A Missing Ring


This is the first of two entries that will be produced as a part of the Scattered Light commission consortium. In this entry, I explain the genesis of my setting of Dana Gioia’s The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves, as well as the more personal connections I have forged with both the poem and the new work.


A few months ago, when I was in the planning stages for my setting of The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves, I was also planning my proposal to my partner in the Scattered Light commission consortium, Sarah Rimkus. This proposal was a long time coming; we had been together for over four years, encompassing almost our entire collective time in Scotland, during which we travelled Europe together and finished our doctoral degrees. The number of times I was asked the rather probing question “why haven’t you proposed yet?” in the months leading up to the actual moment was frankly staggering. In truth, I had made the decision to propose to Sarah on the 1st of January 2017, over two years before I popped the question. My decision on when to ask Sarah to be my life partner, however, had everything to do with themes that I later discovered were echoed in The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves.


Looking back, there was a dream-like quality that hung over much of the three and a half years that I spent in Scotland with Sarah. It was a period of my life that was unlike anything I had experienced before, an opportunity for me to test my mettle as an independent, globe-trotting human and to come into my own as a composer. It was also the time when I met the love of my life, which is a special moment for anyone. When I moved back to the United States, leaving Sarah and all my UK friends behind in Aberdeen, it was hard at times not to wonder whether all of it had been forged in the pleasant depths of a dream. I am not known for having a great memory – I am known, however, for being essentially nocturnal, and on certain dark nights I legitimately feared that I had been woken from a dream so deeply elaborate that surely, surely it couldn’t just be a subconsciously contrived fiction.

Of course, thanks to the miracle of modern communication, I only ever had to wait until morning for Sarah to banish these fears with a quick Facebook message. Before long, she was finishing up her own PhD and making the trip back over the pond just as I had done. As we pondered texts for the Scattered Light consortium, I was quickly drawn to Dana Gioia’s poem The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves. It was the perfect counterpart to Sarah’s choice of The Burning Ladder, and conjured in my mind’s eye images of the space between dreaming and waking. As someone who dreams vividly and often lucidly, I occupy this space on an almost nightly basis. A good opportunity to process the fears I experienced in my post-PhD limbo through the act of composition, I thought. Hopefully I could finally put some of these fears to bed.

But then something spooky happened.


At this point, it was early April and I had been shopping for an engagement ring for several months, with the intention of proposing to Sarah once she had fully settled into life here in Michigan. I found what I felt was the perfect ring for her on Etsy, of all places – a non-traditional design with a stunning blue topaz set in the center of white gold swirls, reminiscent of Sarah’s own remarkably beautiful blue eyes. I placed the order with the company in Israel, but the ring was several days late in arriving with no verifiable means of tracking the package in transit. The best I could do was to nervously message my mother every half hour or so, as I had had the ring sent to her house to prevent Sarah from seeing it prematurely. Naturally I began to worry, but I tried to keep myself focused on planning my setting of The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves.

On one particular afternoon, as my subconscious mind fretted away about the missing ring, my conscious mind was focused on how to approach the final stanza of Dana’s poem:

And one small detail out of place will be
enough to let you know: a missing ring,
a breath, a footfall or a sudden breeze,
a crack of light beneath a darkened door.

In that moment it was revealed to me just how much of a curse a powerful imagination can be. The irrational fear that an entire portion of my life hadn’t truly existed came flooding back before my rational mind could intervene. What if Sarah’s missing ring really was one of those “smaller signs,” one of the “fine disturbances of ordered things” that Dana refers to in the poem? It only lasted for moments, but that sudden fear was strong enough for me to drop what I was doing and run downstairs from my office in the attic to make sure that Sarah was still there. She was, of course – working away on The Burning Ladder with Muffin the cat asleep next to her desk. Twenty minutes later my mother messaged me covertly; “something came for you in the mail just now, you might want to come and get it.”  The ring had arrived safe and sound, and upon thorough inspection I deemed it to indeed be very solid, very real, and absolutely beautiful.

Tom Sarah engaged.jpg

As an agnostic, I don’t necessarily believe in signs from God or the universe, but as a creative and spiritual person I do believe in the power of the human subconscious to make connections that our conscious minds cannot. Regardless, it was time – I proposed to Sarah first thing in the morning a few days later on Saturday, April 27th, 2019. She said yes.

Following the events of the missing ring, I seriously considered scrapping all my drafts for The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves and starting fresh with a new concept for the piece post-proposal. In the end I decided to continue the work’s original trajectory. I wanted to capture that feeling of mystery and ambiguity, of misplaced worry and wonder that accompanied this unique chapter of the life that Sarah and I have been building together. People who know my work well may be surprised by the content of this piece. It is quite dark; more of a sound piece than the melodically driven works I have produced in the past few years. It is, however, still very much me.


Next week, I will delve into the specifics of how this mystery and ambiguity were achieved from a compositional perspective.  I will also discuss certain text-setting challenges that arose naturally out of the fabulous poetry of Dana Gioia.

The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves

The stars now rearrange themselves above you
but to no effect. Tonight,
only for tonight, their powers lapse,
and you must look toward earth. There will be
no comets now, no pointing star
to lead where you know you must go.

Look for smaller signs instead, the fine
disturbances of ordered things when suddenly
the rhythms of your expectation break
and in a moment’s pause, another world
reveals itself behind the ordinary.

And one small detail out of place will be
enough to let you know: a missing ring,
a breath, a footfall or a sudden breeze,
a crack of light beneath a darkened door.

- Dana Gioia

Thomas LaVoyComment