Hounds of Spring
Jacob Gelber interviews Jonathan David on his 18-minute work for mixed chorus, electric guitar, electric bass, and drums
JG: From where did you draw inspiration for the piece? Could you talk about the choice of text and how you decided to set it?
JD: The first two questions really belong together for me since my primary inspiration for nearly any choral (or vocal) work is the text itself. Swinburne’s chorus, “When the Hounds of Spring”, from the verse drama Atalanta in Calydon (1865), had been marked with a bright orange post-it note for a decade or so before I set it. This early work of Swinburne is actually considered restrained compared to some of his later more controversial poetry. The Hounds of Spring is nonetheless thoroughly over-the-top. The sheer density of the sonic texture, the frank sensuousness, the unapologetic nostalgia all conjure up a Romantic scene with a visceral impact that borders on the absurd. It is also, to my ears, absurdly beautiful.
Unsurprisingly, for many years no opportunity arose for me to set this text appropriately. To start, what music could bring another level of meaning to words already so heightened and activated? The music would of necessity be intricate and difficult, and be able to convey real gravitas and, at times, outrageousness, not to mention the hefty length of the resulting piece. The occasion finally presented itself with C4’s 2012 collaboration with the electric chamber outfit, the Fireworks Ensemble. (The work is dedicated to the two groups.)
While, sadly, rock music’s heyday is behind us today, it has often been written that rock, in its edgier and more fantastic forms, is the quintessential Romantic genre of our time. Heavy metal and hard rock push the envelope in ways that Swinburne’s text does. They are loud, thrilling, at times raunchy and, not infrequently, overripe and ridiculous. The sub-genre of “progressive” rock, in its complexity, ambitious scope and, it must be said, often heavily mannered approach, shares other essential qualities with Swinburne’s writing. Especially in the instrumental writing there is a good deal of the spirit of 1970’s progressive hard rock in Hounds, as in the concept albums, Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull, or 2112 by Rush (unhip as they may be today).
Of course, many hallmarks of the “prog-rock” sound came about as the direct influence of modern classical music, such as compound meters (much of my piece is in 7/8), frequently shifting textures, and stylistic diversity. There are also certainly many elements of Hounds derived more directly from contemporary choral music, such as the dense polyphonic vocal writing and rich choral harmonies. Also, within the many mood changes, there is considerable thematic unity anchoring things down. Most of the themes of Hounds derive from the 3-note motif on “Hounds of Spring” (starting note--down a fourth--up a minor third).
JG: How do you hope people will feel after hearing your piece?
JD: The hunting metaphor notwithstanding, the work is a celebration of spring, nature, love (and lust). I do hope the listener’s feeling will be a wholeheartedly upbeat one, filled with equal notes of exhilaration, surprise, and knowing winks. ~
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