THE SCREAM THAT PEAKS PAST FEAR
For Mixed Antiphonal Vocal Octet SSAATTBB
Part Two of The Screaming Cycle
|By Christopher Fulkerson|
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This piece was the second to be composed as a planned part of the cycle of cycles that eventually became THE MUSIC FESTIVAL; the first was A SCREAMING COMES ACROSS THE SKY. At that time I thought I was working on a group of perhaps a half dozen pieces "based loosely on writings of Wyndham Lewis, Thomas Pynchon, Dante, and St. John." I don't remember how at the time I had thought of involving St. John, though there are more recent sketches that do.
The third and final piece originally projected was to have been called "A Screaming Argument Among the Clouds" and was to employ imagery and texts from the Lewis novel cycle The Human Age. It might yet, but my studio files have other plans that have been emerging for some years, and it seems likely that a small oratorio is actually the most likely conclusion for the set, something larger than SCRITTI DI LEONARDO but not a full evening in length. Either way the plan is to use the two antiphonal quartets in the first screaming piece, and the eight antiphonal solo singers of this piece, together with other dispositions of singers and players.
Originally I thought the Screaming cycle should be intended to express "the shock of violent death in a world war," but the music itself isn't that suggestive of violence; in fact, I find it luminous, and suggestive of heavenly heights more than of hellish ones. Perhaps however it suits the extreme of feeling that can be imagined newly emerged souls feel arriving in a purgative world after death, and the texts congealing for the final piece tend to suggest that extreme situations of need in this life might well belong in this category of over-the-top experience.
The titles for the first two Screaming pieces come of course from Thomas Pynchon's masterpiece, the novel Gravity's Rainbow. Pynchon is perhaps my favorite living writer of fiction; I love his unabashed modernism, bold erudition, and shameless inventiveness; they are all qualities I try to employ myself. Occasionally his writing is called "Post-Modern," a category I deny could ever exist. A lot of people have always wanted to predict the future, but if Modernism is "of the now," then how can there be a whole artistic style that is "post-now?" The term makes no sense, and the shambled disorganized collage style that is the only agreed-upon element in "post-modernism" isn't called for logically through its advocates' qualified use of the term "modernist." They just want to be the next thing in line after Modernism. At any rate, my friends and I agree that Pynchon's writing is straight-up Modernist. There are a few people in the world I know who agree with me. I also used Pynchon's words in CELESTIAL SIXTIES I and CELESTIAL SIXTIES II.
In this Screaming piece I employ the Ariel octet of high soprano, soprano, mezzo soprano, contralto, two tenors, baritone and basso profundo. Ariel's mission was to try to create a new genre of virtuoso "vocal ensemble," in contradistinction to "choral ensemble;" a group of soloists who could be called upon to render much more imaginitive and demanding things than had previously been atempted, but pieces which always were well within traditional Italian vocalism, no "blip blop pieces," as we used to call them; and no "extended techniques:" not because we didn't like these, but because, again, we were trying to create a new genre within the realm of the possible, one which required, you might say, experts, but not specialists.
In time it began to seem that some kind of dramatic madrigal style was developing; the main works of this sort were the Nineteen Madrigals by Walter Winslow that Ariel recordedunder my direction for Opus One Records, and pieces by Robert Basart; Gerald Humel; Charles Shere; Ezra Sims; Milton Babbitt; Luciano Berio; Anatol Vieru, who as a Romanian was at the time behind the Iron Curtain; myself; and others. Of these composers, only Berio was not part of the Ariel commissioning or premiere process, his vocal octets having been written for the marvelous Swingle Singers. But we did do both of the pieces Berio wrote for Swingle. We also did my edition of the Lasso Prophetiae Sibyllarum, which emphasizes that work's madrigal aspect, and all of Gesualdo's Sixth Book of Madrigals. We got pathetically little recognition, almost no support, and some critical wickedness was thrown in our way, which can be described on some other occasion. However I was gratified that recognition came from possibly the most professionally relevant person: Ward Swingle's letter of recommendation remains significant to me.
I composed this piece in the vocal style I was trying to develop and encourage other composers to try in new works for vocal ensemble. This style of vocal writing is based on a thorough familiarity with the possibilities of the human voice and with the demands of intelligent text setting, but obviously and significantly, not limited to the conservative music vocabulary. With the exception of Vieru, who was at the time behind the Iron Curtain, I never commissioned a composer without knowing his music in advance. With Ariel I was trying to encourage the creation of works for capable solo voices in chamber combination that would allow composers to write with the same expressive and intellectual fervor they brough to their instrumental chamber music, unencumbered by previous conceptions of singers' limitations. I wrote in the first program note to this piece that "Eventually this fervor will exist in works inconceivable or impractical until now, such as chamber operas for virtuoso singers, works in the most adventurous contemporary idioms, with all of the pleasure and intimacy of a string quartet, and having at the same time all of the excitement and drama of opera. From the point of view of the contemporary composer, the sad state of the art of vocal composition actually puts the professional chorister completely out of the realm of the development of classical musical style." I felt, and still feel, that most singers' careers scarcely reflect the Twentieth, still less the Twenty-First Century.
Here are more remarks, with interpolations, from the program notes to the work's premiere: "Since I am a composer and know what Ariel can do, I have tried in several of my works to get the ensemble to explore its capabilities. In this, the second of the Screaming pieces, I have dispensed with text altogether [the idea is that piece is a group vocalise], thereby allowing the melodic lines to more closely approximate those of instruments without writing unidiomatically for the voice. Every vocal work should have a musical form derived from the expressive shape of its musical ideas and not from its adherence to a literary text. It is the task of the composer to find and if necessary write texts which adhere to the demands of the musical idea. THE SCREAM THAT PEAKS PAST FEAR, in which I have 'copped out' on the entire issue of text and music [the implication being that neither the form nor the ideas rely in any way on a text], is written for eight voices antiphonally placed on all sides of 'an audience in the round.' Each voice is located opposite its partner in the performance space. The polyphonic fabric consists of melodic lines which imply harmonies, creating antiphonal effects of harmonic as well as melodic material. [It might more directly be said that there are at least two kinds of material used antiphonally, harmonic and melodic, and not necessarily together.] Dramatic contrasts of line and space, musical and physical, are typical of the piece. Individual singers take on expressive roles; the second mezzo soprano sings a motive of falling fourths which causes the rest of the ensemble to break into fioriture; the women sing a falling major second across the room while the men cry fifths across space. There is a long passage in which the sopranos cast their highest tones back and forth; at other times the lowest male voices probe to find the work's lowest depth [which is a low B flat].
"THE SCREAM THAT PEAKS PAST FEAR was composed for Ariel, whose members were willing to rehearse the work while it was still being composed; there are no words to express the joy a composer experiences in this kind of workshop atmosphere. The score is dedicated "to Hal and Hedi Kaufman for their many kindnesses." Hal Kaufman was on the group of supporters that were supposed to become a Board of Directors for the goup but never did.
This piece was given several performances during the season it was first done. Though the details of the dates of some of these performances are not clear to me at the time of this writing in 2010, it is probable that its premiere performance was in San Francisco at the 1986 Ariel Valentine's Day Concert when the violinist Maryvonne LeDizes was on tour with Pierre Boulez during his historic REPONS tour with the Ensemble InterContemporain; on that concert, given the night before the Boulez concert, Maryvonne played my VIOLIN FANTASY and THE SCREAM was rendered - Ariel believes in intense Valentine's Days. Lest it be thought I was more influenced by Boulez than I was, let me say that I had no clue that this piece, with its placing of soloists around the audience, had such antiphonal usage in common with his masterpiece REPONS, which I heard in its dress rehearsal for the first time the next day, after my piece was written and had been given its premiere.
The piece was written in 1986 and is seven minutes long.