Sentence : Acétylcholine : Pérégrination (2004)
Performance by Dylan Benson, percussion.
The three French words in the title have almost exact English equivalents. The colons between them indicate a relationship of causation. Two colons also suggest a fast succession of explanations, as though the first clarification was only a step on the way to a better one. Visually, the colons give symmetry to the title and fight the linearity that would have been implied by comas or semi-colons. At the same time, the colons capture a certain mathematical, scientific appearance that somehow befits a piece with electronics.
The narrative behind this piece is inspired from two traditional stories: that of Oedipus, and that of the Monkey King. The first part of the piece depicts a hero such as Oedipus in conversation with the oracle, followed by his reaction, after being informed of his tragic fate. The first word in the title, "sentence" refers to the oracle's solemn statement. As in English, the word can also mean a judicial decision, often a punishment.
Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter; it is used to convey nerve signals from one neuron to the next. I associate the word "acétylcholine" with brain activity (which is only part of its function), but also, because the two words sound similar, with "adrénaline," which evokes a state of tension and excitement. In French, the sound of the word "acétylcholine" reminds me of the tinkling of metal wind chimes, which in turn evokes the tinkling feeling when blood starts flowing back in a numb limb, or when, after the initial shock, bad news slowly sets in, as it does here, when Oedipus awakens to his fate.
The hero's encounter with the oracle is serious and almost frightening, but it is also at times playful. The hero needs focus and flexibility to be able to follow and respond to the oracle's mercurial moods.
The oracle and the hero communicate using a form of glossolalia, a language understood by them alone. According to the legend, Oedipus went to the temple of Apollo at Delphi to learn about his future. The practice there was for a young woman called a Pythia to inhale vapors, chew laurel leaves, and utter the oracle's prophecies using an incomprehensible tongue, which a priest then needed to translate. Here, I imagine that a direct dialogue between the oracle and the inquirer can take place, hence the absence of the priest and the lack of translation.
I also incorporated into the piece the sound of wind in trees, another means by which oracles would manifest themselves and communicate with humans. Priests at the temple of Zeus at Dodona would convey the oracle's prophecies by translating the sound made by the sacred trees. In this piece, the oracle is an invisible wandering ghost that the hero needs to invoke. The ruffling in the leaves signals the oracle's presence.
Two more sources of inspiration in conjunction with the passage I have just described are the film Edipo Re by Pasolini (1967), and Manuel de Résurrection, a piece for singer and two samplers, by François-Bernard Mâche (1998), which also incorporates foreign-sounding syllables.
The second part of the piece, "pérégrination", could refer to two different journeys in the story of Oedipus: his escape from his adoptive parents' kingdom and, later, his exile from Thebes, after the murder of his birth parents.
To me, this last section also evokes the story of the Monkey King, as told by the 16th century Chinese novelist Wu Ch'eng-en in "The Journey to the West" (in French, "La pérégrination vers l'Ouest"). The story has two parts. In the first, the reader is introduced to the Monkey King, a proud hero with great magical powers who, having performed many mischievous deeds, is punished by Buddha and imprisoned under a mountain. After five hundred years, the monkey is freed and sent on a mission to escort a monk who is traveling to India (or what we now call India) with the aim of bringing back Buddhist scriptures.
Here, the word "pérégrination" is akin to the word "pélérinage" (pilgrimage), and is intended to evoke travel, reflection, and expiation. After the downfall brought on by God (or by gods, in the case of Oedipus), the journey purges the hero of the human catastrophes he leaves behind. It is a calm time for introspection and search of peace.
Incidentally, the second part of the Monkey King's story, the actual journey to the West, turns out to be anything but a peaceful pilgrimage, as eighty-one calamities befall the travelers before they finally reach their goal. The piece concludes before any of this excitement takes place.
Despite its somewhat serious text, the piece is never far from lighter, more playful moments, when we rise from the depths and defend ourselves against the absurdity of it all. Those are moments when the hero strays from his momentous course, and returns to his human roots.
There is no direct programmatic link between the narrative and the music. The opening on drums is incantative and belongs to the "sentence" aspect of the piece. The marimba cascades that follow are whimsical, quick, light, worried, unsettled, and at times high-strung. They are thus more representative of the "acétylcholine" component of the piece. The "pérégrination" does occur as a quasi-second movement, yet refers back to earlier material. The piece depicts the whole situation somewhat non-linearly and kaleidoscopically, in the manner of thoughts or dreams.
Sentence : Acétylocholine : Pérégrination incorporates sounds created by the Buchla synthesizer at Stony Brook University. Dylan Benson commissioned this piece in the Spring of 2002, at a time when all that he had heard composed by me were two short studies using these sounds. Hence, it is my hope that he will find some of what he was envisioning by my inclusion of them within the context of this piece.
This piece is dedicated to Dylan, with many thanks to him for investing so many hours, teaching me about percussion writing, going over sketches, practicing and recording the music, and for his patience, while the piece slowly came to life.
Francis with Dylan Benson during a recording session at Stony Brook.