voice and processing

Commission: Nicholas Isherwood

Premiere: March 2, 2019, Montréal / Nouvelles Musiques 2019: La Grande Nuit, Agora Hydro-Québec — Cœur des sciences — UQAM, Montréal (Québec)

Nicholas Isherwood

In addition to being a major poet, Shelley was also one of the pioneers of British radical political philosophy, and was admired by Bertrand Russell, Karl Marx, and several others. His works were marked by many interests and influences — especially science, mathematics, philosophy and politics — and were often a “mash-up” of numerous ideas of the time. The Gothic Romantic style of much of his poetry, including the sonnet “The Painted Veil,” often contained references to these influences, along with phantasmagoric imagery in a highly atmospheric spiritual context, to make a universal philosophical point or observation. Also typical of Shelley the dramatist, his poem tells a story and takes the reader on a journey, not unlike a miniature version of Dante’s great allegory, “The Divine Comedy,” where the narrator relates his experiences wandering through the world beyond life. As with all the greatest poets, Shelley’s sonnet can be read in so many ways. I chose to emphasize the dreamy, phantasmagoric aspects coupled with a relentless, slow rhythmic march toward the concluding philosophical “truth.”

The reason Shelley appeals so much to me as a composer is the synthesis of influences in his work. My composing style is very much the same, combining elements of science, math, philosophy, visual art theory (especially Klee and Escher), and often, music that I love from ancient traditions and cultures outside my own, especially Native American, Indian, Japanese, and Equatorial African. In this case, I was struck by the similarities between the Shelley poem and the spiritual texts of some of the epic Hindu vocal works of Indian classical music. On one level, my setting is essentially a “raga,” and is based on a commonly used modal scale of that tradition. I also ask the vocalist to imitate some of the ornamental idiosyncrasies of raga singing. The fixed electronic tracks behind the voice are constructed by using dozens of slow-motion cyclic lines played by several digital synthesizers — further processed by computer manipulation — in an elaborately layered crab canon. There are no traditional Indian instruments in my piece, but electronic instruments take the functional place of these, including performing drones and tala (rhythmic cycles).