Today was supposed to be a full day of composing… Unfortunately, I threw my back out while deep cleaning the house yesterday. Having temporarily lost the ability to sit at the piano or desk, here are some thoughts on my work on recent commissions!
I Shall Not Live In Vain
In the past couple of weeks I’ve been working away on two very different commissions, each with a unique set of challenges that I haven’t faced before. This is a good thing; new challenges are exciting, and these are opportunities to shore up my abilities of adaptation. The first commission is the shorter of the two, and as of writing this the piece has been completed and delivered. I can’t yet say where or to whom it has been delivered (still some things to work out before an announcement is made), but I can say that the text is Emily Dickinson’s lovely short poem If I can stop one heart from breaking.
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
- Emily Dickinson
The main challenge that I faced with this commission was essentially the brevity of the text. Dickinson was in many ways a master of brevity and concision, but I find her poetry extraordinarily difficult to set nonetheless. For some reason, and I don’t think I’m alone on this, I find setting short Latin texts much easier than setting short English poems. In most situations where a short poem needs to be transformed into a three or four-minute piece, there are always going to be instances of repetition of text, and there is something about the repetition of Latin text that I don’t find as tiresome as the repetition of English. There’s a lot of repetition in my Salvator mundi, for example, but it doesn’t feel like it.
And so, with the Dickinson poem one of my primary tasks was to delineate the role that repetition, in terms of both text and music, was going to play in the work. I felt from the beginning that all seven lines really belong to each other in the sequence that the author intended, and that I wanted to present the full poem as one cohesive thought. This precluded me from setting this text in a more ‘textural’ or drawn-out way, as I wanted to feel the weight of the words in a tempo that was close to a speaking clip.
Generally speaking, the individual lines of this poem cannot really stand on their own. The one line of the seven that can stand on its own as a declamatory statement, “I shall not live in vain,” became the title of the work. This line bears much of the responsibility of repetition, and provides the opportunity to create formal sections with these words as their sole basis. And so, the work formed into a simple A-B-A1-Coda form, with the A and A1 sections including the full text and the B section and Coda developing musical ideas on the single phrase “I shall not live in vain.” The climax of the piece, found at the end of A1, is also sung on this text as it is reached naturally as the final line of the poem.
I’m quite happy with the end result, as is the commissioning party (I heard back from them last night). Looking forward to hearing the premiere performance in person in November.
Laudamus Chorale Commission
The second work I have been focused on is a substantial commission for the Laudamus Chorale in Fort Collins, Colorado. The conductor of Laudamus, Laura Gillett, contacted me some time ago to begin a dialogue about a piece for the choir’s 20th anniversary in 2018. In the initial discussions, Laura asked if I could focus on the subject of dreams when beginning the search for suitable texts. At the time I was looking into contemporaries of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, having focused on his work extensively for my PhD, and so I almost immediately discovered the poetry of Sarojini Naidu. It turns out that Naidu, known as the “Nightingale of India,” wrote a good deal of poetry on the subject of dreams.
Excited as I was about pulling together a libretto for this work, I felt some familiar pangs of anxiety when looking at Naidu’s poetry. It is undeniably beautiful, but just as with Tagore’s poetry the individual phrases tend to be incredibly long and descriptive. However, Naidu’s writing is much more clearly in the form of poetry, whereas Tagore’s Gitanjali, which served as the basis of my final PhD work Endless, felt almost prosaic rather than poetic. As I learned toward the end of my PhD, this may have been due to Tagore’s unease at translating his poetry from his native Bengali to English; perhaps Naidu, being an Indian governor and an active member of the Indian independence movement, was more well versed in the language of the country’s perceived oppressors.
At any rate, there is a definite dramatic arc to the libretto, one that I’m hoping will be readily apparent in the way that I set these texts. The first movement, “Song of a Dream,” speaks of being at peace within the dream of a night. The second, “In the Forest,” includes the imagery of burning dead dreams and gathering what remains out of the ashes (yes, phoenix metaphors abound here). The third and final movement, “Transience,” speaks of finding new dreams and being at peace with the short-lived nature of life.
In short, the journey of the full work is this; having a dream, losing that dream, and learning to accept that loss and move forward within the transient nature of time.
It’s all very exciting, and the music I have been writing to convey this meaning is a step in a new direction for me. The repetition of text is certainly not as much of an issue in this work as it was in I Shall Not Live In Vain; partly because there is just so much more text, but mostly because of the idea of transience that is at the heart of the work. Musical events come and go almost at leisure in the first movement, with rippling ostinati in the piano underpinning much of the action in the choir. The second movement, being noticeably darker, is purposefully stagnant until the final stanza, when the ostinati slowly return under the words “But soon we must rise.” The third movement is a nice, simple song that summarizes the spirit of the full work.
All in all, things are going very well despite being laid up with a bad back. It’s great being at a point in my life where I can focus almost entirely on writing and teaching… With the occasional distraction of having to break up a fight between Powerball and Chumley, that is. I still have openings for Skype students, and am always eager to write more music. Be in touch, my friends!
- Thomas LaVoy