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16 August 2011

The Voice of the Ancient Bard (First Stones)

James Wade Image: James Wade  

In July, Halcyon and Elliott Gyger brought together a group of young composers, along with the drafts of new vocal works, for an intensive four days of rehearsal and discussion. James Wade writes about his involvement - for more First Stones blog articles, please see the Resonate blog. The First Stones workshops are organised with the AMC as a supporting partner. (See also: First Stones concert 19 November.)

The work which I have been composing for the Halcyon ensemble, The Voice of the Ancient Bard, is part of a cycle of vocal works using texts from William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. This work has turned out to be a crucial part of the entire cycle, not only as the opening work for the cycle, but for its significant influence on the composition of the other works.

Initially, I intended to use Blake's texts to write a basic song cycle for voice and piano. However, having the opportunity to work with Halcyon and to expand the instrumentation of this work allowed the development of the song cycle into the more expansive concept of a 'vocal cycle'. This vocal cycle could utilise a greater variety of ensembles, including pieces for choir, voice and orchestra, and subsets of the instrumentation of the Halcyon ensemble, expanding the musical palette and thus enabling a greater breadth of expression.

There are a number of reasons I was drawn to the poetry of William Blake, particularly the Songs of Innocence and Experience. I find Blake's work, unlike that of other 19th-century poets, still pertinent to the present age in expression and subject matter. Another significant and unique aspect of Blake's work is his own illuminated texts. These offer a very personal and intimate avenue to admire his works, which, particularly in our increasingly digital and impersonal age, is more difficult to find.

Regarding the musical construction of The Voice of the Ancient Bard on a more technical level, there are several features which may be clearly discerned in its influence on my work throughout the cycle. Significantly, the development and organisation of modal material is observable through the combination of instruments, in particular the selection of the harp as the central harmonic instrument. The practicality of using a series of 'fixed' tunings in the harp which may then slowly evolve perfectly suits the harmonic organisation of this music.

The vocal line features recurring intervallic patterns and outlines a few very select chromatic alterations in place of a traditional repeated and varied melody. It carries the position of greatest importance in these pieces not only as the featured line and to clearly project the text, but also to guide the other instruments through the chromatic alterations and unite the flowing stream of pitches creating the interplay between the harmony and the melody.

I must offer my greatest respect to Jenny, Alison, Elliott and the members of the ensemble for their musical finesse and audition in realising this musical 'vision'. (We are speaking about Blake here after all!) Also, experiencing the diversity of compositional personalities involved in the workshops has been refreshing and engaging.

Further links

'First Stones - compositions taking shape' (blog article on Resonate by Alison Morgan)
Halcyon - First Stones 2011 (http://www.halcyon.org.au/page/first_stones_2011.html)

James Wade is a Melbourne-based composer and coffee drinker who also presents a weekly radio programme on 3MBS devoted to Australian music.


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