This weekend the DaCapo Chamber choir is to premiere my composition ‘Tabula Rasa”, winner of the New Works Choral Competition.
This music is for a scene late in act 3 (there are currently 3 acts). Persephone is on her journey back to the underworld after seeing Demeter her mother for the last time. Once a powerful and beautiful kingdom that relieved the dead of their suffering it has been transformed into a dark and forbidding land. As Persephone walks through the passage the music underscores a growing sense of dread as the dark underworld is revealed. The metallic percussion that appears later is a potential thematic concept for the underworld.
Here’s the libretto for this section:
Chill, dark, hollow heart
Void of beating, void of blood
An awful stillness
In this chamber
I fear I am lost…
Caught between the worlds
My worst nightmare come to pass
Trapped in this passage
Move feet! Move forward!
I taste the dirt, I feel the worms
Crawling against my skin
Where is my husband?
Hades? My king?
A scene with Demeter and the upper world chorus. My voice is obviously substituted for all vocalists. As you listen to the demo take note of one of the lead female voices. She is actually my voice transposed up an octave using computer software that I use called Digital Performer. I’ll be glad to fire her once performances begin.
Scene 5 demonstrates how the music will deal with scenes that are more like traditional recitative. For those unaware of some of the operatic conventions, “recitative” is a style of performance that incorporates a speech-like delivery whereas an “aria” may often contain the more rhythmic delivery of poetry. Scene 5 uses recit whereas as scene 6 is an aria. Since music is inherently rhythmic, recit can pose some challenges for the composer. Do you, like the many of the Baroque and Classical composers, compose music that uses free flowing non rhythmic gestures or do you try to inject rhythm and forward motion like later composers such as Wagner? I’ve chosen to go the latter route.
The harmonic concepts for the work are still in the evolutionary stages but as you’ll hear, much like music for a motion picture, the music paints each moment of text with a different musical color. I am keenly aware that too many harmonic concepts can lead to a directionless result so this quote from Stravinsky is always in the back of my mind as I write…..
“My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.”
This is a rather eloquent way of suggesting that the creation of art is best served by narrowing your options. If a painter uses every color in his/her palette the results may not be as compelling as one who experiments with specific shades for each new work.
With that thought as a backdrop, here are some of my chosen plans for the music….
– melodies will use a very smooth topography for emotional moments and very angular movement with wide leaps in more dramatic sections
– harmony will have triadic (chords built in thirds) and quartal (chords built in 4ths) harmony and there will almost always be a layers of subtle and not so subtle dissonance (due to our dark subject matter) weaving in and out of the score
– a signature structure of the work will be the recurrence of chords where a seventh or ninth is placed below a triad – in most cases these chords will sound dissonant but will also afford opportunities for warmth and power since they contain triads
That’s it for now.
Well it’s 3 months into the new year and ages since anything has been posted on the site. This absence is actually due to real progress on the libretto writing front as well as some modest inroads into the music. Nicola has come up with some beautiful prose and I can’t tell you how exciting it is to wake up and find a libretto filled email waiting to be put to music.
Having worked in film for such a long time I am used to responding musically to visual cues, whereas working from a page of prose I have to imagine the scene entirely. It’s a new and exciting challenge. In a number of attempts at writing the music for scene 6, my interpretation of the text lead me down a musical pathway that slightly misrepresented the emotions of Demeter. Her daughter abducted, Demeter sings the words “torn from my body”. In each restatement of this theme my music originally delved into an increasing sense of sadness and grief. Nicola suggested that the text here is one that actually dwells for a moment on loss but moves quickly to an emotion of one who feels betrayed – loss – bitterness – anger – and in the end a move into action. After a number of attempts I arrived at an opening harmonic concept that plays to Demeter’s grief but in each of the two following verses the harmonic undercarriage shifts to follow her changing emotions. Near the end, grief has given way to fury and the chorus will join her on stage for the closing of the scene heard here with only the rhythmic pulsing of the orchestra.
Stay tuned. The conveyor belt of progress is slowly starting to chug along.
Seven Sisters Dancing – I wrote a few images down on a piece of paper (wind over ice – etc.) and then my wife Allison came up with the image of seven sisters dancing – an old Iroquois Legend that I think speaks very nicely to the feeling of space and playfulness that might be the world inhabited by Demeter and Persephone early on in the Opera. I wrote this one early this week and tried to accomplish a few things. The main concept was to use one melodic idea and then rearrange the harmonic background so it goes through a large transformation. In this study there are 3 different versions of the same melody each starting on the chord of F major but then going in vastly different harmonic directions. I think rhythmic diversity will be a big component of this work so moving into a different rhythmic pulse for the word “dance” plays to that idea.
Post by Don Macdonald – Nicola included a few references to images in her early notes about the opera: ” Stilts, skeletons, a march”. I created the image below using photo shop for fun to see what I could come up with (I’m a composer not an artist believe me). These are pretty dark and maybe not line at all with our eventual design but they at least establish a reference point. A skeleton march could sound very brittle. The thin long lines of a stilt walker, like the elephants of a Salvador Dali painting, may have some musical equivalent worth exploring. Tricky to get singers onto stilts but maybe we could have projected images or dancers.
Welcome to the KHAOS website.
Composer Don Macdonald and writer/librettist Nicola Harwood have been commissioned by the Amy Ferguson Institute to write a full length opera called “KHAOS”, a re-imagining of the myth of Persephone and Demeter that reinforces our understanding of the seasonal cycles of death and regeneration. Set in a mythical present, KHAOS will highlight the voices of two central female characters, a central male character and be supported by large chorus and orchestra.
KHAOS is slated to premiere in March 2012.
Subscribe to our online blog where you’ll be able to follow the path of this opera from conception to completion.
Listen to audio demos from composer Don Macdonald as he builds the musical component of this work and read about the development of the libretto under the pen of Nicola Harwood. The audio presented here is being used for demonstration purposes only. Since KHAOS is a work in progress the music should be considered ” in development”. The final work may be played by a large orchestra or small chamber orchestra but at the moment all musical examples are recorded with modern musical sampling software. Vocalists on the recordings are Don Macdonald and Allison Girvan.
This piece is a study exploring a potential thematic concept for Persephone, some darker harmonic ideas later that may work for the world that Hades has created and an ending that explores the tragedy of the ill fated romance between Hades and Persephone. Early days though…. ideas could end up on the cutting room floor.