Benedict Mason (1954)

Self-Referential Songs and Realistic Virelais (1990)

for soprano and ensemble

  • General information
    • Composition date: 1990
    • Duration: 17 mn
    • Publisher: Chester Music, Londres
    • Commission: Alte Oper, Frankfurt pour le dixième anniversaire de l'Ensemble Modern
    • Libretto (details, author):

      textes de Benedict Mason

Detailed formation
  • soloist: 1 solo soprano
  • 1 flute, 1 oboe, 1 clarinet, 1 bassoon, 2 horns, 1 trumpet, 1 trombone, 2 percussionists, 2 pianos, 1 violin, 1 second violin, 1 viola, 1 cello, 1 double bass

Premiere information

  • Date: 9 December 1990

    Allemagne, Francfort, Alter Oper


    Christine Whittlesey : soprano, Ensemble Modern, direction : Ingo Metzmacher.


Enregistrement : 1 cd Bridge Records BCD 9045.

Table of contents

  1. Partial Baffles
  2. Ah...never of the drumhead
  3. Whiffling Seesaw Rhythms
  4. Metallurgical Rules
  5. aahk pi-it-it skaaak!
  6. Temporary Deviations
  7. Del penicille qui c'est escrit

Program note

"Self-reference is ubiquitous" writes Douglas R. Hofstadter "many systems have the capabilityto represent or refer to themselves... within the system of their own symbolism". Late 14th century realistic virelais used the vivid imagery of the huntor battle, with the music imitating bird-song, or fanfares and so on.

Does text matter? - is it simply a peg to hang things on?
How much are words "audible"?
Is their meaning and reception affected by the musical setting?
In these self-referential songs the text is deliberately (and sometimes ironically) related to what is going on in the music. Although this documentary and pseudo-documentary choice of words is a way of avoiding the poetic, because of the reverse word-painting in the music the documentary words reassume a poetic context.

And anyway real documentary in music doesn't work-witness the bizarre gramophone recording of a nightingale in Respighi's 'Pines of Rome'.

1. The bio acoustics of orthoptera vividly portrayed in the music. The words discuss the anatomy of the acoustical systems involved.

2. Imaginary Ethnomusicology

3. The singer sings a programme note on the instrumental texture occasionally alluding to the language of critics in music reviews, though maybe the composer is also being self critical.

4. A Joyceian celebration of ubiquitous instruments, but with a more antipoetic word setting, and more reference to the way they are always depicted in music.

5. Onomatopoeia in both the instrumental music and the text.

6. More onomatopoeia and questions of harmony.

7. A real realistic virelai, so self-referential that it becomes a pastiche and parody of the older model. The text in old French refers to the very act of writing music down and is full of cross-channel puns (i.e. French-English puns), and other word-play.

Benedict Mason.