A huge influence on my compositional approach is dance and movement. I spent fifteen years in the dance studio from age 3 learning various styles from ballet, jazz, and contemporary to tap and hip hop. I even tried tumbling and twirled the baton to the tunes of a marching band in a few parades. These early experiences have naturally fed into the way I approach and think about music. My work often deals with connecting with physical movement in some way, currently exploring the use of gestures inspired by Laban’s Eight Efforts: float, flick, glide, dab, wring, slash, press, punch, as well as groove perception through the use of long-range polyrhythms. A more specific introduction to my current compositional obsessions can best be found in a larger scale project, The Yellow Wallpaper.
Based on the short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman of the same name, The Yellow Wallpaper focuses on the theme of social isolation and its effects on mental health. For this project I am collaborating with Cardiff University postgraduate researcher in creative writing, Christina Thatcher, to adapt the original text. Written at the end of the 19th century, the story reflects on women’s mental and physical health through the eyes of the main character who is taken by her husband on a ‘rest cure’ in the country. The story is now considered by many to be an early, significant work in feminist literature and is taught widely in schools and colleges across America.
Gestures throughout the piece are characterized by Laban’s Eight Efforts in which four continuums: weight, space, time, and flow, are used to conceptualize movement. Such gestures in The Yellow Wallpaper are used to embody the character’s emotions as her mental state gradually deteriorates. Press, which is defined as being strong, direct, sustained, and bound, is the first effort chosen for scene one. This opening effort represents the woman’s initial state as she begins her prescribed rest cure. The directional quality of the semiquaver triplet embellishments leading into slow sustained pitches represents the self-reflection of the character as she struggles with her new surroundings. The resulting texture created by these overlapping gestures was explored intensely as part of Dartington International Summer School‘s Advanced Composition Course in the summer of 2016. Sketches generated during the course were also worked into a stand-alone piece retrospectively entitled Embers.
Another aspect I am exploring through the composition of The Yellow Wallpaper is the use of long-range polyrhythms for narrative purposes. Polyrhythms are conflicting rhythms heard simultaneously that cannot be readily perceived as deriving from one another. They are used in The Yellow Wallpaper to delineate the formal structure corresponding to important moments in the narrative. As the piece progresses conflicting pulse streams interlock into groves to symbolize the character’s transition in and out of lucidness. These changes coordinate with the physical movement of opening and closing a window to symbolize her connection, or lack thereof, to the world outside her room. Throughout the entire work moments of convergence between polyrhythms are expanded into sections of material rooted in dance rhythms to contrast her sense of belonging and purpose against delusion brought on by isolation.
As part of my PhD studies at Cardiff University, I have used my workshop opportunities with visiting ensembles to explore these ideas in a chamber music setting. My piece Up and Down and Sideways is a reduction of material from the second scene of the opera, which was workshopped by The Riot Ensemble. This piece incorporates a tango rhythm into a long-range polyrhythm as the unnamed protagonist unsuccessfully pleads with her husband, John, to repaper her room. The libretto excerpt included is from the moment after John leaves, and it is revealed that she sees a figure trapped behind the paper for the first time. The augmented tango rhythm can be heard most clearly in the viola and bass clarinet parts, obsessively repeating at different rates, which only align in the middle and very end of the piece. This creates an off-kilter background to the vocal part, symbolizing the moving wallpaper.
Text adapted by Christina Thatcher after the short story, “The Yellow
Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
There is a recurring spot where the pattern lolls
like a broken neck, revealing two bulbous eyes
which stare – up and down and sideways –
Those eyes which crawl,
those absurd, unblinking eyes.
I must not think about the paper.
those bulbous eyes
which stare – up and down and sideways –
In places where it isn’t faded
and when the sun is just so –
I can see a formless sort of figure,
that sulks behind the design,
moving back and forth,
back and forth, – up and down and sideways –
Copyright © Christina Thatcher, 2016
Used with permission.
Another piece of mine that works with long-range polyrhythms, albeit in a less straightforward way, is Slowly Tilting, Sinking which was written specifically for the Illuminate Concert Series 2018. A skyscraper that is sinking into the ground, tilting toward its neighboring building due to its deficient foundation system served as the inspiration for this piano solo. However, the piece is not meant to be a musical depiction of a leaning building. Instead, the idea of a fractured foundation influenced the construction of the piece. Beginning with a faultless long-range polyrhythmic structure, select bars are expanded, contracted, or clipped to set things slightly askew. Slowly Tilting, Sinking will be performed on Friday April 20th 2018 by Késia Decoté during our Illuminate Brighton concert. This concert is also part of the Music and Wine series at St. Luke’s Church, Queens Park Road, Brighton. I hope to see you there!
Dr Helen Thomas