The composers of West Fourth New Music Collective (W4) gathered recently to answer some questions about the inspiration behind and creation of their new oratorio, Moby Dick: Extracts on Death and Other Curiosities. Collaboratively written by composers and W4 co-founders Matt Frey, Tim Hansen, Molly Herron, and Ruben Naeff, the evening-length piece composes through Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick, focusing on themes and events related to mortality, identity, and the hunt.
How did you choose what themes/sections of Moby Dick you wanted to write about?
MATT FREY: As a group, the four of us – Tim, Molly, Ruben and I – had several important creative meetings over the spring and summer of 2013 where we tried to identify the themes, moments, and quotes that we felt were integral to presenting the core ideas in the book. From there, we each selected a few main ideas that we felt individually interested in exploring musically. Much of the writing in Moby Dick I found incredibly verbose and not at all suitable for the way I prefer to work with text; however, I came across a few succinct quotes that had an immediate appeal. These quotes centered on themes of death and obsession – so I felt that I should head in those directions to create my movements of the oratorio.
TIM HANSEN: I consider myself more to be a theatre artist who uses music to tell stories. So the sections I were drawn to tended to be the ones that painted very clear, immediate staged images to me. I don’t expect that these pieces will ever be staged, but I find that if I can’t create an image of what a staged version of any of my pieces might look like then I tend to get very stuck. Luckily Moby Dick isn’t exactly devoid of drama so finding three scenes that appealed to me was pretty easy.
RUBEN NAEFF: I was immediately struck by the cruel, suspenseful and bloody scenes, which I found a great contrast to the other chapters, which were more cerebral or scientific. I also thought these scenes would work very well for being set to music, and I think these movements contrast nicely with the other movements – just as they contrast in the book.
MOLLY HERRON: There are so many things about Moby Dick that interest me and that I wanted to explore in the music I wrote. I could write three more oratorios! In the end, the things that I found the most fascinating weren’t what necessarily drew Matt, Ruben or Tim, and that made it clear where I needed to focus. Watching each of them react to the book made my individual connection more clear. I found a thread winding through the book that explored identity. In myriad ways, Melville asks the questions “Who am I?”, “What makes me?”, “How am I connected to the world around me?” Following that thread led me to write the movement “Call me” which is about the difficulty and necessity of our interdependence and brings it back to that famous first line. As tough as it is, at the end if the day I think we all want to be seen for who we are and named by those around us.
How did you approach adapting the book’s text into a singable libretto?
MH: As soon as I started thinking about setting the text, I realized how naturally Melville’s words lend themselves to music. Melville wrote a lot of poetry in his lifetime, but none so great as Moby Dick. I loved the exploration of setting the text in different ways and I took a very different approach in all three of my movements. In “At the Mast-head” I only use four short phrases. “The Sea” is absolutely flooded with text. “Call Me” is somewhere in between.
MF: I, on the other hand, didn’t find a lot of the text from Moby Dick to lend itself to a musical setting – mostly because I like to work with words more obliquely than my collaborators. Therefore, when I found a few quotes that spoke to me, I started with those – for example, “Some ships sail from their ports, and ever afterwards are missing” – and built the rest of my libretti around them. For the “Some Ships” movement, I found inspiration in the idea of sailors setting out on a journey with the knowledge that it was very unlikely to return. I searched the novel for other phrases that would support this idea, and knitted these words and phrases together into a unified moment.
TH: Each song of mine is different: the Hymn was straightforward enough; Melville had done all the work for me. “Wind, Sea and Stars” was a little more work, but still relatively easy, since Ruben, the technological genius that he is, had set up a document for us all to search using the “find” function in Word, and since I knew this piece would be made up almost entirely of references to winds, seas and stars I just had to think creatively and type in as many of each as I could think of. “There She Blows” was a little more involved. It’s about the chase, the climax of the whole book, and I feared it would be very easy for it to become suuuuper corny. So I decided to keep the lyrics entirely made up of dialogue said by the characters. I figured this way I would never let the singers become “narrators”, which to me could smack too much of pantomime or something.
RN: I took the texts that I found captivating, and then followed the natural rhythm of the words and sentences very literally. Certain words naturally demanded for a specific setting: words like high and low, for example, and the endless bleeding of the whale is illustrated by an endless repetition of the main musical motive. I enjoyed the passages the most where I could juxtapose the dying whale with the celebrating sailors, which happens in the book as well. In a musical world you can really create a polyphony in these scenes, while a literary text always works linearly: you don’t have two lines being ‘read’ at the same time.
MATA Interval 7.2 presents composer collective W4 and Contemporaneous in the world premiere of Moby Dick: Extracts on Death and Other Curiosities on Friday, February 21 at 8:00 pm at Brooklyn’s ISSUE Project Room.