• Michael Nyman
  • Cycle of Disquietude (Coisas, Vozes, Lettras) (1998)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Commissioned by 100 Days Festival, Lisbon

12-song cycle
Unavailable for performance.

  • ssx(asx,ob).asx(ssx,tsx).barsx(fl,afl,pic)/tpt(flg).hn.tbn/ebgtr/str
  • soprano, contralto
  • 1 hr
  • Kevin Power, Fernando Pessoa
  • English

Programme Note

1. Disquietude is always increasing
2. The female is a good source of dreams
3. I love the stillness of early summer evenings
4. "I’m riding on the tram as usual”
5. I watch my own thoughts rising
6. I am the butchered marketeer
7. The simplest, truly simplest things
8. "He sang in a gentle voice”
9. Silence emerges from the sound of rain
10. To love is to tire of not being alone
11. Only the fragment
12. "I went into the barber shop as usual”

In 1996 Michael Nyman asked me to work with him on an opera that would take Pessoa as its focal point. We had the evocative title Herzog – the name of the German steamer in which Pessoa returned to Lisbon from South Africa in 1905 – as a starting point. We though fragmenting incidents from his life into a kind of musical collage: we though of using him as a symbol for the contemporary concern with identity, tracing the shift from a modernist paranoia to a post modernist schizophrenia and possibly juxtaposing two areas of sound that would move from a European Portuguese Modernist sound towards the more multicultural soundscape of contemporary Lisbon: and we even thought of working from his death-bed with his surviving voices and of inventing new contemporary identities for him. But we also felt that the question of identity in Pessoa was an excessively evident critical cliché, that we might fall into the trap of some kind of multicultural music hall. We felt that we were forcing things and that, in any case, what was it that we could say of any substance about Pessoa so shortly after the Centenary that had dealt with him extensively, even exhaustively, in critical terms.

Both of us, however, had been deeply impressed by The Book of Disquietude and we thought that if we reduced our focus and centred on passages that moved us in the text that we might well have material for a song cycle. It seemed to us to be a text that lies at the intersection of the lyrical and the philosophical. Intimate and torn. We both located the passages in the text that interested us and all of the sixty songs that constitute the cycle contain one or more of these passages. Michael chose finally to work with the nine. The appropriated passages range from lyrical description of the light and the estuary in Lisbon, to affirmations concerning the nature of self or selves, to lyrical passages, or to prosaic descriptions. I then chose to work with or against these passages. Sometimes I simply follow the lyrical intention with only a slight shift in tone as if the original text were in the process of merging effortlessly into a different voice. The appropriation in this case is smooth and ‘untroubled’. Yet as the cycle develops the appropriations seem to find that they are having to survive as simply one more fragment or that they are being violently contested by other linguistic tendencies and directions. The end of the quotation, or the space between quotations, becomes thus a nexus for tension, for multiple voices, for contradiction, and for contemporary presence. Pessoa’s essentially Modernist personae drifts away towards the broken voices of an anonymous crowd. What would Pessoa have made of the accelerated schedules of modern life? Another voice; another glass. In all events here is a writer who attempts to construct meaning from the intensity of vision. The lonely poet who walked his city at night in the company of his chosen voices or who sat in the corner of the café watching the daily rituals of his fellow citizens becomes a memory and we are left with hectic nervousness of contemporary living where the fragment appears as the only thing that we can trust. A glistening accumulation of perceptions, like broken pieces of glass, rather that a passionately orchestrated symphony of the self. Today we know that the self is one more fiction – a recognition that is both disturbing and deliciously liberating. Pesoa intuited this exemplary postmodern position and I have tried to work within its frame.

Pessoa left us with no doubt as to what he was doing on The Book of Disquietude: "I softly sing – for myself alone – empty songs I compose while waiting…” This is, or course, what we all do while we wait patiently, or impatiently, for the absurdity of ending, knowing that there is no ending, and knowing that the fragment is symbolic of such incompletion. It yearns for what is not there. As I said we trust it because we have no choice. We stutter, stumble forwards, damaging the world somewhere as an inescapable fact of inhabiting language. In writing theses songs I have tried to hold to the hesitations and wariness implicit in these lines of another lyrical philosopher poet, George Oppen, who notes, "Possible / To use / Words provided one treats them / As enemies.” Few of us, I imagine, would doubt that discomfort is one of the boundary stones at the edges of our living!

Kevin Power 1998

As Kevin Power drip fed me with his text, by fax, by hand, by mail, I would start setting to music those that suggested an immediate musical response. Of the 60 poems that arrived I was able to set only 9 before realising that the song cycle would start showing signs of unwelcome gigantism if I added to this coherent package of (generally slow) songs written specifically with Hilary Summers in mind.

However, I did feel that another voice, metaphorically as well as literally, was necessary to give the cycle coherence. I accordingly returned to The Book of Disquietude this time looking not for fragments but for complete texts. The young woman wearing a green scarf observed by Pessoa on a tram had always fascinated me – with his ability to conjure a complete social and industrial world out of a detail of its woven texture – and was an obvious starting point (number 163, beginning ‘Trudo e absurdo’ in the edition of the Livro do Desassossego edited /organised by Hacinto do Prado Coelho, Edicoes Atica, 1997). A single such song would have unbalanced the cycle as a whole and I set about finding two other texts, of a similarly narrative rather than purely reflective/polemical/philosophical kind. I chose two further texts -–number 40 about the street singer (‘Cantata em uma voz muito suave, uma cancao de um paiz longinque’) and 63, set in a barbershop (‘Entrei no barbeiro no modo do costume….’).

These songs were written in a more popular, less reflective, more diatonic style and it soon became obvious that they should be sung by a Portuguese popular singer – the excellent Felipa Pais. The song cycle is thus organised as follows:

1, 2, 3 (Kevin Power)
4 (Pessoa)
5, 6, 7 (Power)
8 (Pessoa)
9, 10, 11 (Power)
12 (Pessoa)

In the last two songs the two women singer join together to present Pessoa’s "exterior” narrative and "interior” monologue voices.

The secondary part of the title Cycle of Disquietude: Coisas, vozes, lettras is taken from the woman with green scarf text: ‘Para mim os pormenores sao coisas, vozes, lettras’.

Michael Nyman 1998