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a Sound uttered, a Silence crossed (2014)

or Ask

for SATB Choir and Percussion Quartet
with amplification and audience members' cell phones

by Nathan Davis

libretto by Laura Mullen

I. subSong
II. Dawn
III. Letters
IV. Babel
V. Dusk
VI. openSong

In between the two great silences (pre-birth, post-death) a Sound uttered, a Silence crossed flashes in six continuous movements through the arc of our desire to communicate and connect. The work enacts the transitions in our relationship to language over the course of a lifetime: from our first awareness of rhythmic sounds and pre-verbal utterances (subSong), to a wonder in the promise offered by our mastery of the skills needed in order to reach out to others (Dawn), and on to the joy in connection (Letters). As the chorus builds meaning from phonemes, a large battery of percussion buttresses and provides context, engaging our means of communication as instruments: the sounds of bells, gongs, and drums, long used to send messages over distance, are heard alongside the noise of typewriter, pencil and paper, radio, and telephones, as the materiality of the words themselves comes to our attention, and the work confronts the limits of language at the boundaries of understanding. A “confusion of tongues” is articulated both by differences in language as well as the sheer volume of our expressive capabilities overwhelming comprehension in panic (Babel). After which a new simplicity, a directness born of love, opens a space of connection aware of its own fragility, where questions about the entanglement of sense and memory are exposed as questions about body and spirit (Dusk). Dimming memories of shared musics hold insecure identity fast a moment longer as speech becomes something more like prayer--extended ahead into silence. Here another space for connection opens, as the audience is invited to use mobile phones to access deeper layers of the work. Ultimately we must let go of our loves, to see (and hear) ourselves as we are: alone with our will to connect, haunted by our ongoing attempts to reach out to those we’ve loved and lost (openSong). The libretto is drawn from writings by chorus members and others in response to the question: What would you ask of your dead, but also makes use of letters, instructional manuals for language-related work (including handwriting manuals and workbooks used for attempting to regain memory), in lyrics created for this occasion.


Special thank yous to Rickey Charbonnet for his questions for “James”, to Sylvia Milo, Alice Teyssier, Polina Klimovitskaya, Isaac Byrne, Sara Fellini, Vanessa Bartlett, Natalie Dangerfield, Kerrie Scarff, and others for contributing recorded voices, and to Victor Shepardson for telephony system programming.

Read Laura Mullen's beautiful account of the collaboration and creative process on her blog.

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