Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Interesting Origins for a New Piece: At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners

Awhile back I was contacted by Adam Beeken, the fine director of choirs at Lexington (KY) Catholic High School. Adam studied at the University of Kentucky under Jeff Johnson, one of the finest choral programs around. So I knew the choirs at his school would be excellent.

Adam envisioned commissioning a piece for the school choir tour to Chicago in March 2013 and with a theme connecting music with visual art in some way. He approached me about this and I was intrigued, and we proceeded to hash out some of the possible ways to write a new piece with this premise. While Adam started fleshing out the rest of his program, I decided that I could perhaps create a sort of choral version of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Thus, I would have to make the piece about a few visuals strung together, thus probably a multi-movement piece. I decided that since the choir was coming here to Chicago to sing, that I should make a trip down to our world-class art museum, the Art Institute, and see if there might be paintings that would inspire me musically and in my selection of texts. Since the school is Catholic, I also decided that my destination at the Art Institute should be the fine European Medieval through Renaissance collection of mostly Christian sacred subjects. If I could make a connection between paintings in the Art institute and the texts I chose to set, I would hope that the choir would want to visit the Art institute during their trip to Chicago to see, firsthand, the paintings that inspired their commissioned piece.

Meanwhile some text selection/musical ideas were already beginning to percolate. Not long ago the great conductor Bill Dehning suggested to me that he felt the Williametta Spencer setting of John Donne's poem “At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners” was a fine piece, but really seemed to hastily get from line one of the sonnet to the end. Bill is right, the piece is over in a blink of an eye, usually clocking in at about two minutes. 

John Donne
In addition to the Donne and possibly considering texts by Thomas Merton, I had also been sifting through the bizarre English poet Christopher Smart's oddly fragmented Jubilate Agno (Rejoice in the Lamb) for text shards of interest. You may recall that this is the text source for Benjamin Britten's masterful “Rejoice in the Lamb”. One text fragment which mentions Adam and Eve as well as the crucifixion had interested me. So here were two text ideas, the Donne and the Smart, that were now rolling around in my head.

Christopher Smart

So as I visited the Art Institute, with no time restriction on my wandering that day a few months ago, I wanted to keep a very open mind about what really hit me visually and/or emotionally, while also an eye out for paintings that might mesh with those two texts (of course I was still also considering other text candidates as well). Would I stumble upon some serendipitous meeting of text, painting, and possible musical setting? It was an experiment which I thoroughly enjoyed as I wandered about. I had no idea if anything would come of this experiment.

Adam/Eve 1533/37 by Lucas Cranach the Elder
I decided to start with the oldest Christian art there. And before long I stumbled upon a painting, an “Adam and Eve” by Lucas Cranach the Elder from 1533/37 I had seen in earlier visits over the years. What strikes one about this two panel painting is its rather medieval flatness, the influence of Albrecht Dürer, and the slightly plaintive expressions on the faces of Adam and Eve, and I felt these expressions perfectly fit Smart's mixture of knowledge of Paradise, but also the Fall. The setting utilizes strange harmonies at times, generally minor modes, odd half-step inflections, yet also a major key momentarily ecstatic portrayal regarding the words about Paradise. Musically it draws more from Howells than Britten, and, by the way, I don't apologize for mentioning my English composer muses (which also at times includes other Brits such as Vaughn Williams and Holst).

So I had stumbled upon an expressive, yet somewhat quiet painting and a text with generally the same attributes. Adam had wanted this piece to be appropriate for a large choir, which to me also implies that the piece needs to be ”big” at times, and perhaps also needs to finish “big”. Obviously the theme of Smart's text and this simple Adam and Eve painting would not support the full requirements of the piece, and therefore it did become clearer to me that I indeed needed to write a multi-movement piece. Thus the Smart/Adam and Eve section could perhaps be a short first movement.

Crucifixion by Francisco Zurbarán
Moving along in the Art Institute I came across an amazing Crucifixion by the Spanish painter Francisco Zurbarán. This large (11 ft by 7 ft) canvas is a powerful example of chiaroscuro - a bold black background, with the crucified Jesus in the center. This painting, when viewed in person, is both stunning and overwhelming in its single message. I realized that this was the Crucifixion spoken of briefly by Smart and wondered (over the next few hours and days) if I could perhaps take the message/image of this painting and mirror it by simply setting just the word “Crucifixus” over and over (the full Crucifixus text of the Nicene Creed would be implied). I realized that my setting could be quiet and meditative and/or crying with pain. The possibilities were there for something either intimate or more overtly powerful. As I mulled this over for a few days I decided indeed that I wanted to simply use this one word, focus intently on it, and yet I decided that I would not go over the top with some kind of overtly wounded, painful music. I would visit pain and suffering more subtly through use of some slightly unusual melodic intervals and also a chorale section with unusual harmonies (almost sounding like early Renaissance Spanish music) but keep this setting, for the most part, in the zone of intimacy- as if this would be the music in one's head during a “Stations of the Cross” arrival at station eleven.

So, now I perhaps had two movements, linked to some extent by the Crucifixion theme, but also both probably introspective and not implying a “big” sound for the choir.

In the same room as the Zurbarán was a large painting by Francesco Buoneri of the Final Judgment, the theme of the beginning of Donne's sonnet mentioned above. I realized I truly should set the Donne as the final section. After all, my developing story included major highlights of Christian history; Adam and Eve, the Crucifixion- why not arrive at the Final Judgment as a conclusion? I kept studying this painting but was having a hard time truly liking it. It just seemed a little underwhelming and even a bit mundane in its imagery. I wandered the whole building looking for something else along these lines, as I came to believe that a powerful setting of the Donne would not only round out a three movement piece but also give me a final section which would certainly be the “big” music I needed for the choir. But nothing else in the building visited the theme of Donne's text and I struggled for awhile with that disappointment.

I contacted Adam and told him of my text ideas, the idea of a multi-movement piece, the paintings I had seen and so on. Adam was thrilled with my progress and we discussed whether or not this piece, now to be longer in duration than originally planned and contracted, would still fit his needs. He said it was fine with him and I gradually started setting the texts.

So here was the final plan- the piece would start with the setting (about two and half minutes) of Smart's text (linked to the Cranach painting), a slight pause and continue (also about two and a half minutes) with the single word Crucifixus section (linked to the Zurbarán painting), and then proceed to a four minute setting of the Donne (with or without a painting twin), which would contain plenty of uptempo, loud sections. Thus the Donne is the destination and the piece takes that title. Musically the sections can perhaps stand apart, yet when sung from start to finish, there are elements that unite them, notably the early and mid-twentieth century English school melodic and harmonic influences mentioned earlier (the Donne section is very Holst- influenced, it might remind one of his Rig Veda music), a certain angularity to some of the melodies, but also conversely the importance of carefully chosen semi-tones in coloring melodies or turning harmonies in an unexpected direction. Adam wanted the piece to be challenging for his choir, yet still doable for high school voices. I paid close attention to ways to make this happen, and since the piece is SATB/piano, the piano allows for more adventurous music since it can help hold things together. The piece is very lyrical and I make sure that all voice parts take turns at singing melodies or leading in various ways. There is counterpoint of varying degrees as well, something missing in about 90% of the current cloying, homophonic American choral style. I also took care in writing for the men's voices- they go to divisi rarely and the ranges stay reasonable. All in all, I think I highly succeeded in this adventure that Adam sent me to explore! I am so thrilled that we have worked on this together and I am very excited to work with him and the choir as they prepare for the premiere of the piece and their trip to Chicago.

Post Script

As I was setting the Donne text I gradually realized that the real point of the sonnet is not the Final Judgment. I will plead guilty to being stupid for not noticing this much earlier, but the real theme is personal prayer, personal repentance, and a personal relationship with God. It's all right there in Donne's words, but I guess the epic drama of the Final Judgment imagery sure can get in the way. I now feel that the most important ideas are the very personal soul-searching lines which I set in an intensely lyrical, slow speed- not the uptempo Final Judgment lines. Thus I became aware that I should revisit the Art Institute and seek a different painting which reflects this new understanding of the Donne text. Well lo and behold, there is a painting literally a few feet away from the Zurbarán Crucifixus I admire and also that Final Judgment painting I didn't really care for that much. It's a painting by another Spanish artist, Jusepe de Ribera, of St. Peter intensely bemoaning his betrayal of Jesus. And while the story isn't one of the Final Judgment, it is one of deep personal searching, of great intensity, and of a personal dialogue with God about our own personal shortcomings and failures. The painting itself (probably influenced by a more famous El Greco version) is very powerful, the upturned face of Peter is anguished, yet it also seems to hold out hope for resolution with God. I realized that this painting truly fits the real message of the Donne poem.

The Penitent St/ Peter by Jusepe de Ribera

So, in conclusion, this project was unique, especially the steps I had to take to make all these elements relate to each other. And yet, can the composition succeed without these specific visual reference points? Yes, of course it can, but I still feel that telling the story of the project as Adam and I developed it, makes the final piece of music much more interesting, intense, and powerful.

The Texts of Each Section

The Christopher Smart text:

For the Glory of God is always in the East, but cannot be seen for the cloud of the crucifixion.
For due East is the way to Paradise, which man knoweth not by reason of his fall.

The Nicene Creed text:
Crucifíxus (etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato;
Passus, et sepultus est,
Et resurrexit tertia die, secundum Scripturas,
Et ascendit in cælum, sedet ad dexteram Patris).

The Donne text:

At the round earth's imagined corners blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go ;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o'erthrow,
All whom war, death, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you, whose eyes
Shall behold God, and never taste death's woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space;
For, if above all these my sins abound,
'Tis late to ask abundance of Thy grace,
When we are there.   Here on this lowly ground,
Teach me how to repent, for that's as good
As if Thou hadst seal'd my pardon with Thy blood.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Thoughts on Text Setting (Current Compositon Projects)

 Part Two

Well let me preface this blog entry by stating that, yes, I have not been blogging much at all lately. I have been too busy composing and hanging out with Aidan, my cool and crazy eight year old- so that's a good thing! Now, as I finish up on most of my commissions that will be performed this concert season, I can get back to blogging, although I still have plenty of music to write for now and down the road. Here is a discussion I began writing awhile ago of a piece which was finished in mid-summer and which will be premiered in early November:

This past Spring I was contacted by Roger Dean/Lorenz, my main publishers, who told me that they had recommended me to Larry Doebler at Ithaca College to compose the commissioned work for the 34th annual Ithaca College Choral Festival to be held in November. I was quite happy with this news, and this is the first time a publisher actually produced a commission for me. Until now, almost all my commissions have come through the growth of personal relationships with people around the country, with the other few commissions the result of people who have sleuthed out my music and called me without first having a relationship (hey, any of these is fine!).

I learned more about the impressive history of the Ithaca Festival and read up on the names of those composers who have already written the commissioned piece and was pretty humbled- names like Vincent Persichetti, Steven Stucky, Chen Yi, fellow Yale classmate Dan Asia, Dan Locklair, and others.

I got to know Larry Doebler through e-mail, (what a nice man), and started looking for texts to set for this piece which was to be 4-6 minutes and for SATB a cappella or accompanied (my choice). At first I thought of doing a traditional Latin church text setting- the Persichetti commission was the first piece in the series- and as he set the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittus, I thought of reprising that, but then I decided I wanted to do something more modern as well as serious and substantive. So the poetry search now needed to be a thorough hunt for something truly special. I wouldn't just accept any old text, that was for sure. I felt it might take quite along time, but actually a poem I already knew just a little virtually leaped into my lap pleading for me to choose it- Amy Lowell's “September, 1918”, a war poem very different from other war poems as it is not about the battles themselves, but one civilian's reaction to the possible ending of war, whether an outbreak of peace could be trusted, and so on. I have always wondered about this- as WWI and WWII dragged on, how much did people wonder if the war would ever end? What would be the final toll both physically and psychologically on us all- how did we go from living in a fairly peaceful world, then to the mindset of being in the midst of world war, and then somehow back again to peace? This is something I have not experienced, yet this was reality for the generations of the first half of the twentieth century.

SEPTEMBER, 1918” (with line numbers added for study)
by Amy Lowell
1. This afternoon was the colour of water falling through sunlight;
2. The trees glittered with the tumbling of leaves;
3. The sidewalks shone like alleys of dropped maple leaves,
4. And the houses ran along them laughing out of square, open windows.
5. Under a tree in the park,
6. Two little boys, lying flat on their faces,
7. Were carefully gathering red berries
8. To put in a pasteboard box.
9. Some day there will be no war,
10. Then I shall take out this afternoon
11. And turn it in my fingers,
12. And remark the sweet taste of it upon my palate,
13. And note the crisp variety of its flights of leaves.
14. Today I can only gather it
15. And put it into my lunch-box,
16. For I have time for nothing
17. But the endeavour to balance myself
18. Upon a broken world.

                      (Amy Lowell)

Examining the text, certain things become apparent- there is an excitement at the beginning-a description of beauty and action- of sunlight, water, tumbling, houses running(!), laughing- a whole jumble of delirious actions and events. What reader encountering only these early lines in the poem would guess this is a poem that is, in some way, about war? And right here, the poem grabbed me- I am certainly very attracted to texts that work on multiple levels, that are open to multiple interpretations, that contain mystery and so on. Also at this point, the level of action attracted me, this proposed setting could have wonderful contrasts of tempo, something which appeals to me these days as I see so many US choral composers in the past twenty years writing everything at a ponderous, homophonic, soprano-dominant, 60-72 beats per minute. This text would provide ample opportunity for uptempo writing as well as more reflective moments.

So once I truly decided to set this poem I ran it past Larry and he gave it a quick approval. I became pretty excited about the project and started on it with plenty of zeal. But of course, there needed to be a lot of study of the poem, both before I wrote a single note, but also as the piece progressed. I usually start at the beginning and end at the end. Sometimes as I do this I will happen across music for a later section of a piece and try to sketch that or even write it out and lay out, in my Finale score, a slew of blank measures that will be needed in order to arrive there later. So while I tend to write linearly in time, sometimes I jump about (hopefully not like a yak- Sir Thomas Beecham wouldn't approve of that.*

So the poetic study reveals some things which are pretty obvious- there is a dramatic shift with absolutely no warning as we go from line 8 to line 9. There it is, the whiplash inducing mention of war, and apparently a proclamation that there someday will be no war(?). But can we actually trust this statement of the poet- especially when we were ambushed by even the mention of war? Does she really convince us or even herself with this statement?

Our answer comes from lines 10-13 and the subsequent information in 14-15 inform us that all these delightful images and actions in lines 1-8 truly were never trusted by the poet. They were noted but never truly enjoyed, they were put away for perhaps a future when it is okay to enjoy life.

Lines 16-18 are the final sad thought and commentary- the happiness cannot be enjoyed because the poet can do nothing but try to survive, “to “balance myself on a broken world”. Even though in September 1918 it seemed as if the war was coming to an end, the world could certainly not be trusted. And so this poem which began with such positive, ecstatic images ends in distrust and sadness. The poem has traversed so many emotions and truly given us a kaleidoscopic tour of the mind of a citizen living in time of war.

So here were the challenges ahead of me- how could I pull off representing all these emotions and how could I set that line 9, and those final sad thoughts to the best of my abilities. Big challenges, indeed.

Here were some of my solutions (the piece is already almost done, far ahead of schedule, by the way).

The opening lines are set to up-tempo music, a busy triplet theme in the piano intro sets up the busy-ness and this theme will come and go through the piece- it's the theme (almost solely in the piano) that represents the busy action parts of the poem. But to hint at something darker, there are already slightly strange dissonances in the piano and/or the voices in an otherwise major (or suspended 4th- no third) tonality. These odd, momentary dissonances are the slight clue that all is not happiness and bright and that things will change in this piece from light to dark. Btw, the vocal parts in this opening sound a bit like Randall Thompson or Vaughn Williams, a number of simple chords moving variously in parallel or contrary motion to each other.

The music dies down and then the line 9 text arrives. Here there is a cross-relationship battle between major and minor chords, as well as conflicting major and minor scalar motion (somewhat like the odd scalar conflicts in Tallis). The men's voices intone the beginning of this in a repetitive dirge-like manner, and the women layer on top of this in long, ascending stretto lines. The setting of this line of poetry ends with the very loud, highly pitched culmination of this dirge and ascending stretto- I expect it to be pretty powerful when it is sung by the choir.

The text of line 10-13 suggest a return to the feelings (and music?) of the opening. I do actually do this, but certainly not verbatim at all. At first the return is dreamlike- text from lines 10-13 fit the music of the beginning but the tempo starts slower, as if we were trying to recapture that opening feeling, but were having some difficulty doing so. Finally, the tempo does get back to the beginning tempo but before long we have arrived at the ending lines of poetry. There I use a device I have used in two earlier serious pieces- setting a text line or two in a chorale-like way, as if that text were perhaps the core, or the message, or moral of the entire poem. These chorales (often just a few bars long, especially in this piece) are usually in 4/4 time and may contain suspensions to draw attention to important words. It's as if the music has to become simple so that we hear the message from this Greek chorus. The line where this is the most obvious is line 16 “for I have time for nothing”, meaning literally no ability to appreciate anything of beauty. In this context, the statement is quite drastic. It means we virtually cannot endure war and its psychological destruction of the human spirit. The chorale weaves in and out as the poem and music end, and there is also a reference to a very simple melody which also has a very piquant harmony attached to it which was used way back in lines 7-9- about the innocent little boys. And then we finish in a choral unison of the last words “to balance myself upon a broken world”. I wrestled with how to set this ending quite a bit (and probably am still doing so, since I have plenty of time to tweak this piece). What does it mean if I set it chordally or if I set it in unison, what is the psychology of each? I am not sure I can totally put answers into English in response to this, but I kept coming back to the fact that a unison setting of the final words gives them more power- there is no distraction by choral harmonic sound, and there is also a unification of thought through the whole choir- hey are all delivering the message together. So I think this really is the best choice for the ending.

Currently the piece clocks in at about six and a half minutes. I talked to Larry to make sure I hadn't overshot the commission length too much and he was fine with it. We'll see how my final tweaks affect the duration, and what other tweaks happen-- I'm always playing with choices in regard to the exact dynamics, tempi I am going to mark in a piece. I'm also constantly trying to figure out just how long final notes of phrases for singers (especially if they are a hard consonant) should be and whether they end on a strong or weak beat (yes, these tiny details of release points can make a difference to the sound and also the psychology of a setting).

I'm very pleased with the piece so far and I hope that the audience is drawn into the drama and personal voice of this war poem set from the point of view of a civilian. I think it is one of Amy Lowell's very best works. She is not a major poet but she certainly had her own voice, and it is still fresh enough to speak to us, unlike a number of other poets of her generation.

P.S. The other two pieces where I have used the chorale idea are in a setting (for SATB and strings, one on a part or larger ensemble)  which I titled “1944” from H.D.'s poem “Christmas, 1944” where I use the music from chorales in the J.S. Bach Christmas Oratorio to set some of the words, and also a piece called [HUSH] which is about divorce and young children surviving that situation (the divorce references in that poem are actually quite veiled). 

* "What can you do with it? It's like a lot of yaks jumping about".
- Sir Thomas on Beethoven's Seventh Symphony