Tuesday, July 14, 2009

BLOG #20, Seven Songs on Poems of Emily Dickinson

In 1970 I set seven poems by “The Belle of Amherst” to music using a different method than I usually employ for setting texts. First, I chose the poems using chance operations. Here are the results:

Exultation is the going / Of an inland soul to sea [76]
I felt a cleavage in my mind [937]
It’s such a little thing to weep [189]
The reticent volcano keeps / His never slumbering plan [1748]
My friend must be a bird [92]
From all the jails the boys and girls / Ecstatically leap [1532]
God permits industrious angels / Afternoons to play [231]

(The numbers in brackets are the numbers of the poems in the Thomas H. Johnson edition, published by Little, Brown and Company. Just the act of looking up the numbers raised some issues about these little pieces. Clearly I didn’t use this edition when I composed them almost 40 years ago—the punctuation is almost completely different, and there are even a couple of different words. What to do? Shall I start doing critical editions of my own songs? The mind boggles… Well, not today, that’s for sure.)

The vocal lines are in a free chromatic style—not serial, but lots of pitches all the time, often with a key center but no clear modality. My model for these melodies was clearly Charles Ives in his more experimental aspects. David Barron and I were doing all-Ives programs at the time, including songs like “August,” “Paracelsus” and “The New River.”

The accompaniments are made up of individual sonorities or short phrases—usually three or four gestures, but the third song (“The reticent volcano…”) has five, and the last song (“God permits industrious angels…”) has only two. These gestures are always fragmentary and usually distinctive as to contour, pitch content, register, etc. Each is indicated as a single measure of music and given a letter: A, B, C, D or E. Variables include the number of beats of rest between gestures. The damper pedal is to be held down throughout the entire set of seven songs. The voice part and the accompaniment are not coordinated.

Pitches are always specified, that is, there is no improvisation, but each accompaniment is quite free in another way. The various gestures are linked with concatenation operators, for example:
A • B • C • D *

to indicate that the performer may play the fragments in any order, as many times as he or she chooses. A spacious, open reading of these piano parts is the way to go—the gestures should not interfere with the voice, though obviously they will overlap often. Both performers should allow plenty of time to hear the resonance of the instrument, which will change constantly.

Why am I writing about these songs today? Two reasons. Phyllis has decided to learn a lot of my music that she has not sung before, and is starting with these songs. So we are practicing them. I’m not sure about public performance, but we’ll certainly do them for a class of mine this fall.

The other reason is that I had occasion to play the accompaniments as a solo on Michael Pestel’s magnificent 1920s prepared German Steinway. I have described this piano on my other blog more than once (go to http://www.ivesvocalmarathon.com/ and search for “Pestel”). It turns out that these little accompaniments make an amazing piece for prepared piano. We hope to record them that way later on this summer, with and without the voice part. In the meantime, my mind is full of ideas for compositions involving the prepared piano. As if I didn’t have enough to think about!

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