‘What is the Word’ with Christopher Theofanidis & Matthew Detrick

In 2021, the innovative, Houston Texas based Apollo Chamber Players released their fifth studio album — With Malice Toward None, through Azica Records. Taking its title from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, the recording tackles politics, identity, and what it means to be a citizen of a nation balanced between an idealized past and a just and multicultural future.

Prominently featured on the recording is the 7 part piece written by Christopher Theofanidis and Mark Wingate titled What is the Word. Christopher Theofanidis is here with us for this Episode 2 podcast along with Apollo Chamber Players violinist and founder Matthew Detrick. LISTEN

Written in 2017, ‘What is the Word?’ is based on Samuel Beckett’s poem of the same name, which was written in response to his own late encounter with a-phasia, which is caused by a degree of brain damage that brings on the loss of one’s ability to understand or express speech.

The piece attempts to document Beckett’s struggle with a-phasia and a resulting fear of vanishing identity. The actress Billie Whitelaw once said of Beckett’s work, “I looked at his work like music, and to me it was rhythm and pauses, and lack of pauses.” This idea guided your approach and musical response with co-writer — electronic music composer Mark Wingate. With respect to the string quartet, this seems to be evident in the restless, start-stop patterns and fast spirals of tremolo.

The piece begins with the reading of the original poem, read by actress Maura Hooper. It then unfolds over six additional sections that combine the abstracted voice with the string quartet in a very interactive and surreal way. In the section called ‘Extroverted.’ We continue to hear the poem’s verse in a somewhat normal form, now joined by the string quartet in a fast paced, jagged movement. The music seems to really emphasize the agony of Beckett struggling to the find the word.

Then we move to a short section, only :44 seconds ‘Edgy’ also very jagged, but with a defined pulse, and now with electronics clearly present in the texture.

This leads to ‘Mercurial, and more electronics, now manipulated more than before mixing with the quartet.

Then ‘Noble’ which has a sound of nobility in the strings, a defined melody and more evolving electronic elements that keep the texture pretty sideways.

Then ‘Very Fast’ a string rich section which brings the voice back in tiny vocal snips with some scant electronics. It has some stability compared with the previous 2 sections.

And the piece finishes with ‘Euphoric’ which musically brands itself through the heavy use of electronics. It glistens

Christopher Theofanidis and Mark Wingate were quoted as saying of Beckett’s poem, “the a-phasic search for ‘the word’ becomes something which itself spins off rhythm and phrase in a kind of virtuosic dance, the text moving along a spectrum between meaning and pure musical sound. Music, then, seemed to us the natural way to amplify this search for this intersection of sound and meaning.”

Produced by Max Horowitz — Crossover Media, This content, as well as the related podcast, are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) for redistribution and adaptation.

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