writing notes

Writing “Versa Est…”

Surprisingly, I am often asked which comes first, the text or the music.  I say “surprisingly” because for me, the answer has always been clear (the clearest in my whole writing process really!), and that is: the TEXT!  I suppose there must be some composers out there, many great ones in fact, that start the other way around, but I find that I cannot possibly work without heavily considering the text.  It often becomes the lengthiest part of my process – living with the words, meditating with them, feeling how they affect me – both intuitively and with more careful scrutiny.  Take for instance my latest creation, “Versa est in luctum”, which will premier in less than a week…

Versa est in luctum cithara mea,
et organum meum in vocem flentium.
Parce mihi Domine,
nihil enim sunt dies mei.

Which translates:
My harp is turned to mourning,
And my music to the voice of those who weep.
Spare me, O Lord
For my days are as nothing.

When this text was suggested to me by David Acres, musical director of Contrapunctus, I was immediately drawn to it. I liked both the personal and the universal nature of the text. I imagined this could be, of course, an intimate monologue (coming from the book of Job after all), but it could also be a compassionate cry for a dying world. So my musical setting became very much through-composed to follow this journey.

One of the first things I do is to just sort of imagine the piece. For this one, I was sitting in the lobby while my daughters were in acting and dance classes…other parents chit-chatting away…while I was becoming Job. And I like to play with words. I mean, sure, we read the first line as “my harp is turned to mourning (or grieving)”, yet “versa” is literally “to turn”. So I immediately had the idea of a long-ish theme, that would literally “turn”. And, because I was setting Latin from an ancient source, I wanted it to be chat-like in its opening. And on we go…

-stress on the word “luctum” (mourning)…also a harmonic surprise of sorts, because up until this d-natural, your ears might trick you into thinking the piece was in c# minor (thus expecting a d-sharp)
-fast triplets on “cithara” (harp)…I think I must subconsciously associate triplets with the harp because of Britten.
-a big, pipe organ-like, homophonic sound at “organum”
-flowing lines around the word “flentium” (weeping)
-a dramatic shift in character for the prayer “spare me, O Lord”…also, this text comes from a different portion of Job, along with the final line.
-repetition after repetition of the final line “my days are as nothing” – to help paint the picture of hopelessness.
-finally, a soloists to recap the entire text, to further dramatize the personal sentiment of the text.

So yes, I’d say it’s a fair statement that I always let the TEXT guide my work! The text, and my interpretation of it, is what sets my mind in motion. I use a lot of metaphor in my work, but (hopefully) not at the cost of great sounding music that can reach the listener immediately. The metaphors, the lines, the wordplay are all there for the singers and the conductor….the overall impression should be strengthen by these and, ultimately, help the listener feel a deeper sense of the poetry.


Scribbling rhythms within the text,

I always like them to be speech-like