Everlasting Voices: for bass clarinet, actor and fixed media

William Brooks (Composer)

Research output: Non-textual formComposition


In the early 1890s William Butler Yeats began a lifelong pursuit of the proper method for declaiming his—and others’—poetry. His quest would become deeply entangled with other threads of his life: mysticism, Irish nationalism, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, and—above all—his complex, tortured relationship with the Irish patriot Maud Gonne, to whom he repeatedly proposed, in vain, many times. Their intimacy peaked twice—once in 1898, when Yeats first understood the demons which plagued Maud’s psyche; and again, ten years later, when their twilight relationship was briefly consummated.

Yeats’s experiments with “chaunting,” as he originally termed it, were associated with the theatre at an early stage, notably in the play The Countess Cathleen, which he wrote with Maud Gonne in mind, although she declined to perform it. But even before, he had gained a lifelong ally in the actress Florence Farr, for whom he commissioned Arnold Dolmetsch, the early-music pioneer, to make a “psaltery,” a kind of lyre (sometimes in quarter-tones) to which the voice would be “tuned.” The idea never was to write “music” or to “sing” the texts; rather, the natural inflections of the voice were to be captured by practice or through notation, and these were to be enhanced and clarified by the use of single tones picked out on the psaltery. Yeats followed the first “Cathleen” play with a second, Cathleen ni Houlihan, in which Maud Gonne did appear; in addition to chaunting, this made reference to the Irish traditional tune “Yellow-haired Donough.”

Everlasting Voices (bass clarinet, actor, and fixed media; 25 minutes) is, in part, an attempt to recapture Yeats’s practices using present-day materials and methods. In part, also, it tells the story of Yeats and Maud Gonne; and in part it suggests the passions that animate Yeats’s nationalism in the two “Cathleen” plays. In lieu of Dolmetsch’s “psaltery” it uses an autoharp tuned unconventionally, in part to the pitches of the speaking voice; and in the clarinet are heard melodies derived from speech and embellishments of “Yellow-haired Donough.” Yeats’s words, read beautifully by Denis Dennehy, are heard as if broadcast, in a time-free soundscape formed from recorded autoharp, clarinet, and voices.

But let me be clear: though Everlasting Voices incorporates chaunting, and though it is inspired by Yeats’s words and readings, it is music, not theatre: it is how I would sing, if I could sing, what it is that Yeats has come to mean to me.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationLebanon NH (USA)
PublisherFrog Peak Music
Publication statusPublished - 2013
EventWorld premiere, Headwaters Festival of New Music, 20 September 2012, Tryon Festival Theatre, Urbana IL (USA) - Urbana IL , United States
Duration: 20 Sept 2012 → …

Bibliographical note

Subsequent performances at: Irish American Heritage Center, Chicago IL (USA), 23 September 2012; Orpheus Institute, Ghent (Belgium), 4 October 2012; University of York (UK), 7 December 2012.


  • composition
  • clarinet
  • actor
  • fixed media
  • william butler yeats
  • music theatre

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