Adaptation: Interview with Robinson McClellan

Jun 1, 2016

In the upcoming concert series, 21st-Century Baroque, the San Francisco Choral Artists will give a world premiere performance by New York-based composer Robinson McClellan. The piece is titled Prodigal Song and is an adaptation of an earlier work, Prodigal Songs, from 2007.

Composer Jason Carl Rosenberg chats with Robinson McClellan about Prodigal Song and the compositional concerns when creating adaptations.

Jason Carl Rosenberg: There’s so much we can discuss about your work, but I’d like to take a slightly unusual approach and focus on the topic of adaptation. Is that okay with you?

Robinson McClellan: Absolutely.

JCR: You’ve described your piece, Prodigal Song, as a midrash — that is, as an interpretative response to a sacred text, in this case the New Testament’s “Parable of the Prodigal Son”. Your musical setting consists of several passages of repose, spaces for contemplation, allowing opportunities for the listener to consider and reconsider the material.

I can’t help but see this in relationship to the fact that this piece is an adaptation of a movement from an earlier work of yours. It would be great to hear you describe how the notion of repose or reconsideration impacted your decision to create this particular adaptation and the compositional decisions within it.

RM: On one level this new piece arose for practical reasons. Magen heard about a piece (Territories) I was writing last year for the Parthenia viola da gamba quartet here in NYC and knew she would be working with Galax, and asked whether I had anything suitable for choir with strings. I sent her a few options, and Prodigal Songs stood out to her. Since the original piece is about 20 minutes and divides neatly into the seven songs (one for each of the seven stanzas of Tess Taylor’s poem), we agreed to make it an excerpt focusing on the last one or two songs. The original is for vocal trio, and I had always wanted an excuse to rework this music into a form practical for choir, so it was perfect.

As you say, it turned out to be a nice opportunity to reflect on the original piece and consider what made it ‘tick.’ When I’m first composing a piece, I like to spend a while away from it after I have the first draft, so that when I come back to it I can have a fresh perspective to ‘know what I’m dealing with.’ If I can take a week that’s good, and a month is even better. In this case I had almost ten years worth of fresh perspective, since I wrote Prodigal Songs in 2007. I spent some time listening to the original and trying to hear my way back into it, both its familiarity and its newness. I gravitated to aspects of it that felt the most self-contained, complete, and tuneful. The sense of stillness and solemnity is what I hoped to preserve.

JCR: In the original work from which this piece is adapted, you chose a notational system that granted the singers rhythmic flexibility. That is, the pitch material is precisely determined, but the rhythms are often not. However, in this adaptation that the SF Choral Artists will be singing you do in fact typically (though not always) provide precise rhythms. This was surely to some degree a pragmatic decision since you’re writing here for choir rather than soloists. However, there was also some flexibility with the structural relationships between the performers in the original as well. Can you talk about the rhythmic treatment of the text in this new adaptation, especially the compositional considerations that arose with the changes in rhythms?

RM: It was as you say a pragmatic decision, and also a sort of correction to my earlier notion. Ever since my earliest beginnings as a composer, I’ve been interested in fluid, ‘natural’ rhythms in music, especially those derived from everyday speech. Very few composers manage to translate ‘heard’ fluidity into notation — Britten is a good exception. So I like to experiment with freeing the performers from rhythmic notation, and with just three singers in the original trio, it made practical sense. But with a whole choir it would just be too cumbersome, so I wanted to write out the rhythms.

I said just now it was a “correction”, because I realized that despite the freedom I wanted to give the singers, I actually had fairly specific rhythms in mind all along, ever since the original version, and in this case they aren’t actually that complicated to write down. It was still a challenge to capture them in staff notation, as it often is, and should be (if it’s too easy, you may be missing a nuance or two). I changed my mind a few times about the time signatures and so on, but in the end it was fairly straightforward.

I reduced the overall structural looseness quite a bit. In the original, the SSA trio (sung by Trio Eos) was completely separate from the violin parts, which appear at the end of the score on their own page. It was up to the performers to put it all together. This new choral version is laid out more conventionally with the order of events specified. There is still some freedom in the exact timing of the spoken/played violin parts (originally played by Caroline Shaw and Peter Povey).

One other thing to mention, apart from rhythm, is the change from three sung parts to four. This was much harder than I expected, and required some blatant re-composing of the sung pitches. So the harmonies are not always the same as in the original.

JCR: The last issue I’d like to discuss is the use of the drone. It’s pervasive and such a prominent feature of your piece and the sound-world it inhabits. Can you talk about the drone’s role in your piece and, if applicable, how the drone has changed between the two versions?

RM: At the time I wrote this I was heavily into a rarely-heard kind of Gaelic bagpipe music called piobaireachd (a.k.a. pibroch). So I was writing a lot of drone-based music. Piobaireachd tends to have slow, arching melodies. So that influenced the sense of space and timing in both versions. I still love drones but I don’t use them as often these days.

I performed the drone parts myself in the original premiere: the upper note on a sruti box — an accordion-like drone instrument from India — and the lower note on an electric bass, with the note sustained by an ebow: a contraption you hold over the string which electronically vibrates it as long as it’s held there. The unusual timbres of those sounds, and the indefinite sustain, and the fact that I was playing them myself, made it possible for them to be fairly static.

In this new version I did not want to bore the lower string players to tears, but I also really wanted to keep the drones. Finding a way out of this quandary was tricky, and I’m not sure how well I succeeded. I decided to keep the drones pretty basic, but to invite the players to add subtle rhythms, both for their sake and to give the music a sense of quiet movement, like small ripples in a still pond.

JCR: Lastly, as a follow up, I’m a little curious, given the nature of the text, if the G-D perfect fifth drone that grounds the entire piece is a subtle musical reference to God.

RM: This had never occurred to me! But I like it a lot. This fifth has a quality I seek in a lot of my music: to somehow reverse the polarity of the lower note so that it doesn’t sound and feel like the tonic; instead, I love music that, when centered around the twin pillars of a central fifth (as most Western/tonal music is), the upper note is the tonic and the lower note sounds like the subtonic. It’s a simple shift of perspective but so subtle: to use imagery I learned from W.A. Mathieu, the ‘overtonal’ fifth above has a bright, powerful, sun-like quality in relation to a tonic, while the ‘reciprocal’ fifth below, which makes the tonic its own fifth while stepping aside to let the tonic still be a tonic, has a gentler, darker, and to me very mysterious quality. It’s hard to force the listener to hear an un-contextualized open fifth this way; the best I could do was to have the upper D enter first, to make it feel primary and so tonic-like.

Oddly though, the G functions as the tonic when it comes to the choral parts. I don’t have a logical explanation for this. But within and among the drones, the D is the primary one with its mysterious shadow note, the G, below.