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A Sort of Music

As a composer of what is usually called "art music," I have reveled in setting some of my favorite poetry to music. My love of poetry dates nearly as far back in my life as my love of music. Because my father is a writer, our family house has always been filled with books, but poetry held a special interest for me. The sounds of the words, the sensuous nature of each vowel or crackling consonant pronounced on the tongue, felt indelibly connected to my love of sound in general. Poetry is a sort of music, and when read aloud it can be as mellifluous or discordant as any strain of melody or shifting harmony. Yet it's my belief that a mere supportive accompaniment to a text is not an altogether worthy endeavor. A musical setting should add something new to the meaning, and even, dare I say it, different aspects of meaning that the original alone does not possess.

Every poet brings a different arsenal of sound to his or her language. E.E. Cummings, for example, has a playful, clever, and lithe quality, Emily Dickinson a seemingly rigid yet sly rhyming structure, and a clarion understanding of the most profound human feelings and frailties. My recent setting of Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus" was an especially engrossing challenge, as her language sounds as modern and disjunctive today as it did when it was written—all tongue (tip and back), requiring a guttural voice at times, yet a welcome adventure to the reader and exciting to the mouth and brain at every turn.

Composers use a method called "tone painting" in the attempt to capture the essence of an image or idea through sound—using instrumental colors, textures, dynamics (that is, how softly or loudly the music is played), and articulations that might connect the mind's ear and eye to these images. With Plath the images can be so horrifying as to stop one in one's tracks; indeed the poem "Lady Lazarus" seemed to me as dramatic and extreme a work of art as any music produced by the second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, etc.). I must have stared at the phrase "Nazi lampshade" for two days before daring to create a musical texture that would convey the horror of those words. My musical setting was for mezzo-soprano, flute, clarinet, cello, piano, and percussion, which is a large ensemble, and one whose forces can easily overpower the voice if the dynamic level is too strong or the texture becomes too thick or complex. The challenge, then, was to convey the poem's extreme emotion—which cries out for louder dynamics and complex textures at times—without allowing the forces of the setting to cover the voice.

The first clue, it seemed to me, for how to begin was the words "pick the worms off me like sticky pearls." The crackling consonants excited my mouth and ear, permeating the text and creating a sense of forward motion. To mirror this effect I decided to use mostly pizzicato or plucked strings. This created a "sticky" background for the entire setting and opened up a space for the voice to emerge, where arco or bowed strings would have easily covered the voice. I then needed an overarching theme to hold the stanzas together. From the text I perceived Plath's counting out of suicide attempts ("the first time it happened I was ten," and "like the cat I have nine times to die.//This is Number Three"). From this image came a percussive clock, so to speak, executed by the glockenspiel and marimba, which never truly leaves the musical fabric and inevitably ends the work. More isolated cases of tone painting can be found in the cabaret style band-like music, with shrill trills given to the piccolo and E-flat clarinet and heard through the stanza starting "Gentlemen, ladies,//These are my hands/My knees," all culminating with "The big strip tease." The climax is arrived at by an ascending line leading to "I rise with my red hair," the singer's highest note in the most dramatic moment of the setting.

These few examples are illustrative of the things that ignite my ear and stimulate my love for setting poetry. When selecting a poem to set, I revel in the sounds of words, the prosody of line, and the unfolding of the stanza. Like an archaeologist of words, I forage in the pages of my favorite poets' works to find something that will capture my ear, mind, and heart. Then I set out to create something that is at once faithful to the original and, with the musical addition, offers a new and distinctive perspective on hidden meanings in the text.

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This poem originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Poetry magazine

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A Sort of Music

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