they come, different and the same…
Reflections on Roger Reynolds’ Odyssey (1993) for two singers, sixteen instrumentalists, and computer-processed sound

Kevin Zhang

In the five years that I studied with Roger in his graduate composition studio at UCSD, many of our conversations centered around music’s complex and evolving relationship with language. In Roger’s case, an engagement with the capabilities of text and language as prompt and as fuel has been a recurring and intense one over a prolific creative life, and for both of us, our compositional practices have been heavily informed and inspired by a number of experimental writers of the 20th and 21st centuries whose work subverts us readers’ ingrained expectations of material and behavior, and re-orientates our relationships with meaning. It is thus within this frame and context that I am honored to present the following text, extrapolated from reflections on Roger’s expansive 1993 work, Odyssey...

I shall now close my eyes, stop up my ears, turn away all my senses, even efface from my thought all images of corporeal things, or at least, because this can hardly be done, I shall consider them as being vain and false; and this communing only with myself, and examining my inner self, I shall try to make myself, little by little, better known and more familiar to myself.


Samuel Beckett: an artist who manifests the most perplexing of dichotomies, an artist both habitual and mercurial, who as much as any other in history is subject to readings dynamic and conflicted; and since the late 50s, at least, an artist thought of as occupying a universe somehow inherently Cartesian.

To “exist in the mind” is the kind of existence that the “spiritual odyssey” of Odyssey takes. The opening of “I. Others” is an impossible one; one which mechanizes the sounds of ocean waves, prior to acoustically time-stretching the pure vowels of l’ab- and -sence. A bit later, our vocal duo sings of love. D’amour. These voices cross each other in glissandi. And the diphthongs overcome the pure.

There is no dramatic stage, the singers embody no personae; this is an opera in the mind only.

(a la) Beckett:
they come
different and the same

Projected tape recitations sound into the space in which
the listener sits. The words other and another share this
space with cognates autre and les autres.

But, a third, angled voice speaks from the front
stereophonic field. Different, he says, and jarringly different
indeed. A previous voice helps him out. Autrement, he says,
in deference to difference.

with each it is different and the same
with each the absence of love is different
with each the absence of love is the same


It is “II. Self” and the violins have a lot of self,

what would I do without this world faceless incurious
where to be lasts but an instant where every instant
spills in the void the ignorance of having been
without this wave where in the end

Violin keeps sounding: a high E harmonic “faint, but
intermittently present.” The voices reach us from behind;
they emerge from the rear two speakers.

what would I do without this silence where the murmurs die?

But intermittence is contextual and presence is subjective,
and the threshold between intermittent presence and
present presence is very fine. And what is finer?:
the distance to the next partial to get that G#, or the distance
between the cascading chromatic steps – this wave where
in the end body and shadow together are engulfed
thirteen instrumentalists are soon to posit?

what would I do what I did yesterday and the day before
peering out of my deadlight looking for another


Engulfed, though in “III. Inquiry” there is a way out.

If I said, there’s a way out there

there’s a way out somewhere

We need two minutes and twenty-one seconds,
but there is reasoning somewhere, somewhere inside the
timbres of a whole-tone cluster spread through the soprano,
baritone, and clarinet.

But there is reasoning somewhere
moments of reasoning
that is to say the same things recur

no one needs to say what things.


“Credo”: a profession of faith; in music, generally a setting
of the Nicene Creed, as part of a liturgical mass.

But this credo is an utterance of pure sound; a pure sound
which “aspires to language.” Amplified voices send
spatialized whispers into the audience, but it is the
instruments, engaged in repeated statement and response
patterns, that utter.

my way is in the sand flowing
between the shingle and the dune
the summer rain rains on my life
on me my life harrying fleeing
to its beginning to its end

Beckett’s way flows in the sand of a quadraphonic field. The texts circulate in contrary motion: English clockwise, French counter. Lighting rises from blackout to shingle. The composer wants “radiant assertiveness” here, then “tender resignation,” then “extraordinary agitation.”

It is language that now aspires, aspires to be pure sound.

my peace is there in the receding mist
when I may cease from treading these long shifting thresholds
and live the space of a door
that opens and shuts

And after seventy minutes, the space we have navigated
ourselves into is an impossible space: it is this space in and
of our mind — between a shingle and a dune, of a door
neither opened nor shut — where human voices sing in
duet with their time-stretched processed counterparts, that
this odyssey, just as impossibly as it began, ends.


Beckett, Samuel, from Collected Poems in French and English, London: Calder, 1977:
“elles viennent / they come,” 38-39.
“je suis ce cours de sable qui glisse / my way is in thsand flowing,” 56-57.
“que ferais-je sans ce mond / what would I do without this world,” 58-59.

Beckett, Samuel, from Stories and Texts for Nothing, New York: Grove Press, 1967:
“Texts for Nothing IX,” 117-122.

Descartes Rene, Discourse on Method/The Meditations, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1968.

Reynolds, Roger, Odyssey, New York: C.F. Peters, 1993. Score.

Reynolds, Roger, The Paris Pieces, Acton (MA): NEUMA Records, 1996. CD.