Gwyneth Walker

An Expedition to the Pole

a story with music
for Singers, Dancers, and Instrumentalists (1989, rev. 2008)

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View/download a PDF file of the full score of this work. For perusal only. Parts available upon request.


Based on "An Expedition to the Pole" by Annie Dillard

Expedition creates an analogy between Naval expeditions to the North and South Poles and our spiritual “expeditions.” This analogy unfolds during the course of the drama as the expeditions are presented independently, and then gradually merge.

It is envisioned that the set present two distinct areas of activity – the deck of the ship (a three-masted 19th century sailing barque) and the interior of a simple church. During the unfolding drama, these two areas are transformed (during scene changes, or even within a scene) to resemble one another, so that by the end they are intertwined – perhaps in humorous ways!

There are two distinct musical groups – sea chanties (The Ship in Distress and Way Haul Away) and versions of the Sanctus (as presented in the Overture or the folk tune of the WILDFLOWERS). As the nautical and sacred elements merge, so do the musical themes, which are contrapuntally superimposed by the end of the drama.

All facets of the presentation work together to create the merging of elements. As the musical fragments begin to interchange, so do the movements, gestures, props and costumes. The aural and visual effects support the unfolding analogy. For example, the creaking sounds of the ship’s masts become the sounds of the Priests’ knees bending in prayer (Ecumenical Service Scene). The hand-tapping rhythms which the sailors add to accompany their singing of the sea chanty reappear as hymnal-tapping by the congregation while singing the Sanctus. And the silver forks and knives of the sailors eventually merge with the silver goblets of the church. (Spoons are used for rhythmic accompaniment.)

A parallel drama to the Polar expeditions is presented in the chanty The Ship in Distress – a traditional English ballad telling the story of a shipwrecked crew casting lots as to who should die. The ill-fated sailor, Robert Jackson, bravely accepts his sacrifice in much the same manner as Captain Oates on the Scott expedition who leaves his comrades saying, “I am just going outside, and may be some time.”

As the sailors cast lots, SIR JOHN FRANKLIN sits on the deck of his ship playing backgammon. He rolls the dice as if guiding his expedition by chance. This bizarre gameplaying is dramatized by illuminating the stage as a backgammon board, with the players (cast) moving from point to point.

The Arctic setting for this drama enables the Director and lighting crew to create some unusual effects. A blizzard or Northern Lights projected throughout the theater are among the staging possibilities for the closing scenes.

An Expedition to the Pole is a serious drama with spiritual validity. However, humor is not excluded!

Notes by the composer