Problem Solving in the World of Punctuation: How to Approach a Pesky Semicolon

 A work in progress...

A work in progress...

Last week I posted a new blog entry that dealt with some of the specifics of the compositional process, particularly in regard to my method of processing a given text to prepare for creating a new work. I was blown away by the response to that entry – it seems more people are interested in the process than I expected! Having finished the Emily Dickinson commission, I’ve now turned my attention to Sarojini Naidu for the three-movement commission I have received from the Laudamus Chamber Chorale of Fort Collins, CO. The working title, as of now, is The Dreams That Remain. As I’ve been focusing on the first movement, I thought it would be fun to point out a few interesting factors and challenges of setting Naidu’s poem, Song of a Dream.

Once in the dream of a night I stood
Lone in the light of a magical wood,
Soul-deep in visions that poppy-like sprang;
And spirits of Truth were the birds that sang,
And spirits of Love were the stars that glowed,
And spirits of Peace were the streams that flowed
In that magical wood in the land of sleep.

Lone in the light of that magical grove,
I felt the stars of the spirits of Love
Gather and gleam round my delicate youth,
And I heard the song of the spirits of Truth;
To quench my longing I bent me low
By the streams of the spirits of Peace that flow
In that magical wood in the land of sleep.


Now, I have a very specific method of preparing to set any given text, one that I’ve developed over a decade plus of composing choral music. Down the line a bit I’m planning on doing a full entry on how this process works, but for now suffice it to say that these observations are a product of that process. I understand that every composer does things in their own fashion – other composers may disagree with these observations or their relative importance – but this at least is what I have found.

Firstly, in my experience punctuation is the first thing to be ignored by composers, particularly (don’t kill me!) American composers. In fact, I get the sense that most composers focus straight away on vowels and how those vowels can serve our beautiful sonorities, but that’s a discussion for another day. I tend to focus first on rhythm – the rhythm of the text, the pacing of lines within a stanza, the way in which distinct types of punctuation effect the lengths of breaths, etc. In the case of Naidu’s poetry above, punctuation plays a crucial role in organization within and between each stanza, as it does with most poetry.  

One part of my method of processing text involves analysing the hierarchy of punctuation, beginning with the most significant pauses and proceeding to minor stoppages of sound. The first rank is fairly straightforward – there are only two periods (full stops, for my UK friends) in the entire poem, one at the end of each stanza, indicating two distinct sections. The second rank, that of the semi-colon in this case, is where things begin to get interesting and challenging. The two distinct stanzas, separated by a period, are remarkably similar in syllable count, text stress and general mood. However, Naidu changes the organization of each stanza by placing the semi-colon, the second largest pause, at the end of different lines.

This automatically complicates the life of the composer. On the one hand we have two stanzas that share a line count and exist in remarkably similar descriptive worlds, so the natural reaction (or natural temptation, depending on how you look at it) is to set these two stanzas with similar musical material and structures. On the other hand, the internal organization would seem to preclude us from doing so given the location of the semi-colon and the material that surrounds it. THANKS semi-colon!

It seems to me that situations like this are exactly why creative problem solving is such a big part of the job description. I will also fully acknowledge that what follows is not the only way to solve this type of problem, nor is it necessarily the best way. In any case, this is how I tackled it.

In the first stanza, the semi-colon is followed by a list describing how various ‘spirits’ are represented by different visions within the dream; i.e. birds, stars and streams. In this location I used the semi-colon as a springboard (see what I did there?) to launch into a new section that sets this list in a more polyphonic fashion, passing the melody between the tenors, altos and sopranos respectively as the basses take a rest. Following this polyphonic section, the choir sings the final line together homophonically to emphasize the end of the first full stanza.

This list format is absent in the second stanza; however, a remarkably similar line takes place just before the semi-colon. In order to maintain a similar musical structure between the two stanzas, I essentially placed the border between sections at the comma after the third line of the second stanza, and repeated the polyphonic material from the first stanza on the single line “And I heard the song of the spirits of Truth;”. The semicolon at the end of this line then acts as a preparatory device for the final section, which is sung a cappella at a very low dynamic. I chose to make this section a cappella because the consonants here are particularly juicy; “To quench my longing I bent me low” – it doesn’t get much better than that! And, of course, the final line is the only truly repeated line in the entire poem, and so in both locations it is given a surprising harmonic shift away from the home key of E major.

So, that is a bit of the process that I went through while preparing to set this text. There are many other things related to punctuation and general text-setting that I could delve into, but for the sake of brevity I’ll end this. I should just point out that while I do have a specific method of text preparation that takes place before I begin composing, the dividing line is very, very blurry. I often get halfway through the text processing stage and am hit with a musical idea. In my opinion it’s foolish to ignore these, so I tend to write them down or record them to save for later. While it’s good to have a method that contributes to the overall craft of composition, I also think it’s important not to take these things so seriously that it interferes with those genuinely inspirational moments.

                   - Thomas LaVoy