Level: Keeping it Experimental

EiO Co-Founder Matthew Welch was sitting in rehearsal this week for our upcoming Flash Operas show at Symphony Space, and getting a chance to see his latest work for EiO, Level, start to come to life.  This blogpost, which explores some of the musical techniques embedded in the piece, also touches on the personal aspects of this work. 

It’s been almost 7 years since Experiments in Opera started planning its first show, over which I’ve tried out a number of ways to circumvent the assumptions of how an opera had to be made. More often than not, the subject matter, media involved, new narrative structures and the scale of a work were the experimental factors in my opera work, whereas I was more or less working towards a more intuitive and nuanced musical style that was increasingly less experimental in concept. For Flash Operas, EiO revisited the idea of small scale opera – a concept still experimental, but something I began to get somewhat more comfortable with. In the interest of pushing myself, I was interested in taking a little trip back to some of my more conceptual music roots.

The Level, by Keith Scribner, is a short work of fiction that depicts a scene in which the tension between a couple expecting their first child starts to come to a head. The man, a botanist, starts to obsess about the environment of their apartment, blows a bunch of money on a level, and attempts to measure and countermeasure the uneven floors. The woman questions her man’s sanity and has interjections of her budding maternal instinct.

The idea of a device and the act of measurement prompted me to conceive of the music in a more measured and theoretical way than I had in a long time. The idea of a space being uneven led me to the musical metaphors as odd meters and slopes in the form of string glissandi and vectors in the form of rising and falling melodic lines.

The glissandi were organized by depth of slope, starting deep and fast, covering less vertical pitch distance as the piece progress, and eventually evening out. From here I thought of harmonies that would intersect these slopes in a regular measured rhythm. The result of the experiment here was a new language of chromatically related triads that were slaved to the string slopes, a new way of conceiving the old idea of counterpoint.

This chromatically-related triadic system resulting from the slopes, when boiled down to their common harmonic denominator, suggested a hexachordal collection – the hexachordal set also then suggested triads based on roots themselves forming an augmented chord – a very center-less and floating type of dissonant chord.

Score Excerpt from ‘Level’ by Matthew Welch.

Keeping it real – the topic of the story

The fun about all these nerdy ways of calculating the music for a very domestic scenario is how my life mirrored the topic of the story. My wife, who the piece is dedicated to, and I were expecting our first child during the “conception” stage of the piece, and the work blossomed during our child’s first few months. Needless to elaborate, but during this time we felt a bunch of new stresses in anticipation of our baby, and during which time I became fixated on a many number of things, and those which lent themselves to some form of numerical control, like timeliness, money, scheduling, and not excluding house arrangements.

Keeping it dramatic – Tying it together

Still hoping to create a dramatic work in light of all these anal-retentive measurements, there was an overall design at work which I hoped would translate to building tension towards a dramatic climax, and a natural resolution.

To control the dramatic arc involved continually contracting odd-metrical cycles to heighten the tension with an ever slowing or flattening slope (the pitch-depth of the glissandi), creating a musical sense of parallax for the listener, where one form of tension increased as the other decreased, until the moment of resolution in the characters’ dramatic relationship coincides with the arrival of an even metrical context and complete flattening of the slope (drone).

This moment of arrival is timed for when the anxieties of the two characters dissipates and they make a gesture to rekindle. In terms of creating a world and scene through music, the sections built on the sliding slopes represented the real space and center-less hexachordal floating nebula represented the dream space out of which the pregnant woman awakes at the start, and out of time moments of her interior thinking directed towards the audience.

Since every experiment has to have some conclusive data, sitting here in the rehearsals I think all of this experimental calculation underneath the surface has actually helped produce one of my most dramatic and touching works to date, with a real sense of naturalistic narrative development, and allowed me to conjoin my creative work with my burgeoning role as a parent!

– Matthew Welch