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WHO WE ARE > COMMISSIONS > Alfredo Santa Ana / Colin Browne

The River of Hellos and Goodbyes



Alfredo Santa Ana, composer

Colin Browne, text




Collaborations between a composer and a writer typically begin with a written text. There may or may not be discussions along the way, but words are conventionally the foundation of a collaborative composition. When he was commissioned by musica intima, Alfredo wondered what opportunities might arise if the traditional relationship was turned on its head. What would happen if the music was composed first and handed to the writer to respond in words?


The result is “The River of Hellos and Goodbyes.” We agreed that Alfredo would compose the music in isolation. We would not discuss theme, subject, narrative, or possible musical or literary antecedents. Colin would wait to hear the music before beginning. Over several weeks, Alfredo devised a score for eight voices. At the first read-through, as there were no words, the singers substituted non-semantic vocables. Reminiscent of Morse code, they suggested the idea of transmission between worlds, or people, and the scenes in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée in which Jean Marais listens intently to the radio in the front seat of Death’s majestic Rolls-Royce. During the compositional process, Alfredo became interested in exploring what he calls “absolute music, about music only, without semantic meaning.” Our composition, he says, is “an abstract piece about transmission, about listening.”


When he did imagine voices, he heard only phonemes, a few of which remain. The composition advances through intervals of ever-longer silences. The first silence is brief, the next a little longer, and so on, suggesting development and accumulation, although what accumulates is silence, the moment when transmission ends, personally or, on a concerned note, collectively.


Every afternoon Colin observes men speaking many languages passing by on their way “home” from work. Where do they sleep at night? The world’s migrant workers live a life of low wages, tenuous employment, and with the threat of being sent home empty-handed or tossed into prison. They are parted from their families for months, or years, and long to be reunited. Phone calls must replace touch, and messages of love and intimacy can be overwhelmed by life’s problems. The compositional structure led to the idea of two voices, to a young wife at home with children and a young husband far away, labouring on luxury towers. “The River of Hellos and Goodbyes” is a duet, a song of separation and reconnection in the era of globalization, inequality, corruption, and exploitation. Colin came up with a first draft and continued to refine it. Alfredo returned to the music and, in his own words, “began hanging words onto the score,” altering rhythms where necessary. “The grammar, motion, and form of the music is the same as it was before the words,” he says. “I just made sure that every word had a chair.” He reflects a moment. “This music would not have been written if I’d heard the words first,” he says. (ASA & CB) 

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