Poetry Above the Roar: Ten New Songs on Poems by William Kupinse

Well, It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I last posted! But I have been busy composing!

I’ll write about a Lutheran Processional with superimposed folk music, and the Prelude to my opera Cai Yan in other posts.

Here I’ll discuss my new cycle of songs on poems by University of Puget Sound poet William Kupinse which occupied me during the late summer and fall, 2013. I heard Bill read some of his poems at a gathering of all of Tacoma’s past and current Poets Laureate last spring. I was struck by the fascinating combination of elegance and humor and asked him if he had ever had any of his poems set to music. (Some poets do not like this process at all, feeling- very understandably- that a poem is already a complete work of art and likely to suffer damage at the hands of a composer who 1) is not  poet and probably doesn’t have the knowledge to understand what he is wrecking and 2) will impose his own powerful medium upon the poem so as to force one particular interpretation upon it that may not be to the poet’s liking.) Fortunately Bill seemed intrigued by the idea and sent me a pdf copy of his 2009 collection “Fallow” published by Exquisite Dissarray with partial funding by the Tacoma Arts Commission during the year that Bill was the Poet Laureate. I was finishing other things like the opera prelude and the Lutheran Processional and so didn’t act upon these immediately.

When I looked at them closely in mid summer, I was struck by how much many of them brought powerfully to mind our own, Puget Sound experience- plants, animals, water, trees, gloomy winters which give way to springs full of promise… I began with a poem that is still one of my favorites: Point Defiance, which meditates in various ways upon the huge, wild park in the city of Tacoma- its hidden pathways through old growth forest, its beaches with giant bleached tree trunks angling down toward the water…

I love the process of setting someone else’s poetry to music. words have their own music- vowels and consonants, word and phrase rhythms, alliteration, internal rhymes, puns, allusions, associations… Free verse in particular has very unpredictable rhythms to it which lead me in directions I would not have thought to go on my own- unusual phrase lengths, text painting with melody or harmony or orchestration. A full poem of any length, long or short, has its own “journey” it begins with an idea and develops it to some sort of conclusion, along the way suggesting various segments distinguished by changes of mood, metaphor or character. These I try to identify in ways that will be useful to me in creating an engaging musical experience for the audience. As I thus break the poem up into what will be discerned as musical sections, I confront the challenge of transforming the poetic structure and experience into a musical one. Very often a piece of pure music finds its conclusion in somehow re-visiting opening ideas, thus showing us how the same material has found new meaning during the journey. But a poem often (usually?) does not do this; instead it begins at point A and ends at point B. The poetic logic is thus often linear, rather than circular as in music. Thus the composer may find new ways to produce a sense of closure that does not involve opening ideas at all; or may find ways of involving opening ideas in substantially new garb at the end to represent the difference between the opening and closing, or may in fact find that using the opening music with the closing words of the poem provides a very interesting and enlightening experience that neither the poem or the music alone would have produced. Certainly the poetic logic of the words often unfolds in ways very differently from the logic of pure music, and thus however the piece ends up, the journey of an art song is often quite different from that a composer might come up with were s/he not responding to someone else’s words. I just love this game!

Point Defiance is a longer poem, and revealed what seemed to be many subsections in its journey. From intimate descriptions of pathways and snow cradled in tree stumps to Greek mythological references leading to allusions to ASARCO’s arsenic poisoning of the Tacoma area, the poem moved rapidly from the intimate image to the esoteric reference, from the poignant to the political, from the close-up to the broad landscape. Whales and octopi, the Narrows Bridges and Vashon Island, the poem ranged incredibly, and yet kept its logic and its artistic journey clear and compelling throughout. I chose it to begin. Nothing like starting out with a challenge!

The other challenge I set myself was to see if I could use the sounds modern computer programs are now capable of to make a final product. Usually, for me, Finale and Sibelius software programs are for my own composing process, not for final listening by my audience. But the sounds have gotten so good that I thought it would be fun to see if they could produce such a final listening experience. Thus, besides the mezzo soprano voice that sings the poems, the sounds are all computer generated, using Finale and Garritan Personal Orchestra. The final product was conceived of as mostly a CD or downloadable songs, though we also decided to perform it in concert on Tuesday, February 11, 2014 at PLU.

The musical style of the pieces comes from two places. The first is my career-long fascination with exploring the space between popular and classical music. I have many pieces which play in this sandbox- from The Godmaking of the Skies and the Earth, a gospel-doowop-rock a cappella choral setting of the creating story in Genesis, to a jazzy bassoon sonata. The second place was Bill Kupinse’s poems in the collection- they have that sly humor I first heard at the reading last spring which seemed to demand a musical analog. Though Point Defiance did not require this, some of the others made me laugh out loud as I studied them, including “Ferment” with its topic of rotting fruit and image of teetotalling raccoons… Others cast curses at men who love leafblowers or described the end of human experience on earth as though it were not an entirely bad thing for the planet overall. The set of ten songs thus presents a wide variety of musical styles, from art song to torchy blues, from folk song to rock-inspired cacaphony. What unifies them is the overall palette of colors in the orchestration, the mezzo soprano voice, and of course the voice of the poet, which is always clear.

I began each song by analyzing the poem for its overall character, made a decision about style, and then began to invent an ensemble using the huge number of choices available to me on my computer software. This was like having a vast orchestra at my immediate and constant disposal- from orchestral violins to jazz basses, from steel drums to sound effects to sitars. In fact, one of the difficulties was to discipline myself, as all good composers must do, to stay within some sort of logical, unifying set of sounds so that the overall song cycle sounded like it belonged to one concept. I would guesstimate a set of potentially useful instrumental sounds, add them to the “score” in the Finale program, and then begin exploring their combinations with musical ideas suggested by the poems. I would subtract, add, and combine instrumental sounds until some sort of motivic idea suddenly snapped into focus. It was was fast and immediate, rather like a painter who can see immediately the effect of adding red to the right hand corner of the canvas. I could push “play” and immediately hear the final product! It was like candy to a baby and I fully understand now the seduction of electronic music to a number of composers of my generation! (This is in fact the way almost all contemporary popular music is made- in a studio, adding and subtracting ideas in real sound.)

Of course, what is missing here, is live performers working on my music, adding their interpretive ideas, and finally playing it live in front of an audience. But I was able to bounce my musical ideas off of the poet, Bill Kupinse, as I worked and, thank goodness he approved!- and I also had the fun of working with my very talented mezzo soprano singer, Erin Calata who provided her own interpretive ideas to the performance of them. In the end, it is this habitual desire for a live performance that caused me to want a “recital” performance of them as well as the recorded versions. Thus our decision to perform them live at PLU in February, 2014.

Up at the top are mp3s of the two songs I discussed: Point Defiance and Ferment.  Hope you enjoy them!