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Program note: FICTA

  • Elliott Gyger
  • Source: The Song Company Ten Years 1984 - 1994 21 August 1984

FICTA (1994) (world premiere)  Elliott GYGER (b.1968)
This work was conceived and planned in the course of my residency with The Song Company in the
second half of last year, and written especially for this 10th anniversary concert. Ficta
is a Latin word meaning "false" or "feigned", as in the medieval music theory term musica ficta,
which refers to the sharpening or flattening in performance of the written notes in a piece,
according to various rules (and the dictates of individual taste). In the context of this work the
"falseness" referred to encompasses considerations of musical style and technique, as well as,
appropriately, the art (or artifice) of singing itself.

One unusual feature oÍ Ficta is that it brings out the potential for each member of the The
Song Company to act as a soloist, as well as functioning as part of an ensemble. Moreover, from
time to time each singer assumes his or her own "solo style" or 'personality", refracting the
musical material through the clichés and mannerisms of a different period: thus, the first soprano
becomes an operatic coloratura, the second soprano recalls an exotic folk singer, the alto wanders
off on jazzy lines of "scat" singing the tenor sounds like a refugee from a Monteverdi
madrigal, the baritone acquires a stilted French baroque elegance, and the bass croons in a manner
worthy of Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby.

This bewildering diversity of styles is in part a conscious homage to the versatility of a
group whose repertoire ranges from Cole Porter to Josquin des Prés, from J.S.Bach to Elliott
Gyger, often within a single concert! On a deeper level, the piece also reflects a particular admiration
for the music of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, through its use of compositional
techniques like canon, cantus fírmus, hocketing and so on. Ficta derives all its musical material
from two pre-existing scraps of melody, rather in the manner of the many Medieval works based
on a plainchant or a popular song: the Paul McCartney classic Yesterday, and the Prize Song
from Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Wagner's own rather fanciful idea of what
16th-century German music might have been like). For the most part, however, these sources
are not clearly discernible, except in the final section when the Prize Song appears (albeit
temporarily) in pristine condition.

The words I have chosen for the piece act more as a frame for the various musical ideas, than
as the centre of attention. The bulk of the text is provided by extracts from a 15th-century treatise
on musica fícta, incorporating some lovely disparaging comments about rival theorists and com-
posers (nothing beats a good, bitchy, esoteric argument between musicologists!). Interleaved
with this is the text of Wagner's Prize Song, as misread and distorted by the hapless Beckmesser
in the final scene of the opera. The closing part of the work sets the first of the 'Ern Malley"
Poems, Dürer: Innsbruck,'1495, adding yet another twist to the central idea of "falseness". The
score is headed by a quotation from New Zealand writer Anne Kennedy's fascinating novel
Musíca Ficta (1993), which I did not encounter until the plans for the piece were almost complete,
but which happens to express in a nutshell the work's raison d'être.


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