But I Digress…

For string ensemble and percussion quartet (2018)

Study Score

A nine movement work for percussion and string ensemble responding to a pair of texts by Montreal-based spoken word artist Kaie Kellough.

by Luna Pearl Woolf


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collectif9 + Architek / La langue entre les dents (Luna Pearl Woolf) from collectif9 on Vimeo.

excerpt of / extrait de
My Backyard, Somewhere / Quelque part, mon jardin
collectif9 + Architek Percussion
★ Canadian Tour in 2018-2019 ★


20 min


June 9, 2018
Usine C, Montreal, QC, Canada
Collectif9 and Architek Percussion


Commissioned by Collectif9 and Architek Percussion. New Chapter Grant recipient.


perc(4)-strings (4vln-2vla-2vc-db)


Kaie Kellough

Program Notes

In my backyard, somewhere, searching for the words to pull exactly the flavour in my mind out across the tongue and into the air, evading truth but edging ever closer until the very impetus of opening the lips is lost… But I digress… nine movements evoked by Kaie Kellough’s “across/virage”, I. la langue entre les dents tickles, teases and spits, and is subsumed by the straining illiteracy of a II. diaspora analphabète. From the depths of thought, III. une virgule noire cuts weeping holes, our meditation now IV. rompus par des soupirs. Shocked into a state of semi-consciousness, V. les mots divague, voicing starry waves through lips and tongue. Variations VI. dans n’importe quelle conjugaison dance and stretch and dance again, stumbling upon a morphing beanstock, only climbed VII. par des voies ancestrales. VIII. Les élans parallèles push and jostle, bell-like in their insistent overlapping, until the emptiness vibrates and erupts with rippling ideas, gestures, points of light, our words IX. perçant le vide étoilé.

But I Digress…was commissioned by Collectif9, a 9-member string ensemble, and the Architek Percussion quartet for an evening-length musical journey entitled “My Backyard, Somewhere/Quelque part, mon jardin.” The nine-movement work joined four other new pieces, all responding to a pair of texts by Montreal-based spoken word artist Kaie Kellough: a poem in nine stanzas in French, titled “virage,” and a stream of consciousness text block in English, titled “across.”

I structured the work using implications from – rather than larger segments of – Kaie’s texts. Having chosen a phrase from each of “virage”’s nine stanzas as a title, I built musical ideas for each movement around the evocative imagery of the title phrase. Knowing I wanted to use the richness of the ensemble in disparate ways, I decided one movement would speak and one would sing, in one we would hear strings only, one only percussion. The piece fell into two parallel parts of four movements each: movements I. and V. use the players’ voices, movements II.-III. and VI.-VII. employ the full ensemble, movements IV. and VIII. highlight strings and percussion respectively, and the finale brings the group together once again.

For the opening movement, I. la langue entre les dents (translated as “the tongue between the teeth”), I chose words and phrases from “across” as much for their rhetorical power as for their tactile musicality, creating a percussive, fugal rhythm-machine underpinned by rumbling bass and drum.

II. Diaspora analphabète (“illiterate diaspora”) uses only the pitches absent from movement I., arranging and rearranging both pitch and rhythm patterns to create a churning coherence.

Contrasting a delicate layer of commingled texture, III. une virgule noire (“a black comma”), makes small gestures complex and mysterious.

In the fourth movement, IV. rompus par des soupirs (“broken by sighs”), the strings inhabit a lush idiomatic world, where each player builds lyrical sighs and emotes in turn.

V. Les mots divaguent (“the words wander”) brings back the human voice, now singing and supported by pizzicato, yet still layered and cannonic, and interrupted by moments of dense percussion. I chose words that spring from speaking – la langue, la bouche, de voix… (“the tongue, the mouth, the voice”) – set in a stuttering way that mixes speech with song, and touches on the work’s end as well as its beginning – …perçant le vide étoilé (“piercing the starry void”).

VI. dans n’importe quelle conjugaison (“in any conjugation”) is a set of variations, where the subject and its accompaniment are by turns the varied element, and time as well as style dictate the changes.

For VII. par des voies ancestrales (“by ancestral pathways”), I built a kaleidoscopic harmony, whose resting tones reform as overlapping melodies climb through every register available in the ensemble, representing the churn of generational transformation.

In the percussion-only movement, VIII. les élans parallèles (“parallel thrusts”) cognate gestures are synchronized only in the longest view. Harmonies shift and change in a slow hand-off between keyboard percussion instruments, coming into focus just twice in the short movement.

The final movement, IX. perçant le vide étoilé (“piercing the starry void”), creates a void of tremolo strings, pierced by layered percussion gestures. The two sound worlds morph and interact until our sky is full of stars and verses tumble out.

–Luna Pearl Woolf