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!


Drum Taps: Full recording posted on Soundcloud.com

I have posted the complete recording of the May 15, 2012 premiere of Drum Taps: Nine Poems on Themes of War at the website “Soundcloud.” Please share this post with anyone who is interested- conductors, audience members, anyone interested in contemporary classical music, anyone who agrees that classical music can actually make a difference in the world by stirring emotions, thoughts and discussions about serious topics, like our species’ addiction to war…

Here is the link to the audio files (mp3) of the nine movements (in 10 files- one movement has two halves.)


Here are the full texts.

Drum Taps full texts

Here is a link to a short video interview with myself and the conductor about the piece.


Here is a press release with some description of the piece and its premiere.

Drum Taps -press release

Drum Taps at Pacific Lutheran University

I have been out of the country studying gamelan in Indonesia (Bali and Java) for much of the summer, and only now am returning to listen to the recording of my big premiere in May at PLU: Drum Taps: Nine Poems on Themes of War. The good news: the recording confirms what I remembered- it was a superb and powerful performance of what I consider my most important piece. Many thanks to the wonderful performers- professional and students alike!

I will post here a 12 minute compilation (out of a 60 minute piece) of excerpts masterfully selected and edited by my colleague Jeffrey Bell-Hanson who conducted the premiere as director of the PLU University Symphony Orchestra. While it provides just a sample of each movement, it gives a very good sense of what the piece is about, what sorts of musical language it uses, and the very dramatic nature of the composition.

There is a single excerpt from each of the nine movements, so you can count them to know where you are in the overall flow. I will post the entire recording somewhere soon so those of you who wish to spend an hour hearing the whole thing, can…

Fragments: Three Songs of Hope (Song 3 audio)


The third and final song of the three song set is a setting of a troped Agnus Dei from the European Middle Ages:

Agnus Dei- Lamb of God

Virga tulit florem – the branch bears a flower

Stella maris solem – the star of the sea, a sun.

Agnus Dei, dona nobis pacem- Lamb of God, give us peace.

This final song of the set of three “Fragments” begins with an anguished wail- perhaps the echo of the one in the first song sung as the husband leaves for war. In this wail though, I imagine the woman calling the heavens on the carpet, demanding explanation for the cruelty of the world. Gradually her wail turns to prayer as “Ahh” becomes “Agnus Dei” and she seems to find some sort of temporary solace.


Fragments: Three Songs of Hope (Song 2 audio)


The second song in the set of three, Love, is an excerpt from one of the many anonymous Majnun and Leila love poems of the Arab Caliphate era of the Middle East, perhaps in the 8th century.

How can pain be softened?  Too much loss- I tremble.

Love is a small bird, tied by a child, sipping the lake of death.

The child goes on with his game mindless of the bird’s pain

And the wings that cannot fly.

In this world there are a thousand roads.

But without a heart, where can one go?

I am particularly proud of the last line! This piece seemed to call for almost stasis- paralysis of emotion- near the beginning. The piano holds notes too long for a piano- they decay helplessly. A bit of “arabesque” in the melody is, I hope, not too broad here- it seemed appropriate to allude to the cultural music of the area using the ubiquitous “surna” oboe which is prominent across Central Asia. Each phrase seems to run out of words as though there are none for this circumstance.

See the next post for the final song of the set.

Fragments: Three Songs of Hope (Song 1 Audio)


In 2002 I was asked to write some classical songs for soprano and piano for a CD project with a theme of “Peace” by Seattle area soprano Janeanne Houston. Seems I was the only one to complete my contributions on time however, so the CD never happened. Alas… However, we kept the ideas alive until a few years later when Janeanne asked me to re-write them to include an oboist with whom she was about to do some touring concerts. I complied and the three songs are those recorded here.

I found the texts in 2003 just as American bombs were beginning to fall on Bagdad, and so they have an air of hopelessness searching for hope about them. The first one, “Trouble” is a setting of my paraphrase of an excerpt of an 18th century Vietnamese woman poet’s epic about her husband going off to war.

When the dust of the world blows wild, the lovely ones suffer.

Oh, Lord of the far blue land, for what purpose has this trouble come?

Moonlight trembles to the beat of the drum.

The watch fires reach to the high clouds.

At midnight the Emperor draws his jeweled sword;

A proclamation, and the war is on.

Young hero, you put down your pen and ink

And, appareled in arrows, seize your bright shield.

Your heart has wars to win. You fling your wine cup down

And point your spear at the cave of the tiger.

 I watch your footsteps vanish.  My heart follows like the moon.

You go forth, I return home.  Each of us looks around and is alone.

Lost, amid blue clouds and green mountain.

I enjoy the way the two main motives in this song evoke swirling clouds of dust and military preparations respectively. I also like the way I was able to recapitulate the swirls motive at the end but still retain the sense of utter change brought about by the departure of the young man; there is no way we can really “return” to the opening mood after he departs. In other words, this is an example of a piece that does not return to to its starting place, but rather moves beyond it into a new space. This is tricky to pull off effectively and I like the way this song succeeds.

See the nexts posts for the next two songs of the set.

High Romance in the Horn of Africa: Audio Recording of “You Who Might Be The Moon”

You Who Might Be The Moon

Thirty years ago I came across a book of popular song lyrics from Somalia that struck me as amazingly fresh and intimate, despite their (to me) exotic imagery of lions, tall grass by the sea and tribal elders. I paraphrased them into my own English language poems and set them (perhaps badly) in a now withdrawn choral piece that only saw the light of day briefly during my wedding in the late 1980’s. (It must not have been THAT bad- I’m still happily married!)

A year ago I found these texts again and felt that they deserved to live again and so set them in a new piece with the same title but this time for tenor voice, flute and piano. This is arch romanticism, and no apologies for it a’tall… I’m a card-carrying romantic from the beginning.

For those of you who enjoy theory, the whole piece is built on an octatonic scale- eight notes in the scale in the pattern of alternating whole and half steps. It gives the piece a slightly exotic tonality that you can’t quite put your finger on…

Here are the texts:


Lovely as the lightening in the dawn

I have longed to speak to you.

I have seen you, I have watched you,

I have seen you sitting among the tall grass by the sea.

I long for you as one whose boat in summer winds is blown adrift and lost

longs for land and finds only gray and empty sea.

All your young beauty is to me

Like a place where the young grass sways

After the blessing of the rain

When the sun reveals its light.

My eyes draw me toward your charms

As to a garden at the cliff’s edge.

When you die, all delight will be stilled

By the silence of the earth. So come!

Do not let the voices of the old ones

Drive you from your song.

Until I die, I shall not give up the love song.

Of God, forgive me my weakness.

My heart is single and cannot be divided

And it is fastened on a single hope-

Oh you, who might be the moon…