Notes on Old World Elegy

Approach to the Poetry

Richie Hofmann’s economy of expression and poetic clarity is undeniable in Old World Elegy. Despite its subtlety, each poem concisely conjures a vivid image of a place in time. Much of my music is inspired by place, thus I found Richie’s poems particularly compelling. The immediacy of these images stirred my tendency toward vigorous and direct music. Each of Richie’s phrases, stanzas, and poems felt as though they were crafted melodically and were conceived with such clear form that setting them to music seemed completely organic.

Instrumentation & Structure

For my setting of Old World Elegy, I chose to score the work for female alto voice (occasionally playing tambourine) and string quartet (2 violins, 1 viola, and 1 cello). It was important to me that the vocal sound be clear, understated, and not operatic. Given the clarity of the poetry, I chose a voice type and instrumentation that would not suffocate Richie’s work. The blending of a string quartet with voice felt like the most natural way to create a cohesive and convincing sound world to support and reflect the text. I was interested in the ways that each string instrument could interact with the voice throughout the work. The tambourine, used only during the first and last prelude, not only invokes a folky aura but also is a nod to my roots as a drummer.

Old World Elegy consists of three poems each titled numerically. Each poem becomes a separate song in my setting and is preceded by a short introductory instrumental prelude with titles lifted from each poem. Thus the setting consists of six movements in total. Each pair of movements is loosely based on a different harmonic chord – the preludes expose each of these unique chords. Each poem represents a different place in time, and I used each chord to represent each of these places in its own time.

The Southern Window & 1

The Southern Window is a vigorous introduction to the harmonic sonority that is later extrapolated underneath the first poem. Broad strokes of the sonority are in turn formally juxtaposed against a Waits-ian tambourine-accented groove that leads the listener into the first song.

The timelessness of Richie’s first poem struck me as a singular expression of a local cultural history. Over the course of its three stanzas, the reader is given the sense of being in the past and the present through images of a wedding, a farmyard, an orchard, and a gash in the land. The work begins as the voice intones its “Always the…” refrain a cappella. Each stanza is introduced by the voice intoning this refrain coupled with a fugal passage spun out in the quartet. The quartet’s fugue gives way each time for the singer to paint the stanza’s images. The last line of the poem begins again a cappella and after the final words are uttered, the quartet dissipates on a mini-fugue into the quartet’s upper register.

The Dead Know Only Trees & 2

The second poem opens with a beautiful image of trees in a cemetery. The prelude features a very high microtonal cluster of strings invoking the supernatural. This is juxtaposed against a musical image of the hazel and ash trees. Immense, tall, and with splintering bark they divide the supernatural landscape of this prelude.

Richie’s second poem is concise and elegant in expressing a sense of mortality. The music here is simple and poignant with held chords initiated by pizzicato cello all supporting the vocalist’s recitation of the words. The chords grow up and then back down in their register, but over time remain much the same, always present, “like hazel, like ash.”

Into the Attics & 3

The final prelude snaps the listener out of the second song’s amorphous rhythms with its pulsing beats and off-kilter accents supported again by the singer’s tambourine. Into the Attics presages the character of the music and words to come.

As the train pulses in the final poem, so too does the music. Constant motion and a steady pulse permeate the quartet’s texture as the vocalist proclaims the text. The vocalist sings of the sky and the landscape all from the window of a train pounding by steadily and rhythmically. She recounts an observation of women in a village frozen in time, as the pulsing quartet passes. The climactic images of this poem carry the listener to the end as the quartet heedlessly hurries on.

 

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