Till Human Voices Wake Us

String Quartet

 Commissioned By Invoke
 Premiered By
Till human voices wake us, and we drown
–T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.
–David Bowie, “Lazarus”
I have struggled with situational depression, off-and-on, for fifteen years (diagnosed, at least. I’ve probably experienced it far longer than that). This is not at all uncommon, sadly, and my own particular manifestation seems easier to deal with than a lot of others, but it still makes life a struggle, particularly in difficult times. It was towards the end of such a difficult time that Zachariah Matteson asked me to write a quartet for his ensemble, Invoke, an opportunity at which I jumped.
While my original plan was to write a showcase piece for this exciting, young quartet, it seems that my psyche had other thoughts entirely, and demons had to be exorcised. The result is a piece that seeks to paint a picture in sound of an often debilitating and misunderstood affliction.
The first movement, “I’ve Got Scars that Can’t be Seen,” represents the steady-state haze that is everyday existence during a depressive episode. Melancholy lines struggle to rise, give way to nervousness and anxiety, rise towards apotheosis, but only briefly, coming down once more into silence. The movement takes its title from a line in the song, “Lazarus,” by David Bowie (who died shortly before work on Till Human Voices Wake Us was completed).
The second movement, “I have a Black Look I do not Like,” with a title borrowed from Anne Sexton, depicts the languid molasses of deep depression. Harmonies are deeply static, while the melody, in the second violin, circles upon itself, echoed distantly by the first violin. After a period of vibrant calm, the static molasses become more pronounced, as the second violin fails entirely to
reprise any previous melodic material. It, instead, becomes stuck on a single note, as if wanting to stay
in bed all day.
The third movement, “To Speak of Horrors–He Comes to Me” (words of Ophelia’s regarding prince Hamlet, the literary epitome of melancholy), embodies a full depressive rage. These are episodes of manic energy, at times moody, at times cheerful, at times violent. While the movement, as the others, leads towards apotheosis, the fear (promise?) of new depressive triggers (“You said the
anger would come back…” in the score, again, from Anne Sexton) always lingers, and the quartet ends in a subdued, somewhat tense and unresolved mood.
Till Human Voices Wake Us was written in Saint Louis, Missouri, in the winter of 2015-16 for Invoke (Zach Matteson and Nick Montopli, violins, Karl Mitze, viola, and Geoff Manyin, cello). It is dedicated to Tammy Merrett, whose love sustained me during the depression that generated this piece.