About Uses of Music in Uttermost Parts

Uses of Music in Uttermost PartsIn the summer of 1985 my friend Elinor Armer and I were sitting around on ancient iron chaise-longues in the Napa Valley discussing how a composer and a writer might collaborate from scratch. It’s usually a sequence: first the writer writes the words, then the composer sets them to music. We wanted to see if we could collaborate simultaneously — at least work out the “idea” together at the same time — And, rather than setting the words to be sung, let the spoken poem and the music interplay.

So we sat batting silly ideas about. And one of us said What if you could use music for something beside just listening to it? And the other one said For instance, what if you could eat it?

And we were off. Off on our voyage of discovery to the Islands of the Uttermost Parts, where music is even more essential than it is here. This recording is the log of our journey.

The idea-islands were discovered mutually, one by one, during a voyage of several years. Ursula in Portland would write the words for each and send them to Elinor in Berkeley (in the usual order — which by the way is an incredibly unfair division of labor: a poem that took the poet two or three days will take the composer weeks or months to turn into a full score.) Collaboration was vigorous, the composer asking for word changes or additions, and the poet suggesting mood changes or pleading for a viola solo. Arguments were worked out. Maps were drawn. Performance was collaborative when possible, with one or both of us speaking the poems. The performances came sometimes very close to shipwreck, at other times were triumphs.

The entire circuit of the Uttermost Archipelago has never yet been played in one place at one time.

These are the islands of the Archipelago (a brief visit to each except Hoi is included in these selections):

  • Gegge, where the island itself is a vast instrument
  • Anithaca, music as weaving
  • Oling, music as weather
  • Hoi, music as food
  • Barhabel, where music is architecture, and Rohas, where you can go from place to place only by using music (“Open and Shut”)
  • The Pheromones, music as sex (scored only)
  • The Antoriental Shores, music as shadow (spoken only)
  • Island Earth, music as geology

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