Whirled English

As part of our 2017-2018 season we’re continuing to give each of our core singers a turn at the helm of the blog. The below post below comes from our mezzo soprano, Elisa Sutherland.


Marc Sabat’s new piece for Ekmeles, Seeds of Skies, Alibis, is written in “whirled English.” What this means exactly will be explored in a few paragraphs, but it indicates at the very least that language has been toyed or experimented with – only one of the ways in which Sabat subverts our assumptions about music and text in this carefully crafted piece.

Sabat refers to the work as a cantata, a form that indicates some sort of narrative or scene that unfolds through alternating expository recitations and emotional arias. Seeds of Skies is indeed made up of a variety of subsections (some you won’t find in the quintessential cantatas of Monteverdi and Bach): “Recitativo,” “Chorale,” but also “Invocation,” “Chants,” and, puzzlingly, “Short Cuts Long Lines.” And the text plays an important role in determining the form, albeit in an original way: where once it might have indicated a switch from recit to aria or fugue to chorale, Sabat’s text exerts its force on a measure-by-measure basis, drawing out sibilants and cutting short excited plosives in mini-dramas of their own.

So what is “whirled English?” The text for the piece is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, but then brought through a second metamorphosis by Sabat and the poet Uljana Wolf. While us singers never pronounce the Latin directly, the words we do speak take their sound and shape, not meaning, from Ovid’s lines. “In nova fert animus mutatas,” becomes: “In no war fared animals mutate us;” “dicere forma” is transformed humorously (and with some truth) into, “dick arrows form us.” But Sabat and Wolf are not satisfied with one acoustic permutation. The “fert” in the first line has a new life reflected in multiple languages across the first movement of the piece; it appears as “fared” and “fährt” and “faire,” “fate” and “feared” and so on and so on.

Each line of Ovid’s is given this same treatment. No thought is spared for accurate translation, only humor and enthusiasm for the sound of language as we speak and sing it. It’s as if two thousand years of Latin derivation is happen right before us, bursting into being. The text is resplendent with cognates and faux amis across a multitude of languages and dialects – as if the piece were an entire conversation of that moment of: “Oh! I thought you said…”

I always love pieces that make me think about some aspect of music in a new way, whether it is timbre, harmony, form, or something more specific, like the beauty of a certain interval or how soprano saxophones really can sound nice. Sabat and Wolf achieve what the greatest poets are always striving for: to make us experience language in a new way. For their “translation” does have meaning and truth, for us to discover and figure out for ourselves:

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
Of bodies chang’d to various forms, I sing:
In no war fared animals mutate us, dick arrows form us

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