randall’s Leaf. My main goal concerning this topic is establishing relationships between text via what I’ve loosely termed ‘musical equivalence:’ different texts set to the same music become inextricably linked. In order to explain how such a seemingly unsophisticated procedure can generate interesting and useful results, I’d like to discuss an example from the opera.

One of the most distinctive motives presented in the Prologue is the setting of the line ‘his paintings were too large for his skill.’ The soprano and mezzo sing slightly different versions of the motive to clearly distinguish their characters, but the sympathetic mezzo’s easy-flowing pentuplet version is the more discrete (and, for me, definitive) version. During the first scene the mezzo sings to Randall the line ‘not satisfactory at all’ in reference to his neighbor Becket’s damaged roof. The text is set to the inversion of the motive from ‘his paintings were too large for his skill,’ creating a thread between the more abstract world of Randall’s artwork, where the prologue is (ambiguously) set, and the ‘real world’ full of inconvenient duties and responsibilities. This thread continues into the final scene, where the initial motive ‘paintings were too large…’ is used to set Randall’s line, ‘I need help and advice.’ This musical recapitulation (I consider the Prologue to be musically expository as well as dramatically so; see my post on ‘extra-dramatic form’) is reinforced by a dramatic resolution: Randall has learned that in order for his vision to become a reality, he must have Becket’s help. In opera, the text and music form a single unit; what, at the local level, may be called an expressive-object. Just as a purely musical object can be tweaked, manipulated, and contorted for dramatic and/or developmental purposes, an operatic expressive-object can be altered for the same purposes. Typical musical procedures can be applied to staggering effect, of course, but so can textual and contextual variations. In this case, the text is one parameter that is changed, making the expressive-object obviously different, yet recognizable. More subtle alterations have also occurred: the context of the musical material is appreciably different since Randall delivers the line. And it is the first time he sings that music. He was the subject of the idea when it was first presented (‘his paintings…’), but now he is instituting the development of the idea himself (‘I need…’), which places him in control. 

The idea of ‘musical equivalence’ is actually just part of this larger idea of an ‘expressive object.’ I think of this concept as simply added elements into the mix. In other words text or context or a key visual component can all be weighted equally with musical components such as melody, rhythm, harmony, timbre. That isn’t to say that every element is important all the time, of course. Certain elements can be brought to the fore, or pushed into the background just as a musical passage may concern itself chiefly with a specific element. I find the expressive possibilities are vast when all of these components are treated as equals, to be manipulated and shuffled around in importance. In writing Randall’s Leaf, this approach freed me to explore the potentials of instrumental musical development in a dramatic form without bowing to the text. My view for this chamber opera was that keeping musical and non-musical elements as equals, I wasn’t forced into anything. Just like I could have a passage of music that was all about rhythm and essentially ignores melody, I could write an operatic vocal passage that is primarily about harmony, moving the focus away from the text, where it would typically be centered. I also want to make clear that my intention is never to sacrifice the intelligibility of the libretto! It is true that at its essence, opera is the elevation of text, but my goal is to reconcile drama as musical form. I think of music dramatically to begin with. In this sense, I would define drama as a series of interactions and relationships. I see this as being very distinct from a programmatic, cinematic, or narrative mode of conceiving musical form. Like so many others before me, I believe the key to dramatically and musically engaging opera is equality between all elements, musical or not. I also believe, however, that by taking steps to ensure a powerful musical form is in communication with the elements of storytelling like plot, setting, characterization, theme, etc., that this new layer of dramatic/expressive complexity will make every part of the opera essential.

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