Sea Song for soprano, mezzo-soprano, and guitar

Text by Olga Amelkina-Vera

Sea Song was commissioned in the summer of 2006 by the Houston non-profit foundation Col Canto, dedicated to the promotion of art song and vocal chamber music. It was premiered September 30th 2006 at the University of St. Thomas by soprano Tracy Rhodus, mezzo-soprano Sonja Bruzauskas, and myself.

The dramatic intention of the piece is a stylized representation of the imaginary conflict between sea voyagers and sea-dwelling sirens, based on the ancient Greek myth.  However, whereas most of the literature about this opposition discusses it from the point of the view of the humans, I wanted to “give a voice” to the other actors, or rather actresses, in this drama—the sirens themselves.  Always fascinated by the accounts of otherworldly beauty of their voices and the unsettling notion of such beauty used for something apparently malicious, I wondered if perhaps the motivation behind the actions of the sirens was more complex than simple ill-will towards humans.

The more I thought about it, the more this conflict seemed to me to represent the fundamental difference and attraction between male and female elements in our own species.  I decided to assume that the sirens’ goal was not the death of the human men (and in this piece, the human element is represented by them), but rather the possibility of understanding between them and the sirens.  The sirens’ songs are at first unintelligible to the men, and in fact remain so unless the men really listen (remember the admonition to the travelers not to allow the seductive power of the music enter their ears); if they listen, though, the music draws them in and transforms them.  It makes communication possible, but only at the expense of one nature being replaced with another.  The act of drowning, then, is a symbolic one: the men do not cease to exist, but change elements (and the poem indicates that this, in fact, was the earlier fate of the sirens themselves).   So, when the sirens say “…we love them, and we drown them,” the contradiction does not extend beyond the surface impact of that statement.  They do love them, and by drowning the men they are at last reunited with them.

Musically, I attempted to represent the different facets of the story in five songs.  Song I sets the stage for the action, and its introductory material finds its way into later songs.  My term for the musical style of Song II is Allegro Polynesio; I thought of an exotic and primitive island folk instrument and the kinds of rhythms and textures that could be found in a remote place, far from the harmonic sophistication of Western art music.  This movement is Sirens proper, their playful reveling like that of shimmering fish darting through shallow waters.  Song III is in the musical language of the men; its first half, depicting the physical appearance of the warriors (and clearly revealing the sirens’ desire for them), is impetuous and masculine; I think of its second half as an interlude, all action suspended while the listener hears a human folk song from the native land of the men, peaceful and wordless.  In Song IV, we are back in the ecstatic world of the sirens; asymmetrical time signature and harmonics in the guitar part are meant to remove us once again from the familiar, human element.  Song V begins with a guitar recitative, foreboding and anxious, in a modern idiom.  Musically, I attempted to set the final denouement, which occurs in the second half of the last song, as the most special moment in the entire piece.   The eeriness of the text is meant to be simultaneously in contrast to and in agreement with the music chosen for it.

In performance, I recommend having the guitarist seated in the middle, with a singer on either side.   Proper amplification is necessary in order for the guitar part to provide sufficient support for the voices.   The set’s full duration is between 11 and 12 minutes.  It should be performed in its entirety, and in the listed order, to preserve the theatrical effect and the dramatic arch of the work.  It is best to include the entire poem in the program notes, highlighting the parts used in the songs.