Manual System - (2010)
for medium voice and piano
Mary has a thingamajig clamped on her ears
And sits all day taking plugs out and sticking plugs in.
Flashes and flashes--voices and voices
calling for ears to put words in
Faces at the ends of wires asking for other faces
at the ends of other wires:
All day taking plugs out and sticking plugs in,
Mary has a thingamajig clamped on her ears.
[ 2 pages, circa 1' 45" ]
From the collection, Smoke and Steel (1920), this free verse tells of the assembly line worker, ear protection and repetitive work. As I mulled over the text, I thought how universal this general theme is, for we all repetition and the small risks which necessitate caution in our daily lives, albeit of different sorts. This is as true for the sportsman as for the computer operator, the musician practicing scales as for the speech maker saying the same things over and over. Without such cooperative repetition there is no product for others, no profit for ourselves and no life really, for trying to imagine a life without the simple repetition of things is impossible.
The "assembly line" gesture is this setting is a wind up, from its piano opening to its polytonal, fortissimo whack at measure four. It is an insistence on E minor against F minor with a chromatic linking between. After this a moment of seeming relaxation sets in the dominant-to-tonic opens the vocal line. Before the vocal line finishes its first statement, the "wind up" to a next whack takes up again without alteration. The form therefore is an alternating a-b-a-b'-a-b''-a-b'''-a, the assembly line having the last "word," as repetition in life is unavoidable and continues, even beyond our own life and reality.
The score for Manual Systems is available as a free PDF download, though any major commercial performance or recording of the work is prohibited without prior arrangement with the composer. Click on the graphic below for this piano-vocal score.