Four Domestics

Four Domestics, my third song cycle for voice and piano, was originally written for mezzo-soprano Stephanie Lavon Trotter over a period from March 2013 until April 2014, while I was working on my MA at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. It is a setting of “Four Moments” by the Canadian poet, lawyer, professor and activist F. R. Scott (1899-1985).

F.R. Scott was active in the Montreal Communist community beginning in the 1920s, where he and his wife, modernist painter Marian Dale Scott, along with famed doctor Norman Bethune provided pro bono services to the community. In 1932, he helped found the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation, which became the New Democratic Party in 1961.

I stumbled on the poem sometime in 2012 while thumbing through my copy of Scott’s Collected Poems, and began work the following spring. Four Domestics is a return to the style of vocal writing I first produced in the Six Popular Songs after Lawrence Durrell (2009-2010), particularly that cycle’s disconnection between its complexity of construction and the sounding result. However, due to the direction of my music at the time, Four Domestics is a much sparser piece and has far fewer of the idiomatic elements of the earlier cycle.

I changed the title from “moments” to “domestics” because these poems seem to me to portray a love that has aged and become somewhat mundane. They are still full of passion, but it is a quiet, restrained passion. The sparseness of the setting allows for the listener to experience radically opposing interpretations of text and music: sensuality or claustrophobia, gentleness or alienation. Idiomatic elements of the music, particularly rhythm, are gradually reduced over the cycle’s four songs, as is the role of the piano, leading to a distillation of the cycle’s essence in the final movement. Four Domestics is a clear example of the theme of my MA thesis, Ambitopia/Amblyopia, in which I seek to trace the ability of sparse and fragmentary pieces to induce contradictory interpretations and rupture the supposedly inherent dichotomies of music.

In the first movement, the ghost of a waltz metre remains, but it is subverted first by the use of tuplets and then by the combinatorial use of nearly all possible divisions of the 3/4 bar into two notes in the left hand. The result is the sensation that the subject can no longer walk, and can barely remember what dancing feels like.  The pitches in the piano part are loosely derived from harmonic series on C and E, and the pitches in the voice consist of two alternating hexachords, the first at the beginning and end, and the second from bars 12-16.

The second movement replaces the first’s complex rhythmic construction with a complex harmonic construction. The piano part consists of six single notes, five dyads, four triads, three four-note chords, two five-note chords and one six-note chord, followed by the same progression in reverse, with the mirror point between bars 8 and 9. The chords themselves are drawn from two alternating hexachords, with every group of notes adding up to a multiple of twelve except for the groups of five, which only add to twenty. The final four notes that were not used are found in the left hand of the piano in the final bar of the song. The pitches in the voice part consist of a specially-constructed mode that ascends to the mirror point, then descends, and is related to the two hexachords of the piano part.  This song seeks to emphasize the poem’s depiction of stasis by means of the very slow tempo and rests between phrases.

The third movement is built on a simple expansion of the inner tremolo and contraction of the outer pitches in the piano part, with a free vocal line. The slight restlessness of the text is reflected by the constant tremolo texture.

The fourth movement, for solo voice, presents a near-total sense of stasis. The singer has absolute freedom over the tempo and rhythm of the line. The opening bar is a veiled reference to Feldman’s vocal solo Only, while the second is a reference to Berg’s Lulu. The pitches are simply one statement of a twelve-tone row.