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Music as a Muse: Making Project Orfeo

Duke composer Scott Lindroth explains how he turned author Richard Powers' words into music

Music and literature will mix on Sunday, Sept. 25, in Project Orfeo, a multimedia concert based on the 2014 novel “Orfeo.” Written by National Book Award-winning author Richard Powers, “Orfeo” explores the creation of music with the natural world as a muse.

The concert – a meshing of words and music – will feature a group of musicians that includes Duke University faculty violinist Jonathan Bagg, and narration by Powers himself, who will read passages from his book.

The musicians will perform two pieces – the 1941 work “Quartet for the End of Time” by Olivier Messiaen, and “Cadences,” a new work by Duke faculty composer Scott Lindroth inspired by Powers’ book.

Below, Lindroth discusses the creative process of turning Powers’ words into music.

Q: Professor, this project is a little tricky to characterize. Is it a spoken-word event set to music? Is it a music performance buttressed by the spoken word?

LINDROTH: It’s probably more like a musical performance buttressed by spoken word. But having said that, this is not a format I’ve generally enjoyed in the past. I’ve found the spoken word has its own trajectory distinct from the music’s trajectory and finding connections was difficult and sometimes felt like the overall experience was more distraction and dilution rather than having things come together.

What was so appealing about this was that the writing, the text, is very much tuned to these specific pieces of music. The comments are beautifully tuned to the music being played. So instead of a distraction, we have an amplification of the music. His words give us metaphors and words that prime our imaginations and in some ways make us more receptive of what we hear.

Musicians rehearse the music for Project Orfeo.

Q: For your piece of this project, you have said you have tried to translate the speech rhythms of Richard Powers’ writing into music. How do you do that?

LINDROTH: His writing, I feel, has a real distinctive character. He thinks very carefully and deliberately about how sentences flow from one to another. When you hear him read, you can tell he thinks about this consciously. He tries out words as utterances, not solely as things that are read.

I can pick up on that, reading his work. There’s a sensitivity to pacing and rhythm of his speech. So I recorded myself reading some passages from “Orfeo.” I would then transcribe those rhythms as best I could. In some ways this is subjective, how I notate those rhythms. I wanted to capture something that has the fluidity of speech. I wanted something that worked within the cracks between pulses and meters.  It would suggest a different type of rhythmic flow.

I was very interested in the changing patterns of accented syllables. Which were elongated? Which were shorter? All of those things are clear as speech. But when you map those as rhythm as notes or chords, it’s a very different type of sound. So I can notate it. I write it out as musical notes.

Q: So you’re a translator?

LINDROTH: Yes. It’s a kind of translation. I think of it as kind of mapping, in a way. Taking the data from one utterance or phenomenon and mapping it into another kind of utterance.

Q: Should attendees to this performance have read the Powers book in advance in order to get the full effect?

LINDROTH: The beauty of this is that Rick does that for us with the passage he has selected from the novel. He reads beautifully; he performs his work beautifully. And then he leaves it to the listener to make connections however they may.