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The Bells

Champs d'étoiles

To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells: Setting music to The Bells Hear the sledges with the bells – Silver bells! What a world of merriment their melody foretells! ß I. Introduction and A Brief Background to the Chamber Oratorio The Bells About fifteen years ago I made an attempt to set music to Edgar Allan Poe's poem The Bells. It didn’t become at all like I had imagined. I was dissatisfied with the music I had created. Nor did I find that my musical setting brought anything to the text. I felt it became rather the opposite. But I didn’t give up on the task. Five years later I did a new attempt to compose The Bells. I took a totally other approach to the poem and the result, a 40-minutes chamber oratorio in four part for soloists, vocal groups, double choir, percussion, contrabasses, harp and keyboards, became a successful piece in every sense. It was premiered at a large festival in 2005 and was recorded and released on CD two years later. So what was the difference between the two versions? There were certain musical ideas and material from the first version that were reworked in the final one. But the fundamental difference was how I approached the text of the poem. Simply put, in the first version I tried to set music to the text by Poe. In second version I did not. Instead I found other ways to approach the poem for the composition. So, what was my approach in the final version? What were my solutions for successfully including the poem in a musical composition? Finding a working artistic approach between text and music in my compositions had always been a problem to me, but an interesting one. The work with The Bells clarified insights on the problems and thus indicated possible solutions: simply, I had to identify and formulate what truly could be understood as connections between a text and my music. It is perhaps a seemingly simply and naïve quest but it fundamentally raises questions about what a text is and what it does. When I tried to set music to The Bells, what is it really that I’m setting music to? Is it the words on the paper? Or the sound of words when saying them? Is it my own reading and interpretation of the poem that is the objective for the composition? Or some other meanings? Is it my own experiences in the reading of the poem that I want to present in music, or do I try to create another particular experience for the listener? And, what happened when I set music to the poem by Poe? The question concerning the relation between text and music is complex because when digging deeper into it, it just seems to open up an endless stream of new ones. I believe nevertheless that a closer study on the re-working of The Bells, comparing and understanding the differences between the two versions, carries to some extent insights and possible answers to the issue. A possible understanding of my different approaches to the poem by Poe could eventually proceed from the differences between the concepts of Work and Text that Roland Barthes addresses in his essay From Work to Text. Was it in fact so that I, in the first version of The Bells, approached the poem by Poe as a “Work”, an object that is comprehensive and have a closure, that “is a fragment of substance, occupying a part of the space of book” as Barthes put it? A “work can be seen” and “can be held in the hand”. And, thus, that I, in the rework of the composition did approach the poem as “Text”, that “is a process of demonstration, speaks to certain rules (or against certain rules)” and “is held in language”? Barthes continues: “The logic regulating the Text is not comprehensive (define ´what the work means´) but metonymic; the activity of associations, contiguities, carryings-over coincides with a liberation of symbolic energy…: a work conceived, perceived and received in its integrally symbolic nature is a text.” (Barthes (1977) p.157-58) If this can be used as a theoretical backdrop to the issue on the text problem in setting music to The Bells, how then is this manifested in the composition, and on a more general level, how can this knowledge be formulated as a useful method when working with texts in musical compositions? Barthes does not explain the differences between the concepts by a definition, but through a discussion in seven propositions. Thus his concept of Text is understood and explained through a multitude of aspects. A similar approach is taken in the exploration of the difference between the versions of The Bells. Through the parts of the chapter, each focussing on specific aspects, I try to trace the significance of the different approaches to the poem and how these affected the artistic process and the final work of a chamber oratorio. In this chapter I discuss and present two important aspects of my compositional practice. Firstly, as presented above, by comparing the two versions of The Bells I try to understand how the different approaches to the text affected the compositional process and the final artistic result. On basis of this the interplay of texts and music in the context of contemporary performing arts are investigated and discussed further in the following chapters and in its associated artistic works. Secondly, this chapter, with particularly The Bells as example, is also an introduction to compositional strategies and principles that have been essential techniques and guidelines in many of my compositions, not least within instrumental music. Certain important aspects concerning my compositional practice as well as on the text concerns while composing The Bells was brought up in an interesting and insightful way by my long-time colleague, guitarist and researcher Stefan Östersjö in his thesis from 2008, SHUT ‘N’ PLAY! Negotiating the Musical Work. He discusses how musical interpretation also can be found as a radical compositional method in my works and he brings up the significance of intertextuality in the final version of The Bells. I will return to these discussions later in this chapter. ß How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, In the icy air of night! While the stars that oversprinkle All the heavens seem to twinkle With a crystalline delight; A brief background on the creation of The Bells When Stefan Östersjö was writing about The Bells for his thesis in 2007 we had to go back in order to try to trace the initial idea for setting music to the poem. I made an attempt for a setting already in the end of the 80’s, then for small chamber music group, a trio called Trio En Garde that consisted of soprano, flute and guitar. But I had imagined a bigger work. I only composed two movements for the trio and they were very short. When Stefan and I went through my material I found a sketch from that time where I had planned a piece with a larger form. I had made a note that the harmonic material could be worked out from the spectral content of bells and I have a faint memory that some of my composition teachers had presented such compositional techniques that were based on overtone series and spectral analysis. There was also a sketch for a form that was using a similar formula based technique that I have been using in the series of pieces for solo instrument called Treccia. It took more than ten years before I returned to The Bells again. It was in conjunction with a festival for vocal music in Malmö when I tried to realise a larger version based on the poem. But due to certain circumstances I only had time to finish two of the planned four parts. They were performed at the festival in October 2000 by Vox Nova and Ensemble Ars Nova conducted by Fredrik Malmberg. It was a good performance but as I mentioned previously I wasn’t satisfied with the composition. I returned to the work four years later. I took a completely different approach on how to work out the piece. This time the whole work was completed, all four parts. This final version, commissioned by the Swedish Radio, was performed in the Berwald Hall in Stockholm in February 2005 during the festival Stockholm New Music. It was the Swedish Radio Choir and musicians from the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra that performed it conducted by James Wood. Two years later, in the beginning of the summer of 2007, it was recorded for CD (in stereo and surround version, a SACD). Now it was again Fredrik Malmberg conducting, this time the Stockholm based Vokalharmonin. Many of the singers and the musicians were however the same as at the concert performance two years before. ß Keeping time, time, time, In a sort of Runic rhyme, The final version is, just like the poem by Poe, in four parts. The titles for the four movements are taken from the second line in each part of the poem: I. Silver Bells, II. Golden Bells, III. Brazen Bells and IV. Iron Bells. The poem is included in its entirety in the composition and was the starting point and fundament. Still, in the final version the poem itself has a somewhat more withdrawn role; in this version many more texts were added as a kind of comments to the text by Poe and together they formed an entirely new libretto for the work. Poe’s The Bells is the basic building block, the frame of reference that also serves as structure for the musical form and governing principles for the development of musical material. The additional texts are La Cloche fêlée by Baudelaire, Das Lied von der Glocken by Schiller's, Le Tombeau d'Edgar Poe by Mallarmé and a few short quotes on bells by Shakespeare, Longfellow and Edward Young. There are also some fragments taken from news reports at the time when the work was composed in 2004-05 and inscriptions from 16th and 17th century from the four church bells whose harmonic spectra is the base for the harmonic material of the piece. The text that was added is thus also about bells. In the case with the poem by Schiller there is a parallel idea; the events and the various stages of life is told through the songs of the bells. Also the dramaturgy is somewhat similar. There has been some evidence that Poe eventually was influenced by the poem by Schiller. The final version 2005 was composed for three vocal-soloist-groups, double choir, two double basses, harp, keyboards (piano, celesta and sampler) and two percussion players with a large amount of instruments set up at six positions on stage. Also several of the singers in the choirs also played on gongs. In the final version the scenic placement of singers and musicians was of considerable importance. The two choirs were placed on each side of the stage and that were used especially in parts where a kind of bell ringing takes place between the choirs. The positions of the percussion players helped in reinforcing the effect of the ringing. The singers in the vocal groups also moved between different positions on stage in order to emphasise certain solo passages. ß To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells From the bells, bells, bells, bells, Bells, bells, bells– From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

Sketch for the second part, "Golden bells", of the final version of The Bells, composed in 2004-05

Barthes, Roland.  From Work to Text. (1977). Image-Music-Text. 155-164. London: Fontana.

Stefan Östersjö. (2008). SHUT UP “N” PLAY! Negotiating the Musical Work. Lund: Lund University.

An early attempt to set music to The Bells was for a trio with soprano, flute and guitar in the end of the 80's.

Cameron, Kenneth W. "Poe's 'Bells' and Schiller's 'Das Lied Von Der Glocke'" The Emerson Society Quarterly 19.2 (1960): 37. Print.


Cameron, Kenneth W. "Poe's 'The Bells'—A Reply to Schiller and Romberg?" The Emerson Society Quarterly 38.1 (1965): 2. Print.


Dameron, J. L. "Schiller's 'Das Lied Von Der Glocke' as a Source of Poe's 'The Bells'" Notes and Queries Oxford, England 14.1 (1967): 368-69. Notes and Queries. Web. 13 Apr. 2014.