A Chaos of Light and Motion

four Shelley songs for soprano and septet

Jack Van Zandt

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four Shelley songs for soprano and septet

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Composer Jack Van Zandt
Year of Composition 2019
Duration ca.24'

Categories (all composers) ,
Catalogue ID ce-jvz1col1


I.    A Chaos of Light and Motion

II.    The Painted Veil

III.    Weave the Dance on the Floor of the Breeze

IV.    The Atmosphere of Human Thought

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, Indonesian and Equatorial African.

Shelley’s works were marked by many interests and influences—especially science, mathematics, and philosophy, including Hinduism and Buddhism—and were often a “mash-up” of numerous ideas of the time. The text of the title song, extracted from his drama “Hellas,” is a wondrous evocation of the scientific achievements of the Age of Reason and explores the crossroads of science and spirituality.

The Gothic Romantic style of much of his poetry, including the sonnet “The Painted Veil,” often contained references to his many intellectual 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 sonnet tells a story that 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, or the great sagas of Hindu myth. 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 ensemble instruments take the functional place of Indian musical instruments, including performing shruti (drones) and tala (rhythmic cycles).

The third song, “Weave the Dance on the Floor of the Breeze,” is an allegory of the natural world taken from “Prometheus Unbound.” The rhythmic flow of the setting is controlled by a common Indian tala, 4+4+2+1+2+1. I tip my hat to Stravinsky with this setting, including references to “Les Noces,” “A Soldiers Tale,” and Russian folk melody.

The final song, “The Atmosphere of Human Thought,” is also a tribute to the memory of legendary American composer Lou Harrison, a friend who was instrumental in bringing Indonesian gamelan music to the attention of American audiences. The text is taken from “Prometheus Unbound,” and takes the listener on a Buddhist-inspired journey to a floating, ethereal world where ideas and thoughts become conscious spirits. The percussion instruments of the ensemble become a kind of gamelan orchestra that the soprano floats over, accompanied melodically by the bass flute and viola.

Text by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Commissioned by Stacey Fraser.

Premiere January 30, 2020 at University Theater, California State University San Bernardino.