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On Setting Louise Glück’s Averno to Music
The May/June issue of the PN Review has an interview with Boston-based composer Elena Ruehr, who has recently set the text of Louise Glück’s Averno to music: “For Averno, I was inspired to write a cantata after listening to the Brahms Requiem at a live concert. The relationship between the solo voices and the chorus is very interesting. The soloists can seem like storytellers in a large crowd (the chorus), or the silent voice amongst the masses, or the private voice; or the soloists can seem to work at a different level of consciousness than the choir. It’s a very malleable form.” More from her conversation with Reena Sastri:
Louise Glück’s poetry is perfect for this form; I like the sense of different voices and levels of consciousness in her text. She sent me Averno before it was published and told me she had written it while listening to cantatas and vocal music. Once I decided to use Averno, with its references to ancient Greece, I chose instruments that are found in the current modern orchestra but have ancient roots: the double reeded oboe, the timpani (a skin drum), the harp, strings. Then I started reading the text, looking for poems that spoke to me musically.
Can you describe this process?
To be set as music easily, the text needs to be concise. There has to be some sense of rhythm – even a single phrase that has a strong sense of long and short beats. And then the vowels need to be longer and the consonants leaning towards softer sounds, ‘l’, ‘m’, ‘n’, with fewer hard consonants. I don’t think too much about meaning at the beginning. When I find a poem that seems to feel as if it could be music, I look for a single line that speaks to me musically, I memorise it, and I start saying it with various emphases and melodic lines. When something begins to emerge that sounds natural and musical, I write it down. Usually it is both melodic and rhythmic.
With Averno, I read the book cover to cover a number of times. Then I put it on my piano and started improvising at random through it. As I worked, certain poems came out, and then I noticed a pattern: they were poems that dealt with more natural, less personal themes, and poems that were very much about human beings’ relationship to the natural world. I started looking for poems that supported that idea. As I worked, I saw that a form could be made from the first to the last poem in order that made both musical sense and a kind of narrative sense. The first seven movements lay out the musical material, and the eighth, ninth, and tenth movements make a kind of reverse recapitulation. The final movement combines elements of the others and introduces new themes.
Several of Averno’s poems tell the story of Demeter and Persephone, or a related story about a young girl who burns a field of wheat in autumn. The next spring, the farmer has the ‘terrible’ realisation that ‘the earth / didn’t know how to mourn, that it would change instead’. Can you say a bit about the choices you made in expressing this set of ideas musically?
In the poem with those lines, which begins ‘After the first winter’, I gave the central narrative to the solo soprano, up to the point (the line ‘someone said, he had a daughter in New Zealand…’) where it seems that the voice turns from that of storyteller to a morality lesson, a Greek chorus. The narrative returns, and then the natural world creeps into the chorus with ‘the earth will overpower me’ until the chorus says ‘it [the earth] will change instead’ and the soloists sing ‘and then go on existing without him’. So there is a direct relationship: soloist as storyteller, chorus as moral voice, but also something more indirect, chorus as the earth, soloist as humans.
I was very interested in writing a work that was not obscure or difficult. So I consciously repeated motifs that might have a kind of ‘hook’ for the ear, or I set things in more direct, simple ways when I felt it would work. Also, the poetry is quite dark, and it is difficult to sit for forty minutes in a room with a thousand people with that kind of darkness. I looked for every bright moment and exaggerated that a bit. Sometimes I used bright music at very dark statements, as when the soloists sing ‘and then go on existing without him’ – which is very dark, but is the most open, bright, ecstatic moment in the work. Perhaps it is nature regaining herself and that’s the ironic joy.
Sometimes a particular instrument is related to an idea, so the timpani is (sometimes) a symbol of aggression, and underlines the words ‘as in war’ in ‘Persephone the Wanderer’ (last movement). This line goes by very quickly, but it is the only time the chorus and the timpani come together, so it makes that timpani line symbolic of war and human strife. The oboe is used as an instrument of sorrow, the harp as an instrument of nature. Lines that are set more complexly are less easy to hear, lines that are set more simply are easier. So my work is most certainly an interpretative reading of the poetry. When I set the text ‘The earth behaved as though nothing could go wrong with it’ it is suddenly much less complex, the chorus sings together by itself. And that outlines and emphasises those words, which in turn emphasise my political reading of the poetry – concerned as I am about climate change.