The Sensation of Waking (2011)
for baritone (on and original text), flute/picc., clarinet/bs. clar., trumpet, violin, cello, c. bass, piano - 20 minutes
Frank Stemper – notes
The Sensation of Waking was written during 2010-11 for the Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players “Premieres” concerts. Part of it was composed shile serving as Composer In Residence at Fundación Valparaiso, an artist retreat on the southeast coast of Spain. Although this music demands a lot from the entire ensemble, the singer is especially forced out of his comfort zone, as he is continually asked to alternate vocal techniques, such as falsetto and head voice with normal full voice. In addition, because a lot of the text recalls middle-of-the-night situations, and the singer must intimate singing quietly, I fabricated something I call Flüstern-Stimme, or whisper singing – related to Schönberg’s Sprecht-Stimme. This technique may actually have been invented by Marilyn Monroe back in 1962 as she sang “Happy Birthday” to JFK, although my use doesn’t include the sexual innuendo.
The text is my own. It comes from a diary of childhood memories that I started to record in the early 1980’s while living in Paris. At that time I was struck by how very vivid these memories had remained – and continue to remain – in my consciousness. It is almost like I am back there reliving the given moment or event. For example, as this piece begins I am walking with my family, as probably a 4 or 5 year old, on a dark Wisconsin winter night, through a light dusting of snow. (There – I just returned to that moment again.) Like most memories I have little control over them. Although they are sometimes sparked by another event or association (much like music), they usually just happen, randomly taking over my thoughts as I return to the past for a few seconds. I don’t know if this sort of thing happens to everyone, but it does bring to mind the time tripping experienced by protagonist Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE.
One definition of Music might be: a collection of abstract sonic events that we as listeners associate with anything that happens to pop into our heads, e.g. emotional responses, actual memories, both abstract and non-abstract thoughts, ideas fabricated from our imaginations, as well as bits and pieces from our subconscious related to all of the above. This happens whether we are paying strict attention to the music or not – we can’t really shut out sound – we don’t have “ear lids.” So, while putting my written memories together and then setting them with music, I experienced time tripping on a considerably grander scale. As these real memories (however distorted over the years) met the abstractness of music (my own music – from the composer’s side not the listener’s), my real and abstract imagination got out of hand. It was a little scary. But it all worked out as, once again, while listening to the silence, I got to look beyond the scar on the back of my older brother’s head and view the new morning snow.
This is therefore a personal, introspective, perhaps self-indulgent musical narrative, as is I suppose every attempted piece of artwork to some degree. However, it hopefully offers some commonality, beyond just being a curiosity of sound and words – maybe striking home for everyone. After all, each of us has a childhood, and most of us have had trouble sleeping from time to time.
The Sensation of Waking
Floating within a suspension of shimmering snowflakes, we
approach the mulberry tree as it glistens on Christmas night. We
are together. Just us. Clouds of frozen laughter sparkle as we
drift away. Where now is that breath we breathed?
My older brother is telling me lies as we sleep in our bed one
night, or perhaps one morning, together in the room at the top
of the stairs.
I lie awake *listening to the silence: Restless creaks inside my
wall, the intimate dripping that follows rain, the distant
acceleration of a city bus.* Somewhere, a foghorn moans,
arousing the cynical whispering of our furnace.
A pristine snow glows in the dark winter night. It is quiet, still,
and not really cold. Only my shovel and perhaps a distant shovel
break the silence. I am alone.
Everyone is asleep. A streetlight peers into my window through
the fever of summer’s muggy blackness. ** I remember the
sensation of closing my eyes one night, then suddenly waking to
daylight in the room at the top of the stairs. But now I am an
ageless prowler, wandering through grey, empty rooms, aware
of the approaching invasion of destiny.
As my small hands clutch at the piano, I sense the mirror behind
me. It gives a Christmas feel to the dark parlor, but there is no
tree, no colored lights. Someone else is or is not in the room.
I reluctantly go back to bed and listen to the ringing in my ears.
My fingertips come together, and the ringing immediately fills
the room. At the top of the stairs unknown enemies speak
about me hatefully. I can’t make out the words, only their
My hands conspire with this terror: Grotesquely swelling digits
touch and fuse at their chubby ends, triggering a recurring
vision of failure, insincerity and wasted opportunity. I feel their
fat, obtundent tips and the dread of repressed delirium on the
glittering trapeze, and the horror of being asleep while I am still
My older brother and I were sleeping in a big bed in the room at
the top of the stairs. It was morning. I think he was still asleep,
or at least trying. He was dreaming of the truth. I could see his
scar. The one on the back of his head he got from the coffee
table. The scar was white and scary. Outside, the snow was
whiter and beautiful.
*this passage comes later in the composition.