Christine Draeger - Melusina's Dream (1999)
The winner of the Australian Flute Composition Competition in 1999, Melusina's Dream is a virtuosic solo flute piece that employs a variety of sounds and techniques to retell the fairy tale, The Little Mermaid. I met up with the Australian flutist-composer, Christine Draeger, at her studio in Sydney to discuss this piece and its performance.
What inspired you to write Melusina's Dream?
I'd been working with an actress, Jane Ahlquist, doing a show based on the fairy tale, The Little Mermaid. The title of the story written by Hans Christian Andersen was the same as the Disney cartoon version, so when we did our theatrical version we didn't want to call it The Little Mermaid because people would think it was a children's show. The original story is very much a parable.
It doesn't have a happy ending. Well, it's got a different kind of happy ending. It's a much more spiritual ending, because the mermaid actually wants an immortal soul. So it's a very symbolic, metaphysical story, like a religious parable really. Jane ended up calling it The Secret Mermaid, so it was like the "real story," almost like a tabloid exposé.
Jane was a story teller, but she took on the role of different characters.At times she was the sea-witch and then she might be the mermaid and then the voice of the Prince. I was on stage with her and I was embodying the sea and then the mermaid and then I was the sea-witch. The show was about an hour long; music interspersed with storytelling. When the show finished I wanted to make a piece out of the music that I'd developed. So it's like a very quick retelling of the story of The Little Mermaid.
I'd researched a lot about mermaids and the mythology of mermaids. Every culture seems to have this mermaid kind of creature in it. The thing about mermaids is that they sing but they don't usually talk. They're sort of mute. They tend to be anonymous and embody femininity in a kind of creepy way. But I thought, no, the female voice... there is a personality there. There is a mermaid called Melusina in German mythology and I thought, "I'll give her the name of a mermaid so it's more like one particular person's story." Even in the Hans Christian Andersen story I don't think the mermaid has a name. In the Disney version she does, but I wasn't going to call her Ariel!
What made you choose extended techniques over more conventional writing?
That was my language from many years of playing with The Seymour Group. Those kinds of techniques are not really extended techniques, they are just other techniques. The style of the music is more modal, I would say, because it was a fairy tale. There is a certain understanding that modal tonalities and folky rhythms mean "long time ago" in some vague way. That was the overall sound I was going for. Some of the music in the show was more modal and folky than what ended up in the final flute piece. I wanted to write a piece that was challenging to play for other flute players and I suppose I wanted a virtuosic concert piece. That was my idea, so that tended to push me in the direction of using the material which used extended techniques.
In the story there's the sea-witch who is really shrill, and there are quite ugly things happening. Extended techniques kind of give you permission to sound ugly. I'm quite a big fan of sounding ugly on the flute. There is often this narrow view of the flute where people say "Oh, the flute's a lovely instrument," but it's like forever playing the young, female, romantic lead in a play. I've always been drawn to so-called ugly, or dirtier sounds.
Performance Suggestions and Plot
Melusina's Dream begins with a slow, chant-like passage in the low register; the flutist singing a fourth below the flute part. This theme represents the dark, depths of the ocean. Draeger provides these suggestions:
The proportion of voice to flute actually needs to be a bit more voice. Taking a breath and using up that whole breath for the phrase, so it's possibly a bit faster than what I've written. It's another one of my things that I like the sound of the intake of breath. The way you push the breath out has to be balanced by the intake of breath, so the whole thing is perhaps more noisy and splashy, not trying to hide the breath.
This is the "Once upon a time," the beginning and the end. It's like in a story where they have the conceit of starting to read a book, like in old Hollywood movies. You might open the book "Once upon a time long ago," and then at the end of the story they show the book saying "The End." It's kind of a naïve style. A lot of the music is almost a parody of clichés.
The voice part fades out and a brief rubato passage emerges from the stillness of the underwater theme to introduce a lilting twelve-eight melody based around perfect fourths.
This music is the mermaid. In the story she watches the humans on land in the distance and longs for that kind of life. It can have a bit more rubato and hesitance.
The underwater theme returns and there is a pause before a change in mood to a brighter, Vivo melody in six-eight.
This is like in a movie, a scene change, because now you've got the sailors on the ship. This can be more like jolly sailors dancing a hornpipe. A real folk song. I could have notated it with more detail but I'm thinking... It's a more folky way of playing it - without vibrato and sustain.
The sailor's melody leads into a much more frantic section in which the flutist must sing in harmony with the flute and the voice must, at times, move independently of the flute line. Draeger suggests that in this section, unlike in the opening, male flutists should sing in falsetto.
This is the sea-witch. This is the sea and then suddenly the waves start coming up. It's the sea-witch, who is this evil woman, but it's also the storm. It's like the wind whistling in a storm.
The ascending glissandi in this section can be achieved by producing a harmonic from the low C fingering and sliding off the holes on an open-hole flute. Draeger plays on a closed-hole flute and uses the trill keys to create the glissando. However the glissando is achieved, she specifies:
As much glissando as possible!
The storm disintegrates into a shipwreck of shrieking intervals and multiphonics. The shipwreck reaches its climax and the sailors sink to the bottom of the ocean in a bubbling of air attacks and tongue-rams.
The sailor's melody emerges from out of the silence, produced by the performer whistling into the flute.
You get random whistle tones if you whistle into the flute. This part of the story is after the sea-witch has whipped up the storm and nearly everyone dies. It's like the ghosts of drowned sailors.
In the next part of the story the mermaid saves the Prince from the shipwreck. He loves her like a pet and keeps her by him. She loves him but he doesn't really love her and then he decides to marry a princess from the neighbouring kingdom. The mermaid has to watch this mutely while her heart is breaking. The sea-witch comes and says "You can have your mermaid life back if you kill the Prince." She rejects that idea and chucks the knife into the water to save him. Now she thinks she's going to die but [the beginning of the final section] is where she realises that she's still aware and she doesn't know what's happening. This can be like the mermaid at the beginning - more hesitant.
The final section of this piece begins with a hesitant variation of the mermaid's theme, now built on perfect fifths.
I was thinking of shapes like sea-shells. When you use a series of fourths it's like you're moving through the keys, resolving. It's like a seashell where you start at the outside and end up in the middle, but you're not really going anywhere. That's the nature of the mermaid in the beginning; she belongs to the underwater world. The ending is related to the mermaid's theme but now with open fifths, because the open fifths are going somewhere outward. This is my way of representing the transformation of the mermaid.
This new mermaid theme soon becomes a soaring, triumphant melody as the mermaid realises that she has attained an immortal soul. This is contrasted with a softer, sadder version of the sailor's theme.
Here she's saying goodbye to the humans. She has realised that she doesn't need to be human. She has moved on, she's a spirit now.
Although this last section is quite slow, Draeger advises that the speed will vary depending on the player.
The speed has to be dependent on your breath. Take a breath, use it all up, and then you get to the end and you take another breath. So to the listener, that feels right. I'm a flute player, I'm not going to write something that can't be done in one breath!
In the end, I make my decisions based on what it feels like to play it. I'm very much a composer-performer. I write music because I want to write things that I'll want to play as a performer. It's very much the sensation of playing that's important.
Melusina's Dream is available through the Australian Music Centre. www.australianmusiccentre.com.au
Based on a personal interview with Christine Draeger, 23rd May, 2012.