Analysing the Music of Jennifer Walshe: Part Two

Peter Moran

In the final instalment of a two-part article marking the upcoming Inappropriate Moments festival of Jennifer Walshe's vocal work, curated by Béal Music, journal editor PETER MORAN examines the structural devices employed by Walshe in a number of the festival's featured works.


Musical structure in the Inappropriate Moments festival programme


Many of Walshe's works, if not the majority, measure the passing of time, not with bar lines and time signatures, but with a stopwatch. This allows us to easily measure the duration of each section of music. In fact, Walshe's music is actually quite sectional in structure. This is not always obvious at first, but sudden and dramatic changes in the mood, the texture, or the pace of the music can guide the ear through an otherwise complex maze of activity. One particular device, which recurs in many of her pieces, is the obsessive repetition of a single sound object, such as a chord, a melodic riff or a sonic texture. When all the layers of the music are stripped away, leaving only one sound held for an excessive duration, it brings the overall shape of the piece into sharp focus. These structural features, and many others examined in the first installment of this article, are demonstrated in the works programmed in the Beál music festival of Walshe's vocal output, Inappropriate Moments.


Julian and Kanye

Julian and Kanye is a vocal trio originally written for the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart which demonstrates a number of devices that recur in Walshe's compositions. The music here is made up of dense, slow-moving chords, which start and stop together, each one punctuated by a short silence. The text contains only two sentences (taken from the online profiles of Julian Assange and Kanye West respectively), and these sentences divide the work into a clear binary form. The vocal harmonies are the same in both halves of the piece, with a few new chords introduced in the final few bars. This use of repetition, with small variations marking out structural end-points, is a feature we will see in a number of Walshe's compositions.


The harmonies in Julian and Kanye are mostly combinations of one consonant interval (a 3rd, 4th, 5th or 6th) with one clustered interval of a tone or a semitone, usually in the lower two voices. (See Example 1). There are the occasional triads, but this language of one close interval and one wider interval comes to define this work, and it appears in a number of other compositions also.


Example 1: Julian and Kanye, bars 1-6


But beyond the large-scale repetition of vocal harmonies, Walshe takes further steps to make this binary form abundantly clear. The last syllable of the first sentence, which concludes the first half of the piece, is held for almost five full bars — the longest note in the piece so far. This is immediately followed by the introduction of a startling new sound, three fortissimo percussive “shakers” played on their own for an uncompromising ten bars (or approximately 40 seconds). This then is followed by four bars (about 20 seconds) of total silence. These remarkable shifts in the texture and pace of the music highlight the underlying structure of the music, as the listener, now at the halfway point, can only wait to hear what will break the silence. It is then that we return to the vocal harmonies of the opening. The voices start and stop as they did before, only this time accompanied by less intense interjections from the individual percussive shakers.


Very often in Walshe's work we will find that one layer of the music, like the shakers in Julian and Kanye, will become the single point of focus for an inordinate, almost uncomfortable length of time. This kind of obsessive repetition on one sound object is a feature of her work that, when it arises, cannot help but lead the listener to structure their listening experience around that event.


Listen to a performance of Julian and Kanye on the Escalier du Chant website


The Soft Menagerie

The Soft Menagerie is a set of four songs, again for vocal trio. The first song, The Crocodile, uses a repeated descending D minor scale, sung to an open vowel sound, which serves as a tonal backdrop to the other textures in the piece: a spoken/whispered text, and the rubbing of rocks. The scale ends a little differently in each of its first five iterations, which are then repeated almost exactly. But it is not an exact repeat, as a new variation, sung three times, marks the very end of the piece. Here again we see a kind of binary form, with a variation in the ending offsetting an exact repeat of the first half, as was the case with the chordal progressions in Julian and Kanye.


The second song, The Owl, can also be considered binary in form. Little over three minutes long, the first half of the piece overlays repeated unison quavers on a G with portions of spoken texts, all interspersed with silences. For the second half of the piece, the unison Gs are replaced with the dyad G-A, repeated a full 32 times while the speaker now turns to write on a blackboard, continuing to do so for another 15 seconds after the singers have stopped, making a kind of theatrical coda to the piece. Even in such a short work, we see the obsessive repetition of one sound object — the 32 dyads — shaping the structure of the work.


The third song, The Rabbit, is just one minute long, and contains no overt pitch elements, but is made up entirely of sound textures created from cloth, paper, rocks and “an assortment of rubbish” manipulated according to precise theatrical instructions.


The final song in the collection, The Horse, is organised a little differently. The piece opens with all octave Ds. Then a new motif, introducing new pitches, begins every seven bars, until the full D major scale is present after 35 bars. This final full texture is held until bar 60, finishing with the sustained chord, C#, E, F# for the last two bars. Note once again the use of cluster-like harmonies which subvert the underlying tonal elements.


Listen to a performance of The Soft Menagerie on the Escalier du Chant website


Duration and Its Simple Modes

This is one of Walshe's most multi-layered works, incorporating many of the facets discussed in the first installment of this article: vocal melodies and choral harmonies; sonic textures created from a vast range of extended vocal techniques; spoken texts delivered in a number of different moods and accents; written texts, displayed here on large cards; and theatrical gestures, movements and poses, all carefully described in the score with accompanying pictures and video clips. The work, which was inspired by Lawrence Stern's book The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, is written for a vocal soloist and choir. The soloist's part, which was originally performed by Walshe herself, is unsurprisingly a tour de force of extended vocal gymnastics.


Structurally, the piece can basically be divided into eight sections of around 90 seconds each, with the very closing sections breaking this pattern by ending with the very shortest section of music followed by the very longest.


The first section might be taken as the work's introduction. The soloist launches straight away into a barrage of “rapid whipping and flickering, small pockets and bubbles of air”, as the choir punctuates the background with thick chords, interjecting in short bursts. As described in our earlier installment, this harmonic background is not only functioning as a static, non-directional element in the music, but the harmony itself is actually static. That is, the choir, for all their interjections, do not change pitches for the first full minute of of the piece. They hold one chord throughout — we might call it a kind of altered G chord — combining once again mostly consonant intervals, with one or two narrower intervals clustered around them (See Example 2). In this way, the composer gives us a very clear indication that we are not to listen to the harmonies with any traditional sense of progression, or tension and resolution, but simply to perceive it as one of the many individual sonic layers of the piece. As this introductory section proceeds, other members of the choir join in the soloist's soundworld by adding “clicks and clops” of their own. This first section ends by pre-empting later material with brief flurry of shouting, howling, snorting, quacking and barking.


Example 2: Bars 1-4 of Duration and Its Simple Modes


These sounds stop as abruptly as they began, and the sudden change in texture marks a clear structural point in the music. A new static harmony is introduced, made up of stacked thirds above a root G (i.e. a G13 chord) with the semitone E-F at the top.


The first visual element of the piece is also introduced here. The performers sudden begin to act as if they are floating very slowly underwater. Remarkably, the effect of this strange behaviour is to heighten the already ethereal sound of the sustained G13 chord. Next is added a spoken text. The soloist recites passages from Tristram Shandy in an unbroken stream of syllables, gently shifting her intonation back and forth between the same few pitches, G, F, C, and D. And finally, above all this, two melodic layers of the piece are introduced, both of which move at independent tempi. First, a soprano begins to sing a Latin text in a lush bel canto voice. Next, she is soon joined by a bass singing the same text, but to a different melody, and now in the style of drunk loungeroom singer. Here the musical texture is at one of its thickest points in the piece: two separate melodies, a fast-moving spoken recitation, and a dense, sustained, 8-note chord, all delivered through an eerie, otherworldly choreography (See Figure 2).


Figure 2: “Underwater” choreography in Duration and Its Simple Modes


The next section introduces a particularly original visual element, one which was described earlier. The performers now arrange themselves into group poses based on details from Hogarth's paintings and still photographs from productions of The Beggar's Opera. Throughout these scenes, one singer holds up cards displaying texts and images relating to Tristram Shandy, while the soloist continues speaking at pitch, though sometimes dropping to an inaudible level, which means that there are portions of this composition essentially devoid of sound, containing only visual information.


Another clear change in texture and mood defines the next section, as singers return to their original positions and sing chorale-like harmonies, with brief two-note melodies dropping in and out of the texture, while the soloist now delivers more spoken word content but in a very different tone of voice, and without any reference to pitch. The chorale harmonies are, once again, not entirely dissonant, but with plenty of tones and semitones present to thicken up the texture around the more consonant intervals (See Example 3).


Example 3: Chorale-like harmonies in Duration and Its Simple Modes


The next section of music is made up of a rapid-fire series of ideas that jump quickly from one to the other, harking back to material first heard in the final seconds of the introductory section. The music cuts from a posh party mood, to angry preachers and harmonious war cries, to self-help advice and so on. This leads quite smoothly (as opposed to the many abrupt changes encountered thus far in the work) into the next 90-second section, where this same material is developed further. The preacher repeats the same angry line with growing intensity, later switching to the role of sailor, while new pitches are added to the “war cry” chord, thickening the texture again by adding more clustered intervals in the lower voices, beneath what was originally a kind of major 7th chord in the upper voices (See Example 4).


Example 4: “Warcry” chord, in its first appearance at 6', and in its later development at 7'30”:


Coming towards the end of the piece, the choir stops suddenly, leaving the soloist alone in bringing the voice of her sailor character to an intense screeching climax, before gently softening to an almost child-like tone. This penultimate section is the shortest in the piece at just 30 seconds, and it segues quite smoothly into the final two minutes. Of course, by placing the shortest and longest sections of music at the very end, Walshe is typically ending the piece by breaking a previously established structural pattern of 90-second intervals.


The music ends with another static chord (we might call it Am7#4), sustained for the duration as each member of the choir recites the words “a roof too far” each in their own time and at their own respective pitches. There are a few theatrical gestures, brief melodic phrases and extended vocal techniques layered on top this this static harmonic backdrop until each voice drops out, one by one, to end the piece.


Duration and Its Simple Modes, and all of the works discussed in this article, demonstrate a number of the compositional principles which define Walshe's music; elements of her harmonic language, her structural devices, and the function and the effect of delivering multiple layers of sensory information. Walshe's output is so extensive, there is no doubt a lot more analysis that could be done, but it is hoped that this effort may serve as a useful starting point for readers and listeners interested in taking a closer look at how her music works.


Dr Peter Moran is a composer and performer, and the founder and editor of the AIC New Music Journal.


Inappropriate Moments is a two-day festival curated by Béal Music celebrating the vocal works of Jennifer Walshe. It will take place in Dublin's Project Arts Centre, July 8th & 9th.


Find out more about Jennifer Walshe's music from her website, or on her Soundcloud page