(The story of my poems being set to music by the composition fellows at Tanglewood continues with some new wrinkles.)
July 26, 2008: An Interlude
Writing in the first installment of this blog about being both a poet and a critic, I commented that the happy occasion of my poems being set to music also opened a door between these two compartments of my life. But something I hadn’t anticipated came up that makes me think that door should have remained closed. I hadn’t the slightest inkling that being a guest artist working with young composers at the Tanglewood Music Center, the separate educational wing of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, could be regarded as a conflict of interest. But I was wrong. A Boston arts reporter who had evidently seen this blog (or had it pointed out to him) contacted me and the editors of The Boston Phoenix, for whom I’ve been a free-lance reviewer for thirty years, alerting us that he was writing about this alleged ethical breach in his blog. Peter Kadzis, the Phoenix executive editor, responded that the Phoenix didn’t regard it as such, that the newspaper felt honored by my invitation, and pointed out the long history of artist-critics. All one had to do was read my recent reviews of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and compare them to what I had written before this occasion to see if the slightest change in my attitude had in fact occurred (I’ve always said what I think, sometimes at my own peril; it’s one of my character flaws). I explained the nature of this invitation, repeating in what I regarded as forthright, thorough, and candid detail what I had already quite publicly disclosed on this website.
When the blog appeared, it included so little information about what my role actually was, misguided readers evidently got the impression that I was getting a big payoff (laughable!), that my poems were going to be performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra (rather than by student singers and pianists), and that I even had a recording contract and would be getting residuals! The responses on the website ranged from “What’s the big deal?” to appalling insults and attacks on my character, my poems, and my friends, and offering completely false information as fact. This created something of a firestorm and bloggers are still debating the issue, some with common sense and seriousness and some with astonishing, dismaying, frightening hostility. Every silver lining, I guess, has its dark cloud.
In the meantime, the workshops with the composition fellows have been very exciting and moving. The more I hear of the settings (at this point I’ve heard two almost complete and only parts of the rest), the more impressed I am by the young composers. And their teachers. I started going (with no additional remuneration) to sessions with the composers and performers I was not contracted to attend. Shulamit Ran has been consistently insightful and inspired in her detailed comments and suggestions about the scoring, about clarifying the composers’ intentions, about getting closer to the meaning of the poems. The vocal coaches for this project were two celebrated sopranos, opera star Dawn Upshaw and Lucy Shelton, who is best known for her work in contemporary music (Elliott Carter dedicated a marvelous song cycle to her that she sang with glowing eloquence during the Tanglewood’s Contemporary Music Festival unprecedented five-day all-Carter hundredth birthday celebration). They became so interested in and involved, they both came to all the sessions, not just the ones to which they had each been separately assigned. Their feedback to the singers and pianist was both practical and deeply thoughtful, always making the performers more aware of verbal and emotional nuances and helping them bring these underlying elements to the surface. It was a cooperative venture. The composers were happy to make changes that would help the singers and pianists and get closer to the poems. My “job” was to make sure my intentions were understood, and to clarify phrasing, diction (especially getting these young concert singers to sound more “American”), and the pronunciation of foreign names. The whole process was illuminating.
The more I heard, the more choices I became aware of that the composers had to make. At our first session, one of the composers asked me how I felt about repetition—that is, their repeating words that were not actually repeated in the poems themselves. Of course, in songs, words and phrases get repeated. Every composer does something with a pre-existing poem that wasn’t there to begin with. But how would I feel about that treatment of my own poems? I was naturally dubious about any alteration of the sacred text, and yet I didn’t want to interfere with any imaginative approach. And when I started to hear these repetitions, I found them all remarkably convincing, even inspired, using music to make palpable what was behind the words.
Everyone agreed with Shulamit Ran’s suggestion that the songs should be performed twice, in two different sequences, and that the concert should begin with me reading my poems. I’m home now, after spending the week with friends (at my own expense, bloggers!) and attending all the performances, panels, interviews, and screenings, usually three a day, in the extraordinary Carter festival. On Monday, I’ll be back for the dress rehearsal and the concert on Tuesday.
-- Lloyd Schwartz