Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Declivity Factor ™

(Emily Dickinson- looking kind of Virgin of Guadalupe-ish)

Someone asked me- Paul, ole buddy, why have you not set any Emily Dickinson texts to music? And my answer is, 1) everyone else already has! 2)
The Declivity Factor™. And, what is The Declivity Factor ™, you ask? Well, it is simply this-- I heard a piece by Gregg Smith (what a nice man) setting some Dickinson, and at some point, the word declivity was uttered or sung or something. And I stopped and said to myself, "Self, what the heck is that word?" And, truly it was unbeknownst to me. So, I then said to myself, "Self, you have studied at a university (or pretended to study) and yet you know not of this word. What is wrong with this cinemascope"?

And then it hit me-
The Declivity Factor™! Which is--- no poem can be set effectively to music which has such ridiculous East Coast learn-ed words- it just doesn't work. Lest you think me wrong and uncouth, no less than the great choral composer Kirke Mechem has stated this as well- though far more "couthly". Mr. Mechem states (I paraphrase here) that choral settings of poems must utilize texts where the language is immediate, and that the big honking Oxford Dictionary 20 volume OE2 (comprising 291,500 entries in 21,730 pages- retail price $995 , for sale at today for $848.02) need not be at hand. Mechem goes on to state that immediacy, action, emotion, and imagery are the key elements necessary to a text's successful metamorphosis into a successful musical setting.


Big word guy William F. Buckley (149-3-5)
motto: I'm smarter than you, na-na-na-boo-boo

Savvy composer guy Kirke Mechem (0-0-12)

motto: say what you mean, mean what you say

(Hey, I think Kirke is probably a lover, not a fighter;
but actually he has a chance to win, as he is still composing and Buckley is doing the opposite)

So, long story short, or maybe
vicey-versa- I haven't set any Dickinson texts because they have some of these fancy words sprinkled here and there (plus, declivity just has no musical sound to it whatsoever, I don't know how to make that word musical). Additionally, so many of the Dickinson poems are short and quite sing-songy. Their rhythm/cadence is quite often far too simple-- while the subject matter they are connected to is often not simple at all- to me a very bad disconnect.

Which leads me to the following nail in the coffin:
In addition The Declivity Factor™ (which I just trademarked a few minutes ago, in case you hadn't noticed)) there is The Yellow Rose of Texas Factor, popularized by humorist Roy Blount, Jr. Since so many Emily poems are in simple ballad meter with nice cushy rhymes, you can sing her poetry to ballads such as The Yellow Rose of Texas, or even the theme song from Gilligan's Island. These types of short lines/simple rhymes might make for somewhat passable beginning level children's choir music, but really, for serious music, the continual rhyming is actually detrimental. The reason being, that no really long musical lines can be established with any kind of sophistication--the simple rhymes keep popping their narcissistic heads up demanding attention. And if you do grant their wishes, your musical will usually be very choppy little four bar phrases. Furthermore, I think I am not alone in the belief that the
best poets couldn't care less if their poems don't rhyme.
So, pardner, I think I will pass on the Dickinson oeuvre (I've never said or typed oeuvre before) for now, at least. Here is a poem cut and pasted for you right here, so that you yourself can try singin' it to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas":

BECAUSE I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away

My labor, and my leisure too, For his civility.
We passed the school where children played
At wrestling in a ring;

We passed the fields of gazing grain,

We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,

The cornice but a mound.

Since then ’t is centuries; but each

Feels shorter than the day

I first surmised the horses’ heads

Were toward eternity.

Btw, I am a big fan of Copland's solo settings of Heart, we will forget him, and Going to Heaven.

P.S. Dickinson lovers, bring on the hate mail if you want.

If you have read this far, poor soul, here is your final reward:

pl -ties a downward slope [Latin declivitas]
declivitous adj
Noun1.declivity - a downward slope or bend
downhill - the downward slope of a hill
incline, slope, side - an elevated geological formation; "he climbed the steep slope"; "the house was built on the side of a mountain"
steep - a steep place (as on a hill)

One early use:

Jack and Jill went up the hill

to fetch a pail of water,

Jack fell down the declivity and broke his crown

and Jill came tumbling after.

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