Unbecoming: Songs for Dancing

Unbecoming: Songs for Dancing originated in my thinking about the combination of man's oldest musical utterance (the voice) and man's oldest musical instruments (percussion). Not only are these both ancient, but they are complimentary in many ways: the single timbre of the voice with its infinite nuance versus percussion instruments with their vast color resource; the sustained sound of the voice versus the short duration of most percussion sounds; the fact that the human voice is the ultimate “internal” instrument while a battery of percussion is quite external, to the extent of requiring the performer to move from place to place just to play the instruments.

Another aspect of how this piece originated was my collaboration with poet Denise Newman. We had collaborated on two other pieces, and this one was our longest venture. Because of the length, we had several planning sessions and email conversations, reviewing text fragments, discussing pacing and form, and in one instance, her surprise that I actually needed more words. The resultant text amazed me in the strength of its meaning and inherent musicality while at the same time leaving plenty of room for the music itself.

Structurally, the piece is somewhat of a palindrome, with the fourth movement (The Sweet) as the centerpiece. Interrupting the symmetry (the opening Procession and closing Recession, For a Time I and II, the two Vision movements) is the Reflected StepsStolen Time unit. In order to achieve maximum variety, I set The Sweet for voices only, and Reflected Steps is a percussion duo. I also wanted to explore the ensemble as pur sound, which led to the two Vision movements that are built on vocal sound without any text.

Composing (or any artistic pursuit) requires an odd balance. If an artist spends too much time removed from everyday life, there is the risk of becoming too insular. However, living a “regular” life is very much at odds with the solitude and undisturbed time required for the creating of art. I enjoy my “everyday life”, especially my working relationship with Bob Geary and the singers of Volti (to whom this work is dedicated) and the many other partnered tasks that are part of working with a writer or an ensemble. The gift of solitude is much harder to obtain, and for that I must thank the MacDowell Colony. The Colony is tucked away in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and is the oldest artist's colony in the US. A fellowship there in the fall / winter of 2002 allowed me to compose this piece, and without my time there, Unbecoming would literally not exist.