Six Significant Landscapes: Some initial thoughts about setting

For Kupka’s Piano’s 2013 season, I am writing a set of 6 short songs for soprano voice and chamber ensemble (fl, cl, pno, perc, vln, vc). This is will be an immense challenge for me for a number of reasons: 1) writing music has never not been an immense challenge for me; 2) I have never written anything for voice successfully, there are so many musical, conceptual and technical problems associated; and 3) I have very little time, it’s due in mid-January (I have to write 1 song every 1.5 weeks…).

First up, you’ve got to be frank. You want to write something great, but it’s not going to be a masterpiece at your current level and time constraints and you have to see it as a work in a broader process of formation as composer. So you have to know why it is you’re writing this piece and (what amounts to the same thing) what you’re going to really focus on developing in it.

So. Composing some short songs will allow me to develop my local level formation of materials within the temporal ideas that I’ve been working on (influenced by a mix of Grisey, Brahms, Nicolas and Carter), while not having to get too hung up on global form. I don’t have to get hung up on global form. I also don’t have to get hung up on character – which was a problem I had in my last piece the Trio: I sometimes found it difficult to pull forth a clear character (dancy? wistful? tortured? what?!) from the more abstract dimensions, and the piece suffered for it. In this new work, the poems themselves will give me the characters, and each 1-3 minute song will have just one or two characters. So I don’t have to think about global form or character.

My friend Peter Clark pointed out that some of my trio failed in the horizontal realisation of some of the vertical structures. Very true. It is a matter of constructing multiple convincing simultaneous phrases which are divided from each other by their separate rhythmic logics – no easy task! I do think that reckoning with the voice, while a pain in the arse in many respects, will be a great benefit to this task of developing good phrase structures. So that kind of thing is what I’ll be trying to develop most earnestly in these new songs.

The poems I’ve chosen, ‘Six significant landscapes’, by American legend Wallace Stevens (one of my favourites), are brilliant little pieces of American orientalism – from his early collection Harmonium (1916). They go beyond orientalism though. I wanted to set Ho Chi Minh’s prison poems, but that’ll have to wait for another time – much too big a challenge. With the Stevens I wanted to treat, in a pretty abstract manner to be sure, the historical contradiction that Australia finds itself in: USA/China. We depend on China for our economy, but depend on USA also for our economy and for our regional hegemony. An Australian composer setting poems by an American about Chinese landscape painting is a little nod to that contradiction. What it means I don’t know at this stage.

Anyway, the poems have just enough internal dynamic to furnish short songs. Elliott Carter apparently was very much against setting Stevens’ poetry, for him it lacked the requisite drama. But I think despite the metaphysical, non-narrative nature of these poems, there’s plenty enough to give to the musical structure, both in terms of character and in terms of form. Finally, they are all quite different, but often related, in mood, so the cycle will itself have an internal dynamic.

I think I’ll call my cycle of settings “Stars, not far off.”

***

Six Significant Landscapes

I
An old man sits
In the shadow of a pine tree
In China.
He sees larkspur,
Blue and white,
At the edge of the shadow,
Move in the wind.
His beard moves in the wind.
The pine tree moves in the wind.
Thus water flows
Over weeds.

II
The night is of the colour
Of a woman’s arm:
Night, the female,
Obscure,
Fragrant and supple,
Conceals herself.
A pool shines,
Like a bracelet
Shaken in a dance.

III
I measure myself
Against a tall tree.
I find that I am much taller,
For I reach right up to the sun,
With my eye;
And I reach to the shore of the sea
With my ear.
Nevertheless, I dislike
The way ants crawl
In and out of my shadow.

IV
When my dream was near the moon,
The white folds of its gown
Filled with yellow light.
The soles of its feet
Grew red.
Its hair filled
With certain blue crystallizations
From stars,
Not far off.

V
Not all the knives of the lamp-posts,
Nor the chisels of the long streets,
Nor the mallets of the domes
And high towers,
Can carve
What one star can carve,
Shining through the grape-leaves.

VI
Rationalists, wearing square hats,
Think, in square rooms,
Looking at the floor,
Looking at the ceiling.
They confine themselves
To right-angled triangles.
If they tried rhomboids,
Cones, waving lines, ellipses —
As, for example, the ellipse of the half-moon —
Rationalists would wear sombreros.

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