Soprano; oboe/cor anglais, clarinet (Bb), tenor-bass trombone, pianoforte, string quartet, 1 percussionist (vibraphone, glockenspiel, 3 tam-tam [high,medium,low]); electronics (2 DATs or MIDI-keyboard triggered)
duration: ca. 40-45 mins
First, the title; a palimpsest is "a manuscript in which old writing has been rubbed out to make room for new" (Chambers 20th Century Dictionary). In quite a literal sense this is what has happened at the begining of Part I of my piece - the soprano and piano music was originally a setting of a different poem. With little adjustment, the words (in translation) of an Anglo-Saxon riddle were set as the large-scale development of Palimpsest took shape:
"The wave, over the wave, a wierd thing I saw,
through-wrought, and wonderfully ornate;
a wonder on the wave - water became bone." (translation Michael Alexander)
The instrumental music following these words unfolds in sections: violin and piano; string quartet and piano, oboe monody, trombone and strings; trombone and piano; finally, piano with oboe and trombone. Some of these sections interlock exploring different facets of the riddles's imagery, but the entry of the trombone suggests a new interpretation of the frozen water [ice] and leads to an unexpected sonic equivalent: the trombone's lip multiphonic. The implications of this sound is developed more fully in Part III - the frozen wave analogous to the freezing of time in a spectral analysis of c.48ms.. The piano passage (joined by oboe and trombone) concluding Part I develops from a 'pulse-rhythm' created by superimposing 9:8 pulses - begining simply and becoming progressively complex until the music reigns back abruptly just before the end. The accumulated energy spills over to commence Part II.
The answer to the riddle set in Part II is the swan:
"When it is earth I tread, make tracks upon water
or keep the houses, hushed is my clothing,
clothing that can hoist me above house-ridges
at times toss me into the tall heaven
where the strong cloud-wind carries me on
over cities and countries; accoutrements that
throb out sound, thrilling strokes
deep-soughing song, as I sail alone
over field and flood, faring on,
resting nowhere. My name is - " (translation: Michael Alexander)
The soprano and string quartet carry Part II. However, the trombone's multiphonic creates beating of partials which is used to convey the "deep-soughing song" and several string rhythmic figurations derive from repeated observations and timings of swans' beating while flying along the River Tweed close to my home. Following the words "...that throb out sound..." 3 tam-tams 'accompany' a transcription for strings of a recording made in 1933 by Ludwig Koch of the flock calls of Bewicks swans in East Prussia. The oboe changes to cor anglais with a flowing micotonal melody near to the end.
The longer Part III (c.20'30") commences with a loud tutti chord and a Bb clarinet added to the ensemble. It is a very diverse movement with many dramatic contrasts; fast, wild outbursts of high volume disperse to moments of quiet tranquillity. A major clue to the character of this movement lies in the 'answer' to the riddle upon which the music is loosely based: moon and sun.
Much of Part III explores the results of extensive research and spectral analyses of specific trombone multiphonics. The electroacoustic music was created (for the most part) after the composition of the instrumental music, and is intended to both enhance and grow out of the instrumental material. In many passages, both the tape music and the ensemble music have the same origin in being composed to explore specific 'harmonic' areas derived from these trombone multiphonic analyses.
The electroacoustic material was created in the electronic music studios of the Faculty of Music, University of Edinburgh. The sound sources included (i) trombone multiphonics (ii) CSound synthesised material (iii) a recording made of a performance of pages 106-109 of the score, though performed in a version for flute, violin, cello, and harp.
Towards the end of Part III the soprano enters singing the first line only of the riddle, framing the acoustic music of the complete composition and followed by an electroacoustic coda:
"A curious and wonderful creature I saw..."
[The riddles are translations made by Michael Alexander, and published in the 'Earliest English Poems' (Penguin Classics) from the Exeter Book].