VOX-BOX

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Sung by Chloe Schaaf, with a text by Dan Eltringham.

This piece operates within a restricted field of pitch and structure. The song is structured using palindromes and uses a simple 5-note pitch set, which is transposed later in the piece.

The starting point for this piece was the instrumentation. I already knew the voice that I would be writing for, and I decided that I wanted to accompany it in a slightly different way. Rather than the traditional way of supporting the voice, that is, with a wide frequency range providing a foundation, I wanted to instead use the idea of complexity of tone as a supporting structure. Chloe’s voice has a very rich and complex timbre, so I structured the ensemble with the voice as one extreme and a very pure tone at the other. My original plan for instrumentation was to use either a glass-harp or bowed vibraphone, but this later proved impractical, and I opted for the slightly richer sound of the viola for the second instrument. As a halfway point between the simplicity of tone of the second part and the rich complexity of the sung voice I wanted to use a violin as the first instrument. This was a fairly clear choice and stayed in place throughout the development process despite the changes in the second part.  The resultant ensemble – Voice and string duo – had a pleasing unity, especially with each part using the same register. This highlighted the subtle differences in tone rather than simple pitch difference between parts, and encouraged me to explore a particular palette of sound.

In devising the harmonic direction for the work I chose a limited pitch set of five pitch classes. Although there was not an algorithm in its derivation, I wanted a set that contained as many different intervals as possible, so the final set contained a semitone, tone, minor third, major third, fourth, tri-tone, minor seventh.

vox box

Although the plan was to use them without transformation I later chose to transpose the set up a fourth (a notional subdominant, despite the lack of tonality) to give a more complex array of notes. As the piece moved towards the centre, and the climax, I alternated between transpositions with increasing frequency, even using them simultaneously in a couple of moments. Individual instrumental lines were simply written using this ‘scale’, often using the natural contours of the spoken text as inspiration.

At the outset our group discussed the way in which we wanted to approach the collaboration and the subject of our work. We decided that we would take responsibility for our areas of ‘speciality’ but that we would all have input at the start. We discussed the themes and subject we wished to explore, and the sound-world that we wanted to create. We then worked independently, Dan drafting out the text and myself sketching out the first minute or so of music. We then came together to feedback and see how the piece was going to evolve.  I had decided during the planning stage that I wanted to use a strict palindromic form, with small retrogrades building into a larger section, that would then unwind itself back to the beginning (or the end). Dan’s poem fitted well with this structure, using three ‘narrative voices’ at different intervals on the page to bring ideas in and out of focus. The general layout of the three voices delineated sections, and there was a symmetry which was serendipitous to the work.

In using a strict palindromic form I tried to fill the piece with as many mirrorings and reflections as would fit. In addition to the large overall form (in which the second half is the reversed identical to the first) I made some of the individual sections palindromic also, and even within these included partial mirroring and reflections. To take the introduction/inhale as an example: the section starts with simple sustained notes in a layering sequence which progresses for a few bars before reversing back through one or two bars, before changing the sequence. This goes forward until the end of bar eight, when it pivots and regresses back through the material. It does not return completely to the start, however, but transitions to a new section three bars early, at which point the voice enters. This oscillation continues through the various sections of the piece, never fully resolving or returning completely to the start. This keeps the tension and ambiguity of the work without becoming noticeable, making the slow-moving total structure feel more important when it finally resolves in the last bar. This second half is an exact mirroring of the first, although the requirements of the text (the number of syllables in the second half of the poem was slightly higher than the first) mean that the rhythms of the vocal line are occasionally altered. This dividing process (such as turning a minim into two crotchets) keeps the piece interesting without introducing completely new material, and gives rise to some interesting effects, such as the fast-paced bar 83, and the spreading out of syllables in bars 104–110. Because of this way of interpreting the text through reflections and mirroring I was able to compose a tightly structured composition in a free and interpretative way.

Dan chose to include a particular line from a poem by Gerard Manly Hopkins, “the sun on falling waters”, and I thought at some length about how to approach this quote from a musical perspective. I decided to set it with a similar piece of found musical material, but was unable to find something that had the right resonance. While doing some research I discovered that Hopkins had ‘dabbled’ in composition as a young man, and was able to find one of his few works in an academic journal*. I took a short selection of that composition (a simple melodic line inspired by plainchant) and used that in both direct quotation and in transformation. Aside from a passing-note the quote fitted well with my pitch-set and with the imagery of the line.

vox box 2

In constructing and composing this work I experienced a number of serendipitous moments which allowed the piece to move forward and become a work with a great sense of singularity. Despite the limited musical materials I chose to work with a number of lucky coincidences and resonances in the text, extra materials, results of word setting, and instrumentation choices meant that the work avoided becoming a static image. Rather, it seemed an inexorably unfolding tableau because each unexpected element added something new to the piece, advancing it forward. Although the overall effect is quite free and spacious it was a tightly controlled writing process, with elements balanced against each other in what was (for me) an ultimately satisfying manner.


*Connell, Kevin O. “The Second Muse of Gerard Manley Hopkins.” The Musical Times 148, no. 1901 (2007): 49–62.

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