Versions of the Truth

Frank J. Oteri

About this work:

Since 2009, my wife Trudy Chan, who is a keyboardist, has been performing with an extraordinary vocalist named Phillip Cheah who sings as a baritone and a male soprano. For their song recitals, Phillip performs in both registers, effortlessly going from one to the other. About a year into their collaboration, it dawned on me that the nurturing river, a song cycle for voice and piano I had composed decades earlier which had been deemed unperformable because of its extremely wide range, might be suitable for them. Happily these songs finally have a life. In fact, many people who have heard them perform the songs from the nurturing river initially think I had written them expressly for Phillip since his abilities are so clearly demonstrated in them. Therefore when The ASCAP Foundation informed me in November 2011 that I would be the recipient of a Charles Kingsford Fund commission to compose a song cycle for any performers I wanted, it seemed only fitting to actually write a new cycle that was specifically for Phillip and Trudy, hence Versions of the Truth.

Whereas the nurturing river explores a broad vocal range that recognizes no barriers between registers, I thought the new song cycle should clearly contrast Phillip’s two registers so I wanted to somehow set them apart from each other. To that end, it was extremely important to find texts that would be appropriately served by such a setting. After rummaging through a wide range of poetry from a great many eras and places, I chanced upon a few strange short poems by Stephen Crane (1871-1900) in an anthology of American poetry I had at home. I was not really aware that Crane had written poetry; previously I had only read a few of his brooding short stories and had attempted to read his famous second novel, The Red Badge of Courage, which I initially found difficult to follow, dense, and off-putting. Of course, there could be no more appropriate way to convey the details of a raging battlefield. Ironically Crane never served in the military and, at the time he completed the novel, in 1894, he had never actually witnessed war. In the same way that Crane was able to so effectively write about a war he never experienced, Crane, in the poems in my anthology, seemed to predict the wholesale literary license and unpredictability of the 20th and 21st centuries which he never lived to see, dying at the age of 28 not even six months into the year 1900.

I realized that I would be able to set these words without fear that I would somehow be anachronistically untrue to them by setting them in my own personal musical language which while indebted to the past is very much concerned with the present. At the same time, every time I have set a text, it has been imperative for me that what I am setting should guide me toward its musical realization, so I attempted to internalize Stephen Crane’s voice to the best of my abilities. To that end, I reread The Red Badge of Courage and I also read his first novel, Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, both of which had been on my bookshelves for years. Then I surfed all over the internet and then book stores until I had tracked down the two volumes of Crane’s poetry, or lines as he preferred to call them, that had been published during his lifetime: The Black Riders and Other Lines (1895) and War is Kind and Other Lines (1899). Although contemporary editions present Crane’s words in clearly discernible sentences, in the original editions they were printed in all capital letters screaming out at the reader like tabloid headlines from another reality, a quality that seemed like a crucial clue to the musical settings in which I should embed them. I also listened to tons of very late 19th century music from both Europe and the United States which while still in a tonal language often seems to be gradually breaking away toward something else.

For several months I read these somewhat inscrutable poems over and over again looking for links between them that could shape some kind of narrative, albeit non-linear, arc. I wound up choosing twelve poems from Crane’s two collections which encompass third person observations, first person supplications, and bizarre juxtapositions between narrators and various characters. Before I conceived of a note of music, I decided that anything in third person would be sung in the seemingly more objective baritone register and anything in first person in the more vulnerable male soprano register. The poems containing two voices would contain both registers and the role of the narrator would be sung either in baritone or soprano register depending on which text—the narrator’s or the character’s—seemed the more objective. As a result, there is a constant shift between the two registers throughout the cycle.

Then various themes in Crane’s poems seemed to suggest more specific musical settings—the “three little birds” of the second poem suggested a progression of three different chords. I eventually chose three seventh chords that would have been commonplace in late 19th century harmony: a dominant seventh, a full diminished seventh, and a half-diminished seventh. These three chords and how they are used in relation to each other soon became an important generative element for the settings of a majority of the songs. The decision not to be limited to those chords for a few of the settings was also arrived at in keeping with specific instructions seemingly embedded within the words of those particular poems, e.g. a description of “weeds” demanded a chord outside of the desired sevenths as did “Doubtless there are other roads”; “cast[ing] off” a “tattered coat” to “go free” implied a completely intuitive approach, etc. That latter poem’s final words “What then?” contain the only notated non-12-tone equal tempered interval in the entire cycle, a G followed by an F quartertone-sharp. While 12- tone equal temperament only became generally accepted throughout Europe in the 19th century, quartertones already resurfaced as early as 1849 in Fromental Halévy’s Prométhée enchaîné. By the late 19th century, microtonality was being tinkered with throughout Europe by R.H.M. Bosanquet, Joseph Lubet d'Albiz, Vladimir Fyodorovich Odoyevsky, and others, and in the United States, Charles Ives’s father George’s built a variety of experimental quartertone instruments in the 1880s, all prior to Crane’s writing these poems. So the inclusion of that lone quartertone is not an anachronism although admittedly it is in keeping with my own much more recent musical explorations.

In one poem, Crane describes a man who attempted to “range … all men of this world in rows”; this to me seemed a clear nod toward a twelve-tone row and some kind of proto-serial approach. While serial procedures did not exist in music until a generation after Crane’s death, there are occurrences of 12-tone sequences in much older music and indeed those three seventh chords can generate a row: G B D F / A C Eb Gb / Bb Db Fb Ab. Similarly the first sentence in a different poem—“I saw a man pursuing the horizon; Round and round they sped.”—suggested minimalism, another musical process that would not take root until the 1960s but which has clear precedents in music dating back centuries. Phrases in another poem—“too soon, were we where my eyes were useless […] I am lost”—implied a kind of indeterminate realization for which a score would not be helpful. My eventual solution was to create only a partially notated vocal line that must harmonize with a piano accompaniment consisting of all nineteen possible seventh chords comprised of chains of sixths containing the pitch A = 440 Hz. These chords are printed on a set nineteen cards which must be shuffled prior to playing the song guaranteeing a different outcome each time in which the singer’s eyes are useless and where the duo will inevitably get lost. Again, John Cage’s chance procedures might seem a futuristic incursion here, but in 1787, more than a century before Crane wrote these poems, Mozart had fashioned a musical dice game to generate a minuet.

Perhaps the most extreme interpretation derived from Crane’s own words is the musical portrayal of having “a thousand tongues / And nine and ninety-nine lie.” Nine and ninety-nine here clearly means 999, but the way Crane wrote it technically only adds up to 108. So I wondered about how I could be somehow musically dishonest with 108. My solution was to construct a chain of 108 false cadences occurring across a series of metric modulations that could be all notated, albeit cumbersomely, with a metronome marking of 108 per quarter-note; these rhythmic shifts are in fact more comprehensibly notated by constantly altering the metronome markings, making the resultant seeming notational sameness of rhythmic values false. Again, though these poems were written nearly decades before Elliott Carter began his elaborate use of metric modulation, the seeds for these kinds of rhythmic tricks had already been very effectively planted in the hemiolas permeating the music of Johannes Brahms.

Many of Crane’s poems are about the quest for truth and truth’s ultimate elusiveness. Perhaps the closest thing in music to a quest for truth is absolute pitch which, like most things that are thought to be absolute, has historically been relative. The fixing of A above middle C at the frequency of 440 Hz was a by-product of the late 19th century, when Crane lived, so I decided to play around with A = 440 throughout the cycle. In a poem offering two competing ideas about what truth is (which I set using the same melodic and harmonic material but with a differently skewed metrical pattern for each), A = 440 occurs only once in the vocal line on the word “believe” since most absolutism hinges on belief. The cycle begins in the key of G, a full whole-tone away from A, close to the truth but not quite there, but it ends decisively in Ab. At A = 440, an Ab above middle C vibrates at 415 Hz, but in the Baroque era it was common practice to tune A above middle C to 415 Hz. Absolute truth is ultimately unattainable and what we are left with instead are versions of the truth.

I did not actually begin composing music until Sunday, March 25, 2012. Although I rarely begin at the beginning, this time I did; I set the first of the twelve poems in the sequence I had fashioned, a poem about not being able to sing which forced me to write an extremely meager vocal line. Next I went to the quasi-serial setting (“ranged in rows”) which ends with a flourish of unabashed tonality (“great simplicity”) and then immediately to the very last one (“Once, I knew a fine song”) which gave me an opportunity to write a really lush melody. I skipped back and forth across the sequence finishing the final remaining song, roughly six months later, on Saturday, September 29, although I did not print it out the score until the following Saturday at which point Phillip and Trudy sight read through it from start to finish for the very first time, and a few additional revisions were made up until October 13.

The world premiere performance of Versions of the Truth took place on February 23, 2013 at the Tenri Cultural Institute during a concert devoted exclusively to my music performed by Phillip Cheah and Trudy Chan. I must acknowledge my deepest appreciation to them as well as to Frances Richard, Cia Toscanini, Michael Spudic, and Julie Lapore at ASCAP plus the late American art song composer Charles Kingsford (1907-1996) whose legacy continues to foster the creation of new vocal music through the fund in his name administered by The ASCAP Foundation.

To obtain either a hard copy or a PDF of the score for Versions of the Truth, please visit

Year composed: 2012
Duration: 00:22:00
Ensemble type: Voice, Solo or With Chamber or Jazz Ensemble:Solo Voice with Keyboard
Instrumentation notes: In order to effectively convey the American English of the texts, the singer should avoid vibrato and rollings Rs.

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