This work was conceived and planned in the course of my residency with the Song Company in the second half of 1993, and written especially for the group’s 10th anniversary concert. Ficta is a Latin word meaning “false” or “feigned”, as in the medieval music theory term musica ficta, which refers to the sharpening or flattening in performance of the written notes in a piece, according to various rules (and the dictates of individual taste). In the context of this work the “falseness” referred to encompasses considerations of musical style and technique, as well as, appropriately, the art (or artifice) of singing itself.
One unusual feature of this work is that it brings out the potential for each member of the Song Company to act as a soloist, as well as functioning as part of an ensemble. Moreover, from time to time each singer assumes his or her own “solo style” or “personality”, refracting the musical material through the clichés and mannerisms of a different period: thus, the first soprano becomes an operatic coloratura, the second soprano recalls an exotic folk singer, the alto wanders off on jazzy lines of “scat” singing, the tenor sounds like a refugee from a Monteverdi madrigal, the baritone acquires a stilted French baroque elegance, and the bass croons in a manner worthy of Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby.
This bewildering diversity of styles is in part a conscious homage to the versatility of a group whose repertoire ranges from Cole Porter to Josquin des Prés, from J.S.Bach to Elliott Gyger, often within a single concert! On a deeper level, the piece also reflects a particular admiration for the music of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, through its use of compositional techniques like canon, cantus firmus, hocketing, and so on. Ficta draws all its musical material from two pre-existing scraps of melody, rather in the manner of the many Medieval works based on a plainchant or a popular song: the Paul McCartney classic Yesterday, and the Prize Song from Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Wagner’s own rather fanciful idea of what 16th-century German music might have been like). For the most part, however, these sources are not clearly discernible, except in the final section when the Prize Song appears (albeit temporarily) in pristine condition.
The words I have chosen for the piece act more as a frame for the various musical ideas, than as the centre of attention. The bulk of the text is provided by extracts from a 15th-century treatise on musica ficta, incorporating some lovely disparaging comments about a rival theorist (nothing beats a good, bitchy, esoteric argument between musicologists!). Interleaved with this is the text of Wagner’s Prize Song, as misread and distorted by the hapless Beckmesser in the final scene of the opera. The closing part of the work sets the first of the “Ern Malley” poems, Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495, adding yet another twist to the pervasive idea of “falseness”. The score is headed by a quotation from New Zealand writer Anne Kennedy’s fascinating novel Musica Ficta (1993), which I did not encounter until the plans for the piece were almost complete, but which happens to express in a nutshell the work’s raison d’être.