Edmund Scott Miller, composer

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Organum – for two alto saxophones

Extended program note:

Organum is a composition that borrows its name from the style of medieval sacred music characterized by drones and perfect intervals. However, it is important to note that this piece is not intended to be historical and no stylistic choices were made to align it with the practices of authentic organum. The music is constructed out of two main ideas: a ‘pendulum’ consisting of a chromatic scale fragment swinging down from concert E-flat to concert B-natural and back up, eventually coming to rest in the middle, on a concert D-flat; and a five-note tone row (E-flat – A – B-flat – D-flat) which provides most of the melodic material through a rotational process borrowed from Stravinsky (i.e. “Stravinsky Verticals”). Two similarities are immediately apparent: both musical ideas begin on E-flat and end (eventually) on D-flat, and both contain five different pitches. The second of these becomes the root for the form of the entire piece, the number five playing a significant role in every aspect of the musical development. There is a section of music for each note of the pendulum figure as it unfolds on the macro level. Rhythmic grouping of different numbers (1 through 5) conflict at each transition until 5 has ‘defeated’ 1-4. The pendulum figure only occurs explicitly in the beginning (while the tone row is being presented in retrograde), in the middle (over a D-flat drone, the eventual destination), and at the end (when the destination is finally reached).

An important theme in this piece is the natural versus the artificial. This is embodied respectively in the ‘organic’ pendulum figure versus serial composition techniques as well as the free, meterless flow of the piece versus the exactitude of certain rhythms. 

 

Performed here by the incredible Jacob Swanson and Sarah Marchitelli:


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Artifact – for soprano, recorder, guitar, violin, and viola da gamba

World premier recording by Lisa Perry, Aik Shin Tan, Jeremy Lyons, Mark Erickson, and Niccolo Seligmann. Live at the Walter’s Art Museum in Baltimore. Text by the composer.

 

Timeless turned-over artifact

Personifying masterworks.

Ancient, looking forward,

Back through.

 

Timeless, ancient,

Turned-over looking

Artifact. Forward,

Personifying back through

Masterworks.

 

Ancient, looking forward,

Back through timeless,

Turned-over artifact,

Personifying masterworks.

 

(text by the composer)


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World Premier – ‘Artifact’ at the Walter’s Art Museum

This Friday, 4 October 2013, I’ll be having a composition premiered alongside new works by other Masters students from Peabody Conservatory at the Walter’s Art Museum. My piece is for soprano, recorder, guitar, violin, and bass viola da gamba. This was an interesting project for me for a number of reasons, but at the heart of the matter was that I only had about two and a half weeks to write a 6 minute piece from the ground up. There were also a lot of firsts: writing for viola da gamba, writing for recorder, writing a concert piece for voice and chamber ensemble, not to mention the first thing I was to compose at my new institution.

I had to come up with a concept  immediately, find a text to set (or determine another way to write for the soprano affectively), then experiment with the actual musical material. Having been given the instrumentation and the performance space, I immediately noticed a connection between the plethora of historical pieces in the Walter’s and the pseudo period ensemble. This served very strongly as a source of inspiration conceptually. It made me think about the purpose of these artworks and instruments today; is the interest artistic or historical or both? This was a decent starting point for me and I had to find a text that concerned itself with that.  Well, I didn’t know any, and everyone knows finding a text that is musically motivating can take months if not longer.

In a bizarre coincidence,  I had learned about this opportunity while in Baltimore signing the lease for my new apartment, though I wasn’t moving in for another week and had to drive back to upstate New York. While driving for 6-7 hours I was thinking about what sort of text I wanted. In fact, I got such a good idea of what I was looking for, I actually ended up just writing the text myself! I don’t claim to be any kind of poet, but I like words and writing enough that I felt comfortable, in this case, writing text to be set to music. With the concept settled and and poetry finalized, I could proceed basically unhindered in the composing of the piece. I spent my last week in Albany and my first week in Baltimore at the piano with my head down, pencil in hand, guitar on my lap. The only breaks I had were miniature seminars with the recordist and viola da gamba player who graciously helped me get a sense of their unique instruments. The whole experience was a great exercise in ‘creativity on demand.’ At the end of it all, I feel it’s a strong piece, born of necessity with little time to double back and alter the particulars.


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

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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Writing Randall’s Leaf, I: Libretto and Form

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 first installment takes a look at how the very beginning of the process shaped the final product. 

I began the process of writing my first chamber opera, Randall’s Leaf, by writing the libretto. I chose this route for convenience among other reasons, but I wanted to put down some thoughts about how it shaped the project as a whole. In attempting to maintain a constant sense of narrative, I was thinking about how the drama was to unfold visually and musically. One of my struggles was imagining the pace of the words differently in speech and singing. In general, I had an approximate aesthetic or emotion in mind, but it was difficult to remember that I was writing for opera, not a stage play. My libretto is often very conversational and almost always involves multiple characters on stage at once. Rarely are traditional operatic forms, like recitative and aria, referenced and there is certainly never anything as strict as a da capo aria. While this type of libretto often proved difficult to set to music effectively, I think it contributes to the large scale dramatic progression of the composition in a positive way.

Most of the singing lives somewhere between traditional recitative and aria, which means when the music finally opens up, it feels (and sounds, and looks!) like an arrival. The final scene, for example, begins with a brief instrumental interlude followed immediately by the first true aria of the opera: “But this…I remember this slope… I remember this grass!” Randall (baritone) has entered his painting and we finally see this oppressed, depressed man allow himself the luxury of pouring out his intense satisfaction and sheer amazement. In true ‘aria’ fashion, the narrative is allowed to rest, put on pause as the main character sings his heart out. I think that by showing musical restraint and only using this aria effect as a dramatic climax appearing about 28 minutes into a 38 minute work, it provides a meaningful lift from the forward drive of what comes before.

Similarly, in the final scene, Becket (tenor) finally receives his one and only true aria moment. And unlike Randall, this is the first extended period where he gets to sing alone. Becket’s fourth-scene aria serves dramatically as a resolution in the narrative. A brief dialogue between the two provides some necessary explanation, through the only recit-like material in the scene. The music is reduced to an intimate baritone/viola duet which increases in complexity, approaching the climax of a renewed friendship. This climax is expressed to its fullest only after Becket’s aria, when Randall and Becket have a duet (perhaps the closest thing to a real ‘duet,’ as opposed to just simultaneous singing, in the entire chamber opera). Becket’s aria therefore, functions in two ways: it is a musical and dramatic release which concludes Becket’s dynamic shift as a relatable character, while also providing an important impetus for the continued forward motion of the drama. With these two arias strung together, I ran the risk of providing too much ‘release’ and not enough ‘conflict’ to motivate the plot. Dramatically, there is very little left to settle, but more remains to be said, and it must be stated effectively. By capitalizing on the suspense musically and formally, the final dramatic message can be delivered meaningfully. and with the same sense of inevitability as the earlier narrative-driven opera.

Understanding this interaction between dramatic narrative and music was one of the goals I set for myself at the beginning of this project. I’ve found that by creating the libretto myself I was obliged to consider a unique perspective that is easily lost or overlooked. Writing my own libretto also forced me to solve dramatic problems musically, filling in gaps and propelling the story. Reflecting on the project, I’m happy with the way the libretto helped cast the final shape of the music both formally and dramatically, and I would recommend this approach to any composer. When the time comes for my next operatic project I will have finer tools to create another libretto myself. But just as importantly, I am in a position to collaborate effectively with a librettist, something I hope to do a lot of in the future.