More On Three Voices by Dory Hayley

Morton Feldman is the composer of some of the most profoundly radiant music of the 20th Century. His mesmerizing Three Voices, a “quiet tour de force,” is among his most powerful, affecting, and deeply human works—and one of the most simply beautiful. To Joan La Barbara, the work’s dedicatee, Feldman wrote: “I’m somewhat shocked with the more sensuous if not ‘gorgeous’ sound of most of it – never expecting it would go that way.” Scored for three equal voices but intended to be performed by a single singer accompanied by her own pre-recorded sounds, Three Voices is one of the most significant, original, and influential vocal works of the past century. 

Feldman’s friend Frank O’Hara’s impetuous and intimate poem, “Wind”—the text the composer draws from in Three Voices—considers themes of emergence and maturation. O’Hara contrasts the image of a child and his teddy bear watching snow whirling in the “beautiful / containment” of a snow globe with the chaos of real snow falling. For me, this metaphor of snow whirling in circles as if enclosed before finally breaking free and plummeting to the ground perfectly mirrors the arc of the artistic career, where long years of highly structured training and technical drilling may finally give way to a period of skilled expressivity and powerful communication.  

Like many of Feldman’s late works, Three Voices is monumental in length: a single movement of nearly seventy minutes in my version. Despite this, he chooses to set only a fragment of O’Hara’s already concise poem. The repeated question “who’d have thought that snow falls” seems to indicate an aging Feldman’s undiminished sense of wonder at the potency of artistic expression. 

With my 40th birthday on the horizon, I decided I wanted to record Three Voices alongside four newly commissioned works for multi-tracked soprano inspired by the Feldman. I saw the whole project, which will include two CDs of virtually nothing but my voice layered with itself, as a way to really delve into this idea of developing and maturing as an artist. As a woman whose body is her instrument, questioning my performer identity and investigating feelings of vulnerability, flawedness, and ultimately sufficiency and acceptance through the process of recording multiple layers of my own voice felt newly powerful. As it happened, everything was delayed a little due to Covid, so I ended up recording it all while experiencing pregnancy and new motherhood. It ended up being a way to centre, commune with, and anchor my voice and body as I negotiated an entirely new phase of life. 

Dory Hayley. October 2022. Vancouver, BC.

Tickets & concert info: Dory Hayley sings Morton Feldman’s Three Voices – November 6, 2022 at ANNEX.

Support for The Composer Essay Project is generously provided by SOCAN Foundation.