23 September, 2020
Since August, I’ve been working on an orchestration project that is quite extensive and exciting. The source is a song cycle by Trinidadian composer Dominique Le Gendre entitled “Songs of the Islands.” I was introduced to the work by one of my voice students, mezzo-soprano Maegan Pollonais, also raised on the island of Trinidad. This song cycle was the subject of her recent doctoral dissertation. As Maegan sang some of the songs for me last spring, I kept hearing orchestral colors in my head. I told her the entire cycle should be orchestrated and I would love to take on that project.
Through the wonders of the internet, Maegan introduced me to Dominique who gave permission for me to orchestrate eight of the twelve movements (she is orchestrating the other four herself). As it turns out, Dominique and I had quite different ideas about instrumentation for the project, so it was fun to discuss options together. For instance, Dominique planned to include Tenor Saxophone, an instrument that isn’t exactly standard orchestral fare. I had envisioned many instruments in standard pairings (2 flutes, 2 French horns) where Dominique was planning only one of each. Since the goal is to have orchestras program the entire cycle, it is important for our instrumentation to be consistent.
One of the biggest questions was that of a plucked string presence. We both had considered harp pretty seriously, but I also felt like guitar would give a very intimate feel. Since many of the movements are arrangements of folksongs, I was starting to lean heavily in the direction classical guitar instead of harp. Dominique liked the idea and determined that we should have two guitars instead of just one — especially in an orchestral setting. As I’ve stated in previous blogposts (see “Challenging Myself”) I purposefully seek out projects that include instruments with which I lack composition experience. This includes instruments that scare me a little. Such was the case with guitar. While I distinctly heard guitar in my head as I imagined these beautiful songs, I really didn’t know much about writing for the instrument. I knew just enough to be intimidated. Guitar music is incredibly complex and I knew I was going to have to study a lot before I set pencil to staff paper!
So, now I embark on this new adventure: writing for classical guitar. I have completed three of the eight songs I’m working on, and it has been a humbling, but wonderful experience so far. Fortunately, Dominique is a guitarist, so she has generously helped guide me along. She is a great teacher! One of the songs (the 5th movement) was frustrating me because I couldn’t quite figure out how to notate what I was hearing in my head for the guitars. Finally, I realized why. The sound I wanted was a strumming style (rasgueado) that I had been fascinated by years earlier while attending a flamenco guitar and dance performance in Barcelona, Spain. I didn’t know at the time what the technique was called, but I had clear memories of its distinctive sound.
Rasgueado is a fanning out of the fingers of the right hand — making double, triple, even quadruple iterations of a chord possible in a single stroke. The back (outside) of the fingernails strike the strings in rapid-fire succession — not simultaneously, but quickly following one another similar to the way the triangular segments of a fan appear as it is flung open by a flamenco dancer, or the way a dancer’s skirt ripples out from her center of gravity as she turns. I remember, upon hearing this technique in that thrilling Barcelona concert, being intrigued by the perfect almost onomatopoeic pairing of these physical dance elements with this very specific strumming sound. Funny how it stayed with me all those years, and I didn’t even realize it until a week ago. Not surprisingly, my synesthesia translates this sound as red satin, and the faint click of fingernails striking the strings sounds like golden threads woven into the satin texture.
Although I had done some pretty extensive research to figure out exactly what I wanted to put in the arrangement, I struggled with notation and execution. In other words, I needed to be sure my guitarists could understand the sound I wanted by looking at the score, and I also needed to be sure I wasn’t writing something awkward or impossible to play. With Dominique’s help and also that of a couple of guitarist chums, I was able to gain enough confidence to finish the movement. The photo above shows the opening measures of the guitar 2 part that incorporates the flamenco effect.
I still have five more movements to complete, but I can tell this is going to be a wonderful orchestral work. Dominique’s original material was already heartfelt, beautiful, and absolutely characteristic of her beloved homeland. As I see it, her original piano/vocal compositions and arrangements have a warm nostalgic feel, like looking at cherished tin-types from a family heirloom scrapbook. My goal with these new orchestrations is to help listeners and performers experience this music in the moment, as if a time machine collectively transported us to the time and place where these songs were just becoming tradition. I hope the orchestration helps us not only hear the sounds, but see the colors, walk the landscape, smell the air, and hold hands with those who sang the lyrics so powerfully generations ago.
Artistic collaboration can sometimes be a nightmare. My composer friend and mentor Stewart Copeland calls it “a minefield.” I’m happy to say that has not been my experience with this project. “Songs of the Islands” has been an absolute joy from the beginning and continues to be so. I feel like it is a situation where two heads are almost better than one. By marrying the best of our ideas together, I believe Dominique and I have come up with a unique instrumentation that is perfectly suited to the vibrant harmonic and melodic color of these Caribbean musical gems. I was worried that Dominique would regret trusting me with her compositions, but she has been very positive and even encouraged me to do some arranging of her material in addition to orchestrating it. She admitted to being a little worried at first about handing over her work to someone else. She was understandably concerned that her concept and vision might get lost. As she listened to the first movement I sent her, she said she kept thinking “Oh yes, I know you, my old friend,” and was relieved that her imprint was still easily recognizable. That was such a thrill for me, because my intent is to preserve and merely enhance what she has already created. As an orchestrator, I can think of no greater compliment. Creation is sacred ground on which I tread lightly, ever careful to avoid covering or distorting her compositional voice with my own. I look forward to continuing this adventure and learning even more about writing for classical guitar.
The orchestration of “Songs of the Islands” is scheduled to receive its premiere on 16 May, 2021 by the Manchester Symphony Orchestra (North Manchester, Indiana), featuring soloists Maegan Pollonais (mezzo-soprano), Jamie Chamberlin Granner (soprano), and Nathan Granner (tenor). Guitarists will be Scott Workman and Laura Lydy.