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8.2. Composer’s Reflections

Dominic de Grande

© 2019 Dominic de Grande, CC BY 4.0

I have collaborated on projects with choreographers, actors, lyricists and poets, other composers, and musicians of all ages and backgrounds. Yet, I have never collaborated with a theologian. As a teetering agnostic, there was something special about this collaboration from the start. In particular one question arose: what part (if any) would my own sense of religiosity, or lack thereof, have to play in this project?

As a young child, neither of my parents were musicians but they did have a love of music. Both grounded me in a musical tradition that emphasized the importance of lyrical content, which included the works of Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan: three men of Jewish heritage who have all made countless allusions to the New and Old Testaments. I remember my mother waking me in the middle of the night to listen to the repeated phrase ‘with God on their side’, which dovetailed every verse: these were amongst my first lessons in lyrical criticism and consciousness. In my mid-teens, I found a recording of choral classics belonging to my mother, which included Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach, Gabriel Fauré, and Charles Gounod, amongst others. For the first time, I discovered music that could match the splendour, the beauty, the dignity and the embrace, which, up until that point, I had found in the lyrical allusions of singer-song-writers such as those mentioned above. Throughout my compositional career, I have sought to include the lyrics and the music that changed my life.

My background in lyrics and narrative allusions inspired my involvement in the TheoArtistry project. It presented an opportunity to form a partnership with someone who could influence and nourish the lyrical content in my compositions. In a way, the TheoArtistry collaboration started before the first meeting at St Andrews. Concern for what was expected of me, how religion was to figure in the project, and the powerful reputation of St Andrews were all considerations leading up to the first official meeting. This meeting was crammed with seminars, meetings, lectures and conversations. It was exhausting, intriguing and inspiring, and the power of this initial event perhaps overawed my first attempts to find my compositional feet.

On the first day, my theologian-partner, Marian Kelsey, provided me with a document entitled ‘Jacob Wrestling: Genesis 32.22-32’, which contained information about the biblical context, cultural background, and a section dedicated to ‘Possibilities for Musical Exploration’. It also included examples of how the story had inspired poets, artists and musicians throughout history. Initially, the goal was to find a suitable text — whether from the material provided or by composing new words. The original Hebrew material immediately sparked my interest so Kelsey suggested YouTube links for the purposes of aiding pronunciation; she also provided me with a word-by-word breakdown of the literal and poetic translation. In my mind’s ear, I could hear complex sounds, antiphony and polyphony alike, multiple time signatures and syncopated rhythms. The enjoyment of finding a musical counterpart, manifested in the freshness of this unfamiliar language, was palpable.

However, allocating sufficient space to each idea proved frustrating. What was wrong? There seemed to be two things inhibiting the flow of composition. First, the specified duration of the piece (three minutes). Typically, my pieces last under ten minutes. Secondly, I felt committed to the high standard demanded by the first meeting. How was I going to achieve this in three minutes? I realized that whilst my initial ideas might have worked on another occasion, they simply were not the sounds suggested to me by the text in this context, and I began to pare away what I considered unnecessary.

During our final Skype interview, I voiced my concerns about the piece and my need for a new approach. I explored Kelsey’s motivations for the project: taking theology out of an academic context and into a musical one. She also highlighted a salient attribute about Jacob’s struggle: namely, the ambiguity of the protagonists’ identity and how that had inspired wonderful interactions and responses in art and literature. I found this very encouraging, and I took the least convoluted poem that Marian had included in her original document (‘A little East of Jordan’ by Emily Dickinson) and interpolated a small fragment from the original biblical text in English (‘Let me go, for the day is breaking’), which summed up the energy of the story in a clear and honest way.

I struggled with many starts and stops (the irony of wrestling with a narrative about wrestling was not lost on me). I began to treat the words more gently and let them guide the music, I tried to help the narrative ‘speak’ itself. I began to realise that I needed to develop a deeper and more personal relationship with the text, something that I could feel invested in. The turning point for me came when I thought about my grandmother who was religious and the way she was full of music and stories. She would improvise bedtime stories and I would often have to wake her for conclusions that seldom came. I realized that it was not only the words working with the music but feeling comfortable with the numinous context that bound them together. It turns out that my own sense of religiosity was found through the memory of my grandmother.

The harmonic underpinning of this piece consists of three chords: (1) A minor 7/11. (2) G major 7/9 and D major 7. The first three stanzas of the poem spell out the notes of each of these chords by descending or ascending melodically through them. I used this musical idea to create a homogenous and comfortable texture, allowing the narrative to remain prominent. The departure from this harmonic language occurs with the interpolated words ‘Let me go for the day is breaking.’ The first three syllables make use of the three chords mentioned above, but the remaining six syllables introduce six new chords. This section is particularly important, and, just as the words are interpolated, so the harmonies and dynamic range hopefully provide the listener with a sense of otherness. The final stanza makes melodic use of the initial three chords as if to consolidate and recapitulate their fundamental character.

The music is not intended to represent the meaning of the text. For example, there is little word painting. The music is there to help frame the meaning of the poem in a way that a declamation of it cannot, whilst still allowing the words narrative supremacy. My interests were concerned with the absorption of the narrative. With this in mind, it was important to use simple cyclical juxtapositions of repeating chords and melodies with sprinklings of dissonance. I hope that listeners will take the time to think about the title, as it encapsulates the soul of my piece. If the listener can imagine or remember the joy of being young and somewhere between sleep and wakefulness in a summer sunset that stains the edges of the curtains with a halo of light whilst your grandmother tells you stories, then he or she will have a sense of my intentions.

The piece is bookended by a vocalization harmonized by human whistling. The beginning and end had to be simple to allow the listener a moment of meditation once the piece had finished. Throughout, the whistling can be heard at moments to depart and compliment the mechanics of the sung melody. At other times they are in unison. Perhaps as representation, this compositional aspect came closest to my experiences of introspection on the TheoArtistry program — inflections of the numinous reveal themselves to be sometimes consonant and sometimes indivisible with, or invisible to, my perceptions of my life. For this reason, I wanted the melody lines of the voice and the whistle to soar with and into one another almost above the composition itself.

Dominic de Grande, ‘Whilst falling asleep, Savta told me of Jacob’, in Annunciations: Sacred Music for the 21st Century, St Salvator’s Chapel Choir and Sean Heath, cond. by Tom Wilkinson (Sanctiandree, SAND0006, 2018), © 2017 University of St Andrews. Track 08. Duration: 4.10.