Friday, 13 January 2012

Finding Paula

In the last week I’ve been setting a monologue by Paula, one of the three main characters in the opera. Without wanting to spoil the plot, I think it’s safe to say that there are several different time periods within the opera - that of the modern day, and that of the time when Amy was still alive.

Near the beginning of the opera we see Paula, jogging along by the Thames Estuary, thinking about how she wants to improve her life (“I will spend less time on Facebook”: how I identify with that line of the libretto....!).

Some parts of the text immediately suggest the way that they should be set, but with Paula’s monologue this was not the case: I found her character quite hard to pinpoint and got stuck for quite a while on this section. As Paula and Amy are in very different places in their life, and are/were living in very different times and cultures, I wanted to find some musical way to represent this difference. Also, I had the feeling that Paula, although she had the potential to really ‘live’ life, was at present rather trapped in a rather superficial existence, even though (whether she currently realised it not) she was searching for some kind of deeper meaning to life. But in the end, after all the sitting at the piano trying to think profound thoughts about musical character representation, well, the idea of how to set this passage came to me while I was jogging...

I’ve decided to set this song in a quasi pop-song format, with intros, bridges, choruses and verses. Paula repeats mantras to herself about how she will improve her life and herself, and I could imagine her saying these things repeatedly, and increasingly confidently on her jog, as she gets buoyed up by her endorphin-boosting run. Also, in harmonic terms, I wanted to start with something fairly straight, almost banal, and gradually add more and more harmonic colour as the song progressed, as Paula becomes more confident about enriching her existence and we see her potential to do so.

So, in the name of research again, I decided to crack open a bottle of wine and spend the evening plugged into my iPod playing along to Lily Allen songs all night. It was surprisingly enjoyable...

To be honest I didn’t think I’d gain a great deal from harmonic analysis of Lily Allen songs but I actually learnt quite a lot that I tried to musically internalise and then reproduce in my own musical improvisations later on that evening and the following day (I should say, I spent about 8 hours doing all this, before I even thought about setting any words. I suppose if I do something I decide to do it quite a lot...). For instance, the harmony in many of her songs is very repetitive, but (I certainly find that) one can easily get lost in the music and not realise quite how repetitive the music actually is: rather than getting bored you get lulled into a groove etc. (but I am the kind of person who will listen to one song repeatedly for weeks, so maybe this is just me). I think one of the reasons behind this might be a scarcity of Dominant 7th chords at the end of phrases or four-bar riffs, so there’s a lack of the question and answer type tension you get in classical music. One notable exception to this is at the end of the bridge before a return to a chorus for example, when that sense of return to something is desired. Also, and this I know is stating the obvious, but the chords are usually very simple. Adding any blue notes (which is basically all I do with my harmony) made my ‘pop-song’ sound too jazzy, and I didn’t want that, but using only major and minor harmonies just sounded too derivative. In the end I decided to use fairly conventional harmony (major or minor chords with usually only one or two, non-bluesy notes added) in unusual progression, and this seemed to do the job of referencing the music that Paula would probably be listening to at the same time as (hopefully) making the music sound my own.

One last thing to say is that all this listening also helped me to clarify how I’d treat the two women vocally. Paula’s vocal phrases are usually contained within a much smaller interval than Amy’s: e.g. the highest and lowest notes are usually less than a 5th. This both references a more ‘pop-song’ like way of singing but also sounds less formal, more chilled than Amy’s sometimes rather strained Joyce Grenfell-like utterances.

There’s a whole load of other stuff going on in this scene - plane noises becoming something else (not going to spoil the plot!), representing the setting sun with various harmonic tricks, and the whole section is loosely influenced dynamically by the fact that high tides in the Thames Estuary occur at 08:38 and 21:15 (well, they did on the 4th January, which is a few weeks out but that’s the best I could do). But I’ve run out of steam now, more another time...

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