Without a Philosophy

for soprano, violin, and harp (2013)

Score and Parts

by Dennis Tobenski


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c. 11 min


Blythe Walker, soprano
Alexey Shabalin, violin
Hyunjung Choi, harp

April 19, 2013
Providence Premieres
Providence, RI


Commissioned by the Providence Premieres New Music Festival for its 2013 Season


soprano, violin, harp




Elizabeth Seydel Morgan


1. Like Young Men
2. Gnat Facts on NPR
3. Without a Philosophy

Program Notes

Without a Philosophy is, on the surface, a song cycle about animals and insects – deer, gnats, and a dog – but just beneath that behooved, buzzing, furry surface lie observations on human behavior, habits, and even sexuality. The texts are by poet Elizabeth Seydel Morgan, who I met while we were both in residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Amherst, VA in 2009.

The cycle opens with the pastoral “Like Young Men”, in which the singer observes two young stags grazing in her garden. The song is a quasi-passacaglia, with a repeating figure in the bass line whose tonal ambiguity (the figure is constructed of the root, ninth, and raised seventh scale degrees) gives voice to the sensuality of the text – comparing the litheness and power of the stags to that of young men when they’re not aware of being watched.

“Gnat Facts on NPR” takes the tremolandi that make “Like Young Men” so peaceful, and turns them into the buzzing and swarming of a cloud of gnats. The song begins with an expression of annoyance over how the mating rituals of gnats can interfere with the mating rituals of humans (with a brief reference to The Orlons’ 1962 hit song “The Wah-Watusi”), then shifts as NPR’s expert on gnats says that the females “hang back on the sidelines”, which stirs a memory of cheerleaders and football players – the football players swarming on the field and the cheerleaders hanging back on the sidelines until the frenzy becomes to much. Suddenly the mating habits of gnats seem much less foreign.

The cycle ends with “Without a Philosophy”, which bears the epigraph: “…like a dog between 4 trees…”. While on one level the song is about a dog and his fabled glut of choices, it is also a meditation on the poet’s predilection for searching out the darknesses between choices – not taking the things set in front of her, but finding her own path, for which I too have a great affinity.

Because early 2013 was a whirlwind of composing and putting wheels in motion for more yet composing, this 12-minute cycle was written over a period of ten days: March 1-10, 2013.

–Dennis Tobenski