Museum Pieces (2013)
These youth-friendly songs grew out of the larger initiative to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Emrys Foundation, a support group launched in 1982 by writers, for writers, in Greenville, South Carolina. Helen Dupré Moseley (1887-1984) had earned a Masters’ degree in History and had been a mother, widow, insurance businesswoman, and postmaster when — without training of any sort— she took up painting at the age of 60. Her style shows some influence from Salvador Dali, Henri Matisse and Hieronymus Bosch, but ultimately her whimsical and largely untitled works are the products of her fertile and uninhibited imagination. Moseley’s family made a generous donation of a large number of her works to the GCMA in 2000. In the summer of 2012 sixteen Emrys poets were invited to compose brief poems on selected works of Moseley’s from the GCMA collection. These songs set six of those poems; as the paintings in question are untitled, the song titles are my own, derived from the poetry. In addition to the score and parts, a CD for projection of the images is provided. A live performance in which the paintings serve as a backdrop can be viewed here:
I. No Point to Miss (William Rogers, poet) This text sets the tone for the rest. Set to an off-kilter circus waltz, it celebrates the free-wheeling exuberance of imagination, with meaning where we find it. Is there a meaning or is it silliness? Either is an occasion for joy—decide for yourself!
II. Mrs. Snoot’s Composure (Marian Willard Blackwell, poet) I imagine Mrs. Snoot as the quintessential class-conscious English nanny—most worthy of satire. The music makes fun of her obsession with self-control and propriety in its galloping energy and exchanges between her and the strings mocking her pronouncements.
III. The Magic Serpent (Jan Bailey, poet) A gentle blend of mystery, imagination and exoticism; altered scales and reggae-like rhythm suggest a scene that is at once alien and inviting. The creatures—all sprung from our imagination—invite us to take up a paintbrush and conjure yet more, losing ourselves in this invented world.
IV. Quiver & Cringe (Philip Whitley, poet) Old horror and sci-fi movies are often great fun because they are so sublimely ridiculous. This music—taking its cue from the text—pulls as hard as possible in that direction, using stereotypically creepy and tension-provoking sounds to emphasize that we would be silly to be afraid of any of it.
V. Who Did This to My Hair??? (Gilbert Allen, poet) The music channels 1960’s movie score rock to underscore the preposterous paranoia that someone could mess up your hair (now, there’s a crisis) without your being aware of it. This song shares much of the mock-serious attitude of the previous song.
VI. Where the Wondering Grows (Claire Bateman, poet) Returning to the beginning theme of the dynamics of imagination itself, this is a rumination on its fertility and mystery, its intrinsic role in our being. The music is much more contemplative, emphasizing that we are “…where the wondering grows."
Pisgah Songs (2012)
TO BE PREMIERED APRIL 2013
These poems – save the last – are taken from Climbing Pisgah, an album of poetry and photography of Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina, published in 2007 by Cedar Mountain Books, with all poems written by the four authors included here. These four were part of the small nucleus of writers who launched the Emrys Foundation, a Greenville, SC-based support group for area writers and related artists, in 1982. The organization has been a pillar of support for artists of many stripes and today continues its vital work as part of the arts community in Greenville.
I. Looking Glass (Keller Cushing Freeman, poet) A warm vision of a cold landscape, this text could just as well have been about winter in the west Michigan woods where I spent my teens. The high-pitched swaths of color in the piano attempt to capture the sensation of snow and ice bathed in sunlight.
II. Black Mountain (Marian Willard Blackwell, poet) Wintry sounds not unlike the first song, this time making a simple statement of concern for this delicate beauty..
III. Long After Our Footprints (Jan Bailey, poet) A joyous walk in the woods with many fine sightings along the way, ending in a note of regret that such times are relegated to a secondary role in busy lives. The brief (and recurring) introductory piano melody melds the songs of the black-capped chickadee and the myrtle warbler.
IV. No Straight Path / The Grammar of Spring / No Straight Path (reprise) (Marian Willard Blackwell) This is set in quintuple meter, quirky harmony, and zig-zag melodies to suggest the uneven terrain – challenging perhaps, but worth the effort – on the way to the destination. A second poem, The Grammar of Spring, is offered as the destination and set in lush harmony and quiet, gauzy texture to complement its intense introspection. (the original title of the poem in No Straight Path is Mountain Triolet, a reference to its 17th century French form with the rhyme scheme abaaabab.)
V. Laurel Creek (Sue Lile Inman, poet) Low, dark, quiet and turgid to evoke one of those beautiful, rocky mountain streams shaded with hemlocks and laurels. A gentle and innocent surprise invades this rich environment near the end.
VI. At the Cabin, One Last Time (Sue Lile Inman) A day-dreamy meditation on a cherished place, ending in night sounds of the forest. Is the speaker at the cabin or reminiscing much later? Is it really a cabin?
VII. Blue Mountain Breakdown (Keller Cushing Freeman) This poem, written specially for this set of songs, poses difficult questions. Do we really understand what is going on? Do we understand our mistakes? Do we comprehend what we stand to lose? A tense and brutal series of dark images ends eventually in a quiet nightmare – like all nightmares, one that any sane person would wish to avoid.
This is my tribute to a treasured colleague - a legendary voice teacher and accompanist - who died in November of 2011. In the piece you can hear snippets of a favorite piece of his and the vocal warm-ups that emanated from his classroom daily. The pianist is leaves the stage after a solo based on those warm-ups. View the premiere performance here:
Four Are in the River (2011)
In these settings of Sarah Blackman’s poems I have made a straightforward attempt to underscore the character of each organism of the title and its relationship with her/his/its environment. The River binds them all together dramatically and musically.
The Woman, though fatigued by the exertion of her daily labors, is nonetheless drawn to an aesthetic, contemplative experience of her surroundings and thinks of herself as an element of those surroundings. Her music is moderate and steady in tempo, the harmony at times placid. Her lines are smooth and lyrical. The beauty of the river stimulates a wistful dream of being washed away among the dapples of sunlight on its surface.
The Man, equally burdened by the efforts required to stay alive, sees his surroundings more as an adversary, yielding sustenance only after great struggle. His rhythm is more accented, his lines are more angular, and his textures are more radically variable and subject to outbursts as he considers one challenge after another. In the end, however, he is also entranced by the river, pondering the “blossom of oil” as it washes past him.
The Animal is full of himself and sees the river in thoroughly pragmatic terms, providing both food and shelter. He is without doubt or confusion. He kills without malice and perceives himself as a component of the endless cycle of life; he delights in his role. Like the Animal himself—perhaps an otter or muskrat—the music is fast, bright, and relentless. Alternating legato and staccato sections suggest that he is equally comfortable in or out of the water.
The Plant understands nothing beyond its own slow, inexorable progress toward maturity, unaware of the river without which it would not survive. It too is full of itself, endlessly celebrating its success at the one thing it can do—becoming ever more green. After a ‘cello solo suggesting the solitary wait of the seed and a quiet, very low web of counterpoint suggesting the dark soil into which it falls, the music chronicles the plant’s slow but dramatic ascension, followed by a rapid decline at the end of the season.
The unspeaking, inanimate, but life-giving river is the elemental force that all of these share. Its music recalls bits and pieces of each of the others (especially the Woman’s, which is sounded throughout) in their original order, the sections delineated by waterfalls. It ends with the same dappling of sunlight on the surface that all the other movements have (save the Plant, who is unaware of the River). The unspeaking River has actually spoken from the very beginning, lending its tireless forward motion to the lives of all who have depended on it.
Voices from the Village (2006/2011)
These texts are paraphrases of anonymous personal ads appearing in the Village Voice (II, III, IV, and V) and the New York Times (I, IV & VI) in 2006. In reading through some hundreds of these, I found that many of the authors tried to present themselves as interesting, mysterious, and alluring with humor, colorful imagery, or poetic turns of phrase. Their sincere longing for a close relationship seemed to me an ideal theme for a set of songs, and the settings are intended to be sympathetic and as sensitive as possible to the shifting moods of the texts. View a live performance (excluding III. Elegance…) here:
A Child I Was (1989, rev. 2000)
In a gentle 6/8 most of the way, short and sectional, with a text of my own. It is performable by a good high school or community group, preferably not too large. This piece won 2nd Place in the 21st Annual Choral Composition Festival at Ithaca College in November, 2000; the recording is of the Corning West High School Occidentals performing it at the Festival.
The poem is a reminiscence, in a twilight year, over those experiences and situations that made the speaker feel ever like a child in the struggle to make sense of it all. There is also an acceptance that this struggle was the point, that one is the sum of these experiences. The text proceeds chronologically, but there is a blurring of the speaker's perception of past and present, reflecting the lingering sense of childhood and the vividness of the memories. Published by Imagine Music Publishing: .