SCAR TISSUE is a new work for vocal ensemble and piano trio. It was commissioned in the fall of 2017 by the Gryphon Trio, in partnership with Chamber Factory, and in collaboration with Canadian composer Jeffrey Ryan, Giller Award-winning poet and author Michael Redhill, and American biomedical engineer and new-music aficionado Glenn Prestwich.
SCAR TISSUE is the centrepiece of a series of performances that the Gryphon Trio will present over the next several years with Norway’s acclaimed a capella ensemble, Nordic Voices.
Every scar – whether physical, emotional, geological, environmental, or cultural – is the end of a three-stage journey. When the body is wounded, it responds with a series of biological processes. Yet, when the healing is complete, it is not returned to its original state. No matter the cause, the resulting scar represents a third state, a “new normal” which allows the body to continue while carrying with it the memory of the past wound.
SCAR TISSUE for six voices and piano trio takes the listener from unity through disruption to healing. Michael Redhill’s concise and evocative poetry unfolds in two parallel processes. Its nine movements are a mirrored mathematical pattern of lines and syllables, while Redhill’s own words are increasingly interwoven with lines from other poets, artfully blending emotion and science to reflect the universality and interconnectedness of this journey. The music has a similar trajectory, beginning with the entire ensemble moving together (“This is who I am, this body”), then gradually separating into various combinations as growth (“Change is the nursery of music, joy, life and eternity”) leads to disturbance, wound, and a central movement of chaos (“A breach opens. In becomes out”). The debris begins to clear in a moment of fragmentary beauty for voices alone (“How we all swiftly, swiftly unwrap our lives”). A “lost arpeggio” and “singing mouths” announce the biological processes of recovery, summoning relicts of musics past. An unlikely lullaby (“Phosphatidylinostol is… like a music that plays under everything”) leads to the final movement of recombination which embraces the “new normal” with a dancing celebration of life (“Eros comes nowhere near this bliss”).
We all carry scars, for in life we have all been wounded in some way. SCAR TISSUE evokes that process through words and music, celebrating the body and its capacity to heal.
SCAR TISSUE was commissioned by the Gryphon Trio in partnership with Chamber Factory for Nordic Voices and the Gryphon Trio. It was made possible with support from Joyce Miller in honour of the Gryphon Trio’s 25th anniversary, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Sounds of Science Commissioning Club.
By Michael Redhill and others
This body and its grace of being—
I sing gratitude full of feeling
for telomeres and collagen. Our
world is the dream we’re having while we
live these lives on earth. So this is who
I am, this body. Hallelujah!
Don’t be bothered by death. Unity
is only for the here and now. We
must mourn, come night, so let’s celebrate.
2. CHANGEIn the present, it only feels
like things are staying still. The green
fuse burns and sparks life. Your body
will change by the end of this song.
It’s hard to live by wits alone.
You still need nature on your side.
Today, the rain: Plip plip then (crack!)
it’s boiling everywhere now.
3. GROWTHA star probably still has light,
don’t doubt that herald, flying
at its own speed to glow here
on you. Starblown energy
charged with fire. Change is the
nursery of music, joy,
life and eternity. Sing it.
4. DISTURBANCEAnd now good morrow to
our waking souls. Pain has
an element of blank —
it cannot recollect
when it began, nor re-
call its first disturbance.
A breach opens. In
becomes out. Stunning
din of a sob. Hold on!
Your scarred skin boat — in-
6. DEBRISFor whenI look at you,
even a moment,no
speaking is left in me.
I’m never alone now.My God, how we allswiftly
swiftly unwrap our lives.
The savage pianist
annually growing hands
to salvage music from notes.
The lost arpeggio ends
in fatty acids drowned
in so many singing mouths.
Just press my hand if you know.
is central to metabolic
that plays under everything, and
no one knows it. It wounds without
carried in my shadow like a
violin in its black case.
The maidens sang a holy song and
straight up the air went amazing sound!
A small child says, ‘I love you’ and lilies
in the yard throw open the doors of
the heart. Accept Lord Mother/Father
the briefness of this life you’ve granted.
As proof of my love, I offer this.
Pity my voice burning in your mouth:
Eros comes nowhere near this bliss.
SCAR TISSUE uses a syllabic structure to embody ideas that have emerged from the transdisciplinary collaborations of Dr. Glenn Prestwich, a leading researcher and entrepreneur in the field of medical and biological engineering. He and his collaborators, led by forest ecologist Nalini Nadkarni, have proposed that systems undergo change in a constant cycle of recreation from debris.
This view of nature is a model of change that pertains in situations as diverse as macroeconomics, forest ecology, human development, modern dance, and civil engineering. Key to the model is the idea that out of the debris of change, left-behind (“relict”) structures are necessary for the building of a new, different, stable system.
I gave this nine-part poem a quasi-mathematical structure that I could then subvert in a manner that suggests what happens when systems are disturbed and renewed. The number of lines in each poem and the syllables per line govern this aspect of the poem. The first section is nine lines in length, with nine syllables per line. The second section is eight lines in length, with eight syllables per line. And so on until the middle of the poem is reached (“Wound”), a five-line poem composed of five-syllable lines. Then the process reverses itself, until the final poem is again nine lines of nine syllables. Over the course of the journey, some of the rules are broken, and the structure of the poems becomes looser before tightening again.
SCAR TISSUE is an original poem, but it is increasingly haunted by lines from the work of other poets. My own voice predominates through the first few sections until more and more voices weave into my own. The final poem is saturated with the lines of other poets. The idea behind this transition from one voice to many is to enact certain ideas, proposed by the work of Dr. Prestwich and his collaborators, about relict structures making a new, or “third” reality out of the original. The energy of change produces debris that becomes an essential part of the new.
This poem, together with original music by Jeffrey Ryan, was conceived in response to an invitation by the Gryphon Trio and Chamber Factory to create a new work for violin, cello, piano and vocal sextet. The collaborative work, SCAR TISSUE, was premiered by Nordic Voices and the Gryphon Trio at Chamberfest in Ottawa, Canada, 1 February 2019.
For a detailed annotation of the poem, please visit Michael Redhill’s website.
Michael Redhill’s Twitch Force is available from House of Anansi Press.
Formed in 1996, Nordic Voices comprises six graduates from the Norwegian Academy of Music and the Norwegian Academy of Opera, who, in addition to their singing backgrounds, have a broad range of experience from choral conducting to teacher training and composition. It is perhaps this range of interests that leads them to explore a wider than usual spectrum of musical expression, from plainchant to new works commissioned from leading Norwegian composers; from the most sacred of religious texts to the strongly secular.