Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Monday, November 07, 2005

words and music

Scott Spiegelberg has put out a call for papers on the relationship between poetry and music. Part of me wishes I had something to say on the matter; it’s a subject for which I’ve long had some ambition; but anything I have to say is piecemeal and pragmatic, from having set 15 or 20 poems to music over the years.

I’m enjoying the trouble I’m having setting Scooter Libby’s letter to Judy Miller to music, which Alex Ross suggested as a song text.

You went into jail in the summer. It is fall now. You will have stories to cover—Iraqi elections and suicide bombers, biological threats and the Iranian nuclear program. Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them. Come back to work—-and life. Until then, you will remain in my thoughts and prayers.
I’m having trouble with the Iranian nuclear program; its specificity has a comic edge that I’m not vibing with. The absurd diction is comical as well -- “into jail” rather than “to jail”; I'm guessing that the ring of failed high-falutin’-ness was one of the things that attracted Alex to the text. But despite the tonal faltering the text remains somber and serious: Libby's friend is in jail. He is thinking of and praying for her. “Come back to work -- and life” has the feel of a cry from the heart.

Historical subtexts: Are Judy Miller’s imagined articles on the Iranian nuclear program to be as filled with bogus information as her articles on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein to the United States? Will Ahmad Chalabi’s nephew “Curveball” make an appearance?

Should I score a chorus chanting “Curveball” in the background?

Alex suggests a melisma on “turning.” Tempting, but too literal; I object to the “I am walking up the stairs” school of 20th century musical parallelism, where the melody imitates the words without verve. Imitation or parallelism of that sort has a tendency toward comedy, and too many composers don’t realize that and end up with weak, unintentional comedy. (I’m pretty sure Alex does realize the comic potential with this suggestion.) Still, even I’m tempted by the musical vocabulary of “clusters” and “roots,” tempted to accompany those words with their musical equivalents. “Roots” is especially intriguing, suggesting polytonality.

As a college sophomore I took “Composition for Non-Music Majors” with William Bolcom. One lesson: After an in-class performance of a student’s song, he coached the singer to read the text, without music, before singing it again. Focussing on the words’ music-less meanings sharpened the singer’s performance the next go-through. It’s helpful for setting a text to music too. It was only after sounding Libby’s text aloud that I realized that “come back to work -- and life” was its climax. Don’t know whether I’ll get a good song out of the attempt, but I’m enjoying the try.
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