Philip Larson

Roger Reynold's
Voicespace IV, "The Palace"

Part of the Voicespace series, electroacoustical pieces using various literary texts, The Palace is based on a prose-poem from Borges 1972 work, El oro de los tigres (The Gold of the Tigers).

The Palace (Voicespace IV) (1978-80) 16'
(Staged) Bass-Baritone, Quadraphonic
computer processed sound, modest staging
Text: poem The Palace of Jorge Luis Borges
First performance: 28 February 1981
Contemporary Music Festival 1981, CalArts, Los Angeles
Philip Larson, Bass-Baritone
National Endowment for the Arts Award

The image above is of Philip Larson performing the work on the side of Mount Parnassus, overlooking the Gulf of Corinth.

Like all the Voicespace pieces, The Palace is a work which blurs the boundaries between music, poetry, and ritual. The basis of the piece is a mannered "reading" of the Borges poem, enhanced by several electronic effects. Over this recording, a bass-baritone sings in an invented "pseudo-language," warbling up and down between a rolling baritone and an unearthly countertenor.
The combined effect makes for an intriguing and often unsettling sixteen minutes; a three-in-the-morning introspection that hovers somewhere between terrified apprehension and sudden revelation. The reading begins slow and ponderous, in a voice deepened by reverb and haloed with an eerie hum. Halfway through the poem, the reading departs slightly from the text, slipping into the next verse in a voice now drawn thin and tremulously aged. As it returns to the flow of the poem, it begins to grow more distorted or exaggerated, occasionally dropping into a whisper or touching the words with a chilling frost of hoary age. As the surreal singing starts to stabilize somewhat near the conclusion of the poem, the recorded voice returns to the architectural catalog that opened the work and falls into a cycle of repetition, each spiral winding tighter and faster in a frantic whisper. Finally the last line is delivered in its stentorian full, and the long-incoherent song finally resolves: "I know that I am not dead."
There is a sense of urgency in this spooky piece, but also a fine sense of theatrics -- the palace may be a metaphor for the mind, but here it is also a haunted palace, filled with its share of looming shadows and a nervous claustrophobia.

"The Palace"

The Palace is not infinite.

The walls, the ramparts, the gardens, the labyrinths, the staircases, the terraces, the parapets, the doors, the galleries, the circular or rectangular patios, the cloisters, the intersections, the cisterns, the anterooms, the chambers, the alcoves, the libraries, the attics, the dungeons, the sealed cells and the vaults, are not less in quantity than the grains of sand in the Ganges, but their number has a limit. From the roofs, toward sunset, many people can make out the forges, the workshops, the stables, the boatyards and the huts of the slaves.

It is granted to no one to traverse more than an infinitesimal part of the palace. Some know only the cellars. We can take in some faces, some voices, some words, but what we perceive is of the feeblest. Feeble and precious at the same time. The date which the chisel engraves in the tablet, and which is recorded in the parochial registers, is later than our own death; we are already dead when nothing touches us, neither a word nor a yearning nor a memory. I know that I am not dead.

--Jorge Luis Borges
(Translated by Alastair Reid)

Notes from the Lovely Music Web site and CD:

Voices, language and space interested Roger Reynolds since The Emperor of Ice Cream was written for the ONCE Festivals in Ann Arbor in the 1960s. In the 1970s, at the Center for Music Experiment in La Jolla, he heard the daily rehearsals of the Extended Vocal Techniques Ensemble and, in the evenings, read his daughter to sleep, trying to capture an individual and consistent vocal behavior for each character in the story. A demanding critic, she stimulated Reynolds' reflections on vocal identity. Electronics offered rather precise control over auditory space (a particular sound's size, location, distance, the character of the host space in which it was heard). Choosing spare but evocative texts (Borges, Melville, Stevens, Coleridge) Reynolds conjures up unfamiliar yet appropriate vocal behaviors with which to present them. The five works in the series thus far share a concern with the potential of auditory imaging: this is a subject still only tentatively broached. They attempt to create a personal theater through the mind's ear. Yet they are distinct.
The Palace is in some regards the most straightforward of the set, although it has novel aspects. A solo performer, alternating between countertenor and dramatic baritone registers, sings to the accompaniment of his own pre-recorded speaking voice. The Borges text was digitally recorded by Philip Larson; these sounds were analyzed and the processed in such a way as to emphasize their natural harmonic content and give them a supra-human scale. I took "the palace" of the poem as a metaphor for mental life itself, which, though "not infinite," is comprised of myriad compartments, as numerous "as the grains of sand in the Ganges." The text implied two extreme perspectives on the part of the narrating intelligence: active and reflective authority. The singer's vocalise intimates something of the emotional impetus behind the speaker's pronouncements, at first through a structured though indecipherable pseudo-language, gradually giving way to a more articulate song in which the final phrase is intelligible: "I know that I am not dead." In this work, I had in mind not only the spaces that exist in the physical world, or that might be found in the ambiguities of spoken language, but those that one occasionally sense between the vitality of the message conceived in the mind and the often muted reality of the spoken words themselves.

CD Information


The Palace is available through Lovely Music CDs, on a single CD that includes Eclipse, another Borges-inspired Reynolds piece. You can order it below from

Roger Reynolds (Composer) / Audio CD 1801 / Released 1994
Price: $16.99

Other Borges-related Works by Reynolds

Compass -- (1972-73). For tenor, bass, cello and double-bass, this is a setting of the poem "Compass," from El otro, el mismo.

Voicespace III, "Eclipse" -- (1979). For voice and tape, with texts by Borges, Joyce, García Márquez, Issa, Melville, and Stevens.


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21 May 2000