Melvin Bird

Alice in Bed
a dramatic scena

for soprano, female chorus (SSAA) and large chamber ensemble: fl, ob, cl, bn, hn, perc, pno, strings (min

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.

Melvin Bird
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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