Cullyn D. Murphy – “Agony”

Cullyn D. Murphy’s “Agony” is a riveting, fast-paced work that fuses spoken word, percussion, mixed media, and theatrical elements to push the idea of what musical organization is, and what music is.  The program notes of “Agony” present the central concept that unfolds:

Agony is the compressed musical depiction of the Law & Order episode bearing the same name. Law & Order is one of many long-lasting crime shows filled with archetypes packed into a familiar, repetitive, form. Agony takes advantage of this pervasive genre by performing the seventy-page screenplay as quickly as possible along with choreographed percussion to demonstrate narrative and progression in an abstract pairing. In this way, the audience should not necessarily understand the drama explicitly, but instead, in broad, brush strokes and generalizations.

There are two videos that give an accurate presentation of the piece; be sure to take a look at the score before watching: Agony – score

Agony (Premiere) by Cullyn D. Murphy from Cullyn Murphy on Vimeo.

Agony (Movements 1-3) by Cullyn D. Murphy from Cullyn Murphy on Vimeo.

The ensemble performing is the AmiEnsemble, three composer/performers.

There are a few items I would like to discuss.

  1. Staging
  2. Percussion
  3. Drama

If one looks at the score, one of the notations given is a grid to indicate where objects on the table are placed.

Screen Shot 2018-01-14 at 2.39.54 PM

This chart is seemingly simple, and it is incredibly effective as a result.  This allows the precise movement and choreography of objects, ensuring that the composer’s exact intent is followed and the performers are given explicit instructions that are easy to follow.  When I asked the composer about this and any possible relation to staging/theatre experience, he said:

The graphs are definitely an interesting thing to point out. This doesn’t necessarily come from a staging shorthand or anything I had seen prior to writing Agony, but I’m sure similar things have probably been used elsewhere, and there are probably even better ways to address doing something like this.

I would argue that these graphs are one of the better ways to address the notion of staging objects, as performers are used to Cartesian-esque grids (after all, isn’t a musical staff a grid?).  The graphs also align well with the physical perspective of the performer, making them intuitive.

This piece is, at its core, a percussion piece.  Not only is the percussion staged, but it is created in many ways.  Objects on the table have various timbres, ways of moving them, turning them upside down, filling one with the other, tapping on them, ripping them, pounding, and conducting with them.  This is a much more varied and extreme use of different found objects than your typical “let’s-use-flower-pots-to-be-innovative” approach.  Furthermore, this also allows the objects to help narrate the work.

In addition, the use of the human voice focuses primarily on non-pitched or semi-pitched speech, but uses a variety of other techniques such as shouting, whispering, and breaking in and out of strict rhythm.  The use of percussion hits accentuates certain key parts of the vocal lines.  The human voice is thus a percussion instrument, something normally reserved for non-Western and avant-garde works.  Yet, this work is not strictly avant-garde; it is rather a clearer approach to a more accessible topic as narrated from an accessible (and popular) television show.

That remark about the show leads us to the crux of the piece: drama.  The piece is so quickly-paced that the drama is explosive.  The breaks for commercials and incidental music are very well-placed to keep things fresh, but when the music is being made the cacophony is at many times frenetic.  Thankfully, the use of percussion and orchestration keep the texture varied from busy to clear.  To quote from the program notes:

In this way, the audience should not necessarily understand the drama explicitly, but instead, in broad, brush strokes and generalizations.

This is achieved in the work, and so the drama is more felt than explicitly understood.

Yet, this is not a blur of sound.  This is not a strictly-noise piece.  This is not sound art.  This is a sometimes clear, sometimes noisy, sometimes inflected, sometimes percussive, dramatic, rhythmic, free, visual, and sonic experience.  The drama is felt and experienced, much like a show on television, but it is reimagined, reconstructed, but more accurately a completely new entity in and of itself.

I encourage you to watch the fast-paced live version, the cleaner studio version, and study the score.  This work is inventive, and worth study.  Keep an eye out for future works Cullyn D. Murphy, James May, and D. Carter as composers and (collectively) the AmiEnsemble.


Cullyn D. Murphy (b.1993) is a composer, conductor, vocalist, and educator from Champaign, Illinois. Murphy received his B.M.E. in Music Education-Choral and his B.M. in Theory/Composition from Illinois State University where he was awarded the 2013-2014 Joshua Award Scholarship for excellence in music composition. He also won first place in the 2014 Illinois State University Wind Ensemble Composition Contest.

Currently, he is pursuing his M.M. at the University of Louisville where he has received the Bomhard Fellowship. Murphy has been invited to lecture at Illinois State University and Parkland Community College, and has had pieces commissioned and played by Illinois State University’s Symphonic Wind Ensemble, numerous high schools across the Midwest, the Louisville University Orchestra, the Atlantic Music Festival Contemporary Ensemble, the Concrete Timbre series in New York, and many other performers and ensembles. His private studies include Roy Magnuson, Carl Schimmel, Martha C. Horst, Steve Rouse, and Krzysztof Wolek.


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