I WAS THE SHADOW OF THE WAXWING SLAIN
“I was the shadow of the waxing slain
By the false azure in the window pane
I was the smudge of ashen fluff — and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.”
Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire was begun in Ithaca in the late 1950s. The house it was begun in (and the real-life counterpart of the window-pane in the opening passage) is very close to where I currently live. It is a curious puzzle of a novel, which presents itself as a poem by a fictional American poet called John Shade (who strongly resembles Robert Frost both in style and physical appearance) with an extensive, eccentric, and in places quite manic commentary by a second, possibly unreliable narrator. The poem is a poignant reflection on death, the afterlife, loss and the nature of art which is gradually interrupted, hijacked, and reimagined by the second narrator, who adds increasingly far-fetched details about a fictional kingdom called Zembla.
My own piece is a response to the imagery in the book - primarily of the opening passage, with the other themes in the book in the background - frozen time, dreams and hallucinations, flight and escape, reflections, interruptions and transformations. Nabokov had been one of the first people to translate Lewis Carroll into Russian, and as some readers might know, the image of “through the looking glass” haunts this book, as Nabokov’s imagery haunts this music. The opening passage goes on to describe a world inverted - furniture all sitting out on the lawn, and the sky is inside, through the power of the reflective surface. This disorientation and strangeness played a significant part in how I thought about transforming and developing the music. Though there is no direct plot allusion in the music, there are parallel processes like the gradual usurping of narrative control from the Cello and Piano by the electronics. Those not familiar with book need not then worry that they might miss a level of detail in this music - it is always my hope that the listener will feel free to form their own images and ideas.
I WAS THE SHADOW OF THE WAXWING SLAIN is dedicated with gratitude and admiration to Christopher Stark - an inspiring composer, mentor and friend.