MELIA WATRAS: SOURCE
for viola, percussion and violin (2015)
World Premiere: Melia Watras, viola; Matthew Kocmieroski, percussion; Michael Jinsoo Lim, violin; January 26, 2016, Seattle, WA
Using Schumann’s Märchenbilder as a starting point, I happily set to looking for fairy tales to write about. I read and researched and as I began to compose, I realized that I was not including a single fairy tale. Instead it was folk material, sculpture, legends and an epic poem that captured me. I was specifically drawn to women characters.
Source consists of five movements. The motivation for the first, Creusa, is from Vergil’s Aeneid and is named for the first wife of Aeneas. I wanted to echo Creusa telling the future to her husband. So, in that effort, the scalar figures in Creusa reflect the pitch centers used in each of the successive movements, outlining them as follows: movement I: pitch center C; II: B; III: A; IV: F; V: E-flat and C.
At the movement’s close, one of the performers speaks, in Latin, a few lines from the Aeneid. I first read these words while on a plane to Copenhagen. They were so impactful, it felt like a hand reached in, grabbed my heart and squeezed (not exactly what one wants to feel at 10,000 feet). Later discussions with Catherine M. Connors, Professor of Classics at the University of Washington, increased the depth of my understanding as well as my love of Vergil.
Upon hearing Ms. Connors recite this excerpt, I thought I should use a recorded voice of an expert Latin speaker, such as herself. I would like to thank Ms. Connors not only for her very generous guidance, but for giving me the courage, and instruction, to speak these words myself:
ter conatus ibi collo dare bracchia circum;
ter frustra comprensa manus effugit imago,
par levibus ventis volucrique simillima somno.*
*from the Aeneid, by Vergil. (ed. R.A.B. Mynors, Oxford University Press, 1969), 2.792-4.
Three times I tried to fling my arms around her neck, three times I embraced—nothing...her phantom sifting through my fingers,
light as wind, quick as a dream in flight.
— Robert Fagles, Viking, 2.983-6
Like many dreams and images we have in our heads, movements II and IV are based on the connection of multiple sources; Louise Bourgeois's spider sculptures, the Cherokee legend Grandmother Spider Steals the Sun, from a tale reported by James Mooney in the 1890’s, and my own grandmother, who is a hero in my life. (Also, Seattle is full of spiders! ...but I digress.) All of the pitch material for both movements is generated from a short progression I created.
The third movement, Lass: Variations on a Theme by John Jacob Niles, takes its cue from John Jacob Niles’s Lass from the Low Countree. Niles’s rendition is an adaptation of the text of a traditional folk song, with an original melody by Niles.
Source’s fifth and final movement is titled Rawiya, which is an Arabic name meaning “she who tells stories.” While not a reference to an existing tale (or specific geographical location), the movement is a culmination of the piece, with elements from the previous movements appearing in the finale.
I am grateful to the terrific percussionist Matthew Kocmieroski, who graciously shared his vast knowledge and gave me a better understanding of how best to express myself through percussion.