Eurydice Liner Notes


Eurydice Liner Notes

and brief description of the music

This is the incidental music Toby Twining composed for Sarah Ruhl’s play, Eurydice, produced by The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia in 2008, under the direction of Blanka Zizka. The play begins with the young lovers, Orpheus and Eurydice, frolicking on the beach [1]. She is interested in books; he is obsessed with music (Orpheus keeps string in his pocket to repair injured musical instruments that he might happen upon). Full of the promise of life, they agree to marry.

At the wedding, Eurydice catches the eye of The Nasty Interesting Man [2] (the lord of the underworld), who lures her away from the party [3] for a drink at his penthouse apartment. Eurydice rushes out of the apartment, falls down 600 stairs [4], enters the afterlife [5, 6], and passes through the waters that dispel memory and speech. Disoriented, she imagines herself at a hotel and mistakes her father for the porter. He recognizes her immediately, however, having recovered memory – including speech and literacy – by hearing the letters E–U-R-Y-D-I-C-E in the drops of a gentle rainfall in the Underworld. The father builds a room made of string for Eurydice [7], helps her recover her faculties [8], and the two gradually enjoy a renascence of their love for each other, though The Nasty Interesting Man remains a threat [9].

Meanwhile, on the surface, Orpheus grows up. First, he sends letters to the underworld, then a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works [10] – a sign that his love for Eurydice has matured. Having not yet recovered her ability to read, she gets frustrated, throws down the book and stands on it. Shakespeare’s muse never stops singing, however, as the father picks up the book and reads to Eurydice:

We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing…

After searching throughout creation for Eurydice [12], Orpheus completes his transformation and discovers how to enter the Underworld [11]. Orpheus opens the Gates of Hades with his irresistible musical powers [13], then negotiates with the lord of the underworld for his rightful bride. During the fateful walk [14], Eurydice’s father dismantles the string room and submits to eternal sleep, assuming she is with Orpheus. Losing both relationships, Eurydice writes a letter to Orpheus’ future wife – who will love him in her place – and accepts eternal sleep to avoid marriage with The Nasty Interesting Man. Finally, Orpheus enters the underworld to be united with Eurydice [15], but loses memory and cannot recognize her.

Brief Description of the Music

The following notes are for the musically curious. Blanka Zizka, director of the Wilma Theater, called me in 2007 to ask if I would collaborate with her on Eurydice. At the time, after a dozen years of hard work on challenging microtonal music, I had finally given myself permission to compose again in the style of my first CD, Shaman – music that was kinetic, emotionally direct, and full of vocal color. The Eurydice project gave me the perfect opportunity to do this, though all that hard work on microtonal music is present as well.

Playing in the Waves is a prelude that continues through Eurydice’s opening scene. Its general features set the tone for much of the music that follows – scored for soprano, alto, tenor, bass (SATB) and cello (Vc); centered on a tonic D♭ that is slightly higher than D♭ above middle C on the piano; based on the number 13; layered with polyrhythms; enhanced with the musical sounds of language; colored with vocal harmonics and microtonal nuances.

The Nasty Interesting Man, Sarah Ruhl’s name for Hades, the lord of the underworld, combines his leitmotif (the opening chords) with the elements of the music of the underworld. One of the pleasures of writing for extended vocal techniques is how it can be child’s play. That flutter in the opening chords comes about by playing our lips with our fingers (a digital-labial tremolo), while forming vowels that sound like the opening theme of ones favorite 60’s sci-fi show. All this can be notated rather precisely, of course with traditional symbols and International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The gasping sounds are what I cheerfully call an ingressive croak (ingressive is the technical term for voiced sounds made by inhaling, rather than expelling, air).

Yes! Yes! Yes! features yodeling, tightly interlocking melodic patterns, quickly alternating percussive phonemes, and dance-based rhythm. Originally in the play, this music lasted only ten seconds as Orpheus and Eurydice danced around to celebrate their decision to marry. I developed it further for the CD and imagine it as music for the dance at their wedding.

What follows immediately is Eurydice’s Fall – a sudden and fatal twist of events. The gnarly, disorienting effect of this piece comes from aggressive gestures in the cello and strident vocal color. Further, a microtonal chord progression, based on the 13-interval of the harmonic series, opens in opposite directions from a D♭ unison, then closes at an increasing pace into a tight cluster that resolves finally back on the D♭. This is 33 part music, which we produced for the play as a recording of all but five parts (the live SATB-Vc quintet). The other 28 parts were mixed to play though eight speakers around the audience.

A Dirge introduces what became the theme song of the show, “E-U-R-Y-D-I-C-E”. During the actor’s readings in the Wilma’s studio, I had access to a piano and this music came up as the background for the Father’s monologue (mentioned above) – an innocent lullaby that expresses the love between father and daughter. Of course, I had to put it in B♭♭- to remember that I’m a living composer.

In the stage directions, Sarah describes the underworld as a place with “strange high pitched noises.” Ruhl’s underworld was a veritable vocal effects playground. Presto – Underworld Motif: Strange High Pitched Noises!

I am particularly grateful to her for specifying that it should take a long time for Eurydice’s Father to build the string room, and that the scene should have no words – a brave theatrical gesture and an opportunity for the music to expand! For The String Room, a piece that featured the cello’s supple melodic strength was the obvious choice. It gave me the opportunity to use non-texted vocal parts as accompaniment. Overtone singing opens the piece with a slow rising scale – holding the 13th harmonic while changing the fundamental, the scale forms an inversion of the harmonic series. At about three minutes and fifteen seconds into the piece, the bass has an overtone solo as well (throat singing in the Tuvan sygyt style).

Recovering Speech is an homage to the composer Alvin Lucier, whom I assisted for a semester during grad school at Wesleyan University. Alvin had a wonderful way of teaching us to listen for musical development at the micro-level, particularly when it involved some aspect of musical physics. This piece takes a simple gesture (two vowels sung on the D♭ sustained) and makes a pattern with it, but with ever so slightly changing results. It depicts Eurydice’s struggle to speak in the underworld.

Triskaideka Chords is the microcosm that became “Eurydice’s Fall”. Voices slide outward from a unison into a chord that derives from the 13th harmonic, then compress through a microtonal progression into a cluster with a narrow bandwidth. Again, it was rewarding to have a theatrical project that was fitting for experiments like this, evoking the underworld – quirky and funny, yet dangerous.

The opening motif of The Book actually comes from a melody that Orpheus tries to teach the tone deaf Eurydice at the beginning of the play. Ominously, however, its first note is the 13th harmonic of the D♭. Eric Brenner is the male soprano extraordinaire who sang “The Book” during the run of the play and on the recording. Thank you, Eric.

Finding Purchase is a curious title – I got it from my brother-in-law, who works on motorcycles. It’s a mechanic’s phrase for when a wrench or screwdriver gets just the right grip on something. In the play, Orpheus uses a kind of musical alchemy to find just the right pitch that opens the realm of the underworld. Thank you, Chris Stanley.

Eurydice in the Stars is a dreamy version of the theme music, which accompanies Orpheus, while he searches the night sky with binoculars for any trace of his bride.

To get across Orpheus’s fantastical musical powers Orpheus at the Gates uses eight SATB-Vc quintets and the circle of eight speakers – 40-part music and a spatial listening experience for the audience. A fused chord emerges from harmonic number 4 of the D♭ in a low register and tops out on number 65 with harmonics in the celli (pun intended). This chord starts downstage right and moves in opposite directions until the highest pitch sounds in the speaker diagonally across the theater. Ruhl’s script states simply that Orpheus sings Eurydice’s name over and over and that the gates of the underworld and its inhabitants cannot resist the beauty of his music. Clearly, the scene has operatic proportions.

The music for The Walk is a faltering funeral march. On stage, the slow pace of the lover’s walk nestled in and moved through the silences. Inhabitants of the underworld call out Eurydice’s name – sung with a glottal tremolo (Monteverdi’s goat trill) – as the lovers pass by.

The Underworld Montage uses a graphic score in the manner of Earl Brown’s and John Cage’s work. Innovations by Kandinsky and New York City’s mid-twentieth century artists influenced Brown’s and Cage’s music tremendously – a kind of sonic painting as it were – and led to graphic forms of notation. The technique works marvelously to create a temporal frame for fluid gestures and overlapping textures.

The theme song, E-U-R-Y-D-I-C-E, plays for Eurydice as she goes to eternal sleep, followed by Orpheus’ entry to the underworld. The D♭ has become the third of a major triad built on B♭♭-, a new tonal center. A lullaby, “E-U-R-Y-D-I-C-E” has three chords, each a triad rising simply in the series of B♭♭-. And yes, it’s different from A♮.

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