The Island of the Sirens

The Island of the Sirens (2011) is a piece about defective transcription and the failures of translation.

I started with a recording of a warning siren I heard in Plaquemine, Louisiana, while I was traveling down the Mississippi River in the autumn of 2009. I sliced the warning siren into eight layers of partials and then asked the computer to transcribe those eight recordings into musical notation. Because the computer’s transcription algorithm was confused by the sounds, the resulting scores were quite strange. I recorded eight women singing these transcriptions, and mixed them in quasi-unison against the eight layers of electronically transformed siren. I then made three separate submixes of the electronics, which are fed into three sets of headphones for the backup performers, who can be instrumentalists or singers. The backup chorus is asked to perform in real time what they are hearing in their headphones, a task at which they will invariably fail to fulfill entirely successfully, creating yet more quasi-unison layers that deviate from the actual sound of the transformed siren.

The lead vocal, a setting of Rilke’s poem about the impossibility of describing an experience to those who haven’t shared it, is the only notated music in the piece. It also incorporates elements I heard in the siren recording, filtered through my own biases and limitations.

When his hosts would ask him late in the evening
to tell of his voyages and the perils they brought,
the words came easily enough,
but he never knew

just how to convey the fear and with what startling
language to let them perceive, as he had,
that distant island turn to gold
across the blue and sudden stillness of the sea.

The sight of it announces a menace
different from the storm and fury
which had always signaled danger.
Silently it casts its spell upon the sailors.

They know that on that golden island
there is sometimes a singing–
and they lean on their oars, like blind men,
as though imprisoned

by the stillness. That quiet contains
all that is. It enters the ear
as if it were the other side
of the singing that no one resists.

Rainer Maria Rilke, from New Poems
Joanna Macy, Anita Barrow, translators

The Island of the Sirens was written for the New York ensemble loadbang, and is dedicated to the band with vast affection. The piece is part of my ongoing project, A Book of Days. You can hear a live performance from the New Music on the Point festival on December 10th in A Book of Days. loadbang’s premiere studio recording of the piece is available here.

horizontal rule

In order to perform The Island of the Sirens, you need a lead singer who sings this score, along with three instrumentalists or singers, who listen to individual headphone tracks and imitate what they’re hearing as well as they can. The piece is set up already in Ableton Live, and after you click the donation button below, I’ll send you all the materials you need to perform the piece using Ableton or the DAW of your choice.

DETAILS