‘Dry Veins’ & the ‘Leeds Lieder + Song Festival’ 2012

Dry Veins was first performed in the LeedsLieder+ Song Festival in October 2012. For a concert review of this performance, click here.

The narrative of Dry Veins is a product of collaboration with the poet John Darley whose spatial poetry can be glimpsed from the image of the song’s front cover (pictured below).

*Dry Veins* front cover featuring a section of John Darley’s poem *Dry Veins*

The narrative is not gender-specific; it tells the story of a stonecutter who falls in love with ‘their’ own statue. The stone cutter’s longing desire to be at one with their creation is fulfilled when they gradually turn to stone and eventually disintegrate into dust.

Dry Veins explores idealism versus reality within the creative process. Steiner suggests that art fails to represent the artist’s intended idea because the idealistic concept is not idealistically fulfilled by the reality of the actual created entity. [1] In Dry Veins, this notion is expanded to include notions of transcendence versus transgression; life versus death; liminality (transformation): the subject matter dialectically presents an idealistic transcendence (and life) and a realistic transgression (and death) because the stone cutter’s idealistic vision of becoming united with their art and transcending into a desired life is compared with the realistic horror during the liminal transformation into stone and transgressing into a denser material and potential death.

These notions are considered as compositional tools during the composing of Dry Veins which employs Darley’s spatial poetry as a means of compositional process: spatial poetry can guide theatrical expression such as vocal inflection and gesture, [2] and its layout can influence the compositional structure of music.


Some Additional Points about the Function of ‘Theatre’ in Dry Veins:

Elements of ‘theatre’ are employed in existing contemporary composition. In Birtwistle’s Secret Theatre, the ‘cantus’ and ‘continuum’ dramatically interact, and the instruments switch ‘roles.’ The ‘cantus’ involves a change from melody to ostinato, and the ‘continuum’ includes a change from ostinato to melody. [3] The exchange of instrumental roles is explored from a varied perspective in Ferneyhough’s Etudes Transcendantales, within which the vocal part is neither the principal component nor the accompaniment, but is treated in the same way as the other instruments. It shifts between having a semantic function and a purely sonic function. [4]

An element of theatre is employed in Dry Veins to transcend the words and music and provide further meaning: the physical movements of the performers reflect the narrative: the pianist represents the stonecutter (in playing the piano), and the piano represents the stone. Like Birtwistle’s Secret Theatre and Ferneyhough’s Etudes Transcendantales, the instruments exchange ‘roles’: the soprano performs the stonecutter’s ‘liminality’ (transformation between states) in that she moves from being narrator (in sounding the words), the stone cutter (when she scrapes the strings in bars 124-127) and provides the stone’s ‘voice’ when she sings into the piano and it resonates back. This theatrical aspect contradicts traditional performance practice (of prioritising the sound and hiding the performers) in that the soprano and pianist have to be seen for the ‘theatrical’ moments to have an effect. [5]


Below is the programme note (written by both John Darley and me) which featured in the programme during the concert:

Words and their connotations in Dry Veins are approached with a desire to create an indirect sense of meaning, superimposed over a narrative inspired by ‘Pygmalion’ from Ovid’s Metamorphoses X. This piece portrays a stone cutter who is so in love with their statue that they turn to stone and, over time, disintegrate into dust. The subject matter dialectically presents an idealistic transcendence and a realistic transgression: the stone cutter’s idealistic vision of becoming united with their art and transcending into a desired life, and the realistic horror of turning to stone and transgressing into a denser material. The music reflects idealistic desire through normative performance techniques, wide pitch ranges, and faster durations. Realistic fear of turning to stone is reflected by non-normative performance techniques, indeterminate pitch, temporal changes, and slower pitch durations.

Below is a short biography of John Darley (in his own words, as featured in the concert programme):

John loves music, writing, pictures and breaking words. He writes habitually in various genres, and his poetry has been published by Aesthetica and Pastiche Magazine.


[1] George Steiner, Grammars of Creation (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), p.35

[2] Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and its Double, trans. by Victor Corti (London: Calder Publications, 2001), p. 28

[3] Michael Hall, The Contemporary Composers: Harrison Birtwistle in Recent Years (London: Robson Books, 1998), p.30

[4]Brian Ferneyhough, Collected Writings, ed. by James Boros and Richard Toop (The Netherlands: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1995), pp. 361-362

[5] I do not think that the general listening experience of this composition requires the visual aspect in order to be effective. The audio alone is enough to portray the piece’s ‘meaning.’

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