Commission from Galax Quartet with Karen Clark

The Galax Quartet has commissioned me to write Eight O's in Woolloomooroo, based on a poem by the 19th century humorist, Mark Twain. In this work, Galax will be joined by contralto Karen Clark. Work on the piece is supported by a grant from the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, the San Francisco Early Music Society and the Galax Quartet.

Galax Quartet is modeled after an early version of the string quartet — two Baroque violins, Baroque cello and viola da gamba — developed by the eighteenth century composer and viola da gamba virtuoso, Carl Friedrich Abel. The personnel of Galax include some of the top early music musicians in the world: Elizabeth Blumenstock, David Wilson, Roy Whelden and David Morris.

I first met Karen Clark when I was a Visiting Professor at Princeton University. There,as part of the Composer's Ensemble, she gave a stellar performance of my work, Number Man, for the ghost of J.S. Bach for four voices and oboe. I was floored by the flexibility of her voice and by her musicality. I am very much looking forward to collaborating with her and Galax on this new work.

As Baroque instruments (and, in particular, the bows) are quite different from their modern descendants, I am borrowing a Baroque violin and bow so as to explore its potential and enable me to take advantage of its special characteristics.

The poem on which the piece is based is entitled "A Sweltering day in Australia" and is something of a nonsense poem in the vein of jabberwocky (Twain was an admirer of Lewis Carroll.) The poem incorporates numerous place names that Twain found in a newspaper and on a map while traveling in Australia and New Zealand.

The first step in setting the poem is identifying the proper pronunciation of the names. This is not straightforward, as many are obscure and not even known in New Zealand and Australia. Using the trusty Internet, I did a search for geography and english professors in New Zealand and Australia. I was lucky enough to find not one, but three who were very kindly willing to record the list of names for me: my old friend, Alistair Riddell, a composer and professor of physical computing; Phillip Mcmanus, Professor of Urban and Environmental Geography at the University of Sydney; and Liam Semler, Professor of English at the same university.

The three recordings were generally in agreement, but there were some differences (about 25% of the names differed). In addition, as all three of these people are Australian, they were not sure about the New Zealand names; I am now in the process of trying to track down a New Zealander to help with those names.

To make matters more complex, most of the names are aboriginal in nature, so the pronunciation by European-descended Australians and New Zealanders may already be a distortion of the original Aboriginal/Maori pronunciation. So I am taking the search a bit further, and am attempting to locate people of these heritages willing to record the names for me; I will report back what happens.

Of course Twain probably didn't know the pronunciation himself and may have set the names with the wrong pronunciation assumed. So when it comes time to write the piece, I will have to chose between the correct pronunciation and the one suggested by the setting; this is not so different from the process of setting text to music in general, where various considerations come into play.