Tonight We Tell the Secrets of the World (2016)
A Whisper Play by Scott Ordway
For string ensemble (or string orchestra), soprano voice, alto sax, whispered voices, and light.
Commissioned by the Penn Museum of Archeology & Anthropology with support from the American Composers Forum.
"A marvel." — The Philadelphia Inquirer
"Acoustics in Penn Rotunda Reveal Secrets of the World" — NPR / NewsWorks Tonight
"The work resonated with humanist spirituality, haunting the imagination long after the last echo died away." — The Broad Street Review
images & video
World Premiere; Philadelphia, April 2016
Video Feature by the American Composers Forum
Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra; Los Angeles, February 2017
On NPR's NewsWorks Tonight
About the Whisper Play
In a whisper play, each member of an audience is given a unique text and seated in a discrete section of the theater that corresponds to thematic material in their text. A musical ensemble is on stage, illuminated by several panels of colored light; each color corresponds to a section of the audience and can be faded in and out by a lighting designer. When a color fades in, those seated in the corresponding section of the audience begin to read their texts—to themselves only, in a whisper at the very edge of silence.
As the colors come and go, so does the sound of the whispering, which develops an ethereal, richly textured quality in the collective that it lacks in the individual. As the colors change, the whispers move through the theater, creating an immersive, multi-dimensional auditory and visual experience.
The musical score gives precise instructions as to when each color should appear. Consequently, the sound of the whispering crowd becomes a part of the musical composition itself.
For the listener-performer, the whispering serves two functions. It is an invitation to explore the content of an unfamiliar text in a quiet, personal, and ritualistic way. And as an auditory phenomenon, it folds this individual exploration into a collective experience through shared purpose: the audience, in sections and as a whole, is participating in the creation of a live musical performance.
Because each member of the audience sees only a tiny fragment of the total text, much of the meaning of the play is created at the individual level. This isolation is balanced by the shared experience of the music, the joining of each single voice in the massed whisper-sound, and the unified reflection on the broad themes of the work.
Tonight We Tell the Secrets of the World is a whisper play commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology with
support from the American Composers Forum. The inspiration for the work was a linear series of ideas that, curiously, circled back on itself in the end.
When I visited the museum for the first time, the acoustic environment in the Chinese Rotunda struck me as ideal for a certain type of musical exploration. The space, with its 90-foot domed ceiling, creates an extreme, prolonged reverberation, allowing sounds to sustain, to travel, and to be reflected in unusual ways.
Alone in such a space, I was moved to whisper, listening to the peculiar reflection of a very soft sound expanding as it bounced off the walls. The physical act of whispering suggested the communicative act of telling secrets.
Throughout history, we have told secrets that relate to universal human themes. The secrets of love, death, and god appear in the extant writings of cultures separated by vast temporal and geographic distances.
The Penn Museum maintains one of the world’s largest collections of these writings, and is the institutional home of many leading experts in their interpretation and the ancient languages in which they are written.
By working with these experts to gather texts from different ancient cultures, and then organizing them according to universal themes, we are reminded of how deeply these themes connect to our basic humanity.
A fourth universal theme, the very human desire to understand ourselves culturally and historically, and to preserve the material evidence of our development, brought about the construction of this Rotunda as a physical home for these collections, and the acoustic properties of which inspired me to start whispering.