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Speak, Child

 

This acoustic-electronic piece started with my recording snippets of my then-infant and toddler son verbalizing, pre-language: what is usually known as babble. I found it beautiful. It is hard for me to separate my sense of the pure beauty of these sounds from my adoration of my son himself; but I was struck, at the time, by what sounded to me like the music coming from him.

 

So I decided to do something with these recordings. I had no idea what I would do with them. One possibility was a simple compilation of the snippets, untouched. But I began experimenting, again in Audacity. And the snippets began to cohere to one another, in certain sequences, and that is when I realized that something more than a mere compilation was going to take shape.

 

I began to compose them into a piece of music in its own right. I still had no idea of the shape, length, or overall gesture or story that the music would tell. I do not like to compose with pre-ordained ideas. For me, the composition process is a process of listening to what is playing inside my head, and trying to draw it out (as it is not always clear – in fact, it is usually not clear). For me, compositional technique is the facility one has to draw this inner voice out, and then to shape it into something that stands on its own, outside of one’s head.

 

What it became was something quite other than anything I had in mind. Much darker and more intense. When I had completed what is now about a quarter of it – before the first climax that leads into the percussion section – I realized that this was not my son speaking – it was me. So I removed his name from the title of the piece. I still give him credit for the beauty of the snippets on which the work is based, but I hope to high heaven that his view of the world is lighter than what has come out here!

 

That being said, the piece does end – rather like Cascade – on a note of resignation that is also a note of adaptation and survival. A child who is hurt adapts, as best he can (or she), and finds a way to move forward, even if limping. This, to me, is a lesson of life, a lesson that in one way or another informs all of the great religions.

 

The work consists of three major sections, the first and last being vocal, the middle section consisting of percussion. The percussion, too, came from my son playing on children’s instruments, mostly a small glockenspiel. But again, all this is heavily transformed and edited.

 

Within the first section there are clear subsections and motifs. The opening motif of five notes, then the later motif in the same rhythm but with a repeated “pitch” (and this contrast plays itself out throughout the piece), and then the giggle-like runs. Later in the first major section there is an episode that leads, eventually, to a kind of fugue, which in turn leads to the climax where the percussion enters.

 

After the middle section of percussion, there is a transition in which voice and percussion alternate, with the voice eventually taking over. And then comes what I think of as the “nightmare sequence.” There is a soft substrate of buzzing, humming, hissing noise that underlies the more treble cries: all of this (both cries and substrate) consists of transformed voice, but at this point the transformations are so great that the result is as much electronic as acoustic.

 

And then there is the recapitulation. The opening motifs return, but in a more tonal way. Here I picture a child singing to himself. To comfort himself. The closing sighs – which, for better or worse seem to me to represent the deepest emotional place within me – are, as I say, both resigned and hopeful.

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Ravello Records is the contemporary classical label imprint of audio production house PARMA Recordings. Dedicated to highlighting forward thinking composers and musicians from around the world, the New England-based label's eclectic catalog offers listeners a cross-section of today's up-and-coming innovators in orchestral, chamber, and experimental music.

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