Monday, April 13, 2009

Morning Person, a dizzying dazzling poem by Vassar Miller

Here is a wonderfully creative poem by Vassar Miller which I set recently for SATB/piano four hands. It is newly published by Roger Dean, cat # 15/2599R. It was premiered in October 2008 by the White Heron Chorale, directed by Rick Bjella, and a second performance by The Festival Singers, Madison, WI, in February 2009, conducted by yours truly.


God, best at making in the morning, tossed
stars and planets, singing and dancing, rolled
Saturn’s rings spinning and humming, twirled the earth
so hard it coughed and spat the moon up, brilliant
bubble floating around it for good, stretched holy
hands till birds in nervous sparks flew forth from
them and beasts---lizards, big and little, apes,
lions, elephants, dogs and cats cavorting,
tumbling over themselves, dizzy with joy when
God made us in the morning too, both man
and woman, leaving Adam no time for
sleep so nimbly was Eve bouncing out of
his side till as night came everything and
everybody, growing tired, declined, sat
down in one long descended Hallelujah.

I discovered this poem in Garrison Keillor's collection Good Poems (I have set 3-4 poems already that I found in this great compilation). I knew nothing about Vassar Miler when I read this poem, but I certainly recognized a text just itching to be set to music! There is so much energy, so much imagery, that it immediately jumped out at me from off the page. So after gaining permission to set from the copyright holder (I'll blog about that later, it's an interesting story) I decided I would join the crew of composers who have tried to paint the Creation (hello, Papa Haydn). Of course, this text is so fresh and creative, most of the heavy lifting has already been done by the poet. I just needed to find an entry point. something to get started with. I felt that once started, this would be one of those pieces "that writes themselves". The germinal idea did come to me, a sort of a blur of primordial electrons spinning in the piano four hands part in a John Adams-ish sort of way (think Short Ride in a Fast Machine). Why piano four hands? So that we can create lots of jangly busy noise, of course, when things really start cooking!

After the "Adams-ish" oddly metered (usually 4/4 + 1/8, just to throw things off kilter) piano part sets the stage, the choir enters, in some slightly Randall Thompson-ish shifting parallel, and/or contrary motion figures. Things stay energetic for a long time, and at times there are even some suggestions of Stephen Sondheim's more advanced harmonic structures and shifts, usually controlled through the very busy piano/four hands part. Yes, I think it's okay to borrow, even more okay to give credit to where the influences come from (let's see, I have already mentioned three- but they sure aren't a shabby three).

I wanted to create some variety in my setting, so I decided to slow the pace down temporarily (and then go back to musical ideas from the beginning, thus creating a big ABA form). To do this, I decided that after all these mentions of critters cavorting and the general dizziness of creation, I would set apart the mention of the creation of Adam and Eve- humanity. It's hard to for anyone to deny that we are special creatures, and therefore it seemed natural to set us apart from the beginning Allegro. So the piece slows way down, and thought the text doesn't talk about it, my harmonies and slight dissonance in this slower section are a hint of the Fall from grace. The music is purposely a cappella here so that only the human voice is speaking about the first humans. Additionally, the harmonies of this ensuing subplot to the creation story are just a bit churchlike in fashion (far less extended harmony 7th, 9th, and 11ths than the outer sections). But I don't linger to long on this subplot, as I want one more Allegro ride!

To finish, I would have hoped to write a fast and loud ending, as I am trying to write more of those these days- there are just too many contemporary choral pieces in the slow, doleful touchy-feely mode- don't you agree? However, Miller's text pretty much forbade this- as she (and therefore I must follow) lays all of creation to rest for the evening. I'm still happy with the ending, especially the big pile of stretti choral entrances (my college counterpoint teacher, Ben Johnston, would be proud I think) right before the coda.

In conclusion, I loved the energy of this poem and truly enjoyed enhancing it musically. Singers seem to love it, as it gives them a chance to really sing out and tell Vassar Miller's great, dizzying story.

FYI, here are the program notes that were used for the Madison, WI performance:

The music for this setting of Vassar Miller’s poem begins with the swirling of tiny particles in the vastness of space (represented by the piano introduction) as Miller’s “Morning Person” awakens to create the universe, according to the poet – in one day, not six. The enthusiasm in the choir for each new creation is dizzying, and only slows down to reflect upon God’s creation of man and woman—the music here is more subdued, a somewhat melancholy hint at the Fall and banishment from Eden. The music then speeds up again and reaches one more grand climax before every newly created life rests for the evening- whew!

Vassar Miller (1924- 1998), wrote her poetry on a special constructed typewriter due to the cerebral palsy which affected her speech and movement. Her poems, most of which dealt with either her strong religious faith or her experiences as a person with a disability, were widely praised for their rigorous formality, clarity, and emotional impact. In 1961 Miller was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her collection Wage War on Silence. An outspoken advocate for the rights and dignity of the handicapped, Miller was not only a poet of extraordinary talent, she was a woman whose indomitable spirit enabled her to overcome her significant physical limitations.

Morning Person
Published by Roger Dean Publishing Company
Catalog # 15/2599R
SATB/piano four hands
Spiritual (non-denominational) text in English
Difficulty rating (1-5): 4
Duration: 4:30

Complete perusal score available from Roger Dean or contact

A wild fun ride as God creates the universe, with an exhilarating text by Vassar Miller,
premiered October 2008 by Rick Bjella's White Heron Chorale.

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