IV. Setting music to the poem The Bells;
Issues and approaches
Hear the loud alarum bells–
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,
Leaping higher, higher, higher,
With a desparate desire,
And a resolute endeavour
Now–now to sit, or never,
By the side of the pale-faced moon.
The most obvious difference concerning the text between the two versions of my work The Bells, the one I did in 2000 where only two parts were completed, and the final version from 2005, is the addition of other texts alongside the poem of Poe in the final one. I didn’t have a clearly formulated plan when I drew up the selections of texts to be included in the final version. It was somehow more of an intuitive solution due to the fact that I found the version from 2000 not to be working, especially not musically. But in which way would the idea of forming a new libretto by adding more texts to the one by Poe contribute to a composition that would come closer to my musical vision?
In the previous part of this chapter, and the next, I put a few sounding examples next to each other in order to give a quick overview of similarities and differences between the two versions. Perhaps the most striking difference is that the final version has a so much richer, more complex sound world. Maybe even as a critic wrote in a review after the first performance: "scattered and richly overloaded". (Lars Hedblad SvD 2005) In both versions the sounds of bells are central, but in the latter it is like walking into a room, or rather, a world full of bells. The first version on the contrary, is characterized by a sort of trudge rhythmic. It’s rather repetitive, like a pendulum and somewhat restrained, drawling. The fact that the expression became static and held back was for me one of the problems with that version. Fundamentally, I felt that the music in this version never really became autonomous; it was just added to the text, with the result that it weakened the effect of poem. My vision for the work had rather been the “richly overloaded", to enter a world where everything was bells. When I now listen to the first version I find it almost as a notated recitativo with an instrumental back up. The music has no dramaturgy of its own; it goes along with the text and fills in the spaces between the text parts. How did I end up with such a composition first? I had obviously a quite clear vision on how I wanted the work to be, a vision based on my reading of the poem The Bells. So what became the problem with my reading?
An interesting feature with the poem by Poe is, as Jerome J. McGann points out in his article, that it largely requires a reading that also involves a necessary interpretative action. As quoted earlier, the poetry of Poe draws the reader “away from their semantic value” and instead “fix our attention on the words and how they sound in our mend’s ear.” The critics of have “had the experience of Poe’s poetry but missed the meaning of the experience”, McGann claims. For them, poems “are vehicles of significance ideas and they requires from the reader, thematic and psychological interpretation. For Poe, on the contrary, poems are compositions of meaningful experience that require from the reader, performance.” This characterizes the poetry of Poe but “no work puts them of such clear display as “The Bells”, which has always been judged a very strange poem.” (McGann) What Poe succeeds with in The Bells is through the very reading produce a musicality in the rhythmic and the sonority of the words, and, as in music listening, create an experience and meaning that never could completely be described in words! In the light of this disclosure the problem of setting music to the poem be Poe is clear: setting music to The Bells weakens or even deletes the effect of the poem. It is simply not possible to set music to it!
So what made me think that I succeeded in setting music to The Bells in the final version? The simple solution was, I would claim, and as I implied in the introduction, that I didn’t set music to the poem. Because it isn’t possible! I never formulated this when I was composing the piece, but found a solution intuitively out of necessity. By adding many other texts to the poem meant that a new libretto were created for my musical work based on the themes and ideas drawn by Poe. Östersjö writes: “The choice of texts by Baudelaire and Mallarmé add an essential layer of interpretation to the work. The French symbolists, independently from one another and with varying kinds of interest in their American precursor, were the first group that recognized Poe’s work as being of great literary importance. When Baudelaire wrote Les Fleurs du mal (of which La Cloche fêlée is a part), his reading of Poe was a vital factor for the greater form and structure of the work.” (Östersjö (2008) p.212)
The poem The Bells now functioned as a foundation of references and resonances for my work and the form structure of the poem also became the basis for my musical form. Also the recurring lines and its variations became, as I will show in a following part, fundamental principles for the composition. The wealth of imaginative words and inventive sentence constructions created by Poe guided me to work with abundance of sonic variations of bells: in instruments, voices and texts.
In the introduction of this chapter I discussed whether the difference between the concepts of Work and Text as Roland Barthes explains in his essay From Work to Text could also be a feasible understanding of the my different approaches to the poem. If we assume that I initially approached the poem as a Work by Poe it would imply that I added music to something that is comprehensive and have closure. And as I have pointed out above, it isn’t possible to set music to The Bells! Accordingly, with the addition of many other texts alongside Poe’s poem not only opened up for a network of voices, texts and associations, an intertextual universe, but it also placed the poem by Poe in a context that helped me approaching the poem as Text, and not as a Work!
The text that I set music to is rather the kind of Text Barthes writes about. A quotation from Lesley Lanir when she explains the writing of Barthes could equally well function as a description of this new libretto and the approach it provided me for composing the final version of The Bells: “the text is opened-ended, has a multitude of associations and is deeply symbolic, accordingly, it has plurality of meaning. …a ‘woven fabric’ that comes with known codes that are assembled differently and maybe be woven with ‘citations,’ ‘references,’ and ‘echoes;’ it is intertextual in that it is “the text between of another text.” (Lanir 2013)
With the approach to the poem as Text in the sense that Barthes writes about, “the Text is experienced only in an activity of production” and “is held in language”, follows that the performative aspect is essential. In the final version, I argue, it is the effect of the poem, its performativity that I set music to rather than the Work.
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Oh, the bells, bells, bells!
What a tale their terror tells
How they clang, and clash, and roar!
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear it fully knows,
By the twanging,
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows;
Yet the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling,
And the wrangling,
How the danger sinks and swells,
By the sinking and the swelling in the anger of the bells–
Of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells–
In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!