Faded Hieroglyphics

for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble (2015)

Premiered September 30, 2015 at The University of Texas at Austin
The University of Texas New Music Ensemble
Ellie Jarrett Shattles, mezzo soprano

Faded Hieroglyphics for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble originated with a single idea: a song cycle with texts from three different poets in three different languages, collectively sharing a common theme. Without the convenience of having one poet to link each of the three texts, my piece required a common thread: one that would transcend the boundaries of language. Even before choosing the texts, I gravitated towards language itself as a common theme. Each text tells a different story, from a language’s origins to its eventual demise.

The origin of language and spoken sound is presented in the poem “Voyelles” by Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). Perhaps influenced by his experiences with synesthesia, Rimbaud assigned a color to each of the five vowels in order of the Greek alphabet, with the final letter being omega. As the ‘building blocks’ of spoken language, Rimbaud’s vowels are vividly described with colorful imagery and strangely beautiful contradictions. The first song in my cycle, Voyelles, assigns both a unique pitch and musical color to each vowel. The music explores the contrasting nature of the text, from the bizarre to the sublime.

The poem “Sky” by Juan Ramón Jiménez (1881-1958) demonstrates how the English word for ‘sky’ defamiliarizes the concept of ‘cielo’, which means both sky and heaven in Spanish. Jiménez’s text confronts the meaning behind words, and how that meaning can be lost in translation. My second song incorporates high strings and pitched percussion to capture the weightlessness of the sky.

The final song in my cycle sets the poem “Languages” by Carl Sandburg (1878-1967). Sandburg compares the unpredictable journeys and lives of languages to those of rivers. Crossing boarders and nations, languages eventually die like rivers and become faded hieroglyphics. Like the poem, my final song in the cycle takes the listener on an ever-changing exploration of rhythm and color.