(The bittersweet conclusion of the story of my poems being set to music by the composition fellows at Tanglewood)
July 30, 2008: Grand Finale
Last night’s concert was a memorable event. Nearly 300 people—friends and Tanglewood Music Center people, musicians and people curious about the future of contemporary music—crowded into Tanglewood’s old barn of a Chamber Music Hall and spilled over onto the lawn to hear the results of this summer’s Vocal Composition Project, the first time the Tanglewood Music Center’s young fellowship composers ever got to work closely and systematically with a living poet.
I’d returned to Tanglewood the day before for the dress rehearsal, only a few days after the conclusion of the overwhelming, astonishing five-day/14-event Elliott Carter centennial celebration, at which the 99-year-old composer was present at several world premieres and in which almost all the Tanglewood fellows participated. Carter was certainly an inspiration, and a challenge, to the composition fellows. He’s one of the great setters of American and modern poetry. The festival offered memorable performances of his profound and quirky settings of Elizabeth Bishop, Quasimodo, Ungaretti, Montale, John Ashbery (who, a mere 81, was present for the premiere of Carter’s hilarious and luminous new a cappella sextet, Mad Regales, a pun—Carter loves literary puns—on “madrigals”), and, most moving of all, a recent cycle of Wallace Stevens poems, the autumnal In the Distances of Sleep, sung by the remarkable young Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey (who the week before had made another huge impression in John Harbison’s Symphony No. 5, which includes poems by Czeslaw Milosz, Louise Glück, who was also present, and Rilke). At one of the panel discussion, British conductor/composer and Carter advocate Oliver Knussen talk about how Carter’s poem settings always began with the vocal line, filling in the accompaniment later
Was this how the composition fellows were going to approach my poems?
At the rehearsal, participants and onlookers alike were breathing a sigh of relief that they had survived the exhausting Carter week.
Later that night one of the pianists was playing in the two-piano version of Rachmaninoff’s luscious but very long, very demanding Symphonic Dances. One of the singers was seriously under the weather. The composers and young artists had been working night and day. Several of the pieces were only just completed and the performers had barely enough time to learn them. Everyone seemed a little tired, and tense.
The plan was that at the concert, I would read my poems, then the new pieces would be performed, then they would be performed again in another order. Shulamit Ran, Tanglewood’s composer-in-residence and the person who had been working most closely with the composition fellows, and the two vocal coaches, Lucy Shelton and Dawn Upshaw, came up with a tentative order, capitalizing on the contrasts between the different voices singing each song and the different qualities of each setting. Ran had asked each of the composers for a short program note which she would read between the two sets. Everyone was enthusiastic about this. But once the rehearsal started, the energy level was a little low.
The songs were short—about four minutes each—but there would be only ten minutes to spend going over each one. The composers had suggestions for the singers and pianists, and were even doing some last-minute revisions. Several of the pieces got to be repeated, but some were interrupted so often, they could be run through only once. This was the first time I’d heard all of the songs all the way through. I was impressed at how much work was accomplished in barely two weeks, and a little amazed that there was finished work to show for it. I thought everyone had taken my poems very seriously, and was moved by that. And yet I wasn’t sure the whole thing was going to work. The order of the songs didn’t seem to be quite right. Individually, there was a lot of variety in these pieces, yet in this order, too many of the songs sounded oddly similar.
At the end of the rehearsal, we had a group powwow. One important question was: “What should we wear?” Was this going to be a formal concert or a more casual workshop the audience was going to overhear? Calling it a workshop would be a way of indicating that the pieces weren’t quite finished and that the performers were still working out their own problems. But the consensus was that the pieces were indeed finished, and that the singers and pianists had made remarkable strides learning their parts. It would be a concert, but intimate and relatively informal. No tuxedos or evening gowns. The piano would not be up on the stage but on audience level. The chairs would be arranged in a semi-circle around the performers. Then Shulamit, Lucy, Dawn, and I discussed a different order. Now that we’d actually heard all the pieces, it was easier to tell what would sound best next to what. The second round would then be in the exact opposite order of the first round. Everyone seemed happy with this, but I thought still a little worried. Nothing was scheduled before the concert the next day. Maybe everyone would be both more rested and more confident.
Worries were unnecessary. The audience was bigger than I think almost anyone had imagined it would be. Some friends of mine had driven out from Boston. Other friends were taking time out from their summer vacations closer by. Shulamit’s family had arrived from Chicago. Family and friends of some of the composers were there too (one of them videotaped a song that’s now on YouTube: All the performers seemed excited and eager.
Shulamit made the introduction, explaining to the audience the nature of the program. Then I read my six poems. I felt incredibly lucky to have my work be the center of this event. I said that I thought every poet in America should envy my experience. How lucky I was to have such serious and interesting composers and such talented performers concentrating on my poems. And yet I felt even more excited for the composers. It was their program; they had more at stake than I did. And I felt very proud of them for what they had achieved.
The singers were at the impressive top of their very considerable form; the pianists were secure and elegant. Each song—and each composer—received its own round of applause. The new order was working well. During the intermission, people were engaged in lively conversation and discussion. Everyone seemed to have a favorite, but few lists were exactly alike. A couple of the songs were on a lot of lists. Some people left during the intermission, but most of the audience stuck around to hear the new pieces again. Several people mentioned to me afterwards that they had different opinions after hearing the songs a second time.
This whole experience was eye-opening. I suspect that most writers, me included, assume that, except for when some uncomprehending critic misunderstands the intention of their poems, there’s always some obvious, basic, correct “reading.” Before I arrived, I never really considered that a composer might alter the sacred text of my poem, repeating or (in the case of one of these settings) leaving out phrases, although this is what great composers have been doing for centuries. Some of these settings, of course, were in fact “close readings,” finding precise musical counterparts of what was in my poem and in my head. One of my functions as an advisor was to explain what I had intended. Every one of these settings had at least one heart-stopping moment of illumination. But a setting could also ignore my literal intention and still be a strong vehicle for musical expression, using my poem as a path to a completely new idea. What surprised me was that not only didn’t I mind, but I actually enjoyed the trip, the discovery—being the means of transporting a composer to a new place, where he or she might be expressing him- or herself rather than simply expressing me. It was also a lesson in humility.
I’m already suffering from a kind of post-partum letdown. The composition fellows have gone on to a challenging new assignment—writing a new piece of music every day. But I miss them. I liked them, their earnestness, their charm, their youth, their vast possibilities. Would I ever see any of them again—or hear their work? When would I have another chance to work closely with artists like Lucy Shelton and Dawn Upshaw, whom I’ve admired for so many years? Or Shulamit Ran, who won my heart and my enormous respect.
I love music as much as I love poetry, but I’m not a musician. I took violin lessons for a year when I was five, but I’m fond of joking that the only instrument I play is my stereo. After more than three decades of writing about music, my technical understanding is still limited. I depend almost entirely on my ear, and how much a piece gets to me, to evaluate what I hear. Back in 1971, I spent a summer hanging out and volunteering at the Santa Fe Opera. I painted sets and even performed (in a non-singing role, of course—I got to arrest the tenor in every performance of Verdi’s Don Carlo). And I sat around, all ears, listening to the gifted apprentices and the stars (Kiri te Kanawa was making her American debut that season) kvetch about their careers and their difficult lives. When anyone needed a shoulder to cry on, they had mine. My shoulder got soaked. I also learned a lot about how opera gets done.
And I wrote my first music review.
Neither critics nor poets often get the chance to see how music works “from the inside.” That’s another aspect of this summer’s experience I’ve learned more about than I expected to. I’ll always cherish that opportunity.