ensemble chamber orchestra (1[picc].2.2.2-188.8.131.52-strings)
duration 15 minutes
written summer 2014
commissioned by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
premièred February 7, 2015, New York, NY
published by Andres & Sons Bakery
Written for Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Word of Mouth was inspired by Sacred Harp singing. Sacred Harp is a self-sufficient musical tradition, encompassing a repertoire of songs (drawing on hymns and secular music), a performance style (a capella, facing inward, with no leader), and a system of notation (differently shaped notes indicate pitches). As straight-backed as Shaker chairs but with an irresistible rhythmic vigor and harmonic sensuousness, the songs of the Sacred Harp were craftily positioned to spread the good word across the 19th-century American South. The title Word of Mouth is an homage to the Word Of Mouth Chorus, whose classic recordings from the 1970’s were my first exposure to the music.
I’ve mentally associated Orpheus’s playing with Sacred Harp for a few years, on the strength of a beautiful moment in a piece by Gabriel Kahane in which the entire orchestra stands to deliver the hymn “Marlborough.” I couldn’t imagine another group singing as enthusiastically or unselfconsciously; it also seemed a perfect metaphor for the famously un-conducted ensemble.
My piece involves no singing, but takes a few musical elements from another Sacred Harp song (“Weeping Mary”, a rousing responsorial) and extrapolates them into a compact, five-part chamber symphony. I often work this way, taking small fragments of other older music and willfully misinterpreting them until they become my own.
Word of Mouth begins in an annunciatory mode (Much Fanfare), with rising sequences of dyads in unpredictable meters. Sacred Harp often uses only one harmony part: an unpredictable lower voice shadowing the melody (which is usually simple and pentatonic), leaping around like an Arvo Pärt tintinnabulum or an auto-tuned dopplegänger. Here, the upper voice is based on notes from the harmonic series, while the lower hints at constant modulation; the two repeat cycles of clashing, resolving, and starting over. As the music escalates, it becomes more regular and decisive, leading to the second movement (Word of Mouth)—a whirling dance based on a repeated “Weeping Mary” fragment, punctuated by moments of anarchic glissandi and scratch-tones.
After the nonstop rhythmic and harmonic motion of the two opening movements, the third (Fata Morgana, a kind of atmospheric optical illusion) takes the opening dyads and stretches them into long, gradual crescendi. As these phrases crest, the bass modulates down one semitone, and melodic cells push inexorably higher. The movement is a big expanding wedge, built from many smaller ones.
A short and ghostly “scherzo” movement (Little Fanfare) is built from several lighter bits of the first movement, each moving within different temporal layers, which overlap and interrupt each other with blithe disregard.
The final movement is more difficult to explain; it’s not so much thematically related to the previous four as it is a reconciliation of their more extreme tendencies. Marked teneramente (tenderly), it consists entirely of a long succession of two-note phrases. These build up in stretto to an almost Brahmsian fortissimo, after which the two-note phrases contentedly spin themselves out to distant natural-horn echoes of the second movement’s revivalist fervor.