About this work:
Dream Songs, for Orchestra and tape, by Eric Chasalow (1955)
Listen to a recording at:
In spite of my long history with electronic music, the technology is not my focus. I use whatever technology is motivated by the musical challenges of the piece I am working on. There is (as Marshall McLuhen contends) an obsession with technology that is a defining feature of our time. But I would argue that the best music of any time period is so compelling that the technology disappears. Chopin’s music is inseparable from the piano, yet it is the music, not the piano itself that moves us.
I subscribe to the notion that the sounds in a piece of music, novel or not, are less important than the element of time. The quality of the sounds is important (and it is still hard to make any sound in the studio approaching the musical sensitivity of one note on a violin), but it is still the way that the sounds shape our sense of time passing, through phrasing and the like, that carries the musical idea.
Still, I am preoccupied with the musical opportunity that computer technology does provide. I like to start with a traditional ensemble or a recognizable sound source as a point of reference, and extend the acoustical properties beyond what is possible in the physical world. The challenge is always to use this technique to help shape musical ideas rather than to create a catalogue of gimmicky sounds
My recent work has focused on using spoken and sung text as source material. In 1992 I created a short tape piece from recordings of a setting I made of one of the Furies poems of Anne Sexton. Since then, I have completed a series of “sonic portraits”, that include composer Milton Babbitt (who’s voice is as wonderful as his stories), and pop musicians, John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix (two of my boyhood idols). More recently Bates College (my alma mater) commissioned a piece for the millenium. I composed the autobiographical, Crossing Boundaries from old tapes of my metaphoric family (the pioneers of electronic music including some of my teachers) and my actual family (even bits from old answering machine tapes I found).
When presented with the opportunity to compose a piece for orchestra and computer-manipulated sound for this evening’s concert, I immediately knew that I would again use text. Over the years, discussions with Mario Davidovsky and others had convinced me of the difficulty of writing for orchestra combined with electronic sounds. The orchestra is so rich already. It is hard to do anything that is not simply redundant. But voice with orchestra is a long tradition. Great repertoire for soloist or chorus with orchestra abounds. Here was an opportunity to take that tradition in a different direction. Then, I remembered the Dream Songs, by John Berryman, came upon several recordings of Berryman reading parts of it, and the direction of my orchestra piece became very clear.
In a reading sponsored by the American Academy of Poets at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in the 1960’s, John Berryman emphatically tells his audience of the central intelligence – the “I” of his Dream Songs, “…not only is it not me, it’s not even Henry -- he’s sleeping!” He also says, with typical irony, while struggling with a microphone, “well, maybe I’d better put it on, because some of these songs have to be pretty quiet [microphone noise]…PRETTY QUIET.” Statements of this kind tell us as much, maybe more about the poet than about his poem. Berryman and Henry are certainly ambivalent about telling their story.
In Dream Songs, Berryman opens up Henry’s internal world in all of its painful and fabulous detail, full of self-love and self-loathing. This is all passed through the filter of Henry’s dreams, which admit pieces of everything in Berryman’s rich experience, the common and deeply intellectual alike. The poem (Berryman considered it one, long poem) draws on a wide range of rhetoric, from sources as diverse as the Bible, Shakespeare, modern dialects, minstrelsy, even baby-talk.
I have kept Berryman’s remarks in mind while composing Dream Songs, my piece for orchestra that takes its title and text from his epic work. Henry, I decided, would never stand on stage and sing these texts to the world, even though he is narcissistic enough to want the world to hear “what he has now to say,” So, instead of using live singers, I have put the text on a recording, which is played back in performance in synchronization with the live orchestra. This creates a disembodied voice that puts a distance between the words and the audience and maintains an illusion of the kind of internal world that the poem inhabits.
A critical and striking feature of the poem is the shifting perspective of its central intelligence. Henry is just as likely to refer to himself in first, second or third person. The use of computer manipulated voice allows me to heighten this aspect. I can, and do, mix solo with chorus, spoken with sung, male with female. I can blur the distinctions and the balance of these sources. This allows me to maintain the central voice of the poem while projecting something of its fractured, layered complexity. For example, in the fourth movement (Dream Song #22) the voices in Henry’s head explode into virtually a full-blown case of multiple personality disorder. This explosion is mirrored in the music, which circles repeatedly in a building canonic texture of voices, each in a different virtual space – but all inside of Henry’s head. Having fractured so dramatically, Henry “reintegrates” in the fifth, and final, movement with its heterophonous chorale opening.
Musically speaking, my piece references, and even quotes, bits of music of various periods and styles. Although I point this out, these quotations are not meant to be recognized (although they may be by some listeners). The piece is not in anyway a collage. Rather, I absorb many materials, motivic and otherwise, into the orchestra music for their resonant associations, just as I do in the electronic portion. There is a kind of idee fixe associated with Henry (instead of the external beloved of Berlioz, this is a beloved/hated self) which transforms along with Henry through the five movement. In the fifth movement, the voice of the poet appears as one layer. John Berryman himself has the last word.
In the past, whenever I have found a poem that “wants” to be a song, the musical setting has quickly followed without a long struggle. Even so, I have always felt that my eventual setting was the only way I would have wanted to set that particular poem. With the Dream Songs, I had a rude awakening. This poem seems closer in spirit and voice to my own musical impulse than anything else that I have set. To my delight and horror, I quickly realized that of the 385 parts, perhaps one hundred or more would make convincing songs (using the computer-heightened world). Even after finally choosing the five that would become my piece, I realized that they could be set in numerous ways and still not capture more than a fraction of what they were “telling” me. In the end, I am happy to have the rest of my life to continue discovering the disquieting universe captured in Berryman’s remarkable poem.
Numerous people contributed to the creation of Dream Songs. My thanks to Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project for commissioning the piece. Tenor William Hite, actors Ken Cheeseman, Marya Lowry, Lea Antolini, Jake Suffian, Timothy Carter, Laura Wickens, Malik El-Amin, and James Miles, and Raymond Cassidy (my father-in-law) all recorded the material that became much of the electro-acoustic part. Composers Dennis Miller, Martin Brody, and Sam Nichols, engineer, Brad Michael, audio consultant Steve Colby, poetry archivist Don Share and his assistant Larissa Glasser and Victoria Fox at Farrar, Straus and Giroux each helped me in some critical way. Finally, above all, thanks to my wife Barbara Cassidy and our son, Simon for their patience through a busy winter and a tight deadline.
Version: Orchestra and fixed media
Year composed: 2001
Ensemble type: Orchestra:Standard Orchestra
Instrumentation: 2 Flute, 2 Oboe, 2 Clarinet, 2 Bassoon, 2 Horn in F, 2 Trumpet, 2 Trombone, 1 Tuba, 2 Percussion (General), 1 Piano, 1 Strings (General), 1 Prerecorded Sound (Tape/CD/Other)
Instrumentation notes: 2 (picc),2,2 (bcl),2; 2,2,2,1; 2 perc, pn, strings, computer playback