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About this Piece

Cantatrix Sopranica ("Soprano Singer") (2004-05) c. 26 minutes

for two sopranos, countertenor and ensemble

Composer's Notes

The name of my piece speaks for itself. I came across it in The Soprano Project De Iaculatione Tomatonis (in cantatricem), a nonsense treatise by the wonderful French poet Georges Perec, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants to Paris. The work was first published in England in 1974. With Perec and other members of OuLiPo (derived from ouvroir de littérature potentielle), a circle of dadaist poets around Perec, Calvino and Quenau, I associate the love of wordplay, anagrams, palindromes and acrostic invention which I have used before as the underlying text of earlier compositions.

Composing music based on poetry which conveys specific content and emotion is not something I am particularly fond of doing. Music and literature are forms of expression with clearly different "idioms" which not infrequently get in each other's way when combined. The way I see (and hear) it, the advantage of combinatorial techniques in poetry is not only the lack of concrete meaning and "messages," but also-and more importantly-how closely related this approach is to the process of composing music. A "boule de neige" for example (a text which continuously grows like a "snowballing" effect from a small "proto-semantic" cell which like a chameleon varies in meaning as it grows) is of itself already a musical process in that its musical material fans out over time. Where I continue to see myself connected with these "word artists" is the self-referential aspect of their word games, as well as the humour and irony of what they create. However, with the exception of "boule de neige" (No. IV) by Harry Mathews, I use no further texts by the OuLiPo group. I developed four of the eight texts myself while composing; No. II took form by borrowing an idea of Gertrude Stein, No. V is an Italian adaptation of a poem from the "Phantasus" cycle (1898/99) by the Berlin poet Arno Holz (who anticipated several avant-garde elements of the twentieth century), and No. VI is based on a Chinese text dating from the Tang dynasty (seventh to tenth centuries), which was used less on a semantic level than it was for its sonic qualities.

"Cantatrix sopranica" is a self-referential work on several different planes. On the one hand its theme centers on singing (especially in Nos. I, II, V and VIII), which is to say the specific states of mind singers experience, their tricks and nervous tics, from warming up their voice right down to how they present themselves on the concert podium (and backstage). My piece is about musical phenomena or processes which are reflected on in the language and vice versa (III and VII). A hybrid onomatopoeic inspiration such as "Cis n'est pas Ces" had fatal consequences on the musical material, which performing musicians will confirm. Playful treatment of musical languages from earlier periods, vocal "techniques" which somehow become an end in themselves, and idiomatic clichés found not only in music of European provenance (V and VI) all play a role in my piece. Vocal and instrumental performance interact, role-playing is involved and even role reversals among singers and instrumentalists. I also attempt to achieve the greatest possible symbiosis between language and tonal processes and hopefully not unfairly have the intention of not only entertaining my listeners but also amusing them as well. This piece is not without its musical Till Eulenspiegel mischief, which, as is generally known, can easily take on a menacing air.

- Unsuk Chin, April 2005