In this episode of the Open Notes Podcast, composer Morgan Denney chats with Jeremy about her process and the challenges behind writing her new musical accompaniment to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” for the Fort Collins Symphony.
“The Raven” will be premiered at our Spellbound Halloween concert on Wednesday, October 18th, 2023 at the Lincoln Center in Fort Collins. Tickets and more info are available at https://fcsymphony.org/events/spellbound-halloween/
Learn more about Morgan Denney at MorganDenney.com.
Listen on the Podcast:
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Interview with Morgan Denney:
Welcome to the Open Notes Podcast. Today we are joined by Morgan Denney, who has written a new version of “The Raven” for our Spellbound Halloween concert on Wednesday, October 18th, 2023. Morgan, could you give us a brief overview of the piece?
Sure. In the piece, the narrator is reading the poem straight from Poe’s feather pen. In being asked to write the music, my first thought was “this poem is already very musical and sing-song-y.” So the work is a lot less of adding music to it than trying to enhance the musicality that’s already in the poem.
It is not directly scored like a film, but I did break it into nine sections. There are parts where the music directly correlates to what is being said. Overall, I wanted to enhance the story. I consider it a duet between the narrator and the orchestra, and I imagined the music like a fog machine. I wanted to create the atmosphere and suspense, and the rhythm is driven by the narrator’s reading of the poem.
There are themes and motives that have their own rhythm, which symbolically builds the tension as the narrator tries to ignore things like the raven and his memory of Lenore.
Morgan’s composition process
And what was the composition process like? Where did you start?
Well, knowing the poem and knowing that this was a Halloween concert, I already had an idea of the sounds that I wanted to use. I could use eerie sounds and dissonances that people wouldn’t like in any other context. But being a Halloween concert, they really help it feel creepy.
But from there, it was straight to the poem. I studied it for quite a bit before writing anything. Of course this wasn’t my first time reading it, but I wanted to come in with fresh eyes and go with my instinct. I also read some more about interpretations and analysis so I could fully understand it.
From there, I made rough outlines of where I wanted to break up the text, introduce new motives, and where the themes start to change. From there, it moved into more specifics and musical changes through the text.
We gave you a tough assignment! A new piece of music is always challenging, but we asked you to write something that the audience is already familiar with.
Right. I really wanted to do it justice. I’m not a literary expert or anything, but I did do my own research. I wanted the Simpsons Treehouse of Horror that references the poem. I wanted to know everything that’s been done so I could take my own angle, but not in an ignorant way.
Musical Motives in “The Raven”
You mentioned motives a couple of times. Could you explain these?
Sure. A motive is a short bit of music that can be repeated. Bum-bum-bum-bum from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is probably the most famous motive that you hear over and over again.
There’s nothing that obvious in the piece, but there is a melody that I attribute to Lenore, the narrator’s lost love.
The whole poem is about him fighter to remember her and not wanting to believe that he won’t see her again. So her motive kind of represents her and it will slowly be distorted and fade away at the end.
In addition to that, I added a few easter eggs into the music. I found recordings of ravens in nature and put those sounds into the music. They are not obvious, just hints when the raven appears. That’s the one musical thing that isn’t actually in the poem.
You’re right! And composers have written birdsong into music forever. But this makes so much sense.
Yeah, so it’s very Gothic and subtle, but if you listen for it, it’s there.
Looking forward to the first performance
Normally on the podcast we would play a clip at this point, but this music doesn’t exist yet! You’ve written the music, or the recipe for it, but nobody has played it yet
What is it like hearing your music for the first time?
It’s always exciting and terrifying. Of course I’m always training my inner ear so that when I hear something I can notate it for the players, but there’s always something that goes different than I thought it would.
But that is part of the wonder of this art form, that I don’t have to micromanage everything. I get my ideas out there and the performers can interpret it.
I am really excited to hear our narrator, Shane Sheridan perform this piece with us. Musically, but also him as an actor and a ghost-story fanatic.
The timing of the narration will be very interesting because it’s something I chose not to micromanage. I didn’t control how quickly or slowly he reads, or where he adds a pause for suspense.
Again, the piece is really a duet between the narrator and the orchestra.
The hardest part of composing “The Raven”
So what was the hardest part of approaching this piece?
Apart from the rhythmic aspect, there were definitely parts where my gut as a composer didn’t align with what I knew the poem was trying to say, like where the climaxes are. I had the constraint of the structure of the poem and it was challenging to follow Poe’s and not mine.
And knowing that the context for this was a fun Halloween Concert, it was hard to balance the scary and creepy parts of the poem with the fact that it is sad and tragic. I had to walk the line between enhancing it in an entertaining way and staying true to its literary value. It’s creepy and suspenseful and spooky, but he’s also talking about this person that he loved who died and is never coming back, and that is heavy.
So yeah, treating that gracefully and with class and with respect to the original poem was the biggest challenge, but in a very fun and gratifying way.
Extended techniques and sounds
One thing that could show up in spooky music is weird sounds that the orchestra isn’t used to making. Did you include any of these extended techniques in the music?
Yes. My favorite sound as a string player is the creepy percussive sound that strings can make when they are weight and slow pulling the bow. It sounds like a crunch, and it is a perfect effect for this piece. These are the ugly sounds that you’re not normally trained to make.
Apart from that, I love writing spacial music. This is when you extend the musicians beyond the stage and put them in other places.
The poem mentions knocking on the chamber door. So it was an obvious musical choice to put musicians around the audience so it feels like they are within the chamber. So there will be three percussionists above and around the audience, like the raven sitting upon the chamber door.
That’s fantastic. We are so excited to perform this in a few weeks. See you then!
Thank you, Jeremy. I’m exited as well!
Find tickets and more info for Spellbound Halloween at https://fcsymphony.org/events/spellbound-halloween/
Learn more about Morgan and her work at MorganDenney.com.