July 15, 2008: First Meetings
(The third installment of the story about my poems being set to music by the composition fellows at Tanglewood)
I just got back from Tanglewood where I had my first meeting with the composition fellows who are setting my poems to music. But before I tell you about that encounter, let me first tell you about… the ghost! As I’ve already written, we were being put up at Seranak, the cozy 34-room guest cottage near Tanglewood with the great view (actually, a mansion shouldn’t be called a “cottage” unless it has a minimum of 36 rooms). We were greeted by Peter Grimm, the delightful and knowledgeable manager-overseer of the estate, who eagerly showed us around and made us feel perfectly “at home.” Our room for this weekend, to our surprise, was actually Serge Koussevitzky’s own bedroom, a spacious room with the best view of the lake and the distant hills. Between the two front windows stood an old armoire with a full-length mirror, inside of which—still—were the maestro’s concert clothing (tails, vests, trousers, white summer jackets, and a spectacular array of footwear, from blue leather bedroom slippers to two-toned saddle shoes). In a dresser drawer were his collection of collars, and, resting on one shelf of an imposing secretary, a huge bible. We’d been warned that Koussevitzky’s ghost haunted the premises, but were later informed that it was surely Natalie’s, whose niece, Olga, Koussevitzky married after Natalie’s death. Several times during the night the bathroom door swung open, but this was more likely the wind than any ghost—it were the ghost, we were assured, we’d know it.
The sad news of the previous week was that maestro James Levine needed surgery—a cyst on his kidney required the removal of the kidney—and he was forced to cancel the rest of the Tanglewood season. The Sunday afternoon of our arrival marked the first time a substitute conductor was filling in for him. Assistant conductor Julian Kuerti was leading the renowned pianist Peter Serkin in Bach and Mozart and also be conducting symphonies by Haydn and Schubert. These weren’t exactly memorable performances, but at least they went off without a hitch, a testament to young Kuerti’s professionalism. During the intermission, a young man came up to me and asked if I was Lloyd Schwartz. He was Jeff Stanek, from Madison, Wisconsin one of the composers who’d be setting my poems. He had the score to another musical setting of his, to a sequence of poems by Lucy Rosenberg, his grandmother, called “Summer Whimsy.” It would be performed on a night I was back in Boston. But there was a rehearsal the afternoon after our group meeting and I asked if I could come.
That night Barbara Cook (I’m a huge fan) appeared at Seiji Ozawa Hall, and that was a memorable concert. Celebrating her 80th birthday year, she sang not only with her usual sensitivity to phrasing and musical line but also with more energy and fuller voice than I’ve heard from her in several years. One of the highlights was a pairing of “letter” songs: a poignant slow-motion rendering of self-deception in “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter (and Make Believe It Came from You)” in tandem with Stephen Sondheim’s heartbreaking, self-knowing “I Wish I Could Forget You,” from Passion. But she also raised the roof with an obscure early Gershwin number, “Nashville Nightingale,” and Ray Charles’s “Hallelujah, I Just Love Him So!” which was also a vehicle for introducing her terrific accompanists: Lee Musiker (piano), Peter Donovan (bass), and James Saporito (a percussionist with especially shimmering cymbals). An amazing, exhilarating evening.
Next morning, I met with Shulamit Ran, this summer’s Tanglewood composer-in-residence. She was working with the six young composers who would be setting my poems. I had a two-hour session scheduled with them that afternoon and so, sitting out on the Seranak veranda, we talked over what I should do. I was impressed with Ran’s concern for her students—I was sure she was a great teacher—and her sense of humor.
She was born in Tel Aviv, but has been living with her Israeli-born husband, a surgeon, in Chicago for more than 35 years. They have two teenaged sons who would soon be joining her. I suggested that I read my poems to the composers, even though they had already started working on their pieces. In fact, the vocal fellows and their accompanists were expecting “finished” scores by the following evening, so they could have enough time to learn and rehearse the music. Ran liked my idea and we agreed that our session should be fairly open and free-wheeling. She also alerted me that one of the composers wanted to set a different poem from the one I’d been told he was going to do, and there was some concern that his plan might be too ambitious for the limited amount of composition and rehearsal time. But we both felt that it would be a mistake for someone to be forced to work on something he didn’t really want to do.
The session was at Hawthorne House, a studio building right across the road from the Lion’s Gate to Tanglewood’s main grounds. On my way in, I ran into John Harbison, the director of the entire Contemporary Music Festival. A young man driving a tractor-sized lawn mower was cutting the grass—very loudly. Harbison mentioned that the grass-cutting was always uncannily timed to coincide with events at Hawthorne house that particularly demanded concentration and quiet. Shulamit (we were now on a first-name relationship) was already inside with one of the composers and soon the rest of them arrived. They all looked young and fresh (the youngest was 24, the oldest couldn’t have been much more than that).
The ensuing session would have been a joy for most poets. When do most of us get to spend two hours talking about our own work with a group of people who are intensely interested in it? I first asked them if they had any general questions and the young Israeli composer, Matti Kovler, asked about my “composition process.” I answered that usually my poems “chose me” rather than the other way around. That I would do anything to avoid writing until a subject came along that grabbed me by the throat and insisted that it be written; then I shoved everything else to the side until the poem was finished, which could take months, or more. Everyone nodded.
I started my readings with a poem about something I experienced quite nearby, years ago in the Berkshires—the little poem called “In the Mist,” the earliest of the poems they had chosen. I thought they’d find it interesting that although I had thought the poem was finished, several months later I added one more word that I thought would give the poem greater dimension (I changed the lines about “the house with the light / in the window” to “the house with the light / left in the window”). We then talked about the effect of that change. I said I thought it made the poem more comforting, coming back to a place where someone might be awaiting my return. But Shulamit joked that it could also mean just the opposite, that the light could have been left on by mistake and that the murder victim might still be lying on the floor. The composer who chose the poem, Helen Grime, said she chose it because she thought it was a little allegory about knowledge and illumination, and I thought that was quite insightful of her.
And so we continued. I would read a poem, talk a little about how I how I had come to write it and what problems it had for me, and they would say why they had chosen that particular poem. Charlotte Bray said she chose the sinister “Shut-Eye” because of the way its rush of unpunctuated overlapping phrases contained double meanings (“so dark he can't he can't breathe the steel cold against his eyelid”), which was something music was especially capable of conveying. Jane Stanley chose the sestina, “Six Words,” because she was a composer who was especially interested in mathematical permutations. Yao Chen picked “Her Waltz” because he was touched by the story about my mother. Jeff Stanek wasn’t sure why he chose “Renato’s Dream”—he just liked it, but had never heard of the Brazilian poets who were mentioned in the poem and had to look them up.
Matti Kovler had just endeared himself to us by volunteering to go outside and ask the grass-cutter to turn off his motor while we group were in session (which he did!). Kovler had evidently missed the deadline to choose a poem and so one had been assigned to him. But he didn’t really want to work on that poem and had an idea about what he could do instead. He wanted to take the first section of my three-part sonnet sequence, “Leaves” (Best American Poetry 1994), and set it in tandem with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 (“That time of year thou may’st in me behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang…”). He was sure my poem was a kind of response to Shakespeare’s sonnet, and he was right. I certainly wanted him to work on something that engaged him fully. But would he be able to do this project and keep to the allotted time limit and strict rehearsal schedule? Was he now making too many demands on the performers? Could a single singer convey both the Shakespeare sonnet and my poem, or would my poem get lost in the complexity of this approach? We talked about Elliott Carter’s difficult Syringa, a setting for two singers of a mythological poem by John Ashbery to which Carter added a commentary in ancient Greek—one of Carter’s most complex and controversial pieces, which would be performed at the Festival of Contemporary Music tribute to Carter’s centenary the following week. Turns out Kovler had already started working on his alternative. Was he a natural risk-taker or just someone looking for more attention (which he was getting)? Or both? I couldn’t begin to answer that question until I heard his piece.
But I couldn’t wait to hear all of these pieces.