I just finished my latest writing project, which has been occupying me since January. It’s another piece with Frances, the next in our “fairy tale” series based on “The princess in the chest” from one of Andrew Lang’s collections. We’ve always wanted to do a version of that story, but could never figure out the right opportunity. With “From a fairy tale”, we realized that we could present little bits and pieces of the story in works for various ensembles spread out over time. It would be kind of like discovering some ancient fragmentary text: a scene here, a bit of dialog there, with the gaps left open to speculation and imagination.
This new opportunity arose when Frances got a commission from the remarkable choir The Crossing. The commission was for a twenty minute piece to be performed at The Icebox, a unique art project space in Philadelphia. The Icebox is a single large, unobstructed room: 100 feet long by 50 feet wide by 25 feet tall. It is incredibly reverberant, and The Crossing was looking for Frances to use that in her work. She and I talked about it, and decided that it was a good setting for a fairy tale piece. The principal action of “The princess in the chest” takes place in an empty chapel at night, and I thought that the dark, echo-filled chamber of The Icebox suggested that. The piece is called The third night: it draws upon the part of the story where the hero spends his third night in the chapel alone with the ghost of the Princess.
Frances’ immediate request regarding the text was: “Very little text! Almost NO text!” She firmly believes that using too much text is a real problem with much contemporary vocal music, especially for chorus. My idea was to make the text nothing but questions. The reverberation of these within the big empty space seemed very powerful to both of us. So the full text of the piece was just five questions, in order:
- Where are you?
- How could you leave?
- How could you have stayed?
- What is your song?
- How does it end?
But there was more I wanted to say: more questions and statements that would explore the space around these questions and reveal bits of the fairy tale story. That led me, as in The old rose reader, to video.
The Icebox has a special video projection system that allows you to use an entire 100-by-25-foot wall as a canvas. I liked the idea of having my additional text appear on this wall and add more depth to the choir’s questions. I began to think of the choral text as being the outer, uttered words, while the video projection would be the world of inner thoughts and feelings. I started seeing the text moving around on that big wall: zooming, floating, blurring, hovering, clusters of thoughts exploding like slow-moving fireworks.
This is the first time I’ve ever written especially for video (The old rose reader text was written long before we thought of doing the video). My work moved back and forth between writing text, working out imagery, listening to Frances’ score, and learning how to use the video software. I actually worked out the contours and timing of events within the video before the text was final, and in part wrote the text to fit the shape of the animation. The visual appearance of my words on the page has always been important to me, and after a while I realized that working in video was just an extension of this: in many ways it’s just a very unusual page layout. As with all good projects, it turned out to be something different from what I thought it would be when I started it. The last few months has reminded me about letting ideas go and just following the adventure where it leads to discover what the thing really is.
The images above are stills from the video. You can click on them to see larger versions, but you’ll have to imagine this projected on a scale of 100 feet wide. Or you can come see it in person: the premiere of The third night will be on Saturday, June 28th at The Icebox. If you’re in the Philadelphia area, we’d love to see you there!