Sounding the Deep was commissioned in March 2011 by the Hull Philharmonic Orchestra as a work for orchestra and bass voice for performance in March 2012 as part of the Cultural Olympiad celebrations in the city of Hull.
The composition tells the story of such exploration in the words of a remarkable zoologist and explorer, the American William Beebe (1877 – 1962), the father of ocean ecology and the first man to descend ‘a half mile down’. Beebe (pronounced Bee – be) was the David Attenborough of his day, a remarkable scientist, writer, and communicator.
Friend of movie stars and presidents, he was a best-selling author and ‘must-hear’ lecturer. Indeed, in Sounding the Deep, Beebe is portrayed by the bass soloist giving one of his celebrated lectures – probably a first for a musical composition.
The libretto, adapted from Beebe’s book Half Mile Down, traces Beebe’s fascination from early in his career with the secrets of the ocean depths. However, it wasn’t until Beebe was in his forties that he made his first ‘helmet dives’ off the Galápogos Islands becoming the first scientist to photograph and investigate the world of the coral reef. It was shortly after these initial studies that he began to consider how man might investigate the deep ocean beyond the limit of unaided human capability.
With President Roosevelt’s personal support and the young and wealthy engineer Otis Barton he designed and built a ‘bathysphere’ to go to depths beyond man’s previous experience. . .
Beebe’s story of this personal journey into the unknown is told in wonderfully poetic, indeed rhapsodic language. His writing is testament to an age when the word rather than the image was the most effective medium of communication. In the intense darkness of the undersea world technology simply didn’t allow Beebe to ‘show’ his discoveries through photography.
The solo bass voice is the zoologist and explorer William Beebe giving one of his celebrated public lectures. He comes on stage and gives a short spoken introduction based on a series of slide-projected photographs. These slides give the audience a brief synopsis of his career as zoologist and proto-ecologist. They include images of the Bronx Zoological Gardens (where he was the youngest ever director), British Guiana, Malaysia and the Western Himalaya.
He then summons on stage his pianist and they begin together to tell the story in song of The Wonderer, a sculpture in the San Francisco Bohemian Club that so inspired Beebe’s work. In the concert version Beebe is joined by the orchestra to introduce his audience to his dream of descending to the largely unknown world beneath the waves.
The second movement tells of Beebe’s exploits as a helmet diver where ‘just below the surface I found a new world’. In the third movement Beebe explains about the ‘birth of the bathysphere’, the craft in which he planned to descend a half mile down.
In the fourth movement the libretto brings together part of the actual transcript of his commentary during his record-breaking dive with his own and later reflections on this experience. In Descent into Perpetual Night, and with the aid of a onscreen depth counter, Beebe takes us into the extreme darkness and isolation of 3000′ plus and to a point where the cable tethering the bathysphere reaches its end.
Throughout this movement the voices of Otis Barton and Gloria Hollister comment on the progress of the bathysphere either on screen in teleprinter typed text or as triggered samples of their voices on the telephone line connected to the Bathysphere. See the libretto, below, for this text.
In the fifth and final movement, as Beebe waits for the ascent to the surface, he reflects on the comparisons between explorations of the ocean depths with that of space itself.
Sounding the Deep owes much to three preliminary works, the song Deep Sea Diver setting words by poet Robert Francis, a novel study in register for orchestra Migrations, and twenty Signature Moments for solo piano. Anyone seriously wishing to explore this orchestral score would do well to familiarize themselves with these works.
Deep Sea Diver is very much a touchstone for Sounding the Deep. It is a remarkable poem about descent and ascent, a poem Beebe considered as vividly describing the unique experience of helmet diving. Much of the accompaniment to this song was created using algorithmic computer tools to explore the interpolation between high and low chords, building chord sequences of descent and ascent.
The outcome resulted in unusual harmonic material that permeates the entire score of Sounding the Deep. There is also a lively element of musical reference to the period of Beebe’s diving exploits – the swing era of the 1930s. Although no actual quotations are present there is a blues, a one-step, a samba and a march (in the style of Sousa) threaded into the music.