Poetry and Music: A Conversation With Poet Elisabeth T. Eliassen

What is so wonderful about for me about my poetic “thought music” is that while it can have specific meaning for me, it doesn’t have to have a specific meaning for anyone else.

— poet Elisabeth T. Eliassen

My new choral work Waiting… is built around a hand-picked group of poems by Bay Area poet Elisabeth T. Eliassen, who is not only singing in the upcoming premiere, but has been very supportive and accessible during my process of composing the piece.

Owing to the unique aspects of this particular collaboration, we thought it would be interesting and edifying, to say nothing of fun, to share a bit of our ongoing email discussion about the creative process as it relates to music and poetry.

You can read the piece here, on Elisabeth’s blog Songs of a Soul Journey, where a great deal more of her work can also be read.

The Sanford Dole Ensemble will give the premiere performance Waiting…, for chorus, string quartet and piano, at the San Francisco Conservatory on February 4th at 8:00pm.  Tickets will be available at the door or directly from the Sanford Dole Ensemble for $30.

Update: (1/31/12) Elisabeth has posted an additional installment of our conversation.  You can read that here.

Categories: Choral Music, Composing, FriendsTags: ,

Sibelius Trick: Use Your iPhone as a Number Pad for Your Laptop

I’m sure I’m not alone among Sibelius users in relying very heavily on the number pad for quick music notation.  It is of course much quicker than pointing and clicking on that little tool box.  So, at such times when I’m using my MacBook away from the wireless keyboard (with number pad) that I normally use, working with Sibelius is excruciatingly slow and frustrating.

The solution, it turns out, is a very nifty iPhone app that can be had for $3.99.  NumPad is a multi-purpose number pad that connects to your computer via the iPhone’s WiFi connection.  It can be set to work as a standard number pad with, you know, numbers, or as seen here it can be set to control Sibelius.  You can get to the various toolbox thingies (or whatever they’re called) by swiping left or right).

I find that it’s very fast and responsive when my WiFi connection is functioning properly, but I imagine performance will vary according to your setting.  In any case, I was thrilled to find this solution, and thought I’d pass it along to readers and future Googlers.

Oh, and guess what: It’s similarly compatible with Finale.

Categories: ComposingTags:

Poetry for Composers

My post about Doctor Atomic has got me thinking about this whole business of effectively setting poetry to music. This is something John Adams has always been exceptionally good at, even if I don’t agree with his approach to writing for the stage. But it’s certainly not a given that any good composer would be able to do this well.

Most of my career has focused on writing for the voice, whether it was for art songs, choral pieces or theatrical works, and so being able to analyze a text is something I’ve had to learn (and am still learning). I recently adjudicated a composition competition where many of the submissions were vocal pieces, and it was a big surprise how few of those composers seemed to know, or even care, much about how to handle a text.

Personally, I’ve always been drawn to theater, and that type of text setting comes to me fairly naturally. Of course, it helps that in that type of project, one normally has the ability to help shape the text according to the requirements of musical setting (or write it oneself, which I’ve been doing lately). But in the case of setting poetry, as is usually done with art songs and choral pieces, it’s been more of a struggle.

For starters, the process of choosing texts can be daunting. I’ve only once been given a specific poem to set (e.e. cummings’ “I think you God for most this Amazing”), and it was just pure dumb luck that it happened to be appropriate for musical setting. I’m very picky. For me, in order for a poem to be “settable”, it needs to have very short lines and very few ideas packed into a stanza, which disqualifies most poems. I think a lot of composers fail to recognize that most poetry stands on its own without music, and shouldn’t be monkeyed with. Poetry should be chosen that leaves space for the composer to enhance it through music — perhaps to draw out a hidden meaning. There needs to be room for interpretation.

Here’s an example of a wonderful poem by Emily Dickinson that’s short enough to allow a composer to take his or her time coloring each line. I used this poem in my chorus/orchestra piece Cycle of Friends, and used repetition to stretch the poem into a musical form (think Kyrie Eleison in a Mass).

Listen here:

Are Friends Delight or Pain?
Could Bounty but remain
Riches were good —
But if they only stay
Ampler to fly away
Riches are sad.

For composers wishing to improve their text analysis skills, a great resource was just published a few months ago. In Break, Blow, Burn Camille Paglia walks you through her own reading of 43 poems from various periods. (I’m still working my way through it.) The point isn’t whether you agree with her readings. If, like me, you haven’t had extensive training in this area, reading her explanations gives you a feel for what to look for when choosing and setting poetry. Unless you’re an English major, you probably need this book, or something like it.


I can’t help mentioning that Dr. Paglia was one of my teachers at the University of the Arts before her first book Sexual Personae made her a celebrity. All I can say is, yeah, she’s really like that.

Categories: Choral Music, ComposingTags: , , , ,

Anatomy of an unfinished piece

Well, I’d promised myself that September 1st would be when I stop sketching and start fleshing out and orchestrating the HCSO piece. I was hoping to have an end-to-end sketch of the whole piece to work from by now. I almost do. Good enough, I guess.

The big outstanding question for me at the moment is whether this is a multi-movement work or just one big movement. I’m leaning toward four movements, some played attacca. The material isn’t quite unified enough to to hold one movement together. I have to come up with names for the movements, though, which is a bit of a drag.

Here’s what I seem to be working with now: Read this post

Categories: Composing, Hungarian, Past WorkTags: ,