Daniel Wolfert Snapshot #13: You’ll Never Get Back

In which delightfully wicked fun is found at the final Senior Thesis Festival play.

If I were to select one major achievement that I am proud that I’ve done this year, a prime candidate would most certainly be my musical contributions to the last play in the Senior Thesis Festival, entitled The Skriker.  Written in the 1990’s by Caryl Churchill, The Skriker is the tale of the eponymous, shape-shifting fairy that is intent on destroying the world of humans – and in particular, the lives of two teenage mothers named Lily and Josie – in revenge for the destruction that humanity has caused the natural world she rules.  Filled with fragmented fairy tongue and sinister wordplay, the show is a rollercoaster of mythological beasts and social commentary, and when Sarah McKinley, the senior directing this production, approached me about writing music for the show, I was immediately drawn to the script’s distinctive writing.  The incidental music – meaning the music that would play between scenes and would otherwise accompany the show without being the primary focus – and the single song that would occur in the Skriker’s Underworld would, therefore, need to be just as seemingly circuitous and illogical, yet purposefully atmospheric and structured on its own unorthodox terms.

This is where studying atonal music in Music Theory IV and Music History II: The Classical to the Romantic Periods came in unexpectedly handy.  Pioneered and brought into the public sphere in the late 19th century by Post-Romantic-era composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, atonal music has no pitch center that the music leads to, and thus, no musical goal of the sort that European audiences are so accustomed to.  As atonal composers of the 19th and 20th centuries toyed with this unpopular concept, a new form of structuring this music arose and was entitled “twelve-tone theory” due to its primary tenant: all twelve of the kinds of pitches in the Western chromatic scale must be used by a musical line before any can be repeated.  Through this system, new forms of clarity and purpose and arose in atonal music so as to create focus in the music’s creation, just as the many monologues that the Skriker has in the play are seemingly pointless but hold a unique sort of clarity.

Although I did not employ atonality or twelve-tone technique directly while writing for the Skriker, learning about this sort of order-from-chaos thinking became progressively clearer to me. Of particular use was the melodrama “Pierrot Lunaire”, a song cycle written by Schoenberg in 1912 and performed by the sole vocalist in the “Sprechstimme” style in vogue at the time of its genesis.  While often seen at first glance as exhaustingly chaotic, this song cycle’s construction is by no means frivolous.  Each poem is of the same type of poetic structure (a rondel), which entails lines of importance repeating themselves in each song, and despite the modern use of atonality, a great number of the songs are in a popular form from the Baroque period, such as a fugue or rondo.  The numbers three, seven and thirteen are repeatedly given importance, with the song cycle encompassing 21 songs (the product of seven and three), each poem containing 13 lines, and a great many songs using seven-note motifs, among other techniques used to give numbers significance.  A link to a full performance of this song cycle can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bd2cBUJmDr8

With all of this in mind, I wrote something that, to my ears that were still unaccustomed to this music, sounded awkward and uncertain, but as I continued, I could not help but begin to enjoy it.  There is something liberating about not needing to account for every aspect of a harmonic and melodic action, and instead making something that can twist in a snake-like manner through number and the mathematical structure of music composition.  But credit must be given where due: Sarah MicKinley, her cast and her crew – in particular, clarinetist Daniel Peterschmidt – brought my newborn quasi-atonal music to brilliant life.  I am most proud of my musical contributions to the Skriker not because I think that my music in and of itself was remarkable, but rather because I contributed to something remarkable alongside some very talented people.  You’d better watch out, Theater Department; I’ve gotten a taste, and there’s no stopping me now.

And just in case, dear reader, you too desire a taste, here’s a MIDI file of some of my incidental music to quench your thirst for The Skriker:

1) Into the Underworld MIDI

2) Into the Underworld PDF

This is the song sung by the Skriker’s monstrous minions when Josie, one of the protagonists, is stolen away to the Underworld to feed the Skriker’s power.  Written for solo Bb clarinet and unison voices, with voices played by cello in this MIDI file.

Until next time, dear reader, and perhaps you’d best check under the bed for monsters tonight.  Who knows what is lurking in the darkness…