composer's note: When Rachel Carlson approached me about writing a piece for the Six Degree Singers, she mentioned that they would particularly love some new music that would pair well with the older works the choir is performing on this concert. When I looked at that list of choral classics, immediately Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Cloud-Capp’d Towers” jumped out at me, as I love both those powerful words of Shakespeare and the lush harmonies of Vaughan Williams. So I set out to create a setting of that same text but to shed some new light on it.
Vaughan Williams’ setting of Prospero’s monologue from The Tempest creates a mysterious mood within a fairly traditional sound-world, by employing a constantly shifting sense of harmony combined with a very straightforward declamation of the text. I love the simplicity and beauty of that approach, but my instinct upon re-reading the Shakespeare was to muddy the waters, to really dig into the existential despair of the text and let it explode all over. So for instance, I love how Vaughan Williams disorients the audience with unusual harmonic shifts. I decided to take that to a much more disorienting place, where complex counterpoint is everywhere, sometimes dissolving unexpectedly into strange aleatoric textures, and where the choir often slides slowly between notes, blurring the sounds of “normal” choral music into something more murky and odd. I also wanted to add more dramatic shape to the text, to portray some of the twists and turns Prospero takes during this monologue, through the use of dramatic musical phrases and dynamic shifts in the vocal range of the singers, sometimes even letting wordless gestures take over the texture.
Basically, I wanted to turn Prospero’s brief monologue into something like an operatic aria for choir, where the choir is both the orchestral accompaniment that illuminates the subtext AND the singer on stage pouring his heart out through dramatic interpretation and gestures. So I hope you enjoy this little dramatic scene from Shakespeare, told through choral music.