song/cycles: music and poetry


In yesterday’s post, I introduced Song/Cycles from New York’s Mormon Artists Group. Today we will read an excerpt from a roundtable discussion from the contributing composers (available in full at the front of the book).

But before we get to that however, residents of Utah should remind themselves that “on Monday, November 8, a performance of all six works from . . .  Song/Cycles . . . is free at 7pm at the Orem Public Library. Performers include Darrell Babidge, Clara Hurtado Lee, Ruth Ellis, Brian Stucki, Doris Brunatti, and Marilyn Reid Smith. For additional information, contact 801.229.7050. Works to be performed are: Mary Keeps All These Things (Harriet Petherick Bushman/Susan Howe), Notes (David H. Sargent/Elaine M. Craig), Seven Sisters (Murray Boren/Glen Nelson), Sudden Music (Lansing McLoskey/Javen Tanner), The Dead Praying for Me (Daniel Bradshaw/Lance Larsen), and Töchterliebe (Charis Bean Duke/Will Reger).”

*  *  *  *  *

How did you come to select the poetry for your composition? Tell us the story behind the collaboration with your poet.

David H. Sargent: Elaine M. Craig is a long-time friend and sister-in-law. My first real acquaintance with her poetry was in 1983 when she wrote the lyrics for a choral work Dr. Ronald J. Staheli commissioned for his elite choir, the Brigham Young University Singers, entitled “Quarterly Report”–dealing with the four seasons. It was my first experience composing with lyrics of a living poet.

I enjoyed the creative nature of her writing and the kinds of imagery and ideas of musical gesture and nuance it provided. It suggested a different direction in the uses of harmony, line, form and expression from the music I had previously composed, and I very much enjoyed the challenges it presented.

Harriet Petherick Bushman: Susan Howe and I have collaborated on several projects. The first was Discoveries: Two Centuries of Poems by Mormon Women. I set a cycle of these to music and the opening poem/lyric was Susan’s.

The first year of this project we performed the cycle of songs interspersed with spoken poems; the following year it was filmed and a DVD was created. I particularly loved Susan’s work for its passion and energy, and it was then that I knew she was a poetic force to be reckoned with. After Discoveries, I invited Susan to write some of the lyrics for 1856: Long Walk Home–a concert opera about the Martin and Willie handcart company trek across the plains.

She is always innovative and pushing the boundaries because that is the sort of brave and shining soul that she is. There is an innate rhythm–however free-style the poem–which lends itself to music and this, coupled with proper research into the subject, makes her a first-class collaborator. Her artistic integrity is absolute, and she never gives in to self-indulgence or crowd-pleasing. Her work inspires everyone around her to reach for their own true voice.

Mary Keeps All These Things was part of a group of poems that Susan sent me for consideration when I told her of the song cycle project. All the poems were excellent but Mary, as this song has become affectionately known, stood out to me. Never sacrilegious, I think it was the rawness and honesty, the getting under the skin of our Lord’s mother, the depiction of Mary as a woman living a woman’s role as it really happened, no longer hidden and sanitized behind the doors of scripture. Mary alive.

Lansing McLoskey: Poetry: I absolutely love Javen’s work. I settled on the four-poem set, “Sudden Music.” I mean, how could you not want to set a collection of poems with such a title?

Charis Bean Duke: I believe years of composing operas for children has substantially changed the way I look at poetry and music. In graduate school I was setting poems of Rilke and Thomas Merton, the more layers of meaning, the better. But I’ve become more open over the years, and as I approached this project I found myselfseeking very simple poems that didn’t need much interpretation or nuance. I wanted something cheerful, uncomplicated, and honest, more like the music I have to write every year for the children’s operas. I looked in published books of poetry, I looked online, I even read some of my great-grandmother’s poetry (nice, but too quaint!).

Then I remembered from two decades ago that an old friend from grad school, William Reger (Will is his “poet’s name”) had written some poetry that I had never read. I contacted him, he sent me to his blog, and after reading the first one, which I believe was “Seeds,” I knew I had found my poet.

The fact that I knew him and his daughters well (he later had a son) and he knew me and my children well provided an immediate connection with and comprehension of what he was expressing in his poems. I liked their brevity. I tend to be a miniaturist. I liked their imagery, the references to nature appeal to me. He guessed in advance which poems I might select, but left the choice to me. He guessed most of them correctly!

Most interesting, I think, is that William provided the title. When the cycle was nearly done, I asked him what he thought we should call it. I had no idea. I mentioned we could use a line from one of the poems, or one of the poem’s titles, or come up with our own title. I told him that my favorite song cycle is Schumann’s Dichterliebe. Not only am I passionate about the music but I have always loved the title. It’s amazing to me how that one word so beautifully conveys the meaning of the songs. William emailed me back, “Töchterliebe.” Perfect!

Murray Boren: Temple Square had a concert series in the fall of 2000 called “Families Making Music.” The people who ran the series are friends of ours, and we were asked to do one of the concerts. My wife Susan Alexander Boren is a soprano. I wanted to write new music for her to perform; that was the genesis of the concert. We ended up with three premieres of song cycles for soprano and orchestra. Looking back at it, I’m surprised how ambitious it was, but at the time we were eager to do it.

I asked Glen Nelson to write new poetry for the concert. He and I met in New York years earlier. We were at a party once, and the price of admission, so to speak, was a song or poem or something. Glen read some poetry that he’d written called “Coney Island Hymn.” Susan leaned over and told me I had to set them to music. That’s how we started working together.

For the concert, Glen wrote three groups of poetry: Afterwards which was a group of three songs, each started with a short scripture from the New Testament and then imagined what might have happened afterwards; My Children the texts of which he wrote with Susan, each poem is about one of our children, Levi, Emma, and Noah; and the big work on the program was Seven Sisters. Seven Sisters is based on seven women in Glen’s life, his mother, sister-in-law, niece, and so on. Each one is a little story. I remember that some of them immediately suggested music and others were a struggle. At this point in our collaboration, we had already written two operas, a cantata or two, and some song cycles together. So I guess, to answer the question, I didn’t really select the poetry. I merely asked for help from a poet I trusted.

Daniel Bradshaw: First, I read a lot of poetry. I found a few things online, talked to friends and family about their favorite Mormon poets, and consulted a couple of collections of Mormon poetry: Harvest, compiled by Eugene England and Dennis Clark, and Discoveries: Two Centuries of Poems by Mormon Women, compiled by Susan Elizabeth Howe and Sheree Maxwell Bench. This initial stage was a lot of fun. I discovered names I’d never known before, and some poems I will come back to in the future. There is a wealth of well-crafted, interesting, wonderfully artistic poetry by LDS authors.

The difficulty I had was finding a set of poems that would work well together for a cycle. I debated about using poems from different authors all around a central theme, but decided in the end to work with a single poet. Lance Larsen’s name had come from several different directions and I was really taken with his work.

My only hesitancy with Lance’s poetry was that it is so well-crafted and intelligent, often with a multiplicity of images and meanings. His poetry also has its own music, with careful attention to vowels, the very sounds of words and phrases, and their counterpoint with meaning. I didn’t want to harm his poetry with my music, and I wasn’t sure I could fashion my music to match the density and depth of his poetry without the music sounding schizophrenic. The best poetry does not always make the best lyrics, and I was worried that Lance’s poetry might be too strong for a meaningful marriage to music.

Taking these thoughts to Glen Nelson was the right thing to do. He urged me to “wrestle it to the ground and use it.” I agreed, and once I settled on using Lance’s poetry, things started to fall into place. Lance was very gracious about letting me use his work, and as I had time to live with his poems, I found that the multiplicity of meanings generally gave way to some core idea or theme. I had to wait for this idea to emerge before the music started to come for me.

David: After I accepted the commission to write this particular song cycle, I asked Elaine about the possibility of using some of the poems she had already written, and if I could set some of them to music for this occasion. I found them to be approachable, intimate, sensitive and delightful. I had her talk to me about the poems in order to find out if my interpretations were accurate, and to help me with my decisions of which poems to use. In so doing, she was very helpful, gracious, and enthusiastic.

She discussed and presented these poems in different orderings–which might come first, second and so on–to help me see different sequencing possibilities from which to choose. Elaine also let me know that these were suggestions only, that she felt good about any choices I would make. I thank her for this opportunity.

Can you tell us how you started composing the work? Take the first page of your score and walk us through the mental decisions that led to the notes on paper.

Charis: It is very difficult for me to discuss how I compose, because I’m not sure I know! I never proceed with a plan. I never map anything out in advance. I never have any idea of form, structure, direction, etc. I simply write and let the piece unfold itself. To begin this cycle I read through the poems I had chosen, and picked the one that sang out to me first. When I’m reading a poem, if I can hear the music in my head while I’m reading, that’s a good sign. So I started with “Love Undaunted.”

Since I’m a pianist, when I compose piano or vocal music, I always do it at the piano. I literally sat at the piano and thought, “It’s windy. Short, blustery gestures, but not ugly. It’s not a storm, and the day turns out nicely in the end.” Then I began to play. I liked it, so I wrote it down. I simply extended the opening gesture into longer phrases until it could support the entrance of the voice, which had it’s own short, blustery gestures to begin with. Then I let both parts grow into longer, lyrical lines, but the wind always returns to chop things up a bit. That’s all there is to it. I simply tried to portray the day.

Daniel: Rather than walk through the prologue, I’d like to talk about the first page of “Old Masters.” My challenge with this piece was to write music that had nothing new in it. I wanted to personify the “hopping way of staying hungry” in the music, where the writer seems unable to come up with anything new because of the old masters bouncing around in his mind. This phenomenon is not foreign to me in my own writing–sometimes musical ideas I think are original turn out to be something I heard days, months or years ago. I thought that, instead of avoiding these associations, it would be fun to embrace all those voices that resonate in my mind when a simple melody is played, to allow some old musical masters to haunt my music as the song progressed.

So this song is constructed entirely out of the music of Old Masters: Bach, Josquin, and Isaac, as well as Mahler, Crumb and Ravel. Furthermore, every piece that I chose is united by a single 4-note motive: C-D-E-F, the first four notes of J.S. Bach’s first Fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier. By playing these four notes in different keys, turning them upside down and/or backwards, I was able to give the piece some continuity, a thread through this maze of musical quotations. After  the opening glissando, these four notes begin the piece as grace notes, taking us inside the poet’s head, as it were, into a giant echo chamber. This “echo chamber” becomes a fabric uniting the entire piece, from which musical quotations emerge and fade. When the voice enters, we get the first real melody, which is also stolen (with a little tweaking) from Ravel’s “Scarbo.” “Scarbo,” a piano solo based on a poem about a ghost, becomes a specter itself in this piece. For me, it was an inescapable musical reference for the image of these haunting magpies in Larsen’s poem, so “Scarbo” returns in the music whenever the magpies return in the text. I find it interesting that Ravel said of “Scarbo,” “I wanted to make a caricature of romanticism. Perhaps it got the better of me.” In this song, I wanted to allow the Old Masters to get the better of me, so that the piece would itself signify “not flight, not song, but this hopping way of staying hungry.”

Lansing: Here is an email I wrote to Glen about the experience of writing: “But now for the good news: I’ve nearly finished the song cycle. Just finishing up the last song (hopefully in the next few days). I must say, I am really happy with it! And I have God to thank–really. This piece was one of those [rare!] instances where the music just seemed to flow from outside my body onto the paper. Not to get too “˜testimony meeting’ on you, but I just had no time whatsoever to work on it, and when I finally did I had complete writer’s block. As in, totally blank. Brick wall.

“Knowing that there was no time to “˜wait around for The Muse to show up,’ after a week of nothing I knelt down and prayed to God–something along the lines of “˜Heavenly Father, if you don’t help me this isn’t going to happen. I need it NOW.’

“Within 24 hours I had two of the four songs done. I’m telling you, Glen, it was a mystical experience.”

Harriet: The first page is the first of the five parts of the song: it is called “Necessity.” “I stir the inn-keeper’s sympathy only when my water breaks and runs down my leg soaking the blue robe and I have to lean against his shabby door.” These words brought the whole scene alive and I have tried to create the sound of a donkey’s hooves, gentle and light but insistent as Mary, shielded from the sun and fellow-travellers by the blue-robe, is borne towards the inn.

Bar 8/9 could be understood as the sound of knocking at the door of the inn or just growing anxiety, starting soft but increasing in intensity, as Mary perceives how close she is to her time. Bar 10 is meant to suggest to us how Mary suddenly realizes that her water is breaking and these are the first astonishing moments of realization that nature is overtaking human control.

I remember sitting in my studio thinking how do you depict this? And I would see myself in exactly that situation and say, hesitantly and full of wonder mixed with dread, the words: “Oh….no…. what’s happening” (it was Mary’s first baby after all). Bar 12 concludes this with the triumphant gush of water heralding labour and the ensuing chromaticism suggests the confusion of Mary’s feelings. “What am I going to do? This baby, the Son of God, is coming and we have nowhere to go except….” And there is the greasy-bearded inn-keeper–sizing them up. Just another lot of free-loaders, he thinks.

Murray: I have a hard time remembering how this music came about. It was ten years ago. For me, it’s like it happened in a separate lifetime. I took out the score, dusted it off, and made some adjustments including reordering the songs and preparing the piano accompaniment.

The last song of the cycle, “Three Elizabeths,” is the story of a woman who loses her husband at a young age and in her grief discovers the written history of her ancestors. The stories of their strength renew her life. I wanted to incoporate the sounds of the first six movements of the cycle but also find a new sound for this Elizabeth that was cathartic. I knew I wanted to use the pitch set from the entire work but present it in a new way. Ultimately the interlocking triads of E major and a second major triad built on its third (enharmonically A-flat major) presented as arpeggios provided the sonic richness I wanted, two major chords, two minor seconds, for an ending of affirmation tinged with pathos.

Currently, I feel like Prospero at the end of The Tempest who breaks his staff and says, I’m done. I’ve put down my composer’s pen. I’m not composing now. Maybe that will change and maybe it won’t, but the experience of music is painful to me these days. I can’t allow myself to be emotionally attached to it.

At the time, I didn’t realize how rare it is to have an excuse to write big, bold, new music. Imagine, all of that work–three premieres for singer and orchestra–for a free concert, heard only once, and even then by just the number of people that can fit into the Assembly Hall. It sounds crazy now, but I loved the doing of it. To be honest, I never expected it to be heard again.

David: After carefully reading the text to “to John” and discussing it with Elaine, I decided to approach it as a reminiscence, trying to express the suggested feelings of love it depicted. I then had to make decisions concerning
qualities of line, harmony, form, sound suggested by the text, freedom of direction, process and coloration.

When I first began composing this piece, my intention was to write for Soprano and Piano. About halfway through “Circus,” I realized the vocal range was more suited for Mezzo-soprano. I love the richness and depth of color of the Mezzo-soprano voice, and am delighted it turned out this way.

to John

I used to read
the gentle caress of the breeze
the winking of the sun through the trees
the tender kiss of dawn
fanciful metaphors.
I thought them odd,
When you slip your arm around me
I feel the breath of a summer evening
your eyes illumine like the morning sun,
and your kiss removes the night.

I started to think of ways to let the text shape the music, rather than the music shape the text. Also, I needed to identify specific places to occasionally repeat a “reminiscent” short motive or two–not often, but just here and there–whose occurrence would provide cohesion and brief remembrance and connection in the mind of the listener so the music would not have the feeling of meandering.

Because of the delicacy, tenderness and supple nature in each line of the text, I decided for the most part, to use a linear and sometimes contrapuntal approach to form the harmonic content of the piece.

Also, for harmonic interest, I have employed the use of poly-chords, implied poly-chords, tall tertian chords, and implied tall tertian chords to add increased levels of depth and color to the overall harmonic landscape of the piece which cannot be achieved by traditionally used triads and chords alone. This allows opportunities to utilize word painting to match phrases in the text. Some of the word painting seems to have the opposite mood of the text due to the musical function of the phrase–those moving toward cadences, etc.

Examples of word painting are as follows:

1. “I used to read the gentle caress of the breeze . . .” The breeze is represented by the triplet eighth-notes which, at this slow tempo (quarter-note equals 60) add a gentle increase in the motion suggesting breeze. The ascending vocal line combined with the triplet eight-notes also suggests motion of the breeze.

2. ” . . . the winking of the sun through the trees . . .” is represented by the repeated F#-D# 16th notes in the vocal part, followed by the repeated eighth-notes E-D and C#-B in the accompaniment in measure 12. To me, this idea represents an image of the sun behind moving tree branches.

For the most part, the harmonies are linearly derived. Tall Tertian chords, Dominant 13th chords, are unfolded one note at a time and not in order from bottom to top while depressing the sustaining pedal in order to “collect” the sound of that certain chord. Examples of this procedure are found in the following measures:

1. In Measures 1-2, a linear unfolding of a G Dominant 13th chord while depressing the Sustaining Pedal occurs. Notice the notes are not unfolded in order from bottom to top–G, B, D, F, A (missing), C-sharp (raised 11th) and E. The resulting sound is that of a static, sustained, inverted G13th chord with noncommittal resolution tendencies.

2. In Measures 3-4, a similar linear unfolding occurs on an F Dominant 13th chord. In both the G and F 13th chords, the 9ths are missing and the 11ths are raised 1/2 step respectively.

3. Measures 5-8, Sustaining Pedal depressed, is the same concept. The same F13th chord from measures 3-4 is again sustained but this time includes the missing 9th (G). Again, notice the different ordering of the notes in these measures. These are all examples of linearly produced harmonies.

4. Measures 11-12 are examples of implied linear harmony. These chords”“played one note at a time and not in order from bottom to top–are considered to be implied because the pedal does not sustain the sounds.

The first use of poly-chords in “to John”–in this case, three different chords sounding at the same time–is found in measures 13-15. In measure 13, an A major-minor 7th chord is played in the Bass Clef and sustained until beat three of measure 15. Above it in measure 13 (Treble Clef ) are two chords–the three upper notes form a D Major chord and the lower two notes imply a C Major chord. On beat three of measure 13, the upper three notes (D Major) move stepwise downward to a C Major Chord, and the lower two notes to an implied Bb Major chord which are restated in measure 14 and tied over to beat three in measure 15. They also provide the triplet motive for the text in the voice part of measure 15–“fanciful metaphors . . . “

8 thoughts on “song/cycles: music and poetry”

  1. So back to the actual content of this post: this is really cool. I’d love to see more artistic collaboration happen between LDS artists working in various media.

    And *sigh* yet another Utah event to be jealous of.

  2. .

    Yes, but keep in mind: ignoring the performance, everything else about this project (nearly) was not tied to Utah at all.

  3. I wish I could go, but alas, I am tied to 6 adorable, wriggly, noisy balls-and-chains. Someday I’ll be able to go to things like this.

    Please let us know how it went, and if excerpts (video, audo etc) can be posted here, that would be great.

    (Nosurfgirl, commenting as herself from now on)

  4. .

    From MAG:

    Mormon Artists Group is bursting with pride at the news that “Sudden Music”, one of its commissions of new song cycles by LDS composers to texts by LDS poets, is a winner of the prestigious 2010 American Composers Forum/LA Composers Competition. Kudos to composer Lansing McLoskey and poet Javen Tanner, whose work will be performed in Los Angeles in December by soprano Katherine Giaquinto.

    “Sudden Music” was performed last Monday in Orem, Utah along with the complete project Song/Cycles by the Utah Lyric Opera Company. This included the world premiere of “Notes”, the song cycle by David Sargent/Elaine Craig. Our congratulations to all the collaborators on a terrific evening and to Lansing and Javen on the occasion of the American Composers award.

    Additional information about Song/Cycles, including audio excerpts, is on our website. The complete scores and panel discussion have been published in paperback ($19.95, 198 pages).

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