Contours, 2007-2009
 
 

These short video pieces represent an ongoing experiment in exposing musical structure by transposing it from the aural realm to the visual. The raw material in each is a folksong, and the method of investigation is creating static, graphic images of individual phrases of the song by tracing the contour of the melodic line, its rising and falling gestures within each phrase.

This simple task of translating vocal gestures into spatial ones turns out to be surprisingly challenging. Though I have loved these songs for years, pondered their details and depths, and sung them for myself and others hundreds of times, it took a very special sort of concentration to obtain traces that bore any resemblance to the actual risings and fallings of the melody. Of course, an exact resemblance, as in a score, is not the point; but I wanted to make shapes that were true to the music in the sense that "reading" them would help the viewer listen more deeply.

Colorado Trail. The simplest and purest of the set. The song was collected by Dr. T.L. Chapman from an injured horse wrangler who was hospitalized in Duluth, Minnesota, and was printed by Sandburg in 1927. I learned it from a Burl Ives recording that my father played over and over for me when I was a child.

The Day is Past and Gone. For this piece, I used two distinct translation processes that work in different ways. For the first and third verses, I made quite detailed shapes, using very long exposures and literally singing each line as I made its shape. For the second and fourth verses, I used much shorter exposures and abstracted the shapes to match the simplest, deepest, broadest melodic gesture, omitting not only ornamentation but almost all melodic detail -- simplifying each phrase down to just three or four notes. The song is an old southern hymn -- a meditation on death, loss, and the hope of comfort. The words are by John Leland (1792), and it has apparently been set to music multiple times; it is found in many hymnals and songbooks, including the Sacred Harp. The version I learned comes from a book of Appalachian folksongs as sung by Jean Richie.

My Lagan Love. This piece again tries to get underneath the complex surface of the melodic line, down to the implied gesture. I fell in love with the song after hearing Niamh Parsons sing it.

Shenandoah. This piece loosens the connection between the traces and the figure singing / drawing them, allowing them to appear and fade at slightly different times. The song has a long and murky history, perhaps originating as a boatman's song in the early 19th century, then becoming a sea shanty, and later a ballad.

Total running time: 10 minutes

John Vettese's review of the Transfigure show (at the Painted Bride, Feb 2009) for the Philadelphia City Paper gives some different perspectives on the pieces.

 
 
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