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

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