on words and music in Blue Mountain
A few years ago, the organisers of the Ultima festival challenged me to make a work where I wrote both text and music. Since I am working both as a composer and writer, this shouldn’t have been anything out of the ordinary. But I have kept these practices quite separate, and writing text to my own music – or music to my own text – hadn’t really occured to me before. The combination is a very common thing in popular music, especially as embodied in the figure of the songwriter. But in the lied, the orchestral piece or indeed in opera, there is a strict division of labour between composer and writer. There are exceptions, most famously Wagner, who did libretto, music and staging for his operas. And 20th century composers like Olivier Messiaen, who wrote his own poems for his music – or Luciano Berio, who made a collage of such detail that the resulting text arguably became his own in Sinfonia. But this relationship is often a convoluted one, not often discussed in the tradition of musical analysis where text tends to be taken as a given, not subjected to the same rigorous scrutiny as is often the case with music. This exposition is an attempt to unfold the process of composing with both words and music.
A key challenge has been to make the text an intrinsic part of the performance situation, and the music something more than mere accompaniment to narration. To render the words incomplete in their meaning without the music, and vice versa. So the question that emerged was how music and words can be not only equal partners, but also yield a new species of music/text. A second question follows from this, and that is what challenges the conflation of different roles – the writer and the composer – presents. I worked through these questions in my response to Ultima’s challenge. The result was Blue Mountain, a 35-minute work for two actors and orchestra, premiered in 2014 by the Danish National Chamber Orchestra. I will try to address the two questions posed above through a discussion of the methods applied in this work, and the challenges the process has presented.
Motivation and method
When contemporary composers work with text, the main traditions have been either working with canonical texts (Shakespeare, Rilke, Celan, etc.) or collaborating with contemporary writers. (Olga Neuwirth, for instance, with Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek.) The so-called New Discipline (see Walshe, 2016) is a notable exception, where composers often create text in the form of lectures (Matthew Shlomowitz: Lecture on Good and Bad Music), vocal performance (Jennifer Walshe: EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT) or documentary material (Trond Reinholdtsen: Everyday). But the vast majority of this work takes place outside the orchestral institution (with some flamboyant exceptions, like the Oslo Philharmonic’s performance of Reinholdtsen’s Piano Concerto in 2016);in this exploration I will keep my discussion within the framework of the orchestra.
The orchestral situation
When I started working with words and music, I quickly decided not to make a piece for singing voice and orchestra. Singing often tends to obscure the text, tipping the balance in a musical direction, and I wanted words and music to be equal partners, co-dependent. Even more importantly, I wanted to write a piece where the text was integrated into the orchestral situation. What is happening on stage should belong to the time-space of that stage and that performance. So I was working with the context of being in an orchestral hall, confronted with the notion of a musical contextuality.
In new music, there is a certain divide between ensembles/festivals, the ‘underground’, and the big institutions of orchestras and opera houses. A lot of composers work within very specific circumstances – for instance, exclusively with their own ensembles. Some composers work in the continuation of the tradition of the classical institutions. And some people, like myself, roam between these realms. My main method has been not to take the sites, spaces and means we utilize as givens, but to investigate the meaning of context. To me, writing for a symphony orchestra can be compared to exhibiting an art piece in a museum. Not the white cube of the gallery, but a museum where your work is shown in between the masterpieces from the permanent collection. And in its own way, the orchestra is a museum. It’s a museum of sound, a means of displaying a marvellous collection of classical pieces that for every concert is taken from the vault, examined and plundered for the pieces chosen to be exhibited. So when I write for an orchestra, most times my music will be displayed alongside respresentatives of these old masterpieces. The word ‘museum’ can be used to connote something obsolete or irrelevant, but I am interested in the productive aspects of the museum: how it engages archives of the past to produce new insight in our own space and time. In the orchestra, the archive is one of sound, of working procedures, of emotion – or, rather, of how emotion is portrayed and staged at different points in history. I have written extensively about these notions in my book Again and Again and Again (Buene, 2017), but believe it is useful to clarify these assumptions in terms of how they underlie Blue Mountain.
The art historian Hal Foster writes about the current condition of after-ness in art and theory and asks what comes after – or instead of – the alleged “end of art”. One of his essays on this topic has the telling title “This Funeral is for the Wrong Corpse” (Foster, 2002). He looks for creative and critical potential in this state of after-ness. And he calls for a labour of disarticulation, the redefinition of cultural terms and recapturing of political positions. Foster describes different artists who work with obsolete notions and technologies, like Stan Douglas and his use of silent movies. I take this as a cue, and argue that viewing the orchestra as a historical, obsolete object can paradoxically open up the situation to new possibilities. So I have tried to investigate the critical and creative potential that may lie in the repetition of music history. I think of repetition not as a celebration of the canon, but as a way of working with the shaping and controlling forces within the various institutions of music. By ‘institution’ I do not only mean buildings or organizations, but also the formats and places of music. I am interested in the historical residue in the apparatus of production and performance of new music, especially when it comes to institutions like the symphonic hall or the chamber music concert venue.
One can argue that working with an orchestra is a site-oriented praxis. But the orchestra is in a curious position with regard to the ephemeral temporal quality of ‘classical’ site-specific work like those of Robert Smithson. Today, site-oriented art is often spectacular and affiliated with the promotion of cities or urban developments (Kwon, 2002), but the first wave of site orientation was very much a phenomenological study of the places of art, their means of production, and the political implications of these. Early site-specific work was also about temporality. Artists wanted to counter the economic forces driving the arts economy with ephemeral works that could not be part of the market places of art. I’m mostly interested in this ephemeral quality: the orchestral work takes place in buildings that are some of the most enduring in our cultures. But at the same time, the orchestral performance is transient, and a new work, premièred, documented and often never to be heard again, is of a highly impermanent nature in spite of its ‘eternal’ qualities as score. And the cultural meaning of the object – the work and its interpretation – is, to a large degree, moulded by its topos.
So, the Orchestra, embedded in the shrine of the Concert Hall, is a highly situated thing, and the powers and constituting energies of this site are primordial to any aesthetic or ideological distinctions at work in a particular piece that may be performed within it. The orchestra is not so much a vessel for different styles – it is a style in itself. This is a fact many composers struggle with when confronting the orchestra. But it can also be used as an asset – an obsolete technology, in Foster’s sense. That is my take in Blue Mountain; I wanted the piece – both words and music – to work with the context of being in an orchestral hall. I wanted the music to be diegetic, to belong to the same place and scene as the words – integrated in the storytelling, not a background. With these contextual considerations in mind, I decided on a piece with spoken text, somewhere between radio play and orchestral theatre. And I found that the genre of melodrama provides a useful historical model for this approach. This is an old genre where music accompanies a spoken text. It originated in the mid 18th century, with Jean Jacques Rousseau’s’ Pygmalion, staged in 1770, constituting an early example. Pygmalion is a monodrama, that is for one actor, while Georg Benda’s Ariadne auf Naxos, premiered in 1775, is an example of a duo drama, for two actors. The grave-digging scene from Beethoven’s Fidelio is an example of melodrama used within an opera setting, something Mozart also did. In the 19th century, Franz Schubert wrote melodramas (with as little success as was the case with all his dramatic ventures) and also experimented in the lied-form, using short spoken recitations with piano. By the end of the 19th century, the genre had become inferior; this was probably the time when the connotation of cheap overacting became associated with the term – a connotation that still sticks to the word. The Melodrama was not in much use in the 20th century, but has come to life the last years, partly as a result of new multimedial possibilities for musical works. Olga Neuwirth’s and Paul Auster’s Ce qui arrive is one example, written for Ensemble Modern on stage, with recordings of Auster’s voice reading from the red notebook on loudspeakers and also with video projection. In Helmut Lachenmann’s Zwei Gefühle, a spoken text of Leonardo Da Vinci has become musicalized and embedded in the instrumental sounds. Bent Sørensen’s Sounds like You, with text by Peter Asmussen, is an example of orchestral theatre, where the symphonic orchestra is turned into a stage with actors using both stage and hall as the setting for a play with music.
The Most Beautiful Song in the World
A significant difference in Blue Mountain is that I have developed text and music simultaneously, and also assumed the role of stage director. In this way I’m taking a position closer to the cinematographic notion of the auteur. My main drive was to see if it was possible to build this structure of words and music in a continuous, dialogic way, where I didn’t write the words first and then added the music. In order to do this, I looked for something that would open itself towards both words and music, like the good old face of Janus. I found this in Gustav Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt Abhanden Gekommen, composed in 1901, premiered in 1905, and published as a part of Rückert Lieder. Granted, it is the most beautiful song in the world. But it was not only the music that I found so compelling, but the words, and their relation to the music. So I immersed myself in this song, rendering it both as an object of desire (or fixation), a catalyst for my own musical imagination, and as found material in its own right. I started working on both an instinctual level, from my love for the song, and an analytic level, from my desire to create a situation where music and text would co-exist. I followed Dylan Thomas’ method, as described in one of his letters (Thomas, 1985, p.397):
“I make one image, though ‘make’ is not the right word; I let, perhaps, an image be made emotionally in me & then apply to it what intellectual and critical forces I possess; let it breed another; let that image contradict the first, make, of the third image bred out of the other two, a fourth contradictory image, and let them all, within my imposed formal limits, conflict.”
The only twist was that the basic idea is not ‘made’, but ‘found’, and the Mahler song became my starting point for the conceptualization of what became Blue Mountain. And Friedrich Rückert’s text gave me the impulse for the story that unfolds in the piece – not directly, but indirectly, by imagining the protagonist of the poem in a contemporary setting, meeting a former love in the concert hall. This is Rückert’s text:
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben,
Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben!
Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen,
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält,
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.
Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel,
Und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebiet!
Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied!
I am lost to the world
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
that it may very well believe that I am dead!
It is of no consequence to me
Whether it thinks me dead;
I cannot deny it,
for I really am dead to the world.
I am dead to the world’s tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song!
Rückert’s text is a ghostly symbolical outline of a mind that has left this world. Is it a suicide note? A death wish? An ode to art? There is certainly a theme of death, which becomes central in Blue Mountain. I imagined the protagonist involved in a conversation that allows us to understand what lies behind this text. Of course, this is not explicit, it is a starting point for my imagination, creating two characters from our own time, meeting up at an orchestral concert.
The resulting work can be heard on the video linked to this exposition, with English subtitles, so there is little need for me to go into a lengthy description of the piece itself. Let me instead try to open up more of the processes involved in its making.
Most importantly, the Mahler song is inscribed variously in the orchestral fabric, the situation of orchestral performance, the choices of historical quotes and, indeed, in the story being narrated. I did not, however want the text to be a monologue, as in the poem, so I decided to tackle the textual theme in the form of a dialogue, between two actors on stage. The two sit on chairs identical to those of the audience, and it becomes evident that they are, in fact, audience members attending this concert. When they start speaking to each other, this is of course a break with realism in a strict sense, but a condition that the (real) audience readily accepts.
Working with singers, you can rely on a score for timing. Not necessarily so with actors, so a very basic challenge was how the actors would say their lines at the right place in the music. I solved this by writing sounding cues into the music, so they could take them by ear by following the cues dispersed in their text. For instance the harp-beat is a cue I used a lot, a musical figure derived from the opening of Mahler’s song, which I trained the actors to recognize with instructions like this: “count six harp-beats, than say your line.” It required some work in the beginning, making the actors listen to specific parts of the orchestra. But eventually it worked well, and they could perform without relying on the conductor.
There are two different strategies shaping words and music in this piece: The text is linear, while the music is circular. In musical terms, I started to develop material based on the first beats of the song: The bass Bb in harp (already mentioned), an ascending semitone in English horn, and a sustained chord in the violas. The music is always returning to this point, to the initial motive of Ich bin der Welt abhanden Gekommen, although in very distorted ways – sometimes as full quotes, sometimes as a fragment. This moment also became the starting point for the different musical excursions in the piece, by means of the different compositional devices and methods at my disposal (which there is little room to discuss in detail here). But a salient point is that I let this Mahlerian ur-motif spark my imagination and engage with my inner archive of orchestral music. So it also works as a trigging device, where by using free (and sometimes delirious) association, I let it point me toward other works of the orchestral canon – for instance, to the opening of Debussy’s La Mer, or Ravel’s La Valse, or the slow movement of Brahms’ Second piano concerto, all of which (albeit the latter heavily distorted) are quoted in Blue Mountain. Or, there is another moment where the characters start to discuss Mahler’s Second Symphony, and I quote Berio’s quotation from that symphony in his Sinfonia. These fragments from historical music allowed me to elicit responses and memories from a shared past in the two protagonists, in a musical flow between past and present, between romantic orchestral music and the new material I wrought for the piece based on the Mahler-motif. This leads me to the basic structure of the piece, which is a montage. I devised the flow of fragments, musical memories and associations in the form of montage, where different time frames and musical scenes could be intertwined with the dramatic development of the text and where the plot is intimately related to the musical development. An obvious example would be how I lead the conversation towards the male character’s past as pianist during a twisted Brahms-quote; another is how I put the word “waltz” into the female character’s mouth in connection with the Ravel-quote. I can’t say which idea came first, the musical or the narrative element, and I guess the point is that this is what I sought from the outset.
The text follows a different strategy than the circularity of the music. It is divided into 14 brief dialogues, where the shared past of the two protagonists is gradually unveiled. The central conflict is revealed in retrospect, as they tell each other stories, recount and re-evaluate shared experiences. This is a classical dramatic device where our experience of the now, of the relation between the characters, is under constant revision – sometimes incremental, sometimes through turning-points. The basic dialectic between words and music is utilized in the two characters’ main features: He symbolizes music, being an amateur pianist and music lover, and she is an academic in literature, specializing in modernist poetry. I wanted to shape the conversation in a way that feels like psychological truth, but also as a symbolic exchange between words and music. Creatively, this allows for all kinds of interesting perspectives. Let me give two examples of questions that triggered my imagination: How can I build correspondences between the poetry she reads and Mahler’s Second Symphony? And how can a memory of Berg’s Violin Concerto be superimposed on Ich bin Der Welt Abhanden Gekommen? As an answer to the first question, music from Webern’s op.10 appears as the protagonists discuss her old thesis on the Norwegian poet, Tor Ulven. Via a musical association, the Webern-fragment transforms to a Berio-fragment, echoing Mahler’s Resurrection-Symphony, just as the man starts to muse about the time they heard that symphony (and referring to the music as it unfolds in the orchestra). The (textual) resurrection-theme, in turn, prompts a discussion about death – a theme that becomes prominent in the second half of the piece. My response to the latter question is to let the woman refer to a walk in the park they took after hearing Berg’s Violin Concerto, at the moment that the opening theme of Berg is superimposed on the Mahler-fragment. Just as a violin starts to play the theme from Berg’s fourth movement, the man says “… but Berg’s is the best concerto of all – listen!”. This imperative – listen! – returns several time, as a part of the unfolding dialogue, but also as a signal to the audience, a sudden shift in emphasis, from words to music.
There are many of these correspondences, where meaning commutes from words to music and back, throughout the piece. This method of continual correspondence – of shifting initiative and perspective – has been my main device in avoiding the music becoming mere background for the spoken drama.
Finally, I want to address some challenges arising from the project. The first is related to my work as a writer, with three published novels and two collections of essays. In the process of preparing a book for publication, there is an extensive interaction with an editor. Writers are, indeed, privileged over composers in this respect. The editorial process is alien to orchestral music, for a number of reasons, and the composer does not truly know what she has done until after the first performance (a situation akin to a writer not being able to read everything in his book until it comes out in print). This has, of course, made the task of experimenting with the orchestra – within its rigorous structure of rehearsals and planning – an act of tightrope balancing. When text is added to the equation, the stakes rise exponentially. My choice of montage form reflects this, since – in some way – it made it possible to negotiate different elements of the work (albeit with myself) along the way, and had the advantage that I already knew some of the key material thoroughly beforehand.
There are further challenges connected with conflating the role of the composer/writer. One is that you lose the dialectic play, the friction, between two separate imaginations trying to work together towards a common goal. You lose the possibility of the gaze of the other, and the open-endedness of not being sure if you actually imagine the same result. But the flipside of this coin is that a singular vision, encompassing both words and music, can yield results where the two are more intimately intertwined. Especially since notated music is an art form, it is not easily conveyed to others until it is actually heard. (Yes, we have midi-renderings of scores, but these tools are not useful when it comes to music where you want to work with phenomenological qualities of instrumental sound outside the scope of what the midi-orchestras can deal with.)
I did need the outsider’s gaze on this project, and I discussed the manuscript with both a film director (Joachim Trier) and a stage director (Kai Johnsen). This process also revealed how much easier it is to edit and discuss text than music – I did not discuss the music with them. Writers are, indeed, privileged over composers when it comes to a true editorial process.
In the working situation I found myself going in and out of the roles as composer and writer – switching between different lines of thought in the process. When working with music, the words seemed far away, almost unimportant; and when working with the words, music quickly receded to being a background. I found it extremely difficult to be inside both roles simultaneously. Another ‘spanner in the works’ was my decision to work out stage directions myself, in collaboration with the actors. I needed to be able to fine-tune music and text in rehearsals – continuing the creative process into performance – something that would not be as easy if I gave the staging over to a director. An effect of sharing ownership of the process with the actors was that I could not apply my will as insistently as I imagine a stage director would.
An important question was to decide how much acting, movement, and scenography would be carried out. The setting is realistic, with the actors attending the same concert as the audience. But there is, of course, a break in the realism arising from the fact that we can start listening in on their conversation. I kept the acting to a minimum; there is some movement on stage, but very little. (The man goes to the piano at one point, and plays a fragment from Schönberg’s Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke.) There is no scenography, except the two chairs – which are identical to the chairs of the audience.
There is an inherent discrepancy between the intimacy I aim for in the conversation, and the dimensions and distances of a concert hall. We tried to solve this by close-miking and deploying several sets of loudspeakers distributed in the hall, allowing for the audience to come closer to the spoken words. Still, there was one major challenge that I had not foreseen, and that was that even with microphones, the sheer power of the orchestra sometimes overwhelmed the actors. As mentioned, I rehearsed the actors with recordings I had made with the orchestra beforehand. But it is one thing to sit in a room with orchestral music coming out of a little Mac, and something completely different to sit one metre in front of the living orchestral machine. So, coming to the live situation, the actors felt overwhelmed at several points, and did not trust their voices to carry all the way to the back of the hall. This was the hardest part of the staging process, and I had to work very hard to strip off their most theatrical vocal efforts – their inherent urge to want to project text – in order to achieve a more film-like intimacy in the dialogue.
This is connected to my desire to keep some mysteries, letting the music relay the story at certain points. It’s not important that every aspect of the story be clear to the audience. But it was a challenge to convince the actors to trust the music to tell a story. I had planned for a few places where the music was supposed to obliterate the spoken word – the actors would keep talking, but the words would be drowned in the music. This was very difficult for the actors to accept, and I ended up cutting a lot of text during the last rehearsal. I think it has to do with meaning. As musicians, we are used to meaning being non-verbal, oscillating between abstraction and physical presence. Language, on the other hand, is finely tuned to convey nuances of meaning, and once that ‘deal’ is struck, when realistic text is introduced in a work, it is hard to re-negotiate that contract.
Blue Mountain was made within the framework of my ordinary artistic practice, and not part of any formal research project. But I have worked with methods developed during my artistic research project Again and Again and Again, carried out at the Norwegian Academy of Music between 2009 and 2012. And I have continued to investigate aspects of performance situations that I addressed in that project.
In the time since Blue Mountain, I have continued to investigate the possibilities of word/music-relations in a new piece, A Posthuman Guide to the Orchestra, which was premiered by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra in May 2018. Following these excursions, I will investigate the possibilities for a research project based on my continuing interest in this field. This will have to be a collaborative project, and my question right now is whether it should also be multi-disciplinary (and, if so, to what extent), and whether I should continue developing the auteur-line of the composer/writer or design a project where labour is divided in a more traditional way, in order to gain more friction in the experiments. Or maybe a combination could be possible, where the two different approaches co-exist, in order to tease out the differences between them. And I am far from the only one pursuing these questions, so I am confident the field will prove fruitful for further investigation.
Buene, Eivind: Again and Again and Again: music as site, situation and repetition (NMH publications, 2017).
Foster, Hal: «This Funeral is for the Wrong Corpse», in Design and Crime and Other Diatribes (Verso, 2002).
Kwon, Miwon: One Place After the Other (MIT press, 2002)
Thomas, Dylan: The Collected Letters (ed. Paul Ferris, Macmillan, 1985)
Walshe, Jennifer: «The New Discipline» (in Borealis programme book, 2016)
Blue Mountain: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X871liMB6II&t=64s
I do admittently have a penchant for untrained voices singing classical music, which I have explored in my project Schubert Lounge. And since there is a Mahler song involved (more on which soon) I wanted to open up for the untrained, vulnerable singing voice in this piece. ↩︎
These can be fearsome indeed, and the rigorous scheduling of rehearsal time was of course the biggest challenge in the work with Blue Mountain: Trying to let a theatrical process of rehearsal take place within the very strict framework of a orchestral schedule proved to be a headache. I tried to mitigate this by getting a pre-production rehearsal, where we recorded the music, so I could work with the actors using that recording. We actually did the first performance with only one rehearsal plus dress rehearsal together with the orchestra. It is a small miracle that it worked, but this is a typical wonder of the orchestral institution: it is efficient to an almost scary degree when push comes to shove. ↩︎
See for instance Daniel Buren’s Within and beyond the frame, with painted banners spilling out from John Weber’s gallery, across West Broadway in 1973. The same object was seen in different contexts: that of the gallery, and that of a NYC street. What Buren wanted to show was how the framing gives different meaning to the art object. ↩︎
I should add that I let the montage-treatment also extend to my own music, treating fragments of earlier compositions in the same way as the ‘classical’ material, as found objects open for manipulation. ↩︎
This role of the composer-auteur has become increasingly common over the last decade, but again, more often employed in productions on a smaller scale than with symphony orchestra. ↩︎