Plumb Abysm notes

At the beginning of working on what became Plum Abysm, I had just participated in creating and hosting a murder mystery with some friends. Inventing the characters was a lot of fun, so I created some characters for the music project as well.

It is an ongoing concern that polyphonic music is abstract and off-putting to most modern listeners. Although I’m writing for my own amusement, it feels proper to orient my efforts toward what someone might like to hear. So, even if the music is not immediately appealing, the characters’ simple boy-meets-girl story might be.

Here are some notes on the characters and their context.


In the early 1960s, there was a geological revolution. Theories of continental drift and the supporting theory of plate tectonics challenged the accepted view of a static planet, suggesting instead a living earth, slowly moving on a global scale. Oceanic bathymetry played a role in disrupting the previously accepted view of the world. Using recently discovered active sonar, oceanographers mapped the ocean floor to assemble evidence that the earth’s crust is in motion.

At the same time, there was a growing interest in conserving and restoring historic gardens and landscapes. In 1965, the Garden History Society was formed in England to support this interest. Significant research and restoration projects were undertaken in this decade, for example, Château d’Agel in France’s Languedoc region.




Delver is a technician, using ship-mounted sonar to map undersea mountains to verify and understand the movement of tectonic plates. He is driven by a belief that the earth is in motion, but the evidence is elusive. It requires imagination to grasp the geologic scope of such a grand, slow movement, and how the movement is manifest at a human scale. The indications are buried deep below the ocean, and only indirectly observable.



Amanda is a historical landscape conservationist. She restores gardens to a state representative of a previous era in their history. Her practice is more art than science, as garden landscapes are constantly in flux, due to changing species of plants introduced over time and a changing climate. Historical records, in the form of paintings, gardeners’ journals and almanacs, inform her restoration activities, but ultimately, she needs to create a garden that works in the current environment, and intuition is her greatest asset.


As a child, Ray’s interests are widespread. Ever-widening horizons beckon, and there is wonder in every direction, so he has abundant enthusiasm to investigate whatever he encounters, whether tumbling down a grassy hill or gazing at the stars.


The characters each strive to make sense of their world, based on their own natures. In some ways they are opposites – science vs art, logic vs intuition, abstract vs logic etc – but through their interactions they are able to make sense of who the other is.

They perceive the world at different levels, and each encounters a mis en abyme whichever way they turn, whether through the recursive scales of time (breaths to geologic upheavals) or space (atoms to galaxies). Likewise, they find depth in their relationship with each other.

Ray makes a cameo appearance. As a child, he’s making sense of the novel world he finds himself in, and has inherited the curiosity of his parents.


Having developed these characters, and written lyrics whereby their story is told, I did make some effort to write music to match their characters. Amanda has an inclination toward the Medieval, while Delver and Ray are more modern. In general, I proceeded to follow my own musical interests, and was opportunistic in fitting the characters into the musical problems that engaged me.

I got involved with the structure of Dufay’s motet “Nuper Rosarum Flores”. Both “Telescope” pieces use the same plan as the motet, hence their 14 bar sections, alternating long held note duets as accompaniment, proportional rhythmic relationship between sections, etc. “Incubate” is one section from an early “Telescope” draft. Traces of Telescope can be found within most of the other pieces.

“To split infinite” began as an instrumental piece for Graham Ritchie’s production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, to introduce the aristocratic characters. Graham wanted Medieval music, so I wrote a piece loosely modelled on Machaut’s ballade “Amours me fait desirer.” Later, I thought it could work with the Plumb Abysm pieces, so I added some words.

“Intermission” is just that, and should defy any serious scrutiny.