Vocal Line of ‘We Are Apart; Our Song Together’. Examples of motivic material based on an interval of 3 or 4 semitones, followed and/or preceeded by an interval of 1 or 2 semitones. Click to open pdf.

Click to open pdf of the vocal line.

Click video above to follow score and hear recording of 'We Are Apart; Our Song Together' for mezzo-soprano and electroacoustic fixed media (sung by Lucie Louvrier).

Click to open pdf of the score.

Having chosen to explore the idea of musical composition as a form of commentary on an early medieval text, I had yet to decide how to begin the creative process. Initially, the only predetermined condition of this piece was that it had to be for mezzo-soprano and electronics in order to fulfil the requirements of the singer who had commissioned the piece. As is often the case in practice-based research, the pressing desire to create seemed constrained by the sheer number of possible research questions, each of which had the potential to take the work in different directions. Faced with such uncertainty, Anthony Gritten’s suggestion of allowing the relationship between practice and research to ‘play itself out unbeknownst to its practitioner’ was a liberating starting point.1 In light of this idea, my investigation began simply by reading the Old English poem to gain an understanding of its structural and thematic content. 


On an initial reading of the poem, one of its most striking features is its repetition of phrases. In particular, the words ‘ungelīc is ūs’ and ‘ungelīce is ūs’ (often translated as ‘we are apart’ or ‘we are different’) seem to disrupt the metrical pattern of half-lines. My curiosity was immediately drawn to these words, and to the identity of ūs. Although Wulf and Eadwacer is mainly written in the first person, much of the language describes the female narrator’s thoughts and experiences in relation to the actions of others. The narrator refers to ‘my people’, a person or people named ‘Wulf’ and ‘Ēadwacer’, an ‘army’, ‘cruel men’, and ‘our wretched child’, which might also be the gift or present of the first line. Of all of these characters, Wulf is the one with whom the narrator is most preoccupied, expressing conflicting emotions of joy, hate, longing or expectation, and a grieving spirit in relation to him. As so much of the narrator’s state of mind seems predicated by Wulf, his presence casts a long shadow over the text, even during passages in which he is not mentioned by name. My initial research question arose out of the relationship between the narrator’s words and the character of Wulf. How might intervallic material refer to a character, thereby developing musical responses that operate at a thematic and structural level with the text?


In the process of considering this question, I developed a musical motif which occurs throughout the piece: an interval of three or four semitones followed and/or preceded by an interval of one or two semitones, heard each time Wulf’s name is sung. Transpositions of this motif are sometimes joined together to form chains, often followed or preceded by a further interval of one or two semitones. There are obvious parallels with the Wagnerian leitmotiv. However, in my work, this process owes more to the twentieth-century generative cell, as seen in the work of composers such as Igor Stravinsky and described in detail by Julian Anderson in relation to the work of Oliver Knussen.2 Moreover, in all my work, a personal preoccupation with harmony invariably results in the prioritisation of musical pitch during the early stages of the composition process. In my existing compositional technique, the development of a generative motivic cell enabled the tools of my practice to serve a specific research question about the text’s portrayal of Wulf. In this context, Gritten’s advocacy of ‘an essential contamination and porous free-flowing between practice and research’ facilitated a sense of spontaneous creativity that was nonetheless channelled within research parameters.3 Although the Wulf motif provided ample material for a vocal line, the motif itself underwent relatively little transformation or development. In part, this is due to the brevity of the text and of the resulting musical composition. Moreover, it was my intention that the intervallic motif would remain clearly audible even when the narrator does not mention Wulf by name, thereby drawing attention to his role as both cause and object of the narrator’s emotions.

Having developed a core of intervallic material, my attention turned to the surface detail of the Old English text. I read the text aloud, focusing on its patterns of alliteration and stress until I had memorised it.4 My undergraduate research specialism in Old English, combined with readings in Old English philology by scholars such as Bruce Mitchell and Fred Robinson, enabled me to reproduce a standardised form of Old English pronunciation during this stage of my creative process.5 The composer Jonathan Harvey drew attention to the ways in which, when setting a text to music, a meditative consideration of the words might lay the foundations for subsequent musical inspiration.6 As I read the text aloud, internalising its prosody and listening closely to its sound, another research question emerged: how might music for solo voice reflect and reinforce a poem’s patterns of alliteration and stress? This led to the composition of a melodic line in which motivic material was repeated and developed in response to repeated words, or to alliterating syllables. Commentary became a metaphor for the process whereby the sounds of the text were re-appropriated and developed by pitch and rhythm.


In order to convey the text’s structure, I chose to preserve the caesura that occurs in the middle of each line of text by using rests, with one exception. In Lonh, Kaija Saariaho’s seminal work for soprano and electronics based on a medieval Occitan text, the composer described how she created a collage of her poetic source material; my intention, however, was to preserve the text in its unaltered form.7 Any repetition or fragmentation of the text would have interfered with the very patterns of stress and accentuation that I intended to explore. In my work, stressed syllables, of which there are two in each half-line, were often given musical emphasis by being lengthened or shortened in combination with a tenuto. Alliteration was sometimes represented by a shared rhythm, a repeated interval, a repeated pitch, or by emphasis (e.g., by assigning a melisma to each alliterating syllable), either within a melisma or as part of a phrase that includes a following syllable. This resulted in a melodic line in which musical responses to stress and alliteration frequently overlap and duplicate each other. Just as the poem contains more alliteration than is formally required by the metre (such as examples of alliterating unstressed syllables), so the mezzo-soprano’s line contains numerous instances of repeated intervals, rhythms, and pitches that do not intentionally mark the poem’s metrical features.


Having focused on the development of material in relation to thematic and sonic aspects of the text, my attention turned to the emotional content of the words themselves. How might musical material explore the text’s complex layering and juxtaposition of emotions? As has already been mentioned, the precise meaning of the text is ambiguous and debatable. Indeed, since the text is widely regarded as lacking a clear narrative or logical framework, its emotional content, and its ‘confusing, even troubling allusions’ are some of the only facts about which we can be certain.8 


When contemplating this research question, I began by varying the melodic contour of phrases to reflect moments of greater or lesser emotional intensity in the poem. Ascending and descending patterns were used to represent increasing and decreasing levels of tension. Since my melodic line was interspersed with short rests to indicate the text’s caesurae, the final pitch of each half-line became a focal point of the melodic contour. For example, in bars 37–42, ascending phrases, accompanied by a crescendo, draw attention to the anxiety of the words. Comparison of these bars with the text shows that, before the climax of the phrase on ‘īge’, two half-lines have been elided to form a longer phrase. In other words, the melodic relationship to the text, whereby each half line was separated by a short rest, has been stretched and modified at a moment of heightened emotion. A similar approach can be seen in bars 59–72, during the vocal passage that precedes the climax in bar 88. Here, the alliterating words ‘rēnig’ and ‘reotugu’ do not use identical rhythm and intervals, but are marked by semiquavers. However, as Kemp Malone has noted, the poem’s sometimes unusual metrics, irregular alliteration, and use of a refrain set it outside the classical style of Old English literature.9 For this reason, the refrain's striking second line, ‘ungelīc is ūs’ (or, as it appears later, ‘ungelīce is ūs') is the only spoken text in the mezzo-soprano part.


At this point, my process had yielded a single melodic line. My attempt at working creatively within a methodological framework had resulted in material which was, in my subjective opinion, insufficient and uninteresting on its own. More importantly, it seemed that the musical outcomes of this process had failed to comment on the multiple, fluid, and ambiguous allusions to characters and landscapes in Wulf and Eadwacer. As Roberta Frank has noted, the text’s layered language, narrated in the first person, often ‘signals sorrow and transcendence in the same breath’.10 The apparent complexity and fluidity of the Old English poem led me to consider Bruno Bossis’s proposal that the use of vocal material in electroacoustic music (‘la vocalité électroacoustique’ — ‘electroacoustic vocality’) could facilitate both a poetic expression of the universal and, through the use of multiple structural levels, ambiguity.11 Could electroacoustic music play a role in drawing attention to the complexity and ambiguity of the narrator’s inner monologue?

5. We Are Apart; Our Song Together

When contemplating this research question, I began by analysing the recordings of the spoken and sung text of Wulf and Eadwacer. As I considered how to develop this material, my preparatory listening ranged from pioneering works from the 1950s such as Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gesang Der Jünglinge and Luciano Berio’s Thema (Omaggio a Joyce), to Trevor Wishart’s large catalogue of work since the 1970s, to recent projects by composer-performers such as Andrea Young and Marta Gentilucci. I began to analyse recordings of the spoken and sung text of Wulf and Eadwacer, studying sonograms of words and sounds, isolating specific harmonic frequencies, and stretching and transposing phonemes. However, while this activity led to a large quantity of material, the question remained as to how to use the sounds to draw attention to the complexity of the narrator’s inner speech.


At this stage in the composition process, my attention shifted from the research question to the characteristics of the electroacoustic sounds that had been produced. The transformation and processing of transient consonants resulted in many sounds that were reminiscent of natural phenomena such as water and wind. This material suggested further lines of enquiry regarding the relationship of the narrator’s inner discourse to the landscapes that are conjured into being by her words. A web of interrelated questions, centred around the relationship between the narrator’s voice and her environment, was beginning to emerge. How could electroacoustic sound, originating from samples of the singer’s voice, allude to the environment that the narrator describes?


The relationship between the singer’s mental and physical environment acted as a catalyst to the development of my electroacoustic material. Hazel Smith’s proposal that the electroacoustic ‘voicescape’ could facilitate a fluid, multilayered relationship between voice and environment parallels the complex strata of Wulf and Eadwacer.12 However, how could a collection of windy, watery, electroacoustic sounds acquire structural integrity and coherence that would facilitate my commentary on the text? My attention turned to the parameters with which I might define the work’s imaginary landscape. Adrian Moore proposed that drones in electroacoustic music could create a canopied or rooted setting, alluding to an imaginary horizon.13 If the tape’s sustained drones, such as the D4 in bars 13–28, were interpreted as representations of such a horizon, then the vanishing point of the imaginary landscape was already in place. When considering how to populate the electroacoustic landscape, I began by drawing on the text’s references to environmental realities such as marshes, rainy weather, and an island, experimenting with the placement of electroacoustic sounds that seemed redolent of water and air. Stereo panning was used to create a sense of movement within the landscape. The inclusion of both closely recorded vocal consonants and reverberant, sustained vowels further alluded to perceptions of space, creating the impression of varying distances between the listener and sound source. In populating an imaginary landscape with material derived from the singer’s voice, my process showed similarities with the way in which Barry Truax used words as ‘raw sonic materials’ to elaborate on their context.14 However, unlike Truax’s use of contemporary English poetry, my work was based on vocal material which, for the majority of listeners, would have no semantic meaning. Consequently, correspondences between the meaning of a word and its sound would have far less immediacy; for most listeners, the words themselves lacked the power to conjure mental images. The more abstract relationship between word and sound in my work turned my attention to the idea of sonic metaphor. 


The idea of musical metaphor is rich in complexity. In her musical and philosophical investigation of vocality, Danielle Cohen-Levinas proposed that metaphor underlines the emblematic question of the morphology of the sound itself.15 According to Cohan-Levinas, the sound represents simultaneously the source and the purpose of the work, resulting in a vast spectrum of creative and interpretative possibilities.16 In my work, my use of sustained drones, untransformed vocal samples, and sounds reminiscent of environmental phenomena pointed to the variety of interpretations suggested by Cohen-Levinas. However, what would prevent my work from becoming simply a series of disparate sonic tableaux? In his discussion of fixed-media electroacoustic music, Trevor Wishart’s idea of the sound-image served as a useful example to clarify my approach to metaphor.17 Wishart proposed that metaphorical interpretations might be established when a sound is transformed, or when contextual cues alter our interpretation of the sound-image, as illustrated in his composition Red Bird (1977).18 During the opening twelve bars of We Are Apart; Our Song Together, sounds of indefinite pitch were used to create an ambiguous, metaphorical relationship between gestures with a clear vocal origin and more abstract material reminiscent of wind or waves. The refrain's last line, ‘ungelīc[e] is ūs’, was speeded up, filtered, and transposed to create a gesture that might be indicative of twittering birds or bubbling water, as from around bar 8. The name ‘Wulf’ was slowed down and filtered to create a motif suggesting a gust of wind or a breaking wave, as in bar 4. In developing a metaphorical relationship between vocal and atmospheric sounds, my intention was to allude to the internal nature of a landscape that was framed and articulated by the singer’s expression of her thoughts.


The discussion of landscape draws attention to a paradox. Fixed-media electroacoustic music (often described as ‘tape’) customarily has no live visual element other than the presence of a sound technician, who might be monitoring levels somewhere within the performance space. In concert, visual stimuli are often deliberately minimised by plunging the audience into darkness. In such circumstances, it might seem contradictory to rely on descriptive, visual imagery to frame aspects of the work’s methodology. However, as Wishart has noted, the idea of landscape in electroacoustic music does not require a straightforward correspondence between a sound and its real-world source; the landscape is ‘the source from which we imagine the sounds to come’, even when the landscape itself is surreal and impossible.19 In the context of We Are Apart; Our Song Together, the presence of a mezzo-soprano foregrounds human expression and performativity when the work is presented in concert. Since the sonic landscape of We Are Apart; Our Song Together is formed entirely from sounds derived from the singer's voice, the on-stage mezzo-soprano is, in effect, performing a duet with herself whenever she presents the work. This issue raised a number of questions that fed into the cycle of my work. Who did the electroacoustic voice represent? Where was the temporal or physical location of the electroacoustic voice within the imaginary landscape? What was the relationship between the two (or more) electroacoustic voices and the on-stage performer? 


These questions underline issues of ambiguity and disjunction that form a continuous thread running through my work. In particular, the paralinguistic elements of the singer’s performance, such as her posture, physical gestures and expression are in marked contrast to the distance and ambiguity of the electroacoustic voice. In his discussion of electroacoustic vocality, Emmerson drew attention to the disjunction between the live and recorded voice, noting that:


Human presence in acousmatic music is often fundamentally frustrating even when joyous and celebratory rather than threatening or cruel. It represents a displaced other — the other side of an impenetrable curtain. We hear (and hence observe) but we cannot communicate back. This will increase our unease — our frustration even.20


Even without electroacoustic treatment, the singing voice itself is arguably richer in meaning and association than an acoustic instrument, further adding to the complexity of my research questions. As Natasha Barrett has noted in relation to Berio’s Sequenza III for solo voice, analysis of the score can reveal the compositional structure, but ‘the emotional energy and facial expressions of the live soprano may easily distract’.21 


In working through these research questions, it became apparent that the disjunction between the live and the electroacoustic voices could become part of the piece’s conceptual framework. Drawing on Bossis’s proposal that the disembodiment of the electroacoustic voice has the potential to open up new perspectives, I began to investigate ways in which this disembodiment might highlight the poem’s central themes of separation and dichotomy.22 Although the distinction between recorded and live voices is blurred when We Are Apart; Our Song Together is heard as a recording, the live performance draws attention to the relationship between the on-stage and electroacoustic voices. This distinction is further emphasised in performances in which the live part is performed by someone other than the singer whose voice was used for the electronics. The voice is simultaneously embodied by the on-stage singer, and disembodied in the transformed vocal material that is panned around the room. In this way, the medium of the performance itself became a representation of the poem’s thematic concerns. I began to hear the pre-composed electroacoustic voice as an extension of the singer’s inner monologue, reflecting the poet’s use of the first person and memory. To imply a subtle distinction between the tape voice and the voice of the live performer, a sense of distance was created by adding some filtering and reverberation to the tape voice whenever it duplicated the singer’s material. This is first heard in bars 15–18, when the recorded phrase ‘lēodum is mīnum’ provides a cue for the singer’s initial entry.


Inspired by a series of research questions, the outcome developed into a work of just under eight minutes in duration, for singer and electroacoustic fixed media (commonly referred to by its historical antecedent, ‘tape’). The title We Are Apart; Our Song Together was chosen to draw attention to the disjunction at the heart of the poem, and which informed so much of the work’s development. It conflates two salient lines of the poem, the refrain ‘ungelīc[e] is ūs’ and the text’s final line, ‘uncer giedd geador’.

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