Hallmarks, Sigils, and Colophons

Composed 2012–13

Instrumentation soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, violin, violin/viola, cello, bass, flute/piccolo/bass flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, alto/tenor sax, bassoon, trumpet, bass trombone, percussion

Texts Eunoia by Christian Bök (texts used with kind permission of the author)

Premiered March 3, 2013

Program Notes

Oulipo (“Ouvroir de littérature potentielle” or the “Workshop for Potential Literature”) was a literary school founded in 1960 whose goal is to create literature based on constraints, word games, and other formal restrictions. Some Oulipian constraints include anagrams, palindromse, the lipogram, in which specific letters are omitted (this program note is a lipogram of the letter z, or at least it was before this comment); and the N+7, in which every noun is replaced by the seventh noun after it in the dictionary (“Lots of frogs hop from rock to rock: ‘frog, pond, plop’” becomes “Lounges of frontbenchers hop from rogue to rogue: ‘frontbencher, poodle, ploy.’”). Perhaps the best-known Oulipian work is Georges Perec’s La disparition, a novel in French that avoids the letter e, and the group’s membership has included such luminaries as Italo Calvino and Marcel Duchamp (an honorary member).

Christian Bök, while not himself a member of Oulipo, is certainly inspired by their methods.  His novel/prose poem Eunoia consists of five chapters, each of which only uses a single vowel—“Chapter A” uses only words with the letter a, “Chapter E” uses only e, and so on. He also insists that each chapter use at least 98 percent of the available words; that sentences must include a certain amount of syntactical parallelism; and that a certain set of events happen in each chapter, including “a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableau and a nautical voyage.”  He even goes on to suggest that, in an ideal world, he would use only each word once! Despite all those rules, each chapter has its own distinct grain and texture, and Bök succeeds. What interests me most about Eunoia, though, is the way it sounds, the curious palate that emerges when vowels are isolation.  In college, I had the opportunity to recite a few extended passages from the book, and I was immediately struck by the way my tongue and mouth felt afterward.  It is unlike any other language I have ever encountered.

Thus, this composition imbues vowels with esoteric, supernatural powers.  They are the hallmarks, sigils, or colophons which grace speech with the differentiation needed to produce meaning.  They also bestow upon each movement its own unique character and temperament.  Although my intent is not to mimic Bök’s rigorous constraints, I do attempt to evoke the idea of constraint in the music.  For instance, each chapter of Eunoia is dedicated to a creative thinker whose name uses only that chapter’s vowel: Hans Arp, René Crevel, Dick Higgins, Yoko Ono, and Zhu Yu.  Conversely, each movement of my piece is dedicated to a composer whose name uses all five vowels and whose music I found particularly inspirational for whatever was going on. Each movement’s flavor is derived from the sound of its vowel: “Movement A” is bright and brash, “Movement I” is clipped and flighty, “Movement O” is languid and serene, “Movement U” is full of guttural groans and drones, and “Movement E” is expansive and extroverted.  Of course, none of these characteristics are all encompassing, and every movement pushes against its frame.  I allowed the music and words take me where they would, using their own internal logic to propel me forward.

So consider Hallmarks, Sigils & Colophons an album of sorts.  Each movement is a self-contained whole within a larger self-contained whole.  Each can stand on its own, but all gain additional meaning through their collective interrelations.  The piece tells no overall story, but is rather a series of concatenated vignettes that occasionally fold back onto themselves. It embraces its heterogeneity. Like a good DJ, it knows that new things emerge when disparate sounds and genres grind against each other.

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