Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Igor Stravinsky: A Birthday and a Wedding

Since today is Igor Stravinsky’s birthday – born June 17th, 1882 – let me point you in the direction of a collection of humorous short stories based on the ‘what-if’ question inspired by this photo of “Stravinsky’s Tavern.”

Even Google’s home-page was getting into the act with a Stravinksy-inspired logo based on two of his best known ballets, The Firebird and, presumably, The Rite of Spring (at least I assume the garland of daisies has been left behind by the now-sacrificed virgin).

If you’re not familiar with The Rite of Spring, one of the most important works of the 20th Century, watch the videos of a reconstruction of the original choreography that created such a scandal at its world premiere in 1914 – you can see them on an earlier springtime post.

Another one of my favorite Stravinsky works is Les Noces which I discovered when I was in high school in the mid-60s but never saw as a staged ballet until the late-70s when I lived in New York City. My miniature score calls it “Свадебка” (“Svadebka”) or “Village [or Little Folk] Wedding” though it’s usually known in French as “Les Noces” or “The Wedding.”

The story follows the preparation and blessing of the bride-to-be for her wedding, then a somewhat rowdier one for the groom, leading to the departure of the bride from her parents’ home for her future husband’s home where they will celebrate the wedding and the wedding feast. It consists almost entirely of rituals – the bride’s hair is braided into long strands, she weeps not because she is sad but because she must weep. Stravinsky is supposed to have collected Russian folks songs related to weddings – though he stressed it was not his intent to ethnographically reconstruct a folk wedding on stage.

The ballet – it is more accurately described as “choreographic scenes” or a “danced cantata” – had a long gestation. Stravinsky began work on it in 1913 around the time he was finishing The Rite of Spring (perhaps a different sacrifice of a virgin, here – make no mistake about the choreography’s symbolism at the end of Les Noces when the husband leads his new bride off to the bed chamber, his arm raised in phallic salute), but it wasn’t until ten years later the work, in its final form, received its premiere. It began with an expanded orchestra similar to The Rite of Spring, but before he’d finished the first of its four scenes, he began to rethink it in several different ways. One of these included player pianos which proved to be for any number of reasons impractical.

The final version was scored for a quartet of vocal soloists, a choir and two groups of percussion instruments – pitched and unpitched – including four (count ‘em, four) pianos. When it was first performed in the United States, the four pianists were all composers, including Marc Blitzstein and Aaron Copland. The recording I grew up with was conducted by the composer with composer-pianists Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss and Roger Sessions.

This video produced by the Royal Ballet was staged in 1966 by Bronislava Nijinska using her original choreography and the costume designs from the 1923 premiere.

So even though it is Stravinsky’s birthday, let’s go to the wedding (to the wedding)…

- - - -
Part One – the Blessing of the Bride; beginning of the Blessing of the Bridegroom

- - - -
Part Two – conclusion of the Blessing of the Bridegroom – the Departure of the Bride – the beginning of the Wedding Feast

- - - -
Part Three – the conclusion of the Wedding Feast

- - - -

Happy Birthday, Igor - and ||: many happy returns :||

- Dr. Dick

Translating Poems into Song Texts: Part 1

In an earlier post, I wrote about getting started on a new work, a cycle of seven songs for mezzo-soprano and piano, and how I found the poems I decided to set to music (you can read that here). That part of the process started in Mid-March and took several weeks. This part of the process started in mid-April. I began working on the first song to be written only in mid-May and finished it last week (mid-June).

The irony in finding texts about Inspiration is that I would hope to find it as a composer. Someone listening to a song under three-minutes in length may not be aware it took three weeks to compose it. There was more work to be done before I even started that part of the process.

Since it’s now a song cycle rather than a collection of songs, it needs to become more organized and the process, therefore, needs to be more thought out: how the poems relate to each other as a series. It’s not telling a story, necessarily, songs that move in a chronological sequence like Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin; it’s more like Britten’s anthologies, different poems by various authors but all centered on a particular theme – sleep, for instance, in the Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings – moving in a particular dramatic or contrasting sequence.

After selecting the texts, determining the basic order of the poems was only one of several steps I needed to take. Building an arch form means finding a parallel poem for each block of the arch – like the call to the Muse in Shakespeare’s sonnet at the one foundation and the spontaneous combustion of Rumi’s poem which Coleman Barke translates as “Say Yes Quickly” at the other end. The Rilke poem, An die Musik (To Music) – the only poem specifically about music but not related to Schubert's justly famous song – was clearly my centerpiece. Saint-Amant’s “Lazy Poet” waiting for inspiration contrasts specifically with the hard-working, constantly weaving spider of Whitman’s poem who keeps building his web strand by strand (also implying Robert the Bruce’s inspiration from watching a spider, then tearing down the web only to watch the spider start all over again).

The short East Asian lines from Basho and Li Po balance each other in more than comparable length. Not satisfied with his creation the first time, a young poet seeks to do better the next, trying again to “capture the essence of Fuji.” Li Po, probably in a drunken ecstasy, celebrates the power of spontaneity, that whatever his pen creates is what was meant to be (a Christian attitude would interpret this as saying “what God intended”).

To create a dramatic rhythm from beginning to end, starting with the frustrated poet blaming the muse for not helping him means ending with a burst of creative energy that is the realization of some implicit creative spirit, muse-induced or not. In between, a lazy poet, after learning some discernment from Basho’s view of Fuji, turns into “a patient spider” after a soul-searching definition of creativity’s inner-workings heard in the Rilke poem.

It’s Li Po’s aphorism about Inspiration specifically that concerns me: as part of the dramatic flow, shouldn’t it come after the poet learns an important skill from a hard-working spider, breaking through the work it often takes to turn an inspiration into a completed work of art? But then the energy of Li Po’s lines is too close to that of Rumi’s. Of course, there’s a similar tempo to Basho’s artist, willing to start over again, and Saint-Amant’s lazy one who waits for inspiration no matter how long it takes. The difference between these two, however, is going from “waiting for inspiration” to doing something with that inspiration – revising it until one gets the best result one can, not just the first one that comes along. So I thought Rilke’s enigmatic lines would then, like a Bunsen burner, bring to a boil the confidence needed for Li Po’s inspiration: by applying the poet’s skills – taking the time to find the right words – the result is something that, regardless how long it takes to create, lives in the moment.

As listeners in an audience, we don’t think of the creative effort that went into Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro, realizing it was written down in one sitting the night before the opera’s premiere, even a few hours’ work resulting in something only a few minutes long. It seems perfect in itself, an act of genius.

Similarly, we don’t think of the struggles over a span of decades, not hours, that it took before Brahms had the confidence to complete (much less even begin) his first symphony. By the time we reach its triumphant conclusion, twenty-some years of dogged labor and countless discarded attempts hardly matter at all.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

There was still a very real concern about copyright.

The two English poems were clearly public-domain. While the other poets were also long-dead, most of the translations were likely to still be under copyright. This practical concern prompted me to try my hand at my own translations, a problem in itself given my high-school and college German from years past, my lack of experience with French whatsoever and not having the Chinese, Japanese and Persian poems in their original, even if I could figure them out word-by-word.

It wasn’t that I felt I could “do better” than the ones I found already published (though in some cases, perhaps…). If two people could translate the same poem to come up with something even slightly different in English, why not a third? While I can say I “translated” Rilke and Saint-Amant, I call the other three “paraphrases” only because I took existing translations and reworked certain words and rhythms – and in the Rumi adapted interpretations and dropped certain lines which may have taken too much time to explain concepts easily understood to a Persian reader. After finding a very Victorian-sounding line-by-line translation of Rumi’s poem (though, I think, still without a title), I realized that Coleman Barks’ translation is as much a paraphrase as I was going for. Still, I can find no better title than his - Say Yes Quickly - something I am still tempted to use for the whole cycle (better than Seven Songs on Inspiration).

The Rilke was not difficult – the two or three translations I found were all very similar, in fact in many places identical. Certain words, after all, mean specific things, but sometimes finding an alternate word that doesn’t alter the meaning may sound more poetic, more musical or at least improve the rhythm.

Here is Rilke’s original German:

- - - -
Musik: Atem der Statuen. Vielleicht:
Stille der Bilder. Du Sprache wo Sprachen
enden. Du Zeit
die senkrecht steht auf der Richtung
vergehender Herzen.

Gefühle zu wem? O du der Gefühle
Wandlung in was? — in hörbare Landschaft.
Du Fremde: Musik. Du uns entwachsener
Herzraum. Innigstes unser,
das, uns übersteigend, hinausdrängt, —
heiliger Abschied:
da uns das Innre umsteht
als geübteste Ferne, als andre
Seite der Luft:
nicht mehr bewohnbar.
- - - -

Here is one standard translation I found in several places on-line (I could not find a credit for the translator):

- - - -
Music. The breathing of statues. Perhaps:
The silence of pictures. You, language where all
languages end. You, time
standing straight up out of the direction
of hearts passing on.

Feeling, for whom? O the transformation
of feeling into what? — into audible landscape.
Music: you stranger. Passion which
has outgrown us. Our inner most being,
transcending, driven out of us, —
holiest of departures:
inner worlds now
the most practiced of distances, as
the other side of thin air:
no longer habitable.
- - - -

There is nothing wrong with this but Rilke specifically avoids the definite article “der/die/das” in several places, and so I thought not using “the” would be closer to his original intent. I can understand why the translator wanted to use the parallel structure with the word “Music” but the poet writes in the second part, “Du Fremde: Musik,” not “Musik: du Fremde,” placing the emphasis on “You stranger” instead.

And so I came up with my own adaptation of it, going back to the original German. I preferred the Mahler-like “Farewell” rather than “Departure” for Abschied (both are dictionary-correct). The ending is quite literal and I saw no reason to change it.

- - - -
Music: breathing of statues. Perhaps:
Silence of paintings. You – language where languages
end. You – time
standing upright from the direction
of vanishing hearts.

Feelings for whom? O you feelings
transformed into what? – into audible Landscape.
You stranger: Music. You, grown out of us,
Heart-Space. Our innermost self
transcending, driven outward –
Holiest farewell:
Where the innermost surrounds us
like the most practiced distance, like the other
side of air:
no longer habitable.
- - - -

Being a fan of the Golden Section, I noticed it occurs here (in the original German) before the line “Heiliger Abschied” (“Holiest Farewell”) which ties in nicely with my search for something stylistically comparable to Strauss’ Composer’s Aria from Ariadne auf Naxos (see previous post) with its line “Musik ist ein heiliger Kunst” (Music is a holy art). Ah, coincidence… Placed as the keystone of my song cycle, this line – Heiliger Abschied – becomes the Golden Section of the entire cycle.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Pardoning my French, which is nonexistent, The Lazy Poet depended solely on an old dictionary – still, not as old as the 17th Century poem I wanted to re-translate – and here, rather than being more literal to the poet’s original intent, I wanted to remove the topical references that may have endeared it to his readers in 1631, but which would need footnotes for those in 2009.

- - - -
Accablé de paresse et de mélancolie,
Je rêve dans un lit où je suis fagoté,
Comme un lièvre sans os qui dort dans un pâté,
Ou comme un Don Quichotte en sa morne folie.

Là, sans me soucier des guerres d'Italie,
Du comte Palatin, ni de sa royauté,
Je consacre un bel hymne à cette oisiveté
Où mon âme en langueur est comme ensevelie.

Je trouve ce plaisir si doux et si charmant,
Que je crois que les biens me viendront en dormant,
Puisque je vois déjà s'en enfler ma bedaine,

Et hais tant le travail, que, les yeux entr’ouverts,
Une main hors des draps, cher Baudoin, à peine
Ai-je pu me résoudre à t'écrire ces vers.
- - - -

The translation I’d first found – from the Dover Collection edited by Stanley Applebaum (who, I assume, is also the translator) – is curiously rhyme-free as happens often in translations where it might seem too fussy to re-create the same rhyme-scheme, striving more for understanding. But the original poem is, after all, a strict sonnet. For all its lethargy, being about the lack of inspiration, is he being witty or is he ironically stressing skill over inspiration, artifice over art? Not being a native speaker (and certainly not a 17th Century one), I have no idea. Here is the Dover translation:

- - - -
Overwhelmed with sloth and melancholy,
I dream in a bed in which I am trussed up
Like a boned hare sleeping in a pie,
Or like Don Quixote in his gloomy madness.

There, not worrying about the Italian wars,
The Count Palatine or his royalty,
I dedicate a fine hymn to the idleness
In which my languishing soul is practically buried.

I find this pleasure so sweet and charming,
That I think all good things will come to me while I sleep,
Since I already see my belly swelling with them;

And I hate work so much that, with my eyes half-closed,
With one hand out of the sheets, my dear Baudoin, I scarcely
Was able to bring myself to write you these verses.
- - - -

The rhyme-scheme and historical references (including his friend, the poet Baudoin) aside, references to swelling bellies and “one hand out of the sheets” might take more to explain than a simple paraphrase. So I went back to create a line-by-line translation and then worked out some freer translation that also allowed me to recreate the sonnet-form’s rhyme scheme (not the same one Saint-Amant used, but a comparable one).

- - - -
Overcome by laziness and melancholy,
I dream in a bed where trussed up I lie
Like a boneless rabbit asleep in a pie,
Or like some Don Quixote in his mournful folly.

There, oblivious to the latest wars,
To political views and all things ridiculous,
I compose this hymn in praise of idleness
Where my languishing soul, long-buried, snores.

I find this pleasure so sweet, so compelling,
Believing good things will come to my dreams:
I can see how my purse is already swelling.

How I hate all this work, these trials, the curses!
Eye half-closed, lying brain-dead, it seems
I can scarcely manage to write down these verses.
- - - -

I thought rhyming ridiculous and idleness was cute but was disappointed to have subsequently found another translation that rhymed wars with snores.

While I went closer to the original in the Rilke, I was amused to find myself more freely re-translating parts of Saint-Amant’s sonnet to be less literal to the poet’s original intent. Again, it has more to do with my needs for a song text than its having anything to do with the poem. The only way to be completely honest to the poet would be to set it in French, but that was not my intent, here, especially since I would be unable to provide the original Japanese, Chinese and Persian for the others.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Paraphrasing becomes even more important in the haiku of Basho. For instance, one of his more famous poems – about a frog jumping into a pond – can be translated several ways depending on how literal one tried to be to the original non-grammatical original. (I have to laugh: looking for this haiku led me to a site that has a transliteration of the original Japanese.)

- - - -
Old pond — frogs jumped in — sound of water.
(translated by Lafcadio Hearn, one of the first translators of Japanese into English who died in 1904)

The old pond,
A frog jumps in:
(translated by Alan Watts, a famous modern translator of Asian verse)

A lonely pond in age-old stillness sleeps . . .
Apart, unstirred by sound or motion . . . till
Suddenly into it a lithe frog leaps.
(an almost Victorian, rhymed translation by Curtis Hidden Page, an early-20th Century, Missouri-born Harvard graduate)

Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water —
A deep resonance.
(translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa writing in the 2nd half of the 20th Century who disregards the traditional 3-line form of the haiku but creates something that might resonate more deeply with a Western reader)
- - - -

The original translation I’d found for the Basho haiku I wanted to use,

- - - -
Misty rain
Can’t see Fuji
- - - -

had a 3+4+3 syllabic scan but I wanted to use the more standard 5+7+5. Somewhere on-line I found another translation less structured but which added something to the last line: “That’s interesting! Again.” But I have since found the original Japanese (here) and realize that “again” has nothing to do with the poet’s intent. As vague as the images of Haiku are meant to be – complex meanings from simple words – I think he meant that the image of Mount Fuji is so well known that even when you can’t see it shrouded in the mist and rain, you still know what it looks like. But by taking this “again” a step further, I took a not-so-subtle mis-translation even further to create what I was looking for, not necessarily what Basho wrote:

- - - -
Endless misty rain
Can’t see Fuji for the haze
Interesting. Once more…
- - - -

Now it implies, perhaps, that because you haven’t created a clear image of Mount Fuji (either in words or painting) you have to try again to create a better, clearer one, something not implied in Basho’s original and a concept certainly more Western than Japanese. Still, young poet-grasshoppers have to learn their craft somewhere, so perhaps I will let it stand.

Li Po (or Li Bai, Li Tai-po as he is also known, depending on how you choose to transliterate the Chinese) was less of a problem. In this case, I took two different translations and found some middle ground (pun intended – China in Chinese means “Middle Kingdom”).

- - - -
Inspiration hot, each stroke of my pen shakes the Five Mountains.
- - - -
In high spirits I write, and thereby shake the Five Mountains. As a poem is accomplished I shout in ecstasy, I’ll bend the river!
- - - -
Inspiration! My pen with each stroke shakes the Five Mountains.
A poem becomes – I shout ecstatic, “I’ll bend the river!”
- - - -

I still have no clear idea what the Five Mountains are or how to explain them without maybe taking 6 extra lines to do so, but this seemed to me like a free paraphrase typical of some other translations I’ve seen of his often drink-induced ecstasy. Besides, if he’s going to “bend the river,” why can’t I?

The poem by Rumi, on the other hand, is an even longer story and I think at this point, I’ll save that for a separate post.

- Dr. Dick

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Bloomsday 2009

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

-- Introibo ad altare Dei.”
- - - - -

And so began the original Bloomsday, June 16th, 1904. Today, it's being celebrated in Dublin in grand style, economy-be-damned:

- - - - -
"The annual literar
y hooley involves devoted Joyceans dressing in the fashions of 1904, eating the ‘inner organs of beasts and fowls,’ attending readings and celebrating at various venues and pubs mentioned in the book."
- - - - -

Every Bloomsday, I try to read a few more pages in my life-long bookcrawl through the 783 pages of my current edition of James Joyce’s epic novel, Ulysses, which describes a day in the life of Leopold Bloom and his travels through Dublin during the course of one spring day in 1904. Last Bloomsday, I made it to p.399 and then blogged about it here.

I’m not sure how far I’ll get today, but it is a good day for reading, cool and overcast. I'll pass on the dietary associations, though...

Below an uncredited portrait of the author are photos of a Dublin Celebration (during the Centennial celebration in 2004?), perhaps one of the largest bar-hops in the world, and a James Joyce re-enactor from 2003.

You can read Joyce's Ulysses on-line courtesy of the Gutenberg Project.

- Dr. Dick

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Next New Work: Deciding on Songs, Finding Texts

When I finished the violin sonata in February, I spent the usual post-part-copying depression (or more accurately, ‘down-time’) thinking about “the next piece.” For a while, it sounded like it might be a piano quintet for no particular reason except it seemed too complicated a piece to work on right now. More practical – at least from the compositional sense – would be a song cycle: I enjoy writing for the voice and haven’t done much in the past 8 years aside from last year’s biblical settings, “Evidence of Things Not Seen.” So basically, several miniatures that individually shouldn’t take much time sounded increasingly more realistic. Besides, I need to work on my piano writing (and playing) before I should be doing bigger, more serious stuff like a piano quintet.

So once the songs won the draft, the old question took up several weeks of research and contemplation: what texts? Unrelated, random poems or should there be a theme?

Much time was spent browsing through the few volumes of poetry I have, then at the library and a couple of bookstores and, of course, on-line. I find I tend to read poetry with a look to how it might work as a song-text rather than as a poem in itself and therefore I tend to avoid it, especially poets that are not in the public domain. Even Dead Poets might not be very accessible because their modern translators may be under copyright.

There was a brief flirtation, after listening to two of my favorite song cycles, both by Domenick Argento – “Casa Guidi” (from letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning) and “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf” – about choosing similar non-poetic texts. Or maybe a dramatic scene, some soliloquies from Euripides’ “The Trojan Women” (which I’d set as an opera back in the ‘70s) or Aeschylus’ “The Persians.”

Then, for some reason, I picked up my grandfather’s c.1905 copy of Shakespeare Sonnets (one of those little pocket-sized volumes) and took it along with me for odd moments of browsing – stuck in a line somewhere, waiting in a restaurant or sitting on a park bench.

I’d already set Sonnet 30 twice – “When to the Sessions of Sweet Silent Thought,” one of my favorites – so I tried to think of something else this time, despite the fact I kept coming back to it, wondering how it might go now, 25 years or so after the last time. Somehow, I landed on Sonnet 100. I don’t think I’d ever read it before but then quickly realized I’d probably only ever read a dozen of them before: like Schubert songs, you think you know lots of them then realize, out of 600, you probably really only have heard a fraction of them.

- - - -
Where art thou Muse that thou forget'st so long,
To speak of that which gives thee all thy might?
Spend'st thou thy fury on some worthless song,
Darkening thy power to lend base subjects light?

Return forgetful Muse, and straight redeem,
In gentle numbers time so idly spent;
Sing to the ear that doth thy lays esteem
And gives thy pen both skill and argument.

Rise, resty Muse, my love's sweet face survey,
If Time have any wrinkle graven there;
If any, be a satire to decay,
And make time's spoils despised every where.

Give my love fame faster than Time wastes life,

So thou prevent'st his scythe and crooked knife.
- - - -

This seemed an appropriate poem for a composer still recuperating from a long dry-spell who hasn’t found it as easy to write as he once did (“when in doubt, blame it on the Muse”).

“Here,” one commentator writes, “the Muse is blamed for having dried up. She has spent her energies in worthless pursuits and is castigated for being devoted to trivialities, being forgetful and slothful.” Turning 60 certainly inclined me to think of many things, not the least of them “time’s spoils.” I imagined this as a fanfare-like song, opening a set of songs of… uhm…

A series of Shakespeare Sonnets? Can’t argue with the copyright… A series of poems about muses? Hmmm…

Then, paging through Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way,” a wonderful workbook for recovering artists (or for those who want to recover their creative selves), I saw a quote attributed to the 13th Century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, Jalai ud-Din Rumi:

- - - -
Inside you there’s an artist you don’t know about…
Say yes quickly, if you know, if you’ve known it
from before the beginning of the universe.
- - - -

As slow as the composing process is for me, the creative process – the actual inspiration – sometimes comes in a flash. These three words – “Say yes quickly” – quickly informed me I would do a song cycle on “inspiration” and that Rumi’s poem, balancing Shakespeare’s call to the errant muse, would be the final poem.

It took a while to find the source of these lines. It’s translated by Coleman Barks, the single best-known translator of Rumi’s ecstatic poetry today. And so it came with additional burdens: copyright, mostly. I could set it without permission, but then it’s unlikely the songs could ever be published or recorded. I could write to him to ask permission and perhaps he would grant it. Perhaps I wouldn’t have to pay too much in the way of royalties for his work. I was curious, though, what the original may have been like.

Now, despite actually having a Persian dictionary in my library (over the years, I have accumulated many things I would never have thought realistic), finding Rumi in the original Persian would be, no doubt, a challenge even on the internet. But more of that, later.

So now I had an alpha and an omega – what would fit in between? Urging a recalcitrant muse would be a good way to start, ending in a flash of inspiration (ecstatic indeed) the logical way to end.

Then I remembered the Composer’s Aria from Richard Strauss’ opera, “Ariadne auf Naxos,” as the young composer of the opera-within-the-opera is about to see his work trashed by realistic circumstances and practicalities. The line “Music is a holy art” (about 1:30 into the linked video) has long made this a favorite hymn of mine, the importance of maintaining one’s own artistic integrity in the face of those who would cheapen it to attain popularity.

Not that Strauss’ aria was what I was looking for, but maybe something like that, something that gets to the core of being a creative person.

Several years ago, I had come across Rilke’s poem, “An die Musik” which intrigued me, given Schubert’s own hymn on the subject with the same title (setting some amateurish but directly emotional poetry by his friend and sometimes roommate, Franz Schober). I soon found it again and wondered if it were what I wanted. Yes, I thought quickly: it would become the mid-point in the path between Shakespeare and Rumi.

For the next few weeks, I continued to scour around for poems about inspiration: given how frequently poets write about it, needing it, not finding it, celebrating having found it, you’d think I could find more of them. I found a few by Pushkin that might work but I was unhappy with most of the translations I found or with the poems for what I wanted. I even found a few of these in the original Russian which then of course begged another question: do I set these poems in their original language? I now had English, Persian, German and perhaps Russian.

While flipping through a slim anthology of French poetry, an example from the 17th Century caught my eye: I figured was not going to provide me with anything likely, anyway, but then I read “The Lazy Poet” by Marc Antoine Gérard de Saint-Amant – if anything, a hymn to sloth and a witty take-off on all those caricatures of creative wanna-bes lying around waiting for Inspiration to strike. From what turned out to be a strict sonnet and no lazy man’s work, the final lines clinched it for me:

- - - -
And I hate work so much that, with my eyes half-closed,
With one hand out of the sheets, my dear Baudoin, I scarcely
Was able to bring myself to write you these verses.
- - - -

It was nice to have something light-hearted in this mix, looking at different ways creativity – inspiration – the muse – works at different times. Even though I’m still not sure how I’m going to set it to music, I figured it should go right after the Shakespeare.

A big fan of symmetrical forms, I figured this would need to be an arch-form that now required something to balance Saint-Amants’ Lazy Poet. Something… industrious, hard-working, “steady-as-she-goes”… like a spider, maybe, building a web.

That’s when I remembered Walt Whitman’s poem, “A Noiseless Patient Spider.” For some reason, I couldn’t locate it in my volume of “The Leaves of Grass” which I thought included everything and this, I was sure, was one of his more famous poems. Once again, I went on-line to locate it and copied it from there.

This one, however, I knew exactly how I’d set as soon as I read it. Two parallel verses (though of very different metric structures), the first about the spider, the second about the poet’s “soul” and how, like the spider spinning its web, the poet might… well… that’s not exactly clear. What a poet means and how a reader interprets it may be two or three different things and unless Whitman specifically wrote somewhere “this is what this poem means,” it’s really up to the reader. The fact a poem can offer different interpretations is a mark of its being great art, something you can return to and discover something new about it each time.

In this particular sense, I saw it as a poem about creativity, the hard-working spider spinning out filament after filament of its web and the poet, casting a similar effort out from his “soul,” writing a poem. It doesn’t specifically say that, but what is the soul of a poet meant to be if not something creative, constantly spinning out lines, some of which take and others of which do not? It would consist of a steady filament of eighth-notes in the piano under a free-floating vocal line that circles around certain key pitches.

- - - -
A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them — ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, — seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d — till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.
- - - -

Now I had five poems – by an Englishman, a Frenchman, a German, an American and a Persian. Wouldn’t it be nice to have something from China and Japan? Now, my search for thoughts on inspiration, muses or not, was becoming more culture-based.

When I was at Eastman, I wrote a work for soprano, mezzo and small ensemble, a George Crumb-inspired cycle of seven random poems by the great Chinese poet usually known as Li Po. Having found them in the original Chinese, I managed (with the help of a very good Chinese dictionary courtesy of the Rochester Public Library) to come up with my own translation. It was a very interesting project for a lazy summer week, much of the time spent lolling around under the trees of Rochester’s Highland Park. If nothing else, I was able to use Li Po’s poetry without worrying about copyright regulations. I even sent the result to my former college roommate from Hong Kong who gave me the equivalent of “thumbs-up.”

So, over 35 years later, I went back to Li Po. Most of the poems I found were more about nature or the joys of drunkenness. These lines, whether they’re from a longer poem or just a self-contained haiku-like aphorism, struck me as just what I needed. Unable to find the original Chinese and no longer having access to that Chinese dictionary, I paraphrased them this way:

- - - -
Inspiration! My pen with each stroke shakes the Five Mountains.
A poem becomes – I shout, ecstatic, “I’ll bend the river!”
- - - -

This would fit into the second half of the arch. I now had a progression of creative involvement, starting with Shakespeare’s call to the muse to appear and inspire him again, then Saint-Amant’s lazy poet, lying in bed barely able to write a sonnet, reaching a climax in Rilke’s passionate view of music’s interior world before turning to Whitman’s spider-like view relying more on constant work (this is what a spider does, this is what a poet does), the antithesis of waiting for inspiration to strike, before ending with Li Po’s and Rumi’s ecstatic avowals of a flame-like creativity bursting forth in the moment.

At this point, I needed a complement to Li Po’s lines for the first half of the arch, something contemplative. The Japanese form we know as haiku meditates on one small glimpse of nature – a fly in springtime landing on a bamboo shoot, a frog jumping into a summer pond. I was not able to find something that opened so overtly with the word “Inspiration!” but after reading through several collections of haiku, some strict according to the original rules, others just simply short aphoristic lines glimpsing a moment in time, I found one by one of the great masters of the form, Basho.

After reading over various translations of the same poems, whether from French or Persian, I decided, now, that I would once again do my own “translations.” In the sense of Japanese, the characters used for haiku are not necessarily exact nouns and verbs with syntax but often images that the listener would put into some context. English, by comparison an OCD language, requires a different approach yet still needs to fit into the pre-ordained restrictions of numbers of lines and syllables. So my paraphrase of Basho’s poem became

- - - -
Endless misty rain
Can’t see Fuji in the haze
Interesting. Once more…
- - - -

The antithesis of Li Po’s and Rumi’s moments, Basho’s haiku reflects the “if-at-first-you-don’t-succeed” reaction that parallels Whitman’s spider. But the brevity of the Japanese and Chinese poems required that they be placed in parallel locations: the only question has been which ones? At the moment, I see them flanking Rilke’s “An die Musik,” though every time I look at the texts, I begin to wonder perhaps if they should be in the 2nd and next-to-last positions. We’ll see…

During April, I finalized the texts if not their exact order – conceiving the songs as a single work rather than just a collection of seven songs – but because a bout of flu prolonged itself into an annoying sinus infection that lasted several weeks, I didn’t really start composing the music until mid-May. Out of the past three weeks, two were spent spider-like spinning out 32 measures. I finished it two days ago. I was joking that the original sketches reminded me of something created by one of Gary Larson’s less-than-competent spiders from The Far Side, so perhaps I should realize the sketch into a more finite draft before I go on to the next one, but more of that in a later post.

- Dr. Dick

Monday, June 01, 2009

Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto - in Baltimore & On-Line

When scouting around for a Philadelphia Orchestra concert to include in a tour to see the new Kimmel Center some years ago, one program that season jumped out at me – Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, a tried-and-true war-horse that was a specialty of the orchestra’s conductor, Woflgang Sawallisch; and a Concerto for Orchestra being given its world premiere by a composer I’d never heard of before, Jennifer Higdon. Familiarity & Curiosity on one program. So we chose this concert.

The glowing review in the Philadelphia Inquirer ecstatically detailed highlight after highlight in Ms. Higdon’s Concerto – in fact, the headline was “Concerto for Orchestra Debut Shimmers.” At the end, the critic, David Patrick Stearns, added as almost an afterthought, “The orchestra also played Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben.”

Since then, her works have been performed, commissioned and recorded far more quickly than is typical of most living composers.

For those concert-goers in the mid-state region who remember fairly recent performances of Jennifer Higdon’s music – “Blue Cathedral” and her Percussion Concerto with the Harrisburg Symphony and “river sings a song to trees” from CityScape with the Lancaster Symphony when she received the orchestra’s Composer’s Award in 2008 – there’s a special opportunity to hear one of her latest works, given its world premiere five months ago in February (read about it here). The Violin Concerto was written for Hilary Hahn who’ll be playing it with her hometown orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony, this week with performances Thursday & Friday nights and Sunday afternoon at the Meyerhoff Concert Hall and on Saturday night at the Strathmore Center.

For those (like me) unable to make any of these performances, this past week’s concerts with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (its European premiere) will be broadcast on-line today on BBC-3. The broadcast is scheduled at 19:00 GMT which I presume translates into 3:00pm EDT (GMT does not believe in saving daylight). [added later: SO I WAS MIGHTILY SURPRISED, not to mention annoyed, to go to the BBC website and discover that it had actually begun at 2:00pm EDT after all -- aaargh...]

After today’s broadcast, the recording of the concert will still be available on-demand for the next 7 days.

Further good news: the Liverpool performance was recorded the next day for eventual release on the Deutsche Gramophone label!

Jennifer Higdon’s music is back on mid-state programs for at least two performances, both in January 2010. She’ll be here with the Cypress Quartet when they play her “Impressions” on January 23rd for Market Square Concerts. The Harrisburg Symphony will perform “SkyLine” from CityScape on their concert a week later, January 30th-31st. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (with soloist Augustin Hadelich returning to Harrisburg) will be on that program as well.

Imagine if you had a chance to hear Beethoven talking (or even writing) about how he wrote his Violin Concerto for Franz Clement who gave it its premiere (preferably recorded before the concert which was something of a disaster: it took another generation before this concerto became anything near the staple in the repertoire it is today). Hilary Hahn, who was a student of Jennifer Higdon’s at Curtis and who commissioned the concerto, interviewed her in this video available on (where else?) YouTube:

You can also listen to an NPR interview from Weekend Edition on May 23rd with conductor Marin Alsop talking with Jennifer about this week’s concerts in Baltimore.

Here are some other reviews and comments about the new concerto following its premiere: Mary Ellen Hutton blogging in Cincinnati and James Tobin at, including this Portland OR interview by James Bash for The Gathering Note with Jennifer about creativity in general and this segment from a PBS documentary called “Being Creative in Philadelphia.”

- Dr. Dick