Songs for Baritone

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These two songs for baritone and piano stand alone as pendant pieces, but also fit into a larger group of songs that I am developing, beginning with “Forming Desires” for contralto and small ensemble (which was performed in October), and continuing with “Revealed in Stone”, a cycle of six songs for tenor (to be performed in March). I may also work on pieces for soprano in the future. Although each of these works have distinct instrumentation, stylistic content and mood, there is a common thematic thread: all are meditations on the intersection of creativity and spirituality.

Tonight's pieces are settings of poems by Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks) and Walt Whitman. These two poets are distant from each other in time and geography, yet they share a similar sensibility: an optimistic, all-inclusive spirituality rooted in the sensual world, expressed in highly declamatory language. Both have also been recognized as exceptionally conducive for musical setting. A natural continuity is formed by pairing the two.

“As the Sky Does in Water” is Rumi/Barks' evocative description of the inability to describe or externalize that which is beyond the realm of verbal and physical expression. For Rumi, it is god. In my interpretation, it can also be an artistic idea or a moment of inspiration.

“Laws for Creations” is a selection from Walt Whitman's “Leaves of Grass”. This is Whitman's humanist credo, in which he lays out an understanding of the world to be held by the creative, thinking people of the future (including leaders, teachers, intellectuals, artists and musicians): that humans must be free, they are divine beings, and that creativity in its manifold forms, on both the larger scale of divine creation and on the smaller yet equally important scale of human activity, is itself divine.

The musical language of these songs may be seen as the natural extension of my past experience as a pop/rock songwriter, but no specific musical imitations were intended. These are also my first pieces written for piano, and something of a study in writing idiomatic accompaniment.


I. As the Sky Does in Water

For the grace of the presence, be grateful.
Touch the cloth of the robe,
but do not pull it toward you,
or like an arrow it will leave the bow.

Images. Presence plays with form.
Fleeing and hiding as the sky does in water,
now one place, now nowhere.

Imagination cannot contain the absolute.
These poems are elusive
because the presence is.

I love the rose that is not a rose,
but the second I try to speak it, any name
for God becomes so-and-so, and vanishes.

What you thought to draw lifts off the paper,
as what you love slips from your heart.

Rumi (1207-1273), translated from the original Persian by Coleman Barks (1937-)

II. Laws for Creations

Laws for creations,
For strong artists and leaders, for fresh broods of teachers and
perfect literats for America,
For noble savans and coming musicians.
All must have reference to the ensemble of the world, and the
compact truth of the world,
There shall be no subject too pronounced--all works shall illustrate
the divine law of indirections.

What do you suppose creation is?
What do you suppose will satisfy the soul, except to walk free and
own no superior?
What do you suppose I would intimate to you in a hundred ways, but
that man or woman is as good as God?
And that there is no God any more divine than Yourself?
And that that is what the oldest and newest myths finally mean?
And that you or any one must approach creations through such laws?

Walt Whitman (1819-1892), from “Leaves of Grass”

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© 2013 Nell Shaw Cohen. All rights reserved.
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