Six Popular Songs After Lawrence Durrell

I first came across my copy of Lawrence Durrell’s Vega and Other Poems in a used bookstore—actually the living room of an old Victorian house—in Halifax, Nova Scotia in May 2007. Glancing through it, I stumbled on the opening of “Avignon”: “Come, meet me in some dead café—/A puff of cognac or a sip of smoke.” The ambience of the text struck me immediately, and I found that much of the rest of the collection had a similar, slightly unsettling sentiment. I attribute this feeling to a sort of “anti-nostalgia” that Durrell felt toward his youth in England in the 1920s and 30s. Durrell’s best-known works deal with his time in Greece and, most prominently, Egypt, and are written in an extremely vivid descriptive style. I had already read part of the Alexandria Quartet before stumbling across Vega, and was fascinated to discover that Durrell’s poetry was, in fact, more prosaic than his prose, and even though most of it was not explicitly about England, it betrayed a little of what compelled him to leave: “the English death,” as he called it.

Sometime in the fall of 2008 I decided I wanted to try my hand at writing a vocal piece, and “Avignon” sprang to mind. I started work on a setting in February 2009 and was finished by March, but each time I went back to the collection over the next few months, I found that I wanted to set more of the poems. I worked on them sporadically until I finished “Dublin” in December 2010, taking anywhere from two weeks (“Dublin”) to three months (“Mistral”) to finish. The main concept of the cycle was to capture Durrell’s “anti-nostalgia” through a use of popular forms from the early 20th century—blues, waltz, tango, etc.—to maintain a sense of familiarity, but twisting them harmonically to produce a sense of alienation. To achieve this, I used various degrees of serial technique to produce the pitches found in each song. In the serial method of composition, which was developed by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg in the early 1920s, all twelve chromatic pitches must be used in a specified order, known as a tone row, as well as in various transformations of the row, such as inversion (where the row is played “upside down”) and retrograde (where it’s backwards). Serialism served as an organizing principle for his earlier atonal music, aiding in its composition and analysis as a replacement for the traditional system of tonality, which Schoenberg had abandoned some 15 years earlier. Despite having many serial elements, the songs in my cycle all also have tonal centres with varying degrees of vagueness, ascending chromatically through the cycle from B (“Avignon”) to E (“Dublin”), which adds to the blurring effect of the harmonic language.

“Avignon” is a blues with an introduction and coda. The opening vocal melody came to me immediately when I read the first line of the poem after having decided to set it. Having discovered that there were no repeated pitches in the melody, I decided that I should use some variation of a serial method to write the piece. Since I had not used four of the twelve pitches I put those in the piano part immediately after the vocal line (Fig. 1) and decided that since there were an irregular number of syllables in each line of the poem (ten in the second line and eight in the third and fourth, for instance), those four pitches could be freely distributed through the inside of the row if needed. Not counting the free use of those four pitches, the remaining three lines of the first stanza I set to the inverse (Fig. 2), retrograde inverse (Fig. 3) and retrograde (Fig. 4) of the original row, respectively, with the right hand of the piano picking up any unused notes. The chords in the opening piano part were a bit more complicated. I came up with the first two at the piano, and then the rest are derived from some transformation of the second chord via the four “free” pitches. The only exception is the Dmaj9 chord in measure 6, which I chose specifically to use under the word “light” and ends up being very structurally important. The middle section is a bit of an unusual 16-bar blues in B minor that alternates between two sets of pitches (Fig.5). In measure 25 the opening material returns, except the piano part has been moved down by the interval of a third. This means that the important structural chord mentioned above is now a Bmin(maj7) and is under the work “dark,” which illustrates a fundamental parallelism in the poem.

“Mistral” explores several different waltz tempi and styles: an extremely fast swung jazz waltz, a slow and gloomy waltz that gradually accelerates into a pseudo-Viennese waltz and finally a sort of French cabaret waltz, albeit with an extremely static accompaniment. In terms of the pitch content, it uses an early serial method developed by Johann Matthias Hauer, which actually predates Schoenberg. In Hauer’s method, the 12 chromatic pitches are divided into two groups of six, which are known as hexachords. Hauer alternates between portions of musical material using exclusively the notes of each hexachord. I ended up accidentally reinventing this technique in “Mistral” (Fig. 6), but with some fairly complex modifications. Despite the complexity of its construction, in many ways this is the lightest and simplest of the songs.

“Mandrake Root” was, along with “Avignon”, one of the only songs of the cycle that I knew I had to set immediately when reading the poem for the first time. In this case the sheer audacity of the opening (“Vagina Dentata I love you so…”) struck me, and I felt as though the unabashed eroticism of a tango would appropriately express the poem’s lasciviousness, with a softer Bossa Nova middle section to complement the poem’s more nuanced central stanzas. Many of the very heavy chords in this song are near the borders of playability on the piano because of their huge stretches. I wrote them very much with my own hands in mind, which led to monstrosities like the 6-note chords in measures 23 and 27 where the pianist has to play multiple pitches with the right thumb. This is the strictest of the songs in its serial composition, with a tone-row that strongly implies the vague C#-minor tonality (Fig. 7). With a little manipulation this row produced the parallel major seventh chords of the middle section that don’t sound as if they could be serial at all.

“Avis” was written as an exercise in conflict of associations: the somewhat lewd and misogynistic text (some singers have been uncomfortable singing it) is set in a highly lyrical ballad style. The melody is free, but the piano part was generated using French composer Olivier Messiaen’s system of rotational inversion. In this system, chords can be transformed by inverting them and then transposing them so the root is the same as the original chord, producing a series of related chords that have distinct qualities (Fig. 8). The piano part to this song is almost entirely based on the rotational inversions of two hexachords (Fig. 9). Its alternation between chords based on D and Eb makes it a bit reminiscent of very slowed-down modal jazz (especially Miles Davis’ “So What?”).

“By the Sea’s” text starts with the identical rhythm to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts”, so I set those words in a very similar way, and brought back “thumb quantum” as a kind of chorus two more times through the rest of the song It also contains a veiled reference to “How High the Moon.” The pitch content once again uses a fairly straightforward serial method.

“Dublin” marks a sort of capstone of the entire cycle; it is the most mournful of the set, and its melody is largely made up of fragments from “Avignon” and “Avis”. Its harmonic language is the most conventional, since the serial elements have been reduced to only the bass line, which marks two choruses of a highly-substituted 12-bar blues, with slightly varying harmonization each time. The final chord is an extremely dark Emin9(maj7)(#11) which ends the cycle in an utterly depressed state.