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Friday, August 12, 2011

The Obscure Composer, Part 1: Enigmatic Preludes and my settings of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach

Starting last year, I began spending more time at my piano. Often this meant playing Bach Inventions, Mendelssohn Songs Without Words, Debussy Preludes, and Mompou's Musica Callada. Sometimes it took the form of noodling, which occasionally turned into a composition. Under the spell of Mompou in particular, I began writing shorter and simpler music, entertaining myself rather than trying to be impressive to an imagined academic audience. Eventually I'd written eleven of these, which I dubbed Enigmatic Preludes and dedicated to a piano-loving (and playing) friend who was leaving NYC to teach down South.


Later in the year two friends, one half Japanese, got married and I picked a couple of translated tanka from The Tale of Genji and set them to music (voice and piano) as a small wedding gift. Most traditional Japanese poetry is very short; the tanka form consists of five lines. The emphasis, or goal, is to say something profound while using the simplest and most concise materials, and the stripped-down style I'd developed while imitating Mompou seemed a good fit.

I liked the result of my little wedding gift project so much that it inspired a lot more translated Japanese poem settings, but that's grist for another post, dedicated to that project. The reason I mention the Japanese settings is that the piano accompaniments I was writing were so simple that in many cases, though they were written for piano, they were monophonic - a single line of notes that could be played by almost any other instrument.

So when I started my next project (one night at the end of April when my wife's snoring was keeping me up), I decided to go all the way in this direction and write the accompaniment for cello instead of piano.

In the middle of last decade I'd helped a friend of a friend sort out her late father's apartment, in return for which I got to pick out many books and LPs for myself, one of which was the Faber and Faber edition of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach, a collection of 13 poems from 1904-24. I'd started setting the last and latest-written poem, "A Prayer," in my old knotty, dissonant, thick style, but abandoned it; while going through some papers recently I found it and pondered revising it, but just plain decided it wasn't worth the trouble.

So that night when I was hiding from the snores, I picked out three of the darkest, least sentimental poems - "Bahnhofstrasse," "Alone," and "Watching the Needleboats at Saba" - noodled on the piano (basically, found some nice chord progressions and arpeggiated them), and by the following morning I had three new songs.

Needle Boats

Yes, I'm so old-fashioned that I still use staff paper and ink!

A couple days later another one popped out: "She Weeps over Rahoon."


I thought those were all I'd set, but then one night in the middle of May I added the last and most difficult one, "Nightpiece." Getting the speech rhythms, structure, and flow right took a fair amount of revision; if you look at the sheet music you will see some evidence of meter changes, etc. because I made changes using white-out and haven't bothered making a clean copy. Hearing it in rehearsal provided important feedback for the revision.

Night Piece 1
Night Piece 2
Night Piece 3

The original idea was to have these sung by a male voice, partly because the author, Joyce, is male, partly because I thought I might give them a shot myself. But I'm very happy and fortunate to have a soprano friend, Kate Leahy (with whom I used to sing in the choir New Amsterdam Singers), who's willing to come out to Brooklyn and rehearse my songs. Earlier this year we had started out by learning my massive (and still uncompleted) cycle of Rilke's Orpheus Sonnets (in the original German), which I've been working on sporadically since 1984, but then I started revising a lot of them. So we switched over to these new pieces. They look simple, yes, but they're not easy to sing. I still like dissonance! We premiered all five Joyce songs at a party at my apartment a month ago (playing the cello part on piano). They went well, and now I'm going to record them, which I'll cover in my next post on this topic.

1 comment:

  1. So interesting. I might put one of these into Siebelius notation software and see what they sound like