The Painted Veil

Text by Percy Bysshe Shelley for bass-baritone and electronic track

Jack Van Zandt

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Text by Percy Bysshe Shelley for bass-baritone and electronic track

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Composer Jack Van Zandt
Year of Composition 2019
Duration ca.8'

Categories (all composers)
Catalogue ID ce-jvz1tpv1


Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
And it but mimic all we would believe
With colours idly spread,—behind, lurk Fear
And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave
Their shadows, o’er the chasm, sightless and drear.

I knew one who had lifted it—he sought,
For his lost heart was tender, things to love,
But found them not, alas! nor was there aught
The world contains, the which he could approve.
Through the unheeding many he did move,
A splendour among shadows, a bright blot
Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove
For truth, and like the Preacher found it not.

– ‘The Painted Veil’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley

In addition to being a major poet, Shelley was also one of the pioneers of British radical political philosophy, and was admired by Bertrand Russell, Karl Marx, and several others. His works were marked by many interests and influences—especially science, mathematics, philosophy and politics—and were often a “mash-up” of numerous ideas of the time. The Gothic Romantic style of much of his poetry, including the sonnet “The Painted Veil,” often contained references to these influences, along with phantasmagoric imagery in a highly atmospheric spiritual context, to make a universal philosophical point or observation. Also typical of Shelley the dramatist, his poem tells a story and takes the reader on a journey, not unlike a miniature version of Dante’s great allegory, “The Divine Comedy,” where the narrator relates his experiences wandering through the world beyond life. As with all the greatest poets, Shelley’s sonnet can be read in so many ways. I chose to emphasize the dreamy, phantasmagoric aspects coupled with a relentless, slow rhythmic march toward the concluding philosophical “truth.”

The reason Shelley appeals so much to me as a composer is the synthesis of influences in his work. My composing style is very much the same, combining elements of science, math, philosophy, visual art theory (especially Klee and Escher), and often, music that I love from ancient traditions and cultures outside my own, especially Native American, Indian, Japanese, and Equatorial African. In this case, I was struck by the similarities between the Shelley poem and the spiritual texts of some of the epic Hindu vocal works of Indian classical music. On one level, my setting is essentially a “raga,” and is based on a commonly used modal scale of that tradition. I also ask the vocalist to imitate some of the ornamental idiosyncrasies of raga singing. The fixed electronic tracks behind the voice are constructed by using dozens of slow-motion cyclic lines played by several digital synthesizers—further processed by computer manipulation—in an elaborately layered crab canon. There are no traditional Indian instruments in my piece, but electronic instruments take the functional place of these, including performing drones and tala (rhythmic cycles).

“The Painted Veil” was commissioned by Nicholas Isherwood and is dedicated to him.

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