Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Retelling a Poem – the Sacred in the Secular

 

The long shadow Easter casts on our culture is light in darkness rather than darkness in light. The poem off to the right here is lit by that shadow. So much of the poem’s language reduces humanity to mere biology – our ghosts are merely the bioluminescence of the worms feeding off our corpses, rebirth is perhaps nothing more than dirty fertilization, whether of plants or of people – but all is framed to subvert that reduction. The poem shows a light beyond nature and nature’s endless cycling, light from a dawn that remains fixed for all time: the Easter dawn. Really, it’s impossible to put what the poem is saying into words any better than the words of the poem itself. Not all restatement is verbal, though.

Setting a poem for singers will literally restate the words, as they are sung. But the music written for the words is, even when the words are removed, its own retelling. Plenty of us are amateur poets, but not all of us write poems worth saying. Fortunately for amateur poets with some training in music, our own play-acting as poets can help us retell other, much better, poets’ poems in musical form. The following is one such half-finished retelling, which, being half-finished, with sketchiness and seams still evident, gives a behind-the-scenes look at how it’s done:

Because the poem is strophic, the music has a modified strophic form, too, returning to the opening material for each verse, with a final recapitulation as a coda. All verses are text-painted variations on an underlying theme. The flickering of “A candle” is represented by extra motion in the bass (well, contralto – this is for women’s chorus). A sourer, “burning” sonority illustrates what “burns” old age. And so on.

Intervals of a second are so often used to create the effect of sonic light that the usage is cliche. In pre-impressionist music, “sonic light” seconds typically occur as suspensions that resolve into consonant intervals. We often hear unresolved seconds in more modern works as incomplete suspensions, which create a glowing anticipation that, despite not being sated, won’t noxiously frustrate the listener if handled right. The final sonority of this setting is one such unresolved suspension: if the suspension resolved, the dawn the poem describes would not halt, but progress. As cliched as the final sonority is, it’s a carefully-chosen cliche, matching the meaning of the words:

In fact, the entire setting is little more than musical cliches chosen to reflect the poem’s words. If the setting as a whole does not sound cliched, it’s only because the cliches were chosen appropriately. (My worry, of course, is that instead of creating an appropriate expression of the poem, I’ve created a string of cliches no more fitting than the Folger’s Coffee commercial Debussy should have never embarrassed himself by writing.)

The poem is not overtly religious in any way. Setting such a poem is not writing liturgical music. My setting does aim, however, to reveal the liturgical character of these secular words. Before my husband knew which poem I was setting, he called the music I was writing “life-affirming music”, which is as it should be: the poem speaks indelicately of death in order to describe a life not destroyed by death; to describe the darkness of the grave (perhaps even the darkness of hell itself), a darkness the sun cannot touch, invaded by light anyhow, in eternal dawn. As George Herbert put it,

A few final notes: The “allotments” of the poem are rented garden plots, and, metaphorically, graves. Setting the work for women’s chorus means I can, at least in theory, record myself singing each part, then combine parts electronically, meaning once I’m finished fleshing out this synthesized sketch, I should be able to use technology to convey what the voices I hear in my head as I read the poem (yes, these are the voices I hear in my head – hey, they could be worse!) sound like, words and all. Figuring out how to record myself is its own mind-boggling project, though. Right now, I’m just grateful that synthesized sounds of composing software are considerably less cheesy than they used to be!

For @trink, who didn’t badger me into writing this, and for @titustechera, who did.

There are 26 comments.

  1. Titus Techera Contributor

    This is the kind of badgering I can believe in! Although, truth to tell, I did learn about bloodsports in mery ol’England, where badger-baiting was a thriving concern before all those Enlightenment-Christian types like Wilberforce had their way with the pagan joys of the working classes… But that’s a different story altogether.

    Meanwhile, can I get some support to badger Midge into teaching those of us who sheepsishly admit we’d enjoy being taught more about ‘sonic light’!

    Also, I could possibly be badgered into suggesting some insights into that poem that should stand the careful reader’s hairs on ends…

    • #1
    • June 14, 2017, at 8:18 AM PST
    • 1 like
  2. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    Also, I could possibly be badgered into suggesting some insights into that poem that should stand the careful reader’s hairs on ends…

    Despite the poem’s Easter light and subversion of nature, it’s still not entirely reassuring, is it? I think it would be less, though, if it were entirely reassuring. Assurance that’s too easy isn’t real.

    • #2
    • June 14, 2017, at 8:40 AM PST
    • 1 like
  3. Percival Thatcher

    I like the music, and the discussion of the theory.

    • #3
    • June 14, 2017, at 9:16 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  4. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    Also, I could possibly be badgered into suggesting some insights into that poem that should stand the careful reader’s hairs on ends…

    Despite the poem’s Easter light and subversion of nature, it’s still not entirely reassuring, is it? I think it would be less, though, if it were entirely reassuring. Assurance that’s too easy isn’t real.

    Oh, and @titustechera,

    • #4
    • June 14, 2017, at 9:24 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  5. Titus Techera Contributor

    I do resemble that remark, a little-

    • #5
    • June 14, 2017, at 9:30 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  6. MeanDurphy Member

    Beautiful. I’d love to hear it performed.

    • #6
    • June 14, 2017, at 9:55 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  7. MarciN Member

    I cannot get it to play for some unknown reason. Hmmm.

    The poem and post are beautiful.

    • #7
    • June 14, 2017, at 10:04 AM PST
    • 1 like
  8. She Thatcher
    She

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: A few final notes: The “allotments” of the poem are rented garden plots, and, metaphorically, graves

    Allotments are still a big thing, at least in certain areas, in Britain, as the size of many people’s yards/garden is about that of a postage stamp. My sister and brother-in-law had one for a few years before they moved to Scotland. They were on a waiting list far longer (about twelve years, I think) than they enjoyed the allotment itself.

    Beautiful and fascinating post, Midge. And a new Dylan Thomas for me. I wasn’t familiar with that one, and I love his poetry. Thanks.

    • #8
    • June 14, 2017, at 10:25 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  9. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    MarciN (View Comment):
    I cannot get it to play for some unknown reason. Hmmm.

    The poem and post are beautiful.

    It’s an .mp4a file, I think, if that helps. Lemme see if when I re-post it as a comment, it works better for you, @marcin:

    • #9
    • June 14, 2017, at 11:27 AM PST
    • Like
  10. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Dean Murphy (View Comment):
    Beautiful. I’d love to hear it performed.

    Thanks! Gotta figure out the transition from the penultimate to the final verse, though! It’s changing keys there to return to the home key, and I want music that does that while respecting the final line of the penultimate verse of the poem, rather than music which screams, “Hey, everyone! I’m taking my sweet time modulating here!”

    • #10
    • June 14, 2017, at 11:37 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  11. Trink Coolidge

    Oh Midge. I’m just getting to Ricochet today and am about to have company walk in the door. I will really look forward to reading your post after things settle down.

    • #11
    • June 14, 2017, at 12:03 PM PST
    • 1 like
  12. She Thatcher
    She

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):
    I cannot get it to play for some unknown reason. Hmmm.

    The poem and post are beautiful.

    It’s an .mp4a file, I think, if that helps. Lemme see if when I re-post it as a comment, it works better for you, @marcin:
    Video Player

    That did play for me. Took forever to download, though.

    • #12
    • June 14, 2017, at 12:05 PM PST
    • 1 like
  13. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    She (View Comment):

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):
    I cannot get it to play for some unknown reason. Hmmm.

    The poem and post are beautiful.

    It’s an .mp4a file, I think, if that helps. Lemme see if when I re-post it as a comment, it works better for you, @marcin:
    Video Player

    That did play for me. Took forever to download, though.

    I have a Google Drive I can upload and link to, if enough people are having trouble with playing the music.

    • #13
    • June 14, 2017, at 12:25 PM PST
    • Like
  14. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):
    I have a Google Drive I can upload and link to, if enough people are having trouble with playing the music.

    This link should go to a Google Drive copy of the video, @marcin, if nothing else worked.

    • #14
    • June 14, 2017, at 1:05 PM PST
    • Like
  15. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… Member

    Y’all are far more cultured than I. I’m impressed.

    What little I have read of Dylan Thomas has been mostly inscrutable to me, including the poem in the OP.

    It doesn’t help that the first thing that springs to my mind when someone says “Dylan Thomas” is the Simon and Garfunkel lyrics:

    I knew a man, his brain was so small,
    He couldn’t think of nothing at all.
    He’s not the same as you and me.
    He doesn’t dig poetry.
    He’s so unhip that when you say Dylan,
    he thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas,
    Whoever he was.
    The man ain’t got no culture

    I did understand Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, which is excellent though hardly subtle. But I think that I lose all possible credit for cultural awareness because I first encountered it in a Rodney Dangerfield movie.

    • #15
    • June 14, 2017, at 1:14 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  16. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Arizona Patriot (View Comment):
    What little I have read of Dylan Thomas has been mostly inscrutable to me, including the poem in the OP.

    This sounds like a challenge for @titustechera!

    Badger badger.

    • #16
    • June 14, 2017, at 1:18 PM PST
    • Like
  17. Trink Coolidge

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: I should be able to use technology to convey what the voices I hear in my head as I read the poem (yes, these are the voices I hear in my head

    Oh Midge. What a head . . what a mind . . !

    How I wish I could hear those voices. Your knowledge of music, and the muse that inspires this melding of poem and music. Stumbling behind you, I couldn’t even make the recording work. :(

    I barely know the difference between a minor and major cord and you’re writing a symphony. I played the organ at daily mass when I was in high school. Pity the congregants.

    I’ll check back to try the play button again.

    As for that poem. Oh my.

    • #17
    • June 14, 2017, at 1:24 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  18. She Thatcher
    She

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    Also, I could possibly be badgered into suggesting some insights into that poem that should stand the careful reader’s hairs on ends…

    Despite the poem’s Easter light and subversion of nature, it’s still not entirely reassuring, is it? I think it would be less, though, if it were entirely reassuring. Assurance that’s too easy isn’t real.

    Oh, and @titustechera,

    My childhood images of badgers were almost entirely informed by E. H. Shepard. I understand they’re nasty creatures, though.

    • #18
    • June 14, 2017, at 1:26 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  19. Titus Techera Contributor

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    Arizona Patriot (View Comment):
    What little I have read of Dylan Thomas has been mostly inscrutable to me, including the poem in the OP.

    This sounds like a challenge for @titustechera!

    Badger badger.

    I try to get out–something something–they pull me back in…

    • #19
    • June 14, 2017, at 1:27 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  20. Titus Techera Contributor

    She (View Comment):

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    Also, I could possibly be badgered into suggesting some insights into that poem that should stand the careful reader’s hairs on ends…

    Despite the poem’s Easter light and subversion of nature, it’s still not entirely reassuring, is it? I think it would be less, though, if it were entirely reassuring. Assurance that’s too easy isn’t real.

    Oh, and @titustechera,

    My childhood images of badgers were almost entirely informed by E. H. Shepard. I understand they’re nasty creatures, though.

    Some are way too smart, too!

    • #20
    • June 14, 2017, at 1:28 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  21. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Trink (View Comment):
    I played the organ at daily mass when I was in high school. Pity the congregants.

    In that respect, you very much outshine me, Trink. I can play a keyboard instrument but so clumsily that you’d pity the congregants far worse if the organist were me!

    • #21
    • June 14, 2017, at 1:30 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  22. MarciN Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):
    It’s an .mp4a file, I think, if that helps. Lemme see if when I re-post it as a comment, it works better for you

    Hi, Midge, Thank you. That worked. It is magnificent. Beautiful. Thank you.

    When you record the parts, you are hearing what you have already recorded in your headphones, and you sing to what you are hearing in the headphones? And you keep layering the parts over the last ones you recorded?

    I can’t imagine the mental apparatus one would have to have to be able to do that. It seems as though one would be confusing oneself. :) Sort of like trying to accomplish more than calculation at a time. It is amazing to hear the recording and to realize how it was made.

    The human mind is a wonder, truly. As are you. :)

    • #22
    • June 14, 2017, at 1:46 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  23. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    MarciN (View Comment):
    When you record the parts, you are hearing what you have already recorded in your headphones, and you sing to what you are hearing in the headphones? And you keep layering the parts over the last ones you recorded?

    The voices you hear are courtesy of composing software. I have not yet figured out how to multi-track myself yet.

    Or even get a good-quality single-track recording – or else my voice is very much more painful to listen to than most people tell me it is!

    Many amateurs do successfully layer tracks, though, so there has to be a way!

    • #23
    • June 14, 2017, at 2:17 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  24. MarciN Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):
    When you record the parts, you are hearing what you have already recorded in your headphones, and you sing to what you are hearing in the headphones? And you keep layering the parts over the last ones you recorded?

    The voices you hear are courtesy of composing software. I have not yet figured out how to multi-track myself yet.

    Or even get a good-quality single-track recording – or else my voice is very much more painful to listen to than most people tell me it is!

    Many amateurs do successfully layer tracks, though, so there has to be a way!

    Composing software? So these are other people’s recorded voices, and the sounds sliced up in such a way that composers can move them around as they wish? Fascinating.

    My son did this for a while–record over his own earlier recording so as to add to it. He had some sophisticated recording equipment. It was for simple arrangements–acoustic guitar, percussion, and voice. It was interesting to watch him do this. To me, he seemed like a typical perfectionist musician: “If only I could do all of these parts myself!”

    • #24
    • June 14, 2017, at 2:33 PM PST
    • 1 like
  25. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    MarciN (View Comment):
    Composing software? So these are other people’s recorded voices, and the sounds sliced up in such a way that composers can move them around as they wish? Fascinating.

    I think it’s a combination of sampling and interpolation for most of the instruments in the virtual instrument library I have. There are several ways to interact with the MIDI interface. So far, I’ve preferred typing in the sheet-music symbols. If I had a real studio setup, I might switch to using the keyboard to input stuff faster (as well as singing multiple tracks to overlay them).

    I think the piano in the virtual instrument library has become particularly good. Here’s a sample of that:

    That sounds natural enough that it beats my attempts to play the piece myself – I never know whether I’ll get through the music I wrote on the keyboard without making a mistake!

    • #25
    • June 14, 2017, at 3:26 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  26. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    An update – for those interested in hearing the completed draft!

    • #26
    • October 2, 2017, at 11:51 AM PST
    • 1 like