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Chorus (SSAATTBB), Organ

10 min.


(full recording available on Soundcloud)

The text for A way far home is adapted from an English translation of Marguerite Duras’ book L’amour by Kazim Ali and Libby Murphy. Duras, popularized in cinema for her screenplay to Hiroshima mon amour, was born in 1914 in Vietnam during France’s attempts to colonize the region in the aftermath of the Franco-Siamese war. The third in Duras’ “Indian cycle” on varying fictional treatments of her real-life teenage affair with a 27-year old Chinese businessman, the proto-screenplay of L’amour is by far the most abstract. The three central characters remain unnamed, referred to merely as “he” (the traveller), “she” (the woman on the beach), and “he” (the man who walks).

L’amour’s fictional locale of S. Thala—an imaginary tropical coastal village whose boundaries seem to extend infinitely outward in every direction—presents a setting that would have been familiar to Duras from both her birthplace in colonial South Asia and the France she “returned” to for the first time just as the Nazis came to power across Europe, each ravaged by occupation. It is a place full of nostalgia from long ago, now unrecognizably barren, with a constant threat of violence in the air.

Rather than paint individual phrases or create a dramatic narrative from L’Amour’s circular text, A way far home lets Duras’ aural images drift in and out of each other — the sound of the waves hitting the shore, sirens as the nearby village burns, the quiet hum of a million people bustling far beyond the horizon, a mother’s cry in the dark. In this musical response, silence gives way to barely audible chords, which give way to choral sighs, which give way to cascading vocal glissandi.

So, too, do the words of L’amour drift in and out of the music. Following my previous work for voice — A long while and Nor eyes, nor thou, I know — the music was created first, drawing text from the list of words found in Ali’s translation and fitting them freely with the choral part according to their rhythms, part of speech, and meaning in proximity to one another. Think of A way far home, then, as a trio for singing voices, organ, and words.

Why the organ? It’s a peculiar instrument. The line between pitch and timbre (an octave, its double, and its double’s double) is not always so clear. You can hear this in the massive clusters of the opening that burst out of nearly every single pipe, but also the barely audible chords that seem to be pulled out of thin air (like ringing in your ears). Such it is with the characters, places, and events of L’amour, which all seem to melt into one another until we’re unclear where one ends and the other begins. Ali addresses this ambiguity, and the chilling effect it had on him, in the introduction to his translation…

“In the cool summer night after a rainstorm, the wind blowing through my room, the white curtains blowing in the wind, wind across my bed, it’s late. I should be asleep. Instead I sit with a novel of sentences, in which the past is a barely visible ghost haunting everything, a novel in which the sounds of devouring desire haunt everything, a song from long ago, heard from behind a closed door, drifts through still, a novel, like the curtains, which quiver in the wind.”

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