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
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.