The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves


This is the second of two entries that were produced as a part of the Scattered Light commission consortium. In this entry, I build on the previous week’s explanation of the origins of my setting of Dana Gioia’s The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves, delving into the concrete musical aspects of the piece that create a sense of ambiguity and otherworldliness in the piece.


The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves is officially in the bag! The Scattered Light consortium has been a wonderful project, and I can’t wait to hear the commissioning ensembles’ interpretations of these new works in the months to come. Last week, I told my personal back story of how a missing ring inspired the sound world of this piece. But enough of that lovey-dovey stuff – it’s time to share some thoughts on the actual musical content and how I have translated Dana Gioia’s words into sung sound.

The first page of the score, displaying the cutaway staves for tenors and basses.

From the very first page of the score, I wanted to include a visual aspect that would allude to the missing ring and the other “fine disturbances” included in Gioia’s poem. Wherever there are full bars of rests in any given vocal part, the staves have been cut away to leave physical gaps in the score. These visual absences are a more striking representation of negative musical space than simple rests, and are always preceded either by silence or a diminuendo to the dynamic marking “n,” representing “neinte,” or “nothing.” In this way, the absence of sound becomes as integral a part of the musical texture as the presence of sound.  This is not something that will be visible to the audience of course, but it should aid in creating a dream-like atmosphere for the performing ensembles and their respective conductors.

Sarah and I have both found that one of the unifying elements of Dana Gioia’s poetry is his use of levels, or planes, of existence. In the first stanza of The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves, the poet places us in a space between two such planes – the plane of the stars and the plane of the earth. The stars seem to be executing their own cosmic dance with little effect on our situation, and so we must turn to the earth instead to find some way of making sense of this dreamlike setting. In an interpretation of the plane of the stars, the sopranos, altos and soloist execute a subtly shifting musical texture that was largely inspired by Arvo Pärt’s Da Pacem Domine. Beneath this texture, the tenors and basses sing what could be considered the melody in an example of harmonic planing, in which all three voices move in harmonic parallelism.  

B natural and B sharp occurring simultaneously in bar 13 between the first sopranos and tenors.

The beauty of a two-part texture such as this is that each part operates under its own parameters, which creates moments of harmonic tension on the macroscale. For example, the strict parallelisms in the tenors and basses result in both the dorian and aeolian forms of the key of G sharp. The sopranos and altos, however, are firmly in G sharp dorian, so when the basses descend to the low E in bars 7-8 and 15-16, E natural and E sharp are present simultaneously for a brief period of time. Similarly, in bars 12-13, the tenors and basses briefly strike a G sharp major chord, resulting in both B natural and B sharp being present. The meaning behind this is simple; as the stars continue their own inscrutable rearrangement, we must find another path to where we know we “must go” (C sharp major, but I’ll get to that in a moment).

The greatest challenge I faced in composing this piece was the second stanza. Consider the wealth of ideas and possible routes of musical interpretation in this language:

Look for smaller signs instead, the fine
disturbances of ordered things when suddenly
the rhythms of your expectation break
and in a moment’s pause, another world
reveals itself behind the ordinary.

The sudden shift to A minor in bar 32.

It’s beautiful language, but to create musical representations of every small nuance in that single sentence would lead to rather convoluted music. It’s helpful to remember that poetry often sings differently than it reads. In this case, I opted to focus on the sudden shift in character that occurs halfway through the stanza and how that shift leads to “another world.” On the word “suddenly” the harmony shifts unexpectedly to A minor, worlds away from the base mode of G# dorian/aeolian. While the tempo remains the same, the rhythm also effectively doubles for a short time – eighth notes (quavers) moving unexpectedly in conflict with the established expectation of quarter notes (crotchets). Following the soft blossoming of “another world” in A major, the harmony returns to the base mode of G sharp dorian/aeolian on the word “ordinary.”

The final bars of the piece, culminating with a C sharp major chord with the third missing.

The final stanza contains several pitch-related representations of the text. Following the return of the two-part structure from the first section of the piece, the subtly shifting texture is modified to become even more harmonically ambiguous. As Gioia writes, “one small detail out of place will be enough to let you know” – in this case the seventh scale degree of the base mode of G sharp is modified to become F double sharp, a small sign that something significant, but subtle, has changed. At first, it appears that we are now in the sound world of a “harmonicized” form of G sharp melodic minor, in which only the ascending form of the scale is used. But as the piece closes in on the final bars, it becomes clear that the destination is really C sharp lydian/mixolydian, alluded to earlier in the piece as the place where, eventually, “you know you must go.”

Interestingly, in one last nod to the missing ring, the final embellished C sharp chord is missing its third. Now, we did not plan this and it is not necessary to program these works in this order, but Sarah’s piece begins on the note F – when respelled to E#, it would be the missing third of the final chord of The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves. A funny bit of coincidence, the fact that after all the uncertainty of the missing engagement ring, my piece finds its final resolution in Sarah’s.

And so, I’ll conclude this final piece of the Scattered Light puzzle by saying that it has been absolute joy to work with my finacée Sarah on this project, and that both of us are incredibly excited to see these wonderful ensembles and conductors interpret the resulting pieces in their own unique ways. We feel that our own creative processes naturally produced two contrasting pieces of music that will work very well together. To everyone involved – thank you for your commitment to this project and happy rehearsing!



Thomas LaVoyComment