For Tenor and Piano
T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” was the first poem I remember truly appreciating. Prior to this, poems seemed either uselessly flowery or far too esoteric for me to care much beyond reading through once. However, when we read this poem in my senior English class, something about it resonated in me. The intricate network of allusions was certainly appealing, but I think it was the way it caused me to hover right on the edge of understanding – I caught tantalizing glimpses of meaning, but never quite the whole picture.
It is this feeling that I hope to convey with my setting of “This is the Dead Land”, the third section of the larger poem. (In fact, this section was published separately before the poem as a whole, so I feel no compunctions in setting but one section.) When I first read it, I decided I wanted to set the whole poem for chorus and orchestra (and, in fact, still do!) – but this section in particular is reflective and solitary enough to warrant a setting for solo voice and piano.
Written for an atonal theory assignment, the piece was developed using twelve-tone serial techniques. The row itself was constructed to be both derived (from the (015) pc-set) and symmetrical. These properties are utilized to varying degrees throughout the piece – as but one example, the first vocal phrase is rhythmically palindromic (mm. 1-4), supported by four different (015) sonorities. The symmetry of the row means that the matrix only contains 24 distinct row forms. Of these, only twelve are used – interestingly enough, those in the 0th, 1st, and 5th positions from the edges of the matrix.
This aside in fact represents a broader pattern that emerged during the compositional process: interaction between me and the row. Some aspects of the piece were drawn from my intention alone. I knew what the first three notes of the vocal line should be, and so the row was built off of those. Some aspects were drawn from the row alone – such as the piano part in m. 8. I really didn’t care what the notes were – I simply wanted a general contour and acceleration. However, most aspects of the piece were drawn from a subtle interaction between the row and me. It wasn’t my intent to use the 0th, 1st, and 5th position rows in the matrix originally. I noticed that I tended to use rows and their retrogrades by about m. 5 (not specifically intended), so decided to continue doing this. By m. 7, I’d noticed the positioning related to the (015) set off which the row is based. At this point, I decided to go for it, specifically including P3, P9, I3, and I9 in m. 8 to complete the pattern. This is, of course, a very subtle thing that doesn’t really come through in the hearing of the piece or have any meaning other than it seemed neat and tidy at the time.
The same sort of interaction occurred in the specific setting of the text. Some of the text-painting was intended from the beginning – the spikiness of the cactus, the vaguely contrapuntal (hence Church-y) supplication, the feeble grasping of the hand. Some were unexpected: the major 3rd of Death’s other kingdom, for instance, was somewhat arbitrary – but caused me to associate “Death’s other kingdom” with Heaven, which makes a good deal of sense though I had not explicitly had that thought before. Musical considerations of coherence then caused me to draw connections between the end of the poem and earlier lines that make sense, but which I had not drawn before this setting – Kissing lips with the dead man’s hand, prayers with supplication, stone with stone.
This raises an interesting issue of intentionality in composition. Some aspects are too coincidental to be anything but intentional – such as the twinkling of the star in m. 7. But others – like the distribution of rows throughout the matrix – seems to have involved a great deal of forethought, when really it was just an incidental result of the composition process. Most of the “intention” is very fuzzy even to me. I just now realized the similarity of mm. 9-12 with the fourth movement of Penderecki’s Symphony No. 3 in concept. Was that what was in my mind’s ear? Or is it an unrelated connection? Who knows – who can say?