William Carlos Williams
On This Most Voluptuous Night
was commissioned in 1982 by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival to celebrate its 10th anniversary. One stipulation of the commission was that the poetry be American, and I at first misinterpreted this to include South American as well and began a quite different composition to texts by Pablo Neruda in English translation. Quite late I learned that this would not be acceptable to the commissioning agency and needed to tack sails very swiftly. A mad search for appropriate and stimulating American poetry ensued and from diverse sources a number of poems and fragments of poems by William Carlos Williams was assembled.
Before this I had never found Williams' poetry sympathetic. At first it was the short lyrics that yielded musical thoughts, but the meaning of larger bodies of work, the five books of Paterson for example, eluded me, probably because I was trying to understand it all rather than allowing myself to respond to flashes here and there. Responding without fully "understanding" was the key to my efforts to invent a musical discourse that would parallel Williams' poetical intentions. Some aspects of Williams' credo were clear enough: reliance on plain speech, often vernacular in origin; an American, as opposed to a Continental, diction; the conception of a poem as a "machine made of words,” not merely a fancy sentiment or emotional confession; the idea of poetry as a shared experience, ordinary and entertaining at a certain level, sometimes familiar and flat to mirror the normal diction of our culture, yet at the same time capable of embedding profound and moving sentiments and observations about our lives.
The title poem which begins this set of songs is one of the rare pieces of purely lyric poetry to be found in Paterson, all the more perfumed and astonishing because of its matter-of-fact surroundings. If I remember correctly, it was my response to this lyric that really got me going.
The End of the Parade, with its obvious musical imagery and its suggestion of a disintegrating march, helped me find apposite musical figures. The poem in all its brevity is about a number of things, including the actual process of creating a work of art.
The Artist describes an actual incident in Williams' life, a visit to the old-age home where his mother spent many years of her late life. The structure of the poem with its stepped lines (in groups of three) is a significant Williams invention, typical of his later poems. I made three settings of the poem, intending to use only one. In the end, finding myself unable to make a choice, I found a way to use all three, but how this was done must remain a surprise for the listener.
Learning with Age is from an expressive point of view the central song of the set. The mysterious text resonant with distant allusions, is a summation of much of what Williams believed. Finding a vehicle for the evocative transmission of this text was in a certain way the most taxing of my efforts on the entire composition. The problem was how to embrace a set of metaphysical epigrams in a lyrical, sensuous texture without sentimentalizing the toughness and tragic tenderness of Williams' final musings.
Puerto Rico Song is one of the poet's last lyrics Epigrammatical as an oriental Haiku, it is a compression of all Williams wished to say, placing God, man and nature in plain and inexorable relationship. Once again I chose to set the poem three times with the instruments alone providing the first version.
In the preceding comments I have said very little about musical matters, nothing about technical means of formal design. A few remarks here may be helpful. The language is a varied one ranging from strong tonal allusion to highly chromatic or atonal procedure. Nevertheless, at the core of all the invention is a narrow context, a chord or two, a characteristic series of tones, from which most if not all the material of the piece is drawn. Even the vernacular elements are closely derived from this governing context. I have attempted to use those vernacular elements not as "references" but as normal and inevitable speech in much the same way as Williams uses them in his poetry.
Overall I have sought in Voluptuous Night to achieve a kind of "classical" music, presenting rather than editorializing, seeking a measured balance of external allure and internal expressivity, of the "gallant" and the "learned," of sentiment and structure.