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Negotiating the Labyrinth: Act II of Sir Michael Tippett’s "The Knot Garden".

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference paper


Publication date21/07/2006
<mark>Original language</mark>English


ConferenceSecond International Conference on Music and Gesture
CityRoyal Northern College of Music


The music of Sir Michael Tippett’s ‘second period’, as characterised by the opera "King Priam" (1958-61), is fragmetory and abrasive: a mosaic of rhetorical gestures replacing the lyricism and continuity of his earlier music. The motivation for this stylistic change is in part dramatic: ideas, personalities and events encapsulated in a single memorable musical statement. Whilst gestures may coalesce into larger perceptual units, the underlying logic is primarily dramatic, rather than structural. With Tippett’s third opera, "The Knot Garden" (1966-9), conventional dramatic narrative is eschewed in favour of a string of brief and unresolved exchanges between the protagonists of the opera. The underlying structural metaphor is that of film and television, with rapid ‘cross-cutting’ between scenes. For Ian Kemp, such techniques are used to ‘convert apparent discontinuity of dramatic process into its opposite’ (Kemp 1984, 403). Nowhere is this technique more prevalent than in the second act, 'Labyrinth', a series of miniature ensembles in which one character is plucked away to be replaced by another. In this paper, I study the ‘apparent discontinuities’ – and the hidden continuities that this implies - prevalent in the second act of "The Knot Garden", with reference to Robert Hatten’s work on gesture (2004). Hatten’s observation that ‘discontinuity of discourse may be understood as intensifying the conflict that is at the heart of all drama’ (p. 237) is particularly relevant for a study of a work that foregrounds rhetorical gestures. By adapting Hatten’s theory of gesture to Tippett’s music, I will demonstrate how Kemp’s ‘apparent discontinuities’ ultimately belong to a larger continuity, or, in Hatten’s words, to show how ‘unpredictable shifts of musical thought may be understood as part of an ultimately integrative process’ (p. 270).