Mallarmé, Mourning and Microtones

After a series of posts about an often difficult past, I thought it would be a welcome change of pace to write about something I’m working on currently. This post is a preview for what is effectively my professional debut as a composer in a non-self-directed or workshop format: Friday Oct. 16, the inimitable Mark McGregor will perform a new piece of mine for flute and electronics at Open Space.


For the past several months I have been formulating a large-scale project based on Stéphane Mallarmé’s Pour un tombeau d’Anatole. After the death of his son Anatole at the age of eight in 1879, Mallarmé attempted to write a memorial poem, but he was unable to finish it and left behind 202 page-long fragments. These were eventually published posthumously in 1961, and are starkly modern in their fragmentary form. Pour un tombeau d’Anatole was translated into English by Paul Auster (whose translation I am not especially fond of) and then by Patrick McGuinness. There also exists an incomplete and fascinatingly non-literal translation by William Marsh.

As can be seen from the last link, the fragments are formatted in a very idiosyncratic way, reminiscent of Mallarmé’s later and more well-known poems such as Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard. However, it is unclear if the work would have stayed in its more unusual format if it had actually been completed, or if its formatting was simply a sign of its provisional nature. There are also a plethora of strange annotative punctuations in the original text, ranging from several styles of brackets to horizontal lines of various lengths to floating numerals, both Arabic and Roman. They seem to strive to fill in the gaps where Mallarmé’s words failed him. The combination of the work’s extreme emotional content and its open-ended layout made it irresistible to work with.

I knew that a setting of the entire text of Pour un tombeau d’Anatole would be far too long, but nonetheless I wanted to set a substantial part of it. This would still demand a very long duration, most likely an hour or more, so I decided to make it a poly-work in the style of Richard Barrett’s Opening of the Mouth (first movement) or Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf’s Hommage à György Kurtág (a solo piccolo fragment),where a large-scale work is actually made up of several smaller pieces for some subset of the instrumentation that may be performed separately. So far the work is in its infancy, but I already have two segments completed: a draft of a setting of the first fragment, en triste existence, for solo soprano and small chorus (which was read at the SALT Festival this July by the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart) and a piece for flute and electronics, «la double à remplir…», which takes its (incorrectly gendered1) title from fragment 9, which will be premiered this Friday by Mark McGregor.

I decided that, following the text, the theme of the whole work will be an exploration of aspects of mourning from music of various traditions, including the ‘lament bass’, dirges, drones, crying, etc. In keeping with this sense of mourning, the pitch content of the work is derived from the undertone series on a high C. For at least the first section of the work, I decided to use an octave-inverted alteration of the series, which is spaced somewhat like the harmonic series. Using only quarter tones and arrows to indicate approximate twelfth-tone inflections, the modified series is as follows:

Mallarme series 1

«La double à remplir…» for flute and electronics is in the form of a doina. Originally a Romanian shepherd’s lament, the doina entered the klezmer repertoire around the turn of the 20th century (a classic example). Doinas typically consist of a highly ornamented solo melodic line that is accompanied by droning chords that modulate over the course of the piece.  In «la double à remplir…», the flute is accompanied by sine tones that play a series of major seventh chords, derived from the constructed series discussed above, that gradually deviate more and more from equal temperament:

La double a remplir chord progression

Chords connected with a bracket alternate freely, since they are roughly equivalent in distance from equal temperament. Over top of this, the flute plays the freely virtuosic trills, arpeggios and scalar patterns of doina repertoire, but microtonally detuned.

I look forward to the first public performance of a project that will be central to my practice for at least the next few years.


1. This mistake is in Mallarmé’s original.


One comment on “Mallarmé, Mourning and Microtones

  1. […] my last post I described a large-scale project of which, at the time, I had completed only a few fragments. As I […]

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