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Words and Music 3 ‘Dum’

The vocal pieces I wrote during the 1970s cannot be said to offer clear unadorned narrative. But they did quite consciously turn away from the idea of straightforward vocal text setting, and they were mostly designed for unconventional voices.

In York I wrote ‘Dum – a vocal percussive fantasy’, initially for my composer friend Steve Stanton to perform, although eventually I performed the piece myself. Though a vocal piece it requires no singing. In California I wrote ‘Not a soul but ourselves…’ for the Extended Vocal Techniques Ensemble (EVTE). They were certainly singers (actually one was a trumpeter) but, as EVTE, ‘singing’ was only part of what they did. Back in the UK, at Keele, I wrote a music theatre piece ‘Bits and Scraps’ for the most exciting vocal ensemble in town (Electric Phoenix), but what I asked them to do wasted their vocal talents shamelessly.

The other thing that these three pieces have in common is that they focus to a very large extent on spoken text and non-verbal vocalisation. This approach was very much in line with the prevailing avant-garde trends of the period, although I was not familiar at that time with Ligeti’s Aventures Nouvelles Aventures or Kagel’s Phonophonie, and my influence came directly, again, from Berio: Sequenza III, Circles, Visage and Sinfonia. A-Ronne was a piece I heard once before I left for America in 1976, and it definitely influenced my thinking for Not a soul but ourselves…., not just in the use of close microphone to allow spoken and sung material to be mixed effortlessly, but because it reinforced my ideas about re-composing texts: the idea that text could replace musical material (pitch and harmony), and that the resulting ‘meta-text’ could become a composition in the absence of the primary parameters of musical composition.

In London, in 1974, I received an unequivocal put-down from the highly respected senior German music critic, Brigitte Schiffer. After a performance of my music theatre piece, Scenes de Ballet, by the music theatre troupe I co-directed (called ‘Clap’) I asked Brigitte what she thought. “You are a composer, yes?” she snarled. I nodded. “Then compose!” That was like a red rag to a bull for me. The idea that a writer writes, a dancer dances, an actor acts, a singer sings, a composer composes, and that all the neat professional boxes should be respected and preserved was, for me, anathema. It still is. I didn’t want to be a professional composer. I wanted to make exciting stuff.

In Dum I brought together a number of diverse texts, very different in style and period, all loosely connected through the notion of ensnarement and escape. The meta-text I created was made by over-layering these texts and filtering the result according to loosely prescribed rules. To be precise, poems by Emerson, Donne, anon, Brooke and Rossetti were reduced in various ways and laid end to end. Three versions of The Lord’s Prayer, in Greek then Italian and then English, also reduced to fragments, were laid out beneath the poems. The two layers were then compressed into a single line, so that the text flitted between the prayer (incoherent at the beginning because in Greek but clearer towards the end because in English) and fragments of the poetry. These poetic fragments were long enough to be recognisable to anyone familiar with the poem, but short enough to be deprived of their narrative (and often their syntactic) significance. Thus ‘Batter my heart!’ immediately conveys a recollection of the poem from which it derives (John Donne), as does the scrambled and less literal ‘but am becaptinock!’ if the listener is familiar with the sonnet. If not, however, nothing is lost; for a new dramaturgy is created from the reconstituted textual fragments. The prayer provides expletives and names which punctuate and spice up the text. ‘Ho!’ and ‘Hey!’ declaimed in Japanese style, are actually the definite article (masculine and feminine) in ancient Greek. ‘Hey Basil!’ is from the Greek for ‘the kingdom’. ‘Santificato!’ and ‘Cotidiano!’ come through from the Italian prayer, and ‘Amen, amen, amen’ requires no explanation. In part methodical and in part capricious, the composition restricts itself entirely to the material provided by the selected texts. The narrative imposed upon and guiding their re-composition is the idea of a metaphorical human fly caught up in a spider’s web; or it is Dum’s nightmare; or more portentously it is an allegory of the human condition – here we are, caught in our self-made prisons and seeking escape through a variety of subterfuges. The performer stands on a platform at a lectern which he strikes with a hammer and a block of wood from time to time. He moves to centre stage to declaim a passage of Rupert Brooke’s The Hill. He takes a bucket full of bolts and sits at the far end of the platform hurling bolts down into an empty bucket at his side, while shouting his final prayers. Lighting follows him and finally snuffs him out as his nightmare reaches its terrifying climax.

dum 2                                                                                                                                                                        Listen to Dum

Is this a piece of music theatre? There is no pitch, no precise rhythm, no harmony or counterpoint. Is it perhaps theatre? But there is a score; there are percussive sounds (a saucepan lid, a block of wood, a tam-tam). The piece has only once to my knowledge been performed by an actor who is not also a musician. It has most in common, perhaps, with Kurt Schwitters’ Ur Sonate, about which the same kind of question can be asked: is it poetry or music?

In 1978, at an SPNM Composers Weekend in York, I presented Dum at a seminar. During the ensuing questions and comments, Tony Ward – a writer and lecturer in English and the author of an opera libretto – voiced his disapproval. “Breaking up words, that’s easy. Putting them together – that’s hard.” I argued my corner, of course, but his words hit a nerve and have stayed with me. Of course, he was right in one way, although I would argue that my re-composition of major poets doesn’t represent a lack of respect for their work, nor is it a form of plagiarism. It is, in part, a form of creative critical comment. I would guess that if he had heard a conventional setting of John Donne, but been able to discern no more than 50% of the words in the performance, Tony would not have been offended. What offended him, I think, was not the sacrilege I had committed in respect of the poetry, but the fact that I had crossed into the writer’s territory and raided a sacred vault because I lacked the technical equipment to create my own jewels. That may be a fair charge. But it supposes that Tony and I were somehow in the same business, and we clearly were not. What I did may have been easier than writing an opera libretto. But opera was not (is not) my business.


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