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This is our Universe

by Misha Penton Collective

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Misha Penton, soprano, concept, text, and Virginia Woolf text adaptation, sound score.
Original contributions by:
Thomas Helton, double bass
Hsin-Jung Tsai, piano

Edges where opposing worlds meet: Sea and sky. Land and sea. Sun and cloud. A threshold. A not-quite-this. A not-quite-that. An in-betwixt place. Voice and body. Notes on staff lift off of paper: changing states in an alchemical rush. A Something-Else emerges.

Virginia Woolf’s The Waves haunts me (at least a little bit). Her 1931 novel came into my world when my first collaborative monodrama, Selkie, premiered in 2010. Six years later, I returned to the inspiration of The Waves and developed the libretto/lyrics for “This is our universe” by working with fragments of Woolf’s text. Imagistic snippets of her words caught hold of something deeply personal, yet inarticulable and not-quite-able-to-be-touched: a sadness? a longing? a lament? an experience of a threshold between the present and a beautiful never-was past— themes recurring in much of my work. I interspersed my words to hold her text together with mine— my voice joins with her voice in an interplay of images.

The Waves follows a group of children’s inner monologues from their carefree island play into an adult world of unexpected hardship. Stream-of-consciousness images offer scenes of singular, fleeting moments of everyday life. The world of The Waves feels mundane, magical, and simultaneously starkly important and painfully trivial, as it unfolds in sunlight and shadow-play: little bare feet running on sand and backs pressed to grass, “…if we curl up close, we can sit under the canopy of the currant leaves and watch the censers swing. This is our universe.”

I experience the same mundane-sacred and ephemeral quality in the music making and devised, improvised/semi-improvised collaborative process of “This is our universe” with Thomas and Hsin-Jung. As musicians, we touch each others’ sounds, like a wash of pigment sprayed cross paper and absorbed in unexpected curves and forms: bow on strings, fingers on keys, notes loosen from instruments, and breath low in the belly vibrates membranes in connection and response. Piano. Double bass. My voice, my words, Woolf’s words. We are three (Virginia makes four); “ever translucent” (my words, not her's) to each other. The creative musical experience is like gossamer, and as Woolf writes so evocatively, “even my body now lets the light through.”

We reach back to 1931 and Woolf reaches forward, nearly one hundred years later. We combine to make something new, surprising, precious, and un-repeatable. Thank you, listeners, for sharing in this experience.

And with many thanks to Hsin-Jung Tsai and Thomas Helton for their creativity and work on this project, and to the Houston Composers Salon for this Houston premiere.

— Misha

Virginia Woolf’s text for This is our Universe is used by permission from The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf.

Video version on Vimeo: vimeo.com/187749284



Let us now crawl under the canopy
Of the currant leaves
And tell stories
Let us inhabit the underworld
Let us take possession of our secret territory
Which is lit by pendant currants like candelabra
Shining red on one side
Black on the other
If we curl up close
We can sit under the canopy of the currant leaves
And watch the censers swing
This is our universe

All our moments strung on sky wire
Ever translucent
Even my body now lets the light through
I tremble and I quiver
Like the leaf in the hedge
As I sit dangling my feet
On the edge of the bed
With a new day to break open

Alone, I often fall down into nothingness
I must push my foot stealthily
Lest I should fall off the edge
Of the world into nothingness
There is nobody here among these grey arches
And moaning pigeons
And cheerful games and tradition and emulation
All so skillfully organized
To prevent feeling alone

Where is the girl who had shaken her head
And made all the jewels
The topaz, the aquamarine
The water-coloured jewels
With sparks of fire in them, dance
Who bared her brows
And with wide-opened eyes
Drove a straight pathway over the waves

The small darkhaired girl with dreams in her basket
Her shoulder-blades meeting across her back
Like the wings of a small butterfly
This is our universe

Adapted from Virginia Woolf's The Waves


released May 5, 2016
Misha Penton, soprano, concept, text, and Virginia Woolf text adaptation, sound score.
Original contributions by:
Thomas Helton, double bass
Hsin-Jung Tsai, piano


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Misha Penton Houston, Texas

Misha Penton is a singer, composer, and filmmaker. Her music is a blend of futuristic art song and chamber electronica—you will hear the rise and fall of her many layered voices, and the swirling guitars and electronic sound worlds created by Misha and her collaborators. ... more

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