December 1, 2020

Poetry as Conduit, Complexity, Contradiction

Sparks & Wiry Cries, 12/2020

Until a few years ago, I only wrote songs in English—a natural choice for a native English speaker born, raised, and living in New York City. In early 2016, though, I started working at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, curating concerts and producing public programs. I learned Yiddish at YIVO, discovered a vast and largely unknown world of Jewish music, and in the process broadened how I think about language in art songs.

Admittedly, working at YIVO was not an obvious choice for me. YIVO is a research institute and cultural center dedicated to Jewish history and culture. I had spent the previous nearly five years working at the MATA Festival—a presenting organization dedicated to eclectic, avant-garde music—bringing music by emerging composers from around the world to New York City for an annual festival. Working at YIVO meant turning my attention to specifically Jewish culture. And yet, in curating concerts at YIVO I discovered that there was much more to my own cultural background and its musical heritage than I had known.

YIVO has the largest and most comprehensive library and archival collections documenting East European Jewish civilization. Moreover, YIVO’s collections include an impressive array of music: Yiddish theater music, Jewish folksong field recordings and song books, cantorial music, the music of Klezmer musicians. And there was something else which was an exciting new discovery for me: Yiddish and Hebrew art songs.

In 1908, a group of Jewish composers at the St. Petersburg Conservatory—students of Rimsky-Korsakov and others—created an organization to publish and perform new classical music devoted to crafting a particularly Jewish music: The Society for Jewish Folk Music. These composers studied Jewish folk music, created arrangements of Jewish folksongs, wrote fantasies on Jewish melodies, and set Yiddish and Hebrew poetry to music. Just as Rimsky-Korsakov and others pursued writing music in a manifestly Russian style, these composers sought to create a Jewish style of classical music. And yet to understand the music of these composers as simply Jewish misses the full story. Scholar James Loeffler, author of The Most Musical Nation, explains, “Their eloquent musical arguments constituted neither a separatist rejection of European culture nor an apologetic plea for Jewish inclusion, but rather an affirmation of Jewish music as an integral yet distinct voice in modern European culture.”

Discovering this rich musical repertoire, the related Yiddish and Hebrew poetry, and being immersed in the wider world of Jewish culture that is celebrated by YIVO encouraged me to think about my own multifaceted identity as a Jewish American composer and to broaden the intellectual traditions represented in my work. When I received a commission from Roulette to create new music for my own portrait show in May 2017, I seized the opportunity to reflect on the big questions of life—death, transience, love—and to include Yiddish poetry in that exploration.

The piece that resulted, and all the days were purple, became a kind of secular Jewish prayer. It explores the sorts of questions that religion offers insights into, though contemplates them from a culturally Jewish perspective rather than a religious one. The opening song, “My Joy,” sets to music a poem by Anna Margolin which searches for happiness in love and in the quotidian, and finds it refracted through the looming specter of death.

The lyrical centerpiece of the cycle, “Poetry,” sets to music a poem by Abraham Sutzkever which reflects on the power of poetry, comparing it to a dark violet, thin-skinned plum, the last on its tree.

I similarly also looked to modern Hebrew poetry for inspiration. In 2018, I set to music with gentle fingers, a Hebrew language poem by David Vogel (1891-1944), for singer and percussion quartet.

In the poem, Vogel reaches for the eternal and transcendent by focusing inward on the ordinary, depicting an intimate, quiet, contemplative scene. The Hebrew language of his poem predates modern Israeli Hebrew, and was, for Vogel, a literary language of thought and study, not his native spoken language, Yiddish.

In my setting, the percussion quartet plays gentle harmonies directly on the strings of a piano as if embodying the raindrops described in the poem. The effect is meant to be rarefied and special, and yet a kind of magnification of the ordinary. For the majority of the work, the singer listens silently along with the audience, in essence experiencing the poem before singing its rumination out loud as a song.

While Jewish cultural touchstones have become an important part of my work, they haven’t replaced my previous reference points and interests. Death—also one of the themes of and all the days were purple—is a topic I have returned to from many angles.

In 2016 I wrote Three Epitaphs, a single-movement work that includes musical settings of three short poems reflecting on death by William Carlos Williams, Seikilos, and Emily Dickinson. In the work, the singer is accompanied by a chamber orchestra which is spatially arrayed around the hall. The instrumental ensemble exchanges musical textures depicting blowing winds and tolling bells that form a  musical meditation on loss, a backdrop against which the three settings appear, like musical oases that offer solace and meaning.

Death and loss was also a theme of my first song cycle, Marks (2013). Marks features settings of three poems by Laura Marris for singer and piano. The first song includes the description of a kind of final will and testament of a painter; the second song depicts a night walk prefiguring the loss of a relationship; and the final song asks the listener to imagine themselves as a child playing on ice and snow, attempting to not leave an impression. For me, the order of the songs transfigures the death and loss of the first two into something quietly subversive and hopeful.

Another topic I have returned to many times is love. Though probably the most well-worn theme for a song in any culture or musical genre, there still manage to be endless new love songs to be written. In 2014/2015 I reflected on the nature of the love song itself in my pair of songs titled Dreaming of Love. This pair of songs deconstructs the texts of two songs from the Great American Songbook, stripping them down to their elemental core and drawing out the very basic elements of love.

In 2018, I wrote a slew of English language songs as a part of a fellowship with American Opera Project. For one of the songs, I returned to William Carlos Williams to set his short and devastating poem, Thursday.

I also set to music Edward Hirsch’s Self-portrait, a witty and wistful reflection on being full of contradictions. After introducing various metaphors and images for internal contradictions, Hirsch concludes:

I suppose my left hand and my right hand
will be clasped over my chest in the coffin
and I'll be reconciled at last,
I'll be whole again.

Luckily in art, as in life, we can live through our complexities, our contradictions, and our questions without resolving them. If nothing else, it keeps things interesting.