My thesis is mostly made up of poems to be read in the usual ways, on the page or aloud. But “Poem for Violin” is a duet for solo violin and the silent speaker of the poem; it’s a musical piece intended for performance. In performance, the violinist plays the score (excerpted here), and the text of the poem is projected, letter by letter, onto a screen behind the performer, at the points specified in the score. It’s important that the text be performed, that is, that someone sits a a laptop and types the words out in real time. The typer is a performer too, and can decide exactly where and how fast to reveal the text in the same way the violinist can decide what tempo to take and how to inflect the notes.
The piece is a duet, but the two voices speak in different mediums, one in words, one in music; one manifests itself visually, in silence, and one reveals itself in sound. I want to emphasize the shared loneliness of solo violinist and solo lyric speaker. Each seems to envy the powers unique to the other’s medium, and each tries to break into the other’s world: the violin line strives for linguistic eloquence -- the pleasure of naming -- and the poem’s speaker tries to treat words as notes. Neither manages to cross over, but the effort pushes both voices to their limits. They are on parallel tracks, helplessly separated, looking longingly at each other.
I wrote the piece for violinist Keir GoGwilt ‘13, who helped me a lot throughout the composition process and who has played the piece beautifully at recitals here and in New York. So far, in performance, I’ve used an awesomely simple computer program that Ben Woo ‘13 cooked up in about half an hour. It allows white text to appear and disappear with elegant ease on a black background. So much better than PowerPoint. Every day, when I returned to the growing manuscript, my own language looked foreign for about thirty seconds. The poems were kept fresh by their incubation in a foreign environment. The other period was winter break, when I was at home doing a lot of orchestrating for a new opera. I didn’t talk to many people, and was thinking more in music than in words from day to day. That got pretty exhausting. Even though it was a thesis, this poetry was a constant relief.
I was fortunate enough to work with Jorie Graham, an advisor who -- beyond her own astonishing poetry and her peerless knowledge of the poetic canon -- has a capacity to think and feel with the voices of the students she advises. She uncovers narratives you didn’t know you were writing, and she notices when you break laws you hadn’t realized you’d mandated. It’s uncanny. I’m really grateful.
An excerpt from "Poem for Violin" is linked to this article.
Wandering noon, obliterate
your doubleness, be
only your cry:
I would reach that loneliness
but your blaze of making
postpones me: at the hands
of backward light