MYTHICAL SPACES

STEVEN KEMPER

 

MYTHICAL SPACES

Myths represent traces of our collective imagination, and similarities between myths from different cultures point to a shared human experience. Mythical Spaces explores these ideas through a musical meditation on mythical time and space. Interactions between instruments and electroacoustic sonorities evoke imaginary spaces, bridging the physical and mythical worlds. Specific themes include the places where myths occur (Mythical Spaces), divine breath (Breath), the passage from life to death (Lament), mythical time (In Illo Tempore) and the Big Dipper (The Seven Stars).

 

Mythical Spaces explores the blurred boundaries between physical and imaginary locations where myths take place. Each movement depicts a sonic landscape that serves as a musical reflection of a mythical space with cross-cultural significance. Each space’s sound world is evoked through the use of a different custom-built amplified vessel for each movement.

 

I. Underground

In creation myths from the American Southwest and Trobriand Islands, people and Gods live underground until they emerge into our world. Featuring an amplified pot of dirt, Underground explores this primordial subterranean world. Emergence to the surface represents a journey from darkness to light.

 

II. Water

The Earth-diver myth is one of the most diffuse origin myths. In this myth, a being creates habitable land by diving to the bottom of the primordial ocean to collect a grain of sand. Water retells this creation story—from a single piece of dirt dropped into a bowl of water, amplified with a hydrophone, to a shimmering harmonic landscape.

 

III. Forest

Animist beliefs from Sub-Saharan Africa to Japan imbue the individual elements of the forest with living spirits. Rubbing and striking an amplified wooden bowl evokes wind rustling through the trees and an environment rich with the energy of spirits.

 

IV. Mountain

Mt. Everest, Mt. Olympus, Mt. Denali, and Mt. Fuji are examples of sacred mountains. The natural decay from loud rolls performed on a bass drum and amplified Styrofoam cooler combine with the electroacoustic part to produce a sense of magnitude and distance evoked by these sacred mountains.

 

V. Temple

Temples are human constructions that connect our world and the heavens—they are a bridge to a mythical place. This movement employs an amplified metal bowl, metal being a human-made material. Temple begins with slow rhythms over a droning texture, followed by an ascending, rapid run on the glockenspiel that represents spiritual transcendence.

 

Breath is inspired by the power of divine breath to animate a human form. This occurs in Genesis when God breathes life into Adam’s nostrils. Divine breath is also referenced in Greek and Egyptian mythology. Breath is structured around the recorded inhaling and exhaling of the composer. Different types of breathing were recorded,including short, long, powerful, and weak breaths. Exhalations were discarded, so the piece uses only inhalation—drawing air and energy in. Breath was originally composed as a soundtrack to the short film Air by filmmakers Anna Cady and Pauline Thomas.

 

Flutist and poet Wayla Chambo commissioned Lament as part of her TranScript project that explores the intersections of text and music. Lament is a response to Chambo’s poem “A History of Lament.” The piece engages themes of space and location from the text, which is evocative of the Orpheus and the Unde world myth. These include the transition between death-life and indoors-outdoors, as well as musical themes of lament from the classical tradition. Lament unfolds through a series of layers; electroacoustic

textures bookend sung text from the poem with flute and live processing at the center of the piece. The processing references the spatial oppositions in the poem by extending the acoustic flute into the virtual realm.

 

A History of Lament

 

Back from death to life:

according to the Greeks, only the birds

can make this transit.

 

Emerging from the library’s refrigerated air

into the gasping heat of mid-July, the stink

of traffic and the rush of bodies

 

I walk to the market, sweating,

and return with summer’s excess: fat squash,

glowing cantaloupe, thick berries.

 

Their weight in my hands brings me back to my knees

on the concrete. Back to choosing,

once again, the earthly.

 

For so long, women’s voices have accompanied

the soul on its long journey - same words

for a funeral and a wedding, as I

 

cry out in the same voice

when you leave, and when

you enter me.

 

I will sing you to the other side

and back again, as many times

as necessary.

 

I will be your backbone

as you were my breastplate.

I will keep your secrets safe.

 

- Wayla J. Chambo

 

In Illo Tempore explores technological futurism, our musical past, and mythical time. “In illo tempore” is Latin for “in that time,” a term used by Mircea Eliade to describe the time before recorded history. The piece contrasts twenty-first century technology—musical robots—with a quotation from Monteverdi’s Missa in illo tempore (1610). In addition to saxophone and bassoon, In Illo Tempore features the musical robots AMI (Automated Monochord Instrument) and CARI (Cylindrical Aerophone Robotic Instrument) built by Expressive Machines Musical Instruments (EMMI).

 

In Illo Tempore begins with a drone produced through electromagnetic actuation of AMI’s open string, which slowly draws the listener into a timeless world. As CARI joins this texture, modulation of these instruments’ timbre produces rhythms within their overtones. The saxophone and bassoon interact with these drones by modulating sustained pitches with vibrato, tremolo, flutter tongue, and internal beating produced by multiphonics. A brief rapid and rhythmic section in the middle of the piece, based on the harmonic motion of the Kyrie from Monteverdi’s Mass, punctuates the stasis. A final section features the six voices from the Kyrie arranged for saxophone and bassoon over algorithmically generated swelling dyads performed by AMI and CARI. The slow tempo of this section combined with the shifting harmonic swells produces a sense of temporal suspension.

 

The Seven Stars is based on the idea that humans who see the same patterns of stars mythologize them in different ways. The constellation we view in the United States as the Big Dipper (part of Ursa Major), has been interpreted differently by a variety of cultures, including as a bear, seven sages, seven brothers, a great wagon, and a coffin followed by mourners.

 

The Seven Stars is inspired by George Crumb’s set of solo piano pieces Makrokosmos, evoking a sense of timelessness by exploring the multi-faceted resonant sound world of the prepared piano. The piece consists of seven movements, each based on a star in the Big Dipper. The Seven Stars is structured around patterns derived from the number seven, including groups of 7, 4+3, and 5+2. The musical intensity of each movement is based on that star’s apparent magnitude. Movements based on the brightest stars, including I. Ak (Dubhe), V. Alioth, and VII. Alkaid, are louder and more rhythmically intense. Quieter movements with less rhythmic activity include II. Merak, III. Phecda, and IV. Megrez. Mizar/Alcor (VI) are binary stars, and this movement reflects the brighter Mizar, followed by a fainter echo (Alcor).

 

The piano is prepared using nylon bolts and brass bolts with washers, and features both traditional playing and extended techniques using mallets, ping pong balls, Superballs, and glass marbles. These preparations enhance the piano’s percussive and resonant qualities, and close microphone placement enables the listener to hear all of the detailed and complex sounds.

 

-Steven Kemper

 

 

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