The Inspiration

In the spirit of candor, I’ve been watching Breaking Bad (a really incredible show). A major plot point, the impetus for the whole story in fact, is that the main character has terminal lung cancer. Somewhere around season 3, I thought to myself, “Do whales get cancer?”

Inspiration comes suddenly and I envisioned an art song about the life of whales, these intelligent, regal creatures. I’ve also wanted to write for solo voice and marimba for a while now. I’ve had a few previous attempts and this just another. I wrote and performed a piece for soprano and marimba in undergrad, but I was disappointed and erased it from history soon after. Maybe this one will be more successful.

I wrote the current draft of text in about twenty minutes. Sometimes when I work, I work fast, without methodology. Just an outpouring of ideas. I know it’s not helpful, but it’s a true part of my process. Maybe the truest and most honest part.

The first musical idea to come to me was to create this rippling, watery like ostinato for the marimba. My inspiration for that came from a Liszt piece, “Un Sospiro.” Give it a listen if you’ve never heard it. It begins with this beautiful, fast arpeggiating figure. It always sounded “watery” to me (in a good way), so I stole the idea. Kind of.

Movement I.

Here’s the current draft of the first movement. It might be the final draft, unless I get strong feedback that compels me to change something. For instance, I’m not familiar with putting lyrics into a score, so I’m sure I have some things wrong here and there.

Here’s the pdf: Do Whales Get Cancer

Here’s the realized audio from Finale, the engraving program I use. It’ll be a while before I can get a true recording.

I wrote this one over the course of two days. The majority of the writing happened at my awful Benjamin Adams electric piano, while I attempted to sing melodic fragments.

Analysis (The Theory Behind It)

This movement is in F minor which will be the primary key center in the overall tonal schema. The marimba accompaniment begins with the fast arpeggios I mentioned earlier that’s meant to invoke images of rippling water. In measure 3, I introduce a cross-rhythm idea (4:3) to set up the ending of this movement, along with some rhythmic ideas for the later in the suite/song cycle.  This introduction section begins in Ab Major (to convey peacefulness) before ending with a C7 arpeggiation to set up the song proper in F minor.

The vocal part is syllabic throughout. There’s not much to say about it, except that I tried to apply natural rhythms to the text. I’m not going to overly concern myself with writing technically impressive passages. I’m far more concerned with writing a beautiful piece than I am with writing an impressive piece (although, I hope it’s both!)

The chord progression from mm. 10 – 18 is [ i7 – N7 – III7 – VI] That ‘N’ is a Neopolitan chord, a bII. Neopolitan chords usually serve a predominant function (they’re also usually in first inversion). In this instance, I’m using it to de-tonicize the III (Ab Major, which would be the tonic chord in the relative major.) If I had used any other chord, this section would potentially sound like [ vi – V – I ], giving the impression that this movement is in Ab Major, especially after the introduction.

From mm. 18 – 24, the text describes the sinking of a dying whale:

“. . . And they fall into the deep, dark, cold, black abyss, alone,”

Pretty dark, I know. To illustrate this moment, I wrote a descending pattern of fifths and fourths on the marimba using two diads a half-step apart [ Ab – Eb | G – D]. The soprano descends tonally and with syncopation for extra tension.

Finally, the initial “rippling” pattern returns for a pretty simple, hopefully elegant, progression [ i7 – III7 – VI].

The closing two bars [ VI7 – bII7 – i7 ] return to the cross-rhythm pattern established in m. 3. The point of this is to end with rhythmic tension and avoid sounding like a true conclusion, seeing as its the first movement . . . unless I change my mind, but I doubt I would ever make this the final movement.


Anyway, that’s all for this movement. I’m already spinning some ideas around for the second movement, currently titled “Breach.”

~ Z

Ps. Whales do get cancer. It’s very sad.