for soprano, female chorus (SSAA)
and large chamber ensemble: fl, ob, cl, bn, hn, perc, pno, strings
duration: 13 minutes
Alice in bed
A dramatic ‘Scena’ [Scene 6]
words by Susan Sontag
music by Melvin Bird
The play Alice in bed by Susan Sontag is "a free dramatic
fantasy based on the life of Alice James (1848-92), the brilliant sister
of William and Henry James. The waters of depression closed over Alice
James when she was nineteen; she tried to summon the courage to commit
suicide, she suffered from a variety of vague and debilitating ailments,
she went abroad, she stayed in bed, she kept a diary, and she died...
at age forty-three."
The portion of the play I decided to set comes two thirds of the way into
the drama. Of course I was drawn into the play as a whole but decided
that setting the whole of it would prove an impossible task, so I decided
to take what I felt was a self contained fragment, in fact a whole scene,
something more manageable yet at the same time challenging. The scene
is in itself like a long prose poem, and for me musically evocative. The
form of the music follows closely the form of the narrative, I didn't
want to straight-jacket it into some kind of preconceived structure. I
wanted the music to emerge organically from the text and spent a great
deal of time concentrating on the word setting.
The musical language draws on my own brand of 'minimalism' with heavy
doses of 'tonal / atonal' harmony. A repetitive 'ostinato' like figure
runs through the narrative associated with the constant repetition of
the word 'mind', this also provides a means of holding the movement together.
The piano features prominently within the instrumental texture, at times
unashamedly virtuosic in its demands from the player.
I have been composing / improvising / playing the piano, and other instruments
/ singing, since the age of. about eight, although I am sure that my musical
interests and efforts go back further. Formal musical training began at
school, continuing through my teenage years and culminating in a period
of study at Dartington College of Arts. Around about my mid-twenties I
began to get more serious encouragement from my teachers at college and
studied for a year as a Postgraduate Performance student on the Advanced
Performer Course at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
Throughout this period I composed on and off, I suppose you could say
I was trying to find a voice. Composition however became more and more
important to me, so much so that I decided nervously to show some of my
work to Rhian Samuel, who encouraged me to submit a piece to spnm.
After about a year I heard that this piece had been short-listed: Elegy
Variations. Sadly this piece remains unperformed. I continued
to submit pieces and my second submission was also short-listed and this
time performed in part: Six Religious Songs.
In 1997 I embarked on a Postgraduate Degree in Composition at Reading
University, where I studied with Paul Rhys (Composition) and Jonathan
Dunsby (Analysis). A portfolio composition from my Masters Degree was
recently short-listed by spnm for the 2000/2001 season: Alice
in bed. At present I am continuing my composition studies at Reading
as a Research Postgraduate, under the supervision of Rolf Gehlhaar.
My compositional starting points vary considerably, sometimes my sources
are literary, perhaps the setting of a text or the use of a text in a
structural way. Visual stimuli are also important in generating ideas,
for example the work of Paul Klee, Minimal and Conceptual art. More recently
I have become more interested in the use of numbers (number sequences;
permutation; random numbers etc.). Two recent works which make use of
some of these ideas are Residua, for live and pre-recorded
string quartet, and hic, for ensemble (21 players). I am
also interested in the concepts of 'deconstruction' and 'reconstruction'
functioning together within a single composition. And also the outer limits
of instrumental performance technique and practice.
Composers who I have a great affection for are considerable, to mention
a few: Michael Finnissy; Chris Newman; Richard Ayers; Sam Hayden; Scelsi;
Judith Weir etc. etc.
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