oros is for 8 voices: SSS AA T BB (3 sopranos, 2 altos, tenor and 2 basses)
oros was Commissioned by Auditiv Vokal to celbrate “Einstürzende Mauern”. It was premiered in Dresden on 27th February 2014 at the Deutsche Hygiene-Museum.
I have already written an article around word setting called ‘in no way fixed [words and music parts 1 and 2] but on this occasion, I can write specifically about a commission that allows me to experiment compositionally and technically with dedicated, professional contemporary vocal music specialists. This is a first for me so I wanted to maximise the opportunity and learn as much as possible about how far I can push the human voice within the context of my current compositional practice!
In writing a piece that relates to the theme of ‘falling walls’ [Einstürzende Mauer], I wanted to create an abstract work that was coloured by issues of freedom and liberation, both individual, social and cultural [avoiding the overtly political] and deliver this through an experimental [for me] and wildly contrasting, dramatic new vocal work. There are many programmatic and cliched pitfalls to avoid here. My aim was to write a completely abstracted work without narrative or direct illustrative reference. There would certainly be no ‘message’ in the music or any attempt at proselytising!
In fact, the whole idea or concept behind “Einstürzende Mauern” is difficult to translate into English. After conversations with Auditiv Vokal, I alighted on several ideas – colours even – that could articulate the concept as I describe below.
Concept: To achieve my aims I quickly realised the new piece needed to be one of my un-synchronised works [see below] as I wished to reflect the themes above in the very fabric of the music; the way it was conceived, written and performed to create an ‘organic’ vocal work that becomes a living wall of sound itself. However, this wall would not represent something solid or fixed; it would be permeable, in a state of flux, changing, spontaneous and full of life. Furthermore, as the work would be un-synchronised, the vocalists were freed from the tyranny of the shared bar line and downbeat, able to express themselves as individuals within the context of the whole [the ensemble].
This compositional and performance approach enhanced the themes of liberation and freedom even further.
To emphasise the theme of falling walls I found a text source that I could treat in the same manner I would treat my pitches and rhythms in the music. I decided to use graffiti documented from the Berlin Wall itself. I have transcribed a number of slogans, phrases, and words which have been coupled with three short prose of my own exploring themes of journey, freedom, liberation, exploration and self-realisation. It is the combination of these text materials that provides the vocal fabric for the work. These materials [within the parts themselves] are treated in a semi-narrative fashion. However, the overall combination and unsynchronised layering of all eight voices purposefully lead to a non-narrative text delivery. Further to this, the setting of the words does not generally encourage clarity and diction in delivery. There is much melismatic writing and the words are used more for their inherent sound properties than literal meaning and context. Of course, at times there is a collision between word-setting and context that amplifies meaning in the conventional sense.
Vision: Over time, many layers of graffiti can be written on walls, one covering the other until all of the text and words become obscured by each other. One becomes aware of a surface of tangled words where individual letters and words may appear from the visual jumble only to disappear again under the tangle of other words. This image of the surface of a well-used graffiti wall is a suitable illustration for how the sound-surface of oros can be experienced. As each of the eight singers produces their individual line, their words and phrases, musical gestures and individual vocal characters will intertwine, compete, challenge, unify, collide, obscure and generally create a complexity of sound that will become an aural representation of a graffiti-covered wall containing the hopes and sentiments of ordinary people. To create this level of vocal activity, all parts are highly virtuosic, exploring the full range and dramatic presentation of the voices.
Text used in oros [used freely and not in the order presented]
collected from the Berlin Wall:
Dancing to freedom
Change your life
move in silence
the world’s too small for walls
and the wind cries
we are all the wall
maybe someday we will be together
Many small people who in
many small places do
many small things
that can alter the face of the world.
Marc Yeats’ prose:
A local map
in a foreign land
will free your hand
to forge a new route
and seek from outside
what you have lost within.
We travel on each other’s love
strange, wild adventures
blind alleys or mazes
Here, from the highest point
I can see for miles.
On a clear day
I can even see myself.
The music employs quartertones and extended techniques as well as dramatic, gestural writing. Much of the clarity of word production will be intentionally obscured by these techniques – once again, in reference to the worn and over-written graffiti on the wall where all that was written is no longer clear to see. In short, the text will be treated in exactly the same way as the music and subject to its processes and demands.
Un-synchronised music: The vocalists sing independently of each other. The music is cued to begin only. There is no ‘fixed’ synchronisation between the vocalists. Whilst the relationship of each vocalist is flexibly placed against its neighbour, care has been taken to calculate potential outcomes of coincidence and variability. To this end, it is vital that metronome markings are adhered to as accurately as possible although the composer appreciates that it is the various interpretations and practicalities inherent in the realisation of tempi that contribute to the richly unique nature and interplay of each performance.
There is only one instruction to the vocalists: to begin when indicated and sing until their material is completed.
Structurally, the music is conceived as a large canon in eight parts with each part a transposition [with some variables] of the other. The thematic material is audible throughout the piece, bringing cohesion and structure. The music forms dense, highly complex and constantly changing relationships that are frequently wild and sometimes beautiful.
Due to the unsynchronised nature of this music, an ‘installed’ performance [spatial] is recommended with the performers being positioned around the performance space, enwrapping the audience.
The score and parts:
There is no score for oros; difficulties and variables associated with displaying the musical material in vertical alignment as represented in real-time are considerable. Each performance will yield somewhat different results, interplays, gestural and harmonic references and outcomes. As a result, the material contained within the piece can only be read via the vocal parts. Consequently, there is no single, definitive performance of the piece. oros can only be realised through performance [as opposed to comprehended by reading through a score]; this is the nature of the music – it has to be experienced to be ‘known’.
Thinking around the title of this piece: wall > boundary > limit > horizon –
The word horizon derives from the Greek “ὁρίζων κύκλος” horizōn kyklos, “separating circle”, from the verb ὁρίζω horizō, “to divide”, “to separate”, and that from “ὅρος” (oros), “boundary, landmark”.
A recording and video of the premiere will accompany this article after the performance.