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STRINDBERG IN SONG: Composing a New Nocturnal Song Cycle

October 29, 2012

On October 12, 2012, VOX 3 Collective presented the world premiere of two songs from a forthcoming song cycle called Third Night, with texts excerpted from August Strindberg’s Sleepwalking Nights on Wide-Awake Days.  Strindberg’s text deals with the ugly side of modern urban life.  The protagonist searches for meaning in the world around him, wandering through libraries, churches, and crowded Paris streets, but finds only noise and emptiness.  Set for baritone voice, piano, and bass clarinet by VOX 3 Associate Member and composer, Elizabeth Rudolph, there is a tense, driving rhythm throughout, in both the fast and slow movements.  The two existing songs, “Sprawling City” and “Thirsting Spirit,” are approximately twelve minutes in length.  In the following interview with the group, Rudolph discusses the genesis and creative process that resulted in this striking work.  For more information on the pieces, please e-mail us.

Q: How did Third Night come about?

ER: To be frank,  the pieces came about because I volunteered to write for VOX 3.  Artistic Director Brian von Rueden suggested (and edited) the texts, for possible inclusion on the upcoming VOX 3 “Swedish” concert, Sleepwalking Nights.  I felt that the poems spoke to me, so I agreed.

Strindberg’s Collected Poems, 1911

Q: Why Strindberg?  Why did you agree to set this text?

ER: The texts (at least the two that have been set) really made me feel that I was inside the hero’s mind. Strindberg was a crazy, crazy man, but sometimes insanity speaks to us in ways that sanity can’t. As someone who continues to feel like a secret outsider throughout my life, specifically the feeling of almost-but-not-quite-fitting-in really resonates with me.

Q: It’s a very wordy poem – often composers like verse with even meter, sometimes even rhyme. How did you deal with all of this text, with its proliferation of long and short lines?

ER: There’s definitely a school of thought that song texts should be short and rhythmic. I actually find that, for my style of composition, prose-like texts work better. My writing is very text-driven (when I have a text to work with). When the text is simple and “within the box”, my music can come out very simplistic, or even boring. I have to work much harder to make it interesting. When I set prose (or at least non-rhythmic poetry) however, the unpredictability of the text naturally adds variety and interest to my compositional style.

Q: “Modern” or “new music” are terms that come with a lot of baggage. Do you consider your piece “modern”?

ER: Well, that depends on your definition of “modern“. There are so many different compositional styles around today, there’s no way to know what you’re going to get until you hear it yourself!

To address the question I think you mean to ask, the composer I most identify with personally is Charles Ives. Certainly he could be considered a “Modernist”, but he’s long gone now so his music is hardly “new”. I tend to prefer the term “contemporary” to describe music being produced today, though that term can also be treacherous. How “new” does a piece have to be to be “contemporary”? Also, there is so much crossover between classical, jazz, folk, and popular music today, it’s almost not worth distinguishing between them anymore!

The Methodist Hymnal, 1966

To speak specifically of my “style”, almost all of my compositions have a tonal center.  Moreover, they are highly influenced by the music of my childhood. My parents didn’t listen to contemporary popular (rock/pop/jazz/r&b/hip-hop) music at all, so those sounds do not weigh heavily in my music. However, there was a lot of folk music in our house, and of course there was always NPR. Though neither of my parents are trained musicians, they have always been big supporters of public broadcasting. We were also lucky enough to live close to Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan, and their local NPR station plays a brilliant array of contemporary and less traditional classical music. But I believe my biggest influence is American church music (specifically hymns), which was reinforced when I attended St Olaf College, a private religiously affiliated institution, for undergrad. I was raised in a tiny rural Methodist church, and no one in the congregation of old farmers would sing at all if they didn’t already know the hymn by heart (all four verses!). So every Sunday we sang the OLDEST tunes out of the 1966 Methodist Hymnal, which contained many of the great old Methodist and Baptist hymns. St Olaf proceeded to introduce me to the great Lutheran hymns. (I must admit to being utterly lost with the Episcopals or the Catholics, though.)

Q: “Third Night” wrangles with belief and identity in a world that seems devoid of meaning.  The protagonist turns to books, to religion, and finds nothing. How does this resonate with you?

ER: We all search for meaning in life. It’s part of human nature. We each believe we are the protagonist in our own story. I think it’s important to remember that there are over seven billion people sharing this tiny rock hurtling through the void of space. And in all likelihood, we’re not alone in the universe.

Q: Rhythm seems to drive these pieces, even though one is fast and one is very slow.  Sometimes the rhythm even supercedes the melody. How did you decide to emphasize the rhythm?

ER: I specifically wanted the rhythmic pattern/texture in BOTH pieces to suggest the inexorable and inescapable passage of time. While our hero wanders around in search of meaning in his life, the world is passing him by, utterly oblivious to his personal emotional turmoil.

Q: How would you characterize your compositional process?  Do words come first, or music?  Do you let everything settle out, then put pen to paper?  Or do you do multiple drafts?

ER: I learned early on that music holds the listener’s attention better if there’s some semblance of organization (form) within the movement. To write a song, I begin by analyzing the text and breaking it into sections to see what kind of organization it would fit. Clearly, there are many options for organizing a piece to make it accessible to the listener, traditional and non-traditional. All are viable options. It’s only important that there be some form of organization for the ear to follow. When writing a song, my compositional style is always text-driven. Being text-driven does not necessarily mean the composition is melody-driven. Writing for the voice is very different from writing for instruments. Each instrument-family has things it does well and things it does NOT do well. For example, strings are WONDERFUL at making extreme transitions of range and dynamics. Woodwinds tend not to do that as well. Woodwinds are great at scalar melodies, brass are usually better at keeping arpeggios smooth.

When it comes to writing for the voice, it’s important to remember what the human voice does well. The voice is very good at communicating text. If the text is set in such a way that it is not comfortable to sing, then it becomes extremely difficult for the singer to make it understood. And if the text is not understood by the listener, there’s no point in singing it in the first place. Why not just have a violin play it? In the interest of making the text intelligible to the listener, I speak the text and listen to the rhythm it creates in my speaking voice. Also, I listen to the natural changes in pitch as I speak. I usually try to keep the natural rhythm and “melodic” shape of the text, even though it takes a lot longer to sing a text than to speak it. Then, all that in mind, I come to the piano (and Finale) and start putting notes “on paper”. For this set, I knew I wanted certain textures to permeate the sections, so I actually wrote those first, and laid in the vocal line over that texture.  I allowed this process to flow through each section of text, even if I thought it was not going to fit together in the end. Even though this sounds counterintuitive, in order to keep the organization of the piece cohesive, each section needed to be dealt with somewhat detached from the others. Making the sections of music flow together (something I think of as “seaming”) comes relatively late in my compositional process. Once I have a draft of each section and the seams laid out, then I edit the whole thing to make sure it’s cohesive and appropriate to the mood that I had in mind.I can’t even begin to tell you how many “drafts” I have. Modern notation software makes it so easy to edit things, I don’t even think about it anymore.

Q: Why baritone?

ER: Strindberg’s poetic “voice” is pretty clearly male in my mind. I can’t really tell you why I feel that way. Maybe because I read too much about his personal life.

Q: Why bass clarinet?

ER: This is an easier answer. The piano is a traditional pairing for a song cycle, but I knew I was going to use the piano in a rather percussive/rhythmic way and I wanted a melodic instrument to balance that. The traditional classical non-vibrato technique of playing the clarinet is good at evoking some of the feelings I have about the text. I sense hollowness, a longing, a harshness…and the clarinet has a brilliant ability to go from being a textural, harmonic sound to a lovely florid melodic instrument. Since Strindberg was from Sweden, I thought the range of the bass clarinet would especially evoke the cold and damp…and the long nights.

Q: Are there any motives or harmonies that stand out, that we should know about?

ER: You want me to give away ALL my secrets? I’ll give you a hint. Both songs are (very loosely) based on an old Swedish hymn called “Lost in the Night“.

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