Notes from Under Ground: Composer Jack Symonds on his chamber opera

Capture.PNGWhen composer Jack Symonds finished reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground he knew it was the perfect text for an opera. Symonds first composed the work in 2010 for the inaugural season of Sydney Chamber Opera, of which he is the Artistic Director. The aim of the company is to provide a platform for the performance of contemporary chamber operas in Sydney. Symonds’ opera, Notes from Underground was the work that established Sydney Chamber Opera as a first rate company with the critics describing it as a ‘force to be reckoned with.’ Since then the company has gone from strength to strength and is representing the opera in August.

Dostoevsky’s novel of the same name was one of the first credited existential works to be found in literature and the way in which the prose is constructed presented many challenges in the creation of the libretto and the musical representation of the characters and the unfolding of the narrative.

In preparing the libretto (by Pierce Wilcox) Symonds created a table of scenes as he saw the book divided. “I saw the text as clearly divided into seven opera scenes so that focuses on the fulcrum around the vision of the man’s meeting and the vision of Liza, which is the central idea of the book. And I gave a little list and a table that detailed to page numbers and sentences how I saw these two halves as corresponding so I said make a libretto out of that,” Symonds explains. This division of scenes provided the framework for the musical ideas that Symonds would employ in creating the unfolding narrative.

Musically, Symonds describes the opera as “Zooming in and out of an enormously tall chord in every register of differently tuned thirds, which is a simple interval that can produce passages of completely functioning tonality.

“This is then detuned into almost painful microtonality and by focusing and moving between this single spine of differently tuned thirds I can manipulate very quickly the transitions between stages of character and states of time,” he explains.

This technique was effective in representing the simultaneous unfolding of events in the narrative: “In music you can use time to pause, rewind, understand how events occur and imagine that there is this constant dialogue between present and past through every parameter of music, virtually,” said Symonds.

In order to represent both Aboveground and and Underground Man, Symonds double cast the role of the lead, “I think it is a wonderful structural thing for a composer to already have implicit, the same events, that are going through Underground Man’s head are also being played out on the stage in Aboveground Man’s life (they’re the same character) and so the possibilities for musical representation of the narrative might start off with a whole lot of promise and hope and a sort of humour, and they are kind of destined to end up in nihilism,” Symonds explains.

Second time around

Symonds is excited at the opportunity to get a second outing of this work, which in contemporary music is not always a possibility for composers. “I am glad that we can present a version that more people can see and hear in a better performance space. It’s also an opportunity to really remake the score and I estimate that most of the content is intact but at least two thirds of the work has been re-written and certainly re-orchestrated and for entirely different singers.

“It was quite important for me to write for the singers, having worked with lots of singers now since Sydney Chamber Opera began. I like to think that I know how these peoples voices operate much more than I did with the original singers when I had worked much in opera,” said Symonds.

So, while the second iteration of Notes from Underground, is more tailored to the singers’ voices it is not a completely new piece as the content and the concepts are the same. “But as far as composition in terms of the time it takes to write a composition, in the year that I have spent re-working it almost feels like I’ve written a new piece,” said Symonds, adding that it’s a wonderful gift for a composer to get “another shot at it”.

Capture.PNGSo, what else is in the pipeline for Jack Symonds? “I have been labouring for a while now on a double concerto for the Bendigo Festival of Exploratory Music which has taken far more time than I expected. It’s a whole new language for me in some ways, and I am very excited to get to the end of that. I have also been editing and recording a CD of my chamber music.”

– Samuel Cottell


This article appeared in the August edition of Fine Music Magazine – you can subscribe to our monthly magazine and have it posted to your home or business or click the link here to read online.

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