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 “Listen (three poems by W.S. Merwin)” for Tenor, Clarinet, Viola, Cello and Double Bass (2010)

“Listen (three poems by W.S. Merwin)” for Tenor, Clarinet, Viola, Cello and Double Bass (2010)

When Steven Isserlis asked me to write music for a tenor (Mark Padmore, no less,) and a chamber ensemble for the Prussia Cove tour, I thought he was very gutsy, plain silly, or in any case, a true and trusting friend – for I had never written for voice before.

   It was clear to me that, in order to fully enjoy the unexpected adventure without being overly challenged by my lack of experience, (and instead, actually creating an advantage of it!) my writing had to be as simple, direct, unpretentious and utterly sincere as possible. I chose to set music to W.S. Merwin’s poems precisely because they are simple, direct, unpretentious and utterly sincere.

   Here is why selected the poems:

Each of the poem’s recurring pronouncements  “we are saying thank you” can be perceived in a number of ways, and so can the poem as a whole.  Are our thanks religious? Sarcastic? Ironic?  Are we indifferent? Rebellious? Disgusted? Resigned?  By way of music I wanted to have a conversation with Merwin, expressing what the text means to me, rather than guessing what it means to him.  I wanted to tell him that such a good poem belongs to you and me as much as it does to him.

Unknown Bird:
The “unknown bird” is a strange, foreign melody, reaching me from out there, with an unknown origin.  This poem doesn’t need much begging to be put into music; it is a composer’s dream text.  The “unknown bird” can represent a lot of things to a lot of people.  To me it is, above all, the music I have in my mind, not knowing for sure where it comes from and where it belongs.

By contrast, this poem, as the actual “facility devoted to absence in life”, impacts and bothers most people equally.  I read it and came up with the music while stuck for many hours at JFK (or was it LGA?), having lost my connection due to a long security line, and badly needing every ounce of humor left in me.  If not with humor, how else can you treat musically words such as “roaches” and “trash”?  And how can you smile back at the person who “smiles at your ticket”?

Listen is a chamber music work with an occasional operatic flavor.  As such, it allows the quartet of instruments to converse freely with the tenor rather than merely accompany him (and more than once the tenor has to play an instrumental role).  The absence of a violin among the strings should be noted, and the violin should be missed.  I omitted it to resonate with the extraordinary line, “Dark though it is”, that concludes the poem Thanks, but also hovers upon all three poems. I also respond by establishing further connections. At the beginning of Thanks you may hear me hinting at Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and at a Nokia’s ring-tone.  The idea is to link the chaotic tuning and warming up of the performers directly, uninterruptedly and strikingly to the “pastoral” opening of the poem.  I had fun presenting the Nokia ring tone – our modern-day pastoral tune – through a twelve- tone row (protecting myself from a law-suit by “the crooks in the office”?).  I use the Pastoral’s theme again to end Unknown Bird, with the intention of pitching the beloved motive against “those few notes never heard here before”, and, in the process, create a bridge between the two poems.


To purchase a copy of this music, contact Atar Arad at aarad@indiana.edu

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