When I read Jill McDonough’s poems, I was immediately struck by their distinctive voice, their wit, and their direct and personal use of language. The three poems (and subsequently the songs) are very different. However, I felt that all three, significantly, touch on what it means to use the written word (and more generally, art), to articulate and make sense of what we bump into daily. This resonated with me, and I attempted to communicate the idea through the music. (Often, literally, by using reoccurring motives in places where the poetry expresses the idea of “writing things down.”)
Below is a more detailed explanation of the musical setting of each poem. However, I must first thank everyone who helped make this project happen. This project has been a wonderful collaboration, and I have to thank Jill McDonough for her fantastic poetry. I would also like to thank Rebecca Morgan Frank for her vision for this collaboration with Memorious, Eric Malmquist for organizing the concert premier of the work on the S O N G concert series, Jason Carlock for helping with the recording, and especially the Beacon Street Chamber Players: Samantha Stein, Aleida Gehrels, Jonathan Goya, Kevin Reeks, and Kyra Saltman—all wonderful musicians and friends, for their dedication to performing this piece with uncompromising musicianship.
Blackwater first captivated me by how it expressed an anger at war through references to history and, especially, to “place.” “Place” is important to me artistically, and my music is often inspired by experiences traveling or encountering places. In deciding to set this poem, I realized that it would be important to allude to the spirit of the place: the Great Dismal Swamp, the land where the Blackwater Corporation sits. Quite apart from its recent past, the swamp was historically a no-man’s land: one that famously served as a hiding place and home for communities of escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad. I found it ironic that a place now so engaged in the business of war had been such a refuge, and I wanted to hint at that history through the music.
The African American spiritual Deep River originated in the American South in plantations and communities of escaped slaves. Although there may be no evidence to prove the fact, Deep River was almost certainly sung in communities of newly free people in the swampland where the Blackwater Corporation now lives. I felt that nothing could be more appropriate than to offer a glimpse at the swamp’s previous life found in Deep River’s hauntingly beautiful melody, and so I wove fragments of the melody throughout the song. In the concert-music world, it is also a reference to one of the great anti-war pieces of the 20th century, Michael Tippett’s oratorio A Child of Our Time; Tippet uses the Deep River spiritual to close the hour-long work. With its message of “crossing over” into a “home” where “all is peace,” I could not hope to find a better inspiration for the music. The text of the original spiritual is:
Deep River, My home is over Jordan. Deep River Lord. I want to cross over into campground. Oh, don’t you want to go, To the gospel feast. Oh, that promised land, Where all, where all is peace. Deep River, Lord, I want to cross over into campground. Deep River. My home is over Jordan. Deep River, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.
The musical language for the setting of Blackwater is simple and direct. I felt that the worst injustice I could do to this text would be to create something overly dramatic (or worse, melodramatic). And so I tried to craft this piece as an “art song” version of a folk song or popular protest song. The harmonies change infrequently; the text setting is methodical; the development of material lies not in a dramatic arc or complex tonal language, but in subtle gestures. The intricacies that do exist are in building successions of interactive instructions between the performers over a sort of suspended sense of time.
Husky Boys’ Dickies
This poem is sonically so wonderful. I set it as a series of 3 shorter songs; they are fast and light, each like a little window into a section of the poem. A few common motives permeate all three: in particular, a distinctive rhythm is introduced at the beginning of the first song; it corresponds to my hearing of the rhythm of the words “Husky Boys’ Dickies” and is re-articulated with the actual line “Husky Boys’ Dickies” in the middle of the second song. Also, in the second song I was unable to resist the silly temptation to harmonize “Major’s minor” with a major and minor chord, respectively.
The last of the Husky Boys’ Dickies songs offers one moment of contemplation, with the words “Get something down” near the end of the piece. Here, the music foreshadows the motive used in An Hour with an Etruscan Sarcophagus.
An Hour with an Etruscan Sarcophagus
In this setting, I used a recurring 3-note motive throughout (the same motive that is foreshadowed in the last song of Husky Boys’ Dickies). In particular, the motive appears at places where I found the text to be more introspective and personal (for example, at “I’m in tears,” “such a friend” and “write it down”). Musically, the motivic sections are more lyrical, whereas other sections (for example, the description of the Sarcophagus itself) tend to be more recitative.
Near the end of the piece, a short instrumental interlude provides an extension to the thought: “I’m Bigger ” The interlude offers its own miniature dramatic arc and helps articulate the conclusion of the set of pieces as a whole, just before the final few lines.