Notes on Notes from Underground

This project is attracting some public attention. Several weeks before the date I heard the première was nearly sold out. The local press has given it some coverage, a number of Twitter accounts have mentioned it, and last Saturday’s The Guardian (10 October 2015) printed an excellent article by Sean O’Brien himself, ‘How I fell under WH Auden’s spell’, outlining O’Brien’s rationale for the project. 

It is satisfying to see professional wordsmiths engaging with the project, and to let the professionals handle it, so to speak. My only attempt to explain my side of the story was slightly lost in translation at The Journal - I don't use “focuses” as the plural of "focus" and I would not describe any part of an orchestra as “elite sub-sections” (what would that mean?).

Rightly, since the commission and the première are part of the Durham Book Festival 2015, much of the attention focuses on the words, on O’Brien and on Auden. I feel fortunate to bask in some of that reflected glory, grateful for the commission and hopeful that the audience, even if attracted more by the words than by the music, will appreciate the concert, the première and the sublime three movements from Das Lied von der Erde in Schoenberg’s arrangement. And yet, conscious that those whose primary interest is musical may be interested in the composer’s viewpoint, I want to add a few remarks to complement those already in the public domain. 

Notes from Underground is a song cycle for baritone, chamber choir and large chamber ensemble, with words by Sean O’Brien (b. 1952). Both the words and the music were commissioned by Durham Book Festival 2015. 

From the earliest conversations it became clear that there was an affinity between poet and composer. O’Brien spoke about words, places, histories and people, all of which resonated powerfully with me. It was captivating to hear how vividly he could describe the ideas he was after, even before he had put pen to paper. My own personal history made me receptive to the world O’Brien was portraying. I am an inveterate lover of the landscape of Northumberland, where I have lived since I moved out of Newcastle in 2007. My centre of gravity is not particularly near the North Pennines, but I know the area, and am attuned to crags, hills and valleys; I do, after all, come from the Andes.

Having said that, my knowledge of Auden’s world is superficial by comparison with O’Brien’s. He, O’Brien, has been my gateway into the older poet’s world. He immersed himself in Auden - probably for a very long time - and I immersed myself in the poetry O’Brien created for Notes from Underground. 

1. And I grew sore afraid
 The first poem starts with the woeful line ‘And I was sore afraid’; a challenging one to set, not least for intelligibility. ‘Sore’ as an adverb is not the common usage of the word, so it seemed important to set it as plainly as possible to enable the listener to understand it. And yet, the mournful fear being expressed demanded a degree of intensity, best achieved with a dramatic gesture and, preferably, a high note or several for the singer; neither of these would help intelligibility. I therefore opted for repeating the phrase several times, first in a comfortable range where the singer could enunciate them clearly, then more dramatically, with the high notes required to match the intensity of the words. 

Overall, the first song is dark, as it could not fail to be, considering the text.  Double bass, contrabassoon and low piano intertwine to produce a gloomy sound fabric, with a simple pitch progression to avoid excessive muddle. In a simple, age-old device, the pitch progression goes up to suggest the mysterious letter’s direction of travel from the underworld. 

The structure is simple: the same upward-moving progression is treated in three different ways - three variations, so to speak. The only other music besides this is the ‘calling bells’ gesture from Approaching Melmoth (2000), revisited twice in this song for reasons too long to explain, and the Kobold. 

The presence of a kobold - the Kobold - in the penultimate line posed a conundrum. Of course I did not know what a kobold was; I had to look it up: it is a sprite in Germanic mythology. It was thrilling to discover that its name is believed to be connected both with the English goblin and with the element cobalt - both for perfectly good reasons the reader can glean from more authoritative sources. There are kobolds of various shapes and sizes, and one of them is known to inhabit the underground, notably mines. Hence the kobold’s presence in O’Brien’s exploration of Auden’s North Pennine world. The way O’Brien introduces it,

‘Who is the monster crouched inside the stone? 
In this great dark I dread to see his face.’

seemed to portray, on first reading at least, a sinister, frightening, possibly revolting creature. I was looking forward to the evil convolutions I was going to write to punctuate this part of the song. But, on closer inspection of the lines that follow and of some of the available literature, the kobold became less harmful in my mind, giving rise to a tamer creature that was ugly - but not awful - pitiable, grotesque and vaguely ridiculous. Such is the Kobold - with a capital K in O’Brien’s text - that makes an appearance towards the end of the first song. 

2. Down a deep well
The second poem did not reveal any hidden surprises. First perceptions survived a second, third and umpteenth reading. The direct style and the use of repetition immediately suggested a folk-oriented treatment, a suggestion reinforced by the provocative line ‘For no one is well in this country’, of traceable Audenian pedigree. 

The poem has two stanzas, and they are identical. You may feel tempted to scrutinise every line and every comma in search of differences between the stanzas, but there is none. There are two ways the composer can respond to this duplication: you treat the repetition in a totally different way for maximum contrast, or you follow the poet and restate the song verbatim. I opted for the latter, and my impending deadline was only one reason; the other was a curiosity to see what would happen to the timeflow if words and music went on a round trip yoked together.

Another structural feature of this song is the downward motion. This is a pervading theme in this short poem, where the word ‘down’ appears three times, the word ‘fell’ twice and the word ‘well’ three times - once in ‘deep well’ and the other two times in the word’s other sense, but in this context the ambiguity is plain to see.  

Music cannot convey specific meaning (discuss!), but one thing music can do particularly well is move in a specific direction, especially up or down. If in the first song the poem invites an upward direction of travel - from the deep underground to the speaker’s level - in the second song the invitation is just as clear to travel down. ‘Down a deep well’, down a mine shaft, down towards the centre of the Earth - endlessly down, it seems to me. That is what the music aims to do. It could have been done more methodically, but there were two constraints: one was the need to avoid caricature; the other was the need to make the most of the only opportunity in the whole work - and, as it happens, in the whole programme for 15 October 2015 - to be buoyant.  

3. Now I am lying low
This movement is set in an underground place. In ten lines, the poem - arguably the most beautiful in the series - sets a vivid stage that could be the bottom of a well, a subterranean river, a mine’s tunnel, a grave, or the mother’s womb. A universe of possibilities, all rich in sonic associations. The things I could have done with this if I had had more time! But, project circumstances aside, I take consolation in the thought that to explore all the latent sounds contained in this poem would have demanded a longer development, throwing the overall structure off-balance. So I had to be selective.

I focused on the key word ‘low’, on ‘gravest harmony’, on ‘the sound of water running, running down’ and on the overall subterranean atmosphere, implying some dullness of sound and sense of oppression, but implying also the space for echoes of various kinds. Quite enough for a sound palette there. At times it seemed that O’Brien was composing the music for me. 

On a less literal, more poetic level, I responded to two potent images in the poem: ‘So far below/You cannot tell the living from the dead’ populates the mind with Dantean figures moving slowly in a cavernous space. ‘O mother, mother, are you there,/And if not in my grave then where, then where?’ takes us to the naked core of all thought and existence, to where we come from, to where we are heading to. How far down this way the music can accompany the words I am not sure, but I am glad they are there together. I hope you can learn as much as I did from crossing that Styx with O’Brien as your Virgil. 

4. You have no shadow
This is some kind of trial, as presaged in the first song’s ‘There is a court where I will have to plead’. The choir are prosecution, jury and judge. The accused is mostly silent. For the ritualised gestures I kept in mind passages in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. For the ice and cruelty of the scene I could not help thinking of Tom Cruise facing his masked accusers in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.   

The choir’s pitch material originates in the second song, in one of the many interconnections that underlie the material, which are probably not interesting enough for the general readership for whom these notes are intended. Towards the end, in response to the choir’s demand ‘Admit it/Admit it/Oh, do you dare/Do you dare’, a new figuration takes shape which determines how the next song is going to unfold. 

5. They say the road that water finds
Like the second one above, this poem seemed to demand a folk-oriented treatment. Meaning what? To avoid a long digression, I hasten to say that I am not referring to a borrowed folk tune or a pastiche of an existing folk style. I mean an ease in the melodic flow through the use of some of some of the more familiar intervals and contours, a line- and verse-based phrase construction, and of course a clear form in audible stanzas. All this is latent in the poem, and I asked the poet’s agreement to repeat some lines in order to facilitate strophic symmetry. He agreed. 

The score has the instruction ‘elfin, misty, Nordic’ in the tempo marking. None of these is a musical term, but good musicians, such as those at Royal Northern Sinfonia, will probably respond to these allusions, referring to musical precedents that are familiar to them. A much-revered Nordic composer looms large - it may be distracting to name him - in some of the rhythmic configuration and in the textural scheme that governs the movement. 

‘Northness’ is an important concept in the context of this project. Auden gravitated north in more than one way, his love of the North Pennines being one example. In the early stages of the project O’Brien and I had planned an excursion to Iceland as part of our attunement to the world we were envisaging. The fact that the plan fell through only made the imagination work harder. 

This song could be said to be a return of the Kobold, but in a different incarnation: a playful, elusive, mischievous but ultimately benevolent creature. And this one is not lonely, but has plenty of company. Which probably means this is not a Kobold at all, but the arrival of the elves. There is probably nothing in O’Brien’s words to justify this association, but by this stage in the project everything was steeped in everything else and the ideas were burbling in a multidirectional stream. I am sure that the creatures inhabiting the Northumbrian landscape featured in the preliminary conversations. Even if they did not, they exist in my perception of this teeming, multivoiced land. O’Brien’s poem is full of references to land, water, ground, light, mountain. To me this was enough to conjure up hidden lives and fluttering motion. They scuttle around in the instrumental ensemble while the voices glide along in longer notes.

If the second song descends, and the third and fourth are set down below, the poem for the fifth bring us up above ground, and higher. We are now in a landscape of roads, bare moors, mountains, streams and - an urban touch? - noonday street. A crucial phrase is "carry me up to the light" which gives me licence to bring the music out of the darkness it had inhabited. 

6. Now when I was a curious boy
This is the longest text. It looks back on a history of personal experience and dreams, and beyond, a long past of lives and deaths, mining, family feuds, and, ultimately, the old primeval fear. 

Naturally this text is an invitation for the music, too, to look back on itself and to go over previous developments. They are all transformed in some way, some of them beyond recognition. As with every reminiscential exercise, it produces new findings, too, some of which are already finding their way in a new project. 

Continuity is an important need, not only within a project but also beyond, between works. The violence and the war in this poem were going to be a pretext to revisit material from one of my operas (The Wheel, 1993), but in the event there was scope only for allusions of the most generic kind: a tempo and a key signature.  A more specific allusion in the material relates to the opening violence in my Meditación No 1 of 1985. But this is all very fleeting. Too many other references from within Notes of Underground itself were vying for attention, demanding a space in the roll-call of ideas O’Brien’s final storm of evocation had unleashed.

A particular challenge was the setting of the line "love is not love that loves alone", appearing twice just before the end. It seemed to me to be something of a dictum in an otherwise flowing narrative. I asked O'Brien to explain his intention, and explain he did. I have tried to give this line the character of a serendipitous, but life-changing discovery.  

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