Orfordness (Monologue)

ENS.2007.8 | 20′
Text by W.G. Sebald
Baritone & 2 Violins



The extraordinary sequence in W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn recounting the narrator’s journey to the island of Orford Ness off the coast of Suffolk may not technically form the book’s climax (that would be the devastating hurricane that follows), but it remains among the most memorable passages in the author’s oeuvre.

I consider Sebald to be the greatest author of our time, and he has long been my favorite writer, whose melancholy sense of the world is perfectly expressive of my own. I intend eventually to set a variety of excerpts from his books, and Orfordness was my first attempt to do justice to my experience of his work.

The Rings of Saturn being nominally about walking, and therefore digressive in its form, I felt my Cellular Song Cycle approach would well suit the subject, only this time following a narrative rather than strictly structural arc. I chose two violins to accompany the voice, creating a braid of silver threads closely following and mirroring the vocal monologue, as well as to provide for a variety of interpretive possibilities commenting on the narrative.

For the first (but not last) time I utilized quarter tones, intending to suggest the liminal quality of Orford Ness, an abandoned center for military research which resembles to the narrator an isle of the dead with its strange and mysterious “temples or pagodas.” Surrounded by metrically uneven barcarolles uneasily suggesting the rolling North Sea, the music moves through a wide range of moods as it follows the narrator around the desolate installation, ending with a coruscation of harmonies as he sees “amidst the darkening colours, the sails of the long-vanished windmills turning heavily in the wind.”