Thursday, December 31, 2009

On the 7th Day of Christmas: Starting a New Song

The other day, I completed a song that will open a song cycle setting seven different poems about creativity and inspiration (five of the other songs had already been completed). Shakespeare's Sonnet No. 100 is a frustrated poet's address to a long-absent muse. The cycle ends with Rumi's “Say 'Yes' Quickly,” a rush of inspiration rising to a flash of creative insight. At the midpoint of this as yet unnamed cycle is this poem by Rilke. Ever since I decided what this cycle's “theme” should be, I knew this would be the climax of the songs.

While other posts have been about choosing and translating the poems, this post is about my thoughts as I look at the poem one more time before sitting down to begin composing it. It will be the last of the seven songs to be completed.

“To Music”
by Rainer Maire Rilke

Music. The breathing of statues. Perhaps:
The silence of paintings. You – Language
where Languages end. You – Time
standing upright from the direction
of vanishing hearts.

Feelings, for whom? O you transformation
of feelings – 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,
the other side of air:
no longer habitable.

(translation by R. A. Strawser)
- - - - - - - -

How to turn this into music?! It already IS music!

But first, how to turn this into musical structure, as a place to begin? Where the Shakespeare sonnet (even the Lazy Poet's sonnet) was a strict form, Rilke's is purely rhapsodic (or at least the translation is – I see no discernible structure in the original German, either). What creates structure in this poem (which can be reflected in the music)?

On the surface, there are 17 lines: the Golden Section occurs, therefore, at Line 10½ which occurs between “Transcending” and “driven outward” - or, to round it out to the complete line, between Line 10 and Line 11 which means the words “Holiest farewell” would occur after the Golden Section. (However, mathematically, 17 x .617 = 10.489 so rounding it officially would be to 10, not 11, right? sigh...)

There are two “parts” - the first consists of 5 lines, the second of 12 – unfortunately almost but not quite a “mirrored” Golden Ratio (that would be the 2nd line of Part 2)... However, the proportions are comparable: I could still have the first part fit in the 1st segment (antecedent) of the song; the second part into the 2nd segment (consequent) after the “mirrored” Golden Section point. Considering the beauty of the line “Holiest farewell,” that could still occur at the “positive” Golden Section Point which, incidentally, should be the climactic Golden Section Point of the entire song cycle, considering the carefully planned proportions of all seven songs.

In the first (antecedent) segment, Music is apostrophized as “you” five times. The 2nd person pronoun does not appear in the second (consequent) segment at all.

In the first segment, Music is 'compared' to other artistic formats (for lack of a better term) – sculpture, painting, language. Then, from these 'disciplines' (keeping in mind the ancient Greek idea of art as 'technos'), we move to “vanishing hearts” and “feelings,” from the intellectual to the emotional inner-world and, with “audible landscape,” to nature.

In this second part of the poem, Music (the last “you”) is probably the product of creativity, the work-of-art, “grown out of... our innermost self” which transcends the artist (now “us” and “our”) as it is “driven outward” from us (toward others?) with a sense of a farewell.

The real climax of the poem, emotionally if not structurally, then, occurs between the last “you” and the first “us” – where creativity has converted our innermost feelings and thoughts into something that is created: a work of art. It hadn't occurred to me before, but this is probably why I sensed this poem, of all the ones I'd found and considered setting, needed to be placed as the central keystone of my arch of poems in this song cycle about creativity and inspiration.

If one considers another overlaid structural proportion, the halfway point of 17 lines would be 8.5 which places it at the midpoint of the line “You stranger: Music. || You, grown out of us,” where "you" (art) converts to "us" (artist). Rilke could just as easily have divided the lines with the break there. It is, perhaps, another example of superimposed simultaneities, a type of poetic counterpoint.

The music I hear in my head as I contemplate these lines is vague: I don't hear a specific melody though I know, given the emotional intensity of the text, it must be the most lyrical of the songs, the most dramatic. I don't recall the first time I'd read the poem: perhaps when I was teaching at UConn about 34 years ago. I know I didn't dwell on it to this extent but just remembered the beauty of it and its spiritual impact on me at the time. But ever since the spring when I started looking for song texts, the music I heard in the background was not the logical assumption – Schubert's “An die Musik” – but the “Composer's Aria” from the prologue of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos. This “aural background” is more like what a movie director might put into his rough cut before the composer would provide the eventual filmscore: a 'place-holder' to give the best indication of what he was after.

Speaking of integrity, it was this aria I'd heard Joyce DiDonato sing as an encore to her recital in Philadelphia when John Clare and a friend drove down to hear her. As if the whole recital wasn't wonderful enough, the exhilaration I felt after the Strauss was like having discovered the Artist's National Anthem – as the young composer asks, “What, then, is Music?” and responds that “Music is a holy art.”

(This question is raised at 1:16 into this brief 2:22 video clip. Since the composer is a young man, he has become a 'trouser role,' sung by a woman-in-pants to approximate a youthful voice. Here is mezzo-soprano Tatyana Troyanos singing the aria from a Metropolitan TV Broadcast in 1988. An excerpt from the full production, the aria does not stop when it ends but immediately continues, unfortunately lopped off here).

This passionate outburst is the result of the news the young composer's new opera (an opera seria, at that, very old-fashioned even in the 18th Century time Strauss' opera is set and terribly highbrow), instead of just being performed on the same evening as a local comedy troupe's extremely lowbrow performance, must now be, somehow, combined with clowns: Zerbinetta, the saucy actress who leads the actors' troupe, has suggested that the composer's tragic heroine just needs a new boyfriend and all will be well.

First performed in 1912 – at a time when so many things were changing in the world of music: Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Debussy's Jeux, and when Strauss himself, a trailblazer with Salome and Elektra, has gone in the opposite direction, writing historical pastiches of Mozart and Handel – Strauss is exploring the collision between what we might call “highbrow” and “lowbrow.” How do we judge the quality of art – by its popularity? How do we define what “Art” is and what “Entertainment” is and must they be mutually exclusive?

It is not a new argument, friends of mine who rail against American Idol's process for determining success may be surprised to discover (if for no other reason, I am gratified to see Susan Boyle go on to become one of the most successful performers of 2009 despite the fact she lost the TV reality contest, “Britain's Got Talent”). This argument was being written about by Tinctoris around 1500, a Flemish composer and theorist who was trying to find ways of combining the two into a “middle ground,” a form of synthesis existing even before the 19th Century philosopher Hegel came up with the concept of the Dialectic.

(You can read more about it at this blog I've just happened upon this morning, The Taruskin Challenge: two grad students take on Richard Taruskin's immense six volume Oxford History of Western Music, summarizing it ten pages by ten pages with, kindly enough, weekly summaries that are well worth reading if you're looking for some comprehensive and comprehendible immersion. One could argue that, while comprehensive, Taruskin may not always generally be comprehendible, thus setting up its own argument between highbrow and lowbrow and the art of trying to find the middle).

So one of the issues I must deal with, getting back to Rilke's poem, is to find music of comparable intensity (if not beauty) to Strauss' Composer to match Rilke's words.

As a new decade begins, I must sit down and come to terms with all this – this poem's structure as well as its essence – to begin composing a song about creativity and integrity. The trick will be not to let my “inner editor/demon” (for most creative types, these are one-and-the-same) take control of this daunting challenge.

Wish me luck!

And, by the way - Happy New Decade!

Dr. Dick

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