Shifting Coastlines (Medium High Voice and Piano)

Medium High Voice and Piano. (2000/2007) 20’
Texts by Charles Simic; (John Sokol); Ralph Burns; Howard Nemerov; Albert Goldbarth; Ronald Wallace

In 2000, inspired by our mutual love of science, the amazing artist Karen Fitzgerald and I collaborated on a project funded by the Greenwall Foundation and the Queens Community Arts Fund. We chose six poems by living authors that address the human condition through natural and scientific imagery. I composed six songs for the Goliard Ensemble: solo voice, flute, violin, cello, piano and percussion; Karen created six 60” paintings. The work premiered in October, 2000 at the Steinway Reformed Church, Astoria, NYC. These six round paintings were paired back-to-back and suspended above the audience. The project toured six South-East states during the Fall of 2000.

These pieces are very close to my heart, and over the past year, in my spare time, I revisited, revised and re-arranged five of them, paring it all down to a work for voice and piano in the hopes of making them more easily available for wider performance. Stylistically, the songs live in a place where art song, music theater and pop song overlap. Please email me if you are interested in seeing scores. (At some point I may take care of the sixth song, John Sokol’s Thoughts Near the Close of the Millenium, but not right now.)

Drawing the Triangle / Oleander Hawk:

oleanderhawk_sm.jpgDrawing the Triangle — Charles Simic

I reserve the triangle
For the wee hours,
The chigger-sized hours.

I like how it starts out
And never gets there.
I like how it starts out.
In the meantime, the bedroom window
Reflecting the owlish aspect
Of the face and the interior.

One hopes for tangents
Surreptitiously in attendance
Despite the rigors of the absolute.

Stars / Pearl:

pearl_sm.jpg
Stars — Ralph Burns

I sit and rock my son to sleep. It rains
and rains. Such as we are both asleep,
we swim past the stars,
bad stars of disaster, good stars of the backbone of night.

We know these stars as they are
and as we’d wish them to be, Milky Way,
Dog and Bear, hydrogen and helium, the 92
elements which make all we know of beauty.

We know nothing of angular size or
the inverse square law of the propagation
of light, and swim through a cold, thin
gas, between and among the stars,

which swim likewise between two creations
like children who know sleep intimately.

Figures of Thought / Triton:

triton_sm.jpg
Figures of Thought — Howard Nemerov

To lay the logarithmic spiral on
Sea-shell and leaf alike, and see it fit,
To watch the same idea work itself out
In the fighter pilot’s steepening, tightening turn
Onto his target, setting up the kill,
And in the flight of certain wall-eyed bugs
Who cannot see to fly straight into death
But have to cast their sidelong glance at it
And come but cranking to the candle’s flame —

How secret that is, and how privileged
One feels to find the same necessity
Ciphered in forms diverse and otherwise
Without kinship — that is the beautiful
In Nature as in art, not obvious,
Not inaccessible, but just between.

It may diminish some of our dry delight
To wonder if everything we are and do
Lies subject to some little law like that;
Hidden in nature, but not deeply so.

The Sciences Sing a Lullabye / Treetops

treetops_sm.jpg
The Sciences Sing a Lullabye — Albert Goldbarth
Physics says: go to sleep. Of course
you’re tired. Every atom in you
has been dancing the shimmy in silver shoes
nonstop from mitosis to now.
Quit tapping your feet. They’ll dance
inside themselves without you. Go to sleep.
Geology says: it will be alright. Slow inch
by inch America is giving itself
to the ocean. Go to sleep. Let darkness
lap at your sides. Give darkness and inch.
You aren’t alone. All the continents used to be
one body. You aren’t alone. Go to sleep.
Astronomy says: the sun will rise tomorrow,
Zoology says: on rainbow-fish and lithe gazelle,
Psychology says: but first it has to be night, so
Biology says: the body-clocks are stopped all over town
and
History says: here are the blankets, layer on layer, down on down.

Love’s Discrete Nonlinearity / Rubythroat:

rubythroat_sm.jpg
Love’s Discrete Nonlinearity — Ronald Wallace, from Chaos Theory

No heart’s desire is repeatable, or,
therefore, predictable. If a few hungry foxes
gorge on a large population of rabbits,
the population of foxes increases
while that of the rabbits declines,
until some point of equilibrium is passed
and the foxes begin to vanish with
the depleted supply of rabbits, and then
the rabbits multiply, like rabbits. And so on.
The ebb and flow of desire and fulfillment
is a story as old as the world. So,
if I loved you, finally, too much, until
you began to disappear, and I followed,
would you theoretically return to love
repeatedly again? There are forces so small
in our story of foxes and rabbits
no Malthus could ever account for them.
Whole species daily disappear, intractable
as weather. Or think of a continent’s
coastlines, their unmeasurable eddies
and whorls: infinite longings inscribed
by finite space and time,
the heart’s intricate branchings.

Thoughts near the Close of the Millennium / Burning Bush (not complete)

burningbush_sm.jpg
Thoughts near the Close of the Millennium — John Sokol

In this expanding universe, everything is leaving everything,
yet there is no center
From which any of this leave-taking leaves; the middle
of every departure
Is everywhere. Microcosmically viewed, it all looks a lot like
the pores of Dizzy Gillespie’s cheeks
When he blew his horn. We’re spinning away from the sun
and the stars
While Ceres moves away from Jupiter and Neptune moves
away from Mars.
Everything is leaving its immediate neighborhood, gathering
more and more distance
For itself, like the furthest quasar, that — 18 billion years ago —
said goodbye to Proxima Centauri.
Even Nancy down the street is leaving Charlie and the kids. Like
everything else,
We’re forever blown away by that first Big Bang. We’re stuck
in the atmospheric saddle
Of a slow-motion explosion, like that one at the end of Antonioni’s
Zabriskie Point,
Where that floating olive might be the earth, and if we slow down
the slow-motion (slow it,
Geometrically, down), we can witness that olive decomposing
and watch entropy eat it up
While we consider that all those little anatomizing volcanoes and
Olive-quakes of it
Might be comparable to the shifting and colliding of continents
which have slow-danced
To the music of the spheres for billions of summer nights, crashing
their own weddings
And feasting off each other’s tectonic plates until the next big bash:
all of which is just the drop-of-an-olive
In a martini glass compared to what it would take to understand
what I’m talking about
Is the energy that is the black hole of me that sucked this martini
so dry that no light exists,
And now the pimento of that olive is the pit of my stomach
which seems to have multiplied
In density a thousand-fold, like a pellet of buckshot become
shot-put,
Or maybe, like — at the core of a white dwarf — that teaspoon
of matter that weighs five tons.
So maybe all this wonder and worry — and all this speculation —
is futile, because, here it is,
New Year’s Eve again and I don’t think I need to overstate my point.

How Do I Love Thee? (High Voice, Clarinet or Violin & Piano)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, text.
High Voice, Clarinet or Violin & Piano. (2000) 4’30”

A co-commission and premiere by The Lark Ascending, Nancy Bogen, director, and the Lyric Arts Trio.

Listen to a performance by Marcelle Duarte (Soprano), Dennis Jospeh (Clarinet) & Lin Lee (Piano):

HowDo     

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SONNET #43, FROM THE PORTUGUESE

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)

So, We’ll Go No More A-Roving (High Voice & Piano, opt. Clarinet)

Lord Byron, text.
for High Voice & Piano, with or without Clarinet (1999), ca. 3’30”

Commissioned and premiered by The Lark Ascending, Nancy Bogen, director.

Listen to a performance by Elizabeth Farnum (Soprano) & Peter Vinograde (Piano):

Roving     

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So, we’ll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.
For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.
Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a roving
By the light of the moon.

Lord George Gordon Byron, 1788-1824

The Far Field (High Voice, Clarinet & Piano)

Theodore Roethke, text.
High Voice, Clarinet & Piano (1997), ca. 22′
Premiered by Elizabeth Farnum, Dennis Joseph & Charles Tauber at NYU.

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Listen to excerpts from a live performance by Melissa Fogarty (soprano), Chris Cullen (clarinet) and Laura Barger (piano):
I.
I dream of journeys repeatedly:
Of flying like a bat deep into a narrowing tunnel,
Of driving alone, without luggage, out a long peninsula,
The road lined with snow-laden second growth,
A fine dry snow ticking the windshield,
Alternate snow and sleet, no on-coming traffic,
And no lights behind, in the blurred side-mirror,
The road changing from glazed tarface to a rubble of stone,
Ending at last in a hopeless sand-rut,
Where the car stalls,
Churning in a snowdrift
Until the headlights darken.

II.
At the field’s end, in the corner missed by the mower,
Where the turf drops off into a grass-hidden culvert,
Haunt of the cat-bird, nesting-place of the field-mouse,
Not too far away from the ever-changing flower-dump,
Among the tin cans, tires, rusted pipes, broken machinery,-
One learned of the eternal;
And in the shrunken face of a dead rat,
eaten by rain and ground-beetles
(I found it lying among the rubble of an old coal bin)
And the tom-cat, caught near the pheasant-run,
Its entrails strewn over the half-grown flowers,
Blasted to death by the night watchman.

I suffered for birds, for young rabbits caught in the mower,
My grief was not excessive.

For to come upon warblers in early May
Was to forget time and death:
How they filled the oriole’s elm,
a twittering restless cloud, all one morning,
And I watched and watched
till my eyes blurred from the bird shapes,-
Cape May, Blackburnian, Cerulean,-
Moving, elusive as fish, fearless,
Hanging, bunched like young fruit, bending the end branches,
Still for a moment,
Then pitching away in half-flight,
Lighter than finches,
While the wrens bickered and sang in the half-green hedgerows,
And the flicker drummed from his
dead tree in the chicken-yard.

-Or to lie naked in sand,
In the silted shallows of a slow river,
Fingering a shell,
Thinking;
Once I was something like this, mindless,
Or perhaps with another mind, less peculiar;
Or to sink down to the hips in a mossy quagmire;
Or, with skinny knees, to sit astride a wet log,
Believing:
I’ll return again,
As a snake or a raucous bird,
Or, with luck, as a lion.

I learned not to fear infinity,
The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,
The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow,
The wheel turning away from itself,
The sprawl of the wave,
The on-coming water.

III.
The river turns on itself,
The tree retreats into its own shadow.
I feel a weightless change, a moving forward
As of water quickening before a narrowing channel
When banks converge, and the wide river whitens;
Or when two rivers combine, the blue glacial torrent
And the yellowish-green from the mountainy upland,-
At first a swift rippling between rocks,

Then a long running over flat stones
Before descending to the alluvial plain,
To the clay banks, and the wild grapes
hanging from the elmtrees.
The slightly trembling water
Dropping a fine yellow silt where the sun stays;
And the crabs bask near the edge,
The weedy edge, alive with small snakes and bloodsuckers,-

I have come to a still, but not a deep center,
A point outside the glittering current;
My eyes stare at the bottom of a river,
At the irregular stones, iridescent sandgrains,
My mind moves in more than one place,
In a country half-land, half-water.

I am renewed by death, thought of my death,
The dry scent of a dying garden in September,
The wind fanning the ash of a low fire.
What I love is near at hand,
Always, in earth and air.

IV.
The lost self changes,
Turning toward the sea,
A sea-shape turning around,-
An old man with his feet before the fire,
In robes of green, in garments of adieu.

A man faced with his own immensity
Wakes all the waves, all their loose wandering fire.
The murmur of the absolute, the why
Of being born fails on his naked ears.
His spirit moves like a monumental wind
That gentles on a sunny blue plateau.
He is the end of things, the final man.

All finite things reveal infinitude:
The mountain with its singular bright shade
Like the blue shine on freshly frozen snow,
The after-light upon ice-burdened pines;
Odor of basswood on a mountain-slope,
A scent beloved of bees;
Silence of water above a sunken tree:
The pure serene of memory in one man,-
A ripple widening from a single stone
Winding around the waters of the world.

Program Note:

I composed my setting of Theodore Roethke’s The Far Field in 1997, over the course of a month; there was a deadline for a performance that in the end was cancelled at the last minute due to an illness. Writing this piece was emotionally difficult for me. At the time, I had written a string of short chamber pieces, and wanted to tackle something large to shake myself out of the pattern. The large-scale trajectory of Roethke’s text moves from a point of isolation and a fearful contemplation of mortality and decay to a place beyond acceptance of one’s own death, to an embrace of it. The rapidity with which I had to set this monumental, beautiful text meant that I had to live with it intimately for that month, and ultimately take that same journey with the poet. I had trouble with this, and would find myself in a sullen funk for days at a time. In the end I found a place within myself to find the beauty in death that Roethke found, and set it that way. As I write these program notes four years later, I look back on that process and that text and can’t help but regard it as one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received, and thank Roethke for it.

Heart! We Will Forget Him!

Emily Dickinson, Text.
High Voice and Piano, ca. 2′
Premiered by ToniAnn Notarfrancesco & Kee Poh Lim at Queens College, 1991.

Heart! We Will Forget Him!     

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Heart! We will forget him!
You and I – tonight!
You may forget the warmth he gave –
I will forget the light!

When you have done, pray tell me
That I my thoughts may dim!
Haste! lest while you’re lagging
I may remember him!